That’s me above and my pup, Gracie. This was about 2 years ago while I was still working. I was living in Seattle, WA. And, trust me, was severely anxious even in this picture! I’m currently waiting to be approved for SSDI and hope to one day make a full recovery. If I do not, I hope to live gracefully with my illnesses of: Bipolar I, PTSD, ADHD, and PMDD. Just trying to accept each day as it comes and continue learning!
The suffering we endure related to our mental illness is amplified by the stigma and shame surrounding it. Let us tease out each of these concepts and acknowledge the impact each has on our lives.
The Suffering: Those who struggle with a mental illness do so due to biological changes in the brain that are often difficult to manage and control. No one chooses to be mentally ill, not for a certain time period, or even for a day! Most of those who suffer were active and involved prior to the onset of their mental illness. The illness more than likely crept along, gaining momentum, until one day it was painfully obvious to others that something was “not right”. That something presented itself as a combination of symptoms to possibly include: obsessive & intrusive thoughts, hallucinations and/or delusions, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, disassociation, etc. The sufferer is often aware, on some level, that his or her thought processes are not correct and may seek help due to the uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms of anxiety or depression. Some people who suffer with a severe mental illness lack the insight needed to seek treatment. In both cases, the person suffering has not done anything to invite the “illness” into their lives, no one intentionally wants to have their ability to control their emotions and perceptions altered or compromised in any way. Sure, there are individuals who use recreational drugs that alter their minds, but even so, no one would want to remain on a “trip” indefinitely with their perceptions altered.
I’ve often compared my illness to someone having unwanted side effects of a drug. Except, those struggling have never ingested a substance, nor do they have the ability to control or ceases the symptoms by removing a substance from their life. The symptoms also differ from the following examples of “side effects” in that they are often more severe and the onset and duration of symptoms can be unpredictable and uncertain.
For example, a person having way too much caffeine may experience some symptoms comparable to mild mania in that they may be: edgy, anxious irritable, energetic, etc. Their mind might race and they may feel overly optimistic about what they can accomplish. Another example I give is that depression can feel somewhat like taking too much Benadryl for an allergy attack: one can feel foggy, exhausted, excessively sleepy, and withdrawn. In drawing these comparisons, I am trying to help a person who doesn’t suffer understand that the symptoms are not only biological, like side effects that must wear off, but they are also difficult to “snap out off”. Unfortunately, for the sufferer, it is not as easy as discontinuing a medication to stop the unwanted side effects. Imagine, living life and all is going relatively well and then one day you get trapped in a cycle of “side effects” in which there is no escape. Sounds like a personal hell, right? It is. I have lived years in the cycle of severe anxiety desperately trying any and everything to get relief. Often it is years of trial and error, until relief arrives very slowly over months to years. It is something one has to learn to cope and manage with and it takes time, persistence, and commitment. This is the suffering that most people do not understand, while others do not even acknowledge. The latter leads to another type of suffering, compounding the already difficult task of managing a mental illness.
The Stigma: Those who live with a mental illness also have to “suffer” in a world that stigmatizes and shames those struggling. There are many people that question the validity of mental illness and have unfair and unrealistic expectations of those struggling. Often people who have a mental illness feel that they must hide their struggle from the workplace, for fear of retaliation. They also may not get treatment and suffer needlessly for many years because of the shame that is associated with asking for help and admitting that they are sick. I personally have lost jobs and experienced discrimination in the workplace when I requested help in the form of accommodations. My struggle was not viewed as credible and I was seen as a “troublemaker”. Even though we have certain rights through the American Disabilities Act, the laws are not always enforceable and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is very slow to act. The reality is that the stigma surrounding the mentally ill discourages people from getting help and it prevents people from disclosing their disability in order to get help in the workplace. The effects of stigma can be devastating and can mean job losses and inadequate care. Many of the failures stemming from those suffering are not the fault of the individual struggling, but of the inadequate and unjust system that perpetuates stigma and negative stereotypes. The shame must be placed on a system that is inefficient when taking down barriers that would lead to progress for those struggling.
The Shame: Many people who live with a mental illness feel ashamed of their struggle and this leads to additional struggling and depression. I used to do a fair amount of self-loathing due to the multiple times I would start a job and then “fail” due to the increased symptoms relating to my illness. I realized over time that I wasn’t actually failing, but was suffering under a system that would shame me to the point that I would “give up”. My work was always praised, but my attempt to work with a mental illness was harshly criticized. I was even told at my last job that I was disqualified due to my disability. This caused a relapse and I spent several months stewing over my life and my lack of success due to my illness. It took a lot of soul searching to separate my illness from my identity. In time, I could see clearly that my illness has robbed me of my potential, not my talent, motivation, experience, or passion. It was how I decompensated during times of stress due to my illness that wrecked me. This has prompted me to respect my illness for what it truly is, a devastating biological illness that affects my mood and perceptions and is often outwardly presented in behaviors. I began to see the distinction between myself when I am suffering and myself when I am not. I challenge those suffering to let go of the shame you have relating to your behavior when you are sick. Focusing on the negative behavior that arises during an episode often will only serve to keep you hooked in a cycle of shame and regret. Instead, give the illness the respect it deserves and spend time finding ways to aggressively fight it and keep it at bay. If you are like me, if will more than likely rear its ugly head again, but this time I will forgive myself and instead of lamenting the mistakes made when I was chained against my will and suffering, I will get busy working to get ahead of the next episode. I honestly want to be like a hunter and become skilled at tracking it down, intercepting it before it begins!!!
I hope this was helpful. It is a struggle, and you deserve to know that someone out there sees your struggle, believes it, and is right there with you. Thanks for reading!