Guilt: The Hidden Mental Illness

“I left work early,” he explained after we connected on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “I’m in my car on the way to the emergency room and just needed someone to talk to.”

“I’m glad you called. What’s making life so difficult?” I asked. “I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety,” he told me. “I was at my desk this afternoon when I suddenly found myself formulating a plan to end my life. I attempted suicide a couple of years ago and didn’t want to go there again. When I felt myself slipping back into that awful, awful place, I knew I needed to do something. So, I’m on my way to the emergency room.”

When he told me he was 25 and lived with his parents, I asked “Do they know about your past attempt and how you’re feeling his afternoon?” “When I attempted, they were very understanding and supportive, but it was so difficult for them, I simply can’t put them through that again,” he replied. Then he said he waited too long to tell his parents about his current thoughts. “I should have reached out days ago when I first felt myself slipping. I let them down again. So now I feel the need to handle this on my own.”

“So,” I suggested, “on top of your depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, you are burdening yourself with guilt for what your family went through in the past, and because you haven’t reached out to them this time. Is that right??” “Yes,” he admitted, “I feel horrible. They don’t deserve any of this.”

I asked if he thought he could separate the guilt from the depression, anxiety, and ideation. When he said he thought he could, I asked, “If you let the guilt evaporate, even for a moment, how do you feel?” He paused said it felt like a great weight was lifted.

With mental illness, as opposed to a disease like cancer, the messages we receive imply it is our fault. We are simply not strong enough. “Just smile more.” “You have no right to feel so sad.” “Look at all the gifts in your life.” “So many have it much worse than you.” The guilt we layer on our already overwhelmed sense of self, is the oft-hidden monster we should not have to slay.

“If you opened up with your parents this afternoon about your current feelings, do you think some of your guilt might actually evaporate?” I asked my new young friend. He admitted that if he could be honest with his parents, he would feel a great deal better. I suggested he could choose one of two courses of action: continue to the emergency room or go home and talk with his parents. “Which choice feels right in this moment?” Without pausing he told me that he wanted to talk with his father. “I can always go to the emergency room after we talk if the two of us feel it’s best.”

Just before we ended our time together, he said, “Thank you so much!” I said, “No, thank you. Thank you for finding the self-love and courage to decide you were worth saving.”

2 thoughts on “Guilt: The Hidden Mental Illness”

  1. I suffer from fairly mild depression – mild at the moment, that is, after a long search for effective medication. I always think of myself as having a fairly healthy relationship with it. I don’t (I think) blame myself or allow it to turn into a series of negative self judgments. But just the same, when I read this, I started to cry. So I’m realizing that I do feel guilt – guilt about not being able to “make myself” do the things I think I “should” be able to do. And to have that guilt received with such compassion, what a relief! Thanks so much, Roger, for offering that to the world.

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