Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.Brené Brown
You changed my lifePJ Harvey, Shame
We were as green as grass
And I was hypnotized
From the first til the last
Kiss of shame, shame, shame
I was standing at the bottom of the stairs, just outside of view of the front door, counting my breaths, gauging the tightness in my chest. I could hear my family, x and our daughter, right above me, going on as though nothing was wrong.
Just ten days prior, I had spent the afternoon of my 44th birthday in the ER being checked for a heart attack.
I had chest pain the whole week before my actual birthday and then, that day, I woke up and it felt like a large rock was resting on my sternum. I had to labor to take a full breath. My head hurt. Both of my arms ached.
I had called my doctor’s office, from work, on my lunch break. Just to schedule an appointment to have everything checked out. Adding one more number to my age that day was reminding me that I was getting older and that ignoring these symptoms wasn’t wise.
I had a toddler. And I knew already, by that point in my daughter’s life, that I was the only functional parent in the house. Take care of yourself – do this for you no matter if he calls you hysterical and dramatic. Just make sure everything is ok.
I described the symptoms I was having to the woman at the appointment desk. She put me on hold and got a nurse. Go to the ER now, the nurse said.
Can I just go to an urgent care? I asked.
You can, she said, but they’ll just send you to a hospital. This is serious. Urgent Care won’t have the same equipment.
I went to the ER in my small town, even though it’s not the best emergency room and wasn’t the closest to my work, because it was a Wednesday and mid-afternoon and maybe they wouldn’t be as busy as the closest ‘real’ ER so that I could still make preschool pickup. And I’m fine, I said to myself. I’m probably fine.
To x I said, the doctor thinks I’m having a heart attack. I have to go to the ER now.
I can look back, this many years out, and finally face all of the ways that I minimized things like this to myself but maximized them to him. Whatever I said, he would dismissively minimize it, so if I started out making it smaller, where was there to go?
And I wanted him to be alarmed. I so badly wanted to see some kind of expression that showed that losing me would hurt him. To see some sign that I mattered to him.
What was happening in those moments is this: I was begging him to worry. To care. To see that he could see that what he had done to our lives was destroying me. Was physically constricting my lungs and my ribcage until, sometimes, it actually physically felt like I was buried alive.
I was, in those most painful moments, fishing for empathy without even having the words for what I was doing. Or the ability to face that empathy was completely missing from him.
I knew he was the cause of my pain. I knew it with every cell of my being. Cells that were literally aching. But still: I yearned for him to make it all better.
I stood in that downstairs hallway, exactly forty-four years and ten days old, tears in my eyes, my purse over my shoulder and my keys in my hand, wondering how to get out of what I had just said I was going to do.
Why had I rushed to grab everything and said I’d do something I now knew I definitely did not want to do? Why had I reacted so fucking big?
He had ranted at me for getting triggered, still, by the mountain of betrayals I had discovered the year before. I had been hyperventilating and he had sighed and mumbled something about not letting go of shit and moving on and couldn’t I just fucking stop being so negative already. I can’t do anything right by you.
Maybe it had been a song. Maybe it was a smell. Maybe it was just a name said on the TV that brought it all back, time rushing in from the past like it was then instead of now. My triggers that first year were so many and so often that they bleed together in my memories – what my mind and body remembers most is how it felt, not what caused it.
Loss of balance. Loss of air. Cotton mouth and a spacey mind – like the fevers of my childhood that made the chair I sat on feel like sand dissolving beneath me.
Some days in that first year, I was actually physically triggered a dozen or so times in a single day. A frequency that is not at all unusual for people trying to heal betrayal while still being abused. Like trying to stop a deep wrist gash with a butterfly bandage.
Terror. Fear. Deep deep sadness washing over me.
The air itself feeling like pinpricks against my skin.
I had begged him, again, to just comfort me in those moments and realize that I didn’t ask for these triggers and I was doing the best I could to get better at getting through them and couldn’t he please just see helping me through these as a way for us to heal what was broken, to come together, stronger, from all of this.
Help me help us, I pleaded.
(I didn’t say: this is all your fault anyway – at least don’t make it worse. I knew saying that would only make the chance of any comfort from him disappear for days, maybe weeks. The thought of that pain – the absolute sharpness of total neglect – was too much to imagine bearing on top of the dizziness and confusion.)
You’re bringing this shit on yourself. It’s been a year. Get over it already. You blame me for fucking everything.
My heart got tight again. I strained for breaths. I had to take four or five short breaths just to expand my chest noticeably. My arms hurt, again. My throat ached.
