Recently I have been doing a lot of reading around on the subject of vulnerability, shame and addiction. In particular I have been looking at the work of Brené Brown and her TED talks in particular. Quite how I hadn’t known about her before I am not sure but at least I do now. I think she is fabulous. If you are not familiar with her have a look at her TED talks
Brené started out by studying shame. She says that the ability to feel connected is the fundamental reason why we are here. Shame is the fear of disconnection “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
For me shame was the strongest emotion associated with my drinking. I felt overwhelming shame about what I was doing and went to great pains to make sure that no one knew about it because if they did, surely they wouldn’t want to know me. Let alone love me. Some of things I had done were really terrible and I knew that it was because I was a terrible person. It was all my fault and my shame was a burden I deserved to bear.
Now I am no longer drinking I still feel ashamed of myself and how I allowed myself to get into such a mess. Last week I had a letter from a psychiatrist I saw a couple of months ago, when I was newly sober. After a primary diagnosis of “moderate depressive episode”, as secondary diagnosis she wrote “depression/anxiety due to use of alcohol”. I know that is the truth – I was completely honest with her about my drinking and she was really supportive but the bottom line is I still feel ashamed.
I want to feel proud of my achievements and sometimes I do but I can’t quite shake the embarrassment of what I have done. I worry about what others would think if they knew I have a drinking problem. I suppose it is similar to the stigma attached to mental illness.
Although things have definitely improved as people are more open about their struggles with mental health, especially celebrities, there is no doubt that mental health issues continue to be seen as a weakness. I have always made a point of being really frank about the depression and anxiety I have experienced for the last 20 years or so. Sometimes my openness has made others uncomfortable – perhaps because they don’t know what to say or perhaps because they are thinking of things they have already said which they might not have done if they had known the “truth” about me. After all, to look at me you’d never know I had mental health issues. Just as I don’t look like someone with a drinking problem. Surely Tori can’t be an alcoholic can she – where’s the brown paper bag concealing a bottle of vodka? How come she sleeps in a bed in a nice home and not on a park bench? That’s what alcoholics do isn’t it??
Brené identifies empathy as the antidote to shame. She says “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgement. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too”
Brené says that rather than weakness, vulnerability is courage: She explains the word courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means “heart” and the original definition was “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart”.
For me, reaching out to others and sharing compassion, saying “me too”and having others do the same for me has been absolutely fundamental. I haven’t yet found a place to do this in real life but the mutual support and comfort I found in the online community is overwhelming. Rather than ashamed, we should feel proud of ourselves for admitting we have a problem and reaching out for help. Asking for help is terrifying. It means exposing our raw vulnerability. It is through vulnerability we can achieve connection. And connection is fundamental.