Addiction, Alzheimer's, Ambiguous Grief, betrayal, compassion, Divorce, Grief, Grief Support, loss, Parenting, wellness

Not My Shame

 

There are moments that strike where my body shifts, and my mind trips into a space I dread.  In these moments, which materialize from any number of unrelated happenings, I find myself facing a most burdensome emotion: Shame.

It consumes my body. It feels hot and sweaty.  It prickles my skin and stabs into my gut. It sits on my shoulders, a heavy, uncomfortable load.  It is nearly unbearable, and I scan my space for relief. But nothing helps, and let me tell you, I’ve tried a lot!

Not chocolate (drats!), not wine.  

Not loud music, or a fast run.  

Not punching pillows, or screaming under the covers.  

Those things help relieve stress, but for me, they do nothing for shame.  I see Shame as that unwanted part of myself that I can’t escape. It’s a remembrance of what I’ve done, or not done, or who I am, or who I’ve become.  It’s an ugly mirror I’d rather never see. Thankfully, I understand that I’m not alone in this and that shame is universal.

after the fall
Rodin’s “Eve After The Fall”

Brene Brown, the beloved storyteller and researcher who studies shame says, I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

We’ve learned from Dr. Brown’s research, that shame cannot survive empathy.  If we’re vulnerable with our shame, and share it, speak of it, and not hide from it, then we open ourselves to the opportunity to connect with others.  In doing so, we then invite a space for those understanding our shame, to offer us empathy.  In that beautiful gift the shame begins to evaporate. It becomes less burdensome.  I suspect this is because we have just authentically connected with another, and not subsequently rejected for doing so.

 

In my journey through ambiguous grief, it’s been an important learning for me to identify shame.  As an empath, being able to understand and feel another person’s pain or insecurity, it’s especially important that I learned early to identify my shame versus the shame of others.  

When I accidentally discovered that my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was, and that my then-husband wasn’t the person I knew him to be,  Shame settled in and became an unwanted house guest. (Not unlike Shame’s first cousin Grief, whom I write about often).

 

What took me time to unravel though,  was that the shame I was experiencing wasn’t mine.  That heavy feeling didn’t come from who I was or wasn’t.  What I had done, or hadn’t. It was coming from me feeling pain for the person I had loved so deeply.  Pain for the shame he must be carrying. And not only because of WHAT had happened, but because I understand that there is a deeper, underlying shame that drove those choices.  

 

In looking to connect with others in my position, I was disappointed to find that many (most?) women weren’t talking about betrayal trauma.  I asked professionals about why this was and was met, time and again with the same answer: “They feel ashamed.”

 

This struck me.  

I was naive, to the experience of trauma and to the power of shame, so I wondered: 

 Why would a VICTIM of someone else’s abuse be quiet about their experience when THEY weren’t responsible for it?

I was told by one betrayal professional, “your beef is well-taken…but women aren’t speaking out because they feel ashamed…even though they didn’t cause the trauma, they are associated with the other person’s actions, which is often embarrassing ”.  

So if victims aren’t talking about it, what happens?

Shame, when not exposed to empathy will grow.  Even if the person knows it wasn’t their fault, and they didn’t cause the events to happen.  Deeply embedded shame digs in and roots itself.  Unattended, it festers and moves untamed until, I believe, one’s own soul becomes covered in the tangled mess that has grown.  Without connection to our soul, how are we connecting to the divine within us? How do we connect with our higher power? How do we tune in to our own GPS?  With shame so thick, it makes sense that researchers believe it drives our egos, and hijacks our being.

 

So, what to do with this feisty beast?

For me, when that prickle arises and I know Shame is coming, I pause.  Like an early warning alarm notifying a town of imminent dangerous weather, I heed the warning and begin to prepare.  I’ve created my own little warning system protocol, too. Here it is:

I stop what I’m doing. I sit and I breathe.  I scan my body for the space the shame is developing.  Then I ask the most important question I can in that moment:

 

“Is this my shame?”

I sit some more.

I wait.  

Within moments, I have my answer.  

Most often, the answer is no.

No,  this is not my shame.  

I push out a long exhale, shake out my limbs and let it pass through until it’s gone.  

(Which doesn’t take long).

I remember it as an ACRONYM:

STOP  – get quiet and pause

HONE – tune in to find the trigger

ASSESS – scan your body and focus on the feeling

MEET IT – look directly at it and repeat the question “is this my shame?”

EXHALE – armed with your understanding, breathe that shame-energy right out of your body.  

