I had always suffered from bouts of low self esteem, thoughts of suicide and bulimia, but here came a dark cloud that was persistent, aggressive and increasingly debilitating. I knew that it was different. After months of crying in the rain (yes, I did that), waking up with anxiety and constant rumination, I decided that I needed to go to the GP to tell her that I was “crazy”. What really happened is that I burst into tears and said that I felt really sad and was seeing things (what I later learned were called intrusive images), she referred me to see a local therapist who when I got there informed me that this was the last day the service she ran would be operating. How. Unfortunate.
After some time, I went back to my GP and was referred to a psychiatrist, who later gave me a provisional diagnosis of schizophrenia (I had only seen him twice and then I probably missed an appointment and ran away to uni). After a year on anti-psychotics, incredible weight gain, not feeling any better and wondering about my diagnosis, I started to read self help books and decided to do some more research of my own.
I didn't realise how many forms OCD could take
What I found astounded me. There were so many people out there who had the same symptoms as me and were talking about it being called obsessive compulsive disorder. I knew that I had already suffered from OCD, the TV kind. The one where you repeatedly wash your hands and have to have things looking or facing a certain way unless your insides twist and knot or you’re hurting yourself or other people. I hadn’t realised that OCD came in many forms and that there were a wide range of symptoms. At university I was prescribed anti-depressants which took the edge off bulimia, depression and symptoms of OCD. At the same time, I began regularly seeing the university counsellor. I became less ashamed about speaking to mental health professionals about my symptoms and how I felt. It was never easy and it took years to get there, but I did it and a psychologist finally let me know that which I knew all along: I didn’t have schizophrenia.
When I look back, the thing that took me so long to get the help that I needed was my shame in speaking about what I was going through. Doctor or no doctor, therapist or no therapist, psychiatrist or no psychiatrist, I didn’t want even them to think that I was “crazy”. That I would inevitably end up violent and aggressive and would therefore meet a sad and pitiful end, so I did and said the bare minimum. I took medication and let the GP know how I was feeling, but I didn’t explain my intrusive thoughts and I certainly didn’t explain my intrusive images. Then there were friends that knew that I was on anti-depressants, but the word depression seemed like something people would understand more than intrusive thoughts or images in relation to OCD. Nobody understood that the reason why I didn’t want to go out was for fear of being triggered or because I felt so alone whether I was amongst my peers or not. I was harbouring a secret that I was ashamed of and shame is not conducive to self esteem or change.
The shame around mental illness isn't worth it
My shame was still ever present but it began to decrease and after 10 years I found myself less ashamed, and more willing to speak about mental health openly. Not necessarily my mental health, because I can be a private person, but mental health in general to the point where I decided that I would begin sharing mental health links via Facebook, Twitter and my blog. Now that I’m older (and therefore wiser- ha!), I think that the price of shame surrounding having or even knowing someone with mental health problems is too high a price to pay. Shame is why symptoms escalate, shame is why people don’t go to therapy, it’s the reason why people don’t tell their family and friends, shame costs lives, it leads to suicide and strange behaviours that others don’t or won’t understand, shame is what causes isolation and keeps a person harbouring a secret that should not be their sole burden to bear when professional help is available.
It has taken me so long to realise that the shame isn’t worth it. I look forward to the day where someone saying that they are going to see a psychiatrist or therapist won’t make us want to shut down the conversation, where talking and addressing the serious issue of mental health head on will feel like the rule and not the exception.