The Curse of Perfectionism

How do we know what we know? We’re taught and told things. We observe people and events and objects around us. Some things are instinctual. But we also learn a great deal from personal experience. Sometimes what we learn is positive: I love sushi after all! And sometimes it isn’t: I am never going to drink that much again! The positive and negative are equal components: it’s all feedback to your brain so you know what behaviors you want, or don’t want, to repeat. It also gives you the impetus to change your behavior as necessary.

Unless you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionism takes “that decision didn’t work out so well; I’ll adjust my behavior and/or approach accordingly in the future” and transforms it into “I fucked up so bad, like I always do; I should have known; I’m so stupid.” It leaves you feeling like you never do anything right, like you’re worthless and proving it with every decision, every mistake, every action. You don’t accept what’s happened as just an experience; you don’t forgive yourself; you internalize what’s happened and blame yourself and take every opportunity to use it against yourself.

This has been my life for as long as I can remember. From my youngest memories, I see a little girl who’s made what she perceives is a mistake—said something that hurt a friend, inadvertently (or not) disobeyed her parents, answered a question on an exam incorrectly, spoke out in class only to be rebuffed—beating herself up, sometimes literally. I used to rap my knuckles on my head, saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” I gave myself very little grace because I didn’t deserve it.

In many ways, I am still this little girl and have been all along. When sex entered my life before I was married—a terrible sin according to my church and upbringing—I couldn’t forgive myself. It took me a decade to stop hating myself, and even then the disgust plagued me. Even now. A month ago when I asked my boyfriend about alcoholism and he denied it absolutely and was offended and hurt that I even asked, I punished myself by writing so deeply on my arm that I left scratches of the words in the flesh. Last night it was a bad date—turns out the dom/sub scene isn’t for me, and I have an aching cheek from a hard slap in the face to prove it. At least curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

I know I didn’t know last night would bother me so much, that I wouldn’t like it, but logic doesn’t matter when you’re a perfectionist: I’m an idiot. And now I have this memory in my head and I want it to go away and I want to stop feeling stupid, but I can’t. No matter how many times I try to accept what happened, learn from it, tell myself I didn’t do anything wrong by trying something new, and say “at least now I now,” I return to self-disgust. “Stupid, stupid girl.”

“At least I know now” is meaningless jibber-jabber when you’re a perfectionist because it is nearly impossible to see the merits of a “bad” situation. You can’t see that something was learned—you’re too busy hating yourself, bemoaning your idiocy, damning yourself—which means you don’t see how to modify your behavior for better in the future. Which means you repeat the cycle: similar situation, same approach, same result, do it again. When I was nineteen and “committing the sin” of unmarried sex—and being raped—I kept putting myself in the same situation. I was so preoccupied with damning myself I couldn’t modify.

I’m not going to let happen to last night’s experience. Trust me, I’m not going to put myself in that situation again. “At least I know now” doesn’t calm my self-hatred or regret. It doesn’t silence the self-berating. But I do know now, and with careful practice I am starting to be able to see beyond my perceived damnable mistakes and take something of value away. I didn’t like last night; therefore, I won’t do it again.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m questioning my morals. I’m questioning my intelligence. I’m certain there is more to be taken away from last night, but I can’t sooth the hatred or the feeling of failure or the disgust with myself long enough to break down the mental and physical components of the experience to learn anything.

My perfectionism tells me I should have known last night would go poorly, that I should have avoided my college boyfriend, that I should have obeyed my parents, that I should have known the correct answers on the test. Mistakes aren’t allowed. Which means I’m worthless. At least as a perfect being. And since perfectionism is still my bane, that means I’m nothing. If I can’t be perfect, there is nothing in me that is redeemable. So I’m left living a life of nothingness, always striving for perfectionism, always failing. Talk about living in a bad cycle.