 

Identifying and being able to separate my own shame of things from the shame I feel over the actions of others, has saved me uncounted hours of grief.  

 

When I identify that the shame I’m feeling is my own, I give gratitude for Dr. Brown’s work, and know the remedy lies in vulnerability and empathy.  So, I take her prescription and share my shame with a trusted loved one, mentor, or my therapist. It’s amazing what the simple acknowledgement of shame can do for it’s healing.

 

Time and again, the simple act of identifying and understanding the source of shame and to whom it belongs, has helped me.  I believe it has kept that gnarly entangled overgrowth from finding a home within me.

 

Shame from being abused is a heavy load to haul.  Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, takes a toll on the human condition.  We know that as survivors deal with trauma of the experience, they often find themselves questioning their role:

 

“Did I cause this?”

“What is my part in this?”

“It’s my fault.”

 

But if we can help victims, and those healing trauma look at the situation and understand Shame, it might help.  I know it has helped me. My ambiguous grief is healing for many reasons, but not being a victim to Shame is tippy top among them.

While I do not wish Shame on anyone, I do wish everyone the ability to distinguish their shame.  In doing so, perhaps we can work to extinguish it, and in the process begin to heal our hearts.

 

#divorce, #hope, Ambiguous Grief, betrayal, Grief Support, loss, Parenting

Hope Springs Internal

hope

Have you ever hoped for something so hard that it hurt?  Maybe you wanted a toy as a kid, a party invitation as a teen, a job offer as an adult.  Or perhaps, like me, maybe you were hoping to heal an important relationship.

This kind of hard-hoping physically knots your stomach, churns your insides, and pulls on so many of your emotions it feels like you a never ending ride on a rickety old merry-go-round.  This kind of hope is all-consuming.

For people like me living with ambiguous grief, hope gets in the way.  Losing someone you love, but not to death, is tricky.

For a solid 8 months after the discovery of my (now ex) husband’s double life, I stood firm in my commitment to understand why he did what he did, and like a dutiful wife, get him the professional help he needed.  I hoped that therapy/medicine/meditation/treatment would solve the riddle of WHY, and we could then get on track for healing him*.  My hope was that he would  do the hard work required to find answers, to understand his hurtful and damaging actions, and “return” to the man he once was.  So, knowing he was the only one who could do his piece, and armed with the (wrong) belief that ‘If I didn’t help him, who would?’, I waited and I hoped.

I hoped and hoped and hoped.

For those who lose a loved one to death, hope for a reunion on earth is gone.  Grievers by death aren’t waiting for their loved one to call and announce they are seeking treatment, or waiting for grand gestures of apology and working toward amends.

But that’s exactly what makes ambiguous grief so tricky.

Without a physical death, hope remains.

In observing my own behavior during this time, I noticed something: the more I focused hope on him, the faster that rickety, old merry-go-round spun.  Then, I would hop off and take a break.  Then with a running start, I’d hop back on.  Until I had to jump off, again. This is the dysfunctional cycle of hope.

As my cycle breaks grew longer and longer,  I realized that it was during this time that I focused on myself.  I was just too exhausted and drained to focus my hope on him and his healing, something I realized I had no control over.

I used these breaks like a nap, recharging for what comes next.  It was during this time, that I practiced hoping for my future as a single mother.

I took inventory of my life and my interests.

How can I best care for my children?

What are my passions?

What are my gifts?

How can I be of service to others?

How did I want to define my life moving forward?

The time and energy I spent hoping for me changed everything.

Every. Single. Thing.

I was able to detach from the hope of any resolved relationship, to see my marriage for what is was, and even for what it wasn’t (but I thought it was), and to begin to stand on my own again.  I didn’t “give up” on hope for him and his healing, I made a conscious decision to stop hoping in his direction.

But, hope is persnickety and would still make surprise drop-ins.  When that would happen,  I would acknowledge it, and then use mental imagery to move that hope to a box I keep tucked away in the attic of my mind.  Then, immediately, I would envision a hope I have for myself, sit with it a moment, and then move on with my day.

Hope keeps us going.  But it’s dangerous because sometimes, it shouldn’t.  Not when it’s  misdirected, and especially not when it’s been misdirected for so long that the rickety old merry-go-round begins to rust.  That’s a huge sign that it’s time to hop off.  I am so glad I did.

Now, my hope is for my healing, for my post-traumatic growth, and the beautiful and  (God willing) long life I have in front of me.

merry go round

*My friend Catherine wrote a beautiful piece on “The Big Why“. She’s also started a gifting service for those wanting to send comfort to their loved ones in grief.  You can check out both here:

https://www.beyondwordsco.com/blog/2018/6/11/thebigwhy

https://www.beyondwordsco.com

Ambiguous Grief, Grief, Parenting

Tweaking Traditions. Ambiguously.

