May is Mental Health Awareness month, so now the top of the Empire State Building is aglow with green light at night. I don’t know why green is the color that NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is promoting as representative of the mental health movement, but there are worse colors out there, like fluorescent orange.
Kermit the Frog sums it up for people with a brain disease and mood disturbances: it’s not easy. As a friend and I talked about today at lunch, it’s not easy having a mental illness because it’s an invisible disease that, like shadows across the earth, come and go with the day.
Not that any disease is easy. But there does seem to be this additional burden of stigma and shame with mental illness (and other disabilities) that just makes living with it hard.
An audience member asked me about shame recently. He asked me to explain why I experienced the mental illness in my family as shameful.
I said, “It has to do with my identity. Do I think of myself as the daughter of a successful animal doctor? Or do I think of myself as the daughter of a homeless man with untreated bipolar disease? I’m both. But one identity is a source of pride and the other is a source of shame.”
I realized that only when I looked at my father’s life through the lens of compassion for a person with a brain disease, does the shame start to fade away. My father was very sick. Why would I be ashamed of his illness? He also had heart disease, but that wasn’t a source of shame.
We feel shame when we cannot feel compassion. I regret my lack of compassion for my father and am sorry that compassion for his condition came to me towards the end of his life and not sooner.
I wish there was no stigma for mental illness because it’s the stigma that made me feel ashamed about my father.
The stigma made me feel ashamed.
The shame kept me silent.
The silence kept me alone.
The isolation kept me from love.
I hope it will be different for younger generations who have permission to speak openly about mental health.
I hope for a future where there are no shadows of stigma and shame that sweep across and dull this green earth.