Perfectionism is one of the most challenging internal struggles in my life. It ebbs and flows with life’s situations, only a glowing ember when life is dull and the path ahead is clear, then flaring at the first hint of trouble or instability.  How do I learn to control something so fluctuating and yet so encompassing and powerful that it controls me instead? I can’t give you a straight, bona fide answer or solution. I haven’t beat it yet. But I can tell you what I do know and what I’ve been told by wise people.

Give yourself grace. You are allowed to make mistakes. You aren’t stupid for making them. Forgive yourself when necessary, but then accept what has happened as just that: something that happened. You’re allowed to live.

The affirmation “I radically accept myself” comes to mind. Accept all of who you are: the good, the bad, the confused, the sad, the happy, every decision, every action.

Know you are not worthless. You exist, which makes you priceless. Nothing you can or will do changes that. Period.

Tell yourself you don’t have to be perfect, and believe it. It’s far easier said than done, I know. But do it. Say it over and over again. Change your perspective. Change your expectations for yourself.

Love yourself. No matter what happens, no matter what you think about you, don’t stop.

Not Broken After All

It is not my intention to use my blog as a platform for airing my stories of heartbreak, but it’s been a difficult few weeks. The trials have been piling up. I am tired and feeling tried to my limits, and I think only able to persevere through my days by taking them one at a time. This morning, the emotions hover in my throat and chest, threatening (more) tears and urging me to retreat from the world. But I won’t give in.

PTSD and the fall into shame and depression and anxiety thrive like parasites on negative emotion and on isolation. They depend on you turning in on yourself and forgetting that you don’t have to do this on your own. And so I’m reaching out, “getting out of my head,” as a good friend described it.

Go to a coffee shop or a place where there are other people. Call a friend. Get out of your head.

And I’m trying to remember to be kind to myself, to give myself grace. And the only way I can think to do that right now is to share what happened, to confess how much I hurt right now.

I fell in love a few months back. It was unexpected and not necessarily wanted—I wasn’t ready for anything serious. But I felt a connection I couldn’t deny. The spark between us was Tony-and-Maria-like, and I felt it from the first cup of coffee—and slice of espresso cake—we shared. I felt it when he offered to hold my hand after the first hour and when he stole his first kiss at the end of our first date. I knew I’d found someone amazing when he said he wanted to go slow because this felt like something special and he didn’t want to mess it up. I knew exactly what he meant.

He was like me in a lot of the ways I worry people will avoid me for. We both have PTSD and dark histories and deep sorrow in our pasts. We both have chronic health concerns and medicate to make our bodies work as they should. From the first moment, he accepted all that I was, including that I’m a mom. He cared about my children and went the extra mile to show that to me and to them.

The first month was perfect, the second filled with the need to overcome challenges—and we triumphed. And then, in the past few weeks, as so often happens with romance, it all unraveled. Rumors of alcoholism and a few scary moments that proved the rumors might be true. But I trusted him when he said it wasn’t and we moved past it. A week later another frightening night changed everything. In the end, I’d had to kick him out of my apartment twice—for his sake and then to feel safe in my safe place—and the second time he threatened that we were done if I made him leave. I drove him to the train station that night and watched him walk away. It was difficult to do.

We met two days later to exchange items left behind and find closure. We ended up talking about how much we’d loved each other and what went wrong and how there might still be chance to make things work, if we moved slowly and remembered those first weeks and took care of ourselves and each other. And so we made a final bid to make amends and share our hearts and our love.

Without meaning to, I again gave my heart fully, but he held back and told me he was doing so, and when I asked him to trust me, he stood me up and “ghosted” me, as the teens say—he completely ignored my calls and texts, as if he’d forgotten I existed. It took me more than an hour of waiting on the front steps of his new apartment (I went to help him move in) to convince myself he really wasn’t going to show and that it wasn’t an accident this time.

