Stigma is a double-headed beast, existing in two forms as public and self-stigma. Engagement with negative attitudes (prejudice) and/or adverse behaviour (discrimination) is known as public stigma. Self-stigma is how the individual sees their own mental health from a warped perspective. It was self-stigma that affected me most.
Self-stigma is a gaseous thing – it’s odourless and colourless with the canny ability to seep into our souls through our pores, unseen. It crept up on me so silently that for a long time I didn’t even realise it was happening. In fact, I was the last one to acknowledge it.
As an IT Project Manager, I worked in a sector where pressure and deadlines were the norm and stress was a constant companion. I ran projects with teams of up to 200 million-dollar budgets and over-expectant customers. As a sensitive extrovert, I took on the angst of both the teams and customers without any way of releasing pent-up emotions or being able to recharge. Regular sleep, exercise and healthy eating were not conducive to international assignments, living out of a suitcase; a perfect storm was being created.
Before long, I was self-medicating with alcohol, becoming a ‘functional drinker’. As the single point of contact for both customers and management, I was truly visible. Any requests for a lighter workload or additional support were just not an option, professionally or personally. Professionally, other project managers who had returned after burn-out were seen as lesser shades of themselves. Personally, my ingrained work ethic just told me to work harder and harder and harder – despite my growing mountain of self-doubt and anxiety, I just had to be invincible.
Soon after, my first depressive episode occurred and I was signed-off sick. What I understood about mental illness was limited and I rejected being prescribed anti-depressants as well as desperately begging my doctor not to put down ‘depression’ on the forms. There could be no outward evidence of my situation whatsoever. This was a classic case of self-stigma, I had judged myself and found myself to be lacking against what I thought society expected. Pills were for others not me. I would not be trusted with any responsibility at work if I required pills to keep going. I had seen others returning after similar situations who weren’t handled compassionately, assigned routine work with nothing else but retirement or resignation to look forward to. Unconsciously, I had entered a self-destructive cycle of hiding the truth.
So, when I returned to work, I lied. I said I was better and took on even more difficult projects to prove to them and myself that this was the case. I didn’t use the Employee Assistance Programme or the Occupational Nurse who may well have provided some coping skills, I just pressed on. However, it soon became evident to me that something had shifted, changed. My potential and passion were gone and the assignments seemed more arduous than ever. With hindsight this was because I had not recharged and just continued ‘running on empty’.
A few years later and I had got myself sober, recognising that I was either drinking because I was depressed or depressed because I was drinking and that action needed to be taken. Although this gave me some respite, it unfortunately masked the true underlying condition. Once again I took validation in the fact that I had “fixed myself”, which surely really sick people couldn’t do. I was in complete denial.
Inevitably, my bouts of depression and my inability to recharge finally overwhelmed me and I had a nervous breakdown requiring medication and hospitalisation. Now the cat was out of the bag! But my self-stigma tenaciously clung on, I saw and set myself apart from many of the others on the ward. I participated to the full, even when I just wanted to stay under the covers and fade away. As with everything else in my people-pleasing driven life, I was going to be the best whatever anyone had ever seen. I was discharged from hospital full of theory and exercises but not committed, I still felt shame and guilt at admitting to not being well.
Things continued as before, and guess what? Fast forward several years and being in an abusive environment caused another, more debilitating breakdown. This time it was different, I couldn’t put my previous episodes down to life distress or a one-off never to be repeated circumstance. I was ill.
For the first time ever, I availed of one-to-one counselling. Previously my job had made it impractical and as I didn’t believe I needed it, I never fought to find an alternative solution. I was finally able to understand that my drive to succeed was no longer helping me and began to seek alternative perspectives. Most significantly, I began to talk to others around me about what was and had happened. This is still part of my recovery today, in fact, I now need to watch that I don’t over share and listen more than I talk!
I had put myself on a bumpy road while all along there was an easier way, but I wasn’t ready. I’m just grateful I got there in the end.