As if the challenges you have to face living with and trying to battle mental illness (in my case, recurring severe anxiety and depression) aren’t enough, there’s also the feeling of shame that goes with it. That’s my experience anyway, and I would guess that of most others who are living with any type of ongoing or recurring mental health condition.
During my latest/ongoing episode of depression and anxiety, I have on many occasion likened the shame I experience to how I assume one must feel when they have committed a serious crime.
The big difference is, I haven’t done anything wrong.
I experience this feeling of shame and embarrassment on a daily basis, often many times during a day. At the moment, I routinely find myself in situations where it is impossible to avoid the subject — you bump into someone (it can happen anywhere – school drop off/pick up, football, supermarket to name but a few), and they ask why I’m not working, when will I be going back to work, why my wife had to go back to full-time instead of part-time given we still have young children. Most of the time, I find it extremely difficult being honest, despite many years of experience of this retched illness. And when I do tell people, I very often only tell them part of the story. And even then, after the conversation has ended, I get paranoid about whether I have said too much, what will they think of me, etc. I completely over analyze most conversations for that very reason. And that puts you off getting into conversations.
I long for the day I can be completely honest about who I am, and remove myself from these shackles. In the past I’ve been able to get by without having to be too open about my condition, being honest on a need to know basis only! But the latest episode has had such a major impact on the lives of myself and my family, it’s almost impossible not to be honest with people.
Even small talk with a completely innocent and friendly individual can be awkward. Cashiers in the shops often ask things like, “So, you’ve got a day off work today?” Such a simple everyday situation shouldn’t be difficult. I usually find myself just going along with it and say “Yeah,” to avoid that topic going any further. And then I try to change the subject. So even the most seemingly straightforward of encounters can be uncomfortable. I assume many others will relate to this.
And then there are the questions from family members — I would like to stress in my situation these are well-meaning family members who themselves are at a loss as to what to do and what to say to their friends. Questions along the lines of, “What should we tell xyz if they ask how you’re getting on at work?” “Is xyz allowed to know you’re not well?” And as someone who has chronic migraines, a frequent and at times convenient cover used by myself and my family – “Shall we just say that you’ve been having a bad spell with your migraines?” Having also experienced first hand the stigma surrounding migraines, using that as a more acceptable line to tell people says it all really. There are also the comments such as, “We don’t know who we’re supposed to say what to!” — going back to my earlier comment about crime. That is how comments and questions such as those make you feel, like you’ve done something wrong that shouldn’t really be spoken about, and if so only to a very select few.
I had to deal with those conversations regularly when I was at my lowest point in April. When getting through each day is a huge struggle and a major achievement in itself, the absolute last thing you need is to be faced with making decisions about who is allowed to know what about your condition.
Having been forced to leave more than one job in my chosen (now ex-) career because of mental health issues, I constantly live with the fear and the shame of bumping into former colleagues. Again, I feel as if I have done something wrong. I left because I have anxiety and depression, not because I had my hand in the till embezzling money. But shame doesn’t seem to differentiate.
I still feel awkward bumping into people I worked with almost 15 years ago. What do they think of me, I still wonder. Do they think I’m crazy? In reality I’m sure they don’t give it any thought whatsoever — they have their own lives and issues to deal with. In an attempt to help, my wife often says to me: “What makes you think you’re so important that these people are giving you any further thought?” And that is so true. But it doesn’t seem to make it any easier. I frequently avoid social occasions or find myself crossing the road to avoid such encounters.
Even now,I feel unable to be honest and attach my name to this blog, for fear of my posts being seen by someone who knows me. And of people I know then talking about me.
In the 20-plus years since I first became aware of having mental health issues, it is a subject which is definitely more widely spoken about. And it is more acceptable to admit to struggling than it was back then. But despite the progress, anyone who has experienced mental health problems will I’m sure agree it does remain very much a taboo subject. And none more so than in the workplace.