Reflections on SHAME

Trigger warning: sexual abuse, anorexia (numbers – mention of weights and miles run)

After I sent my acceptance letter to the University of California, San Diego, and declined admission to Brigham Young University, my father and the bishop of our Mormon church advised me that I would be “challenged” by studying in San Diego, outside the protection of religious walls.

And how I embraced those “challenges.”

If “challenged” meant I could discover I was queer, and perhaps, in time, find a queer community where I could almost at times feel “pride,” and take courses in feminism, then I would eat it all up. I would only feel shame during my visits home, where my mother was homophobic and believed in the patriarchy’s harmful lies about women. I was learning about feminism and “growing up” at the UCSD Women’s Center, where I had my first editorial internship.

            Life in San Diego was the first time I was immersed in a culture different from my white, conservative, rural, “redneck” hometown. Campus was full of people who looked different from me. People full of ambition, ideas, dreams.

            I was full of a new hope there. But I was also full of doubts, fears, and shame.

            There was a tall research building that we called “The Seven Sins and Virtues.” Crowning the building were spelled out in neon all-caps letters the seven virtues…

FAITH, HOPE, CHARITY, FORTITUDE, JUSTICE, TEMPERANCE, PRUDENCE

…and the seven sins…

PRIDE, ENVY, GLUTTONY, LUST, ANGER, GREED, SLOTH

The letters blinked on and off. GLUTTONY was spelled out in neon red. In the building next to this was an abandoned bathroom that was perfect for someone like me—a hopeful young eighteen-year-old who was ready to study and meet friends, and who was also in the middle of an eating disorder that was growing stronger by the day. I’d stop by this bathroom after meals, and sometimes after whatever I’d eaten late at night, and make myself vomit—then, both physically and emotionally exhausted, come out to see GLUTTONY blinking down at me.

            My fingers smelling of vomit, I looked up at the word that seemed to sum up my being—and I was deeply ashamed.

            Shame—a buzzword in therapy and self-help circles. Shame is tied up in regret and self-loathing; and while shame’s cousin guilt tells us we did something bad, shame tells us we are bad. Not only did we make a transgression; we are the transgression. Something is wrong with who I am.

            Standing there outside my GLUTTONY bathroom, perhaps this was not a new feeling.

            As the youngest of seven, I was often the target of my mother’s rage. Picture a mother screaming at a very small girl, their faces inches apart—and when I say “scream,” I mean with her voice raised loud enough that she could lose her voice from the outburst—screaming, “I don’t know who you are, but you are not my daughter!” The little girl is crying.

            I am nobody’s daughter.

This is what I picture. It’s not my memory; it’s my sister’s, who was two years’ my elder. She recounted this to me when we were adults. As a child, I was confused—my mother could be at turns loving and affectionate, then rejecting and raging.

            And so I grew up without a strong sense of who I was, who I was becoming. My mother turned her hands on me for seemingly any transgression, and the world I came to understand was one wherein I was wrong, bad, and never safe.

            I first learned of the distinction between guilt and shame when I was in inpatient treatment for my eating disorder the summer before I turned twenty. My mother no longer seemed to be the woman who had raised me—she was compassionate, kind, sensitive, caring, and understanding now, rather than the angry figure of my childhood. She refinanced her house to enable me to get the treatment that possibly saved my life.

She foreclosed on it years later. My illness cost her a house. Here shame mixes with guilt.

Still, that little girl she raised never learned the confidence that seemed to carry other adults through their lives.

            It was not long after inpatient treatment that I began drinking, entered an abusive relationship, and came to learn that I was not straight—and would likely never have a life that looked like the one my mother had envisioned for me, the one with a house, a husband, 2.5 kids, and church on Sundays.

            Three months after discharge also found me back at my GLUTTONY bathroom, my fingers down my throat again. Purging was my way of crying.

            At night after my roommates had gone to sleep, I would undress and look at myself long and hard in the mirror. I could never see the girl that others saw—happy-go-lucky, ambitious, athletic, perhaps even talented— with the tall and slight body of a model. I could see my ribs and hipbones protruding and intellectually know that there was something thin about being six feet tall and a size zero, but my hips still seemed too wide, my thighs too thick, my stomach too curved, my breasts too round. Anemic and emaciated, I was covered in bruises I could never seem to remember getting.

