"We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real about us; ashamed of ourselves, of our relatives, of our incomes, of our accents, of our opinions, of our experience, just as we are ashamed of our naked skins."—George Bernard Shaw
It's the big
one—that big, bad, ugly secret we don't want to share.
It keeps us from being intimate, truthful, fearless.
It keeps us oh, so small.
It's the sad, funny, joyous, difficult, liberating, humorous, and holy shit
. . . enlightening stories.
It's there, in the back of the drawer, hidden next to the sexy lingerie that is never, ever worn.
It is a companion, an unwelcome visitor.
It comes at the wrong moment.
A destroyer of dreams, a pervasive darkness; an enabler.
It arrives in the form of anxiety attacks, cold sweats, and sleepless nights.
It has brought down countries, damaged political careers, upended the financial world, and shaken religious and spiritual communities.
It is a stoic face in public, a tear-stained face in private.
Aretha sang about it.
Ted Swaggart prayed to almighty God about it.
Elizabeth Edwards wrote and spoke about it.
Angelina Jolie had it tattooed to remind her of it.
Newt Gingrich begged forgiveness because of it.
Tiger Woods lied because of it.
Oprah Winfrey did seventeen shows on it.
Bill Clinton addressed the nation three times in the name of it.
Laura Nyro wrote lyrics about it.
Ruth Madoff lives in hiding because she is filled with it.
The shame we carry from our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our friends, our co-workers. The shame we hide, the shame we pass on to our children; the shameful, the shameless. The shame on you and the shame on me.
It comes in all colors.
It prevents us from loving, giving, sharing, holding, touching, kissing, and opening our hearts and souls.
It is felt by men and women and girls and boys, alike.
It does not discriminate.
It is heartbreaking and funny and scary and enlightening and, oh my god, a common bond that connects us, just like dots.
The shame of . . . dropping out of school.
Of kissing a girl.
Of kissing a boy.
Of loving the same sex.
Of going to jail.
Of having AIDS or HIV or an STD.
Of loving the wrong skin color.
Of wearing briefs, not boxers.
Of having no money.
Losing a job.
Losing your virginity.
Losing your home.
Losing your mind.
The shame of sex.
And yes, big breasts.
The shame of selling out.
This anthology is all about sharing/writing our deepest shame, and in the process offering a hand, a shoulder, a box of tissues, tremendous hope, a bit of enlightenment, a bucket of wisdom, and unyielding courage so others who have lived with their own shame realize they, too, have the option to leave it behind, move on, and yes, yes . . . let it go.
We want to shatter the stigma of that scary word shame and send this message to women (and men) everywhere: You are not alone—we are right there with you. In revealing our true stories, we hope you will feel empowered to awaken to your own greatness, to laugh, to share, to lighten up! Yes, we all live with regret and shame, but when we can release and heal it, we become stronger in the places where we were once broken.
In this anthology, we show you what it feels like, looks like, tastes like to face that universal nightmare, to strip naked and walk brazenly through school. Twenty-seven gifted writers have agreed to hold hands and plunge into the deep end together, with soul-baring honesty and humor, in the hopes that you, our readers, will follow. We invite you to join us at the Shame Prom—a place where we wear our ugly dresses, then shed them. Where we parade our shame in public, dance it around on our arm, and take awkward pictures with it. But afterward, we're not going to roll around in the backseat making out with it. This time, we're breaking up with Shame and driving off into the sunset, stronger in knowing that we are connected at the deepest, most human level.
So put on your tiaras, people. Let's get this party started.
Welcome to the Shame Prom
where everyone is invited to dance.
—Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter
THREAD BY THREAD
There is a woman on a stage. You see her body in graceful silhouette against a rich purple screen. Her arms unbuckle and arch, like wings unfurling. She sways and spins. As she dances, she tells a story about a caterpillar emerging from its cocoon. It is a true story, her story. It is shocking, painful, moving, and beautiful. She is laughing, luminous. She is sitting in a wheelchair.
She tells this story on stages across America, and speaks to thousands about her life. Critics call her a "master storyteller." Audiences return again and again. Her stories are transformational.
By most accounts, this woman's life is wonderful. She has, for a decade, been in deep love with a husband who adores her. She has a beautiful baby boy, whom she is thrilled and honored to mother. She is admired by many, loved by dear friends, and well supported by her family. She manages her significant disability mostly with grace, and lives a joyful, fulfilling life.
This woman is me. But, sometimes, I don't recognize her. It's as if my life belongs to someone else, another me, who is brave and brilliant and shining. Not the deeply flawed, intensely lonely person I have known myself to be.