I know we have ground to regain, and I know we’re going slow. But I promise you I will fight for us, like you asked me to. I will fight with all my heart, because that’s how I love you. Please don’t give up on me. Please don’t stop fighting either. My heart, like yours, is vulnerable, and will hurt unbearably if you break it. But I trust you with it, my love. I trust you.

I wrote these words in a love letter he wouldn’t read because he was “afraid to feel too much” for me. Maybe he should have read the letter. Maybe I shouldn’t have trusted him so completely. Maybe it was all destined to end badly.

But as the shock of being deserted wears off, and I remember the hopes we had and the love we shared and how deeply I cared about him, as I let the tears fall with abandon and without shame, one thought persists: at least I was honest. And I loved him unconditionally. I couldn’t have given more. It occurs to me, too, that after over a year of fearing I’d never know love again (irrational but true), I loved. And this love, however tumultuous and briefly reciprocated, was sincere and whole-hearted. As it turns out, I haven’t been damaged irrevocably.

So, yes, it hurts, and that pain runs deep. But I realize now, after these words to you, that I’ve earned that pain and the right to own it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I loved and I lost that love. The pain just means I did it right. Welcome back to the world, Kate.

The Value of My Body

My body doesn’t belong to me.

Or so I’ve been told and believed most of my life.

Who, then, does it belong to? It is God’s temple; it is my husband’s property; it is the government’s, the church’s, a politician’s to make decisions about. I am merely the innkeeper. I keep it clean—in every sense of the word—and free of disease. I feed it and primp it and use it to grow life. But if I am to believe what I’ve been taught, I do none of these for me. And the value that exists has everything to do with the world and nothing to do with me.

And so when a man touches me or presses me for intimacy, it is not for the value of me that I say no (or don’t); rather, it is for fear of shame and damnation, and sometimes, fear of flashbacks. I do not say yes or no because I’m thinking about the value of my body, because I don’t actually value my body. I’ve never had need to. I’ve never learned to—or I’ve unlearned how to. My body has never been mine to claim more than guardianship over. It is a lot more challenging to take care of something you have little personal interest in, no matter how precious it is.

I broached this in counseling this week, and my counselor reminded me that a few months back she had asked me:

How long has sex been a currency in your life?

We’d been talking about how, long after I knew I wanted to end my marriage, I kept having sex with my husband. I did it because I thought I had to while I was married to him, but why didn’t I leave sooner and just stop the sex? I was sick back then. Chronic pain crippled me as often as once or twice a week. I’d been to the ER for it, and the neurologists still didn’t know the cause or how to alleviate it. I couldn’t take care of myself; I needed my rapist in order to survive. I paid for my husband’s care by having sex with him. Sex as currency.

I concluded initially that only in those final few years of my marriage, 2012 to 2015, had sex been a currency for me, and I planned to tell my counselor this. Then time got away from us, and we didn’t discuss it again until this week, when I wondered at how little I seem to value my body right now. And when my counselor asked about sex as a currency again, I realized it’s lot longer than those three years. It had been since I was a teenager, since before I was even sexually active, because, based on my beliefs, I thought my sexuality determined, at least in part, my value in God’s eyes. Having pre-marital sex would destroy my worth, and eventually I felt it did.

I told my counselor this and she didn’t deny it likely went back that far. And then she raised the question of my primary love language being touch and asked if that’s why I gave my ex-husband sex, so that he’d reciprocate, touch me, make me feel loved. For the first time in over a year, I remembered that my ex-husband did not usually reciprocate after sex. We touched during sex, but not after. He usually went to his side of the bed and didn’t touch me.

And what’s more, if I couldn’t have sex because I was sick or had an infection or was menstruating, I didn’t get held or touched. Unless I physically pleased him another way. So I gained my touch, my love, through performing sex acts. It caused plenty of arguments. I wanted to be touched, feel loved, even if I couldn’t give sex.

In a way, it’s the same thing I do now. I trade intimacy to feel loved, and it’s easier for me because I give my body such low worth. I have few boundaries that aren’t related to religion, and now that I doubt the rules laid out by religion, I have few boundaries. But I still feel the pain. It is, after all, my body.

