I’m at the beach this week. It is my first paid vacation since 1998, and that’s not a typo. I’m celebrating my last spring break with both of my girls home, before my first born heads to college this fall. I also took this opportunity, on the heels of something very painful, to do some important and long-overdue emotional healing.
This will be a shocking read for many of you, especially if you know me in real life. It will likely hit you between the eyes, in the heart, behind your soul, and in places you thought were long locked away. It will poke at your beliefs and your faith. It will set off alarm bells and maybe outright panic in some cases. It will make you cry in recognition, or puff up as you feel superior to me, or both. What today’s essay will not do is continue to hide those parts of me that have kept me living in covert shame, all while dazzling the world with my recovery skills and personal achievements in the face of overwhelming odds.
If you’re not ready for that, I understand. Scroll past and carry on. But if you want to read something that may shake you to your core, I invite you in, with my whole heart.
For 6 ½ years, since Captain Crazy moved out of my house in my one clear chance to get us away from him, I have been running at full tilt. Always busy, always mentally engaged in something, always working toward and for something. God forbid my mind not be occupied every moment. Granted, some of that was just rational preparation, responsible steps to ensure that I could provide for my girls as soon as my voluntarily short spousal support period ended. But there was more to it. Much, much more. By staying busy and focused outwardly on my children and my goals, I was able to continue to avoid the one thing in my life that had caused me the most damage.
And for shame to survive, Dr. Brene Brown taught me that it requires silence, secrecy, and judgment. Therefore, I will no longer provide it any of these sources of nourishment.
I truly don’t remember a time in my life when I did not feel shame. We’re not talking about the same thing as guilt. Shame, as Dr. Brown explains it perfectly, is a completely different entity. Shame is about *who we are* not *what we’ve done*…in other words, I am bad, not I have done something bad. I’ve come to understand that this shame is also what drove me to refuse any vulnerability. Vulnerability is weakness, right? Yes, I’m the one “everybody” comes to with their problems because I’m “so strong.” While that’s partially true, I can handle a ton of crap and give pretty decent insights, it is also true that your trials have helped me to avoid digging deeply into my own. I will also add the caveat, before we go too far, that I absolutely, positively believe with all my heart that my ex-husband’s abuse toward me and toward my girls is *his shame* and is not my fault. However, I now believe that my own shame is what got me into the relationship, kept me stuck there at his mercy, and drove everything I did afterward.
As I traced back all the shame I have internalized as who I am, I was able to identify the beginnings of my shame back to about age 6. It was then that I first became aware that I was adopted. While I believe wholeheartedly in adoption and I have always known what a brave and selfless act that was for my biological mother, any adopted child will tell you that there is a tiny shame voice that comes along with that. It naturally questions who you are, and why you were not able to be part of your biological family. Don’t misunderstand me, everyone I know who’s adopted (including, quite literally, ALL of my Dad’s first cousins) logically knows that it is a sacrifice to give your child something better than you think you can provide. But when that child is old enough to know they don’t look like their family or have their mannerisms or height or laugh, there is a lack of belonging. What does Dr. Brown define as shame?
“The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
As an only child of only child parents who were held to extremely high standards by their parents, I was expected to excel. Not only that, my intellectual gifts meant that if I did not excel, I was being lazy or irresponsible. To this day, I hold shame that I cannot for the damn life of me factor a quadratic equation. I can do geometry, trig, high level sciences, and have a fabulous grasp of a number of deep topics. But I can’t do that. So there begins the Shame Journey, with a number of things I simply couldn’t master as a kid but was expected to. I internalized that as me being bad, almost on a cellular level.
As I continued in my shame, I was never considered the prettiest or most popular in my class and I made sure to pre-empt that possibility by becoming addicted to food. Funny, though, I look back at pictures of myself just before my pediatrician put me on my very first actual diet at age 11. In my memory, I was enormous. In the photos, I was just precious. Still, at age 49, I carry enormous shame right now over the fact that I ballooned from a size 6-8 to a size 10-12 in 2013 and have not been able to take it back off. Think about that. I internally consider myself to be a bad person because of my body size.
As a teen, and even as a pre-teen, I suffered from the desperate need to have a boy confirm that I was someone worth being interested in. If it wasn’t for my looks, I would do their homework for them or let them cheat off me on a test. At 15 years old, I became the playtoy of Captain Crazy, to whom I was not the least bit attracted on any level, but who made me feel as though…well, finally…someone wants to be with me. Well, of course he did. He is a malignant narcissist who needed to conquer me! At 15, I also lost my virginity to him. At 15, I knew absolutely nothing about sex and got pregnant by “trusting” him. At 15, I had an abortion, because my shame was so great I could not go to anyone for help. I went to the clinic alone, at age 15, and never told even my closest friends until years later. He dropped me off a the curb, and picked me up there hours later. Right now, a number of my dear friends are reading this in utter shock. Shortly after, he broke up with me. Then he came back again when he realized what a great narcissistic supply I was for him.
