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The Shame We May Feel for Having a Mental Illness

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I sat in front of 20 people at an inpatient psych unit to tell my story of surviving mental illness and living in recovery. As I sat down, I scanned the audience to see blank stares pointed in my direction from the patients. I understood. I remembered what it felt like to be on the other side of the locked doors of a psych unit. I remembered how I hated every person who sat down in front of me in group pretending they had any clue what it was like being behind these locked doors. I remembered the loneliness. I remembered
the hopelessness. I closed my eyes allowing the memory to overtake me.

While inpatient, it wasn’t just the attempted suicide and the diagnosis bringing shame, guilt, and embarrassment. A deep, dark hole of sadness and anger inside me began forming. I actually felt safe inside the hospital, but what would happen when I turned in my scrubs and could walk out those doors? How would the “real world” interact with me now that I am labeled “mentally ill”?

I chose to keep my illness, suicide attempt, and hospitalization a secret. I bottled everything and pretended nothing had happened. Only a few people in my family knew the truth, so I knew I could keep it under wraps. And that was what I did.

But the deep, dark hole of shame inside expanded over time.

I resisted its pleas to be released, keeping a smile on my face and proceeding to live a seemingly “normal” life, hiding this dark secret of my past. The suppressed emotions began spilling over into every aspect of my life. Anger simmered. Jealousy of “normal” people filled me up. Sadness and grief for the person I “could have been” without this illness consumed me. The façade of a happy life constantly felt as if it could crumble at any moment. I couldn’t decide if my life had been worse living with full-blown symptoms of pure obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or this life of shame, guilt, and embarrassment I led now. It was an all-consuming personal stigma.

I lived in silence with personal stigma for 14 years after diagnosis and treatment. I believed I was alone in this struggle. I believed everyone else must know how to live successfully with their illness and dealt healthily with the emotional turmoil. I must be weak. I must deserve this horrible life. I must not be worthy of happiness.

I was 34 years old when I faced the lies of personal stigma.

I experienced a full-blown relapse of pure OCD symptoms. While the experience was tormenting and debilitating, a magical transformation happened inside me. I came to the emotional crossroads of my illness. For so many years, I had blamed myself for having a mental illness, attempting suicide, and becoming hospitalized. I blamed myself for being “stupid,” “weak,” and “incompetent” for not being in control.

But a lightbulb finally came on. Relapsing showed me the power of my illness is beyond my control. It transformed me back to the time I had painted in my mind believing I had been too weak and ignorant to fight back. It erased the questions of “if only I’d known then…” and “What if I had been stronger?” As I was brought to my knees with symptoms, the dark hole of shame spilled out of me. I faced the negative emotions head on. I bravely stared them in the face. And as they faded from my vision, I could finally see the person standing clearly in the mirror before me. She was not the monster I
imagined her to be. She was not the disgusting creature undeserving of love and happiness. She was simply a human being with a terrible mental illness. And now she was free.

I held back tears remembering that moment in front of the mirror as I faced the individuals at the inpatient unit. Will they ever experience that moment of freedom? Do they know even if they are here now, they are deserving of happiness and are worthy of a good life?

My story of living with pure OCD resonated with the room. It was quickly obvious I am not in front of them telling them what to do, how to do it, and just hope for the best. I am one of them. I get it. I stretched the story far enough to tell about the impact and devastation of personal stigma on my life. All eyes made contact with mine. The secondary fear of shame had been brought into the light. Time felt as if it stood still. A feeling of relief encompassed the room. Heads were nodding, tears were wiped, and a thread of mutuality was woven through us. And for a brief moment, none of us felt
alone in our complex journey with mental illness.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo by dontcut

Originally published: March 12, 2017
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