I know now it’s time I take ownership of it, restore to myself, my body the value and worth I deserve—deserve because life comes with value, period. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t have to. And I don’t have to do anything to retain it.

Yet it isn’t this simple. Before I can own the value, I need learn how to see and understand it—and I don’t right now—and I need to unlearn what I have always believed. I’m not even sure if those are mutually exclusive. I have a long, long journey ahead. Change, lots and lots of change, but above all, growth. And I can make a difference.

Please don’t be like me and assign the value of your body according to your god or spouse or church or government. Don’t let anyone tell you what your value is or how to determine it. Your body is yours, period. Your body is valuable, period. Tell your sons and daughters and your friends and loved ones. Tell yourself. Say it until you believe it. Make it your daily affirmation.

My body is mine. My body is valuable.

And when you make decisions about your body, make them for you … because it’s yours.

Knowing What I Know Now

I had a date last night, a first date with a guy I’d met on an online dating site. We’d hit it off right from the beginning, and there was definite chemistry when we met in person. We ate a late lunch and talked for hours. He asked me to be his girlfriend before the night was over, and I politely declined; it was too soon (really too soon!). I told him a little about my past, and he told me I was safe with him and that I could trust him, and when I left, I felt safe and did trust him.

Don’t get me wrong; I had my concerns. In an earlier conversation, he’d told me how religiously conservative he was, and referred to my (religiously and politically) liberal leanings as “liberal proclivities.” (I wondered if he realized “proclivity” had a negative connotation; though, I think he did.) Religious conservatives make me nervous already, for obvious reasons, but he did more than disagree with my beliefs and opinions; he criticized them.

And he spoke excessively about the future, our future. I thought maybe he was just a little too smitten. When I told him my plans for after my kids leave home, they became his plans too. And he talked about wanting to buy a house with me. And when we talked about Disney world, and I said I would like to take my kids but couldn’t afford it, he said that such things were possible now with “two incomes.” To all of this I replied, “Let’s get through the first date first,” move slowly. He wanted exclusive, long-term, and while exclusive might be okay, I’m not ready for long-term; my marriage only ended a year and a half ago.

And he’d mentioned he used to be more controlling and particular about the way he liked things. I won’t be controlled again, not for anything or anyone. But he said he’d changed, and I wanted to believe it was so.

Overall, the date ended well, and we agreed to see each other again soon. To be honest, I was taken with the cuddling and kissing and the warmth of someone wanting to spend time with me.

By morning, though, the red flags (of him being a potential abuser) that I’d stored away in my subconscious were crimson and the size of Rhode Island and waving like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry.

  • One, he’d told me he’d once broken a woman’s spirit through constant criticism and being mean, but that he’d decided to make up for it by making people feel good about themselves. I thought his change of heart was noble, but “broke a woman’s spirit”? Can people really change that drastically?
  • Two, the criticism of my liberal tendencies and his disdain for some of the decisions I’ve made since my marriage ended: being in a polyamorous relationship, for one. He was judgmental and even declared that he thought I was “rebelling” in response my long, difficult marriage, and suggested the rebellion would end and that I would eventually go back to being conservative. In hindsight, I see that this is manipulative and shaming, telling me I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing or what’s good for me, and that I’ll eventually see the light.
  • Three, he mentioned that his first wife (first wife?!) had a lot of guy friends that she’d hang out with, and that it really bothered him. This was an issue in my marriage, and I am not going to let it be an issue again. I have guy friends, and that’s the way it is, period. So I told him up front my best friend was a guy. He replied, “It would help if he was gay.” I said he was not but that he lived in another state, and he said, “That’s the best kind of friend.” When I caught myself thinking today about listing off for him all my guy friends and which are gay and which are far away, I knew I’d been shamed.
  • Four, his first wife? He’s had more than one?
  • Five, his references to the long-term future and his taking ownership of my future plans.
  • Six, he said he’d been abused in his youth, and having discussed red flags at my domestic abuse and sexual assault support group, I knew this was a concern.
  • Seven, I discussed briefly my reasons for not being simpatico with the church (not Jesus or my faith, but the church itself) right now, how it was through mentors at my church that I was told to allow my husband to use my body as he pleased. My date, though he said what the mentors said and what my husband did were wrong, quoted St. Paul’s discussion of women submitting to their husbands. Yes, my date was pointing out that husbands were also to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially. But he didn’t deny at any point that wives should submit, and I noticed.
  • Eight, he kept saying to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to do what women do, and go home after this, and think about this too much and change your mind about dating me.” And I kept saying I didn’t think I would, though I didn’t promise anything.

