Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Shame, Shame Go Away



Let’s talk about shame. It’s a word we’re all familiar with yet we never discuss. I started talking about shame a lot about five years ago. I was going to an adoption support group while we were waiting to adopt our second child and the subject came up quite a bit. In case you don’t know, there is a lot of shame in adoption. Birthmoms feel shame for placing their babies. (FYI, the term is “placing” or “making an adoption plan” NOT “giving up”). Adoptive parents feel shame for their infertility (the most common reason why we adopt). Adoptees feel shame for being “rejected and unwanted” (although this is not necessarily true most of the time). These are just a few examples of the shame involved in the adoption world.


Shame isolates us; puts a big dark cloud over our lives, yet I am willing to bet all the money I have (which isn’t much) that the majority of the population is living with something they are ashamed of. It can be something miniscule like not having a four-year college degree or not knowing how to swim (Both would be me. There. I said it. Phew!) Or it can be a biggie like drug addiction or alcoholism. The fact is we are surrounded by shame in some form or another. And if it isn’t us personally that has the “shameful” thing, then you probably have a family member or friend that does. Think about these and how many have affected you or someone you know:


Drug addiction ~ Alcoholism ~ DUI ~ HIV/AIDS ~ Sexual abuse ~ Rape ~ Domestic Violence ~ Suicide ~ Obesity ~ Eating Disorder ~ Incest ~ Infidelity ~ Divorce ~ Abortion ~ Infertility ~ Adoption ~ Pregnancy Loss ~ Stillbirth ~ OCD ~ STD ~ Anxiety ~ Depression ~ Phobias ~ Kleptomania ~ Mental Illness ~ Homosexuality ~ Transgender ~ Bullying ~ Crime ~ Jail ~ Hoarding ~ Learning Disabilities


I can check off 28 out of the 32 on the list. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Think about it. If you struck up a conversation with me on 28 of these topics, I could relate to you having either experienced them myself or knowing someone who has. Disclaimer: I’m not saying these are in fact shameful things by any means. I’m not saying that you should be ashamed if you or someone you know has been affected by these. I am simply mentioning them because I think these have the potential to trigger shame in most people.


Brené Brown (my idol whom I reference a lot) is a shame researcher. Her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” touches on the topic of cultivating shame resilience (among other things). She writes “Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing we can do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” In other words, let go of the shame we impose on ourselves for things through which most of us are actually connected. Brené writes…”Shame and fear can’t tolerate a powerful connection surging between people.”


When I was in high school, I don’t think I shared with very many people about the huge fights I would have with my dad. Maybe I did. I’m such a blabber mouth and open book that I probably did. But I don’t remember doing it much – at least not with too many of my friends. (If you remember me telling you about my fights with dad, please message me.) It’s not a good feeling to feel unimportant in your own father’s life. It’s shameful. So I didn’t go around telling everyone about it. I also didn’t go around disclosing how my mom died. She died of cirrhosis of the liver which is commonly associated with alcoholism. My mother was not an alcoholic but I carried a lot of shame around her cause of death (I don’t think I’ve ever told that to anyone – except my husband). I would lie and say my mom died of liver cancer. When I got a little older I started saying “liver disease” but still I always felt like a big liar. Eventually, I put on my big girl underpants and starting saying cirrhosis which would always lead to “Oh. Was she an alcoholic?” It was as if suddenly they didn’t feel so sorry that she had died ‘cause you know…she must have had it coming with all that drinking. Ugh. So I’d explain how she got the cirrhosis and then I’d see the judgment fade from their faces. Now I know better and I say “cirrhosis of the liver caused by Hepatitis C”. Done!


At the end of the day, I think all we want is to feel like we are not alone. We want to feel heard and understood. We want to know that we matter and that we belong. We are all connected in one way or another, we just have work up the courage to let our shame go and share our “dirty little secrets” (with the right people) in order to get the compassion we long for.

*****

On Sunday, December 20, I arrived in Buenos Aires with my dad and Felicia for four weeks. (I took an extra two weeks of winter break from school and brought all of my schoolwork with me.) Every time I went back to Buenos Aires it was like I re-charged. I left my “normal” life behind and I had another life there. I don’t know how to explain it. Life there was so different from here. I felt alive and free whenever I was there. Even though my dad and Felicia were there too, I didn’t have to deal with them or see them. They were staying somewhere else while I was at my aunt’s house. I was able to pretty much do whatever I wanted and I didn’t have to answer to anyone. (At home, things were like that too, actually. I didn’t have a curfew and I didn’t have to give too many explanations about where I was going or who I was going with. I have often thought that my dad was very lucky that I was a good girl and stayed out of trouble of my own doing because I could have easily gone the other way.)


Within the first five days of being there, Robbie and I had about three or four arguments. In fact, we had a lot of arguments during that trip. I didn’t write in my journal what they were all about but I did write about a few of them. One of them (and I actually remember this one without reading about it in my journal) was on Christmas Eve. If you know me, you know that I love to dance. Love, love, love it! Well, I loved it even more when I was 17. So, when I was at a party on Christmas Eve with my whole family and Robbie, I didn’t even think twice about dancing with my cousin and what Robbie would think. Dancing is instinctive in me. I hear a good song = I dance.


