Doesn’t this poster get to the heart of the matter? (Of course, it is a World War II poster aimed at soldiers suffering in silence with syphilis). But aren’t we the intended audience, too? I know I am since fear and shame are the two gears that I shift between. Oh sure, I can fearlessly step into a chute, listen to a computerized voice count down from 5, and when the floor gives way, fall 150 feet down a vertical waterslide. And at the end, with one of those deep-crack, bare-cheeked wedgies, no possibility of squirming my suit free while simply sitting on the slide, I can stand up, and before the crowd, dig deep to reposition my suit.
I’m talking about crippling shame, the kind that has its treble hooks in my heart and gut. It tells me that I am fat and ugly, crazy and damaging, and should die because I am not a good enough mother/wife/friend/writer. That reaches its hook back into the near and distant past, catching and keeping (there is no release with shame) the endless list of humiliating, damaging, not-good-enough-not-worthy-enough memories:I am always five years old in an emergency room with a broken arm since I believed I was Wonder Woman (my mom’s silver cuffs on me), with her superhero leaping powers, and jumped down a flight of stairs. And as the doctor is about to reset the bones, the other doctor is still pinning me down, always saying, “Watch out, the brat’s about to cry.” I try to shut up, not cry, not kick when the pain came. If I want to be Wonder Woman, than I have to BE Wonder Woman—impervious to pain, capable of impossible feats of control.
I am always eleven years old in the school courtyard at recess, surrounded by a pack of girls I’d considered my friends, and they are always pointing at my flat chest, pinching my shoulders for the bra strap that is not yet there, and shouting, “Scarecrow! Olive Oil! Flat as a board!” And the boys are always spurred on by the girls and join in, and then they all start chasing me, trying to grab my non-boobs, trying to pinch for straps and I am always running around and around the courtyard, trying to outrun them, trying to free myself when I’m caught, desperately listening for the jangle of the bell, but never screaming, never calling for help because I know that I am ugly and undesirable, awkward and necessarily ridiculed.I am always standing in front of the mirror, hating what I see—too thin, too fat, not thin enough—leaning in to grip the skin at my hips and thighs and stomach, picking and picking at my face because I believe that soon I will be able to be pretty and “good enough” if only I can keep that ugly, worthless image of myself at the forefront to guide my lived life.
I am always the one who stays with an abusive boyfriend for four years because he tells me, and I believe him because it corresponds to what I already believe about myself, “You’re crazy. No one else will stay with someone as fucked up as you. I’m your only chance.”I am always the one who is crazy—the professor asked to leave due to numerous psychiatric hospitalizations, the wife and mother who cuts her arms, starves and purges, and gets drunk and destroys herself, who deliberately swallows too many pills, who fails at recovery over and over, in an out of hospitals, who is finally on a stretcher, bite guard in mouth, anesthetized, and given Electroconvulsive (shock) Treatments (25? 35? Memory is gone.)
And lest you think it’s just the big stuff, the small, inconsequential stuff gets hooked, too. Last week, I pulled into a gas station and as I walked up to the pump, I glanced over and saw my former riding instructor, Lee, fingers hanging from a belt loop, boots mucked up with manure and mud. I stopped taking lessons without explanation (well, I was in the hospital), and never got back in touch. I was immediately flooded with shame: hot, nauseated, unable to breathe, unable to think clearly. My response? I turned my back and walked backwards to the pump, walked backwards to put my debit card in the slot. No Way was I going to be seen. Ridiculous, right? This is what shame does to me: I twist myself into knots and duck for cover.But this is also what shame does to me: I miss out on encounters that might be restorative. I have only known Lee to be funny, gritty, and supportive. She would never be angry that I suddenly stopped lessons because she also knows about my Bipolar and Eating Disorders (towards the end, she was worried ANYWAY that I wouldn’t be able to grip the horse with any strength as I was frail and obviously underweight—my once skin tight breeches were voluminous). What might Lee have said? “We’ve missed you down at the stables. When are you coming back? I thought you’d disappeared on me and I’ve been worried. I know how hard things were. The horses missed you.” Empathy, concern, friendship. But I’ll never know.
Instead, like a roach, I skittered backwards in fear and shame. It’s why I’m afraid to look at my naked self in the mirror. It’s why I allow acquaintances to assume I’m still teaching at the college. It’s why short-sleeve weather is so difficult. It’s why I’ve learned to not feel hunger or hope. It’s why I disconnect from feelings, from my body. It’s why I don’t let others see my vulnerabilities, my tears, and even, sadly, my joy.Shame. Shame. Shame. The figure in the poster: eyes closed and hands over face, a double-walled darkness, refusing to be seen, refusing to meet the empathetic gaze of another, suffering alone with that punishing feeling that ultimately comes from believing in my unworthiness.
“Shame may be fatal.” Certainly my shame has kept me from asking for help, from telling my truth, from trusting my husband, my friends, and Dr. B. because I have to be that girl on the ER stretcher not screaming, not crying, not in pain, proving I can take it.“If you fear you have contracted a disease, don’t let false shame destroy health and happiness.” My disease believes that I am unworthy. It has metastasized throughout my mind and body. It has led to alcoholism, starvation, razors and knives and scissors (Oh My!) and cuts that should have been sutured and tended to, medications and more medications, hospitalizations where I’ve been “placed” in the quiet room and on suicide watch, with supervised meals, heart monitors, and therapeutically shocked with electricity. And the attendant destruction of health and happiness? If you are like me, then you have never been truly happy in yourself and the varied punishments you mete out to yourself guarantees the progression of the disease.
From a diagnostic perspective, shame is a disease. And false shame? It is the soul-killing belief that my worthiness comes from finally achieving “good enough” even if I kill myself trying. It is feeling and holding onto shame and letting its false message serve as the final, architectural plan for the expansion and contraction of my happiness, my self-love, my self-compassion, and my self-acceptance.Dr. B. has been faithfully trying to show me that shame can only survive in the dark. Full light can make it dissipate then disappear. Revealing my shame, talking about my shame with him and my trusted life companions, offers the chance for healing empathy and sustained connection. I no longer have to go silent, run in helpless circles, or close my eyes to you.