I Felt Disqualified Because of My Mental Illness
“I think you have social anxiety disorder (SAD),” he said, a little more matter-of-factly than I would have preferred. Still, I searched for a hint of doubt, some glimmer of hope that maybe the diagnosis wasn’t definite… but all I saw staring back at me in the eyes of the stoic psychiatrist was his complete and utter certainty.
I was a mental health professional with mental illness.
His analysis shouldn’t have come as a surprise — I’d been diagnosing myself with SAD for quite some time. I’d muscled through social situations with sweaty palms, glistening forehead and flushed face since the prehistoric days of Kindergarten. Very rarely did a day go by that I didn’t feel like I was living my life on stage while the whole world watched and waited for me to do something ridiculous — which usually didn’t take long. I’d even held the DSM-5 in my own hands and checked off nearly every criterion. And yet, there was something about sitting in that chair, across from that psychiatrist man, that made the diagnosis seem far more daunting. More real. More shameful.
How could I guide my clients toward wellness if I wasn’t well myself?
Surely I was ill-equipped. I was a fraud, a failure, a hypocrite. I wanted to turn back time and never enter into that terrible office where this horrible man was forcing me to face the truth — of all things.
It was about a month prior to receiving that truth bomb I decided I should probably start taking my own advice. Every day, I encouraged clients to address their mental health symptoms holistically: go to the doctor, attend your therapy appointments, take your psychiatric medications, eat more broccoli — things like that. In the meantime, I was leaving most of my own needs holistically unaddressed. The longer this went on, the yuckier I felt about it, and so I decided it was time I started making my own appointments. Two weeks later, I was sitting self-consciously in a psychiatric office and praying I wouldn’t run into any of my clients or colleagues.
“You’re sitting on that side of the desk today,” the doctor said, informatively. “I know it’s hard, but I think you made the right decision.”
Up until that moment, I’d convinced myself I was doing my part to alleviate the stigma of mental illness: I was working in the mental health field, raising awareness, educating the public, and I was well on my way to becoming a licensed professional counselor to boot. I had declared my passion and call of duty was to annihilate the shame surrounding mental illness… the last thing I expected was to discover that very shame in myself.
In my experience, shame is something like a virus — an extremely contagious set of ideas that can be passed from one person to another without anyone realizing it. It can permeate the foundation of relationships, environments and even entire cultures. So here’s the unflattering truth: if we truly want to overcome the shame outside of us, we have to first address the shame inside of us.
I went to the doctor that day in a state of denial, but I left in a very honest place that allowed me to empathize with and encourage my clients better than I could have imagined. Slowly, I learned what it was like to walk in the reality of my own mental illness, and eventually, I was better able help others do the same. I soon realized nothing could better equip me to lead others toward self-acceptance than to learn how to accept myself.
Being a mental health advocate can take on many different forms and avenues, but I’ve learned the single most powerful way to help others heal is to be honest with ourselves. Honesty alone can turn our mental illness from a barrier to a tool that we can use to bring hope to those who desperately need it.
If you feel frozen by shame today, I recommend two things: first, take care of yourself by asking for what you need, and secondly, be honest about what you’re going through with one person — someone you can trust.
Soon you’ll discover what it took me years to believe: Your mental illness does not disqualify you.
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Photo by Ashton Bingham on Unsplash