Interview Fourteen: Unlearning Shame and Self-Blame
“Having a community of people who experience mental illness is so important for those who experience it. Because without it, a lot of times I felt like I was going through something that was completely abnormal. Why was I thinking this way? Why was I feeling this way? Why couldn’t I just shape up and go back to being a normal person? It’s like, well… it’s a little more complicated than that.”
[Content Warning: Descriptions of Rape, Discussions of Suicide, Self Harm, and Dermatillomania]
Reading Time – 11 minutes
Family and Mental Illness
Mental illness is something that sort of followed me for my entire life. My dad is mentally ill… he has bipolar disorder. So, of course, that is something that has been influencing me… pretty much since I was born. When I was 13 or 14… I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, dermatillomania, mild OCD. I also have a physical, chronic illness.
It was frustrating at the time, because my sister was also dealing with a lot of serious mental illness problems… self harm and other things like that. I’ve always noticed a very large difference between my sister and I in how we deal with our mental illness. She’s very loud about it. You know, she does really outrageous things to try and get attention, like, “I’m having a problem! I need help!” She’ll act out, and I’m very much the opposite. I tend to close inwards… I don’t say anything, and I don’t tell anyone. So that’s why for such a long time it went unnoticed by my family. They were so busy focusing on making sure my sister and my dad were okay, they didn’t even think to consider that I might have problems myself.
The Struggle of Staying Silent
For me, I didn’t want to be a trouble child. My sister was kind of the trouble child, causing a lot of drama… always having to go to the hospital and see doctors. I didn’t want to be that, because I knew my mom was already having a difficult time trying to control my sister and her illnesses, while also trying to deal with my dad’s illnesses, which were pretty out of control at the time too. I didn’t want to be a burden, so I consciously decided not to say anything.
It eventually go to a point where I had to say something, because I just couldn’t deal with feeling suicidal and things like that… I had that moment of… “Okay, this is enough. I can’t deal with this myself anymore. I’m sorry, mom, I really need your help!” I was about 15 at the time, and it was really difficult for me to be able to do that. For so many years, I was like, “I need to be the good child. I need to be the easy child.”
Making the Distinction Between Mental Illness and Bad Behavior
I confided in my mom, because I don’t really have the best relationship with my dad or my sister. But, of course, my mom had to tell them what was going on, because I was starting to see doctors and take medication. My dad didn’t manage his mental illness very well… he didn’t seek treatment, he went off his medication for months at a time… for someone with severe bipolar disorder, he was extremely suicidal a lot of the time. He was just… very violent. Not towards us directly, but he would hit things, kick things… and he was very emotionally manipulative towards us. Now, I’ve learned to block it out.
The way he acts doesn’t have anything to do with his mental illness. That’s just who he is as a person. I hold nothing against him for being mentally ill, but it’s the fact that he treated me, my mom, and my sister so poorly… that even to this day I just can’t have a good relationship with him. Those things have nothing to do with each other… you can be a poisonous person without being mentally ill. It doesn’t matter.
My dad has also tended to play down my own experiences with mental illness, just because he thinks of his as being more severe, more troubling… I remember when I was first diagnosed with anxiety, he sort of blew it off… “Oh, well you’re in high school. You’re under a lot of stress. You’re doing things all the time. It’ll pass. You don’t have anxiety.” That was seven years ago, and here I am! I still have anxiety. That was extremely frustrating… feeling like you’re dealing with mental illness, but you can’t seem to empathize with anyone else’s experience of mental illness.
Explaining Mental Illness to Neurotypicals
My mother was better about my mental illness, because she’s a high school counselor. She has a lot of experience dealing with people my age that have depression or anxiety… but, she never experienced it herself. So there are a lot of things I know she can never really understand. Like, my problems with dermatillomania… she doesn’t get it. Self harm… she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t seem to understand why someone would do something physically to relieve a mental problem. I’ve tried to explain things to her, but it’s hard. I can’t really talk to anyone at home. Whenever I talk to my mom, she just wants to fix everything. It’s like, “I don’t need you to do anything! I just need you to listen to what I’m saying.”
Of course, anytime I date anyone for any amount of time, it has to come up. It’s part of who I am. It’s not the core of who I am… it doesn’t define who I am, but it’s important. I notice, especially with men, it definitely creates a bit of fear, because they aren’t sure what to expect. They have this idea in their heads of, “Oh, she has anxiety and depression… she’s going to go off the wall!” I encourage people to ask me questions. I’ve gotten past the point of getting offended when people ask me questions, you know? If you’re offended by a question and you can’t communicate how you feel about it, then there’s never going to be any increase of understanding with you and the other person. If someone is willing to listen, I’ve found that I can form very healthy relationships that way.
Dermatillomania, at least in my experience, is a habitual, obsessive behavior of picking at my skin, rubbing my skin, pulling my skin, especially on my face or on my chest… just having this constant need to dig at your skin. For me, it’s partially a way to relieve anxiety. If I’m anxious, if I do something repetitive, it gets my mind off of it. Also, this feeling of dirtiness… of being unclean… I feel like I need to pick the dirt out of my skin, because I feel filthy if I don’t do that.
That’s where the OCD component of it comes in, because if I feel like my skin isn’t perfectly clear, I have dead skin, I have acne, whatever… that I’m dirty. I’m dirty. I have to dig it out. I’m scratching and picking my skin to the point where I have scars… red marks. It’s a compulsive behavior. I know it’s harmful. I know it’s something I shouldn’t do. I know it’s not good for my skin. But it’s very difficult for me to stop myself from doing it.
