To the depressed - you have nothing to be ashamed of
It's a gorgeously sunny day outside and the birds are singing and I don't want to piss on your parade but I want to talk about depression. In particular I want to talk about depression and shame. Two things that go together like Bonnie and Clyde. Or maybe more like the Kray Brothers.
I remember when I had a constant feeling of fear and hopelessness in the pit of my stomach. I was on the verge of tears almost all the time. I wasn’t eating properly. I just wanted to sleep. And sleep. But when I did it was miserable and disrupted. Life felt colourless and drab. I felt estranged and detached from any semblance of the person I once thought I was. I felt like the last Russian doll; tiny, hollow. Except for the weight of the pain inside me. I did not feel like a person. I felt like the deformed and ugly shadow of one.
Clearly, this was not a happy time. I was suffering from depression. But you know what, although this feeling went on, building progressively layer upon layer, I told no one. Not one single solitary person. Not one friend or family member. Until, eventually, I did. But I wish I could have talked about it sooner.
I find it hard to talk about my feelings. Sure, I am expressive and eloquent (when I’m not using swear words) and I can talk about what happened or how I am feeling when it involves things outside of myself, but when I have to turn the focus inwards to my own negative, difficult or vulnerable feelings, my pulse quickens and my emotions feel scrambled like the eggs I had on toast this morning. It has never come easy to me. I learned how to conceal myself from my mother who is exceptional at it. But the reason that I didn’t share the true plaintive hews of my emotional landscape was not because I didn’t know how to talk about them; it was because I was ashamed. And my shame made me an emotional cripple at a time when I was already using crutches with two broken legs. It isolated me. It kept me alone in my suffering. It made a dark room so much darker.
And this is the thing that strikes and upsets me the most when I look back on this time: the extent of my shame. And this makes me feel sad. It makes me want to cry as I sit here now with the sun streaming through my window. It makes me want to put my arms around my suffering self, my self who was trying so hard and keeping so much inside, carrying so much on her strong shoulders, and say “babe. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are beautiful and you are trying. You are a fighter. People love you and they will support you.” I do this now for myself because I could never do it then.
Shame is an ubiquitous emotion in people suffering from depression. There is still a stigma attached to diseases of the mind and it’s still something we don’t talk about, not enough. And I don’t think we will be able to until we talk more about shame.
Because this is ultimately the reason that the depressed carry their woes in silence.
So let’s talk about shame.
Shame rears its pimple-covered face when we have done something that we fear may make us unlovable, something that may cause people to reject us. Simple as. In evolutionary terms, way back when the ladies wore sexy two-pieces made from animal hides and the men stood around the fire huffing and puffing with their big beards and their clubs in hand, shame played a very important role; it stopped us from doing anything that would cause our tribe to reject us. If we became ostracised from the tribe, we were screwed. Nowadays, the same principal applies; only our physical survival is less dependent on it (rejected from our tribe we can order a Dominoes and watch the entire series of Breaking Bad; we will feast, we will be entertained, but we will be alone). So shame exists for a reason.
The mistake we so often make is in judging what those things are that actually would make us ‘unlovable’. Things that are worthy of our shame. Our hyper vigilant and perfection-obsessed ego totally misjudges the things that really would cause others to reject us and in doing so it slights all of the things that make us human. It perceives vulnerability as a systemic marker of weakness and imperfection as evidence that we are not worthy of love.
But we need to know this is complete and utter crud. Crud that comes from an ego that’s scared and wrong about so much.
Of course, there are times when shame is not only warranted, but it is the only emotion that a sane person could be feeling, when it is completely right to be worried that people will reject you, that people will cease to pour out the love in their hearts towards you, that people will withdraw from you. We can all agree on some pretty shameful things that would make us think that anyone, no matter if this is the only detail we may know about them, is a complete a-hole. Like murder. Like torturing innocent animals. Like human trafficking. A-hole, a-hole, a-hole.
But depression is not one of them. Feeling ashamed about being depressed is the emotional equivalent of using surgical spirit to put out a house fire. It won’t serve you; it will make the whole thing a whole lot worse. And you really deserve more.
