Why People Are Still Ashamed To Talk About Mental Illness

My Friend, I saw you had liked some videos on Facebook about mental illness recently. The sort that don’t have any faces in them, just the ones with the post it notes and words written on them. Another article about things not to say to people with a mental illness. That sort of thing had been coming up in my news feed from you a lot lately.

The truth is I’ve been thinking of you this last year, wondering how you are and if you’re OK. Even though it’s been three years since we even saw each other I still think of you often and hope that you are happy. I have been struggling this last year too, with more low parts than I would like, and I’m just so exhausted so often. I meant to reach out and say hi, to let you know that I was thinking of you and I was here if you needed me. I conserved as much energy for myself as I could because I needed it, and I just didn’t get around to sending you the message I meant to. I know you understand that because you need to do it too when you aren’t well.

I waited and quietly kept tabs popping over to your page for the occasional Facebook stalk. I was wondering how you were and if there would ever be a time where you might need me to remind you that you aren’t alone, and that all these years later I am still here if you want to talk. I messaged you yesterday because I thought maybe now was the time when you needed to hear that. You told me that my message helped, and I was pleased. You said you sometimes felt ashamed to not be OK. A few hours later I saw that you had shared on Facebook the struggles you had been facing recently. I was so proud and happy that you felt brave enough to do that. It was also nice to hear from you that my message helped you to feel less shame.

When you told me you felt ashamed the first thing I wanted to do was tell you all the ways my mental illness affect my life. Like some sort of confessional of  things I am ashamed of that no one else would know or even suspect just from talking to me. The stuff that I don’t share on Facebook and Instagram.

I really wanted to tell you that four days ago I was serving yogurt on my kitchen counter and some of it got on the bench. I thought to myself I will just clean that up later, when I clean the kitchen counter and I do all these dishes that have been piling up. Except that yogurt is still there in some solidified congealed blob now waiting for me to get around to cleaning it up when I do the dishes.

The truth is the dishes only get done by my partner who works 12 hours shifts. It has been this way for years now. Don’t get me wrong it’s not for lack of trying. In my head every single day there is a small voice that says ‘maybe today will be the day you really do the dishes, instead of just thinking that you may do them like all the other days’. When I get anxious and depressed all I see is mess everywhere and I tell myself that I am going to organised everything in my house, and clean every surface, and reorganise my cupboards and when everything is spotless I will finally feel better and calmer within myself.

Years ago I used to do this and my partner would find me shaking and crying and rambling incoherantly about the mess when she got home from work, even though the house was cleaner than when she left. Crying because even though I spent five hours cleaning I now felt worse, like the walls were closing in on me and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t escape from that feeling. I just wanted to feel better and like I contributed to our household and our relationship equally, and that all the work didn’t fall on her shoulders. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t just some lazy burden who sat at home all day. In my mind my way of being useful was to spend all day making a beautiful home for us, and if I couldn’t do that then I didn’t deserve the love she gave me. Which I suppose when I write it out sounds silly and irrational, but honestly that pressure completely froze me.

I would spend all day thinking about all the things and housework I should be doing. When I thought about doing the dishes I started to feel panic and dread and this crushing feeling in my chest. My lungs felt like I couldn’t actually expand them fully when I breathed. You know that feeling? I told myself that I would just wait until I felt a little calmer to do them. No one wants to do dishes when they feel like they can’t even breathe properly. Which seemed reasonable enough.

My partner would come home and would then have to invest several hours of her time trying to calm me down. Then she would go to work the next day and worry about me. Eventually she just told me to just stop doing dishes, and she comes home now after being awake since 4.30am and spending 12 hours on her feet and just does them. I protested at first for a while, but then she pointed out that it took significantly more time and energy to talk me down from my anxiety than it does to just do the dishes. She also said she’d prefer to just do the dishes than to see me so upset. I knew she was right, so in the end that is just the way we ended up doing things.

The closest I will ever come to admitting any of this to anyone is to occasionally make a joke about how great being a lesbian is, because I have someone else to do the housework in the relationship. Except it’s so true I cringe inside when I say it while laughing awkwardly.

