*An essay every Friday in 2012*
Shame. It was Brené Brown who first distinguished the difference between guilt and shame for me in her now famous TED Talk “Listening to Shame”: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is: ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is ‘I did something bad.’… Guilt [says]: ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake.’ Shame [says]: ‘I’m sorry. I am a mistake.’” I read an article this week by Tracey Cleantis, “Secrets & Shame”, that has me looking at shame more closely. I am inspecting it under a microscope.
Tracey writes that shame “often underlies people’s grief and their depression, their anger and their frustration—and this may come as a surprise, but it also underlies their relentless push for success.” How so? Because we often set goals with shame as our impetus. We think, if I just do this, I’ll be lovable, I’ll be enough. Cleantis challenges us to look at our goals and ask each one: “If I achieve this goal, do I think I will finally be good enough? Shame often shows up in our relentlessness. People stick to the pursuit of dreams long past reason because they believe that stopping will prove that they are not okay. Being a screenwriter, having a dream house, being a mother, or whatever it is we are pursuing out of shame, tells us that we will finally be worthy and bulletproof once we have achieved the goal.”
As soon as I read these lines, my memory ricocheted to May 1997, my graduation day from Columbia University. After the ceremony, my family and I went to an Italian restaurant near the campus to have lunch. If I remember correctly, my aunt was there, my mother, grandmother, sister, my aunt’s oldest daughter, maybe my uncle. I was still in my shiny blue gown, the Columbia crown emblazoned on the lapel. We were talking about my future plans. They’d just given me their gifts, a pair of gold earrings and a jade bracelet, when my aunt asked me about law school. Since I was around five, I’d insisted that I was going to be a lawyer. The family thought that was a brilliant idea because even at that age, I always had an opinion, was always arguing and fighting and needing to be heard. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t know about that anymore. I’m gonna take a year off to see if that’s where I belong.” My mother slammed her fork down so hard, the wooden table rattled and the glass of water in front of me splashed into my plate. She glared at me. “Yo sabía que tú no ibas a ser ni mierda con tu vida.” I think that’s the day I realized that no matter what I did, nothing would be enough. I would never be enough in her eyes.
I look back now and can see that my years of over-achieving were driven by shame. I wanted my mother to love me so bad, I did everything I could to get that love. I was always at the top of my class, I won spelling bees, got countless awards. I danced in a dance troupe, even traveled to Turkey (Ankara and Istanbul) when I was 13 to dance at the NATO Children of the World Festival. I got a scholarship to the ABC Program in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I went on to an Ivy League University, and still, nothing was enough. I wasn’t enough.
I stopped living my life for her after that point but I didn’t stop the overachieving. It was already enmeshed in my DNA. I thought that publishing and participating in prestigious programs is what proved me worthy and lovable. I was wrong.
I’m reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water. It’s seriously brilliant writing. In one chapter titled “Nemesis,” she confesses that she pursued her PhD because a writer in her graduate fiction workshop called her story “trite.” Trite as in lacking originality. As in overused and unimportant. Up to that point, she’d been writing stories about voiceless women characters from history. She says that as she made her way through literary history, she “wrote a story from the point of view of Dora, Joan of Arc, Emma Bovary, Hester Prynne, Helen of Troy, Sade’s mistress, Medusa, Eve. And the Statue of Liberty.”
And when that pendejo called her work trite, instead of doing what she initially wished for (meeting him “in a dark Eugene alley out the back door of a bar so I could punch your smug face in you little prick”), she immersed herself in all things literature. And although she loved those writers and what they taught her, a void remained where the story she needed to tell was.
“But what nagged at me no matter how far into the literary intellectual pool I ventured, no matter how well I swam its waters, was the story I had yet to write. Itching my fingers like fire.
Two terms later, I tried again. Graduate fiction writing workshop…This time the story was about my life. Written entirely in random fragments—how I understood my entire life. In language—image and fragment and non-linear passages—that seemed most precise. The story I brought in was called ‘The Chronology of Water.’”
