15 years ago, after 20+ years of fighting my raging mental battles, I finally found myself in a psychiatrist’s office…a place for “crazy” people, according to yours truly. I was embarrassed to be there in the first place. And then he went and opened our session with this question:
“Do you have any secrets?”
I panicked. I had spent my entire life trying to keep the torturous thoughts inside of me a SECRET. Now someone I had just met wants me to tell him these very secrets? Uh, that’s a hell, no, sir.
So I did what any good people-pleaser would do and started making up secrets so he’d feel like he was getting somewhere:
“Hmmm, well once I got a pedicure, and I sort of liked it.”
He didn’t blink. I needed something more sordid for this wizened shrink.
“I used to be a woman.” Blank stare from him, so I added, “A-and I have four other families in different cities.”
Still only a subtle I’ve-heard-worse grunt. Man, this guy is tough, I thought. I decided to try a few lies about drug use.
“I smoked pot in the 60’s with Bill Clinton AND inhaled his second-hand smoke. Now I sell heroine to elementary school kids.”
He was unfazed, almost bored.
“Tim, you can be honest. C’mon, out with it!”
(For you gullible ones: The above secrets, sadly, are fictitious, and I didn’t actually say those things to him, but I felt damn uncomfortable, that’s for sure. What follows is more along the lines of factual.)
“What is it, Tim? Go ahead. You won’t shock me,” he urged.
“Well, er, um, this is tough to say…”
And then I told him the things I was so deeply ashamed of that I felt I was literally in danger of hell for even having the thoughts in my head. Are you wondering what those secrets were? Well, despite the fact that people tell me I’m “raw” and “deeply real,” I, too, have stuff I’m only willing to share with my closest of friends…stuff that I’m still trying to get the guts to say out loud to someone.
Don’t worry; you don’t need to call the police; I haven’t killed anyone (for a long time, at least. Is last week a “long time” ago?). All of my shameful secrets exist almost entirely within the confines of my head – the thoughts that barrage my brain with crippling fear and anxiety…thoughts everyone supposedly has from time to time but they don’t spend the next 10 years obsessing about what it means about them that the thought even wandered through.
When I published my book a few years ago, people told me how brave I was (they still do). But here’s the truth about my book, paradoxical as it may be: I was so ashamed of what I was about to share that I was convinced I would be judged and/or rejected. By everyone. Honestly, it wasn’t even something I wanted to do as much as something I needed to do. I’ve often used the well-known phrase “coming out of the closet” because I imagine that my feelings and fears were probably much like someone who feels s/he has lived a lie his/her whole life and finally has no choice but to admit his/her sexuality in their mid 30’s. By “coming out” you are choosing authenticity over pleasing people you love most, who love you most. You’re admitting: “My need to be honest is so overpowering that I’ll risk complete abandonment to honor this need of mine.”
Thankfully, and to be entirely honest, this still sometimes surprises me three years later: People have been gracious, kind, and thankful to me for coming out of MY version of the closet.
Since I published my book, I’ve had a lot of people “come out” to me about a variety of things – a secret abortion in a conservative Christian family, latent-but-lingering homosexual desires despite being married-with-children, sexual abuse as a small child, drug problems, and of course mental health problems. These “confessions” have come from people who range in age from their teens to their 60’s, but what is always constant no matter the age or the circumstance is this:
Shame is the demonic offspring of guilt. Guilt is about something. Shame is an identity. It’s the sense that we cannot be separated from the Shameful Thing. It’s as attached as our eyeballs and belly buttons. If we start unpacking the layers of shame, it can cause us to wonder if this particular onion is growing two new layers for every one we peel off. Eventually we aren’t ashamed about something so much as we are just plain ashamed to exist and to be who and what we are.
I won’t pretend that becoming open about your shame will solve all of your emotional problems. To be frank, when I first started telling people honestly about my internal battles, it was as hard as anything I’ve ever faced. It’s still not easy. People don’t know how to react or what to say, and if you’re like me, you assume that the blank look on their face means they’ve just put you into a mental file folder with child-molesters and gang bangers (what’s a gang banger anyway?).
Who knows? Maybe that is what they’re thinking, and I will not blow sunshine up your skirt by claiming I’m immune to the pain that can come from the blank stares or weak attempts at sympathy.
But telling someone the things you’re ashamed of is for YOU, not for them. That’s why we should share our shame. Not with everyone but with someone.
So let me offer some cheap advice (please send me $15 if you read the following advice. I said cheap, not free): Whether you want to write a book or just tell your most trusted friend, you’ll be doing yourself a giant favor to come out of whatever closet you’re in. Tell a friend, a family member, a therapist…shoot, you can even email me about it if you’d like to. That’s why I write this blog – to let you know that you’re not alone. And no matter what your secret is, you’re NOT ALONE.
You see, even if no one on earth shares your particular source of shame, everyone, if they’re honest, can relate to the confusion and persistent pain of being human. Even if they won’t admit it. This is my soapbox, and I’ll keep shouting this forever: We are all confused, struggling, hurting, ashamed, but also beautiful, majestic, powerful, and profound HUMAN BEINGS. Watch the news for 2 minutes see the horrors that humans are capable of. Then again, hold a baby and you’ll get a sense of how transcendent we are. And BOTH of these are true of ALL of us.
To fully embrace the human experience we have no choice but to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly about ourselves. Failure to acknowledge and explore even the dungeons inside of us will only allow those demons in the dungeon to creep throughout the rest of our human houses called bodies, forcing us to put extra layers on the outside of our houses so we become an impenetrable fortress. We go from wearing a little makeup to cover the pimples to wearing a full-fledged mascot’s uniform…something that looks more like Elmo than whoever’s inside the costume.
But if you’ll take off the makeup before it gets as thick as a mascot’s costume, I hope and think that what you’ll see is that your secrets aren’t quite as damning as you feared. And little by little, you will start to shed the skin of shame…and once you get started, you might just start finding the Real You worth showing off from time to time…or always.
And finally, if you’re looking for some beautiful encouragement along these lines, I’ve re-posted Anis Mojgani’s spectacular poem called “Shake the Dust” below. The four minutes of your life it will take to watch might be the best 4 minutes of your day. In the spoken-word poem, he encourages everyone from “midnight cereal eaters” to “fat girls” to “celibate pedophiles” to “shake the dust,” which I take to mean this: Stand up, keep fighting, keep devoting yourself to having compassion for yourself in whatever battle you’re fighting. And WHATEVER battle it is, no matter how dark or dirty, your growing and healing process can only begin when you come out of the closet. Not to everyone, necessarily. But to SOMEONE.
PS. I have no job and only 3 skills: writing, talking, and over-sharing. Thus, blogging and being an advocate for mental health issues is how I’d like to solve the no job problem. People often ask if it’s okay to share what I write with others, as if I am trying to keep it private. Uh, yes, it’s okay since I do publish this on the interweb. But really, I’d be most appreciative if you share this blog (or post) with others. Who knows where it will lead? Thanks for your help!
Scroll down to see “Shake the Dust” and a couple of interesting links regarding shame…
Here’s a great web page that examines shame in a more clinical sense…great resource: http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/shame.htm
Post Secret – an entire website dedicated to letting people share their secrets. I’m torn as to whether this is a good thing or not because the person “shares” the secret but still remains anonymous…and probably very ashamed. I think the sharing is good, but it needs to be done in real time, even face-to-face to start the deeper healing process. Still, a fascinating site.