8 days after my 17th birthday, my father, whom I loved very much, had a massive heart attack at home in bed. It was his third, after battling degenerative heart disease. I performed CPR on him because I had been certified in my lifeguard program (which, by the way, I did not pursue doing because I had such shame I just *knew* I would be a failure). My father died. There was nothing anyone on this planet could have done for him, according to his cardiologist. But that did not save me from my shame. To make matters worse, I had predicted his death to the very day, only weeks prior. Lucky me, I am also an empathic psychic who has the dubious honor sometimes of knowing things before they happen. In my shame belief, I not only killed him by not saving him, I brought it on with my predictions. To fuel that shame, my mother completely stopped mothering me that year. She was so overcome with grief she could do nothing else, but in my shame, I interpreted that as her blame for my having killed the love of her life.
7 months later, Captain Crazy came home on shore leave from the Navy. He had spent a lot of time having others spy on me for him and asking me questions to make sure I knew that he knew every move I made. He presented me with a 1/3 carat diamond ring and never even really asked me to marry him. He said, “I know you have been wanting a ring, so here it is. It’s a third of a carat.” Isn’t it funny? That conversation took place on my front porch in February of 1984 and I still remember exactly what he said, how I felt, and how the air smelled.
A few months after graduating high school, I wanted to go visit him. My mother, although I was 18, was having none of that. So, I said why don’t I just transfer up there to school and stay in college and then I can see him when he’s in port? Absolutely not. So, it ended up that I said, well, I guess I will just get married. I didn’t want to. I was doing great in college, I had a job, I had my friends, I was trying to find my way in the world. But in my shame, I never went back on that decision. Even as I walked down the aisle to marry him at age 18 ½, all the while thinking of the boy I was actually in love with, my shame made me continue.
My shame made me accept everything he said about me.
My shame told me that I was wholly unworthy of anything better than what I had ostensibly chosen for myself.
When I realized the marriage was a mistake of epic proportion, my shame kept me from going home…and I had nowhere else to go. When I realized I needed to save myself from that marriage, my shame kept me from divorcing him less than 4 years later.
When I chose career positions, my shame told me I would never excel in any area, so I should be happy with whatever I got.
When he cheated on me, over and over and over again, my shame told me it was because of a failure on my part, not his abuse and lack of character.
When he continued to break me down emotionally and I stuffed my soul with food, my shame told me that of course no one will ever want you because you are stupid, controlling, and a whale.
When I was finally ready to have children and I had one miscarriage before my first daughter, then two more after her, my shame told me it was God’s retribution for my abortion.
When I tried to talk to people at church, in my social circles, or even people I considered close friends, about the abuse I was enduring, my shame told me to soften the story so I didn’t look like an ungrateful, whiny bitch.
See a pattern? In 1988, 1993, 2007, and 2009, my shame kept me from escaping the torture of that life. It told me that I was unworthy of love and belonging.
It wasn’t until 2012, 4 years ago almost right now, that I overcame one part of my shame by speaking out about the abuse I had experienced and was still forced by the courts and his psychopathy to endure. Then, I thought maybe a few people out there would like to know my story and benefit from the professional therapy I was receiving, because I knew not everyone had that luxury. I certainly didn’t bargain for 6,000 hits a week from over 40 countries (that was my former site/blog, Emotional Abuse Survivors Network [now available on SwanWaters]).
How does this make sense to you who actually know me? It doesn’t. I know you love me. I do. I know from the core of my being that I am loved. Once I found real love with a partner, and went through some growth experiences with him, I realized one incredibly important detail:
Knowing you are loved and believing you are worthy of that love are two entirely different things. Therein, lives shame.
Because of my shame, I got so tied up in my own ego-based protections that I couldn’t see things that I was doing, like living in fear of losing (read: not being worthy of) him, even though I know I would pick up and go on like I always have. I kept asking questions, pushing to try to understand him, when in fact that was my own shame motivating me to look at his broken pieces more intensely than my own. In trying to love him with vulnerability and wholeheartedness, I was actually acting out the idea that in order to be worthy of his love, I had to encircle him with mine. What I’ve realized is that he and I are mirror images of the same brokenness, but with an intense love for the soul of the other person. I have never loved anyone like I love this man, and that scares the living hell out of me.
Because of my shame.
By letting myself be vulnerable to this particular love (and by the way, this did not fit ANYWHERE in my ‘grand plan’, thank you very much), I was forced to deal with some of the river of slime flowing through me called shame.
I won’t say I’m healed or fixed or suddenly I don’t feel shame anymore, because that would be total crap. What I have realized is by the sheer act of admitting to and confronting my shame and pain head-on, instead of burying it in my next professional or personal accomplishment or goal or slice of pizza, I have the opportunity to now shape the life I have always wanted but didn’t know how to get. Thus, why I am so grateful to have this man in my life. As Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, “People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. “ The number of random and unplanned things that had to happen for this man and I to cross paths would boggle your mind, so clearly, this was the soul mate meant to hold this mirror for me.
With love and deep gratitude to C.E.E., Jr.
(Aubrey let us share her post with you, here is the original)