There is so much to comprehend when you receive a mental illness diagnosis. Not only do you have to learn about the illness and subsequent treatment options, you may also get exposed to stigma. Sometimes stigma is from other people and sometimes it is from yourself.
When I first learned about mental illness stigma I was about twenty years old. My mother had struggled with bipolar disorder and ended up having a psychotic episode. It didn’t take long for some family members to treat her as if she was an outcast. The invitations to gatherings ceased, as did their phone calls.
I immediately understood I wasn’t allowed to talk about her episode because I feared what people would think and say about her. It was all supposed to be a secret undermining everything that was natural about wanting to have compassion and support through a difficult time.
By the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I had experience with external stigma, but I was introduced to self-stigma. I have had to fight through many aspects of self-stigma. Sometimes I have tortured myself with tremendous shame, blame and guilt all because I now carried a “label” of bipolar disorder.
For many years I did not have a name for self-stigma. It wasn’t until I started researching mental illness that I realized I had fallen victim to the stigma cloud. All of the sudden I had an answer to why it was so difficult to accept a diagnosis, much less treatment.
The strange thing I found was it was much easier for me to support family members who had bipolar disorder than it was for me to accept it myself. It seemed as if I didn’t want to be included with a group of people who suffered with not only a mental illness, but also the prejudice and discrimination that often comes with it.
Little did I know that the number one person who was discriminating against me was looking back at me in the mirror. I had to learn and re-learn how to be kind to myself while I was learning how to manage the many symptoms of my illness.
It has taken me many years to accept my illness as something that was outside of my control. Even now there are days when I catch myself going down the, “I’m lazy path” when I experience depression symptoms. I know better now. I accept the fact that I am living with a severe illness. But even so I continue to fight the hangover effect of self-stigma.
I am almost embarrassed by how much pain and suffering I have caused myself with such negative thinking. I have beaten myself up with ruminating self-blame so much so that I probably made my depression worse at times. I know better—when you know better you do better! But it remains a fight to overcome the automatic internal control switch that tells me, “I need to get a handle on these depression symptoms. It’s my own fault I’m depressed anyhow.”
This is where the fine line between self-stigma blame and self-care begin to collide. I don’t want to blame myself, however, I do need to recognize what I can control and what I cannot. For example, “I can control being adherent with my medications. I cannot control how the medications work in my body.” “I can control what time I go to bed at night. I cannot control unwanted depressive symptoms that cause me to sleep for 16 hours.” You get the idea.
Self-stigma is sneaky. It creeps right into your mind when you least expect it. Be on the look out for unwanted thoughts that do nothing but claw away at your self-esteem and confidence. There is no reason to shame yourself for having a mental illness anymore than you would shame yourself for having cancer. Hopefully the more you are aware of self-stigma, the easier it will be to recognize. There are plenty of obstacles in the way of recovery, why not remove one you can control?