…all of us fight hidden, silent battles against not being good enough, not having enough, and not belonging enough. When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding and end the silence…
~Brene Brown, I Thought it Was Just Me
My original intention with The Shame Project was to document my journey through my own shame as it happens and in some sort of logical order. As I mentioned previously, however, I started this journey a little while before starting the project on my blog and there are a few earlier things that I wanted to share before I continued to move forward. But as life goes on, so does the journey, and today was a day worth sharing… so things will be a little out of order at the beginning here.
Today I had my first “real” counseling appointment with the physician wellness psychiatrist whom I’ve been seeing. We met briefly last week to make a plan for how I wanted to approach everything that I want to work through in my time with her. Being a logical person, I figured that I would just start at the beginning and work forward, most likely ending with my abuse. When I left that appointment, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about that last little point and it has been consuming my thoughts ever since. Some of my immediate thoughts prompted me to write something that will soon make an appearance on the wonderful blog, Blackbox Warnings (so stay tuned there for that) and it also led to me talking a little about my thoughts here on The Cranky Giraffe. As a result of these almost obsessive thoughts about my abuse history, I decided that I needed to start with that monster and get it out of the way before I could work on anything else.
So, that’s what I did.
Today, for almost an hour, I sat in front of this woman and told her about the 4 year long, secret relationship I had with the man who abused me. I started at the beginning. I talked about how it started, how he made me feel, why I was attracted to him in the first place, when things started to get sexual, when things started to get manipulative, when I started to feel worthless, when I started to feel dirty… But I also talked about when I started to make changes, when I started to stand up for myself, and when and how I eventually ended the relationship. I shared the details – the giving in, his straight out defiance of me saying “no,” and the one single act of real physical violence that saw the very end of it all. At the end of it, I could feel tension all throughout my body, my heart was racing, and I was sweaty. I realized that I had been unconsciously tugging at the hairs on my arms – for how long, I don’t know.
Before leaving the appointment, we talked a little about where we were going to go next time and she gave me some reassurance that what I went through, how I was feeling, and how I am feeling now are all normal parts of this cycle and the healing that will take place. I sat there for a litte while just in awe of the fact that it was all out there. Every last bit of it: What I did, what he did, what I let happen, why it happened, and why it is still haunting me. And the best part of it was that there was just empathy on the other side of the table. Only kindess and reassurance and the promise that it was okay that I shared it all. I felt scared and overwhelmed, but I also felt better. A little bit better.
It’s one thing to share it all and reach out to someone when it is their job to let it happen. And that’s exactly what this was. It was controlled, it was already marked as a safe place with no judgement and a place that I was supposed to let it all out. While I felt a little shame at some points of my story, there wasn’t much to experience because the fear of disproval and judgement was removed when I walked in the door of the office. But, even before today, there was on place – one person – whom I wanted to tell… the one person I would be most afraid to tell, and whom I would be most devastated to receive judgement and disproval from. And I thought about her all day. I thought that if I could tell it all, in finer detail, to this psychiatrist, I surely could tell it, in one or two words to someone who’s empathy and compassion would actually mean something to me.
The thought of telling K about this was not new today; I’ve been thinking about it almost obsessively over the past few weeks – imagining how it would go, imagining the reasons why I wanted to tell her, deciding if it was worth the risk. The fact of the matter is that K has become more to me that a physician mentor. She is that, but in addition, she is really the only person with whom I talk about the struggles I face at this point in my life. Right now, these are generally just associated with balancing work life and home life, which I know is something she works hard at too. I knew that telling her this would really make it clear that there is more to this mentoring thing than just the mentoring (deep down I’m sure we both knew that anyway). I thought about whether I would reach out to K all day. I came to the realization that until I told her, I would never stop thinking about it – I would always wonder what it would mean if I did tell her, and I would always be curious.
So I did it.
I drove to the hospital at the end of the day and I waited for her to finish seeing her last patient. We talked a little about how my rotation is going and how life with the family is going. I didn’t lie: I told her that things were challenging. She told me to take it one day at a time and that it would probably get harder before it got easier. I was nervous and anxious and I had a pit in my stomach… and there was silence. I looked down at my hands (maybe in shame) and I quietly said, “and there’s something else. I can tell you about it, if you’d like.”
Of course, she said I coud talk to her about anything. And so I led into it, in one of the practiced and controlled ways that I had imagined telling her. I told her about a time not too long ago when someone I was working with made an inappropriate comment about a patient with an abuse history – something about “these women” and how this “stuff” just “keeps happening to them… it makes no sense… why do they let it happen?” I told her how it really struck a sensitive chord with me and led me to unravel a little – because I used to be “these women” – and that all led me down the road of the extreme anxiety I started to feel a few months ago. I’m not sure what her initial reaction was because she didn’t flinch. The lead in was fairly telling (I think) and maybe she knew where it was going. I told her that since then I’ve realized that I need to work through it and that’s what I’ve been doing… on top of everything else. We talked about it a little more. She asked me if I was talking with someone about it, if my husband knows/understand/is supportive about it, and she said many of the same things the psychiatrist said to me, too: It happened, you can’t change it, you’re not that person anymore, but it doesn’t make it easier.
I didn’t need to tell her the details because I think, ultimately, they aren’t important for her to know. The important part is that I reached out – and not just to anyone. I reached out with the most shameful part of my being and put it out where I feel most vulnerable. And nothing bad happened.
I was courageous. She was compassionate. And, it can’t ever get worse than that.