Sometimes I get homework.
Sometimes I avoid the crap out of homework because I know it will make me feel, and feelings are bad because they make you pay attention to the truth. I know, ‘the truth will set you free‘, blah, blah. But, in my experience, the truth will actually tackle you to the ground and cover you with seventeen tons of shit until you’re laying face-down wondering how the hell you ended up there and how long you’ve been down and out for. But alas, two years ago I set out on journey towards a radical commitment to the truth, so I shall eat my words and enter the shit-storm of reality.
My homework this time was to write about SHAME.
Even reading that line back makes me want to crawl into a hole. As the Queen of Bullshit (it’s a magical kingdom that has probably taken me fifteen years to build), I am extraordinarily good at convincing myself that I have no emotions. I can say this now, because I’ve slowly learned how to identify some feelings, but there was a time – like, twenty years’ worth of time – that I had no idea what an emotion was. Around five years ago, I had found myself part of an online support group for survivors of abuse. It was a strange dynamic at the best of times but probably saved me from the depths of my craziness more often than I’d care to imagine. There would be daily online support chats, and every time I’d sign in, someone would ask the question that I fear the most; “How are you?“. This wasn’t the kind of community that was open to bullshit and avoidance, so merely answering that you were okay was generally not an option. At that time, I quite literally had no idea how to answer the question, though. I didn’t know what an emotion or feeling was. I didn’t know how to notice when I was feeling anything or when I was numb. I couldn’t even figure out whether I was feeling positive or negative let alone name an emotion.
Around the same time I had been sent on my wonderful ten-week assertiveness course (mentioned here) by my boss who was tired of me being afraid of anything and everything. During the two or three sessions that I actually decided to go to (instead of sitting in a bar drinking wine and pretending to have gone), we were given a handout titled, ‘The Blob Tree‘ and were asked to say which ‘blob’ character we currently identified with. As I sat with this piece of paper that had clearly been designed to help five-year-olds learn about emotions, I stared blankly at each blob trying to understand what they each represented. Honestly, I had no fucking clue. The women before me had all talked for an uncomfortable amount of time about the deep emotions their ‘blob’ was representing and how every aspect of their lives felt as raw and unbearable as the picture version of themselves. I’m fairly certain my internal response to each of them was something along the lines of ‘Literally what the fuck are you talking about?‘ It was my turn. I attempted to will the building to explode to no avail. Trying to psychically make the ticking of the wall clock speed up so the session would be over did not work either. Eventually, after my face had felt like it was on fire for long enough, I somehow decided that I was the blob on the top-right of the tree. It looked adequately indignant and I guess I was hoping the facilitator would think that I was just an angry asshole and would choose to leave me alone so as not to cause an outburst. WRONG. Well, not wrong, she did think I was an angry asshole but she wanted me to elaborate and share with a group of strangers – who all seemed to be in competition about whose lives were the worst – why it is that I chose that blob. Mumbling that I didn’t know wasn’t very well received and she pushed again to get an explanation. So, I did what any put-together, responsive and mature adult would do; I grabbed my purse and jacket and ran the fuck away never to return again.
So, it is safe to say that I’m definitely not well-versed in this realm. But slowly, through the help of a few more advanced badasses, I’ve been able to recognize certain emotions over the years. I say that, it’s actually usually me being stubborn and avoidant and generally an asshole and them having to pull me down and tell me which emotion I’m projecting and to stop being a douche. During some of the harder (real) conversations, I’d say that nine times out of ten I end up being completely smothered and derailed by shame. It washes over me like a dark wave of tar and I often enter panic mode because of it. It is the hardest feeling for me to process and overcome, and I usually need to be dragged out of it by someone who can see it happening to me from the outside.
Shame for me has manifested in so many ways since I was a really young child. Messages that were the result of things that happened to me became ingrained in my mind and they literally shaped the way that I view myself, my worth, the world and my place in it. One core message has been echoed in so many aspects of my life and it has served to solidify my ‘truth’ for years. The message is this: ‘What you want doesn’t matter‘.
