I think fog is a good analogy for the shame of mental illness or the shame of self-stigma. I remember driving through the hills of West Virginia once and a blanket of fog moved in without warning. It was so thick, I could not see the yellow markers on the side nor the white lines in the middle of the highway. I had to stop my car until the fog dissipated. The shame fog can do the same with our journey to recovery. It can stop our progress.
As a licensed practical nurse working for over 20 years in psychiatric hospitals, there is one part of my life I hid from my employers and my patients: I also struggle with mental illness. I’ve also been hospitalized. There is a word that explains why I didn’t share this truth for so long. The word is stigma.
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, in her book Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis, describes stigma as "the most important damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness. It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination."
At the time of my first crisis when I attempted suicide, I had been a pastor in a small Iowa town. There were people in my small town who thought my mental illness was a symptom of being possessed by the devil and conducted prayers of exorcism over me. Others thought I had some deep sin that I was not dealing with. There were those who made it known that I would never work as pastor again. While these stigmatizing beliefs were based in ignorance and fear, the problem was I began to internalize and believe them too. I began to focus on those negative images and, subsequently, gave them power over me.
To solve my problem, I moved across the state. As you can imagine, this did not work. I eventually discovered that covering my feelings of disgrace with a change of scenery was not a healthy thing to do. It led to an all-encompassing fear in my life that someone would discover my mental health history. This is quite common for those struggling with mental illness. Stigma leads to fear and secrecy. I never talked about it. My wife never brought it up. My children, if they knew about it, never mentioned it. It stayed that way for 18 years.
Recently I ran into a co-worker that I had not seen for years and he mentioned, “Ed, you look like a ton of bricks has been lifted off your back. You are so full of joy.” He was right. In the last few years, I decided to lift my own shame fog and no longer keep my mental illness a secret. The change took place through four major influences in my life.
- Educating Myself. I began reading about my illness. I began taking a more active role in my over-all health. Just as a person with diabetes should learn all they can about diabetes, I am learning everything I can about depression and anxiety.
- Reframing Recovery. In my readings, I began to hear about a recovery movement that was changing the way we think about the treatment of mental illness. It is rooted in hope and the possibility of recovery—of regaining control of one's life. Now, instead of hearing that "John Smith can't make it on his own in the real world," we hear "what can John Smith do and what does he need to make it on his own? What kind of support does he need?" It gives hope and focuses on strengths. Instead of focusing on "what's wrong?" with John, it focuses on "what's strong?"
- Changing My Self-Image. By changing my self-talk, I began to realize that my self-perception was more important than anyone else’s perception of me. I began to challenge every instance of stigma in myself. I changed my destructive self-image by turning my negative self-talk into positive reinforcement of recovery.
- Challenging Social Stigma. I began to challenge instances of social (public) stigma (stereotypes and myths) that I encountered. I realized that part of coping with stigma is fighting stigma.
Now I have a new mission. I am preaching again; writing and speaking about the dangers of self-stigma; and how to move beyond the power of shame. I no longer hide the fact that I am a person suffering from mental illness. I have learned that my story is not something to be ashamed of, but is something to be shared with those who need hope.
Ed Kelly is a retired minister, a Licensed Practical Nurse and an Iowa Certified Mental Health Peer Support Specialist. He lives with his wife, Rose, in Red Oak, Iowa.
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