Friends, this season is going to be hard.

Ambiguous Grief yields Ambiguous Holidays.

Before Grief moved into our home, our family had many holiday traditions.  Birthdays, First Day of School, Easter, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve/Day.  At least one tradition entwined into each of them.  For our family though, Christmas held the most.  Dad and the kids would make their annual pilgrimage to select the tree,  proudly bringing it home atop of the family mini van.  Me rushing out to take the annual photo of them with their prize, then coming inside to serve them fresh from the oven, homemade, ooey-gooey warm and chewy, chocolate chip cookies.  (Yes, that’s what we called them. Every year.)

The ornaments, specially chosen for each family member were then passed out. Each ornament represented the achievements, the travels, or the memorable moments from the year.  As you might imagine, this meant that our family tree wasn’t one of those perfectly curated trees you see in some homes. We didn’t have matching bulbs or  ribbons, to compliment a coordinating star atop the tree.

Instead, ours was a tree of US. Patchworked with bulbs and booties from babyhood, crocheted and construction paper framed school photos.  Personalized puppies reminded us of the year Santa brought our dog, and city skylines recall once happy family vacations.

 My most treasured, and now most painful ornament is a simple door, donned in garland with our family name and “year of establishment”.   Thinking of it now brings tears to my eyes.  As I recall it now, I’m saddened thinking it could have a “dash” and a death date.  ‘Est. 1999 – 2017’.

The beloved ornaments, telling the story of our family of five, sits unopened in a festive holiday bin, that I packed away last year, our last Christmas together, just weeks before discovering the WHOLE heart-breaking truth about his betrayal to our family.  Our divorce and the grief endured from the discovery of my ex-husband’s long-lived double life aches deep within my bones. The authenticity in which I lived in our marriage is mirrored by his fraud.  We aren’t gathering around recalling funny stories about him, or finding comfort in his things left behind.  He didn’t die. He just deceived us and left.

Not being certain how to “do” this first Christmas, I read what I could find, and I  asked professionals and friends who had also endured divorce with children.

 “Make new traditions”, “forge forward”, and “do something totally different”, were the most commonly received recommendations.  Yet none of them felt right.

I decided to ask the children, all teens, what they would like to do. My hope was that if we HAD to celebrate (something I honestly don’t feel like doing), then for their sake, maybe we could “Tweak” our Christmas, just as we had tweaked our home when he moved out. Making it slightly different with new things, while keeping the familiarity.

Sounds like a reasonable plan, right?

Me: “So do you all want to put up a tree this year?”

Trio: “I guess”, “Sure”, Yes”

So with the “TWEAKmas” in mind, I set up this plan:

  • Buy the tree on the traditional first Saturday of the month (tradition)
  • I take the kids to a new tree farm to select the tree, enjoy hot coco, walk the farm with homemade donuts, admire the carolers. (tweak)
  • Make homemade, ooey gooey warm and chewy chocolate chip cookies for the family when we got home (tradition)
  • Decorate the tree with lights and new bulbs and ornaments (tweak)
  • Add the family star to the top, decorate the house inside and out, hang stockings (tradition)

Saturday morning came, we volunteered together at the local food bank (tweak) and then headed for the tree.  As they say, the best laid plans…..

Tweakmas was a disaster.  We got the tree, but not without a lot of eye rolling, attitude, shoulder shrugging, and door slamming.  There would be no posed photo this year. They were offended I asked. For all of us, it was just too hard.  The experience of understanding things are no longer as they once were is glaring and bright when your tradition changes. The pain was palpable and took them by surprise. I think my eagerness to heal their hurt was too.

We brought the tree straight home in a silent car. No stopping for ornaments.

We worked together to stand it in our foyer, and then each child retreated to their bedrooms.  Presumably to process.   I took the cookies to each room.  Nobody wanted one. That was 3 days ago.

The tree stands naked but for a couple strands of lights.

They don’t want to decorate it, after all.

They don’t want to see their ornaments or their stockings. Which is ok, because neither do I.  21 years of ornaments I gifted to their Dad are in those bins.  A bin he chose not to take when he left.  They are but a remembrance of a happier time.  We were being lied to then, we just didn’t know it.  Now, that we do and with the truth out in the open, we are working to find a new normal, to tweak our traditions, and find our way.

I know we will.

Just maybe not this year.