Shame, the constant companion
by Lucie Kavanagh
One day last week, I was struggling with anxiety to the extent that I didn’t pick up the phone and organise my monthly prescription. I hadn’t run out yet and I told myself it could wait. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to it, my GP was off sick and it proved harder to get the prescription than anticipated. With the help of the pharmacy, I got what I needed but part of this prescription is an antidepressant which causes side effects if a dose is missed or late. By the time I could take them, I was struggling physically. Obviously there is a lesson to be learned around doing important things in good time. But worse than that was the sense of shame.
I’m so stupid I can’t manage the simplest things
I shouldn’t need this medication
I should be able to manage
I know a lot of people who, like myself, experience mental health difficulties and every time I hear their stories or when I read a personal story with parallels to my own, I am always struck by the common threads that run through our experiences. One of these is shame. People quite often tell me their stories in confidence because shame has prevented them from talking about them to those close to them and I relate to this so completely. Shame can be so overshadowing when experienced alongside mental illness. I think there are a few reasons for this and they might vary from person to person. In my own experience, it was and is a combination of:
Feeling that throughout my life I have always been seen as responsible, calm, together and capable, and the sense that talking about how I felt would destroy that illusion (and perhaps deep-down feed into my own feelings of being nowhere near as capable as I might be perceived)
Not wanting to bother other people or be a burden
Feeling that I should be able to fix how I feel; that I shouldn’t be feeling so down when I have people around me, a good job, security etc.
But the number 1 reason for my shame was, and is, the overall view of myself coloured and designed by what my mind likes to tell me in dark moments – that I am useless, a bad friend/daughter/colleague, a failure, undeserving of support or acknowledgement. Shame can have a voice that, while not always loud, is very, very sneaky and persistent. Before we know it, we are acting in accordance to our shame but without always realising it.
Shame, for me, is a silencer and throughout my life, it has prevented me from talking about and even owning what I was struggling with. It has stopped me from talking to the people I’m closest to about what I experience, what I’m diagnosed with, what professionals I see and what they say and the overall everyday experience of living with mental health difficulties.
Throughout my life in various workplaces, shame has prompted me to do things like work without a break, take on responsibilities that I might not have needed to, put in extra time, everything to try to “compensate” for what I feel is lacking in me.
Shame has made it hard to talk or write about these things for fear that I am somehow “outing” myself and drawing attention to the many deficits and drawbacks I feel are lurking in my personality.
Shame prevented me from challenging my dismissal from a job that I loved. What happened to me felt deserved, more so because it felt like other people had seen through me and that to fight any of it would be wrong.
Shame makes me write texts and delete them before sending, dial numbers and cut them off before receiving a reply, and use phrases that we are all too familiar with:
“I’m fine”, “I’m just tired”, “I’m grand”, “I’m ok”.
Shame is a silencer.
To challenge shame, we need to speak up and talk openly about the things we are ashamed of. But this is very much easier said than done and most especially in this day and age. All around us, we see and read about people being shamed for things they have said or done on social media and we cling that bit more closely to the things that make us feel vulnerable. We forget that pantomime heroes and villains exist only in fairytales. We are all human and flawed with the capability at any given moment to triumph or prosper or to mess up and need to lick our wounds. These are all human conditions.
Have you heard the TED talk by Jon Ronson “How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life”? Jon talks about a journalist, Justine Sacco and how, in one night, Justine’s life was torn apart on Twitter in response to an ill-judged Tweet she made before boarding a plane. It’s chilling listening. You can’t help but be drawn into the story and picture what it might be like…everything we fear being found out, everything we judge as being “wrong” about ourselves laid bare. It’s not dissimilar to the much common dream about being naked in a public place or standing on a stage and forgetting the words. We all fear shame because we all know what it feels like.
In some ways I think this is why I made the decision to write about many of my own experiences. It’s not particularly brave. I can write the words and step away from them. It doesn’t take the same courage that sitting with someone I love might take and staying to hear the responses or answer the questions. But it’s a step. It’s my way of reaching out to people who might be feeling the same way I do and saying to them that we might find it hard to hold ourselves up but we can help each other to do it…we can make sure that those sharing the same experiences in our wake might find things just a fraction easier because some of the words have been made public and given shame one less square of secrecy and solitude.
Just remember…for every ounce of shame we feel, someone somewhere, if they were aware of it, would say “yes…me too.”
“I think we all care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people. We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?”
Jon Ronson, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following