Tuesday, September 30, 2014

There's no shame in having a mental illness

Sunday was not the end of my journey, but it was certainly a momentous step on my road to recovery and self-acceptance.  I spoke at church about my life with depression, I was the guest speaker in place of  the sermon.  I was honest and open about what it's like to live with depression, the stigma, and how much work needs to be done to raise awareness.  I have long envisioned my journey as a path from self-hatred to self-love and acceptance.  I'm not there and will continue this journey throughout my life, but I can see how far I've come.

In my teens and early twenties I was filled with shame.  It encompassed every aspect of my life and completely clouded the way I viewed myself.  It affected all of my relationships. At my core I felt there was something wrong with me.  I knew I wanted to be authentic and be myself, but I saw myself as shameful and unlovable so I felt the need to pretend to be something I wasn't.  I hid my real feelings from the rest of the world.  Despite going through a lot of therapy and really getting myself to a better place, I basically lived this way until about 3 years ago.  That's when I began the process of "coming out" following my worst and scariest episode of depression.  Sharing my story in public was in many ways the culmination of that process.  By speaking at church I did something I've been wanting to do at some level for the last 25 years. 

I told the truth.  I got up in front of about 150-200 people at church and for 15 minutes I told them the truth about my experience of living with depression and anxiety.  It seems like such a simple concept.  But when it comes to depression and anxiety, telling the truth publicly is not easy or common.  How freeing it was to be able to just get up in front of people and speak honestly about my experience with having a mental illness.  As I spoke I could see that many people in the pews were crying a bit.  My wife and kids were there, my parents, some of my closest friends, and a number of people who I have known for about 20 years who didn't know this about me.  I shared a lot of details, but my basic message is that I have a mental illness, I lived in the darkness with it for nearly 25 years due to shame, and now I live in the open with it and have become a mental health advocate.  All the different work I have done over the years led me to a point where I was comfortable enough to speak about it publicly.  When I was finished people clapped, and we are not a church where clapping really happens.  They clapped for a long time.  I was so humbled by this, I never thought this day would come and then to have such a positive response was wonderful!

It was clear that sharing my story had an effect on people.  I had a lot of people come up to me after the service to talk to me or just offer a supportive hug.  Some "came out" to me, others asked how they go about getting help, many shared about their family members who have suffered or still do suffer. I realized yet again that we are all affected by mental illness, either directly or indirectly.  People may not accept it or talk about it, but it's there.  It seems to be everywhere.

I have only begun to process what all of this means to me.  I do know I really liked it and would welcome other opportunities to share my story publicly.  I think my biggest takeaway so far is the power of simply talking about mental illness honestly.  People have been telling me since I started blogging and being open about depression that I am brave and courageous.  I don't know about that, but the fact that they think I am courageous brings light to the level of taboo and stigma that still surrounds this topic.  So many, and often with good reason, suffer in shame and isolation.  People are still told by parents, partners, and friends to "just get over it" or "stop feeling sorry for yourself".  I know this because some have confided this in me over the last several months.  This makes me so sad.  We need to talk about it, and people need to understand that it is an illness.  It actually is a matter of life and death  Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it's not a character flaw, and it's not your fault if you are suffering!  I have hope that change is happening.  There are many of us coming out in the open and letting the world know there is no shame in having a mental illness.  I finally know I am not alone, and that's a feeling I want everyone who suffers from a mental illness to be able to experience!

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