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Recovery Stories: The Unravelling of Shame

Shame is a festering wound under a dirty bandage. And like any wound, it won’t heal if it’s kept covered and in darkness.

He swept me off my feet. It was about at cliche as it gets. In the beginning I tried to keep him at arms-length. I was getting over a series of three-month dating scenarios. They all seemed to end with confusing monologues on how beautiful, smart and kind I was, followed by the proverbial “I guess I’m just not ready to date” or “I have too much going on”. It was crushing, and I was determined to do something different with my approach to dating. But he was persistent and charming. And the moment I became invested and started to relax into this relationship, well, that’s when it all went wrong. Things happened and the decisions I made cost me – not just emotionally but financially. The shame piled on top of the heartbreak was suffocating. Despite the shock and pain I felt, I told no one. Because. Shame. How many times had a I seen a news story or read an article on an unsuspecting woman conned by some guy with three different last names and multiple wives in cities across the country? My story isn’t quite that sensational, but I felt shame. It was heavy and smothering and relentless with the questions. Why hadn’t I made better choices? What was I thinking? Am I really that gullible? Instead of trying to gently answer those questions, I averted my eyes, and quickly slammed the door on yet another skeleton. Nothing to see here.

If I have learned anything in life, it is that the experience of joy and pain are interchangeable, and the movement between the two is often swift and seemingly constant. In our society, perfectionism is force-fed to us. Missteps are not easy to recover from. Shame is a festering wound under a dirty bandage. And like any wound, it won’t heal if it’s kept covered and in darkness. To heal, a wound needs light and air. How exactly do we do that when we have so many things that stand in the way? Our inner critic, our ego, our striving for perfection and insecurity when we are not perfect; our trauma – they all shout for us to keep our failures and our hurts well hidden. Our need to be perceived as secure and loved all the time, wins over true self-love which can be at least partly described as a kind acceptance of ourselves, mistakes and all.

Shame is a thread that is still unraveling in my life, one that I can follow back to when I was a little girl. I was painfully shy with an overactive imagination. My bedroom was my safe haven and behind the closed door, I dressed up and pretended I was someone other than plain old me. I longed to express all my wild and wonderful personalities in the real world. There were some brave moments where I did just that and they were mostly met with disinterest; other times they were met with disdain. Out of all my childhood memories, there’s one that’s been the subject of much discussion in therapists’ offices over the years…the memory of being called a fool. When I look that up in my thesaurus, it reads: silly, unwise, irrational, stupid, ridiculous, laughable. They all resonate hard in me. Even now, this word fool sneaks into my consciousness. Every time I make a mistake, it’s at the periphery of my vision. The shame attached to it wants to bury itself into me. And this has led me here – to a place of trying to uncover it, pull it out of me, speak to it, stare at it in the face…to accept and just maybe, let go of it.

My recovery from self-medicating with alcohol has unearthed many things buried in me. At the beginning it was just about not drinking, which was enough. But as I gained time in sobriety, I started to understand that the filters I used in life were not the problem – only a symptom of the problem. That understanding brings freedom and yet, a heavy burden; the knowing that the work has just begun. The threads from childhood trauma and/or the experiences that have shaped my responses to turmoil and tragedy…therein lies the work.

Today I am still an explorer of different versions of myself. I have invited practices into my life that have supported me rooting around in uncomfortable places. It’s still not ever easy. There’s a beloved saying in my community – “we can do hard things” – a simple and always applicable truth I think of when it gets tough. I am lucky enough to have been given an opportunity to take what I love (building and creating) and use it in work that is helping other women. But helping others is not possible without helping myself. This new life involves maintaining a willingness. It involves constant learning, sometimes through making different choices – choices that are not natural, that require a new kind of bravery. Speaking my truth, exposing my underbelly, meeting shame at the very moment of its conception, this is the brave that I am slowly uncovering. Recognizing that I am more than meets the eye and that to be human is to be many things including imperfect. Perhaps the little girl in dress-up clothes, pirouetting around the room was on to something.


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