[Content notes: mental illness, mental health ableism]
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
All day I’ve been following people’s comments about No Shame Day, started by Bassey Ikpi and her organization The Siwe Project to challenge the silence and stigma around mental illness, especially in global black communities. I’ve been thinking about what to say about my personal experience of the shame around mental illness and hoped to post some lengthy-ish thoughts about it, but that clearly isn’t going to happen today. Perhaps another day I’ll find the words I need to share my story.
I’ll just say this: there’s nothing shameful about needing help for mental or emotional issues – or indeed about needing any kind of help whatsoever. But there’s so much pressure on people to deny mental illness that acknowledging it – much less seeking whatever care one can access for it – is seen as a sign of failure or of being “weak” (side note: it’s pretty harmful to associate “weakness” with moral failure and “strength” with virtue. A post for another time).
The truth is that owning the reality of a mental illness is an act of resistance: as Audre Lorde says, an act of radical self-care that amounts to political warfare in a context where mental illness is viewed as illegitimate and not worthy of consideration or care.
I’m working to find the words to speak the truth of my experience with mental illness, and hope I find them soon. In the meantime I’m thinking again about Lorde’s reflection on fear and silence, how much it resonates with the message of No Shame:
“Death… is the final silence.… That might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable to not be afraid, learning to put fear into perspective gave me great strength….
Of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger…in the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live…
We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us… It is not difference which immobilizes us but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”