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“Mental illness de-stigmatization” has become a buzzword, and a lot of progress has been made in separating mental illness from old connotations like “weakness” and “craziness,” in the public’s eye at least. But for someone suffering with depression, self-imposed stigma is hard to cast off, and the shame it engenders often leads to dishonesty.
Self-imposed stigma, less than outside stigma, emerges less from a diagnosis of mental illness and more from the symptoms of the disorder itself. In the pessimistic, guilt-based cognitive processes of someone with this illness, symptoms of depression look a lot like character flaws.
Irritability due to diminished serotonin looks like irritability due to diminished self-control.
Lack of motivation looks a lot like laziness. Depressed mood looks a lot like pouting. Loosing hope looks a lot like weak faith.
Because many types of depression are hard to treat and relapses are common, the stigma tends to increase over time. After we have gone to therapy, started medication, seen experts, researched and implemented lifestyle changes, etc., we tend to assume any remaining symptoms are inherent character flaws, not signs treatment isn’t complete yet or we just need a little more time to reprogram some of the patterns established during periods of suffering.
Furthermore, we are willing to let go of guilt the first time we suffer, but the third, fourth, or fifth time we find ourselves depressed again, we start to exhaust our self-compassion. At the same time, we begin to believe we shouldn’t “double dip” in others’ compassion either. Out of this guilt, a deep sense of shame emerges.
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Shame and dishonesty interact in a vicious cycle that isolates us with our skewed perspective of the truth.
Terrified to let anyone see the things we are ashamed of, we refuse to present an honest version of ourselves to the world which leaves us with no voices of reason to correct our beliefs about ourselves.
The only way out of the cycle of self-stigma, shame, and dishonesty is vulnerability. We must begin to find people we trust and stop hiding the truth from them.
When we feel the start of a relapse, we need to reach out for help and tell our support team what is going on inside of us. When we start to lose hope again, we need to be honest about it with someone who can walk us through the struggle. When we make bad decisions in recovery, we need to admit them to someone who can help us get back on track. When we experience shame, we need to release it to someone who can help us see things correctly.
We don’t need to open up to everybody, but we must find at least one person to be completely honest with.
We need it for our recovery, but we also need it for our mental health in general. We need it because intimacy depends on honesty, and true health depends on intimacy, love, and friendship.
When we first begin the process of honesty, it can be helpful to find ways to make it easier. For example, it may be easiest to write a letter to your support team. It may be easier to use resources such as books, websites, articles, or documentaries to start a conversation. Furthermore, it may be less frightening to discuss your struggles with your therapist first and then have them help you tell your loved ones in a family-therapy session.
It isn’t easy to reach out and be honest, but we need to continually remind ourselves of the things we are escaping and the things we are running to when beginning to be honest in recovery.
In the long-term, every moment of intimacy, support and love is well worth the moments of fear and shame associated with being honest and vulnerable.
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