The Myth of The One

Booth: You know, when I say heartbreaking you say the heart is a muscle, so it can’t break. It can only get crushed.

Brennan: Isn’t it heartcrushing?
Bones

Hearts are broken—crushed—every day. It’s been sung about, written about, spoken about. Every one of you reading this knows the feeling. It’s not a new sensation, curtesy of Facebook or Snapchat. Shakespeare writes of Enobarus (Antony and Cleopatra) and Lady Montague (Romeo and Juliet) both dying of broken hearts. Even King David writes of his broken heart in Psalm 69. It’s an ancient feeling and experienced almost universally: nearly every culture acknowledges the concept.

I don’t just mean heartbreak by a lover, mind you. Mothers, fathers, children, family members, friends can cause just as much heartbreak as a boyfriend or wife, sometimes more, because it is those we love who have the ability to cause us the greatest anguish and sorrow. We can break our own hearts if we love ourselves enough. But it doesn’t matter who or what the cause is; the experience is real and tangible. An ache in the chest where the heart beats. Stress of the mind. Inconsolable grief. Depression. Sometimes it’s more than the loss of love: it’s the loss of hope, the loss of joy, the loss of dreams. It is loss.

My heart has been broken again. I should be getting used to this by now, right? But I’m not writing today to express the heartbreak I feel or to talk about how to heal. I’m writing with a caution. It is a realization that came to me with a sharp shock this afternoon, one that caused me to scribble out the words I was writing at the moment to the point of shredding the paper. Let me tell you what happened.

My sweetheart broke my heart on Monday morning (via text, while I was at work; he’s seeing someone else … some might say good riddance). I’ve felt the twinges in my heart muscle, the loss of hopes and dreams, and the loneliness that usually follows. Friends and coworkers have offered condolences, advice, admonishment for my former lover, and well wishes. It is the well wishes you need to beware.

“You’ll meet someone who treats you right.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I want you to meet a nice boy.”

They seem harmless and they are well-meant. But they’re dangerous. A single someone, a nice boy, and, worst of all, something that is meant to be. We all want to meet that someone, that special person who we’re meant to be with. I was taken away with the thought, and in a manner of trying to heal my heart, I started to write him a note today.

You don’t know me and I don’t know you. I’m … looking for someone special to connect with. What about you? … I imagine you out there, and whatever you’re looking—

And that’s when I cut myself off and crossed out my words and cut the paper through to the page beneath it, thinking, “That’s how I got myself into all of this in the first place.” I was looking for The One … the one God had meant for me from the beginning of time.

I grew up in a world where divorce was against God’s will because we are to search and wait for The One meant for us and work through everything with that person to stay married forever. I left home and my church youth group for college with a delusional belief that there really was one special person out there whom God meant for me and me alone, and that I’d meet him and know he was The One and that he would too. I prayed for God to prepare him for me and me for him. We were encouraged to so because that would help us ensure a God-blessed, happy relationship in our futures.

Out of this upbringing I came and promptly fell into the arms of the man I thought was meant for me, despite our lack of shared interests and his judgment and his hurtful silent-treatment pouting whenever he didn’t get his way … oh, and the fact that he raped me. It’s okay; he’s The One. I married him in spite of horrible fights, traumatic shame, mistreatment of my body, and continued shaming. I felt lucky to have found The One so quickly and easily. He loved me so much, and he’d even dreamed of us getting married. God was truly guiding us.

No one once suggested we shouldn’t get married. I don’t know if it was complacency in the belief we’d each found The One or a matter of everyone minding their own business, but friends and family saw problems from the beginning and yet not a word was said. I don’t blame them. We’ve been fed this line of fiction all our lives. Even my parents have a messy, unhappy marriage, but have been together 40+ years. I believed in The One with all my heart … I believed in The One to a fault.

I know better now. “The One” is a myth, and I won’t be that blind again. God didn’t create me for my ex-husband or me for the man who broke my heart on Monday. He didn’t create me for anyone I’m about to meet either. The idea that there is someone out there looking for me, who God made for me is beautiful, but only fantasy. The concept of a soulmate is heartwarming and hopeful, but as wise as Plato was, I’m not sure I believe anymore.

It’s heartbreak versus fear in me right now. Heartbreak seeking hope that I won’t spend the rest of my life alone.

I want to love you. … Please find me. Look for me and don’t give up.

(I wrote that too; not twenty years ago, but yesterday. Old habits die hard, I guess.)

