Electric Shock, Shame, Nightmare, and Being Human

I’ve been feeling better lately. I am not missing the job I left on September 1, though I”ll admit I’m fretting about money a bit. I’ve been spending hours in my garden. I take walks and sometimes go to yoga, plus of course my TRE class. My nervous system is calming down. My impulses to self-harm have almost disappeared in the past week. So far so good.

So I’m in reasonably good shape when I walk into my Monday therapy session with E. I show her the collage I made to illustrate how 14 was feeling about her life. We talk about my mother and some of the things I have written on my blog recently.

“What do you think you are trying to accomplish by looking more closely at your mother’s experience?” E asks me.

I can answer this one. “I am trying to understand why. Why would a mother not protect her children from the kind of emotional abuse we experienced from Leo? Why did she turn away from seeing everything that was wrong? If it’s not my inherent unworthiness, what is it?”

E thinks it’s promising that I am considering explanations besides my own revolting unlovability. She thinks it’s possible to both see the constraints my mom felt while also validating the unmet needs of the girl. She thinks my wise adult self can still meet some of those needs now.

We talk a bit more, and I say something to the effect of, “One thing that is also hard about this is that it makes me aware of things I wish I had done for my own children when they were little. I worry about whether they understand their right to feel their emotions, if not always to act on them. And was I attuned to what all they needed? Did I understand and help them process everything that hurt them about their parents’ divorce? I worry I failed them.”

E responds with something along the lines of, “You probably did… of course you are imperfect… everyone has to heal their own psyche…” Actually I am not sure exactly what she says. Maybe she says, “I can see in your soul that you are a piece-of-shit human being.” All I know is that I am hit by an electric shock that is devastatingly painful.

My usual reaction to something that hurt in therapy is to pull back, get quiet, pretend it’s all fine and brood obsessively over it later. But if I’ve learned one thing in therapy, I have learned that pulling away from what hurts doesn’t help.  So I try really hard to be honest about what is going on. “I get that intellectually,” I tell her. “But emotionally I can’t accept this. I can’t even look at it. It’s hot, sharp, electric…”

“What are the feelings? she asks.

“Fear,” I say first. Then I add, “Guilt. Shame.”

It is so hard to stay there, saying this to her. The pain behind my breastbone dominates everything in this moment. It is pulling me somewhere, or pushing me to run somewhere; it’s hard to know exactly when your thoughts are starting to spin out.

E talks to me about putting it all in a box. She doesn’t want me to leave her office all activated. I don’t have to look at it all now, she tells me. I don’t have to look at it at all, if I don’t want to, though she thinks it will probably be helpful. I can put it in a box to contain it. If I want, later we can just lift the corner and take a peek at it.

The box, the box, the box. I try to connect with her words. I don’t want this to engulf me either. I imagine sticking this in a pretty handmade paper box, the kind I keep my stamps in. I imagine tying it with brown raffia. I envision myself telling it, you stay there for now; I’ll come back to you when I’m ready.

And it’s time to leave. E opens the door, smiles at me, says as she always does, “See you next week.” I actually don’t like that because a week is a long time, and it means nothing to her not to see me, but it’s hard for me to cope with everything and not have her there. I want to be honest. I am trying. I say, “It’s hard for me, to wait a week to see you.” I pause, thinking I should say something after that, but I realize there’s nothing to add. “That’s all; it’s just hard.”

She looks at me, warmly, and puts her hand on my arm. “Are we okay?”

I nod at her. “Yes, we’re okay.” And I leave.

The pain and confusion in my chest are big and urgent. I go home and dig more Sibirian irises out of the flower bed. I haven’t divided them in years, and I have what seems like billions of them. (If you want some, let me know.) I make a meatloaf, a comfort food I haven’t made in years; it’s the kind of food my mom used to make. It smells good. I stay in my body. Sometimes I want to hurt myself, but I don’t.

I think about the box before bedtime. It’s grown enormous in my mind, far taller than I am. In my mind, I walk around it. It’s just feelings in there, I tell myself. I can live with feelings. But I feel shaky.

At night, I dream I am being raped, by multiple men. I wake up, shaking and sickened. I fall asleep and slide back into the same dream. When I wake up again, my entire body is trembling. I breathe, tell myself it’s just a bad dream. I slip back into it and in my dream, I attack a man to protect myself. There is blood everywhere. I don’t know if I have killed him. When I wake up this third time, I can hardly breathe. In the morning, I ask myself if the two are connected, the electric shock and the nightmare, but I can’t see how. My skin is tingling. I want to burn myself, but I just hit myself a few times–a compromise.

I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to repeat these cycles over and over. I have gone to therapy forever, taken my meds, meditated, even quit my job for god’s sake. I am not doing this anymore! I refuse. Something has to change, and the only thing I can change right now is my reaction.

I tell myself, I am not going to be afraid of what’s in that box. I am not sure what it is, but I know shame is a big component. So I pick out the most shameful memory I can think of, one in which I do a very bad thing. And I write a long letter to that memory. I won’t share it all here–too personal, and I’m not ready to admit what I did to everyone. But here’s the last part of the letter:

So, okay, you did something wrong and harmful, something you regret deeply. It feels like crap. How could you do that, you wonder.

You could do that because you are a human being, and you fuck up sometimes. It doesn’t mean you are disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable. Disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable would be continuing to do that. Disgusting, loathsome and irredeemable would be believing it’s okay to behave that way. But you have a conscience and know it’s not okay. You feel regret about the impact on others. In fact, you never would have done it if you’d understood the harm you were causing. You know that is true. You want to be a kind, good person. You are sorry and that matters. 

You are a human being, so you will make mistakes. You can learn from them and continue to grow to be a deeper, more thoughtful person.

