“We desperately don’t want to experience shame, and we’re not willing to talk about it. Yet the only way to resolve shame is to talk about it.” ~Brené Brown
Most of my childhood memories are vague and hazy, more of a feeling or a sense about an event than something I remember vividly. They are sad, anxiety inducing, and filled with shame, though, so it’s probably better I don’t remember them distinctly. I’ve spent my life unsure whether the limited number of fuzzy memories I have, reminiscent of a show that keeps bouncing to static on a 1960’s television without an antenna, even occurred. There have been many times when I would mention one of these memories to my mother only to be told it never happened or it happened differently or told it to another family member or friend who would tell me it couldn’t have been as bad as what I was recalling. So I stopped trusting my mind. This might explain why my memories are so few and so unclear I’m only about 50% certain they actually happened, despite there being no reason for me to have invented them.
This morning, I’m assuming because it’s Girl Scout cookie season, a memory popped back into my head. I have spent my life ashamed of this particular memory. I’m not sure I’ve spoken of it to anyone other than my therapists and my husband. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Brené Brown’s work on shame, and how important she says it is to bring shame into the open to neutralize its sting.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ~Brene Brown
So, I’m hoping my readers will be empathetic here and try to avoid shaming me for not being able to do better for myself that day.
I was around 11 or 12 at the time. I went to bed on a hot, still, summer night, and must not have been able to sleep because we didn’t have air conditioning and the night was not cooling off as they usually did. I am unable to sleep without covers, and it was too hot in my pajamas. So I had undressed and slept naked under the covers, something I rarely did because I didn’t want to risk getting called out by my strict, Catholic parents for doing it. In the morning, my mom burst into my room to wake me up. A troop of older Girl Scouts were kidnapping our troop for a come-as-you-are breakfast. Hiding under the covers, I told my mom I didn’t want to go. She insisted that the girls were downstairs waiting for me and she had told them I would be right down. Risking a berating, I told her I wasn’t wearing pajamas. She handed me a robe. I asked her if I could put my pajamas on instead. She told me to put the robe on and get downstairs because it wasn’t fair to keep the other girls waiting. Dutifully, like the good girl I so wanted to be, I slipped into the robe wearing nothing underneath, put a pair of slippers on my feet, and went downstairs to go to a breakfast I did not want to attend.
I remember nothing about that breakfast. Not one single detail. I don’t know what we ate or who was there. I don’t remember talking to anyone. I don’t remember where I was or whose car I got into or what was said. I don’t know if we played games or if we simply ate and were driven home. I am certain I did not have fun. My only souvenirs from that morning are memories of the fear I had of my robe accidentally opening and revealing no nightgown or even underwear underneath, the horrific awkwardness I felt sitting around in a stranger’s house wearing nothing but my birthday suit and a flimsy shell, and the shame I continue to associate with that event.
I’ve pondered why I have kept this anecdote to myself and why it still holds power for me. There is a lot of shame for me to unpack here. I’m ashamed to admit my mother put me in that position. I’m ashamed to admit as a young girl I went to a party with friends very nearly naked. I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t brave enough or smart enough to figure out a way to put on some damn pajamas despite my mother’s protests. I’m ashamed to admit this memory still brings me to tears. I’m ashamed I can’t laugh about it yet. Mostly, I’m ashamed I’ve doubted myself that this event was real. And I can’t decide if I feel worse that my mother would put me through what she must have known would be an excruciating, shame-inducing event or that at around eleven years of age I had already learned what I wanted and felt was right didn’t matter. Perhaps now that I’ve exposed my dirty little secret, I can be at peace with it or at least forgive myself for the crime of being human on a hot summer’s night and choosing to sleep au naturel.
I decided to tell this story today to cement for myself that it did happen, that my memory (blurred though it may be) is real and I didn’t make it up to hurt someone else or live with it this long in shame because I am a person who not only invents misery but prefers to wallow in it alone for decades. My memories, sparse though they are, matter to me. My stories matter to me, and I’m finished permitting others (including shame) to control my narrative.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” ~Maya Angelou