I grabbed my purse, fast and hard, the weight of all the mom stuff in it causing it to swing widely behind me and hit the door frame as I grabbed my keys from the shelf by the stairs and I scream-cried at him as I started to walk down the stairs: Now I have to go to the ER again. You’re making me sick. You’re going to kill me with all of this bullshit and your lies and your anger. They said to come back if it happened again and good fucking job – you win – it’s happening again. You’re an asshole. You are a cruel heartless fuck.
The ER doctors, after EKGs and chest X-rays and blood tests, had told me the week before that they couldn’t find any sign of a cardiac event and I most likely was stressed and did I have anything going on that would stress me?
Of course they also told me to watch for more signs or symptoms, but mostly they said to try to work on relaxing and eliminating anything excessively stressful.
How could I do that, though?
How could I save my family and eliminate what was stressing me?
I. Could. Not.
I knew deep in my marrow – even if I absolutely couldn’t think clearly enough to see what I was really in – that there was a crystal clear solution to my body’s mutiny and its loud attempts to force me to see the truth of my life. There was a living breathing cause for what was happening but I needed him to make it all better. I needed him to see me and fix it all.
I stood in that hallway, keys in my hand, chest still tight, tears running down my cheeks (as I literally swallowed sobs lest my two year old hear them), trying to figure out a way to not get in my car and not go to the ER that didn’t involve telling x that I would be fine and I was, indeed, dramatic and overreacting. That I was, at root, acting out so he’d give a shit if I lived or died.
I’d already heard it said lots of times, decades prior, while sitting through family sessions at rehabs, that in the midst of addiction, there are always those moments where you see that your life is out of control and it’s become unmanageable.
What I didn’t know when I was the one on the periphery, not really, is this: It doesn’t just happen when you hit your bottom. You have lots of those moments where you know it’s all very untenable. So many. You just have to really see them.
You have to figure out if you will do something about that – if you will really listen and climb up out of the shame of your own situation – or if you will continue to spiral and numb and deny.
You have to be less afraid of the pain of truly seeing yourself than of the thing giving you pain.
We are shown the chaos of our lives and we can choose to step out if it and work to fix it. We can decide that we are not this one moment of our life or we can let shame lull us back into the pain we know instead of the fear of that unknown pain of sobriety (or freedom).
Standing in that hallway, I was very consciously trying to figure out how to get out of the situation I had created (or so I believed in that moment). I was trying to figure out how to do anything but walk back up and tell x I wasn’t going or get in my car and walk into that ER knowing full well that what was broken was not, in fact, my heart. Not in a medical sense. Not in any way I was able to even imagine fixing yet.
I could only see two choices and neither seemed like things I could do without admitting, to myself, that I was exactly who x kept telling me I was.
From the outside, from years out now, I can see that the moments where I realized something was horribly, horribly wrong in my life with x – the times that I felt most hopeless and shameful and lost – were because of my own actions. My own words. My own overblown responses to something small.
I would see myself in action, almost an out of body experience, and think what the fuck are you doing?
And yet: I couldn’t stop it.
I embarrassed myself. To myself. Many times.
I didn’t want to be this person. But.
I had to do it. Say it. Scream it.
And then I would be bone-deep ashamed. And so fucking embarrassed.
That I had proved him right. That I had given him one more thing to hold over my head. To tell other people. To smirk about the next time I was triggered or insulted or righteously outraged.
So from that up-above-out-of-body vantage point, I watched as I moved my feet and walked outside and got into my car and, after sitting in it for a few minutes in the driveway, backed out into the street and started driving toward the hospital.
If I only had two choices, then walking into the ER and pretending I thought I might really be having a heart attack after figuring out a week before that I wasn’t seemed a less painful option than walking back up those stairs and setting down my keys and my purse and sitting in that house with x and trying to seem like life was ok as he gloated that I had, again, freaked out over nothing. A fake ER visit seemed better than enduring his smirks and sideways, jokey jabs about my hysteria.
Lying to doctors and having them deem me crazy or ridiculous or a hypochondriac was less scary and embarrassing than going home to x and having (somehow, even if only silently) to admit, to myself, that I had exaggerated what was happening to my body that night because I so desperately wanted him to come to me and hold me and comfort me and care about the intense pain his lies and never-ending secrets were causing me.
When I went to the ER on my birthday, I really was concerned that I was having the beginnings of a heart attack. As I drove away from my house a week and a half later, I couldn’t deny at all to myself, that while the pain was real, I knew I was being vocal and making a scene about it because the person causing it wasn’t showing any concern or remorse or guilt over it and I wanted all of that so, so desperately.
I can’t live like this anymore. I literally will not be able to live like this.
I cannot keep feeling so desperate for his love that I do these things.
