More than four years ago, I shared a really terrible secret with E. It reflects badly on me, and I was terribly, terribly ashamed about it. Although much has happened in the intervening years, including a deepening of my trust in her, I never brought it up again. I knew she hadn’t forgotten (even though I wish she would). I certainly hadn’t forgotten. But it was just the worst, ugliest, secret, and I couldn’t bear to give it any more attention.
Until last week.
Why, you might wonder, would I ever voluntarily return to my greatest shame? Such a good question. Well, it’s funny. The first time I mentioned it, four plus years ago, it was making me sick, and I just had to vomit it out. But this time, I’ve been feeling well, and that’s why I needed to bring it up again.
It started with an “aha” moment I had recently. I suddenly, finally, had a sense of what E has been talking about when she has said things like, “I am invested in your wholeness,” or “I love seeing the way you are working on behalf of your own wholeness.” I never used to know what in the world she meant by that. What does it mean to be “whole”? Is that the same as “healed”? No longer traumatized? Fixed? Calm? Never triggered anymore?
But no, I realize, that’s not it at all. It has to do with all those parts of myself. There’s the raging inner toddler, the one who has so recently made herself known. There’s the angry, resentful, manipulated teen. The confused 9-year-old. The lonely girl with the controlling, abusive stepfather. The lonely young woman with the controlling, abusive husband. The woman that Stephen beat and sexually assaulted. So many parts, and a number of them pretty traumatized.
Wholeness is not about erasing those traumas, the bad memories, the painful scars. Wholeness is simply about accepting all those parts, with their scars and messy histories. It’s allowing the parts to be needy, and to give them love and attention, instead of despising them, ignoring them, denying them or trying to beat them back. It’s making room for all of them, with compassion.
To you, reading this, that “aha” may seem blatantly obvious. To me, however, it was a revelation, a genuine paradigm shift. And it felt empowering and exciting because I realized that I can, in fact, accept so many more parts of myself than I used to do. I can tell my abuse story (obviously not to everyone, but you know what I mean). I can describe how those experiences wounded me and misshaped me in some ways. I can own my pain and my mistakes and my poor judgment, all without having to hate myself for it. I have grown a lot.
Then I thought, are there still parts I haven’t accepted, don’t want to accept? And that’s how I stumbled back up against the secret. Yikes.
It took me 45 minutes out of my 60-minute session last Wednesday before I could bring it up. I was cringing inside–more than cringing, my stomach was sick, and I was sweating. I was coloring in a mandala and kept my eyes intently on the page.
“Remember that time I came in once on a Sunday,” I said, talking very fast so I wouldn’t have time to chicken out, “because I was so overwhelmed by this secret that I couldn’t carry any longer but also couldn’t bear to tell? And I told you that….” (I quickly spit it out to her, but for now at least am not describing it here.)
“Yes, I remember,” she said.
“We never talked about it again,” I said.
“Yes, I know. I haven’t forgotten.”
Fuck, of course she wouldn’t forget. I knew it.
“Anyway, that’s a part I don’t know if I can accept into my internal house with my other parts.” I continued coloring. “And, oh, ugh, I can’t even look at you.”
“It’s safe to look, if you want,” she told me. I peeked through my fingers, then dipped my head down again.
E laughed. “Oh, Q, you are great.”
“Don’t laugh at me,” I said sternly. Then I relented, “Okay, fine laugh at me, if you want. But it’s not funny; it’s a terrible thing.
She became more serious. “It is a bad thing, okay, yes. But it’s one bad thing. You didn’t repeat it. It’s not part of who you are. It is something you did and realized was wrong.”
I just shook my head.
“You can tell that part ‘Yes, honey, you did a bad thing, and you are loved. It was a bad thing, and you are fine. It was not okay, and you are still welcome to be here. It was a bad thing, and you are loved…”
I knew that was going to be a hard message to integrate. I grabbed my phone, “Here, can we record that?” But by the time I re-downloaded the app and we started recording, however, E’s emphasis seemed to move a little away from the “and you are loved” to “everyone has things they did that they are ashamed of…” So In fact, I haven’t listened to the recording, because I am afraid I will seize “did something to be ashamed of…” and become triggered.
As it is, I went home and tried to tell my own self, “it was a bad thing, and you are loved…” but all I could hear was BAD THING, BAD THING, BAD THING, BAD THING, BAD THING, BAD THING. It was loud and drowned out everything else. I’ve been there before, and honestly, it was pretty unpleasant to have all that back again.
That night was hard. I think I’ve written before about how hard the time is before I fall asleep, how unsettled I feel. One of the ways in the past I have used to settle myself has been to imagine myself being sexually assaulted. I know, it sounds like a crazy way to settle down to go to sleep. It probably IS crazy, in the sense that it is a trauma response. The imagined scenario might have components of real experiences, but it’s not necessarily something that really happened to me. The important, soothing part of the imagining is that I include that someone sees, someone knows, someone cares and either tries to intervene or tries to care for me afterwards. That’s the part that lets me go to sleep.
I haven’t done this as much lately; I have actively worked on creating alternative approaches, since I think that enduring an assault in my head on a regular basis probably isn’t the healthiest thing. And I’ve had some success. But Wednesday night, after bringing my shame to therapy, I’ll admit I reverted to this very old habit.
Thursday morning I felt discombobulated, a little dissociated, a lot ashamed.
And yet by the middle of the day Thursday, I was able to remember Oh, wait, I am resourced now. It’s hard to describe, but even while I was hearing BAD THING, BAD THING, and my body was feeling the shame and agitation, I could still somehow tap into my calm, wise core self, the part I know as the wise woman. And she didn’t say I was bad. She said other things to me, such as
Let’s do some pranayama [breathing exercises] to calm the nervous system.
And she said,
If your child had done something like this as a teen, would you scream BAD BAD BAD at her? Or would you perhaps pull her close, express your distress, and take her to therapy? Wouldn’t you see it as a sign something was wrong?
And finally she said,
Maybe not everyone in our internal house is ready to welcome in this shame-carrying part–yet. But we have brought in many other parts, and in time, we’ll be able to invite her in as well. Be patient. Like so many other hard things, this too will soften and grow easier to tolerate.
I’ve been hanging on to this promise, to the idea that even if I can’t really accept and allow and show compassion for this part now, I’ll get there. Wholeness isn’t something impossible and unreachable. It just takes some patience, some work, some resourcing, and I don’t know, a certain element of faith I suppose. And what I have now that I never used to have is some faith that this is possible.
CREDIT: Photo by Sara Rolin on Unsplash