Probably the most important thing I need to tell is that what you did is forgivable, and if you don’t believe that now, that’s okay. Maybe you will in time. I’ll keep telling you. 


the wisest part of Q, the part that wants to be well       

I read the the letter, and the tingling on my skin goes down a notch or two. This suggests perhaps I’m on the right track. Perhaps.


  1. Boy do I relate to this, big time. Both the feelings of guilt and regret, and the difficulty dealing with it in therapy. My son unfortunately isn’t really functioning, though it might be a physical problem, but it’s mixed with psychological issues too. I think if he was doing well, at least in some respects, I wouldn’t maybe feel as bad. When I tried to talk about it in therapy, Ron, like your T, in no way reassured me. I went home and couldn’t function for a few days, the pain was so very severe.

    I think all parents pass on whatever they have at the time. If their parenting was decent, they pass that on. And vice versa. Though we do try, very hard. I read parenting books. I even went for low-cost therapy. But I know I pretty much failed.

    I suspect you did better. And maybe your T in session was saying that all parents damage their children without wanting to. Not specifically about your situation? I know in my session, I felt judged by my T, and I have found the topic too painful to raise again.

    I like your letter from your wise self – it contains a lot of truth and compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ellen, for sharing your experience. I’m not happy that your son is having a hard time, but I do appreciate knowing that you recognize how painful it can be. One of my sons lives with his girlfriend and does almost nothing with his life (no job, no school, barely leaves the house). He has a disability, but he could do more. I’ll never stop asking myself, what could I have done differently? And what should I be doing now?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Me too. 😦 There is a fine line though between useless guilt and insight into the past. We can try and stay on the right side of that.


    • Isn’t it astonishing how emotional distress expresses itself in the body? I used to be so detached from my body that I couldn’t feel it, so I suppose noticing the electrical shock right away, and knowing where I felt the pain is “progress” (insert ironic laugh here).


  2. Oh Q, so much love to you. I love that you wrote to your shame and thank you for sharing that it helped.

    The pain in the box growing so tall, I could picture that. I can imagine that.

    Being compassionate with ourselves is so hard and you have done so well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love my mother, very much, and she is a good one. I think part of what holds her back from being a great one is an inability to grapple with the things she could have done differently, and what they mean for our relationship now. A year or so ago, we were talking about regrets, and I asked what her biggest regret as a parent was – “Working when you and your brothers were little,” she said. “I used up all my patience at work, and then I’d get frustrated with you when I got home.”

    ‘Oh,’ I thought. Not the time when I was 13 and overdosed and you took me home and never mentioned it again. Not telling my brother, who now works in a supermarket, that he shouldn’t go to law school because he was too angry to be a good lawyer, but never trying to help him manage his emotions. Not the time when I was 16 and bleeding through my sleeves and you saw, then looked away and pretended you didn’t.

    I don’t know if this is appropriate to share – it maybe isn’t. But I really do believe that your ability to look at where you might have “failed” is, paradoxically, probably the biggest part of being a good parent. It’s not over, after all. It’s different now that your children are adults, but you are still their mother. I don’t mean that in a “you still have a chance to atone!” way, either, just that there can be no final verdict on something that isn’t finished yet.

    You are a good, kind, funny, intelligent person. I see that, and E sees that. You don’t have to be a perfect mother to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This comment has really stuck with me the last couple of days. I couldn’t even respond to it at first. I feel so sad that your mom was too afraid to have honest conversations with you about your suffering. It makes me want to mother you now.

      I was a patient mom. I didn’t get mad easily. I listened to them and discussed my reasons and their reasons when we disagreed. I read thousands of books to them and took them places and cheered for them playing soccer and basketball even though I’m uninterested in sports. I stayed calm when they threw up on me in the middle of the night.

      What I didn’t do well was talk about emotions or help them reflect on their own emotions or think about choices they could make when they experience different emotions. I’m sorry about this. I wasn’t intentional enough in helping them build a sense of connection and obligation to their community. I let them take some things too much for granted. I definitely regret those and other omissions and am trying to communicate to them now that I’m still here, but I don’t think young men in their early 20s are very interested in talking about emotions with their mom.

      I also worked too much, especially i the summers, and I didn’t leave enough time to play and hike and camp with them. And of course I did stupid things like drop my younger son off at kindergarten on a teacher professional development day, which was disconcerting for little him and embarrassing in front of the teachers. But not the end of the world.

      But nothing horrible. My biggest shame does not have to do with them. So the electric shock was actually about something else–seems like there was a direct line though from regret about the boys to shame about other things.

      I’m rambling. Thanks for your comment, especially the part about being able to look at things I have (and have not) done. I will remember that.


  4. your wisest self is wise indeed. i am very proud of you for going to those hard places. Talking to them, and being understanding and compassionate. I am glad the SH has lessened this past week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am not a mother, but I can really imagine how hard it must be to know and be so introspective about your years when they were young, and how much you struggled and weren’t able to meet their needs in the ways you now know you would. That must really hurt, Q. I wonder if you let it hurt, and felt the heartbreak of the legacy your parents passed on to you, if some of that shame would lessen. You did your very best, and that is all 20-something, 30-something you could have done. She did a really great job with all she had to contend with.


    • You know, it’s true that all I could do was what I knew at the time. And I wasn’t a terrible mom. But I feel like I could have been much more thoughtful than I was. I let finishing my dissertation and my bad marriage and getting divorced and finding work and feeling depressed and being lonely and then meeting my husband and getting married and my career… all these things took a lot of energy which in retrospect I can see so clearly should have been directed at them. It’s not easy having your parents get divorced when you are little, having a highly critical father who favors one child over the other, gaining a stepfather, etc.

      I never hurt them (intentionally), but I also didn’t provide supports that I wish now I had, which is a different kind of hurt.

      Liked by 1 person

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