Do you want to know another thing I am ashamed of? Leaving the house is REALLY.FUCKING.HARD. Especially when I am leaving the house with the dictator that is my beloved tantrum throwing Toddlerbeast. I mean really, who is particularly pumped about going out in public with someone that at any moment  can (and will, it’s a when not if situation) throw the mother of all tantrums, starting kicking you when you pick them up, while making that god awful sound children make that makes everyone in a 5km radius stop what they are doing and stare directly at you. Also, they can do all this while simultaneously shitting themselves. Actually writing all that out it makes perfect sense why no one would want to leave the house with a toddler, like ever. *To my daughter if you are reading this one day in the future, it may not sound like it right now but I truly do love the shit out of you ok. Really I do, promise.

But really though, in all seriousness I spent all day thinking that day would be the day I went for a walk. You know, because going for a walk is good and healthy and good for you and your child and not at all hard. How hard is it just to go for a walk? It promotes endorphins and everyone just keeps saying ‘Oh go for a walk’ like it is so simple and it will magically cure me of all my ailments. So I got as far as putting my my entire walking attire on including sunscreen and running shoes because TODAY WOULD BE THE DAY I FINALLY DID IT. I spent so much energy getting myself to that point mentally and emotionally, that I just needed five minutes to calm myself down before leaving the house so I went on Facebook. Half an hour later I took my shoes off and just decided to go for a walk another day.

A few days later I went for that walk, and I almost spiraled into a pit of despair when trying to leave the house. I read all the labels on my sunscreen because I saw a Facebook post the other day saying that the SPF factor was irrelevant and that what you really needed were zinc (and some other ingredient starting with ‘T’ that I can’t quite remember but know was not listed in the ingredients section of any of my sunscreens) to protect you from the UV rays which cannot be contained in a spray on sunscreen. Almost all of my sunscreen is spray on. Then I started thinking that my family members are really prone to skin cancer and I couldn’t help but imagine myself dying an untimely death due to melanoma.

But I did it, I left the house! I think that I am supposed to say it was a wonderfully triumphant moment for me and I felt so much better during it, but I didn’t. I spent the entire walk trying to get the terrible imagery of what would happen if I lost grip on my daughter’s pram as I walked down a steep hill at the end of our street that leads directly onto a road. Thinking that I don’t think I could run fast enough to catch the pram even if I tried, and no one is ever at the bottom of the hill to stop the unmanned pram from rolling directly onto a busy main road and that I think she would probably be killed if that happened. Then the rest of the walk I felt nervous every time I walked past a concealed drive way because I always worry someone will reverse out quickly in a big car and not see my daughter’s pram as I walk behind it and they will hit her, and then I imagine her dying again. I am a varying degree of panic stricken every single day.

Also, speaking of feelings of shame, I also spend two days every single month in a psych ward which I don’t generally advertise too much. This is the quota for when I am doing pretty well (which believe it or not, I am right now) and just need maintenance TMS. A few years ago I roughly added up how much money my health fund has spent on my hospital admissions, and it was more than the worth of my home. All the medications I tried over the years weren’t very useful so I have this treatment instead. I have to be admitted to receive it. I feel shame and disappointment when I am waiting to be admitted with my suitcase full of pillows. I brought them from home because I know from experience that those plastic covered hospital pillows that deflate when you lie on them are reason enough for a major depressive episode alone.

You won’t generally see or hear about these struggles for me on Facebook. I will post the pictures of nice fun times and wonderful experiences I have, and don’t get me wrong that stuff is real too. But maybe you’ll notice the pictures where I have left the house I am always with my partner, like the buddy system they do for primary school kids except the anxious adult version.

Who really wants to tell the world that some days they feel like the simplest tasks are terrifying and unmanageable. Who wants to advertise that kind of vulnerability? Who wants to open themselves up to the sort of judgement and criticism from people? Who wants to wave a flag that says that sometimes you can’t function the way the world says you’re meant to?

