Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Welcome to another edition of the Emotional Thunderdome. Buckle up.
I’ll never forget the blur of colors as the beads popped and skittered across the floor. It was like an impressionist painting, a live action Monet landscape, the Degas ballerinas pirouetting across the stage. The finished product probably looked more like a Jackson Pollock. I can still feel the heat and shame flood my face as the angry welts develop across my sister’s back, a violent Polaroid of my uncontrolled temper. She is screaming, and I am frozen.
Shame is funny that way. It lies in wait, dormant for weeks or years before it comes roaring back to life like a volcano, reminding you of the hateful and regrettable choices you’ve made. It is just as destructive, and I feel it constantly. I am lazy. I am hurtful. I am sensitive. I am angry. Every mistake highlighted and magnified. The day I hit my sister with my mother’s turquoise and coral necklace so hard it broke across her back still haunts me. Haunts? Goodness me, such drama. My eyes are rolling into the back of my head and not in the good way, if ya catch my drift. Wink wink. Nod nod.
Casually getting an overly complicated cup of coffee from Starbucks? I’d like a grande cappuccino, whole milk, extra dry, with the memory of how I maimed my sister. Enjoying a cold beer with friends? Grab me a Shiner on draft and the complex self loathing associated with how I could’ve killed her. In fact, every single time I see a turquoise necklace, which is often given that my mom is exceptionally fond of them and that I live in Texas, I’m struck by that moment. If I try to slap it away with time, it tends to slap me right back. Hard. In the immortal words of Fall Out Boy: Thnks fr th Mmrs.
The reality is, she probably doesn’t even remember it. To her, it was just another hair pulling, arm biting, wrestling match. A notch on our respective belts, so to speak. But it changed my life. It changed who I believed myself to be.
We were young, and I had a terrible temper. I threw tantrums and stomped my feet. My face would swell with childish, impotent rage and turn red and mottled. I lashed out in immature anger. Over what, I forget. Maybe the Nintendo. Maybe a scratched CD. The silly things that sisters fight over. It doesn’t matter that I was eight, or that ultimately, other than a little bruised and shocked, she was just fine. She doesn’t even have a scar. But I do. I’m scarred by my lack of self control. I’m scarred by the force of my fury. I’m scarred by the violent power contained within my little body. Me, me, me. I, I, I. Let’s go ahead and add narcissism to the list of shameful feelings, shall we?
"The disfunction there is glaring, even to me."
I punish myself repeatedly, unable to separate who I am now from who I was then. My shortcomings, my failings, my rage, forever entered into my permanent emotional record. A cavernous room of filing cabinets filled with evidence of my imperfection. In those moments, my anxiety feels like a punishment for every mistake I’ve made and hurtful thing I’ve done. How could you?, it asks. What’s wrong with you? And that’s really the rub, isn’t it? Shame is so pervasive, so insidious, because it’s so closely tied to self esteem. Mine certainly is. If I were a worthy person, I wouldn’t have done those shameful things or felt those shameful feelings. So logically, I must not be worthy. There is obviously something wrong with me. Am I getting too somber? Sorry! *inserts early aughts pop culture reference here* Did that lighten things up? No? Well, just one more thing I have to be ashamed of.
It’s such a deeply lonely feeling. It’s powerful and secretive, and those secrets, that power, isolate me from others, from the people who love me. If I were honest with my loved ones about my shameful thoughts or feelings or actions, I know they would abandon me. I know they’d see I’m not deserving of their love. How incredibly sad is that? The disfunction there is glaring, even to me. And, not to be conceited or anything, but also wildly untrue. They all love me for the (very) flawed person that I am, warts and all.
My husband has no qualms about my road rage. He’s seen me scream obscenities at other drivers who cut me off, or worst of all, don’t use their blinkers. Is it his favorite part of my personality? No. Obviously. Because I literally tell strangers that can’t hear me (fingers crossed!), how I will come to their houses and smother them to death with the airbags of their cars. Over a blinker. I actually said that the other day. It was a whole narrative. He knows which babies I secretly think look like the slimy alien that hides behind John Hurt’s sternum. He knows how judgmental I am and how cruel. He knows that sometimes—more often than I like to admit—I’m rude and selfish and insensitive. More than once, he’s been on the receiving end.
