Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of unspeakable.
~ Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
My great-aunt Jane is likely the best storyteller on the planet. Anyone who meets Jane is immediately drawn into her orbit and simply wants to spend more time with her. If she lived locally I would likely move into her home just to hear her stories. She could tell me how she went to the store and it would be the best tale I’d ever heard.
Jane was a nurse, and in the era she grew up, an unlikely candidate for the high education she achieved. Women were groomed for marriage and homemaking, but she went full force into nursing. She has a caretaking personality, and though she has a gift for weaving the best tale you ever heard, she also has another amazing quality, the ability to sincerely listen.
Jane can look you in the eyes and no matter what you tell her, she is fully invested in what you are saying, empathizing and for that moment YOU are the center of the universe. She is the kindest, gentlest, most loving person I know. Jane was also a hardcore addict while serving as a nurse. (And while the family is tight-lipped, my assumption is she was addicted to heroin due to the availability during the time.)
Our family is full of secrets, the untold stories because they are “too dark” to tell. The elephants in the room of addiction, abuse, medical issues, hidden money… Why don’t we talk about these things? Maybe your family is the same, with certain topics that are simply off limits?
Herman goes on to describe the need to restore connections between “the public and private worlds, between the individual and community, between men and women.”
My grandfather-in-law served in WWII as a bomber pilot. One day at Christmas dinner I asked him about his experience, and his reaction took me off guard. He said “No one ever asks me about the war. It’s like it never happened, and it was a huge part of my life.”
A few years back I started to become uncomfortable with uncomfortability. I HAD stories to tell that formed the basis of who I am, and I felt as though I was neglecting part of who I was by not telling them. My grandfather-in-law’s poignant comment struck a chord and I started to slowly disclose small bits of my story to those around me, starting with my husband, and moving out to the next ring of close friends.
Which brings me to current read, “After Silence, Rape & My Journey Back” by Nancy Venable Raine. Nancy boldly describes her rape in detail throughout this book, as well as the reactions that those she loves had to her telling of the story. As she began to speak about her story and to write the book about it, she found herself surrounded by people who did not know how to react. When someone discloses that they have been raped, what IS the appropriate response?
Many of our untold stories have a common thread, shame. Speaking for myself, when I am faced with that feeling of “wait, I am uncomfortable sharing this” it is often accompanied by my wingman. Shame.
Shame and I have been BFF’s for a long time. We hung out together while I was bullied in middle school. We kicked it while I snuck into second-hand stores once a year trying to find clothes to fit in with the kids while I was teased unmercifully in choir class. We shared a locker in high school when I stole food to make sure I could eat enough. Shame joined me while I was told I wasn’t good enough as a daughter. Shame threw a party on the day I was raped when I was 18. Shame’s crowning achievement was when my rapist raped a twelve-year old girl after me. Shame almost had me in the grave that day when I found out.
I realized that I had previously formed friendships based on this perfect person I presented. A put-together piece of work that was false and based on shame. However, at my core, I was a Kintsugi.
Kintsugi pottery is a Japanese form of art where broken pottery is repaired with powdered gold or other metals to treat the break as a form of history of the object rather than something to disguise. It’s also related to the philosophy of wabi-sabi, “seeing the beauty in the flawed or imperfect.”
I began with curiosity, what would happen if I shared one of my Shame Stories? I lived in curiosity for a long time, because it was safe there. There wasn’t a risk with just thinking about sharing any stories. I could still have my friends who would live in the dark about these scary things that happened in my past that weren’t topics discussed over laughter and margaritas.
Slowly but surely, a group of four (Katherine, Diana, & Maeve) gelled into a firm friendship we named the Mamafia. As time went on, the other girls in the group started to share some of their stories about their lives. I watched as they slowed unfolded their lives to each other and how they responded in love, kindness, and empathy.
But, I lived in Fearsville, population 1. Our main form of communication was via Facebook Messenger, so not only would I be sharing my stories but they would be there indelible FOREVER. I had this fear, someone could take what I said and go to the NYT and print my confessions for the whole world to see. Because that was the logical thing to fear.
What I feared most was for those around me to sniff out that I had fallen into a deep hole of depression and anxiety. The hole had become a full-time residence and I kept up an illusion of competence and strength with the “I’m fine” mentality. When in truth, I was suicidal and just trying to keep my head above water. I had everything, but I felt like I had nothing. This feeling had me shrouded in shame, as I was convinced nobody could possibly understand.
I was very cautious. One of the members of Mamafia (and my best friend) Diana lost her father to suicide. I was so scared to bring up my feelings because I was worried about how she would feel. I recognized that Diana had experienced so much loss in her life due to her father’s death and her subsequent trauma surrounding it. How would she cope with me feeling this way? Would she judge me? Would she feel angry? What if she got angry or dumped me as a friend or told me I was selfish? Worse yet, did I deserve all those reactions? I was quickly approaching a decision point of vulnerability.
I watched a video by the amazing poet Sabrina Benaim, Explaining Depression to My Mother. She got it. She got me.
Her video helped me I realize that maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe I could slowly come out of my hole and peek out and say “Hey, I’m not okay… anyone else not okay too?”
I realized quickly that I was living in a hole, alone and scared and my closest friends didn’t know how desperate my situation was. So I started slowly whispering from down there to the girls. “Hey, so, I’m down here. I’m scared. I feel like shit. And I’m not sure I’m going to make it.”
And then I waited to see what would happen. The Vulnerabilty Experiment began.