Musings Of The Past

Facing Down Shame

From here to there

Certain things, even when the sting of shame has healed, remain embarrassing. Which is not all bad. Shame, in its purest form, alerts us to when we have crossed a line. Or, as is frequently true in my life, when someone else has crossed a line. Something that feels so wrong is bound to leave a legacy.

Most rape victims deal with this. They blame themselves. Second guessing each choice they made. They wonder, was my dress too tight? Did I somehow invite this?

Because I was only nine when I was raped (and boy, that is a hard sentence to put out there) I almost had to blame myself. I, like most abused children, depended on the grown-ups who abused me. They had the power to make things worse, to kill.

Once I was away from the house my father had left us in, I started burying memories one by one. I allowed myself to hate the “family.” Although I could remember only a fraction of what they had done.

 I no longer consciously had the memories, yet I remained deeply ashamed. I hated myself. I wanted to destroy myself. I desperately longed to not be.

Healing was a long time coming. After my mother won custody, the judge ordered that I go to counseling. It was a mess. When I confided in the therapist that I was afraid of my mother, the therapist turned around and told my mother so. I felt horrified, betrayed. Everything I said to that therapist, from that point on, I manufactured.

I tried therapy on my own when I was in high school. It kept me grounded enough to stay alive.

Then there was Mindy, who I saw privately for years. I wasn’t ready to trust yet, so it was mostly screen memories I shared. Still, she was so important to me. Ending was a wretched trauma.

After that, I was at a United Way clinic for over 10 years. The therapists were inexperienced. Once they had that experience, they would leave for a better job. So I learned to have a relationship with the chair, not the person sitting in it. We dealt mainly in the here and now. I tried, but I just couldn’t get to the source of my pain.

Finally, I met Jonna. We worked together for 14 years. Slowly, agonizingly, we peeled back the layers. I couldn’t accept that what happened to me was not my fault. The shame was so intense I compared my feelings to those of someone who had eaten human flesh to stay alive. In my mind, I had taken part in, initiated even, sex acts with multiple adults. Both are such a horrible break from acceptable that forgiveness seemed impossible.

Getting to the source of my shame (that feeling of responsibility) didn’t make it dissolve. I wish it were that easy. However, the therapeutic relationship allowed to me feel that deep shame and to share it with Jonna. Eventually, I realized I didn’t fear people seeing me anymore. I no longer felt the desperate need to not be. What I felt was embarrassment. It turned my cheeks red and made me want to look away.

I had let go of needing to have been in control. I learned to accept that I had no control as a child trapped in a bedroom with three or four sadistic abusers. I gradually accepted that they would have done every single sex act, even if I had fought back. The reality that I had had no control over my situation became less bitter.

I started by talking about shame becoming embarrassment. For most things in my life, that is totally true. I have learned to accept that I was not a bad girl. That all the blame lies with them.

I so desperately wanted to be perfect. I needed to be the same from the age of nine. I thought that if I could just anticipate the needs and wants of everyone, I could stay safe. I had found a persona that allowed me to survive. It made growing up, even if I was already in my mid-forties, a painful and dangerous proposition.

It breaks my heart, knowing children, and adults that used to be children, there are out in the world who live burdened by the shame that belongs to others.

I wish I could hug them all. Though I can’t, I can be kind and forgiving of myself. I can challenge old tapes in my head and reject the automatic reactions to anything that triggers them.

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