When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety over 10 years ago, I had no idea what it was. I knew I felt low and sad and numb and empty, common experiences of those who suffer with depression and anxiety, but I also felt this overwhelming feeling of shame.
I was ashamed that I was ill and all the things I believed these illnesses said about me. From somewhere, I got the idea that I couldn't tell people I was ill. Part of that was the illness itself, working it's evil spell over me, making me believe I was useless and a failure. I knew that you just didn't talk about these things.
No one wants to talk about shame. That invisible, but powerful, hot feeling that washes over you when you truly believe you do not deserve the love and connection with others around you. The shame of having a mental illness hung round me like a thick fog, clouding my perception of the world and the people in it. I felt worthless and unworthy.
It was that feeling, the disconnection from the person I was and the people I knew and the world I lived in before my illness, that magnified the shame and left me feeling isolated and alone. I withdrew from friends, family, even my husband to a certain extent, desperately wanting to hide all the dark thoughts and emotions I was experiencing. I didn't want to disappoint them. I didn't want to fall short of their expectations. I didn't want them to confirm to me what I already believed about myself.
"Reaching out to people and having them reach out to me was a huge part of my recovery. It isn't until someone reaches out to you and shows you empathy that you realise all of this is going to be OK."
As I began to recover, I realised that there was so much stigma in my life and that I was a huge part of that. I had spent so many years trying to hide what was going on from the people closest to me. I feared their rejection, so I disconnected myself before they had a chance to do it. My misguided attempt to protect myself had done the opposite of what I intended.
In 2015 I took the step of starting to talk about my experience of mental illness by becoming a Time To Change Wales Champion. As I listened to others talk about their experiences, recognising myself in their stories, I realised that I had been going about this all the wrong way. The fear of feeling so vulnerable as I spoke about my experience began to dissolve as I told my story. The more I talked about it, the more people reached out to me to offer their support and to tell me about their experiences. The more this happened, the more connected I felt with the people in my life and with the world around me.
Vulnerability is the antidote to all of that shame I felt. Reaching out to people and having them reach out to me was a huge part of my recovery. It isn't until someone reaches out to you and shows you empathy that you realise all of this is going to be ok. In the moments when I could not be kind to myself, when I could not cut myself a break from all the demands and all the expectations, reaching out to people I knew would understand and could empathise with me was such a relief.
A person who empathises doesn't judge you, no matter how terrible a person you think you are. They don't try and tell you others have got it worse. They won't smile and nod and when you leave, laugh at you or think you’re weird. They walk alongside you and try to understand what you are going through. Now, with my recovery from depression and anxiety growing stronger and stronger by the day, I feel that I am in a place to return that empathy to other people who are struggling with their mental health. I no longer retreat into myself and hide my experiences away. I reach out to people, just a text or a call, sometimes just going to see a friend who’s not feeling well rather than avoiding them, because I know the power that connection can have and I want to pass that on.
If you would like to write a blog post about your experiences of stigma or related issues, email firstname.lastname@example.org