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Carly Keyes: Leaving my shame behind

By Carly Keyes, Daily Health and Fitness Columnist
Published February 6, 2014

“I’m sorry for your pain.”

That’s what someone told me recently after hearing a song I wrote for my upcoming album, and it’s not the first time. It’s not the first time that someone’s recognized the unmistaken, palpable agony in my voice and lyrics and then apologized for the evident, all-consuming pain.

I don’t share openly about my trials with mental illness because I want sympathy. At one point in my life, sympathy was like oxygen; I needed it to survive. But I don’t need it today. I’m not sorry for my pain. I am sorry that I thought I ever needed to hide it.

I speak up despite the social stigma because I’m hoping it might encourage others to do the same — to feel comfortable enough to share their struggles with mental illness, too. I used to think that my problems — alcoholism, depression, perfectionism — were so unique. But I quickly learned that it’s not my struggles that are unique; it’s my willingness to share about them.

Every time I watch “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and I hear James Lipton ask his guests during the famous exit interview, “What is your least favorite word?” I know my answer: Shame. It’s an ugly word, it’s an awful emotion and it’s killing people left and right by keeping them from asking for the help they so desperately need.

In my last column, I focused on another emotion, fear, and how letting it run my life will dampen my dreams and prevent me from living life to the fullest. But if I let shame fester and infiltrate my soul, this toxic emotion will prevent me from living period . It’ll get me alone, keep me alone and prey on my self-worth until there’s nothing left.

I’ll never know the true extent of the harm I caused while in my addiction as I spent hours upon hours blacked out, but I do vividly remember plenty of embarrassing, shudder-worthy incidents, and these memories constantly tempt me to spiral into a shame attack: I drove drunk hundreds of times — with unsuspecting passengers in my car — and got arrested twice (the first time I was in a bathing suit). I spent two weeks in Oakland County jail. I woke up next to men whose names I never learned. I stole from my loved ones and blamed it on other people. I lied and lied and lied and lied … and while today the idea of taking my own life sounds more than foreign, at one time it wasn’t. At one time, I was in that place.

I remember first hearing about the concept of suicide as a young girl, and it confused me. I didn’t understand what might lead someone to viewing death as a viable option — until that someone became me on a Sunday night in the fall of 2009. I remember it was a Sunday because I had been watching an awards show with my younger sister earlier that evening. I love my sister dearly, and some of the best memories I have are of us making music together, whether onstage or in the studio. The beautiful sound of our voices blending together is a fitting metaphor for our relationship — harmony at its best.

But even though I had the love of my sister, a devoted family and sea of friends in my heart and an abundance of passion for athletics, academics and art in my soul, I also had a physical ailment in my brain: A vicious pair of mental health disorders known as addiction and depression, and I was drowning in a well of shame — filled to the brim and spilling over the edges — and instead of swimming, I decided it would be easier just to sink. Yes, that night I decided that it would be better to die than admit that I was an alcoholic suffering from depression who couldn’t get sober and stay happy when left to my own devices. I had too much shame about my conditions to ask for help … even from my own sister.

So, I said good-bye to her for what I thought would be the last time, drove to Meijer, bought a fifth of Jack Daniels and began to down a bottle of painkillers I’d saved from when I had my wisdom teeth removed. I didn’t even think to write a note; I just wanted it all to be over with. But for once in my life, I’d never been happier that I’d failed at something. I woke up the next morning, and emotionally I had reached a new level of pain that I can only appropriately and entirely express when I have a guitar in my hands or piano keys at my fingertips.

I immediately called my family, entered a treatment center and learned all about my co-morbid biological diseases called addiction and depression. I began to slowly rid myself of the inappropriate shame I carried as a result of having these conditions. Some of the best medical professionals in the field taught me that it’s not my fault; it’s not a choice I made. Addiction, depression, any and every mental health disorder, is a disease and a physical illness of the brain that requires treatment.

Just as a broken leg needs a cast, I have an injured brain — the body’s most essential organ — but while a broken leg can fully heal and return to its normal state, treating a mental health disorder is not a quick fix situation, nor is it permanent, but the healing process starts by removing the shame factor — realizing that a mental illness does not make someone an immoral or a weak or a “less-than” individual.

About three weeks ago, I came across a piece of news that rocked my world: A beautiful, 19-year-old freshman track-star at the University of Pennsylvania had jumped off of a parking garage to her death.

My empathy grew when I read that she had also been a standout soccer player in high school, and my heart broke as I gazed upon a photo of her dressed head to toe, smiling ear to ear, in a familiar outfit: A vibrant, bright red and dark blue Penn athletics uniform. Though I wasn’t at the point of contemplating suicide when I was a D1 student-athlete at Penn, it was during that time when depression had settled in and drenching my demons in alcohol was at an all-time high.

In 2011, the American College Health Association — National College Health Assessment — a nationwide survey of college students at 2- and 4-year institutions — found that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year. More than 6 percent of college students reported seriously considering suicide, and about 1 percent reported attempting suicide in the previous year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24.

Then just a little over three days ago, I got some more world-rocking news: Philip Seymour Hoffman had died from a heroin overdose. I’m a film major; I write for the Daily’s film section and have always admired Hoffman as an incredibly talented actor, but I failed to realize that that this unmatched artistic talent was also just a regular human — a father of three children — who battled a deadly mental illness everyday of his life. My empathy peaked when I came across a 2006 interview that he gave for “60 Minutes” where he briefly spoke about his sobriety. Not only had he gotten sober, but he had done so at age 22 and had been in recovery for 23 years until he relapsed.

I will certainly remember Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of the greatest actors I’ve ever witnessed, but I will, too, remember him as a man who fought valiantly to treat his illness … to the best of his abilities. This is the especially awful fact about addiction and mental illness in general: Not only does it require treatment, it requires chronic treatment due to its chronic nature, and so despite more than two decades without putting drugs or alcohol in his system, Hoffman wasn’t cured. It’s a sad yet important reminder for me that despite three years without alcohol in my system, I’m certainly not cured either.

In fact, 40 to 60 percent of drug addicts in recovery will eventually relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which calls relapse “not only possible but also likely,” and users of opioid drugs like heroin have a much higher relapse rate than other addicts — as high as 80 percent or above.

A beautiful, gifted track-star at an Ivy League school. One of the greatest actors of all-time. My roommate from treatment who put a gun to her head. My friend who overdosed on heroin. Another friend who hung herself. Another friend who died from choking on her own vomit after an alcohol binge — they all suffered from mental illness, and I just wish they would have shared their pain when they needed to most.

Somewhere along the line we learned that asking for help is a sign of weakness and that sharing our feelings is for wimps and that going to therapy is for crazy people. But what’s really crazy is trying to recover from a mental disorder alone and acting like we’re just fine, when we’re really struggling inside and letting the misinformed opinions of other people cause us to feel shame and affect our decision to stay silent about our pain.

Am I sorry about worrying my friends and family with my erratic and dangerous behavior? Of course, I am. I’m endlessly sorry for what I put my sister through that night when I thought that death was not only an option but the only one, for the countless lives I endangered while driving drunk, for the copious wrongs I’ve done to others, but I can’t change the past nor should I dwell upon it too intently. I can only live in the present and take care of myself by overcoming the shame that’s been inappropriately attached to mental health disorders and sharing my pain by using productive coping skills … like this column.

So, to anyone and everyone who struggles with a stigmatized mental disorder or has lost someone you love far too soon to addiction, suicide from depression, or from the devastating consequences of any untreated mental health disorder, have no shame, share your pain and you will always have my deepest empathy.