            And then after college, I gave away my dreams to live with a man who took pleasure from hurting me. The more pain I was in, the more he got off. Years later, after I’d finally left him, I learned in therapy that there was a word for his behavior—sadism.

            I saw him some weeks after I had left him. I was at his house, the house we had lived in together, gathering some books. In the aftermath of our breakup, in grief and heartbreak, he’d dropped weight more quickly than I thought was possible, more quickly than I ever had. A bottle of antidepressants was on display on the bathroom counter. He had a new kitten—when he’d forced me to give up my own elderly cat years earlier. He had a new therapist, too, he relayed—who was helping him to understand that he’d given up things in the relationship, too—that he was “made to be the caretaker” and that I had been “withholding sex from him,” that he’d learned that I had a sexual disorder and should look up sexual disorders in women. He motioned to the bed and said that he was up for fucking right then and there—that he could fuck me hard and without emotion and we could continue a sexual relationship without love, but that he understood if I would not be able to separate sex from love. As though conflating them was a weakness of mine.

            The whole interaction seemed such a cruel and unfair way for him to “win,” for him to be able to set his terms as though the breakup had been his initiative and not my own act of independence. What I could not put into words was the way I loved him still, with all my heart, but I was too afraid to let him touch me physically ever again. He’d taken everything I ever wanted, and then when I left him, got all the things he’d forbidden me from having—pets, a therapist, psychiatric medication—for himself. How furious he’d been when he learned that I’d gotten a therapist “behind his back.” (The truth was that my friends and boss had forced me into seeing one, so alarmed were they to watch my weight continue to plummet.) And how furious when he caught me taking a years-old prescription of the antidepressant Lexapro. “Medication has never helped you,” he said. I had hoped it might, but his decision was final, and the little bottle with the little capsules went into the trash.

            On that day he got the last word. I still fantasize about emailing him and letting him know that I have since learned about sexual disorders as he had asked me to, that there were indeed words for people like him who got off on inflicting pain on women—and those words were sadist and rapist and machismo and abuser.

            I want to talk about consent. What it is like to be violated and victimized in the absence of consent. What it is like to be called a slut and a whore and be forced to repeat the words “I like it” whenever I was brave enough to protest that I was in pain. When I asked him to stop, he told me to tell him to keep going. What were the words I said? I tell myself that I did say, no, stop, that hurts, I don’t want to—but he always instructed me to stop saying those things. And so I obeyed. Was that consent? Is shutting up consent? Is repeating his words when he said, “Tell me this, now say this to me,” consent?

            No, stop, please, that hurts, I don’t want to.

            I mean—keep going, I love you, oh god. That’s good.

            Oh how repeating his words broke my spirit.

            Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I dug my nails into my skin. Just waiting for him to stop showing me how angry he was. But even my tears did not motivate him to stop until he was finished and satisfied on his own timeline.

            Perhaps my shame would be less had I refused to give up on saying “no”—but then I still wonder, would it have been safe to not give up? The recollection that I ended up repeating the words he told me to say, his version of “agreeing,” only seems to have cemented my shame.

            Shame is learned. I learned it early in life, and repeated it by entering the cycle of abuse.

            I internalized that abuse at the hands of men, and learned to take it out on myself. I took some comfort in knowing that no one could hurt me as much as I could hurt myself.

            I went for long runs on an empty stomach. When the therapist I’d been forced into seeing threatened to hospitalize me if I did not agree to start eating, I turned to alcohol.

            It’s worth mentioning here that the acuity of anorexia is something not understandable by relating it to a diet. There is a profound degree of self-hatred required to starve and purge oneself day in and day out, without break, to the brink of falling over—then to literally fall over, pass out on a weekly basis—and to keep this up with no reprieve. As my waistline retreated, so it seemed my fingers perpetually smelled of vomit.

            And there I was, on the brink of involuntary hospitalization and a feeding tube, and there was a bottle of Absolut vodka. If gaining weight was the doctor’s requirement for running marathons, I would do it as a big fuck you, you can’t tell me what to do—but I’d do it on my terms, with my vodka and diet ginger ale making me numb enough to eat a dinner and keep it down before tucking myself into bed (well, blacking out).

            And so I traded purging anorexia, my “good girl” problem, for a “bad” problem overnight—alcohol abuse.

