I am so so glad i found this post! I am just learning how much unidentified shame i have been living in. And it can be extremely hard to identify and eventually causes anxiety and depression caused by suppressing it which eventually leads to addictions.I just identified some shame which is what led me to this post. I could feel the underlying depression and anxiety lift as soon as i realized it. And it was over something stupid- searching for info. on a guy i liked/dated kind of on the internet. It ended for good last year with me heart broken. Anyways,a few nights ago i was searching for info. on him on the internet and just now realized, after depression and anxiety, that i felt very ashamed for doing that! And tonight i finally realized all this and the anxiety/depression vanished into thin air immediately. Thank God! I just wish the disconnect would not happen at all but at least i have had great improvement over the years of this happening because way back the anxiety was so bad that it immobilized me into panic attacks in which i could not function.
I remember just always feeling shame. I didn’t know how to name it. I had a crush on a girl, Bitty, in primary school and felt even more shame and not good enough for her on any level. She was lovely. Other kids ignored me but she spoke to me and I felt indestructible. I never forgot that feeling and I craved it from then on because it made my shame go away. I thought my low self-esteem came from gaining loads of weight as a teenager. I thought if I lost weight, I’d be ok. I went on that merry-go-round for years. I finally realised I felt shame regardless of my weight. It was with me literally through thick and thin. Bitty and I went to different high schools and the next time I saw her was when I was 18 and I’d gained a lot of weight. She didn’t recognise me as she walked past with her boyfriend. I felt so wretched in my size 22 skirt. I thought it was weight but was just more shame. Today, I am alone and I am so frustrated by it. I was on facebook and Bitty popped in to my head. I haven’t seen her since I was 18 and I managed to find her on facebook. We are on different continents. She is married with teenage children. I saw her family pictures and it brought stinging tears to my eyes. I don’t have a crush on her but I see what shame has cost me. I feel like my life has been unlived. Joyless. Mechanical.
I am in 12 step fellowships but every now and then I get a reality check. Its progress not perfection but life still hurts.
It seems to bring it out in some people. That holiday gathering during which relatives lounge in front of televisions and watch their favorite teams or their non-favorites, just so announcers’ voices crash the holiday milieu, intruding and pervading. No carols or impromptu guitar sessions. Screw Jingle Bells.
Then comes the raunchy commentary. One year, when our girls were very small, Santa had brought them cloth dolls from different countries. (They were that year’s UNICEF toys, represented by the lovely Audrey Hepburn. To my delight, there were even African American dolls representing the USA.) As the girls played with their dolls in front of the television on the floor, the comments began. Seems that Patrick Ewing was proof that Evolution did occur because he so resembled an ape. That comment drew me into the room because I had just spoken with this man’s wife only moments before while washing dishes. She declared the Bible literal (ie no belief in Evolution). The monkey comments continued. My anger rose. I found myself defending the black race because of a few thugs who had warped these people’s minds. The upshot of the argument? That we should not let our children play with black children because they might want to marry them someday. Furthermore, if I wanted to interact with them, he said, “Move to the ghetto and live with them!” I dropped the “F” bomb that night in front of this family and stormed out, with my bewildered children following me carrying their multi-racial dolls. I missed the festivities the next day and received an apology from the man’s wife a few weeks later. He, however, never apologized. Thank goodness this was not my side of the family.
This year, during a football game over Thanksgiving, the men gathered again for their rah rah session. The announcers loudly yammering, the comments once again flew, revealing an ugly underbelly, one that my husband chose to shield me from. He wouldn’t tell me what was said. He said he knew how I would take it, my disappointment.
This time it was my side of the family, and I am filled with shame.
Small doings can have huge consequences; small moments can slash like mighty samurai swords, so sharp that you don’t realize how deep was the wound until you see yourself falling away from your own body and realize you have been decapitated without your own conscious awareness.