This week I’ve thought a lot about the shames I’ve carried over the years…
I’ve thought about how it was in boarding school that I learned to be ashamed of where I was from… Bushwick wasn’t trendy then. It wasn’t this art space that everyone wants to move to but people like me can’t afford. It was that place everyone avoided. “Have you ever been in a shoot out?” a girl asked my first week in Wellesley. Her huge blue eyes grew wider. She wanted me to say yes. She wanted me to prove to her that it was true what she’d seen in movies and on TV. “No one cares that you’re from Brooklyn,” a boy said my senior year. We were in Humanities Class and I was talking about my hometown, how different it was from this town where the three block strip they called the center of town went dark at 6pm. “Brooklyn’s a shit town,” he mumbled under his breath. I glared at him and mouthed, “Fuck you,” when he looked at me. He and I had gotten into heated arguments before. He was Greek and insisted that Greece was where civilization began. I sucked my teeth and said, “They stole all their knowledge from Egypt, dude. Read a history book.”
When I think of shame I think of my Millie, the self-proclaimed butch who raised me, and how she died ashamed of being a lesbian and terrified of going to hell. I feel that same shame dig into me when my queerness is questioned… I’m not sure I’m ready to write about that one yet.
I think about the shame I carry over being unmothered. If your mother can’t or won’t love you, you begin to think that there’s something inherently wrong with you. How do you get over that? I’m still trying. I’m in therapy and I write about it at length… All I know right now is that this is a process and it’s going to take some time. I know that when I reveal that I’m unmothered, the shocked expressions on people’s faces make me cringe. I know they don’t mean it but sometimes I can’t help but read their expressions as: what’s wrong with you that you have no relationship with your mom?
My mind goes to an essay I wrote some time ago, “They Call her Saint”:
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist—an unmothered daughter.
When I think of shame, I think about how we referred to Millie as our “aunt.” I don’t know when we started doing it and I don’t know who started it, but I didn’t question it until I was an adult. I was carrying my own shame…
I think of my brother… It stings to say this but I was often ashamed of him and his addiction, especially when he got the “heroin addict look”—sallow skin, eyes that looked like they they were sinking into his skull, his face drooped like a hounddog’s. I hated knowing that he’d called my friends asking for money, using excuses that they knew to not be true, like that his son was in the hospital and he needed train fare to get there or that I was out of food and too proud or ashamed to tell anyone. He’d visit me randomly in my office in Union Square (near where his methadone clinic was) and I’d always shoo him out. I’d say, “Let’s go outside” and we’d walk out to the park. I’m ashamed to admit this. I don’t know why I gave a shit what those people thought of me or my brother. I’d give anything to see him again, heroin addict look and all.
I think of my former coworker, a flamboyant white guy who was catty as fuck and loved to refer to things as “so ghetto.” It pissed me off and I wasn’t sure why but I know it dripped of classism and racism. This pendejo was raised in a suburb of Connecticut and didn’t know what the ghetto was or how it felt to be raised there. I addressed it once. “What do you know about the ghetto?” I asked. “You’re from Connecticut and live on the Upper East Side.” I tried to not look annoyed but I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings. He rolled his eyes and tossed his hair in that dismissive way that made me want to rip his face to shreds. “Oh, Vanessa,” he said. I crossed my arms over my chest, rolled my neck and waited. “So, what do you know about the ghetto? You like to talk about it so much.” He walked away and he never said that shit again in front of me.
Shortly after posting my last Relentless essay this past Monday, someone posted a meme on FB that resonated so profoundly, I mentioned it to my therapist today after telling him about the serious bouts of anxiety I had all week and how shame kept coming up for me. I took out my phone so I could read it to him (I’d saved it in my pictures to remind myself when I needed reminding):
My therapist got that thoughtful look on his face where he swallows his lips and creases his brow. He asked, “So how does that make you feel?” I leaned back and said, “Like I’m not alone. Like I can take it easier on myself now that I know that it’s a result of past traumas.”
Ken nodded. “Is that all?”
“That I should be patient with myself.”