I proceeded to run two triathlons and twelve half marathons. Then, needing to push myself harder, to be the best, to pass my limit—I graduated to running five full marathons in five years, sometimes at a healthy weight, and sometimes amid an anorexia relapse. I’ve no idea how I managed to train so hard while hungover. Marathon training is brutally self-punishing. Three stress fractures and two herniated discs and multiple relapses later, I finally retired from running, but still I feel I’ve lost my identity as an athlete—still am ashamed to no longer be an athlete.

            But back to drinking. There is nothing glamorous about drinking alone.

            I fancied myself as someone who’d drink a glass or two of wine by the window with my manuscript, but my reality was much darker than this. Some evening started like this, but they almost always inevitably ended in vodka by the pint and me in flashbacks, reliving the memories of those nights that make me want to talk about consent, then going out, wasted, to a bench in the park to smoke a cigarette, where sometimes men would approach me and touch me everywhere, me too compromised to fight or protest—leaving me even more ashamed when I stumbled into bed, crying, contemplating suicide, sleep my only reprieve, my rescue dog the only light in my days—only to repeat this all again the next day. It was no existence.

            If I hold shame very close, perhaps my antidote could be perfectionism. If only I perform, and perform phenomenally, I might be able to make up for all that is wrong with me. And so from a young age I proceeded to be the star of everything. In middle school I earned straight-As and won spelling bees, geography tests, writing and art contests. In high school I enrolled in AP classes, continued my straight-A streak, and over-scheduled myself with extracurriculars: lead female in the school Christmas play, president of the photography club, Science Olympiad champion, and apprentice falconer training an exceptionally aggressive red-tailed hawk, according to my mentor who was a senior falconer. “If you can work with this bird, so aggressive is she, you can work with any bird.” I beamed inwardly at this reflection, this compliment—a flash of pride?

Still, on my very last day, she tasked me with changing the bird’s anklets, a dangerous task, as a bird of prey’s talons are strong enough to break the bones in a hand. I misstepped when I released her, and her talon nicked my arm. Beading pools of blood. Too ashamed to reveal my mistake, I covered the wound and rushed home to do my own first aid. I could not let my mentor know that, on my very last day with the bird, I had made my first mistake, and a serious mistake at that. I still have the scar. To this day, my mentor still believes I made no falconry mistakes in my four years with that majestic bird. To this day, I am still so ashamed of the scar that I have since covered it with a tattoo. The tattoo is of a beautiful peregrine falcon, the fastest animal in the world, diving at 200+ miles per hour, who symbolizes recovery—for it made a miraculous comeback from near extinction. Today this species is thriving more than ever, and when I see one I think that perhaps it was sent just for me. This bird, along with deer, is my spirit animal. This bird gives me hope that, perhaps, just maybe, I can recover my mental health, too.

            Still, nothing I did could ever be good enough to meet my own standards. That A wasn’t an A+. Some of the details in that painting weren’t realistic. I only won three medals the California State science competition when I had entered five events.

            And so I turned my need to achieve against myself. I discovered at 16 that I was good at something, perhaps even the best at something, that everyone was trying to do: lose weight. And yet, paradoxically, the longer I starved myself, the more weight I lost, the deeper my self-hatred grew. At six feet tall, if I had been self-conscious about weighing 155 pounds, I was thoroughly disgusted with myself at 115. My unruly body never looked the way I wanted it to

            Shame thrives on secrecy, isolation, on the othering of the self. Shame thrives where there is abuse or self-abuse.

            The “other,” I learned of in my feminist coursework at UCSD. My body is not my own—it is the other. My body is feminine yet queer—also the other, for my mother will not accept me if I come out as queer. Queer is the other. Must I closet my queerness?

            When I came out to her some years later, she screamed vulgarities at me. I ran out the door sobbing. My sister picked me up and comforted me after such a profound rejection. How could I have pride when I had just been shamed by the woman who raised me?

            I’ve always had a problem with compulsively apologizing, am quick to accept guilt and blame and responsibility, even when perhaps I have none. If there is a disagreement, I am the first to concede. I always try to see the other person’s point of view. Then I inevitably judge myself wrong. But these apologies go deeper than the incident at hand—really, I am apologizing for who I am. Someone wrong. Someone bad. Someone ashamed.