When a child becomes forced into situations beyond their control, when they cannot defend themselves, cannot think straight, cannot fight hard enough or loud enough and cannot verbalize to anyone around them what they are going through, they become stuck. Stuck in the belief that what is happening must be a result of them being innately bad at their very core. A result of them being unworthy of good things, deserving of pain and soul-destroying abuse, because if they were better behaved, or more grown up, or stronger or louder, then the abuse wouldn’t have happened. Ergo, everything is their fault and they should be ashamed of themselves for being such a disgusting, powerless, eight-year-old idiot. Forward twenty-plus years and you have an adult who still fundamentally believes that what she wants doesn’t matter. Everyone else’s feelings, needs, requests come before theirs and because she is inferior in every way, she must not even entertain her own desires and needs. Why? Because since that eight-year-old supposedly dug her own grave by not being good/strong/quiet/loud/[insert blank] enough, the abuse cycle continued, bullies got the better of her, anyone with any kind of authority or social superiority scared her into a corner of helplessness and fear, comparison became a daily toxic battle and she doesn’t know how to get out of the shame cycle long enough to stand up for, or believe in herself. And the thing that started it all? SHAME. (I’d like to interject with the fact that my mind just went to an episode of Friends where Phoebe was put in charge of cups and ice for Rachel’s Birthday party: “Check it out! Cup hat, cup banner, cup chandelier, and the thing that started it all, the cup!”).
Segue. Did I mention my fantastic attention span?
So, shame. When I am triggered into PTSD reactions (fear, numbing, avoidance, dissociation, flashbacks, hostility, isolation, hyper-vigilance), I get beyond frustrated. Even simple things like having a really terrible memory and feeling like I’m letting people down when I can’t remember recent conversations sends me into a spiral of shame. Like I’m not even good enough to remember important things about the people I care about, who the F does that? Oh, right, selfish, bad people do that. When I’m experiencing body memories of things that were done to me, I want to hide in a dark room for weeks and avoid everyone because I feel like people will know what’s happening inside and will tell me that I’m a disgusting piece of crap. My body crawls and my bones ache and I want to rip the skin off of me until I can escape the shame. Some days when I struggle to get out of bed and lay staring blankly thinking about all of the terrible things that I’ve done, I can feel the shame pinning me down and I feel trapped, all-consumed by this dark ‘thing’ that I can feel but I can’t touch.
This morning was one of those days. Two days ago my employer told me that I was a disappointment because I had turned in my resignation letter. I went home and cried and threw up. The shame-cloud has been low and heavy. I am a disappointment, I have let people down, everyone will hate me, I don’t deserve a better job, I should have stayed and continued to be miserable every day. Last night I had gone for a run with some friends and became triggered early into the loop – we were supposed to run in trails for a short portion of the route and I was irrationally full of dread. I wanted to slow down because my breathing was becoming shallow and my stomach began to cramp. Every headlight from a car felt like it was piercing my eyes. Every bell from a passing bike caused my spine to tense up and for me to enter panic mode. Every pounding of every step on the sidewalk felt like the thudding of my racing heart. The reassurance from a friend did nothing to calm me down and I ended up stopping and throwing up all over the floor of the bathroom in a building that we were running past. Instead of being kind to myself and trying to be compassionate, all I could feel was shame. I’d ruined a friend’s run because she was kind enough to stay with me and make sure I got back safely. I’d embarrassed myself by puking and not being able to continue the run. I tried for a few moments to convince myself that I’d stopped running because I was too fat and that I threw up because I was out of shape. Good one. I hated myself for ‘letting’ PTSD ruin someone else’s evening. I was paranoid that she would tell everyone that her run was cut short because of me, and that nobody would ever want to run with or near me in case I wreck their training, etc., etc., etc.. I made it to a yoga class after the run and dissociated for most of it. I went straight to bed when I got home and woke up with a blinding headache that is still trying to kill me. My very first thought when I opened my eyes was, why did you do that to your friend? I rolled over and saw that I had a text from her telling me that I hadn’t destroyed her run and that she was glad she was there to make sure I was okay. My reaction? Bury my head under my pillows and utter words of self-criticism and self-hate for two hours.
Over the years I’ve done some pretty dumb shit in an attempt to rid myself of shame; purging, over-exercising, laxative abuse, drinking until I black out, meaningless sex, filling my time with helping others and consuming myself with other people’s needs, purposely triggering myself into dissociation for days at a time so that I wouldn’t have to feel or live the shame. They’re all coping mechanisms with the sole purpose of trying to avoid feeling or processing the shame or uncovering the true feelings and emotions. I’m told time and time again – sometimes daily – that the shame is not mine to bear. The shame belongs with those who chose to abuse/assault me. But hearing those words provokes a body reaction that I can’t stand, the feeling of true hurt and pain, and so I fight it, I get bitchy and hostile, I project my pain onto the people who are trying to help me and I argue and kick and scream in an attempt to convince people that I’m right and that I am disgusting and do deserve all of the shit that has happened to me. Because, in all honesty, it seems easier than the truth that they try to open my eyes to.
