Category Archives: shame

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

How to Be There for a Person in Crisis

I received some bad news the other day. When I told other people, they immediately focused on the positives, which irritated me. The positives, while not untrue, were also a kind of erasure.

God bless my mother-in-law, who after a near lifetime as a nurse, knows something about true empathy. Her response to the bad news? Two simple, significant words. Oh. No.

Because the bad news doesn’t involve me directly, I’m not going to share it here. What I’m more interested in is writing about how we, as human beings, show up for each other in the face of bad news. What do we do? What do we say? What’s so wrong with looking on the bright side?

Despite being an expert in living with loss, I am probably insensitive and lacking in empathy more often than I know. But having lived for awhile in the shadow of progressively bad news, I do know more about what I’m looking for in terms of empathy.

So let me share a few tips with you in the spirit of making our world a kinder, less irritating place for people experiencing a crisis.

Thanks for hearing me out 🙂

1. If a person shares a medical test result or procedure with you, do not say “Well that’s better than X.” Do not talk about a procedure that someone you know is having that might be worse in your mind. Remember, suffering is suffering is suffering. This is not a competition. There are no winners. Just a lot of sufferers.

2. Don’t disappear. That means responding to texts and responding to phone calls. Bad news is coming for all of us. What you do and say to another person experiencing a crisis prepares you for the one you are going to face. Silence is not golden. It’s infuriating.

3. I know what you’ve been told about clouds and silver linings, but have you ever stopped to think about the absurdity of this expression. Sadly, there is no silver in the sky. I wish I were wrong. How cool would it be if rain was silver? But this is real life with real pollution and real boring acid rain. Just let it be.

4. I know it’s tempting to say things like, “Let me know if you need anything.” I say shit like this all the time. But after receiving the bad news that will not be named, I was so out of it that I drove the wrong way down a one-way alley –– an alley I drive every day. People in crisis don’t know what they need. They are just trying to get through the day in one piece, without a car accident or other catastrophe. Take a page from my mother-in-law. Say “oh, no.”

5. Maybe you’re in the inner circle of someone who’s going through a rough time, and you want to be involved. This is good. This is noble. You should probably be deployed to train the people who can’t be bothered to respond to texts. But please be cool with not getting updates in real-time. People who are suffering have a bigger job to do than keeping you informed. Don’t pester them.

6. It’s best not to multitask when you’re on the phone with someone in a crisis. That person can hear you checking your e-mail or yelling at your kids. Yes, you are doing your best managing the million things you need to do in a given day. But the person on the other side can sense your distraction. And it feels rude.

7. Prayers. I know you have them. I know you want to share them. Maybe you even believe the only kind of prayer worth saying employs the word “Jesus.” Guess what? I’m a Jew. And Jesus-name prayers are irrelevant to me. So please save me and/or other non-Christians in crisis from having to school you on the difference between Christianity and all other religions. We have enough to do. Send thoughts. Send good vibes. Send non-deistic cards.

8. Anger. I bet you sensed some in that last item I just wrote. It’s there. It’s unavoidable. It’s human. Be a person who makes space for others to express their anger. Express your own. Just go ahead and scream right now. Doesn’t it feel good?

9. Shame. This is the shadow side of crisis. When our lives don’t go in the direction we want, shame flows alongside us like a lazy river, but less fun. When a person shares something with you that is difficult, that person risks shame. That person likely feels shame. Don’t add to the shame-pool by telling this person what to do, think, or believe. Don’t speculate on the causes of this crisis, or what alternative means might undo it. Have the courage to face vulnerability directly. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

10. You’re probably really curious right now about this bad news that cannot be named. Stay curious. Don’t pry. People in crisis have a right to process and explore their feelings without managing yours. This isn’t a slight. This isn’t about you. Be okay with that.

Shame Me Never

Once a man stopped my mother and me as we walked from a grocery store to her parking spot.  “What’s your disability?” He asked, pointing to the handicap accessible parking permit hanging from her minivan’s rearview. I don’t remember what my mother said back to him, but it was probably something like “Mind your business.” We both knew he was calling her a liar in an indirect way. His question was an attempt to shame her. This is how people who lack a sense of power exert control. They make a weapon out of shame.