I drove around town for fifteen or so minutes, deciding if I could just not go and lie to x about it. Tell him I went and that they were concerned. Or even that they weren’t, but that I had gone.
I had, at least, calmed down enough that I knew that on top of not wanting to lie to the doctors, I couldn’t afford another ER visit. The first one cost me almost a thousand dollars and I hadn’t even worked out the payment plan with the hospital yet. Happy birthday to me.
I drove around and then circled back home. I parked and walked in and quietly set my purse and keys in their places and walked into the living room and picked up my daughter. I held her close to me and smelled her hair and kissed her forehead.
I told x that while I was driving to the hospital, I did some breathing exercises and got my chest to loosen and that I couldn’t afford another ER visit just to be told I’m stressed.
I looked at him square in the eyes and calmly said I know what’s wrong and the ER can’t fix it.
He loudly exhaled a puff of air and rolled his eyes before walking into the bedroom and sitting in there, scrolling on his phone for hours as I put our daughter to bed and cleaned up the kitchen and showered before crawling into bed with my back turned to him and what felt like a thousand pounds of silence between our bodies.
I wish I could say that was the day I left. But it was another two months before we broke up for the first time and another two years before I ended it for good.
I threw myself back into couple’s therapy and weekend marriage retreats and reading about healing from betrayal and the business of working full-time and raising a small child and allowing myself to fall into the sweet lull of backrubs and sweet words whenever the pain of triggers and his contempt for me and my emotions got too painful.
I had an outpatient surgery to make sure the abdominal pain I was having wasn’t cervical cancer after some alarming initial test results. I had blood tests and X-rays and ultrasounds for odd ailments. I tried hormones again to balance out the emotional swings. I got shingles right after a summer vacation meant to be relaxing. I went back to solo therapy to bemoan my treatment while also saying I just couldn’t leave, though, for my daughter’s sake and because I still believed x was just a little broken and did know how to love and I had to try everything possible if I had to look my child in the eyes later and say there was no other option than to explode her family.
I tried, daily, not to think about how I saw myself in that hallway and the balled up fists around my keys and the bargaining I did with myself on the rambling drive not-to-the-ER. I buried that moment of clarity, like I had so many others, because I was still looking at all the wrong problems and not seeing the real solution.
I was still being gaslit and diminished and lied to and spun and spun and spun so that my vision was anything but reliable anyway.
So I controlled what I could. All I could see to be in control of at the time.
I worked so goddamned hard to control my own reactions and take responsibility for my role in our problems.
I swallowed so many sentences and feelings and so much justified anger to try to make it work, which really meant not pissing him off so he’d hide out downstairs for days on end.
I tried out snake oil after snake oil, essentially, because what saves someone from abuse is never what helps healthy people work out relationship issues. It, usually, like in the case of couple’s therapy and wonderfully insightful couple’s retreats, just gives the abuser a whole new arena (and all new raw info) to use to abuse you more effectively. You show up to these things vulnerable and they show up with all the promises you want to hear as well as a sack to fill with future weapons.
The solution to my shame was there that day when I looked him in the eyes and told him he was the real problem. I knew the solution but buried it deep in my body, where it would continue to roil and rot and cause me actual, physical pain as it invaded every cell in my exhausted, sore body.
How could I save my family and stare straight into the eyes of the real solution?
I. Could. Not.
Because believing he could change was easier than facing the person that I was turning into day by day. Easier than having to pause and feel all that flame-hot shame buried in my cells.
Why do we stay even when we know it’s really, really not ok?
For so many, many reasons that seem so hard to understand from the outside.
One of them is that we see ourselves far more sharply than we see the abuser, while we’re in it, and the shame we feel about what we do and who we’ve become is an incredibly effective shackle.
My life had become unmanageable.
I could not control it.
But if I tried even harder. To not react. To stay calm. To model good communication. Maybe we could be saved.
And every time I failed at one of those things, then somewhere deep inside I gave the tiniest credence to his barbs and stabs and projections.
I knew I wasn’t who he said I was.
I was also that woman screaming that I was going to the ER, instantly regretting the outburst, but still going through the motions because I was lost and confused and in so much fucking pain – all of the kinds – and flailing. So if I was that lost and confused, maybe I wasn’t who I knew myself to be.
Maybe I did deserve some of it.
He was almost always so damn calm in the midst of my worst pain.
I was hysterical sometimes. Dramatic. Screaming out about my pain. Hitting my fist against the side of the tub and making myself unable to type without intense pain for a week. Throwing my phone across my room as I slept alone, again, for nights on end because I got triggered and having to lie to people about how my screen cracked. I was the one hyperventilating in the bathroom after toddler bedtime because I had to go lie next to x and I had no idea if he would ignore me or love me and the pain I felt over choosing to walk in there on the chance it would be love nearly dissolved me with shame.