I already knew from my previous trip in June that Robbie did not approve of me going dancing. He hated it with a passion. During that trip, he had asked me not to do it anymore. At first I didn’t agree to his request. I told him that I didn’t do it to meet guys (I didn’t) and that I only danced with friends (I did). I had started going dancing shortly after my mom died, when I was 16. My friend Jessica loved to dance just as much as I did. Jessica, Sara, and I would go to Sensations (an under 21 club) in Anaheim or to Studio K (a club inside Knott’s Berry Farm) a lot. When I wasn’t going with Jessica and Sara, I was going with my cousins who loved to dance just as much too. Anyway, by the end of that trip, somehow, for some delirious reason, I promised Robbie I wouldn’t go dancing anymore. Well, as you can guess, that promise didn’t last long.


Anyway, so back to Christmas Eve…I take back that I said I didn’t think twice about what Robbie would think. That’s a lie. I knew Robbie would not like it but I simply didn’t give a shit. I cared more about dancing than about the tantrum that would ensue afterward. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. He pouted and as I wrote in my journal “had a cow and got all bent out of shape”. I was never the type of girlfriend that liked to be told what to do. I didn’t deal well with orders or expectations and least of all jealousy. Robbie didn’t order me to stop dancing but he expected me to behave in a certain way and that just wasn’t going to happen with me. He was also very jealous and that was another thing that drove me nuts. I didn’t understand what the hell there was to be jealous of me dancing with my GIRL cousin??? I didn’t stop him from dancing with me. He could have joined in the fun if he had wanted to. But he was jealous that my family was watching me and cheering me on. (Honestly, I still don’t get what that was.)


We kissed and made up the next day (Christmas) and all was well again. On the 26th, we went for a long, long walk and spent THREE hours talking about our future. I gave him a lecture on getting his ass in gear if he wanted something to come of our relationship and our future together. During that conversation, we decided that Robbie was going to move to Canada ASAP (He was actually a Canadian citizen because he was born in Vancouver) and then from there, he would come to the U.S. We had figured that we could get married by 1991. (Our original plans of him coming directly to the U.S. had not panned out because he was denied his Visa earlier that same year.)


A couple of days later, we had another argument. This time it was because he wanted to look in my journal and I wouldn’t let him. (Shit, I didn’t want him to find out I had been going dancing or that I had kissed Jay!) I had made the mistake during the previous trip of letting him read what I had written about him in my journal so he assumed the privilege still stood. When I denied him, he got upset…and suspicious. Rightfully so, I suppose. I wrote in my journal that we argued so much during that trip that it worried me.


When we weren’t arguing though, things were really, really good between us. We were happy and in love. We laughed a lot. We were goofy and silly together. He thought I was hilarious which was a big bonus because anyone who thinks I’m funny goes to the top of my list. We were practically living a married life. For most of my trip, we were in Mar Del Plata (five hours from Buenos Aires) and Robbie came with us. We all stayed in the same home, so I was with him literally 24 hours/day for three weeks.


We also went one afternoon to check airfares to Canada. Robbie had an uncle in Canada who had given him the ok to move in with him when he arrived and who would help him get a job, etc. I was excited about Robbie moving to Canada because that would mean that I could go visit him more often and eventually, he could make it to the U.S.


On January 12, 1988 Robbie got a hold of my journal and read it without my permission. He found out about Jay and broke up with me four times throughout the course of 24 hours. We cried, argued, fought, talked, broke up, got back together, cried some more, argued some more, broke up again, got back together again, over and over again. It was awful. Miserable doesn’t describe it. I remember just bawling my head off uncontrollably. But by the 4th break-up, I was fed up. I wrote: “I started yelling at him, telling him he had no right to make me feel this way. I was sick of saying ‘I’m sorry’. I was sick of his moodiness and if he was going to continue torturing me and making me feel like a sinner then I was going to break up with him. With that, I took off my promise ring (I forgot to mention that just three weeks after we started dating in August 1986 we had exchanged promise rings), I handed it to him, and I went for  a walk. He stood there shocked, frozen. And then he took off running after me. I kept telling him to leave me alone but he wouldn’t stop grabbing me. I really scared him by turning the tables on him and me being the one to break up with him. Well, my technique worked because after that we were happy again and rarely did he show he was thinking about Jay and me and what had happened.” As I was writing this I realized that what I was actually angry about was the tremendous amount of shame he was making me feel.


Saying good-bye at the airport 10 days later was the most difficult good-bye we had ever had. We cried harder than we ever had. We were traumatized from our near-break-up but also extremely proud that we had survived our biggest fight ever. As a result, we had grown closer than ever before. But now I wonder, maybe we cried more than ever because we were scared and worried that our long-distance relationship wouldn’t survive another separation.

*****

This post was emotionally-draining and anxiety-provoking for me and it took me a day to figure out why. I feel a lot of shame, still all these years later, for the pain I caused Robbie. I feel huge regret for the choices I made. I tell myself that I was just a kid and not to be so hard on myself. But I can recall that day very well – not really what we said to one another but what I felt and I can still picture the awful pain, disappointment, and disgust in his eyes. Maya Angelou had a saying about people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. This is a perfect example of that.


It’s not easy to cultivate the shame resilience Brené Brown talks about, but I’m giving it a go. I am learning to let the shame go by sharing my story with courage in hopes of finding compassion and connection on the other end.

1987 - I don't know what this is about.
I look like a cross between Popeye and Humpty Dumpty.
Huge upper body and skinny legs. WTF?
But hey, I'm sure I thought I looked gooooood.

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