And fear that my beliefs could trap me in another life-draining relationship. I won’t go there again. I won’t be part of that. I won’t be the pawn of my religious upbringing, and I won’t believe the myth again. I won’t search for someone special. I will accept that he doesn’t exist, and I caution you to follow my example, whatever you believe. It’s harsh and it hurts, but trust me, please. 

But think of it this way: there is no One. Not “one” doesn’t automatically mean zero; it could mean many. What if instead waiting for the one, you search for love. Go slow: take the time to know yourself and know what love is to you, and then look for it. You might love many, and your heart might get broken a lot. But you’ll always have new hope because you won’t meet the love of your life just once.

Sweets: Mm-hmm, perhaps you’re saying this because you’ve never met the love of your life.

Angela: I have, actually. Many times.

—Bones

Advertisements

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.

I Decide Now

There is a certain amount of shock—and in my case panic—that comes with realizing that much of what you believe and trust in is false. When I learned just how much control shame had of my life and that the things that perpetuated it were a combination of lies and false beliefs, my world, in a word, shattered.Imagine life as a game of Jenga. You start with a sturdy foundation, three wooden blocks on the bottom, topped by three more laid perpendicular to the first three. The building of the tower repeats this patter until its builder runs out of wooden blocks. The result is a rectangular cuboid. There will likely be a few wonky blocks, but for the most part, the tower is stable.

In the form of a life, this stable tower represents the average child with his or her basic understanding and rules, values, and beliefs laid into place by parents, guardians, family members, caretakers, churches, schools, etc., in essence, a child with a steady base for healthy functioning, making decisions, and moving forward in life.

Now, as the child grows and adjusts his or her understanding, rules, values, and beliefs according to new experiences and the input of new knowledge, the tower that represents the child’s basis changes shape slightly. Some of the initial structure will shift a little, parts of it will disappear completely to make room for new information (imagine the delicate removal and placement of Jenga blocks). But most shifting, changing, growing will take place with the firm foundation (the tower’s first two rows) in place. Everyone who’s played a game of Jenga knows the tower stays steadier if the bottom-most row and the one just above it stay fairly intact.

In the lifespan of the average person, the game of Jenga would go on forever, beliefs and values (the blocks), always growing and shifting while the base remains firm. But in the game itself, there is a moment when the tower becomes too unstable—perhaps when it becomes necessary to pull blocks from the foundation—and it tips and the wooden blocks scatter to the far ends of the table, some even to the floor. If you want to start another game, you have to gather these blocks and rebuild the tower.

My tower built upward as I went to college and got married and had children and worked and went to church and met new friends, always on the solid base of religious beliefs and family values and the dos and don’ts of a righteous life burned into my brain. I depended on this base for everything: guidance for decisions and behaviors, judging right from wrong (in my eyes it was only either/or), how to raise my children, how to process new experiences, how to be a good wife, that shame was normal, even how I viewed and felt about sex and my body. Everything.

And then I discovered that much of what I’d been told religiously about sex and my body and marriage was a lie, and it changed everything. Nearly every block of the first two rows, the foundation, of my tower were pulled out from under me, and lies upon lies that I’d grown to know as my belief and value system tumbled. My tower crashed.

So here I am, in my mid-thirties, gathering up all of these blocks that have scattered and trying to rebuild. I need a new foundation, a new set of values. I have my faith in God, but that’s a single piece, and lacking the religion that goes with it, it seems to mean very little. Essentially, I am beginning over again.

What about divorce? What about shame? What about sexual orientation? How do I feel about sex outside of marriage? My church says stealing is wrong, but it also told me I should let my husband rape me. Now that I know the latter is wrong, I have to ask how accurate the former is. And do the same thing for adultery and coveting and killing. Every part of my belief and value system needs to be reevaluated, even those things written in the Bible.

Now, some of these are easy: for example, killing, stealing, and adultery are generally accepted as wrong by society’s standards, and I agree with this. And I’ll teach my children these things. I will also teach them kindness and generosity. I will teach them to love people for themselves and to not judge by looks or behavior or gender or whatever. And I will lead them by example. I will be tolerant and caring. I will not be prejudice. I will not shame.

But what about sex? Everything I have known about sex and dating was based on what my religious beliefs told me, no questions asked. I determined right and wrong the same way. And how men and women are supposed to behave in relationships. I was told and I accepted, rarely asking.

(Yes, I know there was a HUGE flaw in my thinking; I’m working on that too.)

Even when my feelings told me something that contradicted my belief system, I lied to myself, manipulated my own emotions to match what I was “supposed to” feel. I trusted it all without doubt or hesitation.