I sometimes don’t even ‘like’ or share mental health related things on Facebook even though I relate to them because I am afraid to have others know just how much I struggle with my mental health. I am relieved when people ask me what I do that I am able to answer now that I am a stay at home mum. Even if it is a role that is undervalued by many, it generally flows easier in conversations than replying with ‘I struggle pretty badly with mental illness and every time I have too much stress in my life (which includes paid employment) I end up a basket case, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to manage to hold down anything more than a casual part time job, which I will eventually have to quit because it takes such a toll on my health that I end up a mess and in hospital with major depression for months at a time’. It just doesn’t flow well in conversation, you know?

Anyway, I didn’t write all that down because I wanted pity, or help or anything like that. I wrote it down for you, and for anyone else who reads this, so you can know that you aren’t the only one that struggles with these things and feels ashamed of it.

I am glad I helped you to feel less shame in opening up to talk about your struggles. Maybe you don’t know this, or remember this moment in our friendship many years ago with the clarity I do. Perhaps it was one of those times in life that doesn’t stick with you the way it does with me because it didn’t change your life like it did mine. It was maybe just a shitty time for you.

We had been friends for a year and you told me via text that you had been admitted to a psychiatric ward because you were struggling with your mental illness. I had known people with mental illness before, but no one who had openly told me that they had been in hospital for it. I got my umbrella and walked down to visit you that day in the rain, the hospital was just a few blocks from my house.I had walked by it so many times before but never had cause to go in. I never even knew what it was.

I saw you in that hospital and I remember being worried for you, but glad that you reached out to me. I also remember thinking that it was so different to how I imagined, so much less frightening. It was nothing like the padded walls and other terrifying imagery I had pictured all my life.

A month later my entire life fell apart so unexpectedly, and I just kept thinking that I wasn’t safe to be alone and that maybe I should kill myself, and that thought was so utterly terrifying to me. I didn’t know what to do, or where to be or how to deal with any of it. Then I thought of you and that hospital I had visited you in and that maybe I should go there. I thought that it really didn’t look that scary when I saw you there, and that other people go there too and it’s OK to need to go there, like when you needed to go there.

So I went there, and I think perhaps it helped to save my life. I don’t know if I would have had that courage to admit myself if you hadn’t been brave enough to share your struggles with me. To be honest with me, and to let me see that someone I admired and respected went there. That going there didn’t just land me in a category of people who I just thought were so frighteningly different from myself.

I also wanted to say that I can see the light shining out of you so bright. That you are smart, and kind and strong and incredible and sincere and just so radiant that people are so drawn to you. It’s the reason why even three years since I last saw you I still find myself wondering how you are, checking your Facebook sometimes, hoping you are happy and life is treating you well.

You are all those things in spite of the enormous struggle that I know goes on inside of you every day. Perhaps you are some, if not many of those things because of it. I thought about this, and it occurred to me that when you are depressed that you probably don’t feel like you are any of those things that I just mentioned. The problem with mental illness is that it tells you that you aren’t really unwell, you’re just a terribly lazy/weak/selfish/unlovable/damaged/ ungrateful person. Sometimes I think the ability of this illness to warp your thinking in this way and camouflage itself as merely character flaws in both your mind and in the minds of some (ignorant) others is one of it’s most dangerous factors.

I think that maybe if mental illness didn’t come with the voice inside your head that says ‘You aren’t even really sick at all. What you are is weak, selfish, pathetic, lazy and just plain unlovable’ perhaps it would be easier to talk about. Perhaps shame and stigma wouldn’t be so deeply ingrained within the diagnosis and people wouldn’t feel like they were simply advertising their weakest, shittiest, darkest personality flaws when they said they suffer from it.

While I was writing about all your amazing qualities I thought about myself. I thought that I have a suspicion that perhaps I am just as radiant and loving and beautiful and kind and compassionate and wonderful as you are. Perhaps that’s how other people see me, that I make them smile and laugh and feel listened to and cared about every single time I see them. That my smile beams out this loving sincerity just the same way yours does, that makes people around me feel warm and happy. I thought that perhaps if it is possible that you can be all those things and probably not even see it, that I could maybe be that way too. Thinking that may be true made me smile, because I suddenly realised that I am actually, probably, most likely really quite awesome. Even if I rarely clean the sticky yogurt off my kitchen bench and haven’t done laundry in several years because I’m a little bit fucked in the head.

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