“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin-
Nothing is simple when it comes to mental illness — there are no easy answers, no political slogans, no webcomics or awareness campaigns that can encompass the full and difficult reality of living with a mental condition.
Yet the truth is that many of us, and many of those we love, live their lives in fear of their own minds. We live in terror of the idea, the possibility, that we are damaged goods, incapable of bringing anything but pain and shame to ourselves and those around us.
I believe that no one “goes crazy” on their own — that we live in a society that is crazy-making in its capacity for trauma, denial, and rejection of its own complicity in the creation of disturbed and violent individuals.
If everyone had access to security and healthcare, if our social systems were more open to diversity of psychological experience and expression, I truly doubt that mental illness as we know it would exist.
This is what we must strive for: a greater understanding of how social oppression and intergenerational trauma breed violence and more trauma. We must come to the realization that everyone exists on a spectrum of mental health and illness, and that no one lives without being affected in some way by the “illness” side of the scale.
Let’s focus on the ways in which oppressive social forces such as poverty, racism and systemic violence, as well as personal traumas like child abuse and neglect, are actually responsible for creating and maintaining the symptoms of mental illnesses.
Finally, we must learn to recognize, and love the madness we find within ourselves so that we might better hold and heal the madness we encounter in the world.
Once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We supply it on their behalf. We assume others are disappointed in us, even those we love. We fill in the blanks between us and others with the most damaging possible messages; even when those messages are not their intention at all. It is this willingness, this need to fill the blanks with self-condemnation and shame, that can collapse relationships and destroy marriages. It leads to all manner of self-destructive behaviors. Shame fuels itself, becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy. And no one, no matter how kind or supportive they are, can sustain support for someone who has succumbed to the voice of shame.
Shame strips us of our natural sense of self-preservation and replaces it with a willingness to do anything to get off the arbitrary and hateful hot seat as defined by whatever bully might seek to shame us. Some children see their parents that way. Its a chilling thought and should give us all pause.
For adults, shame can be about everything; our sexual selves, our failures, our imperfect bodies, our difficult pasts, our losses, the relentless litany of our regrets. Shame can leech the joy out of life. It is a loop of self-destructive internal dialogues that blind us to what is good and magical and strong in us. Shame is a sure fire recipe for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, alienation and despair.
Now for the good news! There is a simple and powerful answer for dealing with humanity’s culture of shame: TALK ABOUT IT.
Shame is deeply personal. We can not know what others might view as shaming unless we talk with them about it. And this includes our friends, wives, husbands, parents and children.
Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes. This is the first step to creating a culture of discovery and compassion.