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  • Erin Messmer

Turning Away From Shame

One of the most poignant and impactful experiences of being in rehab, besides waking up to the world for what seemed like the first time, is the one I had when I realized the nature of the shame that I carried with me. One of the hallmarks of my own personal struggle with food addiction, drugs, and alcohol was the shame that I had internalized and carried with me, as if it was another natural limb that I never questioned. I seemed tied to it, bound to the secretiveness of everything that shame encompassed. I was shameful of my past, my present, and my seeming inability to create a solid foundation for even a glimmer of a future.

Around the summer before I went to treatment

I remember equating food with shame. From as early as I can recall, I learned that there was morality attached to food; it was either good or bad. When deprived or left wanting, I was to feel strong and powerful. When full and satiated, I identified that with gluttony and guilt. Having my needs met, whether through nature or nurture, meant that I must be doing/feeling/experiencing something bad and I should hide it away from you as a form of protecting myself, so I couldn't be discovered. This black and white thinking so easily shaped my young mind, a belief that defined my childhood, my own disposition, and my regard of the world and people around me.

Years later, after perpetuating this secretive and isolating pattern, I was assigned what my treatment center called the "Shame Packet." I was handed a stapled stack of papers from The Hazelden Foundation to complete and present in process group. For those of you that have never been to rehab or have no experience with such things, process group was an hour to two hour therapeutic intervention group where we sat in a circle, moderated by two therapists, and "processed" our emotions, feelings, and behaviors as a method of making progress in our recovery. They used to say, "you can't fool a group" and goodness was that the truth. I got my ass handed to me on many an occasion in that group room, attempt after failed attempt to fool the group. Either way, the day that I was handed that stapled handout was the day I truly began to realize how my maladaptation with shame had proceeded to create exactly what I had feared and longed for during my years of active addiction and disordered eating. The connection that I craved, the relationships that I prayed for, the heartfelt ties that I so desperately wanted had been impossibly blocked and cut off by my attachments to shame. Any semblance of connectedness had been impossible because of the shame, that extra limb that I lugged around from broken friendship to failed relationship to distanced family tie. Now shame wasn't the only contributing factor, but it was a major player in why I was blocked off from creating, sustaining, and maintaining authentic and meaningful relationships.

In that packet, I remember reading something that explained the nature of shame and my world was rocked. It said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the nature of shame is to keep it secret and not to expose it, therefore perpetuating the divide between ourselves and the others we so painfully wish to close. To create what we truly want, we need to expose the shame to take the power out of it and to take risks in hopes of building bonds that aren't shame based, but built from a place of vulnerability and honesty. We need to walk through the fire and fear, talk about that shame we seem to believe makes us so unlovable, so detestable, so inherently bad, and to release ourselves from the bondage of shame. I remember learning this and I felt like everything I had known about myself and my relationship had been pulled out from under me. If shame blocks us from having true and authentic relationships, and I knew to my core that I carried so much shame with me, then that must have meant that all the relationships I thought I had had were false and hollow and fake. I cried and the tears welled in my eyes, brimming with their salty sting until falling onto those xeroxed pages. I had created what I feared. I had been operating from a place of shame for years, always trying to avoid proving to you, or you finding out, how bad I truly was. For if you knew how bad I truly was, you would leave me and I would be alone. Well, in part thanks to shame, there I was, alone and as broken down as ever. There, was the moment that I knew I had a choice to make that no one else could make for me.

The next step after that shame packet was to talk about it and expose my soul sickness. I was determined to fight back against my shame-based thinking and flawed relationship with myself and who I thought I had to be to be accepted and loved. I imagined myself taking something so dark and making the decision to expose it to light at every opportunity I could. I wanted to connect with you and with my peers. I wanted to create lasting friendships. I wanted to truly feel love and be capable of giving that love back to you. I wanted to be free from shame so I could learn to form successful, healthy, and divine relationships with those I loved: my family, my new friends, and myself. It was like my ability to speak my truth, my willingness to be vulnerable, and my desire to pursue a connectedness I was never able to access before outweighed any of that shame I had clung to for so long. I was ready to be free and I wanted to do whatever I could to release myself from that burden.

The amazing network of women who loved me until I could love myself, circa 2012

There were turning points after learning this painful lesson. I began to heal and I began to mend my relationship with myself. I began to hold the idea that it was ok for me to be gentle with myself where before I had been harsh and punishing. I learned how to be understanding of myself by being understanding of you. I remember feeling waves of shame and guilt come over me, begging to be kept hidden, trying to convince me to concede to their secrets and promised isolation. I went back to group, day after day, and began to open my mouth and find a voice that wasn't stifled or choked by shame, guilt, and the sins that I believed would define me forever. I remember being in one of our eating disorder groups and one of the members shared, her voice shaking and cracking, eyes cast to the floor, about eating out of the garbage. "Raise your hand if you've ever eaten out of the trash can," one of the therapists prompted, and slowly, hands around the room went up and eyes met in shy mutual understanding. A few smiles cracked across the faces of the more long-time members, as if to say "Oh it was more than one time." I remember being in my chair, thighs digging into the cheap polyester of the covering, hand raising slowly and looking around at the beautiful, vibrant, powerful, brave women that I admired, all of whom held their hands suspended in the air, a symbol that they too, in solidarity, had eaten out of the trash. A truth so shameful that most of us most likely had vowed to never expose, together we symbolically broke through the shame and brought light to the dark, creating a bond in that moment that tethered each of us to one another through our shared experience. Even as I recount this unorthodox memory, it serves as a touchstone and turning point of my growth in my journey of recovery. By honoring their truths, no matter what judgments may have loomed, these women made it acceptable for me to honor my own truth, my own fact of life, and showed me that I could and would grow through honesty, shedding my shame in bits and pieces by the wayside.

The women that I call my closest friends

Today, I've had quite a lot of practice turning away from shame and exposing my shortcomings. There are instances when my head says don't and my mouth speaks my truth in spite of my head. I could tell you that it always feels good, but it doesn't. There are still struggles. Like when I make mistakes, or I let someone down, when I omit the truth, or I have an amends to make for a harm I've done. In those moments it might feel bad, but those few moments of discomfort are far better than carrying the suffocating weight of the shame I could be faced with. One of the greatest risks, but even bigger rewards, is exposing our shame to someone we trust and allowing them to love and support us anyway. If you can't think of anyone that you might be able to do that with, it may be time to explore some new opportunities for connection. Some of my closest and most fulfilling relationships are with those that have seen me at my lowest and chosen to love me despite the things I've done or the ways I have been. These people have encouraged me, loved me when I couldn't love myself, and allowed for opportunities for me to grow, sometimes up close and sometimes far away when it was healthiest for both of us.

My hope for you is that we can both continue to imagine and identify the nature of our shame and decide to act in spite of it. When we do this, we create space for miraculous things to occur. By consciously opening our hearts, minds, and souls, we allow for a healing to commence that otherwise might not be able to take root. It's a magical thing to give ourselves the gift of vulnerability and release ourselves from the bonds of shame. I deserved that magic even at my most broken and you do too.

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