She was 39 when the handicapped permit arrived in our lives, just three years older than I am now. She had no visible wrinkles, no grey hair. She never left the house without bright pink lipstick and Jackie-O sunglasses. She wore red nail polish on her toes. She did not look like a woman who was dying, at least if you think a dying person cannot be young or able bodied or capable of running an errand with her daughter.

But she was dying. Just a year before the parking lot encounter, my mother nearly died from a diabetic insulin reaction in front of me. She would have died had my sister and I not rubbed cake icing on her gums and dialed 9-1-1. We kept her alive while the paramedics made their eternally long drive to our house. We were nine at the time. This was not the first time we saved her life, but that’s another story.

***

When my mother was sick, when she was dying, I never used those words. Sick. Dying. This is not because I was afraid or in denial. It is because I was ashamed. Shame tunneled to the core of my being. Shame policed my language. Shame erased my self esteem. If I ignored shame, I thought I could make it go away. Instead of confronting my shame, I hid in my bedroom and read books about the Holocaust. I read every book about the Holocaust that our tiny library owned. I craved stories of other people’s suffering. I needed to know I was not alone. I needed to know suffering could happen to anyone.

Indiscriminate suffering became the theme of my writing. I wrote stories about girls whose mothers died or disappeared. I wrote these stories until a middle school teacher pulled me into the hallway one day and asked me if I was a masochist. She did not give me time to answer before she told me to stop writing these stories. They were freaking her out. I didn’t stop. I just stopped showing this teacher what I wrote.

Years later one of these stories won a national award that helped me get scholarships for college. My sister saved the story for me. She has always believed in my writing. A few months ago, she found the story and called me to tell me my life’s work is to write novels. But I can’t write fiction anymore. I don’t know why, or what happened to me, only that my inability to write fiction is directly connected to my mother’s death. I wrote one short story the year after she died. It was about a girl who tried to kill herself but survived.

I was the suicidal girl.

I was the girl who did not die.

***

No matter what my mother ate or how many times she tested her blood sugar, she would have an insulin reaction. She could not control her disease. Her disease would not be controlled.

She felt at fault for this dynamic, and she was made to feel this way inside a culture whose dominant narrative of illness employs words like “battle” and “fight” to erase the reality that control is usually the first thing to go when a person is sick. My mother did not battle her disease. She lived it for 35 years. She endured organ damage, organ loss, organ rejection, surgeries, hospitalizations, fractured bones, daily needle injections and blood draws, depression, and anxiety.

When she went to sleep at night, she never knew if she’d wake up in the morning. She wore an insulin pump. It did not save her.

The night after she died, I slept in the bed where she’d taken her last breaths. Her insulin pump beeped in the middle of the night. I threw it across the room. I wanted to break it open. After it hit a wall, the pump fell onto the carpet, completely intact.

­­My mother didn’t get to live in a time when women spoke openly about how shame silenced and policed us. The expression “body shame” was not part of her lexicon. She bought into the myth that her disease could be cured, and she believed her organ transplant was a cure. When her organs rejected seven years after the surgery, she gave up hope. She accepted her death. I do not know if she felt anger or if she blamed herself. During the last month of her life, she was the saddest I had ever seen her. She was sad to the core of her being.

Only a few close friends knew about my mother’s transplant or her organ rejection. Shame kept me silent. Shame kept me from reaching out. Shame kept me isolated. Shame fed my own depression.

***

I’ve had to speak up about my own illness this week. I’ve had to tell a friend and mentor –– and leader on my campus –– that I need to take breaks in order to protect my body from immune system attack. This need may mean that I miss out on opportunities. This need means I am not “leaning in.” This need means that I have to say the word “can’t” even though I’ve been taught never to say this word.

I am an overachiever. I am good at what I do. I am ashamed of myself when I say the word “can’t.”

I feel lazy. I feel like a quitter. I feel like a person who wants to squeak by doing the minimum. I am none of these things, but that’s the power of the word “can’t.” It evokes suspicion and disdain, especially when women use this word to set boundaries. You see, when a woman sets a boundary, there is often a professional cost. We are either shamed by others for setting the boundary, or we shame ourselves.

I’ve decided to stop giving a shit about shame. I’ve decided to take away shame’s power to control me. “Can’t” is not a bad word. Sometimes it’s the word I need to say, the only one that can save me.