It’s pretty easy to talk about the bad stuff that happens. Like how embarrassed we felt when we farted on our first date and had to blame the rotten smell on the dog (who wasn’t even in the room). Or the time when we managed to spoonerise the one line we were given in the play (“hey guys, you want to hear some goosey jossip?”). It’s also easy to talk about poor physical health – aside from hemorrhoids, genital warts and vaginal thrush, perhaps. But when we are suffering from mental illness, it suddenly gets a whole lot harder. The steaks rise. A lot. Why? Because it feels like it involves the very fibre of our soul. When bad things happen to us, we can talk about it because we are saying that what happened to me is totally crappy. There is a very linear and socially understood cause and effect between something crap happening and feeling crap about it. Like farting on a first date. It is also comparatively easy to talk about poor physical health - even when it is something like haemorrhoids or thrush – because there is a separation between our body and our self.
But with mental illness it is different. There is no such separation. Our feelings involve very core of our ‘I’. We over-identify with our feelings of despair and hopelessness and fear so much that we feel defined by those feelings. They become the boundary of where we start and finish. It feels extremely personal.
It is no more personal than a bad case of vaginal thrush. Maybe we got thrush because we had too much rough sex or we aren’t eating the right things or we have questionable personal hygiene. Or maybe we just don’t know why we have it. It’s a mystery. But we have it so we need to treat it and we don’t take it too personally. Maybe we got depression because we suffered a bereavement, because we’ve been handed down a genetic wiring that is prone to depression, because we feel stuck in our lives, because we got dumped. Or maybe we don’t know why we have it. But the important thing to remember is that whilst it’s personal, it also really isn’t. It’s something that we have, rather than something that we are. When we think of it in this way there is a healthy separation that comes in and it means that we are more able to talk about it and more likely to feel that we can be helped; it is not who we are. It never will be.
Depression makes us a lot of things; imperfect; damaged; vulnerable. But it doesn’t define us. Most importantly, it doesn’t make us unlovable. I think a lot of the shame around depression comes from a subconscious belief, drip-fed to us by every possible avenue of popular culture and the media, that we need to be perfect to be loved. That we need to be happy and confident and out-going. We hold ourselves to some ideal of personality perfectionism yet we never cut the grade. We don’t cut the grade on our good days, and we sure as hell don’t cut the grade when we are depressed.
I suffered with this a lot. My insidious need to be ‘perfect’ and my lack of self-worth made it impossible for me to tell anyone how dead and dark I was feeling inside. (“Knock knock, who’s there?” “No one. Just p*ss off”). Because I shouldn’t be that way. Depressed Claire needs to keep herself to herself and pretend that she is in fact not feeling dried up and shrivelled like that apple I left at the bottom of the fruit bowl for weeks that has now started to ooze rotten juice from its underbelly. People won’t love rotten-oozing-apple Claire. This is what I thought, without actually thinking it. So ingrained in my consciousness, an unquestionable belief.
Yet of course, if people love me, they will love messed-up me. They will love depressed me. I might not be as fun to hang around for a while, but people don’t love me on the condition that I’m fun or happy or upbeat. They love me because I’m me. Now I should say that I don’t, on the whole, think that love is unconditional. I don’t believe it should be either. There are conditions to love; but one of them is not that we never feel bad or sad or screwed up. One of them is not that we have to be our happiest, brightest, most loveliest and beautiful at all times for others to love us. I’m not sure what the conditions to love are, but one of them is probably just that we try.
And if there is one thing that’s for sure in this unsure world, it’s that anyone who is deep in suffering is trying. They are desperately trying harder than you might know it possible to try. They are fighting a battle so enormous and so terrifying that every day they carry on going, that they pull themselves out of bed when they have nothing to wake up for, that they smile to a loved one or stranger when they feel like dying inside, becomes the very definition of courage. Their effort is what makes them lovable. It is what gives them mercy. And they need to know that. I think we all need to know that.
So let’s abolish shame in people suffering from mental health problems. Let’s talk about it openly. Let’s realise that whilst it can be there (it will be there) when we are deep in our suffering, it simply cannot be allowed to run the show. Because until we lift this stigma so many people will suffer in silence, unsupported and alone in their plight, all because they bear the weight of a shame that is not theirs to carry.
So please, put it down.
And remember, just as you are not your genital warts [insert medical condition of choice], you are also not your suffering.
If you are anything, you are your effort not to suffer.
This effort is courage:
YOU ARE COURAGEOUS.
Define yourself by that instead.
And please, let’s talk about shame.