Anxiety, Depression and Shame

I was Googling JK Rowling the other day – I can’t fully remember why, but most likely it was either to look at her sassy Twitter responses or to see if I could find an interview where she finally admitted Hogwarts is actually real #stillhopingformyHogwartsletter – but anyway, I actually came across what she had to say about her experience with depression, in particular, one interview she gave in 2008 to Adeel Amini for a student newspaper in Edinburgh (I truly cannot find the original article online anywhere, or I would link it) where she said: “The funny thing is, I have never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. Never… I think I’m abnormally shameless on that account because what’s to be ashamed of?… I went through a really rough time and I’m quite proud of the fact that I got out of that.”

Upon reading this I had a total “huh” moment. You know, where you sort of stop what you’re doing, “huh” and sit back in your chair with a puzzled expression – this most commonly occurs after checking bank balances, but it can happen other times too. I realised that it had literally never occurred to me that it was possible for ME to not feel ashamed of suffering from anxiety and depression. I know I’ve written a lot, and in my life I’ve spoken out a lot, on breaking the stigma around mental health issues and about the importance of realising that anxiety and depression are illnesses and not choices, BUT, what I realised after reading the JK Rowling interview was that I think on some level a lot of what I’ve written has actually been about trying to convince myself that I have nothing to be ashamed of, despite the overwhelming feelings of shame I actually have surrounding my own illness.

Regarding other people suffering from depression or anxiety, I can honestly say that not a single part of me believes they should be ashamed of this – but my own health? Yeah, there’s a lot of shame there. The time I had a very bad panic attack whilst on holiday with my best friend and had to come home? Shame. Leaving my job because I was too ill to function in the work place? Shame. Every time I’ve missed an event, every time I’ve cried at the wrong time, every phone call I couldn’t answer and every friendship I’ve been unable to maintain? Shame.

I think part of the problem, particularly when you’ve been fighting anxiety and depression for a long time, is that you start to lose track of what’s illness and what’s personality flaws. What “can’t” I do and what “won’t” I do. Did I not reply to that text because I couldn’t face holding a conversation, or did I not reply because I’m lazy? Did I not eat today because I couldn’t cope with the idea of putting something in my body, or because I was subconsciously punishing myself? It can be really hard to pick a way through and find the answers, to know when to chastise yourself, and when to be kind to yourself. Undoubtedly part of my problem is that, by nature, I don’t like the idea that I’ve “misbehaved” and so if I’ve missed a call or skipped an event, rather than take time to listen to my body and my mind as to what’s going on, I just chastise myself every time. Just to be sure.

Also, I think the feeling of shame is quite deep-rooted in me: as a child, my anxiety interfered with my ability to go to, or to stay at school on an often daily basis. My parents, understandably, felt my attendance in school was important and so that was my goal in a day, to go to, and to last the day in school. Needless to say, on the days where I didn’t manage to do this: I essentially failed. Now of course, sometimes this is the case with panic attacks, that we try our best and we’re wiped out nevertheless, but the important thing is to not beat ourselves up and to keep trying, right? Well I did, I did keep trying – through school, college, University and adulthood, I have tried and sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. But despite all of this, and all the theoretical awareness I have of “not beating myself up”, when I think back to my school days and having those panic attacks, all I feel is shame. If I try really hard to put myself back there, I can feel the fear and the worry, but mostly it’s just shame. It’s the look in my parents’ eyes when they pick me up from school, it’s the crying in my room knowing that I’ve let people down, and it’s the teasing from the kids in the playground the next day. I’ve definitely been conditioned by the world around me, and conditioned myself to feel ashamed of my mental health issues.

But they say that acknowledging a problem is the first step in solving it, and while there was a part of me that was ashamed to write this post today (oh look, there’s shame again – I actually only spotted that choice in wording when I read this post back) because I suppose I feel like a bit of a hypocrite: encouraging other people to be kind to themselves while I’m over here mentally attacking myself for having the audacity to have to modify my life because of an illness, I still felt this was important to write. I’ve become so used to having an almost defiant knee-jerk response of, “it’s an illness not a choice” when questioned about my mental illness – I’ve become so used to practically shouting that outwards – that I think at some point I forgot that the dialogue I have with myself is actually more important than the words I use with other people. It’s all fine and well holding my head high in public and knowing how I want mental illness to come to be understood in the world, but it’s all a bit meaningless if behind closed doors I’m hanging my head in shame and hoping nobody notices.

Life is a journey and we are all constantly changing and growing, so my discovering these deep-seated feelings of shame is a good thing, ultimately. Now that I’m aware this is happening, I can tune in to my mental dialogue and start gently, but firmly making some changes in there. While it is painful to go back and relive memories of the childhood shame, being able to bring them to conscious levels and work on the feelings of embarrassment and guilt that come up, is a huge step in the forward direction.

Anxiety and depression are illnesses, not choices and please don’t let anyone – especially yourself – make you feel otherwise.