My mother is planning on attending a Thanksgiving Party—preThanksgiving, actually. Thanksgiving will be a neighborhood affair with people who are used to me. This party is with people who do not know me well. I have been away from home for such a long time and oh, yes, some of the other people in this circle will be bringing their children and grandchildren to this preThanksgiving party, but no, my mother has not thought to raise the subject with me. Actually, it is not that she has not thought of it. Keeping me hidden is quite deliberate.
It’s no real surprise. She’s been ashamed of me since I was a child and asked a stranger if he liked my dress. I was 5. She was ashamed of me and my social awkwardness and my sturdy, muscular body that gathered pudge prior to sprouting breasts. Now she is really embarassed—now I am truly and really and sincerely fat, just like she’d always thought I was, long before I truly was. Now I am fat and have radical opinions and I don’t keep pointless secrets and I have no business thinking that anything I say is worth hearing and that people might actually like meeting me. Better that I sit quietly in a corner somewhere inconspicuous so she will not have to admit she knows me, let alone that she is my mother. Better that nobody sees me at all.
Often, it seems, that when people are bound and determined to hurt you, the blow they strike will land with anguishing precision on wounds previously inflicted. The moment I realize precisely how deeply my mother is ashamed of me, the words of my father come back to open up the tempting target of this older wound.
I had mentioned the possibility of finding my biological mother and to this he replied “Why would you want to do that to her? You were her deepest shame.”
When I was four and a half, they described the circumstances of my adoption in the matter-of-fact manner they were taught so as not to traumatize the little adoptee. Little kids are as comfortable with such things as the adults around them, so I thought little of it until that conversation with my father. Until that precise moment, I had not known that my very existence was shameful. This was far bigger than just being who I was. That I had been born at all made me shame embodied—so what was there for it but to go forth and make myself utterly beyond redemption? I did this with verve and enthusiasm, to the point where I grew uncomfortable with it and gave it up for a rather more sedate path. But the shame persisted.
It took a long time and a lot of work to realize that there was no shame in my birth. There is shame in war and abuse and famine and the horrors humans inflict on other humans through cruelty and neglect. But there is no shame in making love and there is no shame in a baby. There is no shame in the size and shape of my body, whatever society says, and their attitude said more about my adoptive parents than it ever did about me.
It still hurts. Of course it does. But I can sit that pain and shame down in a comfy chair with a plate of hors d’ouvres and some sparkling apple cider, a bag of knitting and something fun to watch on TV while I go forth and reach for happiness. Life is too short to waste on shame—it’s over too fast as it is and I have better things to do…
During this season of sharing, won’t you share with us an awkward family Holiday memory? Maybe….shamefully awkward, shamelessly funny?
Internationally beloved Gospel singer Cyndee Peters, seen here with Nelson Mandela, was so inspired by Dancing at the Shame Prom that she wrote a song for us. We are so grateful for you sharing your heart with us, Cyndee!
Wallflower at the Dance
I’ve been thinking for awhile about the title, Dancing at the Same Prom, and the topic of shame. I can’t write about that, I thought. I have nothing to say. Have I felt shame? Ashamed? Of what? To whom? And, moreover, I’m not a confessional person. I don’t write memoir, I don’t blog. For good reason: I’m not famous, haven’t done anything particularly remarkable, and face it, who cares? Then again, I work hard to try and write fiction and we all know what they say about fiction and autobiography.
A number of years ago, before I started writing what I call seriously, I kept a journal of sorts, daily musings that today I guess might be channeled out to the blogosphere and bore most anyone who happened to come across it. However, I loved doing it and it helped organize my life at a time I truly needed the structure of daily work. After a year of this exercise, I decided to write a story. And so it began.
My first novel, Afterthought, was pure fiction. And not. The names were changed, circumstances, location, all of it, really, except various thoughts on the part of the protagonist, a woman of a certain age on a journey. Well, who isn’t? Shameless in ways I’d never thought to be, I loved her, especially when she recalled her ex-husband, an artist, a good artist, who she revered and loved and counted as her best friend for life ever after.
Okay, yeah, I have one of those, too. My ex-husband—one of them, the one that affected me most—was a writer, not a painter, and I’d felt as my character did. That he was my best friend, difficult, smart and talented, I thought we would weather whatever the weather. So many good times, so many tough times.
