I’ve wanted to talk about shame for a while, for shame and mental health tend to walk hand-in-hand, yet I haven’t known how to address it. I think it’s safe to say that everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition or illness has also experienced the ‘shame’ that comes along with it and it is this which I want to talk about today, for I no longer believe in shame. Uh-uh, not a bit.
My history with mental health goes back over ten years, prompted by a violent incident in a park and escalated by years of abuse (which I speak about here, if you’re interested: The Adult Looking Back). The earliest memories I have regarding my mental state at the time (depression and anxiety, FTW) pertained to how my mother reacted to it and her default reaction was that of shame. It wasn’t outward or deliberate. This was 2006. Despite only being twelve years ago, the world has moved forward rapidly, as anyone born before the millennium can tell you. But back in 2006, mental health wasn’t spoken about in public in any kind fashion. Cruel words were tossed about far more frequently than they are nowadays. If someone heard you had a mental health condition, they assumed ‘the men in white jackets’ were on their way. I still hate that phrase to this day. Henceforth my mother decided that my diagnosis would stay ‘in the family’ and the given reason for my rapid change in mood was ‘stress’. The exam period at school was coming up and I was under a lot of ‘stress’.
Good friends, I was not merely stressed. I was suicidal. I was a fourteen year-old planning the quickest and easiest way to die. But even the mention of suicide doesn’t shock people into kindness. It didn’t then and, sadly, it doesn’t now. If mental health walks hand-in-hand with shame then suicide and the word ‘selfish’ are best buddies. I cannot tell you how many disagreements I’ve had with misinformed people who believe suicidal people are just selfish.
My mother didn’t even want to talk about suicide. It wasn’t something she was comfortable with (still isn’t) and as such, she didn’t want it in her world. That part of me was so shameful it couldn’t even be spoken aloud.
But depression and anxiety are not the only the mental health conditions I have suffered from. There are three beings in my marriage; my husband, myself and my good old friend, OCD. OCD and I have been trotting along through life together for many, many years. For several of those years, OCD disguised itself so I wouldn’t recognise it was there. It’s a marvellous shape-shifter. It still catches me out these days, even though I know what its ugly face looks like.
You’ve no doubt heard of OCD, with your earliest hearing of it pertaining to people who wash their hands too much (me) or who have to check the door a thousand times before leaving the house (also me). Unlike other mental health conditions that’ve only been making appearances in public conversation in recent years, OCD is well established. People have been talking about being “a little OCD” for years. It’s become an excuse for someone’s extreme cleanliness or any odd habits. “It’s just my OCD!” In fact, people are so comfortable with OCD they laugh it off when I tell them I have it and insist that I don’t.
I will write a post about my OCD in full, so fear not if you’re interested in that story. I want to show you a snapshot of a time in my life when OCD was not at its worst, but gaining momentum: The house was old, there was bound to be lead in the paint. The paint would kill my baby. Had my husband washed the cups up properly with a fresh sponge and dried them with a clean tea towel? Actually, did he remember to hang the tea towels inside so no bugs could get on them and make me ill? Did I actually shut the fridge door or did I only think I did? If I hadn’t, the food inside wouldn’t be fit to eat and I’d have to go without. But if I went without, the baby would go without, too, and maybe it would die! But if I ate the bad food, I’d get ill…and the baby could die! I could go to the shop but then I’d have to go on the germ-riddled bus and touch germ-riddled money and how could I wash my hands before getting back into the house? Everything I’d touch – my bag, my keys, the door handle – would be contaminated! I’d have to disinfectant everything! But then I’d have to touch the cleaning products and what if inhaling their odours hurt my baby?
I hope you can tell, via that small inset of thirty seconds in my brain, how easy it is for OCD to spiral completely out of control. You’ve probably noticed that I try to fix things; the food is bad, buy more. The door is contaminated, clean it. The cleaning products are dangerous…the next step would be to ask my husband to clean it, then himself and throw the towels into the washing bin. But occasionally the situation could not be fixed. Once I ate half a sandwich without realising the bread had started to go mouldy and fell into a depressive state, convinced I was going to lose my baby. OCD latches on to what you fear most and, during that period of my life, it was miscarriage/stillbirth and after she was born, it became SIDs. OCD is a shape-shifter and, if you don’t recognise it for what it is, because it is clever, it becomes an instigator of shame. I was terribly ashamed of myself. I considered myself to be a relatively intelligent woman, so why was I convinced that a tea towel could hurt me? Why didn’t I trust myself to close a fridge like I did every day? Why didn’t I realise that it was all in my head? I was so ashamed of myself that I decided others would be ashamed of me, too, and refrained from telling anyone my problem. But the time the problem was realised and addressed and I was sitting down to my first therapy session, it was five days before my due date.
Shame has accompanied my mental health every step of the way and, frankly, I’m fed up of it. I do not feel ashamed by my past or by the mental health issues created. I’m at a place in my life where I feel the time is right to own them. I like to tell my stories not because I am looking for pity (I cannot abide the idea of pity) or sympathy but because it allows me to own them. My mental health took as readily as it gave. While my mind fought to protect itself, sacrifices were made along the way. I missed out on opportunities I could have taken, places I could have seen and people I could have met. Of all that is on Earth, time is the most irretrievable and the most bitterly lost. But as those experiences were lost, I was saved and for that, I will be forever grateful.
Back when I was fourteen and researching suicide, I came across a page no doubt many of you have encountered. It told me to stop and to think. It pointed out all the things in life that I likely hadn’t experienced, from trivial things like my favourite ever song to the love of my life. Potential was out there, but only if I stayed around long enough to let it find me. I hold that memory very close to my heart and am eternally grateful to the person who created that page. It allowed me to accept that, yes, this was my life now and these things were happening, but everything in life is temporary and I will see the sun rise again. I prayed for strength every night and, as is clear, I did not die one night in 2006. Nor any day in 2008, when I tried again, or in 2016, when I so desperately believed that my baby deserved far better than me.
I could easily banish those years, hell that entire decade, to the dark corner of my mind where bad stuff tends to gravitate, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided to embrace my past. What happened happened and led me to where I am now. I am not ashamed that I was swallowed by a depression prompted by years of abuse. I am not ashamed that OCD ate up the best parts of my pregnancy and the first year of my child’s life. These dark plights upon my record are mine to own and own them I do.
My name is Lola Deelay. I have experienced depression, anxiety, suicidal inclinations, PTSD and OCD, these are my stories to tell and I am not ashamed.