So now I have questions, lots and lots of questions. And I have very little foundation to base my answers on. I could ask friends, but people can be wrong and they can lie, just the same as family members or the church. No, I must actually learn and experience and answer my own questions and make my own decisions as to those answers.

It is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, to create my own set of values to live by, and sometimes I am completely lost. Never mind past trauma, my anxiety, PTSD symptoms, old and new shame, the resurgence of former beliefs, or that others want to weigh in. Making a decision or choosing a path is never just making a decision or choosing a path.

Some days I don’t know the answers or how to find them. Other days I don’t even know my own opinions, let alone my feelings. Sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I don’t trust myself. Sometimes my perspective changes and my new values shift, and sometimes the values do a 180. Some days I believe opposites are both true. And sometimes, like yesterday, like today, I don’t know what I believe.

I’m holding fifty-four wooden blocks in my hands and sitting at the table ready to begin, but I can’t place even one block because I just don’t know.

So shock and panic. My instinct is to curl up and try to be small and invisible, to disappear from the world so that I don’t have to decide or know or believe anything. But I don’t. I maybe hide for a few hours, an evening maybe, but then I go to work, and I talk to friends, and I laugh and cry, and I face my questions head on. I tell myself this state of unknowing isn’t permanent. I remember the only way to find the knowledge is to experience and learn. And so I search for my answers. It is not my only option, but it is the one I choose.

And piece by piece, block by block, I put my life back together.

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.

My Fear of Friendship

Shame is the irrational fear that all your friends will eventually abandon you.

It is panic after an abnormally long silence. It is being frightened during every conversation that you will say something wrong to turn friends away. It is a fear of trusting and of telling the truth, even to those who have proven their love and loyalty to you. It is doubting your most trusted friend’s words because the terror is so huge you can’t swallow.

This fear does not come naturally, but is the result of repetitive judgmental abandonment by past friends. It is the dark remnants of the betrayal of those you’ve trusted, of those who’ve shamed you. It is their misunderstanding, their hatred, and their fear, but it is your scar.

I cannot count the number of friends who’ve ended their relationships with me because my life didn’t follow the path of their ideals. Some of it was fear, their own shame pulling at their guts as they backed away, their eyes averted. But some of it was outright damnation.

I was pregnant when I married my husband. At the time, we were heavily involved in a Christian group on the college campus where we attended. Our “situation” didn’t go over well. Some of our friends shamed us outright, demanding our apologies for what we’d done; others just drifted away. Only a small few still accepted us. My husband graduated that year and moved on, but I remained and endured dark looks and whispers from former friends who would no longer speak to me. They used coldness to shame me.

Four years later, this shame still ate away at me. In a new town and in a new setting, I reached out for support and trusted what I thought was a tried and true friend with my story and that shame. She immediately cut off all contact, ignoring my phone calls and avoiding me when we saw each other at gatherings.

I came to believe that my behavior … that I drove these friends away. It was what I had done, not who they were or what they believed.

I trusted only one more person until six years later. And even four years after that, you’d be surprised how much it still matters to some people, though my daughter turns 14 this summer.

More recently, I’ve experienced similar reactions to my discussion of and decision to divorce. After telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough, one friend humored me and gave me one more luncheon before she cut me out of her life for good, though I believe the friendship ended long before that point. Her “shame on you” couldn’t have been more clear unless she’d actually said the words.

The idea that friends would abandon you when you need their support the most is absurd. Who would do that? More of my friends than I would like to admit. And because of this, the shame I still feel with regards to friendships is palpable, enough that at times I still fear I can drive my friends away. It follows me around like a shadow. I panic and shy and distrust and cling because the fear is so engulfing.

I don’t know the cure. I don’t know how to stop being afraid. I haven’t figured this one out yet. I have friends I trust with my most private thoughts and that I would trust with my life, but I’ve never stopped fearing that every one of them might abandon me in the end or that it might be my fault.

But I think a change is starting in me. I have good friends now, people who have shown their acceptance, who have stayed and who have returned my trust with their own, and I am encouraged.

I have been worried about the space a good friend has suddenly needed in the past week. This morning, I expressed my concern and was told my reaction was “extreme.” In that moment, I realized how afraid I was that this friend would be lost like so many others. I was honest about my fear. The response: “You are not losing me, ok?”

Relief flooded me. So this is what a real friendship is like. There is hope for healing.

