Shame

By: Miriam Renz  |  April 12, 2016
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This semester I am enrolled in a memoir-writing class called Writing Women’s Lives. In addition to exploring and analyzing many contemporary memoirs (all written by women), we consistently produce our own memoir pieces and share them with the professor, and sometimes, with the entire class. Every few weeks we divide into workshop groups in which we review each other’s pieces, having prepared comments in advance. Though it is clear that we are not required to write pieces with extreme or troubling content, as a memoir class it is tempting to delve into our depths and share what we find. In the most recent workshop I shared a piece that uncovered a very dark experience that happened last semester: Depression.

As a memoir piece does, mine offered a sensory description of days spent on my dorm room floor, too scared to face the world. The movement of the piece arrives at the moment when I finally stood up and felt the strength I thought had left my body permanently. Skipping to the end of my piece, I brought in a reference to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech entitled, This Is Water; a speech that was the voice of strength when I had lost mine.

But, I do not want to write about my experience in those dark moments or how I came out of them. I want to write about how I remain out of these moments, and the things I do to keep myself healthy and safe. Before describing these sustaining patterns, I want to acknowledge that I do not write this because I enjoy rereading my own articles; I write this because I have too many friends and peers who are ashamed of and therefore silenced by their mental illnesses and psychological struggles. I write this because, though it is personal, it is also a communal failure if this silence remains as the assumption of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with these serious issues. If shame is the motivating factor in cases like mine, then we have much to improve.

After attending the largest student run event at Yeshiva University last spring, Stomp Out the Stigma, I was moved by the courage and grace of the speakers who shared their intimate moments of weakness and strength in order to empower the community as a whole. I covered that event for The Observer and in doing so, though my anxiety and depression were yet undiagnosed, I realized that this event offers a unique moment of camaraderie between students who struggle with mental health issues and those who wish to support their peers. Though the event is not for a few weeks, I think it is important to keep these ideas of dialogue and acceptance afloat. So, to actualize this, I will explain something that I have begun doing since I was diagnosed.

For the past nine months I have kept every pill bottle that I have received from my psychiatrist. The names are foreign to me and seem to have an impossible number of consonants, but they help me get out of bed every morning, so I take them happily. Yet, as I write this positive thought, where I am now urges me to acknowledge the truth of working through mental health issues. My mental health does not only depend on taking pills and seeing a therapist; it requires that I look at my mental health with honor and patience and especially not shame.

When I first heard the words come out of my psychiatrist’s mouth, “Yes, this is depression,” my self-confidence felt as though the floor had been pulled out from under it without any sense of compassion. Of course, there was compassion, only it incongruous to the self-loathing I felt. So, once I picked up my medicine the first time, and then the second, third, fourth and so on, I began to collect the pill bottles. After the first thirty days, I kept the bottle because I didn’t know how to properly dispose of it—do I recycle something that a person struggling with substance abuse could use to hurt herself? Instead of troubling myself to ask my doctor or even the pleasantly silent Internet, I kept it. This, however, became a ritual. I began placing them, month after month utop my desk bookshelf. Everyday I saw the bottles there, staring at me with those big CVS eyes. Sometimes I feared their glare; other times I admired their conviction and steady gaze into my stumbling internal navigation.

As someone who questions just about everything, this strange relationship between me and my medicine bottles was a bizarre mystery that grabbed my attention for weeks. Was the medicine not working? Was this anxiety that I was feeling? Should I just stop looking at them, toss them into the garbage and not care where they land? All these questions remained silenced until one day when I realized that even the questions’ silence reflected the factor propelling the feelings towards even ingesting my pills: Shame. I did not like looking up every morning at the endless rows of bottles that create a chemical balance in my otherwise unpredictable brain. I did not want to discuss my reality with anyone—how could some insensitive outsider understand? Then it hit me: It was I who was placing shame upon a reality that is quite normal, manageable and simply a part of my life that would be far less draining if I began to accept it.

So, after coming to this moment of insight and reflection, I began leaving my pill bottles in drawers in my room, on the shelf, in my backpack; I let go of the pressure to “destroy the evidence” and instead, I encouraged myself to take pride in my self-care and determination to live a healthy life. While going through this process of self-acceptance, I became curious as to how many others had considered the stigmas – both internal and external – that surround mental health and mental illness. A simple Google search lead me to see that an astonishing 13,800,000 results were found when I entered the words “stigma mental illness.” Seeing these results propelled me to further research articles and statistics of mental illness and stigmas surrounding it. I found an article in The Atlantic in which C. J. Laymon writes about his experience in the workplace while hiding his Bipolar Disorder. He states that his colleagues “get quiet and cock their heads, nodding and trying to understand” when he discusses his mental illness with them.

For me, it is not colleagues, peers, friends, or family members who treat me with such discomfort and distance. Rather, it is me that treats myself with this discomfort, this shame. I know now that when I began putting my pill bottles where I would see them every morning, it was not from a sense of immediate pride; it was a challenge. I needed to push myself to be proud of how I manage my mental health and how I do the things I need to sustain positivity in my life.

Next month is Mental Health Awareness Month and I urge all of us, myself included, to reflect on how we perceive our communities, our fellow humans, and especially ourselves. We must ask, “Do I treat this person with sensitivity and respect?” “Do I listen to them and support them in working towards good mental health?” “Do I respect myself and see my mental illness as an objective fact rather than a blemish on who I am?” Between this month and next month, I urge us all to challenge ourselves, whether it be by putting old pill bottles into your line of vision, or if it’s attending Stomp Out The Stigma. Growth and discipline is the way to create and enforce new kindness for each other and ourselves.

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