This is a post I’ve written and re-written a number of times. It’s probably one of the most difficult posts I’ve composed, simply because I feel so vulnerable about it. But I’m finally at a place where I feel comfortable sharing this here.
I have a mental illness, specifically Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It’s something I’ve struggled with for most of my life; I can remember its roots in being a particularly sensitive and easily-worried child still in elementary school (and it just got progressively worse from there). But I wasn’t formally diagnosed until a couple of years ago, when I was seeing my therapist for sessions during graduate school. I told her of my suspicions, as I’d read the DSM-IV cover to cover for my diagnosis class, and so we sat down with the book and looked at the criteria for a variety of conditions. GAD was the one that fit the best, and all of the criteria were very familiar to me.
So why am I telling you this here, on my blog that’s supposed to be about shamanism? For one thing, it’s the platform I use the most for writing these days, and I want to have a basic “here’s Lupa on GAD” post that I can refer to when talking about this later on. Talking is good therapy for me, writing being included in “talking”. If being more open about my anxiety helps me to get better, then that’s an additional bonus.
I am a strong supporter of mental illness awareness and advocacy, moreso after having gotten my Master’s in counseling psychology. Even though I understand and empathize with my reasons for having stayed mostly closeted on this matter in the past, I have felt for a while like a hypocrite. I encourage others to be open about their mental conditions if they deem it the right time, and I feel that more open discussion about mental health, to include careful self-disclosure, can help facilitate better resources and less prejudice.
Yet I have hidden my anxiety away like a bad habit. Even having that degree, even having worked as a counselor, even knowing and believing beyond a doubt that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, my own fear–and the anxiety–kept me quiet. And now I’m breaking that silence. Why?
While I have not yet “officially” used my Master’s degree, having spent the year since graduation being a fully self-employed author and artist (and recovering from the stress of grad school and corporate life before that), there’s still the possibility that some day I may need to get a job as a counselor at an agency. Even though the counseling profession is supposed to work against the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses, there is still a strong taboo against mental health professionals who are mentally ill. Even though such professionals as Marsha Linehan (the developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and Kay Redfield Jamison have publicly discussed their illnesses, the stigma remains–especially if you aren’t a well-established professional yet. So even though I did well in my year-long internship counseling addicts in an inpatient setting, and was open with my supervisor there about my GAD, and we worked together to make sure it wasn’t a liability, I still worry that other supervisors, potential employers, and the like may not be so supportive.
Clients can go either way. Some clients are put off by knowing their therapist isn’t perfectly psychologically hale, especially as mental health professionals are often idealized as “perfect authorities”. But some clients feel more comfortable knowing that the person in the chair across from them might know a bit about what they themselves have been struggling with. I never told any of my clients in my internship about my anxiety, but having GAD did help me to empathize more with them. It also made me more aware of my own boundaries, and where the GAD could weaken my ability to deal with sometimes very challenging clients.
Then there’s the more general stigma. Many people still equate mental illness with everything from homelessness to senseless shootings as in Aurora, CO. Mental illnesses are seen as ticking time bombs. Or they’re dismissed; we are told to “just get over it”. We who have these illnesses are marginalized and stigmatized. It’s easier to ignore us or make fun of us than to help us and try to understand the complexity of our different way of viewing the world. Some people still even conflate alternative spiritual views as a whole with mental illness, and there’s the chance that me being out of the crazy closet will just fuel their misconceptions.
Continuing to hide my anxiety disorder just perpetuates stigmatization. One of the most effective methods of teaching is modeling. If I model the idea that it’s okay to be mentally ill and open about it, if I can just talk about it like an everyday (albeit unwanted) part of my life, then hopefully I can help others to do the same, whether they’re mentally ill or not. I’ve gotten so many emails from people who have told me that my writing here, and in my books and other places, has been a huge help and inspiration to them. By coming out as having GAD, my hope is that I can continue to provide inspiration to others fighting their own battles with mental illnesses.
There’s one other reason I’m bringing my anxiety up here, and that’s shamanism itself (see? It IS relevant here!) There is a misconception that because some indigenous shamans have had mental illnesses as part of their initiations/shamanisms, that this means that you have to have a mental illness to be a shaman, or even that mental illnesses ARE shamanism. I find these to be inaccurate and dangerous conflations.
