I Confess, I Was Ashamed Of Living With Mental Illness

I was ashamed to own up to my illness despite repeatedly telling my fellow Canadians to not have shame.
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Since going public as a mental-health advocate, I've identified myself as living with anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression and that's mostly true. I have been clinically diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and agoraphobia; however, I have not been diagnosed with depression. Rather, it's a symptom of the other mental illnesses I have.

For most of this decade, during public appearances I've come across as being well-groomed and put together. A façade despite my life having volatile and utter chaotic times. I've struggled to maintain friendships and relationships. I have few friends, have had more boyfriends than I can count, and I've had more employers than I'd like to admit. My adult life has been far from stable, much like my childhood.

I always promised myself that the next man I had a relationship with would become my husband and I wouldn't repeat the same things I always seemed to do that ended my relationships. I promised myself, after hastily quitting a job, that the next job I obtained would be my last one. That I wouldn't do things at my next employer that would cause me to want to quit. I would promise myself to work out any differences on the next advisory committee I was appointed to before abruptly resigning due to some sort of disagreement or conflict. After the fact, those promises I made to myself seemed hollow and were rather something I did to provide myself comfort.

In 2014, and at risk of me dropping out of paralegal school, I was referred by my family doctor to short-term psychotherapy with a social worker. I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The psychiatrist suggested the chaos in my life that I described could be attributed to BPD. I didn't know what BPD was but I was offended by the name and walked out on the psychiatrist screaming and crying. What did borderline mean? What was wrong with my personality? I went home, briefly researched BPD on the internet and was frightened at the first few things I read. I pretended that the diagnosis never happened and instead kept telling people and the media that I had anxiety and depression.

Last year, after having the worst mental health crisis I have ever experienced, I went for a two-hour comprehensive psychiatric assessment. I was formally diagnosed as having generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.

I walked out of the hospital the day I was diagnosed as having BPD for the second time and felt very small in a very big world.

While I was unsurprised and more prepared the second time around for another psychiatrist to affirm the diagnosis of BPD, it still felt like a punch in the gut. It wasn't the illness itself that was so hurtful, it was simply the name of it because despite having it, I didn't even know what it was. We're always afraid of what we don't know! The fear of the unknown rattled me. But I also knew that after having a psychiatrist diagnose me with BPD for the second time that I finally had to own up to it.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes BPD as: "an illness marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behaviour. These symptoms often result in impulsive actions and problems in relationships with other people. A person with borderline personality disorder may experience episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from a few hours to days."

I have spoken very publicly that there is no shame in living with mental illness and yet for the first time in a long time, if ever, I felt immense shame. In the past, I have been told by audience members of speeches I gave, that I said something that motivated them to disclose to others. To find the courage and share that they had a mental illness and yet I've somehow struggled over the years to find the courage to do the same.

I was ashamed to own up to my illness despite repeatedly telling my fellow Canadians to not have shame.

I walked out of the hospital the day I was diagnosed as having BPD for the second time and felt very small in a very big world. I had so many questions I immediately began to wonder who I was? What did this mean for me as a human being? Could I continue my work as a mental health advocate after being in denial for so long? Was I being true to myself? Could somebody with BPD even be a mental health advocate? Does having BPD somehow undermine or erase the opportunities I've had as a mental health advocate because I previously struggled to own up to my illness?

I put myself on a pedestal and somehow created this notion that if I was to continue being successful as an advocate that my mental health had to be stable. I couldn't stigmatize myself nor could I have shame. Over the years, I felt there was this huge gap between my audience and I as I portrayed myself as somebody whose life was perfect and under control, when in fact my life was in chaos. I was ashamed to own up to my illness despite repeatedly telling my fellow Canadians to not have shame. I was promoting the "drop the stigma" movement yet was struggling to drop it myself. In 2013, I appeared in a Public Service Announcement for the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health in which the tagline was "I am not my illness" yet I couldn't bring myself to believe that until now.

I aspire to continue to be a mental health advocate. I hope this experience brings me closer to my audience. I will continue to fight against stigma and be a voice. I will alter my narrative though. I will stop telling people not to be ashamed for having a mental illness. Instead, I will tell people that I've learned that having shame is a normal part of coming to terms with something that is unfamiliar and scary. I hope you'll give me a chance!

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