Recently I was reading my local newspaper and I came across the published names of people who had been arrested for impaired driving. As I read the list of names, ages, and cities, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that except for the timing, one of those names would have been mine.
Please know that I am in no way condoning this behavior – not for others and definitely not for myself. But I have to ask if there isn’t a better way to deal with these situations than through public shaming. I can only suspect that among those names there are people struggling with addiction, who need help and who will not be in any way reformed by being ‘named and shamed.’
Everyone has at one time or another been overtaken by the hot flush of shame. Our reaction is to hide it away in the dark, so no one else knows and judges us for the terrible people we absolutely know we are. According to research by Dr. Brene Brown, the message we tell ourselves when we are in shame is ‘I am bad’ and, as a result, we believe our behaviour is unchangeable because it is grounded in who we are, not what we did. In fact, the likelihood of relapse for alcoholics has been shown to be higher in those who feel shame about their past experiences. In contrast, feelings of guilt – that something you did or are doing goes against a core value or belief – can lead to a positive change in behaviours in the future.
With addiction, shame keeps us quiet, and silence and secrets keep us sick. When we believe we are awful people, there is no hope. The good news is that there is an antidote to shame: empathy. According to Dr. Brown’s research, shame loses its power over us when we talk about it, and when others respond in nonjudgmental ways that acknowledge ‘I know how that feels.’ We can actually develop shame resilience by sharing our stories with others and experiencing empathy with their situations.
My own shame came from not being able to deal with all of my life challenges without self-medicating with alcohol. Even though I was very open about living with mental illness, I was ashamed of my inability to stop drinking. Somewhere at my core, I believed that alcoholism was my personal weakness and I was too frightened to admit my addiction to myself, let alone anyone else.
I was very lucky – I did not hurt myself or anyone else in my accident and I was able to get professional support and treatment that was lifesaving. The hurt I caused my children by not getting help sooner is slowly being repaired. I was able to accept assistance when I recognized that I wasn’t a bad person, but I was guilty of doing hurtful, dangerous things when I was drinking and I needed to stop.
One of the main reasons I am writing these blogs is to share my stories in the hope that they might resonate with others who are struggling in their own lives. Maybe by reaching out, rather than judging and punishing each other, we can move just a little bit closer to becoming a mentally supportive and healthy society. My name is Susan Mifsud and I live with mental illness and addiction. And I feel no shame to have my name published here, to speak my truth, and to say ‘me too.’
1.Brene Brown has written and lectured extensively on shame, empathy and vulnerability and a number of her talks are available for viewing on YouTube.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.