            I had a childhood tic in the third grade, and a serious case of OCD (repeat repeat repeat re-re-re-obsessive re-re-re-compulsive behaviors over and over and over again…a classic childhood presentation). This was a tic wherein I would shrug my shoulders involuntarily. I’d wait as long as I could bear before shrugging, and then after the pressure built up so much that I could no longer stand it, I would shrug and experience temporary relief. But in this moment of relief the other kids would point and snicker and ask me why I did that. Ashamed, I had no answer for them. I knew it was senseless, but I also know that I had to do this. I tried to stop, but I simply could not. And so, some minutes later when I shrugged again, they would point, some would whisper quietly, and others would comment loudly. I could not help myself.

            One day my mother had had enough of this. So, after school, after dinner, she sat me down for a serious “talk.” I still remember the old-fashioned pink chair with curved handles I was sitting in. My mother kneeled before me and shrugged her shoulders over and over for me to see her demonstration of my own unsightly, ridiculous, illogical behavior. “How do I look, Kyla? Do I look stupid? Huh? Huh? I look stupid, don’t I?” In her best stupid voice she continued to mimic me. “I’m Kyla and I’m stupid! I’m Kyla and I’m stupid!” She shrugged her shoulders the whole time she spoke in her pretend-stupid voice. I cried hard. “Yes,” I managed to say between my gasps and tears, “You do look stupid.” I look stupid. I am stupid. I am ashamed.

            And so, with great difficulty, I learned to stop myself from shrugging. When the pressure built up and I needed to shrug, I remembered my mother’s cruel impression of me during our “talk,” and my shame overcame my need to shrug. Eventually, by summoning this conversation, by “seeing” my mother pretend to be stupid-me, I was able to hold back the shrugs. I discovered that I could count ceiling tiles instead of shrugging, something nobody could see—an invisible compulsion.

            Fun fact: I was raised at the mortuary my parents owned. As an adult, I still have flashbacks of two particularly grotesque naked bodies that I saw. Such is life with PTSD. I can “see” them still, so realistically that I swear I am back there, eight years old, watching a man’s embalming, or looking at the remains of a burned and crumbling women’s corpse.

            Deep down I understand that it was not my fault for having been raised at a mortuary, that as a child I had no choice in my parents’ profession nor where they took me each day after school. Still I wonder, what kind of a child grows up at a mortuary? What kind of human is morose and obsessed with death? Me. I am. This is PTSD. This is also shame, for I am the kind of person who grows up at a mortuary, and something is deeply unwell about me for having lived this.

            When guilt turns into shame: Last week, after some especially difficult trauma triggers compounded by multiple vulnerabilities, according to the chain diagram my trauma therapist drew—I sent a nasty, unkind email to my psychiatrist accusing him of not helping and not listening. I dropped a lot of F-bombs. He did not deserve it; my rage was meant for the world, not he, who has always been kind and treated me with skill and care, has helped me perhaps more than anyone else ever have. In the fallout I’ve been beside myself with guilt, remorse, and sorrow for my unkind—downright mean—words. And so guilt turns to shame, as I search within and ask myself if, deep down, who I really am is a mean person. Deep down, am I am truly mean and unkind, and that is all I am? Guilt becomes shame.

            Perhaps I never learned my own worth, was too often treated as unworthy; as undeserving of love, respect, or autonomy. I still struggle to feel worthy of the good things in my life. And good things I have. I have my own, safe apartment decorated with things I love with an art studio and a doting rescue dog named Virginia Woolf and a pair of gentle, absolutely beautiful ringneck doves. I have incredible friends I get to see on weekends. I have my dream career, the career I had hoped for but knew was a long shot during my studies in San Diego. I have a talented and caring treatment team. I am sober. I am at a healthy weight. Maybe things are going to be okay. Can life be okay? Can I become resilient? Might I already be resilient?

            When I have the mental and emotional bandwidth, when I prioritize self care, I draw a tarot card from one of my decks full of beautiful artwork. Today I drew “The Emperor,” portrayed by a stag in this particular deck. Deer are my other spirit animal. What’s more, my niece in Colorado saw two fawns at the exact same time I pulled the card, 3:20 EST. Is this synchronicity? A sign from the man or the woman upstairs? My meaning book said that the stag represented “strength” and “organization”—two things I need this week to help me overcome my grief at the loss of my pet, and my shame and guilt over the abusive emails I sent. Perhaps strength can be my antidote to shame, if I can find the courage to summon it. I am strong. I am resilient. I am kind. Perhaps these words can counter my shame. Perhaps I can grow out of my shame. I have hope for this. I am cautiously optimistic.

            I am kind. I am strong. I am proud. I am resilient.

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