Our brains work to protect us, weeding out pain—certainly physical, I can attest to that, having survived cancer—but emotional, too. Because if we didn’t we simply couldn’t go on. But if I searched, if I really thought about it long and hard, I would now have to confess a complicity in my own disappointment and unhappiness that is, indeed, shameful.
Because not admitting to ourselves what we see, not recognizing it and not realizing the depth of destruction is, in way shameful. Or certainly nothing to be proud of.
My character hinted at, but didn’t fully admit to abuse, both verbal and physical, often fueled by alcohol. Nor did she see a kind of neglect; her former husband, forever the center of the world, she gave in to what she thought of as “the better artist.”
Not unusual, it happens. History is littered with talented women who gave up or gave in for what they mistakenly thought of as the greater good. Not so wise, not so noble, and yes, to a degree, shameful.
The first time I remember wanting to kill myself, I was 6 years old. Now, as a 56 year old grownup, I understand that my father was a tormented, abandoned toddler, exiled at a boarding school not even in the same country as his parents, and whatever it was happened to my mother, it turned her angry and cold and curiously unwilling to protect my brother and me from my father’s rages.
Little kid me, though, just knew that she was completely unable to make anybody love her, and furthermore, if it was bad in our house, surely it was because of me. I was too friendly, too open, to needy, too loving, too imaginative—Not Like Everybody Else. My experiences at school reassured me that anything I felt was worthless or defective about myself was not just my imagination.
And so I grew up angry and quirky and pretty much friendless, although my Facebook friends from those days don’t seem to remember it that way. It’s likely that I was so embroiled in my own self-hatred that I couldn’t see friendship when it was there. I do remember bullies among them, though, and no one stepping forward to put a stop to them.
When I look back, my past seems like an endless wash of pain where no face turned my way was friendly. I knew with perfect certainty that it was because I was fat (145 lbs of solid muscle—really?), ugly (not when I look at those pictures now), intrinsically defective in such a way as to make anybody who met me detest me on sight (okay, that still happens, but I am more bemused by it now than wounded). How do I describe a young life where neither father nor mother turn a tender eye, where a brother did nothing but ravage, despise, and manipulate his way into getting everythig even as he gloated that I got nothing? How do I convey the endless pain of knowing that family occasions would be unending stretches where at best I was merely tolerated?
Honestly, if I hadn’t lived it, reading this, I would think I was being melodramatic and self-pitying—except it was true.
Some kids might have been crushed and in many ways, I was. But there was a part of me that stood up and raged against this fate. I *knew* this was no way to treat a little kid. Kids are for love. Kids are treasures. Kids are for tenderness and cuddles and protection. It was so unjust to take a normally imperfect kiddo and make her into the family curse—if we just didn’t have this horrific child, we’d be a great family.
Anger, however, did not serve me well. It made them detest me all the more. Reason didn’t, either. No amount of trying to talk to my parents and understand what they were doing—or to reason them out of it—made the slightest difference. Instead, it brought more abuse. Nothing helped. And the so-called ‘helping professionals?’ They were largely my parents’ flunkies and spent lots of time telling me why my parents were right about me and how I just needed to be mindlessly obedient. Certainly nobody believed my stories of life when the doors closed at my house.
So I hid from the world. I would go to the library and return with two piles of books over my head and have them finished by the end of the weekend. I had to go to school and I had to go to swim practice, but that was all I truly had to do. The rest of the time I would appear for meals and then retreat again. It kept me alive and I know more about fairy tales than you would believe.
I was 15 when my mother turfed me out of my room. “Get up! Go somewhere! DO something!”
I think she probably regretted those words ever after that. Off I went into the world outside and found a hippy counseling center and from there I kind of exploded. I really never went home again. From there I discovered that it was less painful to sleep on a damp mattress on stairs, covered in bugs, than to be home in my own bed knowing they hated me. I discovered that being used by men (with the occasional happy discovery of someone sweet) was indistinguishable from love when you didn’t really know what that was in the first place. I discovered that drag queens make great moms, but they weren’t legally able to help me stop spinning out of control. I discovered that the foster system can be scary, but a juvenile institution is far more terrifying.
