Sometimes I’m Ashamed Of My Mental Illness

Someone asked me recently what the most difficult part of my psychiatric hospitalization was. While the uncomfortable bed, tedious group therapies, and general lack of freedom were all stressful, it was life after hospitalization that was the toughest.

More specifically, the urge to hide from the people in my life, to self-isolate.

They saw me when I was losing my mind. I let them see me in my most vulnerable state, when my grip on reality was tenuous at best.

And all I could feel about that was shame.

When I say that I’m ashamed of my mental illness, it surprises people. I write about my struggles for a living. My history with mental illness is plastered all over the internet, easily uncovered with a single Google search of my name.

I have unapologetically owned my trauma around mental illness and, further, used that trauma to affirm and validate others who share those struggles.

So why would I be ashamed?

Well, that’s easy enough. The same reasons as everybody else.

Because underneath my “social justice warrior” armor, there’s just a scared little kid. One who spent years trying to hide his illness from everyone, fearful that he couldn’t be both mentally ill and lovable. Scared that if people saw how deep his struggles ran, they might leave.

I could tell the world that I was crazy, to an extent; it was empowering because I presented myself as the protagonist of my own story.

But what happens when everyone sees that you’re really broken, broken in ways they never imagined?

What happens when they look into your eyes and realize, fully, that you are the kind of crazy they’ve been warned about?

Because truthfully, my kind of crazy doesn’t inspire. At its core, it terrifies.

Every day I am biting my tongue until it bleeds, because I haven’t been able to admit that I’m scared.

I’m scared that this breakdown has rendered me less valuable, less likable, less worthy.

Every day I am pretending that my recovery is pleasant and easy and simple — I swallow what hurts when they ask if I’m okay — because maybe if I prove that I can be normal again, they’ll forget that I was ever psychotic, that I was ever paranoid, that I was ever delusional.

Maybe they’ll forget that I’m mentally ill.

Maybe they’ll forget what I looked like in a hospital gown, an IV stuck in my arm, trapped in a room on suicide watch.

I was so small then.

In that moment, waiting to be transferred to the psych ward, no one cared about my articles or my speaking gigs or the ways that I changed the world. In that moment, none of it mattered.

In that moment, I was revealed as the one thing I really was — crazy. And I had nothing to hide behind.

I find myself wondering, on the other side of this, if my breakdown will eclipse everything that I am.

Because none of us — not even a mental health blogger like me — is exempt from the feeling that our illnesses make us less than, make us unworthy.

The hardest part of being hospitalized wasn’t being in a hospital. The hardest part was letting the people in my life see that I am not, in fact, a success story, someone who overcame his struggles.

I am still fractured, still fragmented, still grieving, still human. 

And now, I’m exposed.

14 thoughts on “Sometimes I’m Ashamed Of My Mental Illness

  1. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

    I wish I had words of encouragement for you. I wish I could say “it will get easier.”

    It won’t.

    Even though we all pay a lot of lip service to destigmatizing mental illness, there’s that deep ingrained shame, worse than any scar that we can see.

    It’s my hope that our generation of mental illness advocates will pave the way for the next generation, to be born into a world where neurodiversity is understood as normal, and that sometimes people become ill enough that they need to go to the hospital. And maybe the hospitals will be places of true healing, not just holding tanks until the madness passes.

    I think about how up until the end of the 1960’s, when I was a teen, the word “cancer” was never spoken, not even to the person who had it. Why?

    Fear. Fear of the unknown. The knowledge, at that time, of the death sentence, and the irrational unspoken notion that it might be contagious.

    It took some high profile women to come out with cancer. It was outrageous. Now it’s a normal everyday thing, cancer. It’s still dangerous, often deadly, but it’s OK to have. People don’t pull their children away if they know you have it.

    The Gay Pride movement included normalizing HIV. It’s incredible that in one generation, HIV went from this horrifying stigmatized death sentence disease to a fairly socially acceptable chronic condition that often doesn’t even include illness.

    Mental illness, in our time, is talked about, but since we fight a constant battle with the media telling us that every horrible shooting must have been done by a mentally ill person, the conflation of evil with mental illness stays with us. We are fed a steady diet of lies and whispers that are denied the instant they are dragged into the light. But they are there, and I don’t know about you, but every time something like that happens, I clam up. Oh, I might write a piece about how you shouldn’t conflate mental illness with evil, how mentally ill people are ten million times more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it, blah blah blah my poor battered mind still shrinks from telling people.

    Then there is the following heinous lie:

    “People with mental illness can live full, happy, productive lives.”

    OK, so that makes me a total failure. Instead of getting better, I got worse. That happens. But as a result of the Big Lie, I feel like a failure, because I didn’t get better and go on to write lots of best sellers. The best I can do now is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And for krissake, don’t tell anyone.

    Yes, there are people with mental illness who get better, and I’m very happy for them. But not everyone does, and no quantity of positive affirmations and lovely thoughts will change the structure of our brains.

    Nevertheless we are programmed to feel like failures when we don’t “snap out of it.” So we either get really good at hiding it, or we hide ourselves.

