Four Things You Shouldn’t Feel Ashamed of if You’re Mentally Ill
Your brain is a truly wondrous creation, a magnificent machine composed of soft tissue, nerve cells, and blood vessels working in harmony to produce a unique, intelligent, and sentient human being. Like every other machine, however, the brain is vulnerable to malfunctions, producing errors in the cognitive processes that influence much of our thinking and behavior.
One potential source of those malfunctions is mental illness. And when those malfunctions manifest, they can be incredibly disruptive, affecting everything from your personal hygiene to your ability to find and hold on to a job. When that happens, it’s of the utmost importance that you set your pride and fears aside, seek professional help, and confront your illness head-on before it gets any worse. You have an obligation not just to yourself, but also to the people who love and depend on you, to do whatever it takes to improve your health — and that’s not an obligation you should take lightly.
That being said, it’s also important that you be kind to yourself. You mustn’t blame yourself for your illness. It isn’t your fault that your sick. It isn’t your fault that your brain isn’t operating properly.
Likewise, you shouldn’t cast judgment upon yourself for struggling with the myriad complications that mental illness can produce in a person’s life, complications that can make you feel ashamed, inadequate, or insecure. You must always keep in mind that those complications aren’t a reflection of you, the sufferer; they’re symptoms of the illness you’re fighting against.
Whether you’re struggling with depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or any other type of psychological or neurological disorder, the odds are pretty good that you’ve already encountered one or more of these symptoms on your journey to recovery. The odds are also pretty good that, like me, you’ve instinctively reacted to those symptoms with shame, guilt, or disgust.
But as someone who has been battling obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for my entire adult life, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to let go of your shame. Your symptoms don’t make you gross or dirty. They don’t make you lazy or stupid. They don’t make you undeserving of love or friendship. And they certainly don’t make you a bad person. You have a duty to address them, but it isn’t your fault that you have them. In fact, they are a lot more common than you might believe.
Now, let’s dig into these symptoms a little bit and explore all the reasons why you shouldn’t be ashamed of them.
1. Showing up late to everything
One of the more exhausting aspects of my OCD is having to perform rituals or compulsive behaviors to soothe the anxiety that the disorder generates. The problem with compulsions, however, is that they can take up a lot of time. That’s not a big deal when you don’t have anywhere you need to be, but it can become a major issue for you when you have a schedule to keep.
When I was in college, I ran late to classes all the time, especially during my first year. I couldn’t leave my dorm until my anxiety was at a manageable level. And to accomplish that, I had to carry out countless compulsive behaviors. Sometimes, I would wash my hands for as long as twenty minutes before I felt they were clean enough to touch anything. Other times, I would leave my dorm, turn around, head back to my room, check to make sure I had locked the door, and then repeat this compulsion half a dozen times before my OCD was satisfied.
As you might have guessed, I almost didn’t make it through that first year. But as time went on and my OCD improved, my chronic tardiness eventually became an infrequent occurrence, and I slowly pulled my GPA up to a more respectable number.
I wasn’t the only mentally ill student at my school who wrestled with this problem. One of my fellow dormmates suffered from depression, and he too ran late to class all the time. Waking up early and rolling out of a bed was a persistent challenge for him. Unfortunately, many of his professors were as unsympathetic towards him as mine were towards me. He dropped out of school in his second semester and returned to his hometown. I have no idea what became of him after that.
If you constantly run late, and you know it’s a consequence of your mental illness, you should hold yourself accountable for the problem and seek an expert’s guidance on how to solve it. But you should also show yourself some mercy and accept that your chronic tardiness isn’t a sign that you’re lazy and irresponsible. You should also remind yourself that you are indeed capable of overcoming this problem, and then put forth an earnest effort to do just that.
2. Having trouble holding down a job
If your illness has made it difficult for you to work, please don’t feel left out, and please don’t be too hard on yourself. The truth is that this is a very common problem within our community. A 2014 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness determined that the unemployment rate among mentally ill Americans receiving public health services was about 80%. It also stated that roughly “60 percent of the 7.1 million people receiving public mental health services nationwide want to work, but less than 2 percent receive supported employment opportunities provided by states.”
The first time my OCD cost me a job, I was in my third year of college working as a line cook at a local diner. Every single week, I was scolded at least once by every single manager in that place. Line cooks are supposed to move at lightning speed, but I was a mere tortoise among hares. Thanks to my OCD, it took me nearly twice as long to prepare my food as every other cook on the line, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have to start looking elsewhere for a new job.
I was stationed on a fryer, so all I had to do was drop my food into the oil, keep an eye on the clock, and pull the food out when enough time had passed. It was as simple and straightforward as any gig I’d ever done — and yet, I still failed at it.
The problem, once again, was my OCD. On the very first day, I began experiencing obsessive thoughts about food safety and preparation procedures. I became irrationally fearful of the possibility that the dishes I was sending out were undercooked, and that whoever ate them would get terribly sick, or perhaps even die.
