Shame

I’m sure they meant well.

I’m sure they didn’t mean to crush my heart and wither my soul. I’m sure they didn’t mean to degrade me and make me feel worthless. I’m sure they didn’t mean to shame me. But they did. Crouched in a paragraph questioning why I was asking for financial assistance for my family was the monster of shame. Shame that I can’t handle things on my own. Shame that I’m not as strong as they are in dealing with mental illness. Shame for not “doing what it takes” to provide for my family.

Yes, I am ashamed. I hate that I ask for financial help for my family because I miss work due to my not being stronger than my bipolar. I feel the stigma, the disgrace, the shame. I feel the judgment. I fear all these things I feel so vividly. And the message from a friend asking why I was asking for help brought all these fears to the surface to wreak havoc in my head.

Why can’t I just pull my shit together and go to work every day? I mean, my family needs it. We have been a one income family for a long while, and when I miss work it hits us hard. Especially when it’s for long periods of time. Weeks even. But I should be stronger than that! I should be able to simply get my ass out of bed and get to work every day because that is what is both expected of me and needed from me.

So why can’t I do it?

Why do I let panic attacks dictate my day? Why do I let things overwhelm me and my feelings? Why don’t I take my fragile brain and put aside the sadness, the depression, and the mania and simply go to work?

I shouldn’t be ashamed.

I should be strong.

But I’m not. I’m weak, broken, and ashamed.

This has been my past week. January is a hard time of year for me already, and this year my meds got fucked up. I was only on one of my medications, and it was a half dose at that. It was my fault. I let my file close with my med provider. I was feeling good and simply didn’t go in to see her. So, she closed my file and stopped refilling my prescriptions. For about two and a half weeks I was off most of my meds. What a great way to start the new year.

Being off those meds really fucked my shit right up. I had the withdrawals, the “brain zaps”, the headaches, the tremors, the times when everything (including silence) felt too loud, and my brain felt like delicate glass. I can’t describe how I was feeling other than to say fragile and unable. The depression that was nipping at my heels sunk its teeth deep into me. I became lethargic, unable to focus, unable to stave off the sad, lonely feelings that were only amplified as day after day slipped through my fingers with nothing to show for them.

On top of the symptoms I was having, I was worried. Every day I couldn’t make it into work was a day of lost pay. My job was secure thanks to the family medical leave act and a claim I started, but that doesn’t make up for an hourly wage. Worry on top of depression on top of withdrawals, day after day was building a dark place for me to dwell.

I have gotten back on my meds, and am stabilizing after swinging from depressed to manic. I am getting better, feeling better, but I am still ashamed that I haven’t been able to work and now can’t take care of my family. The message from a friend wondering why I can’t just be strong and do what needs to be done (like they do) hasn’t helped the shame I feel. My body might be balancing my moods again, but my emotions and thoughts are still in a dark place.

See, shame triggers feelings of worthlessness in me. Makes me thing I’m not good enough, not strong enough, not man enough. Makes me feel like someone else could take care of my family better, someone that was healthier, stronger. It makes me think that everyone is just better off without me.

They are scary thoughts to have.

But they are just thoughts. Luckily, I have worked with my therapist enough to recognize the lies and combat them with some objective truths. My kids have been an anchor for me, tying me fast to this world and their future.

Even as I battle these thoughts and they begin to grow quiet, the shame is still there, still triggering me, still heaping disgrace upon my back.

Shame is a beast that comes with mental illness. The illness itself is a shameful thing in our society. We are seen as weak, unable to handle emotions and situations. We are looked down upon because we can’t pull ourselves together. We are blamed for the illness as if our emotional and mental imbalance is something we are making up as an excuse or for attention. True or not, that’s how it feels. We hide our illnesses from work, friends, family, and church. We keep it to ourselves. Even when people know and understand we are sick, we sometimes keep the actual struggle, the day to day battles, and the loss to ourselves, minimizing the effect our mental illnesses have on everyday life.

Beyond the shame of the illness, itself is the shame the effects of our illness have on our lives. Sometimes we can’t go to a fun event with our friends, even though we really want to go. Sometimes we withdraw from close relationships, needing to cocoon ourselves away for a while. Sometimes we have emotional outbursts because what we are feeling is going to make us explode if it doesn’t get out somehow. Sometimes we cry for no reason. Sometimes we can’t make dinner because it’s too overwhelming. Sometimes we can’t stand the thought of singing with our brothers and sisters on a Sunday morning. Sometimes we can’t work, can’t make money. Sometimes we can’t care for ourselves.

This is the reality of living with mental illness. Beyond the symptoms, treatments, and medications is the shame that seems to dog us around every turn. Shame at having a mental illness, shame at the damage it can cause in our lives, shame for not being “like everyone else.”

So please, don’t ask me why I’m asking for financial help as if it were some unthinkable thing to do. Know that it’s not what I want to be doing, it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s the only way I know how to survive when I can’t work because of my illness. I’m not as strong as you, not as pulled together, not as capable at times. Please, don’t look down on me for that. Don’t shame me for trying to figure out how to live with a disability that, while invisible, has the potential to kill me.

Shame is the opposite of love, and love is what I need, even when I can’t feel it. Love and community are healing to a broken brain like mine. Isolation and shame will wither me, magnify my illness, and kill me in the end. Shame is hard-wired into the way we talk, think, and act about mental illness. Shame lives in every one of our diagnosis. Shame lurks in the lying voices of depression that play over and over and over and over in our hearts. Don’t feed our illness. Show us, love, even when you don’t understand. Show us, love, even when you don’t approve. Show us love even when we are overcome with our condition.

Instead of judging, could you help? Could we lean on you when we aren’t strong? Could you be an anchor of hope for us in dark times? Could you help bring healing to our souls, even if you can’t do a damn thing for our brain?

We don’t need more shame.

We need you.

We need community.

We need love

  • samcarter44

    I understand this more than you could possibly know. Love and prayers to you!

  • Brandon

    I am here for you always. If you ever think of a need, or a want, come to me. You are my brother.

  • These words are so true, for you, and also for everyone: “Shame is the opposite of love, and love is what I need, even when I can’t feel it. Love and community are healing to a broken brain like mine. Isolation and shame will wither me, magnify my illness, and kill me in the end.” Thank you for sharing, Aaron. Love your words about objective truth combating the lies and lying thoughts…this is a practice I try to do daily b/c the lies are so quick to rush in. The truth is, you are loved and were created in love and you are good and were created good. And you STILL are these things. We all are…at least these are things I tell myself…

  • harrisco

    Aaron – Thanks for sharing your journey. May grace surround and uphold you. May the load of shame you carry begin to lighten and pass away. You do not deserve shame but respect.

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