He nodded again and said, “You are dealing with trauma and shame you’ve been carrying for a long time. You’ve stored it in different places in your body. And now you’ve decided to deal with it. I’d say that’s very brave, Vanessa.”
I started crying. I cried a lot this session. I cried a lot all week. It’s been a week of crying.
I woke up at 4:30 this morning. Lately I’ve been having a hard time sleeping through the night. To pass the time, I usually read and write and meditate and shoot the shit on Facebook. This week I’ve been reading a lot about mental illness and anxiety.
Mental illness. What does that even mean? The Mayo Clinic defines mental illness as “a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.”
I’ve suffered through some pretty serious bouts of depression. This anxiety I’ve had all week is the worst I’ve ever experienced. Does that mean I’m mentally ill?
The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMH) says mental illness “may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.”
NAMH goes on to say that “A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event. Research suggests multiple, interlinking causes. Genetics, environment and lifestyle combine to influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events like being the victim of a crime. Biochemical processes and circuits as well as basic brain structure may play a role too… 1 in 5 adults experiences a mental health condition every year.”
The first time I looked up mental illness was about two years ago and it was in reference to my mother. I needed something to explain her behavior, her unpredictability. I was looking for something to explain why she couldn’t love me, why it was so easy for her to walk away and not talk to me for months on end. How she could walk by me and pull her shoulder in so she didn’t touch me as she passed… I came across a check list of items—drastic mood swings, isolation, excessive worrying, detachment from reality, excessive anger, hostility or violence. Mom fit the mold perfectly. This was evidence that something was wrong with her and not me.
What happens now when it’s me who can check off or identify so many of those symptoms in myself including significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping…
Yesterday was parent teacher conference at my daughter’s school. Vasialys had dance class so I went by myself to get her report card and meet with her teachers. I know my daughter’s a good student but I was still taken aback by her straight A report card. Her lowest grade was a 90, the highest a 99. Her teachers gushed about how dedicated & disciplined she is; and her compassionate & generous heart. They told me about how she gets the girls to participate in gym and helped a recently immigrated Haitian girl get acclimated to her new environment. The teachers put their hands over their hearts when they spoke of her, and when they applauded my parenting, they said things like, “you’re a stellar mom” and “she’s so lucky to have a mom like you,” I winced because I was reminded of why I’m doing the healing work I’m doing, the therapy and the writing and the staring at myself and the traumas I carry…because I’m looking forward to the day when I can hear those words and really believe them…
I cried on the bus on the way home. I cried on my way to teach in the Bronx that morning. And I cried on my way from my teaching gig to my daughter’s school. This week I felt like I was crying all the tears I hadn’t let myself cry because I wasn’t ready to face my pain or I was scared I’d never stop crying or I was still stuck on that “you got shit to do, we don’t have time to cry and whimper” bullshit that kept me from healing for a really long fuckin time.
On Wednesday night, my daughter and I watched the movie New Year’s Eve. Robert De Niro plays Stan Harris, a dying man who has a lot of regrets for how he’s lived his life and treated people. At one point, his doctor asks him if there’s anyone he can notify. Stan says: “You know, the people that ever cared about me I pissed off long ago. There’s no one.” Later, Stan is confused by a nurse (played by Halle Berry) who is super nice to him. He says to her: “Why are you being nice to me? I’m an ass. I’ve spent my entire life being an ass. I don’t know how to stop.”
It’s well into the movie that you get insight into Stan’s regret when in his near-death delirium, he mistakes Nurse Aimee for someone else.
Stan Harris: You’re so good. You always were.
Nurse Aimee: Well, I’m not really that good.new-years-eve-11
Stan Harris: Yes, you are. I’ve been thinking about the ball drop and how that always used to be our thing. Remember when I took you to New York for the first time? We watched the ball drop together, remember? It was our night. I promised you we’d be…we’d go back there. Well, it’s a promise I didn’t live up to. I’m sorry. Why did I leave you?
Nurse Aimee: Stan, I’m Aimee. Remember? Nurse Aimee. Huh?
