During the recent half decade I have been so fortunate, as Brene Brown* describes, to have completed the journey from the “not being good enough” shame struggle to believing and knowing “who I am is enough.” Shame from having mental illness has left me. Shame from being related to other people with mental illness has left me also. I have been graced.
I only recently realized I had made this journey. I understand now how much shame – and my growing resilience in the face of shame – had influenced the course and depth of my mental illness through the years.
It didn’t happen, this journey to being shame-free, automatically. I happened to want to do what is recommended for building shame resilience for other reasons; I wanted to help others cope with mental illness. Often, as part of my work, I told my story of family and personal mental illness. I didn’t realize then, twenty five years ago, how much nurturance I would receive from assisting others. My story of the power of shame and how I arrived at healing from shame follows:
I first developed shame in reaction to mental illness when my father was sent to Mendota in the 1950’s. It’s interesting that I write “was sent”, rather than “admitted”. He was committed. I called it Mendota; really, Mendota is a lake in Madison, WI. Mendota is also, at least in my limited young social circle at that time, a derogatory term for what was then a large mental health complex. Already at age 8 I felt the special disrespect reserved for people with mental illness. I was ashamed that he was placed “at Mendota”. Did I pick up this attitude and judgment from family or my community or both?
The shame grew when there were repeated hospitalizations because of Dad’s suicide attempts. I am only beginning to understand the extremely difficult position my mother would be in at those times: Six children, a farm, more than disapproving grandparents, a job serving the public. Friends, family and neighbors, all reacted to the news of Dad’s suicide attempts, and all needed to be answered. Often there was the question “WHY?” as in “Why did he do it?” As an 8 year old I knew no reason. Those questions were at best curious, but often deeply probing questions to “find out” about our family, I can see now how events around suicide and suicide attempts are often not discussed. Kept quiet; locked in the closet. But silence and secrets nurture shame.
The most humiliating shame I felt was when I was a teen. Dad was very irritable on a regular basis. And as children we walked on egg shells during that time. Once at a high school dance, while I was dancing away with friends, my dad walked in. No, he stormed into the building, out onto the dance floor and pulled me from the floor while yelling and swearing at me. I’m led to the car, my transgression yelled at me. I was so horrified and humiliated that I didn’t hear what he said. I have never forgotten that incident. There have been more serious occurrences, but none with such humiliating and lasting shame. It was so public and at such a sensitive time in my life.
I was my father’s daughter. I developed major depression during my second pregnancy. It was a very rough time and I have written about it here (On Depression During Pregnancy). Along with my illness, shame accompanied me throughout the pregnancy and post-partum years. Eight years later I was admitted to a hospital for depression and for a work up for ECT, electroconvulsive therapy. Here are two distinct but typical memories of shame intruding on my life at that time:
Although a regular church member and attendee with our family of four, and although I wanted to attend a service while at the hospital, I could not go to the Chapel (I was permitted and encouraged to attend) In my shame, I was simply not good enough to sit there. I was unworthy of God’s love and being in a Divine Presence. I tried, I went, sat and got up again, full of shame at my mistake of thinking I belonged. Those shame feelings stayed with me for several years and reliably returned during crisis.
Second, I am an avid reader. Now, the library of interesting “reads” was just outside the locked unit of the psychiatric department at the hospital where I had been admitted. I had earned the privilege of visiting the reading area by being a “model patient.” But I found I could not read in the reading area; I was too ashamed of being identified as a psychiatric patient. No one “normal” – hospital visitors and employees – visited or read in that area.
These are “shameful” experiences, when my psyche told me I was “not good enough person, unworthy of love and of belonging”. But I have another memory from that hospitalization. One that could have been shame-inducing but instead was affirming of me as a hospital psychiatric patient and as a person. A very real gift from a brother and his wife and young children. Simply, they visited me while I was hospitalized in the psychiatric unit. They came to visit me in the visitation room on the unit. Soon they took me down to the cafeteria for a bite to eat and this was followed by a walk outside the hospital grounds. There weren’t a lot of questions. We talked about every day common experiences, like our children, etc. I wasn’t put on the defensive or treated as an object of curiosity
I DID NOT feel shame (I certainly felt shame when others visited). Why? My brother and his family brought an open attitude with them. They were not ashamed and I could sense that. That my brother came to see me at all, and that he brought his whole family when he could have easily come alone, said to me that he embraced my decision, as hard as it was, to get further treatment for the depression (I had tried medications in every category and had no response to them). It said that he wasn’t afraid of me or my family. So I wasn’t ashamed in presence of my brother and his family. Oh, I was nervous and anxious; yet pleased and comforted. Only much later did I realize what a great gift this was and what a good memory it is. I was made worthy and felt I belonged to my extended family. I was a good aunt and good Godmother to my brother and sister-in-laws children. Now I realize how much I hungered for those messages to counter “the bad person” signals I was receiving from my automatic negative thoughts.
Gershen Kaufman writes of the many consequences of shame in his book on the psychology of shame, The Power of Caring**:
…..shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self-image, poor self concept, and deficient body-image.
……shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging and to shared intimacy….It is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity inevitably evolve.
As I have made my recovery journey I find I was carrying out the work of shame resilience Dr. Brown speaks of. She explains that shame needs secrecy, silence and judgment to grow. But shame resilience grows along with a more courageous, compassionate, connected life! I began to live such a life as I began to face my mental illness head on. I developed compassion towards people with mental health problems and family members of affected individuals. I wanted to help other people so they wouldn’t have to go through the stigma and shame that my family and I went through. I took training from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) WI and the National office to be a support group facilitator, to begin a depression support group for our local NAMI. I gained even more experience for working with family members of people with mental illnesses when I took NAMI training to teach a course on mental illness, called Family to Family. I was involved with NAMI Family to Family for 20 years.
Unrecognized by me at the time, I was receiving a great gift toward resilience – the strength of affirmation – while facilitating a support group and teaching Family to Family class. I was heard, also, among the other voices in the group/class. My feelings were validated. I learned I was one of many who grew up in difficult situations with mental illness. There was empathy expressed towards each member of the group, including to me as its leader and for many participants. Shame began to lose its chokehold. I became increasingly resilient in its presence and in the presence of self-stigma – the most harmful effects of mental illness. I began to heal. The more and longer I participated in helping others and later took on leadership roles in NAMI, the bolder about speaking out against stigma and shame and the steadier my management of my mental illness became (of course, I was under professional care!). Feelings of happiness began to be common. I am sixty-seven now, and the last five years have been the happiest of my life.
* Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW Audio lecture, 2012: Men, Women & Worthiness, The experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough. Available on CD at Soundstrue.com PO Box 8010/Boulder CO 80306.
** Kaufman, Gershen (1992), Shame: The Power of Caring (3rd ed.), Schenkman Books, Rochester, VT.