Let’s talk about shame. *awkward but necessary*
This Ted Talk deconstructs shame and how it is the driving force behind depression and mental health issues. Shame is the “swampland of the soul” and Brown says we need to put our galoshes on and walk into it. I don’t know about you, but walking into the swampland doesn’t sound fun or clean or like a good use of my time. However, I spend a lot of my time looking into the swampland wishing it didn’t exist. Like A LOT of time.
Brown points out the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt: I’m sorry, I made a mistake.
Shame: I’m sorry, I am a mistake.
I’ve spent a while marinating in this idea. Often, if we feel guilt and apologize, we feel better. However, shame is this whole other monster that is consuming and you can’t simply apologize for who you are. Brown talks about conquering shame with vulnerability and empathy.
So, I’m about to be vulnerable and hope you can be empathetic:
I’m entering the swampland of shame:
I was a fourth grade teacher and I had 30+ students in my class. I was also attending grad school and barely making ends meet in Oklahoma. My mental health took a backseat while I compared myself to every other teacher in the building. There were other teachers who were attending grad school and even had kids at home and I thought, “If they can do it, I should be able to do this.”
I spent long hours at work and at home working- grading papers, researching curriculum, spending my own money on my classroom and fun projects, spent hours communicating with parents (even talked on the phone with parents who needed help on homework at night), and spent nights trying to fall asleep worrying about my kiddos. However, students were failing. Therefore, I was failing as a teacher. There was pushback from parents saying that I didn’t care enough or do enough for their kids, but it was simply because I had too many kids in the class to pull through. So, something had to give. And what gave was my mental health. My thought continued to be: “Everyone else is doing it. Why can’t I?”
Brown talks about how shame makes you believe you’re not good enough and if you talk yourself out of that one, “who do you think you are?”
This was me. Pulling it together. Barely holding it together until I broke.
Something happened in my personal life and the shit hit the fan. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m having a mental breakdown. I’m having a mental breakdown.”
My best friend, Grace, was almost an hour away visiting her boyfriend and asked if I needed her to come home. I told her “yes.” When she arrived, I wasn’t myself and I told her I needed to go to the hospital. I wasn’t even crying. I was completely calm but not in my right mind.
She drove me to the hospital and I stayed overnight in the ER, then was taken to a mental health facility in a cop car almost an hour away. The cops said, “If you behave, we won’t have to put you in cuffs.”
At this point, I was crying, even sobbing thinking I’d made a horrible mistake. The hospital told me I was going to the facility to get an assessment and would probably be sent home. When I got there, Grace arrived in her own car and I was taken into a room with her. I could not control the crying. I kept thinking, “Abort! Abort! This is not what I signed up for.”
The woman in the facility who did all my paperwork told me I would be kept for a minimum of 120 hours. A MINIMUM of 120 hours. That’s five days. To say I was scared is an understatement. Grace, who had spent the entire night with me in the ER was still there. She saw my shade of white and she had to be the one to break it to my coworkers that I would not be into work (it was a Monday). I cried and cried and she hugged me and cried with me, then even brought me clothes from my home an hour away.
The five days in “treatment” was anything but life-changing (well, maybe life-changing in the way someone gets PTSD). We were told we needed to pray more and read the Bible more (this was not a religious facility), “group meetings” consisted of crossword puzzles and episodes of Andy Griffith, with a stout little man in suspenders who told you what your answer to his questions should be.
There was no growth. Only shame. Shame that I belonged with the guy that threw coffee on the nurse and called her a nasty name. Shame that I was abandoning my job and my coworkers knew where I was. Shame that I couldn’t tell my family. Shame that my mental health got the best of me. I felt ugly in a way I’ve never experienced- not because I only had shitty shampoo, no make-up, sweat pants with no drawstring, t-shirts and no hair ties- but ugly deep down inside. Like I was the worst person on the planet and unrecognizable even to myself. I spent nights crying myself to sleep in my bed, only to be awoken by a flashlight shining in my eyes because I couldn’t be trusted.
It was an all-time low. And I have to just say, these mental facilities need tons of work. Those nurses need tons of training. They need to realize that even professionals come in there to seek help and acceptance and don’t need to be treated like garbage. I was treated like garbage. I was told to quit being friendly to other patients. I was told that I shouldn’t be tired. I was told that if I could complete a crossword the fastest, then I was “mentally sound.” I was told that I wasn’t allowed to have a hardcover book or a tiny piece of paper with a friend’s phone number written down. I was told that if I loved God more, I wouldn’t be depressed. I was walked in and out of the cafeteria like an inmate with doors locking behind me.
But, there was Thaddeus. And this is where when Brown talks about empathy being the antidote to shame. He didn’t do anything crazy big, but he let me sit outside in the tiny courtyard even in the freezing cold- it felt good on my skin to feel the sun. He brought movies that I liked- movies with Seth Rogan and we would have nights in the lobby with coffee and lemonade and he would sneak us extra Oreos. I just have to say, this guy was the only person who treated us like actual humans. Mr. Andy Griffith and Mr. Crossword would’ve never let me pick out a movie or even express that I needed to go outside.
So, I guess the moral of the story is this: Ladies, don’t think you have to do it all perfectly without anyone seeing you sweat. Guys, you can be weak when you need to. Also, you should be a Grace or a Thaddeus. Let others be vulnerable, love them with all their shame, hug them close, bring extra cookies, and settle in for the ride.