And if they die, it will be all your fault. You’ll have murdered them, and you’ll have done it because keeping your job was more important to you than keeping your customers alive, you selfish, evil man!
That was the utterly absurd scenario my OCD had manufactured in my mind, and I simply could not figure out how to move beyond it. So instead, I tried to find a solution to it. I tried to figure out how to satisfy both my OCD and my managers.
Of course, that wasn’t possible. Indulging my compulsions has only ever made them more severe. And the more severe they become, the more disruptive they become. That’s why you can’t compromise with OCD. When you succumb to its demands, it always asks for more. Give it an inch, and it takes a mile. Give it a minute of your time, and it will consume your whole life.
Technically, I left that diner job on my own accord. But in reality, it was a mutual parting. When I approached the head manager about leaving, he seemed almost relieved. I’m certain that he’d already decided to cut me loose and was grateful that I spared him the discomfort of having to inform me of his decision.
To say I was humiliated would be an understatement. I had never failed at any job before, and I couldn’t believe that I had failed at that one. It was supposed to be so simple and so easy, yet I couldn’t hack it.
When I look back on it now, though, I don’t feel any embarrassment at all. On the contrary, I feel nothing but sympathy for my younger self. At that age, I didn’t understand my disorder half as well as I do today, and there weren’t many resources available for mentally ill students like myself. I did the best I could with the tools I had, and that’s good enough for me.
3. A lack of proper hygiene
This is a very common problem for people who suffer from severe mental illness. Why does it happen? Often times, it is because of something called executive dysfunction.
Executive dysfunction adversely impacts a variety of cognitive operations. It can interfere with everything from impulse control to time management. It can also make you too tired to perform even the simplest, most mundane tasks, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
In a 2021 Allure magazine piece on this subject, clinical psychologist Holly Schiff explained how executive dysfunction affects people with depression. “With depression, we usually see lower levels of neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin and dopamine, which impact motivation levels and can make it hard to get out of bed in the morning,” she explained. “Lacking dopamine in the prefrontal cortex means the individual doesn’t even have the energy to make decisions, solve problems, weigh their options or take action.”
If this is something you’ve struggled with, you might have already convinced yourself that you’re a disgusting person, or that your lack of hygiene represents a major flaw in your character. Rest assured that neither of those things is true; you are not disgusting, nor are you an awful person. You just happen to have a brain that isn’t functioning properly.
Is that your fault? No, it isn’t. Should you blame yourself? No, you shouldn’t. Should you be ashamed of it? Absolutely not.
But if this is a problem you’re experiencing in your life right now, you should seek help immediately, assuming you haven’t already. Neglecting your hygiene could have serious implications for your physical health. Please don’t let it go that far. Jump on this problem today, and you may very well save yourself a lot of unnecessary suffering in the future.
4. Losing friends who don’t understand your illness
When my contamination obsessions spun out of control, I began to isolate myself from the outside world as much as possible. I avoided parties, movie theaters, restaurants, and pretty much any location where there would be large groups of people. I tried to explain the situation to my friends in the simplest, clearest terms imaginable, but that wasn’t always enough.
None of my friends from college are still my friends today. After I had turned down more than half a dozen invitations to visit him and his wife in New Jersey, my friend Adam stopped returning my calls and emails altogether. My friend Roger insisted that I wasn’t “trying hard enough” to overcome my OCD and suggested that I “be honest” with him and admit that I didn’t want to hang out with him anymore. And the last time I heard my friend Melissa’s voice, she was screaming into the phone, calling me a liar and accusing me of using my illness as an excuse to avoid seeing her.
To someone unfamiliar with the myriad ways in which mental illness can influence a person’s thoughts and behaviors, it can be very easy to misinterpret a mentally ill friend’s self-imposed isolation as a personal insult, especially when that isolation persists for weeks, months, or even years on end. That’s why I don’t blame my friends for giving up on me. From their point of view, I had abandoned them, and they had lives to live. I don’t harbor a single grudge against any of them for choosing to move on without me.
I deeply regret losing the friends I’ve lost, and I’d happily offer each and every one of them a sincere apology if I ever saw them again. But I also won’t beat myself up over the missteps I’ve made in my battle against my mental illness. Nothing good could come from that exercise. And if you’re in the same boat as I am, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself either.
Losing friends is almost always painful no matter how you lose them. But when friendships are lost because of circumstances that were, to some extent, out of your control, you can’t let yourself stew in regret for the rest of your life. If you think you can rekindle those friendships, by all means, go for it! But if that’s not an option, the best thing you can do is wish your old pals well, forgive yourself, and refocus your attention on the road ahead of you.
Remember, you are not to blame for being sick. You didn’t ask for your illness, nor did you do anything to deserve it. It was foisted upon you by misfortune’s merciless inclinations, and there is no shame in that. So instead of dwelling on all the ways it has harmed your life, try instead to redirect your energy on healing yourself and chasing after the future you desire. You can’t change what happened yesterday, but you can take steps right now to ensure a better tomorrow, and that’s precisely what you ought to do.