All I ever wanted was to feel safe…to know that there was something or someone out there that would take care of me, love me, hold me, and protect me no matter what I said or did. I heard growing up that the unconditional love of God was so much deeper and more powerful than the love of a mother or father that it was incomprehensible. Yet I grew up terrified of God. I carried with me a deep sense of groundlessness, that I was never safe, never okay, never enough.
I was a prayer warrior. I can remember as a young child I had a book that highlighted different countries around the world, their poverty rates, and more importantly, the percentage of their population that was Christian. I would pray fervently that God would save those who did not believe in Him, while all the while obsessing over whether or not he was punishing me for my sins. I genuinely believed that if a severe thunderstorm came through, it might be my fault because of a lie I had told or an “evil” thought I had had. If there was a God, and I was sure that there was, he was angry. We always talked about the fact that “God is a personal God” and “He cares about you and knows you better than you know yourself”. Well I got that he was was my personal God and was watching me… But his caring was conditional, and he was vengeful.
Looking back on it now these beliefs seem silly and nonsensical; but I am older now, and have the gift of reason. It also makes me angry, because I know I still carry a lot of fears and insecurities born out of this dogma and also know that many still suffer because of these teachings. While I am not an atheist, in many ways I find it much preferable to believe in no God than one that saves some, damns others, and is always watching and waiting to punish us for our “sins”; a God that is waiting on a five year old child who should be playing outside with friends to bow to him in prayer to save others in a far away land.
If God is just a more powerful version of a human being then what are we gaining by trying to spread the “good news”? I mean if the end result is that some of us get “saved” and the rest go to hell for eternity, where exactly does the “good” part come into play? And if the idea of God as presented through fundamentalism is supposed to bring comfort and security, then perhaps we should go back and ask my five year old self how well that worked for him as he sat terrified in the basement while the thunderstorms rolled through.
I have been pondering quite a bit lately when exactly it is that I first started feeling shame about my mental illness and from where this feeling was internalized. I am still quite hesitant to open up about my issues with depression and anxiety, and often each day when I take my medication there is a part of me, that nagging voice inside, that ridicules the idea that I have to take these drugs to make myself feel ‘”okay” or “normal” (whatever the hell that means). So where exactly did that start and why does it continue?
For me personally much of my shame around mental illness is born out of my history with fundamentalist Christianity. I was told from a young age that if you were unhappy it is because there was something wrong with your relationship with God. God has boundless love and joy for you if you will just accept Jesus into your heart and play by the rules… or so the story goes. If you are not happy and joy-filled, guess what? You are doing something wrong… you are in sin. This is quite a toxic doctrine for many reasons, especially when directed at children who do not have the reasoning capability to see where this line of argument might be extremely flawed. My first memories are those offear… that God was punishing me for my “sins”… this was at age 5. What exactly could a 5 year old do that would incur the wrath of God? Great fucking question. Any reasonable person would say nothing. But when my father died when I was 3 and my mother contracted cancer when I was 6, it played right into the narrative that i had constructed that there was something fundamentally wrong with me and that was why all of these bad things were happening to me. Of course the outgrowth of all of this was that I eventually discarded the idea of God altogether amid the profound pain of my recurring depression and later addictions but that is a topic for another day. I am just now – through years of pain, hard work, therapies of all kinds, etc. – beginning to unravel this very deep seated belief that there is something inherently wrong with me and that is the reason I am depressed. To be sure, it is not just fundamentalist Christianity that propagates these sorts of ideas – even more mainstream religions and even new age doctrine often do the same albeit cloaked in different language. When you believe that some deity is behind your suffering, this is especially difficult to overcome, but all too often even those who espouse a belief in an “all loving” “Creator” or “Source” subscribe to this very idea.
In addition to religions of all kinds our very society and culture has ingrained in us, especially in the West, and most particularly in America, that if you suffer hardship, whether it be economic, mental, emotional, or otherwise, it is of your own doing and you simply need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to get out of it. It is so fascinating to observe people’s responses when you tell them you are severely depressed… so many times even the best intentioned and truly decent individuals will come back with something like “well what are you doing about it?” Now I don’t mean to insinuate here that those of us with mental illness don’t have to take action to help ouselves get better… medications alone will not solve all of our problems. But when people speak like this in the context of mental illness it is often with the subtle (or not sosubtle) implication that if we just tried harder or changed our perspective/thoughts that things would get better. Again, not to say that those things don’t play a part in wellness, but telling them to severely mentally ill people will only further reinforce the idea that it is totally their fault that they feel that way and that they simply need to make a choice to feel better. How many times have we heard the phrase “happiness is a choice?” If it was really that simple how many would choose to feel miserable? Who really wants to be depressed? Would we treat someone who had cancer this way? Imagine walking up to someone with cancer and telling them if they could just get out of bed and change their thoughts they would get better. No one would take that seriously… and yet with mental illness it happens all the time.
So this brings me back to the original question of why I feel so much shame around my mental illness. For me it is a combination of several factors, but one thing I know to be true especially in the light of my most recent depressive episode is that just because we have made great strides in “de-stigmatizing” mental illness we have a really, really long way to go as a culture and society in understanding and treating those with these afflictions. We have to let go of the idea that God/spirituality and science are mutually exclusive when it comes to mental well being… and have compassion for those who aresome of the most vulnerable and suffering among us. It does take positive choices and action to be happy, but there are times when we can get so in the depths of our suffering that we cannot even fathom getting out of bed in the morning. We have to stop shaming those in these situations and reach out with loving kindness, just like we do for those who suffer from other forms of illness.
I would love to hear others experiences with these issues if they feel comfortable sharing! It is a topic that does not get discussed enough and this has to change!