On shame.

Roy Lichtensteins’s Drowning Girl.

 I’ve been wanting to write a blog post on shame for a while now. But, funnily enough, I felt too ashamed to. The reason it’s so difficult for me to write about it is because it requires me to be brutally honest about my mental health in the last 5 years.  It requires me to almost be as sincere as how I write in my diary, which scares the shit out of me. Because I don’t think there is any point sugar coating how difficult it is to come out of depression, shame, anxiety.. to overcome set beliefs that have been entrenched for so many years. This isn’t a blog post to say ‘here’s 5 things you can do to combat shame! Just do them and you’ll live an amazing life, just like me!’ . No, this is a blog post to recognise the complexities between the thoughts in our heads, our biological responses and how difficult it can be to shift our perspective on ourselves and the world around us.  What I can say is  that talking honestly and openly about shame is the beginning to overcoming it. Because shame is in its very nature wants to make you hide, wants to distinguish your own pain as different from that of everyone around you, wants to make you a sore thumb even when you are amongst a crowd of other sore thumbs. 

First of all, a nice definition of shame, as described by sociologist Brene Brown (I urge everyone to check her youtube videos and also her podcast with Russell Brand.. so many wisdom gems). Shame is the ‘intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging- something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection’. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnect. With this definition in mind, its not hard to see why we currently have such an epidemic of mental disorders, anxiety and addictions – all associated with the  effects of shame. 

In my own life, a  lot of the shame I have felt/continue to feel is rooted in ongoing health issues that I’ve had since I was 19. Over the years, I’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, endometriosis, hypothyroidism and IBS. Now, I know that all sounds rather horrific but a lot of these conditions have cross-over symptoms. Although things are not nearly as bad as they used to be, I still have days where I have no energy, nerve pain and migraines, particularly around my period. But at times, it has been utterly debilitating. When I was 20, there was a time where I couldn’t get out of bed, and I couldn’t walk for longer than 5 minutes without being in excruciating pain. This was accompanied by long, heavy bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and crippling anxiety over my future. Having wanted to be an actress from a young age and go to drama school, I had to let go of this dream. My life changed radically. I could no longer perform, and the future I wanted disappeared, to be replaced with simply getting through the day without crying. I felt my whole identity change, I became the pain and the fatigue, and didn’t allow for them to be separate from me, to exist on a different plane to my character. I lost touch with a lot of friends, afraid of how I could explain what was happening to me when I had no idea myself. Through my shame, I isolated myself from those who loved me and those who would best understand me. I did this because I felt like an anomaly – I wasn’t able to live a ‘normal’ life of work, education, socialising -all these things that required energy that I just didn’t have. I deleted every social media app because it was too painful to see everyone else continuing with their lives (this was probably a very good thing to do, to be fair..). And worst of all, through these incredibly difficult times, I did nothing but blame myself. My inner monologue became a repetition of the following mantras:

‘It is your fault you are ill.’ ‘You’re never gonna be able to do the shit you want to do’, ‘don’t even try because you will fail’. Etc etc… you get the message. 

So, what are the things that have truly helped me?  Firstly, the  realisation that my inner monologue is not the truth. Even though it can really feel like it. When your body feels horrible and your mind also, its difficult to see how your inner monologue isn’t just reflecting the truth of your situation. But, I have come to realise that I am not a piece of shit. I can have a proper career, I can work, I can audition for drama schools again if I wish. I 100% know that my feelings of shame only helped the spiral of ill health, and that a lot of the time I was simply afraid of fear itself. It has taken me years to realise this, and I have to remind myself daily to not get sucked in to destructive thinking.  A very interesting book that i’ve just finished reading, Pyscho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, is pretty useful in understanding how our self-image either inhibits or guides us to what we really want (good health, a good job etc..). Our nervous systems can’t tell the difference between an imagined experience and a ‘real’ experience’. So if we constantly live in fear and shame, then our nervous system will replicate that biologically, hence the release of the stress hormone cortisol when there isn’t even a threat to our survival. And with that release of cortisol our mind tells us to be more afraid…a viscous cycle! 

I am also trying to be as honest and open to friends, family and strangers about my health, even though being vulnerable can be excruciating. But it gets easier with time, and after every conversation I have where I’m not flinching inside, I begin to realise there is nothing to fear about being so honest, because ultimately there is no shame in having depression or a medical condition. And the more I talk about it,the more I realise that everyone has/ know’s someone with mental health issues, and that the way forward is about shining a continual, heavy duty light on it. 

Because, to be honest I am sick of lurking in the shadows about my health. There have been so many situations where if I had just been honest about how my health affects me, my life would have been so much easier- in work, at home, with friends. I have committed myself to trying to be as open as I can, because what is the alternative? I have been shown, time and time again, that being ashamed keeps me stagnant, keeps me trapped in a mental image of myself that I know isn’t accurate, and is stopping the flow of my  natural zest for life which I know, deep down, is very much alive and kicking. 

And, of course, I’m not alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of adults have felt so stressed that they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.  60% of young adults are stressed about the urge to succeed. These statistics are horrible but hardly shocking. Whether its Brexit, the effects of social media or global warming, its difficult to block out the existential threats that clearly aren’t being addressed by our leaders and corporations. But, is this a time to make myself my own worse enemy? Because I’m not sure if I can handle hating on the whole Tory cabinet , Trump, and myself. It’s too draining. And I think one of these is gonna have to give.

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