Mental Illness and My Elephant of Shame


By Nichole Woo

It’s risky, acknowledging an elephant in your psychiatrist’s office. So I looked the other way, pretending to ignore her toxic blend of humiliation and shame. I distracted myself with lies, instead: “I don’t belong here with THAT! This is for people who can’t do life, not me. The baby’s colicky. That’s why I’m on high alert, always clinging to my husband on sleepless nights. These short-circuiting thoughts have an off switch. I just need to find it. Try harder. Get the bootstraps. Pull them up again.

Reason and denial are lousy bedfellows.

“Nichole,” the receptionist called with a sterility rivaling the office décor. A not-so-discreet glass wall separated us—it made me feel right at home. I stepped up to the glass, feeling the eyes of the waiting room crowd in on me. Surely they wondered what I was in for. I flashed my best “I’m not crazy” smile.

I must have failed. Moments later, I sat on the edge of the doctor’s scratchy sofa (sitting not lying), fixated on the brain paperweight just across from me. It sat there mocking me, with paperclips clinging to it like a cruel metaphor. Presiding from behind his oversized mahogany desk, the doctor delivered a disheartening life sentence: “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” (Try playing “glass half full” with those happy adjectives. It doesn’t work.)

A “Not guilty!” denial immediately followed. But in one muddled instant, my life became clear. I suddenly understood why my brain was often stuck on repeat, always taking worry-bait. Why I spent most of fifth grade self-diagnosing brain tumors, appendicitis, and arrhythmia, certain my end was near. The fear was so paralyzing, I could barely eat. Doctors dismissed it as “stomach sensitivity,” and prescribed an antacid. So I lived on Maalox—which really helped—as liquid chalk always does …

I saw why obtrusive thoughts and futile rituals preyed upon my young faith. Communion was terrifying, instead of liberating. Surely my unworthiness to partake incited the wrath of God on my soul. I anguished over my sinfulness and never felt forgiven, no matter how often I asked. (Hopefully, Jesus wasn’t taking the 70 X 7 thing literally.) Reciting the sinner’s prayer was even worse. I never seemed quite saved enough, so I’d keep at it. First hour, second hour, third … Because, what if I didn’t get it exactly right? Add that to braces, bad perms, and friend drama and you get eighth grade nirvana.

My life was one continuous string of what-ifs, dogging me from childhood into adulthood. They infiltrated the waking hours of a life I assumed was “normal.” More years of struggle, more bottles of Purell. Until at 32, in the throes of postpartum anxiety, I couldn’t anymore, and I turned myself in. It was my first step towards freedom, that day on the scratchy couch with the brain and its paperclips.

It didn’t happen overnight. A million co-pays later (and college tuition for my therapists’ kids), the day finally came. Looking my elephant in the eye, I confessed:

“I have a mental illness. I do belong in this room. But that doesn’t mean I don’t belong.”

Truth and elephants are lousy bedfellows.

With each encounter, she inched her giant frame closer to the door. It began when I finally noticed the One next to me. Jesus sat beside me, between stigma and shame, in countless rooms of elephants. He sat, like He did with the woman at the well, and at the tax collector’s table. He touched the leper’s skin and the blind man’s eyes. He turned toward, not away, from the hemorrhaging woman and demon-possessed man–tirelessly entering the spaces of society’s “bottom-feeders.” Then the shamed could unashamedly say, “I belong.” One-by-one, their elephants slinked away.

Others followed Jesus into my room. Each armed with truth that showed shame the door. Truth in the words of my therapist, that this “thing” I had did not have me. That wrapped within my tangled wiring was a beautiful gift, one the world needs. Truth, from health professionals affirming mental illness is just that: a physical illness—not a failure to handle life. Truth in the vulnerability of others, who bravely shared their own elephant encounters. And true acceptance from those who, unable to grasp my fear, grasped my hand instead. As they joined in my captivity, the shame unshackled. Though still bound by OCD, I felt strangely free.

Sisters, there are more rooms, and many more elephants. In the fabric of society, you’ll often find them on the fringes, spaces synonymous with shame: street corners, courtrooms, shelters, rehab. Sometimes you’ll find them in the next cubicle over, or just down the street. These rooms are never tidy. Mostly, they are messy, musty, and foul, because … elephants. Still, Jesus leads us in. For he knows, dear sisters, that when love fills the room, the elephants of shame leave.

About Nichole:

Despite a deep desire to belong, Nichole Woo often finds life nudging her to the margins. She’s been the only girl on the team, the only public speaking teacher afraid of public speaking, the only Caucasian in the extended family photo, and the only mom who lets her kids drink Fanta. She calls the Rockies home, often pretending to be a Colorado native in spite of her flatland origins. Visit her at her blog,