The Jacket

breaking free of the shame that binds us

There’s a bit of compulsiveness in believing that everything will mean something. I don’t know how much of that is derived from hyper-vigilance or magical thinking - but when I find myself searching for answers in the same places I’ve looked a thousand times, I know it’s time to surrender (again). It’s remarkable how actively we have to metabolize complex-grief. I say it’s notable because I have to approach grief with just as much curiosity and fascination as reverence. Otherwise, it’s just destructive. 

When I’m crying in the shower each morning, or when I feel the compulsion to emotionally self-harm (asking endless questions and playing memory tapes through), I can either continue to be overwhelmed - and allow that shame and grief to continue to bind me and fall on them like swords over and over. Or, I can practice reframing skills and be curious about the alchemy that’s at work in my soul. Being curious means letting go of entitlement and expectations, which is a daily practice for me. I am never ever going to understand “why.” Both restitution and reconciliation are impossibilities for me now, and there’s a unique type of mourning and a bit of madness that come along with that territory. Especially with the grief that cannot be bridged or shared. 

Life has left me with so many untenable situations. It’s difficult to gloss over the terrible cosmic irony of surviving the partner who discarded and gaslighted me while I was chronically ill. I recently read, in John Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” that a shame-based person is haunted by a sense of absence and emptiness. Just last week, I used the same language talking to my therapist: “I feel like I’ve been living in this haunted house for the past four years. There’s a room full of memories and evidence from 2012-2016 that I have sealed off, wrapped in cellophane, and no-one is allowed in there, not even me. I have all that literal evidence sealed up in a box in my closet. I needed it at first because it was proof that I wasn’t fucking batshit crazy and remembering things wrong. But now, with her passing and being contacted by friends from Vancouver - and having them ask me about that time - it made that room real again. It made losing her, watching her become unidentifiable to me (twice), real again. But mostly, all the magical thinking I had surrounding transformative justice died with her." 

I can feel shame over my shame. My body, especially, can become an object of the (now internalized) contempt I was treated with. I live with so much touch repulsion and aversion that I still shirk whenever someone reaches their hand towards me. I often wonder if anyone will ever love me enough (again) to bathe me, or even if I’ll allow myself to be in such a vulnerable state. I haven’t felt handsome or beautiful in nearly half a decade - and I’ve forgotten what tenderness and safety feel like. 

For me, the pain of being discarded and replaced isn’t an affirmation of my (feared) unworthiness; it’s that the place of (upmost) belonging was warped into a place of (incredible and intimate) violence. I still believe that there is no deeper, more profound, and disproportionate anguish than watching the person you love most in the world, your best friend, become unrecognizable all over again.

I also have to be conscious of the (almost endless) possibilities in her life that I will never be privileged to. Part of radical acceptance means being open to realities that I did not witness and will never be a part of. It’s a delicate balancing act between acknowledging what might have been at work in her life and not falling into those rabbit holes. 

When life denies us of the possibilities of transformative justice, we can either accept that and get to work; or we can spend the rest of our lives attempting to be necromancers, which is just another way of saying living in a state of perpetual loss. Unmetabolized grief is like wearing a dead person’s clothes forever. That’s not something I’m interested in. I want to be both the heaviness and the light in the room. I want my wings to extend 12 feet past my body and brush others with grace. 

I’m not sure how much of my shame, grief, and disappointment I need to make real by externalizing them. There are microscopic lines between making trauma real, perpetuating interior violence, and making a spectacle. Maybe that’s something each of us has to feel and figure out for ourselves (in therapy). Luckily, I’ve been endowed with a lot of discernment in my 30’s; and I even have premonitions whether something will be harmful or hurtful. I can trust what my experience, body, and soul are telling me - which any survivor or therapist will tell you is a fucking miracle stage in recovery. I’ve even reached the point where I can recognize cognitive distortions caused by shame and grief and send up and shame siren/flare to a trusted love one. Even the strongest among us need affirmation and confirmation. We all get better when we are loved, challenged, equipped, encouraged, and reminded of who we are.

I’ve been thinking of this Barry Hannah quote all day today, where he told young graduates: "Be master of such as you have,” which I treasure because he wasn’t just saying “Have faith that you are enough,” he was also saying “Trust where you are right now.” Both can be challenging and the latter an excruciating thing to do. Feelings do not merely exist but have a trajectory of their own - and keeping track of them can often feel like teleporting around trying to ride every atom of the Big Bang. That or we try to hold on to them all and get ripped apart in the process. 

When dealing with shame - I must recognize both the current emotion I’m experiencing and where it’s headed. I can say “Oh, this is shame and C-PTSD and I’m likely experiencing some cognitive and emotional distortions right now.” and then I can practice reframing or DBT skills and then change the trajectory of that emotion. As someone who loves to name things, you think I would’ve learned this a long time ago - but it’s something I’ve just learned recently. Still, thank goodness that I don’t get trapped in lasting distortions anymore, in my 20′s I had some that would last for years at a time. 

It’s curious to me that shame is often associated with nakedness and vulnerability; for some, it’s endemic to being visible. But the sustained-shame I’ve dealt with stems from the exact opposite. Still, I’m never going to plead with anyone to see the light or worthiness in me again. That’s not a reflection on me.