In the decade we’ve been together, he’s seen the worst parts of me, parts I hide even from myself, and he chooses me regardless. It’s humbling to be loved so wholly—and terrifying. I’m not confident I’ll ever earn his partnership. I’m ashamed that I’m not better for him. I’m ashamed I didn’t realize sooner that I needed help or that the way I felt wasn’t normal. I’m ashamed I’ve put my husband and my mother and my friends through something so painful.
"It’s hard to confront, to stare down the ugliness inside of my mind."
And truly, I’m ashamed of myself. If this anxiety is punishing me, it does so because of my own unmet expectations. I expected to work in my jobs until I chose to leave them. I expected to be thinner and stronger and healthier. I expected success and happiness and fulfillment. I expected a life I’d be proud to live. But the world owes me nothing, and if that isn’t the reality, it must be because of me. I will never be better than what I am. This is me. I am broken. I am weak. I will always be. It’s scary. And it hurts.
I notice the way people look at me when I discuss my anxiety, the wariness that hoods their eyes, their bodies half turned away as if to shield themselves from my dangerous emotions. It’s impossible not to feel self conscious, not to feel like a malfunction. It’s unbearable not to fill the awkwardness with something. The amount of wine I’ve drunk in an effort to feel more comfortable in my body and in my mind could likely pickle an elephant or drown a blue whale. And there’s shame in that too. When it’s the wrong side of midnight and every stupid or thoughtless or embarrassing thing I’ve ever done circles endlessly, I’ll do almost anything for relief—for some sleep, some precious time away from myself. I bargain with God and my brain and my bed and my body, and yet come morning, I always wake up the loser. I’ve coped with drinking and crying and anger. Pills, food, thinking. Screaming, lying, overthinking. The list goes on forever, and the party always ends.
But nothing fills the void. Nothing corks the part of my heart that remembers each and every weakness, all of the mistakes. It’s hard to confront, to stare down the ugliness inside of my mind, the thought loops and dangerous patterns. Anything ugly must be hidden away, and right now, my mental health is the beastly side of my beauty.
"I am, I am, I am."
I come from a staunch family where it’s inappropriate to discuss our mental health if it’s anything but perfect. All my fellow Southerners can relate. No one says what they really mean, and usually no one really means what they say. Communicate through subtext or not at all. It’s “Bless your heart, honey,” not “Eat shit and die.” When my panic attacks were finally diagnosed, I rushed to tell my mom. I was thrilled to have some answers, and I tell her almost everything. Her response was “Well, you’ve always been a worrier but talking about it doesn’t help.” Yes. You’re right. If I have anxiety, I’m just a worrier. If I’m depressed, I’m just not active enough. If I’m not happy, I’m just not trying hard enough.
So if I just don’t talk about it, if I pretend that I don’t cry every day on my way to work, that I’ve never locked myself inside a bathroom stall to escape my own inescapable thoughts, that I’ve never, for however briefly on a terrible day or month or year, wondered what it would be like to let Jesus take the wheel, it’ll go away. If I only try hard enough. And each time it doesn’t, new shame blooms inside my chest, flushing my face with fire. It’s my fault. I must be too lazy. I must be too stupid. I must try harder. I, I, I. It loops endlessly and reinforces what I already know. I am not worthy. I am not perfect. I am not enough. In the immortal words of Sylvia Plath: I am, I am, I am.
Phil, my therapist, reminds me how cunning shame can be. How, much like anxiety, it plants itself inside your mind and takes root, creeping through your memories and feelings, attaching itself like ivy. I carry it everywhere and have let it grow unfettered for years. No amount of pruning will dislodge it entirely. I can only hope to make it manageable, to make sure I never become a haunted house in a scary movie, a husk of the person I used to be. It is a process and a slow one, at that. It is frustrating, and I’m ashamed I’m not better at it. Did I say that it literally never ends? But Phil promises that one day the noise will quiet, if not subside, and I will find some semblance of peace. Soon. Eventually.
Until then, I do the only thing I know how to do. I talk about it.
Here. I throw open the shutters of my haunted house and watch the dust mites dance in the sunlight. It hurts. It’s bright and harsh and a little uncomfortable. Look, I know I’m not fooling anyone. It’s really uncomfortable. For everyone. I’d say I’m sorry, but I would be lying. But each time, the chips and cracks fall away a little to reveal new paint, a shiny new house beneath the old, abandoned one.
I will never be perfect, but one day—soon, eventually—I will be enough. And on that day, I’ll stand up to my shame. I’ll stare down the ugliness. Bless your heart, I’ll say to it. But what I’ll really mean is, Eat shit and die.