I was planning today to write about language, media and the stereotypes that stalemate recovery. While these caustic brands of stigma debilitate, I’ve come to realize the stigma I put upon myself is just as dangerous. None of us are free from stigma – whether you shame others or shame yourself.
Let’s all remember that hearing the word “crazy” or “insane” while psychotic, for example, only makes matters worse. Often worse than that, however, is judging yourself with similar words and images. Self inflicted, so-called societal judgments kept me from witnessing joy, from seeing gifts, from hoping for the future. Shame and embarrassment held me hostage.
Thinking back on the past twenty years of “illness”, I can cite a few important examples of how self-stigma has made managing my illness more difficult. Take participating in a clinical trial to help carry a child. The opportunity was a blessing, but inside I was a guinea pig who ultimately felt incapable of parenting. The joy of carrying and birthing a healthy child was fogged by the shame triggered by needing help in the first place. I have a beautiful eight-year-old son today, but I lost four career-building jobs from the post partum psychosis that was caused by the experience. I continue today unemployed. The self-inflicted pain and guilt made things worse. It’s too easy to forget that my bravery and courage kept us alive.
Getting married reads love and beauty, but what spouse truly loves a partner who’s “bat shit crazy”? It was unbelievable to me, but I wed the love of my life anyway. Who knew I had found a man who truthfully vowed, “through sickness and in health”. Feeling unworthy of our relationship triggered fear and little faith in our love, ultimately unleashing psychosis and mania. I was hospitalized as a result. My strength helped make the right choice to marry, but I’ve been tortured by the possibility that illness could bring us down.
I share these stories to reveal how courage is a personal strong suit my mind’s eye could not see. I couldn’t believe reality, but kept trying to live as though it might be possible. That takes strength I never granted myself permission to see. Forging my path has been difficult and the embarrassment has been unnerving. I’ve been affected by stigma from outside my bubble, but also held my self-judgment too dear.
Whether you’re managing your own diagnoses or managing how to understand others, remember it takes fortitude and courage to overcome anxieties and fears — and how we’re perceived. Consider stopping the use of painful language, as words can be sharper than you think. And think not of how you see yourself being judged but by the courage it takes to see your reality. I seldom shame myself today. I now remind myself that my strength and courage are miracles and it’s okay to let myself shine. Overcoming shame took at least a lifetime’s worth of recovery work. I wonder how long it would have taken to find peace if stigma didn’t exist. Maybe someday someone managing a mental illness will know.