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I listed all these things that worried me out. But knowledge is power, and we need to know when there is potential danger. I’m sharing because you need to know.

I didn’t feel confident enough to make a decision on my own this time around, so I reached out to trusted friends and thought about my concerns and listened to what I was saying to those friends, understanding through my words what I was actually feeling. And I messaged my support group leader. Members of a support group take care of each other, and I knew without a doubt I could trust and depend on her.

I was assured by all that these things were, indeed, red flags. And because they’re good friends, the decision of what to do next was left to me.

I won’t say my decision-making process was great; I obsessed over it a good part of the day, wasting mine and my friends’ time and energy, but in the end, I trusted my instincts. I told my date I didn’t want to see him again because the things we’re looking for were too different, and I wished him good luck. The reasons for my decision are my business, not his.

And then, true to my concern about him being controlling and manipulative, he replied:

I kind of figured you’d do that girl thing girls do. .. ok well … what else is new? …

I guess his response wasn’t completely unexpected. With his expression of fear last night about me changing my mind, he’d set me up as the bad guy before the first date was even over. And not a bad guy with valuable opinions and feelings, but merely a “girl” who only did what “girls do.” Essentially, he removed my worth from the equation. He shamed me.

I’m sad. I could have really liked him. And if he’d been genuine, I might have loved him eventually. I’m sad to have had another potential relationship turn to naught. I’m sad and angry that he shamed me, and that I felt shame, even knowing what it was. I’m frustrated that I feel a hint of guilt for having hurt him by choosing not to see him again.

But I’m confident now too. I saw what was happening this time, understood it, and though it took me all day, I made the best decision and protected myself. And I did the right things to reach that decision. I made a list and I reached out, and before that, I recognized the flags. I’ve grown, in wisdom and emotional maturity and stability. I’ve come a long way, and what I did today will help me grow even more. Today, albeit its stress and sorrow and the low hum of shame in the back of my head right now, was a good day.

Unlovable

Lovable: of such a nature as to attract; deserving; amiable; endearing.

Unlovable: not lovable: of such a nature as to repel; undeserving; repulsive; hateful.

I imagine everyone knows what it’s like to feel unlovable, if only briefly. It is a sense of unworthiness, a belief that there is no possible way or reason you could be loved. It is a feeling, a sense, a belief I know well. Perpetuated first by shame, feeling unlovable has been my constant companion for the better part of the past two decades. It has influenced my decisions and behavior. It has stolen happiness and left wounds and saddened me more than once. And it has continued to feed that which birthed it: shame. It all comes back to shame.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

It sounds an awful lot like feeling unlovable to me.

Why I believe I’m unlovable, my reasons for such a diagnosis, per se, has evolved over the years, following the opposite path of Dictionary.com’s definition of “lovable” as if it was a map: this way to hating yourself.

When I was unmarried and pregnant and was being shamed by friends and family and the Christian group I belonged to and my own beliefs in right and wrong, I felt undeserving of love. I felt lucky, blessed even, that the man who was both the father of my child and my rapist wanted to marry me despite my shameful, repulsive state. So I married him and stayed married to him for a long time. My family and friends who did stand by me, they were kind and good beyond all expectation and necessity because I didn’t deserve their love or support. I didn’t deserve anyone’s.