I have little things that can relieve the urge. Sometimes I’ll put glue on things, let it dry, then pick that off. Sometimes I’ll cut my nails really short, so I can’t do it anymore. I also try to use more skin products that are actually good for my skin… that will make me feel a little less dirty, like my skin’s more healthy. But I’m still struggling to find good coping mechanisms. I haven’t really found anything that works for me all the time yet.
Carrying Other People’s Baggage
I’ve dated some people that were also mentally ill in the past. The one guy in particular… he had PTSD, because he grew up in an active war zone. He had a lot of trauma from that. I remember at the time I was unmedicated, I had just discovered that I was mentally ill, and I still thought that everything he did was my fault. He wouldn’t talk to me for days on end, blow me off. It didn’t register that he was mentally ill, and that it was different than my mental illness.
I found out about my mental illness around the same time my parents divorced. I remember my dad would blame me for our relationship problems. He would say it was my fault that we had a bad relationship and that I didn’t want to speak to him. I had to realize that I have my own issues, and his issues were not my issues. I didn’t have to carry his baggage anymore, because I have baggage of my own. It’s being able to place responsibility where it should be placed, and not taking on more responsibility than is actually your responsibility. Even people who aren’t mentally ill have that problem. It’s very difficult to let it go.
Disability, Asexuality, and Relationship Trauma
I consider myself to be a minority within a minority, because I’m physically and mentally disabled… and I’m also asexual. I started identifying as asexual two years ago. At the time I was in a relationship with someone, and it was a sexual relationship. At first I thought it was because I was depressed that I didn’t want to do anything sexual… and he would get angry with me, blame me, say, “Oh, you don’t know how difficult it is to go so long without anything!” Very manipulative. For a while, of course, I was blaming myself… I just didn’t know why, and I thought something was wrong with me.
I actually experienced abuse before this with someone else… I had a non-consensual experience… and my therapist thought that maybe I was still processing that. But I found that it really was beyond any fear, any anxiety related to past experiences… I just had zero interest. He would guilt me and manipulate me into doing sexual things with him. It took me a long time to figure out that it was rape. After my friend helped me figure out that I was asexual, it was hard to tell him. It felt like it was just another thing that was wrong with me… that I’m broken somehow, that I’m not a human or a person. I talked to him for a while after that, until it hit me that this person was abusive to me.
Challenges in College Life
My freshman year was extremely difficult. I am someone who needs my own space, and I can’t function if I don’t have my own space. Freshman year, I got placed in a triple dorm with two people I didn’t know… it was a room with three beds in it. It was awful. They just ignored me and did what they wanted. Every room had a TV in it, so they would stay up watching game shows until 3am, or they would invite people to stay over for nights on end without asking me.
It was stressful, because I felt like I didn’t have any space that was mine… where I could exist within my own limits and take care of myself. I kept breaking down… I’d have trouble getting up in the morning and getting to class. I was so tired all the time. I never felt rested, because I was constantly surrounded by other people. Eventually I got transferred to a single in Holland, and that was a lot better.
Other than that, I’ve found that college has been really wonderful for me. It was like a breath of fresh air compared to my life at home. I can go out when I like, be alone when I want, be with people when I want… I can make choices about what I want to do every day.
Experiencing Taking Emergency Anxiety Medication
As far as benzodiazepines, I’ve actually never had a problem with these medications. I have very bad insomnia, and I also have restless leg syndrome, so I tend to take them to help me sleep. I also take them if I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. I’ve found them extremely helpful. I don’t think I could function nearly as well without them. I understand people’s concerns about the addictive nature… I’m on klonopin, it’s a little bit different. It’s been really useful for me, and I need it to function, but sometimes I go days without using it, and I’m fine. But if I’m having a period of time where my symptoms are really bad, it’s great to have that backup. I have positive, healthy boundaries with it.
Access to Medication and Treatment in College
The problem is… my psychiatrist is back in New York, and she wants to see me next month to refill my prescriptions, but I’ll still be in school. I’m trying to find a psychiatrist here, so I don’t have to go home. Pitt Student Health didn’t have a psychiatrist when I tried to find one… it’s a really big issue. I’m not sure if they even found someone yet.
The counseling center here is sort of a disaster right now. They’ve been cutting down the number of sessions students can have per semester… I think it’s down to eight? And if your illness is deemed too severe, they refer you elsewhere. Counselors keep leaving, and it doesn’t seem like they are very well equipped to deal with problems related to mental illness. It feels like their education is very generalized… not specific. The only thing that’s been consistent is the group counseling, and I think that’s because they can treat multiple students all at once.
Shame and Doing Your Best
I’ve definitely experienced shame. I’m someone who tends to internalize things heavily. I tend to blame myself for things that are completely out of my control, especially when it comes to the behaviors and responses of other people to my own problems. It’s something I’ve really only been able to overcome through counseling and through having healthy relationships with other people who have experienced similar things. Having a community of people who experience mental illness is so important for those who experience it. Because without it, a lot of times I felt like I was going through something that was completely abnormal. Why was I thinking this way? Why was I feeling this way? Why couldn’t I just shape up and go back to being a normal person? It’s like, well… it’s a little more complicated than that.
The attitude I try to adopt is… I am doing the best I can, every day. And if my best isn’t the same as someone else’s best, then who cares? It would kill me if I tried to be externally competitive. I am involved in student government board and stuff like that, and I just see all of these overachievers around me that have three page long resumes and have done everything you could possibly do in college… and I’m just not that. I wanted to be that for a long time… I wanted to be that person, but I can’t. And I’ve had to come to terms with that… and it’s okay.
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