When I was three, my parents separated. Pulling his three daughters off his body, one crying child at a time, my father left. I can't say I exactly remember it, but I have an image in my mind. My horror-stricken mother. My glum, resolute father. My sisters and I, sad, scared, and bawling. For the next few years, my parents waged a quiet custody battle, civil and private, but ultimately dangerous. Its defining event was an attempt by my father to take us without my mother's knowledge. I remember being alone in his car, "Stay here!" my father barking, my sister running up the street, shouts from inside the house, a policeman peeking in the car window, watching, from the upstairs landing, as they handcuffed my father.
When it was over, this moment of colossal poor judgment and catastrophic insensitivity had demolished most of what was left of the family I knew. Nearly every relationship had been altered, some entirely wrecked. In a single afternoon, the unstable foundation on which I'd been standing crumbled heavily, violently into a heap.
It was devastating for each of us in our own way, but for me, the youngest of our clan, it was obliterating. When I think of it, a frozen numbness overtakes me, like an alpine meadow after an avalanche, eerily still, with no sign of the life that once flourished there. Because I was so young, there was nowhere to place myself except at the center of events. I understood it the only way I could: It was my fault.
In the rough sketches of memory, I see my mother in bed, looking too small. I see her fumbling with her hair as I wait, again, for her to take me to school. I see her chopping vegetables and crying. When I ask her about it, she wipes her eyes and says it's onions. I start crying, too.
I see my sister dividing our room with a long piece of yarn. I see myself in bed in the dark, anxiously rubbing the rough edge of my coverlet. I don't see my oldest sister.
My father was granted regular visitation at his home four hundred miles from ours. But my oldest sister was busy with her teenage life and my other sister refused to see him. I remember lying in the canopy bed he'd bought me, staring at my sister's yellow headboard above her empty bed. I remember my sister making me swear I wouldn't tell him where she was. I remember crying to go home. I remember getting sick. I remember my father, acting like everything was fine.
I emerged from those years scarred by a deep sense of insecurity and a deeper sense of inadequacy. Clearly, something was wrong with me. Clearly, I was bad or broken. Why else would these things happen? Why else would my family change? I was deeply ashamed of my imperfection, my insufficiency. I was ashamed of what I perceived to be my inherent flawedness, like an ugly, creeping bruise inside me.
And so the campaign began, the unconscious drive to hide the mess inside. I didn't know what that mess was, exactly. I just knew I had to bury it. Maybe then people wouldn't leave. Maybe then bad things would stop happening. I could be happy. I could go home.
I hid mostly behind my competencies. And, to a large degree, it worked. Ask anyone who knew me and they'll remember a pretty girl—confident, mature, talented, smart. They'll remember that I was kind and compassionate. They'll remember that I was popular and admired. But all this goodness came at a price. By the time I was in eighth grade, I'd long lost the ability to genuinely connect with my peers, afraid of any kind of intimacy. Being close would surely reveal how flawed I was, and bad things would certainly follow.
By the time I graduated high school, shame left me utterly alone. I remember wandering the halls at lunch, pretending I had somewhere to go, because I didn't have anyone I could sit with. I still had a lot of "friends" and I was still well regarded, but the loneliness of self-imposed isolation was slowly crushing me.
College brought a small ray of hope when I finally landed in therapy. There, I slowly began to recognize the sea of shame in which I'd been swimming. Prior to that, I was like a fish, unaware of the water that's always been home. I began to see my issues—crippling perfectionism, fear of intimacy, obsession with my weight—as symptoms of that shame. And I started to realize that shame, like a massive, impenetrable coat, was keeping me from the close friendships I craved. It was the source of my perpetual loneliness, and I'd have to shed it if I wanted things to change.
Thread by thread, I started to pick at it.
Over the next ten years, as I pursued a career in acting and dance, I flexed my authenticity muscle. I confronted my father, insisting that our relationship include my story. He rose to the occasion beautifully, acknowledging my pain and apologizing for the role he'd played in it. I created short performance pieces that blended my personal stories with movement, art, and poetry. Off-stage, I spoke my truth more often than not, messy and inconvenient as it might be, and let myself actually be seen. It was a constant, flawed practice, a fail-and-try-again practice. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and scary. As the muscle grew, shame began to shrink around some issues, and even disappear.
But the greatest test was still to come.
In my early thirties, I started dating Dean. Our friendship was fierce and complicated, and quickly grew passionate. One Friday morning, making love in the olive light of his bedroom, I was overcome by the perfect orgasm. It was soulful and sublime. I surrendered totally, letting it envelop me.