I carried that sense of undeserving  into and through all the years of my marriage. I felt that being pregnant before I was married was something I would spend the rest of my life fighting to make up for. I was already a perfectionist, but now I thought being perfect might earn back my ability to be loved. But every time I failed to be perfect, I also failed to be lovable.

And when I started a new church early in my marriage and wanted so terribly to belong, be accepted, be loved, I believed the lies my mentors told me and followed their guidance to a fault. The group was for married, Christian women with young families; the mentors were highly respected women in the church who had raised or nearly raised their children to adulthood. I felt honored to be invited to be part of the group and sure that if I did what I learned there, I could lessen my shame and be worthy of the love and friendship of the other women, and I could deserve to be part of my church.

One night we talked about sex, and the mentors told us that we were to have sex with our husbands whether we wanted to or not. They called it “sympathy sex” because we were taking pity on our husbands’ desires and needs. It was guidance I took heart, having sex with my now-ex-husband again and again, whether I wanted to or not, an act that has left me with nightmares. I believe now that if I hadn’t been trying so hard to be the perfect mom and wife and member of my church, to be lovable, I would have seen the fault in their words; I might have spoken out about them. God help the other women who believed them.

Today feeling unlovable looks different for me. I do think I’m deserving of love. Rather, why would anyone want to love me? I have a dark past. I’m anxious and emotional and intense. I experience PTSD-like responses to unexpected triggers as a result of past trauma. I’m not an easy person to have in one’s life. Some might say high maintenance. Repulsive.

And if you’re not already repelled, I’m divorced and have children. My ex-husband, the man who raped me, is still an irremovable part of my life because of my children. And if you want children, I not only don’t, but I can’t have them anymore.

I have so much that I carry with me. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly want to love me. It doesn’t matter that I’m a good person, have a good heart, or have a nice smile. The fact that I work hard and pay my own way doesn’t improve my prospects either. I deserve love, but that changes nothing. I have come so far and fought so hard to get here, but I believe all those repulsive and repelling things cancel that out. And my shame forces me to ask, who would want to be with someone like me?

Today a man I’ve been dating, and have really been starting to care about, told me he only wants to see me once or twice a week, at most. He’s not into texting, though phone calls are okay, occasionally. He said he’s easygoing and calm and that I’m intense and emotional, and that this perplexes him. But he told me that I shouldn’t alter my behavior—that is, my desire to talk to him and see him more often, my penchant for texting, my efforts to plan ahead, my need for connection, my intensity—for him, that I should be who I am. Then he said he’s going to be who he is too and not alter his behavior either. I’m not sure where this leaves us.

I don’t blame him for needing his space and time. Everyone needs those things, and some more than others. I certainly can’t fault him for standing firm in who he is, something I’ve personally struggled with in my own life. Rather, it is the sense that he can only take so much of me that it gives, the implication that if I want someone who can give me more of his time and attention, I should look elsewhere, that is hard to cope with. It echoes my feelings of being unlovable. Did I really expect more? I want to hold on to his assurance that my caring for him is reciprocated. Isn’t it better for part of me to be loved than none of me? I’m not sure what the answer is.

I want to be loved so much. I want someone to look at me and see only me, not my faults or past or children or mistakes or tears. I want someone to love all of me. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

There is no moral to this post. I’m not writing tonight to say I’ve learned anything or grown or overcome or won my battle against shame today. I still feel unlovable. I imagine I might forever. But I’ll still get up tomorrow morning, and I’ll still try to find someone who could possibly love someone with my history and flaws and challenges, and I’ll still fall in love, over and over again, even if it means I’m likely to get hurt. So if I’m nothing else, I am at least brave.

Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.

