A few words about shame...
So, it’s deep, this shame I’ve been swimming in for years now. It got so deep there for a while I stopped noticing it, like when you dive into freezing water and at first you can’t fathom how you can stay in one second longer, but you do and you do and then the merest of moments later, you hear yourself calling out to anyone who will listen, “Come in! The water’s fine! It’s fine in here! I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine!” And what’s more, you believe it. And then eventually, it becomes the truth.
I was fine for a really long time in that water. I stopped noticing the shivers and tingles and numb. Things are changing now.
I thought for a really long time that the shame was, in fact, actual shame. But as it turns out, the shame is really more fear than anything else.
I wonder if you already knew this. Perhaps you are nodding.
I have been told, and more than once, that what I classify as “coping skills” are not coping skills at all, but instead “avoiding skills.” The people who tell me this sometimes do it with a measure of disgust and impatience and fury. Like this was something I was willfully and childishly refusing to hear, like I wasn’t listening, like they couldn’t stand me for not hearing them.
But, the fact is, I already know. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that (well, two things – I can also give you pi to 14 places). Of course my coping skills are avoiding skills. Of course they are. It’s so much easier to be ashamed than to be afraid. So much easier. You can function with shame; you can breathe right through it. Shame is mostly about failure, and failure is fixable. It can be controlled. Failure can mostly be done over, gotten right next time, tried again. But fear – fear stops everything. Suddenly, you’re back to that first second in the cold water, lungs constricting, brain telling you, “Out! Cold! Death!,” limbs pulled in tight, everything sucking in closer and closer, braced and fragile.
If it was all my fault, then it wasn’t terrifying. Not really. If it was all my fault, then it was just mistakes. Just a series of miscalculations and stupidity and error. But now I’m being told this is wrong. Worse yet, that it is destructive. Let that go now, I’m being told. Recognize I didn’t have even the tiniest fraction of choice I want to believe I had. Recognize now that he had a plan – A PLAN – that started long, long before that day and that my only mistake, my only miscalculation, was playing right into it. Without knowing, of course. And how could I have known? Outwardly, he was the gentlest of men. He laughed easily, eyes authentically lit. He leaned in to listen when I spoke. He opened doors. He wrote notes about my many graces and left them for me to find. He charmed me. He was safe. There was no one safer.
But it was all grooming, really. All part of the plan. This is what I’m being told now. It feels true, I suppose. Pick the young one. The one who blushes when you say something kind. The one who clearly lacks in self-esteem, roots, connections. And hook her. Once thusly hooked, there was no getting away, regardless of struggle. Not until I was released. Not until he released me. I had some choices, and the few I made were wrong. But they were, in fact, very few, and also, they were not really choices. Choice implies the weighing of options and decision-making. I never decided anything.
I know this. If I stop and think about this rationally, I know it immediately, sharply. It was not my fault. But as soon as those words wrangle together into coherent, reasoned form, my brain rebels. It is rebelling right now. Because after logic comes emotion and no, no, I cannot go there. Not all the way there. Not all that way. The moment I start to feel that I had no power is the moment I realize I was not safe then, I am not safe now, I will never be safe. There is no such thing as safety. It was not my fault? But then there’s nothing I could have done differently, do you see? And nothing I could do now to keep it from happening again in a million different vulnerabilities-wide-open kinds of ways.
How do you wrap your heart around that? Your brain, sure, but your heart? How are you supposed to carry on in a world where all it takes to destroy you is a PLAN.
I want to accept this. I am trying very hard. This is where I am right now, perched here on this fence. I am dying to accept it. Leap, leap. I am drowning in my pool. Jump, jump. But crossing that line from shame to fear – how? How? I don’t know how. I can spell it all out, everything not my fault, but I can’t embrace the list when I’m done. Immediately, the logic reconverts to shame. Shame is warm. Shame is home. Shame is safe. Shame is easy.
(Come back, Shame!)
(What, someone had to make that joke.)
I didn’t tell the room service man I needed help – I didn’t know I needed help then; how could I have known? (I was stupid; if only I’d been smarter, I could’ve gotten out.)
I didn’t fight back harder – I knew I would lose any fight I started and I didn’t want to die. (I was a coward; if only I’d been braver, I could’ve gotten out.)
I didn’t tell when I got home – I didn’t know what had happened, not really; I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have the tools I needed. (I was weak; if only I’d been stronger, I could’ve gotten out.)
I lied to people about it later, people I loved, people I wanted to trust, people I wanted to trust me – I couldn’t process the truth; it felt safer to lie; it’s understandable, it’s okay. (I was gutless; if only I’d been more confident, I could’ve gotten out.)
When he called me a “tease,” that’s when I stopped resisting. I thought, “Oh. Oh, of course. Of course that’s what’s happening here. Of course I did this. I did this. Of course this is what happens when you are like me. Of course this is deserved. Yes, yes, naturally, of course.” Did you know – I have been learning this – that they almost all do that? They almost all say that? The thing about being a tease? Rapists, I mean. That’s why they do it. That right there.
That is the first time I have ever called him a “rapist.”
(This would boggle anyone who heard the story, I think. But try it sometime. Try that word out. Say it out loud. It isn’t easy to say -- that word. It shouldn’t be easy. I already want to take it back. I will not be taking it back.)
Peace is coming. I can feel a buzzing tremulousness from it, a ringing, a flutter, usually in the mornings when I first open my eyes. It’s coming in the shape of a boat, a shore, a blanket, something warm. A transition. An allowing. A recognition, realization, acceptance. I can’t see it, that peace -- it’s still... it’s still over there somewhere [waves hand vaguely, in some direction or another]. It’s over there somewhere in the distance. I think maybe just over that bobbing blue horizon. Or just past that one hill. A corner turn away. No further.
I think I can feel it. I think that is what I feel. I think what I’m starting to feel might, in fact, be peace. And all I have to do, all that really needs to be done at this point – I think, I think, I hope – is to start swimming and not stop.
Only kick a leg now, thrust an arm forward. Start swimming, little girl. The water may be cold, it may be deep, but it is not wide. There are shores in sight, and several to choose from. Pick a shore. Take aim. Don’t look back. Look back.
This piece is being published anonymously for now. Perhaps just for now. Just until a shore is reached. Maybe just until then.