First, it’s demeaning to indigenous cultures to assume they don’t know the difference between someone with a mental illness, and a shamanic practitioner. While there is some crossover in some cultures between SOME mental illnesses and SOME shamanic and spiritual traditions, it’s specific in degree and nature in each culture and even each community, and to say that they all see them as one and the same is short-sighted and inaccurate.
Second, here in the dominant culture in the United States, it is downright dangerous to equate mental illness with shamanism. “Mental illness” is a broad, broad concept. If we include the various entries in the DSM-IV (some of which are developmental disorders rather than “sicknesses”), we’re talking everything from autism to depression and anxiety disorders to Cluster B personality disorders such as Antisocial and Borderline. If shamanism helps you deal with your mental illness better, whether as a client or a practitioner, great! But there is no cure-all or universal treatment for mental illnesses in general, and I oppose the broad-brush assumption that shamanism is the magic bullet.
And there is one more reason I am talking about my anxiety disorder here on my shamanism blog: I want to emphasize that for me, GAD is NOT a facilitator of my shamanism. I know some shamanic practitioners of varying traditions for whom their mental illnesses are assets, or at least tools. And some of them do help manage their illnesses with their shamanic practices.
But I know for a fact that I am not the only shaman who would give up their mental illness in a heartbeat if they had the chance. Reducing the stigma against mental illness doesn’t mean automatically stopping treatment and accepting things as they are forever more. I’m still trying to get rid of my anxiety disorder. GAD does not make me a stronger person. GAD is my weakness, my Achilles’ Heel. If I did not have my anxiety, if I could shuck it off of me like an overworn, stinking old coat, I would be so much the better for it. I could function better as a person, as a shaman, as a professional of several fields. GAD cripples me at times. It is not my friend.
Do you know what GAD is like for me? It’s daily, almost constant, worrying over things that I know I shouldn’t worry about, but that my limbic system tells me to be on guard against anyway. I’m not talking about being aware of spirits. I’m talking about nights of insomnia fueled by the fear that I’ll get up the next day and all my money will be gone, or that my partner will suddenly leave me for someone else, or that I’ll die of cancer before I ever get the chance to own my own home. It’s overreacting to small setbacks because my brain automatically catastrophizes and focuses on the very-worst-case scenario in perceived self-defense. It’s being irritable and short-tempered because everything just hurts, where emotionally and psychologically I feel like I’ve been flayed and every single stimulus is agony.
It’s being so exhausted from trying to keep my emotions on an even enough keel to be able to function on a day to day basis that I sometimes have to take a mental health day to recover from the fatigue of that daily battle. It’s the constant ache in my trapezius muscles because I carry all that tension and worry in my shoulders. It’s knowing that the chronic acid reflux the anxiety caused could kill me early with esophageal cancer. It’s knowing that I am at a greater risk of heart disease because my anxiety puts such constant heightened stress on my body, to include abnormal levels of adrenaline and other such chemicals.
None of these things make me a better shaman. Okay, yes, you can argue that my experiences have been “character building” and I’m a better shaman and person for having “resiliency” and “empathy” built from dealing with anxiety for decades. But some day I want to be able to say “I used to have GAD, but I finally overcame it, and I’m better for it”. I refuse to let go of that goal to settle for the consolation prize of “might as well just be a shaman since I’m nutty as a fruitbat anyway”. Part of being a shaman is healing others, but part of it is also healing the self, and even if I never do get completely better, I’m not going to stop trying to find my cure, and my path to a life without abnormal levels of anxiety.
So there you have it. I’m out of the crazy closet. And I want to note that I use the term “crazy” not in its derogatory manner, but tongue in cheek, and with a bit of cynical humor. When the anxiety really gets going, I really do feel crazy in that out of control, my-brain’s-been-hijacked way. But I’m so used to talking about “anxiety” in serious, overwrought tones that talking about “the crazy” or “I had too much crazysauce today” or asking my partner “You still love me even though I’m a crazy girl, right?” allows me to acknowledge it with some contextual silliness. Those I use it with know I’m not crazy in the stereotypical sense, but it’s a convenient code for the illness that pervades my life.
So hi, I’m Lupa, and I’m crazy. But I’m working on getting less crazy.
(As with all my posts, comments are screened until I decide they can come out to play. I know most, if not all, of you will be perfectly cool and supportive about all this. On the off chance someone decide to be an asshat, know that your comment will be BALEETED before it has a chance to gasp for its first breath of air.)
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