This is a topic that has been stirring in the back of my mind for awhile, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. Frankly, it’s uncomfortable, but that is perhaps exactly why it needs to be discussed.
I owe much to Dr. Brené Brown and her research on the subject; she has helped to clarify and give voice to the feelings for which we often have no vocabulary. Her insistence that “shame cannot survive being spoken” is a large part of why this blog entry is happening – why this blog is happening. The stigma surrounding mental illness exists because of shame, but if we call it what it is, that stigma cannot endure.
As someone who is a born people-pleaser and perfectionist, I can tell you that shame and I have been companions for a long time. Add my struggle with depression to the mix, and shame basically moved in and made itself at home. For us today, I want to talk through some of the experiences that I’ve had with shame and mental illness – even shame and mental health – because talking about it takes away the power that shame likes to hold over us.
I was a young adult before I figured out that what I was feeling and thinking were not “normal,” that every other person didn’t have these bouts of almost debilitating depression and thought processes that could get downright scary. Being the perfectionist that I am, I learned pretty quickly that I needed to “hide my crazy,” because no successful person I knew was dealing with it, so it must be bad. I must be bad, and I needed to keep the show going or everyone else would figure out just how messed up I was.
It should be noted that this ties in closely with Imposter Syndrome. I didn’t know it had a name until a couple of years ago, but I always had this sense that one day everyone was going to figure that I was a fraud and didn’t belong. Outwardly, that made no sense; most would say that I am successful academically and professionally. Inwardly, I was doing my best to hide away my flaws, convince the world that I was Super Woman, and make being Super Woman look easy. Frankly, that’s impossible, but it seemed to add a whole new layer of depression onto what already existed.
When I got married, my then-husband told me that depression wasn’t really a medical thing – it was spiritual, and I just needed to pray more. As a Christian, this was devastating. Not only was I “bad” because of my depression, but I was clearly a terrible Christian too. I found myself scheduling my day around additional prayer time, hoping that if I prayed enough, God would take this thing away, and the tears I cried from the anxiety of it all could fill an ocean. I wondered what the magic number was – how many prayers were necessary? Or was it a time thing? I completely lost sight of the reality of a relationship with God as I desperately sought what I regarded as a miracle from Him. And with every depressive episode, I felt worse, I felt I had failed, and I drowned in the shame of being less-than.
When I first sought help, I distinctly remember parking as close to the building housing Mental Health as possible, and I ran to the door, covering my face the whole way. I recall wishing that there was something else – anything else – in that building that I could use as my cover story if someone saw me going in there. At that moment, it didn’t matter that I was in the darkest corner of my depression and was desperately reaching for a way out that didn’t involve ending my life. What mattered was that someone might see me going into the Mental Health building and know that I was broken, that I was a mess, that I couldn’t keep it all together – and if they saw that, my career as a military officer might be over before it really started. It didn’t occur to me then that the thought that I even needed a cover story was shame in and of itself.
I’d love to tell you that it was all rainbows, kittens, and unicorns from there. Sadly, that’s not the case. As I was preparing for one of the military’s most advanced, grueling, kick-you-in-the-teeth, selective training opportunities, my doctor had to sign a pretty routine form that basically said there wasn’t anything medical keeping me from holding a security clearance. I say “pretty routine” because I’d held a clearance for years, and I had been honest about seeking mental health help on every re-investigation. So imagine my surprise when my doctor looked at the form, looked at my medical records, and then said to me, “You have a mental health history. I need your commander to see your history before I sign anything.” She then printed out all the notes from my mental health appointments, put them in an envelope for my commander, and insisted that he had to sign the envelope – verifying that he had read my mental health record – before she would sign the paperwork.
“I don’t know what this school is that you’re trying to go to, but they might not want people like you in there. Your commander needs to see what they’ll have to deal with if you go.”
People like you. She said it. I was different. I was “other.” I was something bad.
I cried all the way to my commander’s office, the shame was so tangible. I walked in, handed him the envelope, and explained what my doctor had said. Thankfully, he gave me the “Are you effing kidding me??” look, signed the envelope without opening it, and said, “I already know what I need to know, and I’m not going to read this. If anything in this envelope was an issue, I would have already been called.” I was grateful and relieved. (Looking back, I probably should have taken it up with Patient Advocacy for HIPAA violations, but I didn’t want the already tenuous process to take longer than necessary.)
Spoiler alert: I went to that school and successfully completed the course. Even “people like me” can do challenging things. Do you hear that and know that? This thing we’re dealing with doesn’t have to hold us back.
Most recently, after publishing a couple of my blog posts, a well-meaning friend wrote me the following:
What you’re writing is good stuff, and I’m glad that people seem to be helped by it. But you’re about to pin on Major, and if you keep this blog going, you are going to kill your career. Lieutenant Colonels don’t talk about these things. If they get help, they keep quiet about it, because no one wants a leader with problems.
My first reaction was shame, followed by a huge temptation to delete this blog. Then I was indignant. “Lieutenant Colonels don’t talk about these things.” Maybe that’s the problem! We ask our leaders to be authentic, but they cannot be vulnerable. We demand that they climb up onto a pedestal and lead from there, but if they need to get help, they’d better sneak away and not tell a soul. What a disservice we have done to our leaders, and in turn to those they lead. No one is without issues, but we’ve created a culture where the appearance is more important than the truth.
So here I am. I am owning the depression I’ve been battling my entire life, and every time I talk about this or write about it, I am telling the shame that it has no place in this conversation. The stigma has no place in this conversation. I am telling every person who reads this that they are not alone and that there is help. You can make the courageous decision to get help and not have it destroy your career or your academics or your dreams. You can lead well and still have issues – as long as you are finding healthy ways to deal with them.
Shame is part of this story, friends, but it doesn’t have to be. Continue to speak up, to speak out, to get help, and to tell your story. Keep telling yours, and I’ll keep telling mine, and we will make it impossible for shame to survive.