Are you Ashamed of Being Sick and Broke?

On a uniquely American predicament that nearly killed me

The absence of universal health care in the US can cost you years of your life.

I lost five after major depressive disorder felled me in 2013. As the illness did away with my writing voice, it annihilated my livelihood and catapulted my household into hardship.

And then it began to erase me as a person and a wife.

Not that the highway back to mental health wasn’t always obvious: therapy. But because my household had to survive on one salary, there was no money for insurance co-pays, at least not if we wanted to keep a roof over our heads and a little food in the pantry.

Depression became a source of shame as guilt took hold because I felt directly responsible for our financial woes.

As long as health remains a commodity and a privilege instead of a basic human right, sickness will continue to be shameful.

The shame and despair inherent to my circumstances often led me to consider taking my own life. Putting an end to my miserable existence would be the only way to provide some relief to everyone inconvenienced by it, not least myself.

And then I realized my husband wouldn’t even be able to afford a funeral .

Even in death, I’d be an extra bill.

As long as I couldn’t understand the genesis of my depression, shame endured.

In December 2016, I became a US citizen so I would be free to exercise my first amendment rights without fear of deportation. Even though I was still unable to string two words together back then, there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d eventually go back to writing and journalism.

What’s more, I wanted to sample American pride for myself. Like many people around the world, I experienced Obama’s election and re-election with elation. As I watched America embrace a forward momentum that would have been unthinkable a few years prior, I felt that I too could be at home here someday.

That illusion was shattered on Nov 8, 2016.

“Do you still want to go through with naturalization?” my husband asked. I had filed in the spring with the intent to vote but so had thousands of other immigrants, causing a sudden nationwide backlog. I replied I would because lead times indicated it’d likely happen during the tail end of the Obama administration.

Which it did.

On the day of the ceremony, we watched a video message from the White House. Even though I had my best impassible face on, I felt my cheeks getting wet as I gritted my teeth and clenched my jaw.

I haven’t unclenched it since.

Under the Trump administration, Americanness has become shameful for many.

And now this shame of mine has taken on a life of its own. I’m spending the rest of 2019 in the EU so I can be there for my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer. Alas, I’m being frequently asked to explain America to them as they watch, aghast, what the current administration is doing.

I’m a mortified American in America and I’m a mortified American in Europe.

Thankfully, I’ve kept my EU passport and am unlikely to ever surrender it.

Where there’s shame, there’s anger.

In my case, this anger stems from being constantly belittled and dehumanized by a society that commodifies people.

America worships the nineteenth letter of the English alphabet adorned with two vertical strokes because it’s the only tangible deity there is. And the consequences of such a ruthless and unforgiving take on our shared humanity is plain for all to see.

Sick people without means are left to struggle and often die. Fundraising has become a necessary part of survival. Anyone with an invisible illness is under constant suspicion of malingering, sometimes even in their own home.

And when you can’t afford help to get well, depression crushes you.

While shame turned me into a hermit, anger was my redemption and saving grace as it forced me to articulate all that had been festering inside for years.

And so I took to the page again, clumsy, tentative, awkward and wobbly to try and save my own life. The more I unpacked all that ailed me, the more people related, the more shame I shed.

Shame is born out of fear of judgment, our own and that of others.

I had internalized the belief depression has rendered me worthless, and felt a great deal of shame about being ill, unable to work, and broke.

To dispel it, I first had to do a lot of digging.

There’s no prevention against depression, alas.

It’s an illness that can happen to anyone at any time.

When I understood I was genetically predisposed to mental illness and that my depression was likely reactive, I was able to breathe easier. That my unusual life before immigration and current circumstances might have something to do with my brain malfunctioning shed more light on the matter.

Those facts gave me my writing voice back as I turned the pen on myself to try and recycle my experience into mental health advocacy.

Using shame as fuel, the unspeakable usually kept under wraps by stigma and fear of retribution became copy. On at least one occasion, this resulted in public humiliation, which I translated into a learning experience and yet more copy.

As with everything else, shame is a matter of perspective and pushing back against vexatious commenters can help dispel it.

I stand by everything I write and I’m only half as ashamed as I was when I started. With every published piece, depression becomes that little more manageable as I recover a sense of self that went missing for years.

Shame thrives in darkness but exposing its causes will make it self-destruct.

While we have no control over the advent of depression nor what it does, sharing our experience of it can free us from taboos and stigma.

Eventually, a broken brain will be as self-evident as a broken toe, and mental health will be referred to as just health.

Even in America.

💛 If you enjoyed these words, please consider supporting my work with a modest cup of coffee. It’s cheaper than 🍽 and it keeps me warm. Merci! 🐱

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