If you’ve read the blog, you know that I (Nate) have dealt with mental illness for my entire life. And for most of my life, despite my best efforts, I have felt shame for feeling and being the way that I am. I was told that people like me were inherently broken and messed up and did things like shoot up schools or malls or theaters. And I felt shame for being “one of those people.”
I also felt myself blaming other people for my mental illness. It couldn’t be my fault for the way I felt, right? So, I blamed a lot of other people. I probably still do, to an extent. My parents got the most of my backlash, but so did my siblings, teachers, friends, adult mentors, and, at times, strangers. And that caused me a lot of shame because I knew that it wasn’t there fault. At least, I think I did. I didn’t know whose fault it could be, but I did know that these feelings and this hurt and this suffering was just part of me and that everyone else was not responsible. But I couldn’t process that and that meant I caused a lot of people hurt because I was ashamed of the way that I treated them. The irony is that the more shame I lived with the more I acted out which caused more shame. (As time went on, I was able to tell the difference between those I blamed needlessly and those who didn’t listen and, while not intentional, did things that really hurt me. I’m still working through that.)
I am just now realizing that I don’t have to live with the shame that I have lived with for so long. Mental illness is a different kind of illness that causes lots of problems, especially since it deals with the mind and emotions and the way you treat people. But it is not a reason to be ashamed of yourself. It is a reason to work at recovery so that you don’t hurt others…but it is not a reason to be ashamed.
I am just now learning this and starting to overcome my shame. And that is hard because I have been ashamed for a long time. But, as part of the work of Here/Hear, overcoming stigma means overcoming the shame that we feel for having a mental illness.
However, in overcoming that shame, it is also important to treat others with respect while challenging their stigma. There are people in my life that still shame me even though they do not mean to. My mental illness is just not something they understand…or they even want to at times. And this hurts; but I cannot shame them in the same way they shame me. My task is to simply work for the betterment of understanding my situation and going about life in a way that shows people that I, along with other mentally ill people, do not fall into preconceived notions or stereotypes of what it means to be mentally ill. We will no longer accept the stigma placed upon us, but we will do so in a way that doesn’t hurt others the way that they have hurt us.
At least, that is what I am trying to do. And it is hard because I expect others to overcome the shame they feel for me because I have already overcome my own shame. I am not ashamed of who I am or what I have. I am simply who I am. And it is very difficult when people cannot accept that. But, on the flip side, it would be wrong of me to shame someone for not accepting me and my illness for what they are, even though I really want to. I have to simply work through education and advocacy, through the support of other mentally ill people, and through opening others’ worldview to the possibilities that are present for the mentally ill. That’s a large part of Here/Hear and we’d love for you to join us as a contributor.