Mental health shaming is a real thing, maybe you’ve been lucky enough to not experience it. Maybe you have and it made you even more closed off then you already were. For years I have been experiencing it from my family, friends, and sometimes even at the workplace. How do you explain to someone the reason you are having a moment is because of your mental illness without feeling some type of shame?
“Why is she acting like that?”
“Can’t she just get over it and have fun?”
“Stop being so sensitive and learn to toughen up”
“You are freaking out over what?”
“What do you mean you are too tired to go?”
“Some people have it worse than you, maybe you should think about that”
“Why don’t you ask your doctor for medication? It seems like you could really use it”
I want to preface this blog post by stating that I am not trying to play the victim card but I am going to share a few brief experiences I’ve had with mental health shaming. For the fact I even have to begin my story by stating this shows how much of a judgemental world we live in. It only further proves my point about how we all need to learn to be more accepting of mental illnesses.
When I first started to tell some friends or family about how I was feeling I was quickly dismissed with “people have it worse than you” or “just go on medication and you’ll feel better.” It was hurtful that people who I trusted didn’t want to listen to me anymore. I started to feel closed off and kept all of these thoughts to myself. Anytime I had opened up to someone it was a burden to them – the sighs, the comments, telling me that I need medication to be “normal.”
I was shamed into keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself. It was a terrible feeling and I had never felt so alone.
Shamed in getting help
A friend of mine saw that I was struggling and offered to help me seek out a therapist for my anxiety. It is never easy to admit that you need help, it’s scary and sometimes defeating in a sense. I knew it was to make myself better, kinda like going to the doctor when you are sick. You need antibiotics sometimes to help get your health back on track.
Even when I was in high school seeking help I was ashamed to tell my friends where I was going. It became a secret for a while, some of my close friends knew but for most people I didn’t want the sigma of “oh she has issues” on me. Fast forward to being in my twenties it was still a secret, and I learned the hard way when you think a friend can keep your secret. I started to notice whispers and strange looks, people were treading very carefully around me. Maybe this was paranoia? Maybe this was my anxiety amplifying a simple situation?
Unfortunately, my gut instinct underneath it all was right. An assumption of why I was seeking out therapy was made and I was judged for it despite it not being the truth. Judged very harshly to the point where I no longer felt comfortable or any sense of trust was diminished. It only made seeking out help worse to the point I was scared someone would see me in public, so I stopped going.
Anxiety in public
My first terrible anxiety attack in public was a moment I wish that I could erase from history. It escalated quickly and before I knew it I was hysterical crying in the bathroom begging to leave. It was mortifying to travel home with people questioning why I was crying, whispering that I was being dramatic, or even worse making me feel like I was completely unstable. The weight on my chest was that of an elephant, my entire body was shaking and I just wanted to be in a safe space.
Months after this anxiety attack I ran into the same people. I was being spoken to as if I had gone away to a mental institution and was out for a visit. It was the worst feeling. People who were formerly your friends afraid to even say hello because of what happened. This reaction and judgment hurt the most.
At this point is when I started to learn how to bottle how I felt in public, masking those feelings until I got to a safer space. Even when I’d excuse myself from certain situations – social, family, anything – I kept telling myself “ok almost home, almost home.” After closing the door behind me is when I let every feeling I held in explode.
“You always bail on me!” is a phrase I got used to at one point. After my anxiety attack in public, I was terrified to go places when I’d feel a certain way. I didn’t want to experience that again, so instead, I would bail at the last possible minute. This caused a rift in a few friendships but it was also a lesson I needed to learn – its ok to say “no” to plans.
I am the queen at avoiding places I know former friends or past relationships would hang out. If I knew for certain that they would most likely be there, I’d avoid it altogether. I didn’t want to risk running into them and feeling uncomfortable. I never wanted to explore whether they would be the ones to make me feel uncomfortable or do something, I just felt better not going and avoiding a bad collision.
People have told me to this day “you need to get over it” but it isn’t them that is experiencing the anxiety. It is me and I have learned I have to do what is best for me and my mental health.
Invalidating my feelings
Anxiety doesn’t have a rhyme or reason. You can have a complete anxiety attack at the store for no apparent reason. You can stay in bed for days on end because of your depression. It doesn’t care what is normal or is not. You just feel the way you feel, AND IT’S OKAY.
I’ve spent days on end in my bed watching all 10 seasons of Friends because I mentally could not deal with what had happened in a matter of 2 weeks. In May of 2016, I went away to visit my best friend in California and I came back to my life falling apart. From every single angle of my life there was something happening – work, my love life, both sides of my family. It was stress all around and all I knew how to react was to just shut down.
My family questioned why I was feeling the way I was feeling, they were already stressed with other things and had minimal time to dedicate to consoling me. I felt like a burden to my friends – oh here we go again. It was the loneliest I had ever felt. I’d make phone call after phone call hoping someone would tell me what I was feeling was ok. But I never heard it. Instead, it was “I have a lot going on I can’t deal with this,” or “there are bigger things happening, you are freaking out over nothing” or “you gotta learn to deal with these things, aren’t you in therapy?”
It was defeating. I was looking for the support that I often give to others and it just wasn’t reciprocated.
Since then I have made a lot of progress. Learning to better communicate how I am feeling, how to manage my anxiety in public settings, how to channel my anxious energy into a positive outlet, what to do when I am feeling depressed. And most importantly accepting that what I am feeling is ok.
I am still learning and I am still bettering myself. Even now I am exploring therapy again because the world has changed so much and I know it is ok to ask for help. There is no shame in asking for help, it shows that you are strong. If you know someone who is struggling please look out for those warning signs, maybe they need that extra push to seek help and need a friend or a family member to hold their hand.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.