Courage

One of the greatest challenges I face in my struggle with shame is actually facing it. It comes on like an attack, sometimes slow and creeping and sometimes blindsiding me all at once. My response tends to follow the line of fight or flight, and more often than not, I choose flight—repressing it or numbing myself to all emotion. At least, this has been the truth in the past. I’m learning to fight now, to face shame despite the pain and fear it causes.

In doing this, I have found that courage is one of the most readily honed weapons in my anti-shame arsenal. I have always sported a certain amount of bravery, facing down that which makes me anxious or frightened. As a child, I faced my fear of public speaking. As an adult, I said goodbye to my family for nine days and put myself on a plane to attend graduate school for the first time. A few years ago, I moved my kids 1,800 miles away against my extended family’s wishes. And after a three-year battle with myself and my shame, I recently told my husband I wanted a divorce, a feeling I’d been hiding for over three years.

A good friend once told me that courage is not the lack of fear, but rather, it is facing fear and overcoming it. Shame gives me much to be frightened of: the emotions, the physical reaction, the sensation of unworthiness. So as I learn to deal with the shame, learn to cope and move on every time it hits me, I am grateful that I have the courage to do.

Last weekend my very conservative little sister shared her heart with me, elaborating on her beliefs on divorce. She is a strong, Christian woman who has faced adversity in her own marriage. She and her husband worked things out. They have three beautiful children and one more on the way, and they’re happy now. Her heart is that divorce is a sin, no matter what the reason. This goes beyond even our strict religious upbringing, where my sixth grade confirmation teacher gave at least a handful, albeit a small handful, of legitimate reasons to divorce.

I’d been expecting this conversation with my sister for some time, based on her reaction to my decision to separate from my husband and my knowledge of her religious stance, but it was still difficult to face the inadvertent pounding of shame she was determined to give. It had to be done consciously, steps taken so that I didn’t reverse the progress I’d already made.

First, I needed to remember I am not my sister. It is an uncomfortable piece of acrobatics to balance knowing that you are not alone—shame thrives on you believing that you are the only one who makes mistakes or are hurt by others’ abuse; you take the blame—and knowing that you are not anyone else but you. My sister’s beliefs are not mine, and my shame is not hers. What she believes about marriage makes me sad, but I cannot let it change what I believe about myself. I know what I’ve been through and I know I’ve done the best I can. I cannot be any more or less than who I am, not even for my sister.

I also needed to be honest with my sister about what I actually believed, and that took facing my fear of not being accepted by her, my only sibling. I knew this woman had been through a lot; I knew she had powerful beliefs that I didn’t agree with; I knew that she would judge me; I didn’t know how far that judgement would go. But I was done lying. And so when my sister, who knows quite a bit about why my marriage is over, told me ending a marriage for any reason was against God’s will, I risked her support and love and told her I didn’t agree. I thanked her for sharing her thoughts, told her I was happy she had peace, and said, “I hope you can also make peace with my decision …”

For the first time since I told her my husband and I were separating, my sister told me she loved me no matter what. It’s a little bittersweet knowing she is judging me, despite her love. But it’s something to grow from, and that I can hang on to; though, even reaching that point took more courage; one more step.

My sister’s words that Friday night stayed with me over the weekend and combined with the stress of telling my kids about the divorce for the first time Saturday morning. By Monday morning, shame almost owned me again. That’s when I chose to finally be honest with myself.

If shame is something you struggle with, I imagine you won’t find it too difficult to believe that it’s possible not to be truthful with yourself. But I had buried the shame so deep I felt almost no emotion when I woke up that morning. I didn’t want to believe the shame my sister had tried to pour over me had actually affected me. I wanted her love to be stronger than that. And I wanted to be strong enough to protect myself. But in the end, I knew I hadn’t been as impervious as I’d hoped.

So I mustered the courage to speak up, and I called the shame what it was. Out loud. I admitted I was judging myself based on my sister’s words and my conservative upbringing, that I was sad my sister couldn’t just say she loved me without the caveat, and confessed everything I had felt while telling my kids about the divorce, from the anger that my husband refused to say any of the hard things to the sadness and shame of knowing I’d hurt my kids. Within minutes, the shame no longer had a hold on me.

Shame will use your thoughts, fears, beliefs, memories, even your love against you, destroy you from the inside out, unless you stop it. When shame is your adversary, it takes courage to own who you are and what you believe, and it takes courage to be honest, whether it is with yourself or with someone whose opinion matters to you. You can’t let the shame control you or stop you. And you definitely can’t run away; it’ll just sneak up behind you. You need to face it, call it what it is, and be true to yourself. You need to have courage for you.