The Power of Shame
By Jessie Close
Let me count the ways…
I have been ashamed of my behavior, am still ashamed of my medicated and overweight body, am still ashamed of having to tell friends that I can’t stay out late because I have to get my meds into me or I won’t sleep all night. Let’s see, what else –
I think that basically I have been ashamed of myself for most of my manic/depressed life. I wasn’t properly diagnosed and medicated until I was 50. That’s a lot of shame! I’m now 63 and no longer ashamed of my present day life. Sometimes I wish I could drink but know just where that would lead and it wouldn’t be good.
Sometimes I wish I could stay out late but know that I have to get my meds into my system or I won’t sleep all night. I even tested staying up all night when I was traveling to speak at a mental health conference – I didn’t get to a hotel room until 2am in the morning. I had to be up to catch a plane by 5am and knew that if I took my meds I wouldn’t be able to meet that 5am deadline. I thought I could sleep for a couple of hours without my medications. Nope. I was up all the rest of that night. The secret pleasure I got out of being up all night for the first time in a long time fed my desire to be manic again, for real. The next night I had to re-visit where my mania had taken me before I was given medications and the meds won.
That review wasn’t uplifting! I recalled always having to have 2 men strung along, not knowing about each other, fulfilling my grandmother’s announcement that I was nymph-manic. I remember that once, when I was in my early twenties, a pair of those men met each other and I wanted to sink into the ground: my shame was so intense I wished to sink into the earth and be covered by dirt. I didn’t know how to stop myself and would soon recruit two more lovers.
I remembered that awful feeling when the mania was getting old and the pressure inside my body had built to such an extent that all I wanted was a bit of peace. At that point I would reach for some serious alcohol to bring me down. And that it did, for an evening maybe. Then I would start all over again. And again. And again. The pressure would cause me to become mean to whomever was around. Once I came down from the mania I would be horribly ashamed, apologetic. After a while the adult people in my life would finally walk away.
My daughter, Mattie, was eight when I sobered up. She took me into our bathroom when I was about a week sober. She said, “Mommy, you were so much more fun when you drank!” I daresay I was, but I don’t think she was thinking of the times when I lied to her and told her I had the flu when in reality I was sick from alcohol. My behavior those days was a violent mixture of mania, depression and alcohol. I would not want to relive those days. I was ashamed of who I was and ashamed of my inability to stop being who I was.
When I finally went to the hospital and was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder I was relieved that there was a reason for my lousy behavior but, I still felt ashamed. It’s difficult to live a life permeated with bad behavior and then all of a sudden be told that you have a brain disorder. WHAT?? No, that was ME who made those decisions! Why has it taken so long to figure this out? What is me and what is my disorder?
It’s taken me a long time to stop beating myself up, to stop the shame. Shame is a powerful emotion and it had me on my knees for too many years. I still cringe when I think of some of those behaviors. But I’m not like that anymore. Thank God! Thank modern medications and my family and the friends who didn’t desert me. I wish I could have the ups with no downs but it doesn’t work that way.
I encourage anyone with a mental illness who is carrying shame to let it go, like a helium balloon, and then you’re free.