It’s the end of the movie when you learn that the person he mistook Nurse Aimee for is his daughter, Claire Morgan played by Hillary Swank. She shows up just before midnight (and “coincidentally” before her father dies) and takes her father to the roof of the hospital which he’d told the doctor earlier he chose for its proximity to Times Square, because from the roof, he could watch the ball drop the way he had with his daughter when she was just a kid. He dies redeemed and not alone, as only happens in movies. I thought of my mother and long dead father.
The tears came easy. They were fat, laden with grief and sadness. They left a wet spot on my pillow.
I wonder if all the moves I’ve made as an adult have been in an effort to prove that I am not my mother. Then I’m forced to face the reality that I’ve internalized how critical she was (and still is) of me.
I think of this passage in an essay I read this week: “For a long time, I believed that my mental illness was my own doing.” (Six Totally Awful Lies Mental Illness Told Me)
I’ve long struggled with depressive episodes. When they happen, I’ve thought “this is your fault, V.” I mean, I put myself in these situations that left me aching and distraught, like falling for emotionally unavailable men and befriending people whose wounds mirrored mine so we ended up destroying and betraying one another. I never thought about how the trauma and pain I was carrying was permeating every area of my life.
I had to read this essay in doses, because it hit home so hard… Mental illness tells me “I am unlovable…” Shit!
An incredibly generous student sent me an essay this week, 5 Things To Know About My Mental Illness — Before You Say You Love Me, that I also had to read slowly, stopping often to say “oof” and “oh shit!”
“I am afraid that I am too broken to be loved.”
I’ve carried so much shame around for so long. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for much of my life. I’m still climbing out of a darkness that my brother’s death and my mother’s consequent abandonment sent me reeling into. It doesn’t serve me to continue to deny it. I struggle with mental illness. I am mentally ill. Fuck, that’s hard to write, to confess, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that in order to confront something and deal with it, to heal, I have to be able to name it. This is my naming…
I am haunted by the fear that if I am truly seen in my most tender and tormented and twisted, I will no longer be seen as lovable. I am afraid if I am completely honest with the people I care about, they will leave.
“You have to love the entirety of me—even the parts of me that are terrifying…” (5 Things To Know About My Mental Illness — Before You Say You Love Me)
What if there are parts of you that terrify even you?
…if you’re going to love me, you need to know that my struggles are not pretty. They bruises and wounds and scars that I bear are not beautiful.
They will not inspire you.
I cannot promise you that I will always be this charismatic, ambitious, passionate person that you were drawn to in the first place. And when you find me on the fire escape, weeping and pulling out my own hair—bruises of every color spanning my body—I need to know that you won’t look away.
Anxiety tells me that people won’t be able to deal with my illness. Anxiety tells me that my love Katia will leave and my friends will leave and my family will leave. Anxiety says, “If your mother could abandon you, so will they.”
I’ve created this life for myself that I love. I have a daughter who shines so bright, I am in awe of her every day. I have a partner who loves and supports me in a way I’ve never known. I have friends who check in on me and call me from San Diego to say, “What’s up, bruja? Let’s talk about that shame thing you wrote about on Facebook.” I love the work I do. I love this class I created, Writing Our Lives, and all the friends and family I’ve been blessed with through my work. I love the direction I’ve taken with the class and all the plans I have to grow it. I love helping people write their stories. I love showing them that their stories matter. I love the writing I do and how I keep pushing and daring to be even more vulnerable with what I share… I’m terrified of losing that. I’m terrified that people will see my struggle and deem me unworthy. Unworthy of love. Unworthy of teaching them. I’m terrified to relearn what I learned from my mother: that I am not enough.
I confessed this to my therapist today. He tilted his head and a small smile crossed his lips. “What happened this week when you told your partner about your anxiety?”
“She was there. She talked me through.”
“And what happened when you told your friend about your anxiety?”
“They asked me what I needed. How they could help.”
“And what’s that quote you told me about that stayed with you from that essay?”
“You have to remember that not everything you think is true.”
I’ll have to remember that.