this week i had the privilege to perform the below piece, entitled “shame on you” in this is my brave – a show written and presented by advocates dedicated to ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. we shared our true personal stories through poetry, essay and dance. as soon as the video is available i will share it. as always, thank you for reading. stay strong and be brave.
how do we learn the language of shame?
i don’t recall taking a test on shame. i don’t remember sitting down with my parents to discuss it or being taught about shame in school. but somehow, somewhere along the way we pick up on shame and start carrying it with us wherever we go.
think about when shame first started.
i remember my first lesson in shame. i lost my father to suicide when i was 13 years old. he killed himself in our own home and i was the first to find him. at that time i didn’t know that he had struggled with depression for years. i didn’t know that he and my mom, in quiet desperation, had been grasping to get him help. i didn’t really know what depression was or what getting help for depression even meant. all i knew was that my dad was gone. and the way he left us seemed bad, really bad.
i was just a kid but i felt shame burning me up inside. shame that my father had left. shame that he had killed himself. shame that my family, my life was now so broken. and my shame was nothing compared to my father’s shame. afraid of appearing weak, of being a burden to others. too ashamed to ask for help, to even talk. he ended his own life, in the middle of the night, alone. my heart breaks for the depth of his shame.
as i staggered forward, reeling from the trauma and the grief, i began to live the language of shame. i absorbed shame when the word “suicide” was mentioned not once at my dad’s funeral, and his cause of death was changed in his obituary. i learned how to change my story, desperate to avoid the discomfort of mentioning suicide. i learned how to cry in secret. i learned how to put on a happy face, afraid to show the sadness and fear that never seemed to go away.
i got my second lesson in shame when i was diagnosed with depression at the age of 21. having lost a parent to suicide, i was terrified to be labeled as “mentally ill.” so, along with my grief, i hid my depression too. i was too afraid to speak my truth out loud because that would have made it real. shame and denial go hand-in hand. and the three of us became very good friends.
so for 20 years i carried the shame of my father’s suicide inside of me. and for ten years i carried the shame of my diagnosis. two years ago i got my third lesson in shame when it exploded everywhere in my life. the weight of holding it all in made me stumble, and fall, and fall and fall. i plunged into a mental health crisis that lasted a year and a half. i was in and out of a psychiatric hospital. every aspect of my life was turned upside down by severe depression, anxiety and ptsd. i couldn’t work, i couldn’t socialize, i couldn’t complete the most basic tasks.
and there was one more thing i couldn’t do anymore: i couldn’t hide.
getting so sick brought my past trauma and my present illness out into the open and the pain came shooting to the surface. i was faced with a choice: how do i go on? hide and deny or change and accept? something inside of me knew. it was time. my body was telling me, my mind was telling me: you deserve to recover, you deserve to heal. no more, amy, no more shame on you.
how do you unlearn the language of shame? i don’t know but i think it goes something like this:
doug mcdowell, dad, i am not ashamed of you.
amy mcdowell marlow, i am not ashamed of me.
i live with mental illness and i am not sorry.
i am not guilty.
i am not crazy.
i am unbroken.
i am worthy.
i am a survivor.
and i am not ashamed.