“Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it – It can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” – Brene Brown
Every day I receive notes from strangers. A lot of them. Sometimes via my website. Sometimes via a social media platform. Sometimes words of support and / or gratitude. Very rarely something negative as the days of receiving those seem to have mostly passed by. But sometimes a question or questions. Looking for some guidance from someone who is perceived to have already been down the road they are on. And if there is one question that I receive that I would say leads the way as far as frequency, it isn’t really close. “How did you get past the shame?” Sometimes it refers specifically to the shame of having a mental illness. More often, for me, it’s a combination of that and the shame of behavior that a good segment of society might deem in a negative light. Either way, the answers are similar. Shame has the ability to kill, and I had an intimate relationship with it that almost did just that to me. So it’s a topic I take seriously and want to do all I can to help others combat it. After all, shame holds us back from living the life we deserve.
I want to preface all of this by emphasizing I’m no victim. I’m not looking for sympathy or woe is me here. I talk about this stuff and my personal experience to educate. And to help others with a little hope or a roadmap. Or a feeling of not being so alone in the world. I know it helped me to hear the journeys of others going through struggle when I was struggling so mightily myself. It’s why I talk.
I also want to say the type of shame I’m talking about involves good people, and shame they face for whatever reason which is holding them back from living the life they deserve. Needless shame. Thinking of recent events, I am not talking about people like Larry Nassar. People like him deserve a special place in hell. I think we all agree on that.
I’m not going to get into details now, but I can tell you in the year plus following my diagnosis, and once meds took effect where I began to experience a degree of clarity, much of my time was spent in relative hiding, feeling the world was judging and hating me. I had seen the articles, read social media, heard or read the hurtful words and judgment of close family members, and been discarded by many I had considered friends. Life often felt not worth living. My life felt ruined. Depression worse than ever and suicidal thoughts present. I still coped with my pain by using alcohol, drugs and yes, sex. I’m not afraid to admit it. The pain was worse than ever so the idea you toss your less than healthy coping methods aside just like that is rather ludicrous to me.
At some point, at my rock bottom, which actually came months AFTER Vegas (again, details some other time), I eventually sought help of a therapist. Meds alone were not cutting it. I needed help. So I met with a psychologist, an amazing one, who recognized after not too long what my husband had noted many times before. That shame was keeping me from moving forward, and would eventually take my life. This was about eighteen months after my secret life was revealed, and I had really gotten nowhere. At least that’s the way it felt and appeared. I had a diagnosis, proper meds, time passing, etc., yet I was in worse condition than ever really.
Over the next months, among other things, my psychologist and I would work on confronting shame. An understanding that shame stemmed from awareness that I was being judged by many sources. And a judging and shaming of myself because of beliefs and world views I had grown up with. Engrained in my mind to think like so many, “I’m a bad person.”
Passing an old friend in the market who looks down when she sees you and walks away. A close relative discounting my illness and telling others I’m simply a “whore” and a “slut” who intended to hurt my family. A letter sent to me telling me I should have killed myself as my brother did. A “sympathy” card (thank goodness intercepted by my husband) addressed to my daughter stating that he or she was sorry for the loss of her mother. A few of countless examples, and it adds up. The shame becoming thick and engrained. Some WANT you to feel shame. I saw that subtle form of punishment. Topped off by a society that tells me from a young age that sex for money is evil. The prostitute. The whore. Bottom of the barrel. A life unvalued, and one that doesn’t matter. Discarded. That was me now I was thinking.
Even many of those around me who cared still seemed to pity me. I could see it in their eyes. Well intended, but a sense even that they wanted me to feel a little guilty. A very subtle punishment. But a worry in their eyes that I’m so lost. So far removed from the person they once knew and loved. But I was still grateful at the time. They’re here at least. Craving some sort of support. Needing to not be ignored, pushed aside. They hadn’t abandoned me.
