I’ve known how shameless of a person I am for a long time. I spent formative years, from age four on, fighting type 1 diabetes and realizing that if you make a mistake (and kids never make mistakes, right?) with my medical care I could die. Not only that, but it will never go away and will probably get worse. Kids shouldn’t ever have to learn to face their own mortality, and yet… Then add to that bipolar with severe depression in my early adult years, also something that doesn’t go away, and a messy divorce, and a parent illness, and losing my job and then my career…dealing with all that on a daily basis, when the hell am I supposed to have the energy to give a shit about being polite? About feeling shame for the ways I have learned to cope with my life and be productive and successful despite its best efforts to keep me down?
The older I get, the less I care about being shy, and being afraid to speak up for myself, and the less I care about changing my personality to match whatever group I’m in. In addition to the human experience of aging and developing a sense of self, my multiple and repeated brushes with death have accelerated this shamelessness I have. Yes, I have a much stronger sense of myself at 37 than I did at, say 20, but even at 20 I had faced death multiple times with diabetes complication hospitalizations and one suicide attempt that no one but my best friend knew about (more on all of this later).
When I realized that everything I know could end in the matter of a second, it gave me a new perspective. I’m alive. I’m alive because I work my ass off to stay alive, and things could be very very different. So changing who I am to fit in? Not saying something I want to say because it’s different from what other people are saying? Needing validation from people around me to feel better about myself? Ok, I still need that one, but the others are things I just don’t have energy for. They are not important in the big picture of life, and I’ve been forced to understand the big picture, over and over again).
This most recent time I was in the psychiatric hospital I saw this shamelessness with new eyes. In an environment like a hospital you have a lot of down time. Even with all the structured activities, group therapy, psychiatrist meetings, yoga and stress relief classes, art classes, exercise classes, you have a lot of time to interact with your fellow inpatients. You get to know each other very well, you get to make friends.
It’s a unique relationship because you’re all hospitalized for serious reasons and you find you learn people’s deepest secrets. You can help them through their darkest moments while they help you through yours. You find people you have things in common with and you make friends. There’s also a tendency of people in groups like this to form cliques and create their own drama. I’ve never been a fan of interpersonal drama, and I’m even less a fan of self-created drama. But I understand its function, especially in groups. It can be intimidating to join a group of people you don’t know and just be left to you own devices to find your way. Cliques can provide comfort.
I was in a recreational group one day where we did two activities. They both involved dividing into two groups and competing against each other. Sometimes I get dangerously competitive, so from the beginning I was willing myself to calm the fuck down, it was only a game, it was supposed to be therapeutic.
For the first activity we had to build a tower of plastic solo cups as a team using only one hand and a rubber band. It was an interesting exercise, and I jumped in as a leader, kind of taking over and giving direction. Our team lost, but I did not lose my shit, and I think everybody had fun.
The second activity was trivia tic-tac-toe. Each team was asked a trivia question, and if they got it right they got to play an X or O, whichever was assigned to their team. There was a woman on the opposite team who was as dangerously competitive as I am, and we had our eyes on each other. We were friends outside of that activity room, but in there, all bets were off.
The group leader asked us what we wanted our team name to be, and instead of discussing it as a team first, I yelled out, “Voldemort!” I honestly have no idea how the rest of the team felt about it, but if I were to guess I’d say they were pissed. The competitive woman on the opposite team said, “What? No! Okay guys we have to come up with a better name than that!” I don’t remember what name they came up with, I just enjoyed seeing that there was someone else like me.
We started playing and we lost our first game even though every time I placed the large paper O I slammed it on the floor and yelled “BAM!” I can’t believe that didn’t help us win. There was a guy on our team who knew a lot of the answers, so once the leader posed the question, I sort of got in the habit of just discussing the possible answer with him and the people sitting next to us. I forgot to consult the rest of the team who were sitting further away from me and not speaking up.