But then I’m asked to think about a child that I know who is the same age as I was the first time I was molested. It’s usually easy as I have a beautiful goddaughter who is three. I’m asked to picture her and to imagine how I would react if she had come to me and told me that somebody was hurting her. How would I react if I found out in five-years’ time that a grown adult was abusing her on a regular basis. I usually feel like I’m going to pass out when I think about it. Would I blame her? Absolutely not. Would I tell her that she is a disgusting piece of shit and that she should stay quiet and small and not tell anyone else because nobody would believe her and everyone would run away from her? Nope. Would I be mad at her? No. Would I hate her? No. Would I try to convince her that she should harm herself and become secretive and destructive and deal with things alone? No way. So how can I possibly justify doing any of those things to myself, to the small, innocent child that I was? Because shame tells me to. Because the knowing adults told me that they were raping me because I wasn’t able to make them climax quickly enough. Because I was told that if I was better or smarter or more cooperative, then nothing bad would ever have happened. Because I was told that I was a slut. Because I was told that if I did X, Y, or Z then A, B or C would happen and it was always true. Because I was told that if I screamed and someone heard me I would be killed. Because as an adult I was threatened that worse things would happen if I went to the police and that they wouldn’t believe me anyway. But when I think of it from an outside perspective, my double-standards are glaringly obvious. I can’t deny them or argue them away. Shame has created an impossible standard, impossible rules and impossible ‘truths’ that dictate my life and prevent me from being or achieving my true potential. And it is bullshit.
So now what? Now the work begins. Over the past few years people have confided in me some of their deepest, most painful secrets. Some are stories of abuse, others not. But every single one of them has been laced with heartbreaking shame and fear and stigma. Strangers have thanked me for starting a blog that I truly didn’t believe people would read, telling me that I have given a voice to their story. For the longest time I have been afraid of my voice, of my story, of what my truth meant about me as a person and what others would think of me if they knew the real me. But, in sharing, I have been reminded that I’m not alone and that I have come a LONG way in the past seven or eight years. I have realized that what I have to say matters and that I have a sense of responsibility to be the voice for those who are strugglng in silence. I don’t say the word ‘responsibility’ in the burden sense, but my (and your) healing and commitment to speakng the truth impacts other people whether we care to admit that or not. I’ve seen friends come out of their shells a little more and be bold in their lives. I’ve seen people attempting to be brave in their own journeys, either through sharing their own struggles or by putting themselves out there and sitting in the discomfort of someone else’s shit as a friend or support. I’m fortunate enough to have been surrounded by amazingly accepting people and although a large part of me wanted to crawl back into my hole and hope that my words would disappear from people’s memories, it isn’t going to happen. And that’s okay, because I’m done. Shame can go fuck itself. I will take your shame and tell it to fuck itself, too.
A friend recently drew my attention to this amazing piece of writing called She was Done by Adrienne Pieroth. If there’s one thing you do today, let it be to read this. I was asked as part of this homework to write my own ‘She was Done’-type of list. I don’t think I’m there yet (because I’m avoidant, scared and stubborn, ha, but also because I think the original is perfect enough and I’d likely butcher it), but every single line of that article reached me on a level that I can’t really describe. I could write the exact same thing and really want to fully believe and mean it, but some things in there are a work in progress that I have just started, others are things that have been on my ‘to-do’ list for several years but scare me to say aloud, but they are all things that I aspire to one day be able to say with 100% conviction, that I am done with.
Today, it seems I’m done letting my shame and pain and self-hate dictate every waking moment of my life. I am done feeling guilty for being on this journey called life and I am done apologizing for the path that I’ve walked. No, I can’t wave a magic wand, nor am I naive enough to believe that writing that sentence will transform me into a confident woman who loves herself and doesn’t feel shame or pain. It will be a grueling, miserable, mind-fuck of a process, but I am done succumbing to the helplessness and fear that was instilled in me by sick individuals and reinforced because I couldn’t see past the shame-cloud of sexual abuse. I didn’t choose to be abused, and although there are things that I believe I could and should have done differently, I can say from a purely logical standpoint that I did not pursue any of the things that happened to me, and so the amount of shame that I feel does not belong on my shoulders.
What are you done with today?