    I do very much hope that the babies being born this very minute, babies whose brains are wired in special, very sensitive ways, will grow up in a world where “differently abled” applies to brains as well as bodies, and where shaming someone for having neurologic differences will be as taboo then, as it is to be openly neurodiverse now.

    Till then, we must keep on writing. Writing about the shame. The fear. All of it. Because we’re doing this not for ourselves, but for those brand new babies who we hope like hell don’t have to suffer shame and fear on top of bipolar, depression, schizophrenia.

    Liked by 9 people

  2. bobcabkings says:

    In my career in mental health I was involved in many hospitalizations, both voluntary and otherwise, and visited clients on an inpatient unit. I learned a great respect for the courage, even when it is born of desperation, it can take for someone to show up for that process. I’ve done involuntary admissions for people who, although they knew full well they could not be safe outside, still could not say “yes” because of the fear and shame of the hospital, but they said the words and did the actions I needed to hear and see to get them in. Courage does not apply to the easy stuff. Its about the hard and scary stuff, and in truth, shame is one of the scariest things. I could sit here and tell you, Sam, not to feel that shame about your illness, but we both know how well that would work, much as I wish it were not so. So, I have to just thank you for your vine writing about it, and your courage to put it forward. reblogging

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The bisexual butch says:

    TRIGGER WARNING: violence, childhood abuse, trauma

    I appreciate, again, your putting this out there. It is helpful to me, to an extent, to hear your perspective.

    It is quite difficult for me to not equate bipolar disorder with violence directed externally. A long, horrible childhood filled with daily violence and physical and mental abuse at the hands of my second brother has created a fear in me and deep trauma that I cannot overcome. I presume and hope that sort of violence and abuse is atypical, but I don’t know it for a fact.

    I see the old scars every day as I shower and dress, I don’t let doctors X-Ray me because I don’t want them to see the badly healed breaks and have to explain them, and all the other physical reminders of abuse that are like a roadmap on my body, hidden from view by my clothes and how I position my limbs when others are near. I have not seen that brother in fifteen years and I look forward to never seeing him for the remainder of my life.

    I spent the decades since then watching and waiting in abject panic to see if I too was bipolar, expecting it to emerge in me. I’m in my fifties now, so I suppose that possibility is past, but I struggle daily with anxiety and depression so intense, so deep that it scares me. I push everyone away, all the time. Very few people are allowed to get close to me, trust is incredibly hard, and I don’t want to frighten or burden people either. Different side of the same sad coin, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Liz Brosnan says:

    Oh Sam, I wish I could hug you and say hang in there mate. I understand totally what you describe. If you can, remember that this too will pass, grit your teeth, find your inner peace and belief in yourself and remember what you share needs to be heard. But in this place now remember you have people who care and believe you can make it. reach out and you can find someone to listen, to hold you in this dark space. Hang in there and beleive in tomorrow can be better, as you have shared with others, so others can be there for you, so do not fear reaching out. xl

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lydia H says:

    It won’t become who you are. It’s hard for me to express this. Mental health issues scare people because they don’t understand them. It’s not really being “broken” just different. With a huge amount of challenges to overcome. Remember all of who you are- a speaker, a person, a member of a family.

    Hang in

    Liked by 1 person

  6. fearlesslyonwards says:

    Yeah, you’re exposed – as a fiercely brave guy who not only fights for himself, but helps untold others by talking about this stuff. Just knowing I’m not alone makes the worst of my pain more bearable, somehow. You matter, you make a difference, and that makes you a success in my eyes, no matter how much care you may need.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. bobcabkings says:

    Sam, this is a bit off your post topic, but I have a new post up dealing with one aspect of the new law here in North Carolina (I’m sure you’ve heard of it) as it relates to Trans folk. I would appreciate your feedback and comment, and correction if need be. You are the best educator and advocate on the subject I happen to know in the blog space. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ivy Willow says:

    I understand this shame far too well. I think it would confuse people with me too. Anyone who is out and loud about their struggles is seen as owning them, which, we are. What they don’t realize though, as you pointed out, is that owning them is so vastly different from being okay with them. My mental illnesses scare me too. I’ve been hospitalized 3 times in 2 years…
    I so, so feel and understand what you mean by that fear.
    Thank you so much for what you do. I’m glad to have come across your blog, and it’s wonderful the amount of people you’ve helped.
    Keep on rockin’ sunshine, you are so worth it. I hope you have a beautiful day, and try to take gentle care of yourself

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Johnfen says:

    Wow, I feel like I could have written almost every line here myself. I was hospitalized for the first time last July and I still have not come to terms with that experience. There’s something that feels so… final, so huge, so life-is-never-going-to-be-the-same-after-this about being put on suicide watch, about everyone knowing just how broken you are, because look at where you ended up. I still find it hard to face my friends and family, and despite the fact that I am no longer hospitalized, I am still very far from recovered. I don’t know how to reconcile the fact of this past year with my life. Your last line totally cut me up: “And now I’m exposed.” What are you supposed to do with that kind of exposure, how can you move forward?

    Liked by 1 person

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