I had intended to share the story of a young man killed recently in a mental-health facility. Or deliver highlights from the best presentation of depression I’ve ever heard — any number of important posts that didn’t keep the focus on myself. Only in the time since my newspaper column came out — the anti-stigma column in which I confessed to a life-long struggle with mental illness — I’ve become distracted by other issues. Chief among these is the gnawing disappointment in myself as I realize I’m even more of a coward than I thought. And a liar on top of that.
While my column has been critiqued from a few perspectives, the fault I’ve found in it is this: I wrote my grand confession as someone who has suffered from a mental illness, not as someone who suffers. Even as I made what, on the surface, was a brave stand, I was compelled to hold up my hands, wave them around, and insist: “I have achieved remission of most of my symptoms … and have been drug-free since January.”
Some anti-stigma hero.
It’s like introducing yourself as an alcoholic or a gambling addict, other socially stigmatized maladies with their own biological components, only to insist while continuing to fervently grip the other person’s paw that you haven’t touched a drop (or wagered the grocery money) in 9 months, a year even. That you’re a successfully reformed sinner. Feeling much better now.
And it’s my shame that inspired me to throw that distance between myself and my illness. It’s embarrassment and self-loathing to the core.
When I returned to San Antonio several months ago I didn’t return to my therapist or psychiatrist. It was understandable, I told myself, because of my lack of insurance. I didn’t look for support groups, either, or find clinics with sliding scales or get on the MHMR waiting list for a free counselor. While I bought a small bottle of St. John’s Wort, I didn’t replace it when I ran out a few weeks later. I let my meditation practice roll up and blow away. I didn’t reach out to old friends to make sure I had social support. In fact, I isolated as much as ever. I didn’t buy either the biofeedback kit or PEMF device I had promised myself while I was still in treatment. In short: I failed to prepare for the inevitable.
While I enjoyed nearly two months nearly symptom free, even before I sent my column to the Express-News, the American-Statesmen, the Dallas Morning News, I was witnessing the return of depression. My illness began eating up pockets of my life in three-day chunks. But each time I resurfaced I managed to convince myself I could skate by again without assistance if I just did a better job managing my stress and growing list of disappointments.
Because of shame.
I felt it at the National Alliance on Mental Illness national conference as I walked the halls and packed the conference rooms with fellow attendees, many of whom were overweight and glassy-eyed as a result of their medications. A few twitched visibly or slept in the open. My mind and my body stewed in a mix of sympathy, empathy, and disgust. I didn’t want to be part of this club. I didn’t want to belong here.
Last night was my first support group since I was in out-patient treatment late last year. I felt it there too, saying it out loud this time: I hate my illness. I resent it with my whole being for keeping me from all the things I had hoped to achieve in this life. I hate myself for having it.
That’s the truest thing I know about this mess.
So brave column perhaps, but a lie. The truth of truths is that I’m embarrassed. And ashamed. And I’m sick. Still sick. So here’s where (since smashing a chair on the kitchen floor this morning and feeling myself being sucked back beneath the bottom) I commit to making the little steps toward remission. Again.
I have an appointment with MHMR this afternoon. There’s no one for me to see, of course. For person-to-person help I have to outlast a long waiting list. But I can get my paperwork done while I wait for society’s largesse — these emaciated social services — to manifest.
And I guess I won’t be riding my bike there. The feds classify my neighborhood as a Health Professional Shortage Areafor primary care, dentistry, and mental health care. Chances are you’re in one, too, at least when it comes to mental health services.
According to The Washington Post, which started asking these types of questions after the Newtown massacre, “89.3 million Americans live in federally-designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, compared to 55.3 million Americans living in similarly-designated primary-care shortage areas and 44.6 million in dental health shortage areas.”
But that’s OK. Only half of us seeking services can afford it anyway.
Top image, “Shame,” by Libertinus Yomango, courtesy of WikiCommons.