During my time in Vegas, I was mostly happy. Mostly sky high actually. Mostly out of the darkness, and that has value very few understand. I had found my perfect way to cope. You do what you need to do to survive. To escape the pain I had been living with. Always looking for and doing what I needed to do to maintain it. But now things were different. Dread, Paranoia and depression ruled the day. Scary depression. Hypersensitivity. ANGER. Ugliness. Lack of hope for any future. And most all of it caused by shame. Caring far too much what others thought of me. What I perceived society thought of me. I’m still a good person I would say to myself. I always was. Still grandiose in thoughts of myself. Feeling like the whole world cared not to care for me.
How do you suddenly not care what others think of you when you have always focused on it to an extreme? I cared deeply in my youth. I cared deeply as pro athlete. Can you imagine what it feels like when you feel EVERYBODY hates you. I had my daughter who I knew loved me unconditionally. My husband and I had separated for a few months after I was outed, but we were back together and trying to make this work somehow. I was fortunate he recognized the shame element pretty early on. He stood by me and despite his anger, had been trying to get other family on board, knowing how much that would help me to move forward. Much of the only support I could find came from strangers who had been contacting me from the day I was outed. People who recognized I had to be struggling and needed support. Some were sexworkers who didn’t demonize me or my activities. They knew the feeling of being shamed by society all too intimately. I craved support. More than I should, but oh how I craved it and needed it to get by.
So how did I learn to deal with the shame? A process that took considerable time I’ll tell you. There was progress and regression, and confusion, and frustration, and hopelessness, and break-throughs. Patience and practice is what I preach. It takes WORK & STRENGTH, and let’s face it, a bit of a “fuck you” attitude. So here goes with a few important points to keep in mind that helped me along the way and I hope will help you if shame is something you or a loved one is dealing with:
1. For me, the initial step to dealing with the shame was a simple AWARENESS that it was effecting me in a negative way. It’s difficult to get there. To realize you feel shame, but you shouldn’t. A realization that I had to look at it and treat it differently in order to move forward toward wellness and management of my bipolar disorder. When someone writes me and indicates they are struggling because of shame, I tell them the battle is halfway won because at least they are aware.
2. Next, I came to understand WHY people judged, why they chose to shame me. Sometimes through silence, sometimes through words, and sometimes through actions. My psychologist drove home that people who made the conscious decision to chose to shame me via actions or words likely had their own issues to deal with. Perhaps in my case since the subject of my shame relates to sex, those with some sort of sexual trauma in their lives tended to perhaps lash out at me, see me as inherently evil or bad, desire to make me feel shame and or pain for what I had done. Sexual assault, rape, infidelity? I don’t know, but my psychologist indicated there was a relation. So there was this realization that it’s more them, and not me. This really helped. And in time, I started to look at these people less with contempt, and more with compassion, believing there was at least a decent possibility they were likely going through something of their own. Regardless, an understanding of why people are making you feel shame discounts the impact of what they are doing.
3. ELIMINATE sources of shame or at least reduce them if at all possible. I had done this some already, but now realized I had to go a step further. I divorced myself or minimized contact from certain family and friends. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially with regards to family. And I was also able to completely change my environment, eventually moving to the west coast, where I had a greater sense of anonymity, and the feeling of being able to start fresh. Distance from difficult memories and experiences. To be able to do that, I feel so fortunate.
4. FOCUS ON WHAT I HAD as opposed to what I didn’t have. My father-In-Law really helped here. A realization that all I needed in my life when all was said and done were my daughter and husband. But in addition, and over time, more old friends stepped up, and new friends materialized, especially after I told my story via Fast Girl. I found that the new friends that gravitated towards me had been through something in life. Addiction, abuse, trauma. Flawed individuals, willing to share experiences, and non-judgmental as a result. This felt safe to me, just as I felt safe to them. Pretty powerful really and I’m thankful in a way to have been through what I’ve been through as it’s brought me people into my life who enrich it. Nothing false, all real, all genuine. The support of true, real friends is gold.