(These details are still embarrassing to write – to know they are out there and are so contrary to who I think I am, who I thought I knew myself to be before x.)
Abusers create scenarios to push their targets to the edge and then say, see? You’re always right on the edge – you really are unstable.
You’re so emotional. You’re too sensitive. No one can please you.
You’re so hard to live with.
Abusers poke holes in our flesh while we sleep and then, when we wake up in blood stained sheets, they tell us that we’re always ruining everything and why can’t we stop making a mess?
They trip us and then keep reminding us – keep telling everyone – that we’re so damn clutsy.
I’m not ashamed of me that day anymore. I’m still a little embarrassed that I got to that point. But I understand it now – as a normal reaction to a very fucked up reality.
I am sad for that woman standing in a hallway who literally didn’t know whether to go up or out.
Who only saw those two choices. Who knew both would be terrible in their own ways, but initially still chose the one that didn’t involve going back up to the man she loved.
But then did.
Who knew there was no comfort to be had there but still came home to that and carved away her flesh, for years to come, to try to make it change.
Why do we stay? Because, for a very long time (sometimes forever), leaving seems so much scarier and so much more expensive. In so many ways that are not financial.
We have to see ourselves in a way that will crush us and pulverize the old version of us, the one we haven’t been for a while now. It will make dust of who we thought we were and that is a knee-buckling kind of terror.
And staying means there is hope that all of things we have done that are not us will be for a reason. Will be a means to an end. And we pray we can shed them like an old skin once we get to the place we long for: healthy love.
Inside, we already know we’re not who we thought we were: the kind of woman who doesn’t do the things we’ve now done. Again and again and again.
But we’re deeply embarrassed and profoundly ashamed for anyone to find out that we acted like we thought we were dying of a heart attack just so someone would hug us and say they love us. To know we scared our child in a momentary panic for some small amount of comfort. To know we actually got in the car and started to drive to the hospital. That we considered lying to the doctors there so we didn’t have to admit we were exaggerating.
The cost of anyone else knowing us that way is way too high.
We don’t know how we will afford that shame anymore. But we don’t know how to pay what it costs to stop it, either.
We’re on a round highway and the fog is so thick that we can’t see there’s an offramp. So we go around that track and press ruts deeper into the asphalt every go-round.
In the last three years, alone, of my relationship with x – there were dozens of incidents like heart-attack-antics day. Of me acting out or being dramatic.
So x would do something – anything – to show me he loved me.
The effect of all that shame and embarrassment is cumulative.
When people say that abusers make you lose yourself, this is how they do it: they get you to do it to yourself.
It wouldn’t be nearly as effective if we could see them doing it to us.
We act in ways that make us hate our very selves. That fill us with shame.
That we are afraid to ever tell people.
We know what people will say.
I’ve heard it for years now even though I haven’t, until now, shared these shameful specifics: you’re not without blame; you were a problem, too; he says you abused him; it takes two to tango; I know you lashed out sometimes, too.
We stay, in part, because for a long time, we say these things to ourselves.
We believe them.
We stay because our lives are unmanageable but we are told – and we believe (& we want for it to be true) – that our abuser is the one who can make it all better. That it will all be worth it somehow if we make it work.
They starve us and then tell us what pigs we are for always being hungry.
We devalue ourselves. We start to do the bulk of the work for the abuser.
We hold the shovel that digs the grave of who we used to be. We keep taking our old selves apart, shovelful by shovelful, and then sit at the graveside crying about it.
We don’t know (until we do) that we can use that same shovel to unearth the real us, to build a wall of dirt between us and the abuser.
We are not who the abuser says we are. But we also aren’t whoever we used to be (or thought we were).
Shame keeps us from seeing that we can use that same shovel to build a new, safe place where we don’t have to wonder if it’s better to lie to a doctor or go home and be chipped away at more and more.
Part of the cost is having to know what everyone else says about how we acted while in it. We have to bear that weight to be free. It’s incredibly heavy.
If the world around us knew the shame we heap on ourselves, then maybe they would not shame us further when we do face the truth. When we have to stare at that new face in the mirror, the last thing we should feel is even more shame. From people who just don’t know what it was like inside those walls.
You do not have to understand it – I pray each day for fewer people to know what this feels like – in order to say that you can’t possibly imagine what someone is living in for them to feel they have to scream and wail and play out panicked dramas just to try to be seen as worthy of even the smallest bits of comfort and love.
To let someone shed that shame, it’s enough to not add to it.