I watched an interesting video yesterday afternoon. It was a TED talk by Brené Brown and it was about the interaction between shame and vulnerability. It was posted on a website support group for PTSD sufferers. Here’s a link to the talk if you’d like to listen to it. It’s not very long.
I didn’t think the talk itself was very meaty. Brown talked about her own experience with shame and discussed how she got involved in her research. It was long on definition and short on “what do I do to overcome my own shame?” But then, I don’t think that was really what her audience was looking for.
Two things did strike me out of her talk. I’ll get to the second point later on because the first one really hit home: she gave a short, concise explanation of the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a feeling of, “I made a mistake.” Shame is where you feel, “I am a mistake!” Pretty easy to understand the difference, right?
From the get-go … from before I entered kindergarten … I have felt like I am mistake. That may shock some of the people that know me outside of this blog. They’ve latched on to the personna that I maintained to hide that shame, until the weight of keeping it up became tougher and tougher, until it caused a final breakdown that left me a wreck (and of course, reinforced the feelings that I was in fact, a huge mistake).
I mentioned kindergarten tbecause I had an experience back then that is pretty telling. to The class was going to make paper mache pumpkins together for Halloween. The process took several days. Day one, we cut up the paper; day two, we made the frame; then we made the paste, attached the paper to the frame and painted our pumpkin faces.
We were almost done when the teacher announced the final step: “Tomorrow, we’re going to shellack and then we’ll be all done!”
Now the only time I had ever heard that word was when my father would give me a beating and call it a “shellacking”. I was terrified – I even tried the old “fake sick” routine to get out of going to school. My mother would hear nothing of it. Based on what went on around the house, I figured she was in on it.
When I got to class, I kept measuring where I was in relation to the teacher and the door. When she announced it was time to begin, I screamed like a banshee, jumped out of my seat and headed out the door! I had almost made a clean getaway when a janitor caught me headed out the door to the playground. All I kept saying was, “Please don’t hit me. I don’t want to get hit. I don’t want to get hit!”
When my mother came to pick me up, she and the teacher laughed it off. When my father got home, he called me a fucking idiot, smacked me across the face for causing everyone so much trouble and sent me to bed.
Now you tell me – what 4 year old wouldn’t feel like they were a mistake, given that they were living in a situation that would result in this experience?
Religion played a big deal in my shame as well. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. I think I’ve mentioned that before. One of the things that was reinforced was the concept of “efficacious prayer” – that prayer worked. Not prayer like, “Please save me,” or “Please give me this or that.” Prayer, in Christian Science, is trying to align yourself with God. That this mortal life is an illusion because man was made in God’s image and likeness. When you prayed, you tried to see how the “truth” about a given situation would overcome the “error”, error being illness, a bad relationship, financial problems … and in my case, being badly abused.
Once you fully understood and absorbed the truth about a situation, Christian Science promised that one of two things would happen: either the situation would change (a healing, in other words), OR you would be lifted out of the situation (a redempton). That was a promise.
But there was a catch. If neither of those two things happened, it was because you hadn’t seen the truth correctly and needed to work on it more.
So here I am. From the ages of 7 until 14 or 15, I prayed every day, all day, to understand the “truth” about me and my relationship with my father. And every day … and I mean every day … I’d be subjected to what could only be described as torture. And instead of getting any relief from prayer, it was only reinforcing what is typical of child abuse victims (or victims of any abuse, for that matter). I was continuing to be abused because I wasn’t smart enough to understand what I needed to understand in order to gain my healing. It was my fault!
I basically gave up. When it came time for a beating, I developed this ability to leave my body. To shut down and take myself out of time while the abuse was going on. I knew from the clock that sometimes it’d be five minutes, other times as much as an hour. I trained the way a swimmer would to hold his breath underwater. I’d practice stopping thought. And I became very good at it.
Unless they’ve gone through a similar situation, I don’t know that anyone can fully grasp the lifelong implications that childhood experiences like these can have on an adult. When I look back at this, I can certainly understand why “dissociation” became my subconciousness’ go-to method for dealing with anxiety, depression, indecision and fear. Shame has become such an innate part of how I see myself, it’s pretty tough to do the exercises needed to counter it. I remember the first time a therapist introduced me to the subject. He gave me some workbooks. I got one chapter in and was so overwhelmed with pain and anguish that I shut the book, cried uncontrollable for more than an hour, never opened it again and never went back to see the therapist! That was in 1984. From then, I decided that I was just going to suck it up. After all, that’s what real men do, right?
This segues nicely into the second point of her talk I want to discuss – that men and women experience shame differently. Quite frankly, I don’t remember the “women” part (listen to the webcast). Men? We feel shame when we feel weakness. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Nothing else brings out shame the way weakness does.
Being beaten on a daily basis makes you feel weak. Being tortured and humiliated makes you feel weak. I dated rarely in high school. Strike that – I went on a decent amount of first dates but never asked anyone out a second time. There was no way I was going to let anyone see what my life was like.
I know I was hell to live with during both my marriages. I rarely opened up about things that were bothering me. Stuffed them inside as deep as I possibly could … until something would happen that’d make me snap and lash out in anger. Neither marriage ended well.
My last relationship gave me hope. I had decided to reestablish a spiritual aspect to my life and started going back to church. I chose Catholicism because its “social responsibility” teaching spoke to my inner nature. I started this relationship, but was going down the same stoic road. She kept telling me, “you have to open up … you have to trust.” For a couple of years, that was the story until I finally decided to do that. To become “vulnerable” as Brown discusses in the TED talk. I went back into therapy. I allowed my depression to be visible, to let her see my anxiety. The culmination of all of that was her finally telling me that she couldn’t deal with it anymore … that she was no longer committed to the relationship. So I left. Feeling the shame of weakness, that I wasn’t able to overcome my childhood, my depression, my anxiety and all the other symptoms of complex-PTSD. I’ve gone from being at one point a successful executive to a guy who’s living in a tent because of mental illness. Complete and utter failure.
So that’s basically how I came to be living in a tent, on a long term camping trip, with Frank the only “relationship” I feel capable of maintaining. Still trying to figure out how God plays into all of this.
So, what’s the point of all of this? It’s certainly not to have you feel sorry for me, nor is it to lay blame for my failure at life on my parents. I accept full responsibility for my inability to get better. Therapy works for some, not for others. I’m here either because of decisions I made or wasn’t able to make.
I think the point of this is two-fold: First, to let others who have been through similar trauma know that they’re not alone. I have felt alone my entire life – no need for you to do that. Know there is someone out there who understands pain and who it can impact you, your health, your relationships, your outcome in life. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get help and be willing to do what’s necessary. Don’t give up. That’s for you.
I think the second point is for me: I’m still trying to be vulnerable. Writing this was incredibly difficult. I haven’t talked about the shellack experience in decades. I spoke to some church brothers about how Christian Science prayer resulted in increasing my own shame a few years back … but then became so ashamed at what was going on in my life afterwards … after the allowing me into their group … that I didn’t deserve to be there because of how broken I was.
I don’t know what good will come of it, but I have made myself vulnerable. We’ll see what comes of it.