5. PERSPECTIVE. An asking of myself, after discussing with my sex-positive therapist, was what I did really THAT bad? A little bizarre sure, completely taken too far sure, but was I really the awful person made out to be? We spent a lot of time here just asking why society demonizes the immodest woman so much? The double standard. Why is it anybody’s business what I do with MY body? Why? I had consensual sex. It happened to be for money in part because I valued myself. My husband was mostly aware. We basically had agreed to have an open relationship, and my side of it became paid. Of course, things got completely out of control, reckless and I didn’t see it, and put my husband through hell as a result and risked everything. A rational thinking me never puts things at risk like I did. This would become the most difficult part for me to get past over time. The fact that I had created difficulty for my husband, turned our lives upside down, and made things potentially more challenging for my daughter moving forward. Time, talking about it, analyzing. Gained perspective made a world of difference.
6. TALKING ABOUT IT really helped. The shame dissipated. Incredibly difficult at first, but it gets easier and easier. But then the book release was a very difficult time for me and I regressed quite a bit in the short term. Now though, I’m thankful as it became a powerful step to get past. Witnessing it help others helped me. So you can understand why I’ve become an open book. It’s therapeutic for me. It’s learned behavior for me. And in turn, the cool part is that people share with me. A realization for me that I’m not alone. Certainly not the only one who has led or leads a secret life. Not the only one who has tried to find their way back.
7. OWN IT! It does an amazing thing to shame. It kills it. Literally. Maybe this sounds strange, but I am at peace with what happened in Vegas. It happened. Regrets, but no shame. I came out of it in one piece and a better, healthier woman for it. And a woman with a perspective on life I would have never had without it. So like I say, I’m at peace.
8. MAKING AMENDS where necessary. Some say the behavior was not the true me. Illness a factor. I certainly agree, but it’s complex and complicated, and again, a discussion for later. There were several factors that led me where I arrived. But illness or no illness, my actions hurt individuals and I made my apologies where necessary. Some didn’t accept it, or want to hear it, but I did all I could. I will always regret and be remorseful towards loved ones that I unintentionally hurt or embarrassed. But here’s the deal, I’m not embarrassed. I’m not ashamed. In fact, perhaps some would consider me too unapologetic, and therefore you hear the word narcissist. I simply have moved on and I’m proud of where I am compared to where I was. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll take that over shame any day.
9. BE BOLD! You’ll see me make various posts that I know will ruffle feathers. I sometimes ask myself why I make those posts. I really do. I think I know it’s going to stir up those who try to shame me, who judge me. So it provides me with motivation to show them, they won’t win. This is me saying through words and photos, you can’t fucking shame me. I’m going to live my life to the fullest, and I’m taking anybody who’s on board with me on this amazing journey!
10. FORGIVENESS. Finally, forgiving those who made me feel shame. Moving on so to speak, and not holding on to grudges. I’ve learned those grudges only hold you back from moving forward. They win so to speak.
I hope those ten tips help, but just to emphasize again, all this did not happen overnight, and I still have occasional periods of shame setbacks during depressive episodes with my bipolar. Certainly at the time of my book, looking back, I was still feeling some degree of shame. Still apologizing too much. I wish my ownership was a bit stronger then, and I wish I expressed a bit more of the attitude I do today. I did it, I made my amends where necessary. I wasn’t a bad parson before, during or after. Just a girl struggling with mental illness who needed to get it and her life under control to move forward and be who she was meant to be. Perhaps you could call mine a survival method. Self-preservation. Convenient belief system to some I’m sure. But I’m not here to justify my behavior. I’m here to tell you that I don’t feel shame for it. I’m here to tell you I truly don’t care what others think about me, or who I am, who I was.
And just a reminder. If you see somebody you sense is struggling. Perhaps somebody who is acting “odd”. Please resist the temptation to judge. Realize there might be something going on that is hidden and you have no idea about. We tend to judge to feel better about our own shortcomings. Remember that. Recognize the fact that by judging, you are only adding to the shame piece and helping prevent someone from possible recovery and moving forward. Instead, perhaps reach out to that person to offer support or just a welcome and open minded ear. You can make a difference. You really can. Thanks as always for listening.