There’s nothing more interesting than unique brains getting together to converse. When I joined a mental health support group, I basked in the calm peaceful environment, got to laugh at the hilariousness of everyday life, and saw my struggles reflected in others. One memory stands out. There were five of us sitting in a circle. There was a new guy, wrinkles, plaid shirt, wearing shorts in the fall. He had mud on his shoes and callouses on his hand from a lifetime outdoors. He told us his story. “When I was five. I was sitting in the hallway and my grandmother caught me staring off into space, she said I hope you are not talking to yourself, that would make you crazy”. He went on with his story, but I couldn’t forget the beginning. He now sat in front of me, decades later with his shoulders hunched. Shame.
I went home and looked up his condition. Confirmed, it was not his fault. The next week I brought the textbook excited to let him know the good news. It was not his fault. I showed him the page. He smiled, he was familiar with his own condition. I had come to free him from his prison of shame, I thought I had the key, but in my eagerness, had not taken a closer look at the door. There was no lock on the door. Splendid. There was no way anyone would want to stay here, and no way anyone deserved to be here. I sat down next to him on the bench and he was no longer an old man but a five-year-old boy, with fresh mud on his knees, he leaned in and told me, “My grandmother told me to stay here”. The textbook was useless. His grandma was the one who had drawn his baths after days of playing in the field. He loved his grandma so much, he had stayed where she had instructed for 40 years. I reached in to hug him and as I leaned in, I realized my shoulders were hunched. I looked down at my outfit and I was not an angel with wings, I had an orange jumpsuit with numbers across the front. I was a prisoner too. How long had I been here? Today wasn’t the day my friend was breaking out, it was my day.
I remembered what I wanted to tell my friend, it wasn’t his fault, he was a fascinating, fun person and it was time to bounce out of this prison ASAP. I went to the therapy sessions with a new determination. I allowed myself to let the feeling of shame that was buried deep, bubble up the surface, and fully experience it. I recalled the people and early experiences that had impacted my self-perception. The therapist compared mental health issues to having diabetes, when I thought of it like that, it didn’t seem as life-defining. I began to open-up to close friends and receive more reassurance, and reminders of positive characteristics and past accomplishments I had. I made a conscience effort to lift my shoulders. I was on a mission. One day I was going back to tell my friends the truth: It’s not your fault, you’re a fascinating fun person and it’s time to bounce out of this prison ASAP.