Lousy with Deep Red Roses

In my haste to minimize my belongings, I didn’t see the brick wall coming. I opened the box: photo albums and picture frames. Easy. Save the pictures, give away the frames and albums.

And then it was there staring at me: my wedding album. White and pearly with the words “our wedding” written in calligraphy on the cover.

Apprehension filled my chest, but I can be brave when I need to be, and I opened the cover and stared at my 20-year-old face. I was an ugly bride. My hair was half-grown out and awkward, and the hair stylist curled it, sprayed it, and then ratted it to fit around the veil. No one helped me with my makeup, and I didn’t have a manicure, though all my bride’s maids did. And though the wedding dress is a beaded work of art and the bouquet is lousy with deep red roses, it’s all overshadowed by half-hearted smiles and sad eyes.

It doesn’t even occur to me to look at my stomach, though it’s all I could think about that day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It’s impossible to tell. The wedding dress fit perfectly without a single adjustment. Swollen breasts and stomach made the dress fit when it had been too big three months before. The only indication something is off is the shame I can see covering me from head to toe. It stained everything that day, from the glow of wedding candles to the matching white-gold rings we put on each other’s fingers.

I felt my shame acutely that day. I wonder now if anyone knew the torture inside me. Did anyone know how much pain I was in? Probably not. But I cried as I walked down the aisle with my parents, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried that day.

I thought everyone was so kind to me. Friends and family circled and fussed and asked how I was doing. I didn’t understand it. I was overwhelmed by their goodness because I believed I was unworthy of it. I was so ashamed, so completely undeserving of anything good. And even now, it’s difficult to discern their unconditional love from the memory of feeling like a burden.

Most of the pictures I stacked and set aside out of sight for my kids to look at some day. It might be fun to look back and laugh at mom and dad and grandmas and grandpas. But a few pictures I saved for me. My dad looks so handsome, and he’s smiling at me. My mom is too. She’s so beautiful and happy. And there’s one with my grandparents, all four them.

I touched the picture of my mom’s parents. They’ve been gone a long time now, my grandfather dying just thirteen months after my wedding. My dad’s dad is gone too. And I cried and wished my ex-husband wasn’t standing next to me in the center of the picture. It was a battle between sentiment and disgust, but I chose to save the picture.

It was the first time I overlooked the sick feeling I get when I look at pictures of the man I now know took advantage of me. And it was love that conquered that feeling. No matter what, my grandparents always thought the best of me. I love them so much, and when I looked at their faces in that photo and remembered that, my ex-husband quickly faded.

This doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it. I can’t stand to look at myself in these pictures, but I’ve rescued the ones with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. I saved a picture of the wedding cake with the flowers a now passed friend grew just for my wedding. I can look past all the hurt I felt that day and all the sorrow I feel for it now for the people I love, and that’s something worth knowing. But what about me?

I don’t feel the shame anymore, but I remember it vividly. I remember a scared young woman who was desperate to be told “you are worthy.” I feel pity and sympathy for her. I want to hug her and tell her the truth about herself.

I’m a little angry no one told me I didn’t have to get married to earn my worthiness back or to make things right, that I was never unworthy and things were never wrong in to begin with. I’m so sad for all the lies I believed back then, about myself, about the man I married, about right and wrong.

But I also feel a little less unworthy about that day. People were kind because they were happy for me, and they loved me. I won’t say I deserved it, but I was worthy of it, if only because I loved them and they loved me.

The bad feelings don’t miraculously go away just because I feel love and a little worthiness. There’s still a heavy weight in my chest and a darkness to my day that won’t be penetrated by either 40-watt bulbs or afternoon sunlight. My wedding day is still a difficult memory and it still makes me sad. But I’ve faced down one of the challenges that awaited me since I left my husband last August: the wedding album. I won’t have to do it again.

And there is something else that I know after today. I will not be that forlorn woman again. I will speak my heart and I will search for the truth. I will trust in my goodness and overcome my shame.