The next question was, “In what month is the longest day of the year?” I discussed with the guy sitting next to me and found out that all we were certain of was that it was a summer month. We agreed to guess August, and I subconsciously agreed to ignore the rest of my team. I yelled “August,” (because yelling helps) and the answer was June.
It turns out that one of the team members I had ignored whispered the correct answer at the same time I yelled the wrong answer. I didn’t realize until, while the other team was discussing the answer to their question, I looked over and found the rest of my team was discussing me. They were whispering behind cupped hands and taking turns shooting me dirty looks.
I leaned in and said, “What’s wrong?”
They rolled their eyes and continued talking about me with their backs to me. Oh, ok, it’s gonna be like that is it? I said, “Did one of you know the answer to that question?” They weren’t hiding their conversation very well. They nodded. I said, “I am so sorry!” They rolled their eyes again.
For fuck’s sake. I really need adults to act like adults. It’s important for my mental and emotion well being.
So I did what I had to do to feel better about making a mistake. I interrupted the other team’s trivia process and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I just want to say that I called out the wrong answer while another member of my team said the right answer softer. I can’t do anything to change that at this point, but I wanted to apologize for not communicating with my team.” Called you out like a mother fucking adult, bitches. Also, I was being sincere.
The record scratch sound happened, and everyone stared at me in confused silence for a moment. And I didn’t care. I looked at my teammate and said “I’m sorry.” She said, “It’s okay” in a way that sounded like stop drawing attention to this situation.
Later at the hour’s conclusion the therapist was summarizing the group experience for us. She said directly to me that it’s important to know when it’s time to be a leader, like in the first game with the cups, and when it’s time to step back and let someone else take care of you, like when I stepped on toes to make sure I stayed in charge. She said this relates to treatment, as there are times to take initiative and be in charge of mental health (and in my case medical) treatment, and there are times to let my doctors, therapists, signifiant other, and friends help take care of me and help me carry the load. Both sides of the equation are important for making my life successful, and it’s important to know when it’s time for one or the other.
But she didn’t say how to know when it’s time. The only way that I know how to let someone take care of me is to do it wrong first. I mean really, that’s how I learn most things in life – by doing it wrong the first time and hoping it’s not to late. I hurt someone’s feelings because I didn’t know it was time to let someone else take over. I acted on suicidal thoughts because I didn’t let people know how depressed I was and I didn’t give anyone the chance to help me. I took over my diabetes care without seeing my doctors and I made a giant mess of it. I lost relationships because I spent so much time fending for myself instead of sharing my experiences. I think that’s the only way to know when it’s time to let someone else in: you see what it does to you to keep them out. If it makes you sick, makes you alone, makes you try to take your life, maybe it’s time to try something new.
I don’t feel any shame for trying something new. I don’t feel shame for drawing attention to myself and admitting I made a mistake. I don’t feel shame saying that I tried to kill myself and that was wrong. I don’t feel shame starting over from scratch and building relationships based on meeting mutual needs rather than fending for myself while simply existing near other people. I don’t feel shame for calling people out on not acting like adults. I don’t even feel shame for that day I unwittingly walked around with the top of my ass hanging over a pair of tight pants I was wearing when bending over to pick up dog poop from the neighbor’s yard. I don’t have energy to care much about that. The neighbors were blinded by my pale skin, but they’ll learn to wear sunglasses when they see me walking down the street.
Our experiences make us who we are. They define how we see the world. My experiences have made me shameless enough to walk around with my ass hanging out, but they’ve also given me the drive to fight shame. There is a lot of fear and shame in the world, and both have held me back from who I really am for so long. We are taught to be ashamed of having mental illness because people often don’t understand it enough to take it seriously. I no longer want fear and shame to keep me from sharing my experiences. My experiences are valid and true, and I want to share them even if it confuses the status quo. I am proud and shameless of being a survivor of type 1 diabetes, bipolar II, depression, and suicide. Proud because I’m still here. Proud because I can talk about it openly. And proud because “Voldemort” is probably the best team name that’s ever existed, and I plan to use it for any future team I have to name.