I emerged from the mire—which I have described as slogging through cold molasses liberally laced with razor wire—by marrying my daughter’s father—and it was shortly after my daughter’s birth that began my deepest and most bitter shame. I dreamed of loving my little child. I dreamed of giving her a perfect childhood, buoyed with love, cocooned in tenderness. I dreamed of giving her everything I had not had. I dreamed that if I could just do NOTHING of what I had done to me and ALL of what I had craved so desperately, I would give my beautiful baby the happiest childhood imaginable.
But what I did not realize, what I did not dream or imagine, was that I would be so ravaged by my upbringing, that I would have so few emotional and psychological tools, that the PTSD the whole thing had given me, would crush most of those dreams. Oh, I got better. I worked with focus and intensity at becoming a good mom, but the truth is, I was drowning in the swamp of my own internal horrors—and where I went, I dragged my precious girl with me.
I tell you that when I allow myself to think about it, and I am driving, I have to pull over to the side of the road because I am weeping so hard I cannot see to drive. She Never Deserved Any Of It. People have tried to assuage my grief and horror by telling me I did my best, that I had no tools—even she (now grown) has said it. But all I can do is see that sweet little face in my mind’s eye and think of the things I did that harmed her, or how my stupidity, my need for love, put her in the path of people who hurt her, who made her shy and doubting of her own worth.
Now we are close. I revel in her and in my granddaughter. She has had a grownup life with travails and triumphs of her own—but I have raised a woman who is an *awesome* mother. I am married to a man who adores me. I have a good education, a good job. I am finally fully realizing so many of my talents. But here inside, where I am still six and wanting to die, where I am 15 and being used by men old enough to have been arrested for it, where I am all those small, shamed, uncertain things—here I am still wailing not nearly so much for my own pain but for the pain I passed on.
I am sorry. I am so, so sorry. I am sorry. And I am not sure that I can ever, ever forgive myself.
Reading Dancing at the Shame Prom, though, has shown me that we all have profound shame, and that inside, many of us are still small, sad, scared and self-loathing. I may have a long way to go, but I am beginning to see it is possible to stand up and wade out of it…
From Cathy Speck:
It’s just like you’ve heard in stories or seen on TV. Yup, inside the Drunk Tank at the Police Station or county jail, it’s true. Yup. I was instructed to put on a bright orange jumpsuit but not before being strip- searched. And yes, they did look “up there.” Not sure what they’d find up there—maybe another bottle Bud Light? Or maybe they’d find a capsule of vacuum- wrapped self respect. I sure didn’t have it anywhere else in my body.
I wasn’t even drunk, not by my standards. Sure, I drank a pitcher of beer with my friends at Round Table Pizza, and do mean I drank it. And then I went out dancing while my friends went home to be boring. I felt like dancing and making out—boy or girl, it didn’t matter
I drove a few miles to a bar where some dyke friends of mine played in band. Had three more beers and practically had sex on the dance floor with some guy by rubbing against his hard on. But I didn’t actually want his penis inside of me anywhere, so I left to drive myself home. Bright orange jump suit. Padded walls, no chair or cot or pillow—-nothing except a stainless steel toilet with no seat and no toilet paper in the middle of the cell. My “roommate” was a woman who was truly drunk, crying, hands on her head with her hair all matted with sweat and who knows what. Loudly sobbing about how her boyfriend was gonna kill her her when he found out about this.
Oh Gawd, shut up. Five years before this night I was the valedictorian of our esteemed high school, awarded athlete, honor student with scholarship offers from Yale and UC Berkeley. The expectations haunted me like a siren screaming at me to pull over.
I wanted my life to be over. Failure.
I was an alcoholic, anorexic, bulimic, self-mutilator. Humiliated, I wanted out of this world, but I couldn’t even get out of jail free. Yup. The Drunk Tank . It was true.