Over the past couple of years, I’ve found that talking openly about my mental health has lessened my feelings of shame. I have Bipolar type 2 and I used to suffer from eating disorders and trichotillomania, just for good measure. For those who don’t know, trichotillomania is an impulse control disorder that causes the sufferer to pull out their hair. I have mostly recovered from the eating disorders, mostly being the operative word. The trich also lingers, but I have developed coping mechanisms to keep it in check. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was desperately ashamed and went to great lengths to cover up my disorders. I rimmed my eyes in thick black liner to cover the bald patches in my lashes. I would spend ages on my hair, brushing it into a position so no one could see where I’d picked it out. I was most adept at hiding the eating disorder as this was the thing I was most ashamed of.
Years down the line, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type Two in 2013. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable with my condition because it seemed further confirmation that I was an aberration; I was tangled up in shame, fear and self-loathing. I’ve since realised that shame fuels mental illness; an insidious creature that aims to isolate its victim until it kills.
A year or so ago the penny dropped; I didn’t choose this and it’s not my fault. I used to assume that I was faulty, broken even. There is an imbalance in my brain chemistry but I am no more to blame for that than an asthmatic is to blame for the state of their lungs. It was when I realised that I have nothing to be ashamed of, life became easier. I released some of the shame and I stopped judging myself so harshly and treated myself with more compassion. I’m by no means cured, but it is a massive weight of my shoulders. Shame still wraps its poisoned tentacles around me from time to time, but I’ve learnt how to manage it. I thought it might be useful for me to share some of the things I’ve found helpful.
1. Ask yourself a simple question – is my condition my fault? Really interrogate this. Did you choose anxiety? Did you select depression? Was there an al la carte menu of mental illness and you plumped for a generous portion of depression with a side serving of addiction? The answer is a hard no, you did no such thing. Why would anyone inflict that on themselves? You did not choose mental illness, you were just unlucky. It’s not your fault.
2. Own your shit. You may have done destructive, irresponsible things when you’ve been unwell. I know I’ve made terrible decisions when I’ve been manic, and some clangers when depressed as well. Although my mania and depression is not my fault, those choices are still my responsibility. If I’ve messed up, it is incumbent on me to clean up the mess. If you can approach your mistakes with compassion and acknowledge your emotional and mental state when you made that choice, it is easier to forgive yourself – which leads me to my next point…
3. Don’t beat yourself up. If giving yourself a bollocking was productive, then I’d suggest you go to town on yourself with a hair shirt and a cat-of-nine-tails. However, the reality is that beating yourself achieves nothing. You just stay in a cycle of shame and self-loathing and very little growth or improvement can happen when you’re in that space. Being kind to yourself is far more useful.
4. Don’t tolerate shame that does not belong to you. There will be people who will shame you about stuff they are insecure about. For example, they might make disparaging comments about what you eat, when they feel crappy about their weight. Or they will belittle your career, because they feel anxious about their own achievements. It may be necessary to have a calm confrontation and carefully say that their remarks are making you feel bad about yourself. If this doesn’t work you may need to avoid that person, at least until you feel stronger. In extreme cases, you may need to cut them out altogether. There are friends whom I’ve loved deeply, who I no longer speak to because I can’t trust them not to hurt me. This is of course the worst case scenario, but if someone continually makes you feel terrible because of their own shame, they have to go. It can be very painful to accept that someone you love is off-loading their toxic shame on you. But in order to stay well, you may have to say goodbye. It’s really hard, but you will be better for it, eventually.
5. There is such a thing as healthy shame. In it’s proper context, shame is helpful as it indicates when we’ve done wrong. When children are reprimanded by parents and teachers they learn a valuable lesson that we take with us through life. This is of course dependent on the adult in question having good boundaries, compassion and emotional intelligence. Sadly, this is often not the case. Healthy shame teaches us boundaries and common decency, but it is very easy for shame to mutate into something pernicious which has no positive value. When you’re stuck in shame, try to think about whether the shame you feel is warranted. Most of the time, it probably isn’t. If it is justified, do what you can to make things right. But if your shame isn’t healthy and makes you feel that your body and personality are somehow wrong and abhorrent, try to treat yourself kindly. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love and you have nothing to be ashamed of.