When it was over, I couldn't lie still. Dean wanted to snuggle in the quiet calm, but I was up and moving. I didn't know why, couldn't stop to think about why. I just had to keep moving.
We went for a hike on a trail overlooking the ocean. I asked Dean questions to get him talking, just so I could focus on my own thoughts. Was this really the man I wanted to be with? Would this relationship work? The orgasm had been consuming, obliterating, even. Would this be another avalanche?
I was frantic with anxiety. I couldn't calm my mind, couldn't quiet the constant questioning. I didn't realize it, but the deep connection of our lovemaking had scared me near to death.
From the trail, I saw a beautiful oak tree. I'd always climbed trees, found solace in trees. I started to climb, scrambling both away from my fear and toward reliable comfort. But even in the branches, I didn't feel better. The cool bark under my palms, my sure feet deftly finding each hold, nothing helped. So I climbed higher. When relief continued to elude me, I looked for a better perch.
Twenty feet up, I stopped to listen to a joke Dean was telling. I was uncomfortable, antsy, but standing still. And then a branch broke.
I realized instantly what was happening. I reached in front of me for something to grab, something to anchor this moment and keep it from evolving into the next. But it was no use. Gravity pulled me from the tree.
Like my father pulling me from his body, the fall was a threshold. My life was about to change. And I suddenly realized I had a choice. I could flail and fight, trying to wrestle my way out like I'd been wrestling all morning to avoid the growing intimacy with Dean. Or I could surrender and take my chances with life on the other side. It was a familiar crossroads. Every moment of my life before had held the same two paths. And every moment, I'd struggled to choose the one that led to peace.
This time, the choice was easy. Nothing was going to keep me from hitting the ground. So I relaxed. And gravity stopped pulling.
I floated in the air, feeling euphoric. Time began to crawl like it was moving through honey. I noticed the leaves around me, the shape of my body. I was suspended in that same honey, and the light from where I hung was golden. This is what it felt like to let go. This was the promise of presence and surrender. It was a vivid, joyous connection to God, for She was the honey and this was the ultimate intimacy.
And then, the Earth and I collided. The impact crushed my spinal cord and I was instantly paralyzed from the waist down.
The loss was catastrophic.
I couldn't move, couldn't pee, could barely sit up. My sexual sensation was gone. What had been the best orgasm of my life was now likely to be my last. It was a shock like nothing else I could imagine.
The physical stillness was maddening. I'd danced all my life. Movement was my primary means of self-expression. It was church and therapy. It was one place I could always be authentic. Now it was gone, at least as I had always known it. I turned to writing, in desperate need.
I spent two months in the hospital learning how to manage paralysis, battling infection, and trying to skirt both panic and dread. My journal was a loving friend, tenderly holding my tortured truth.
When I got out, disability made me simultaneously far more and far less visible. A man stepped into an elevator with me, gave me a once-over and said, "So what happened to you?" I was stunned. If I'd been standing, he'd have barely noticed me. And yet, all he noticed was the chair. I wanted to say, "What happened to me isn't the most interesting thing about me. Ask what I love about life. Ask what lights me up." But I was so shocked, all I could do was stammer something about having fallen.
Pervasive misconception about life in a chair was plentiful. Some friends expected too much of me. Others, too little. Some people assumed I would heal as if from a badly broken leg. Others thought my life must now be over.
Pity and sympathy were such a waste. I'd been held in the hand of God. Her light was cast on everything now. I saw beauty everywhere, felt beauty everywhere. I was happier and more alive than I had ever been.
But it was also grossly hard. Moving from the kitchen to the bedroom across the carpet with a cup of tea was like slogging through tar with my arms and legs bound. Getting dressed exhausted me. And the medical maze was overwhelming, trying to find the right providers, drugs, and therapies to maximize my life.
Most people just couldn't imagine what it was really like. They simply had no way of knowing. And their view of me was inaccurate and incomplete.
It left me aching. Time with friends felt lonely and empty. It was sickeningly familiar. And it was unacceptable.
Managing paralysis was hard enough, but becoming invisible to the people I loved was unbearable. I'd endured that hell for twenty years before, spent ten years clawing my way out. I wasn't about to let even catastrophic disability isolate me again.
I turned to the tools of my trade. I started crafting a performance, a simple offering of true stories that captured the complicated reality of my life with a spinal cord injury. I had two intentions: tell the truth and create something beautiful. It was a tall order.
I wanted people to understand the physical ramifications of my injury—exactly what I could and couldn't do. I wanted to share the extraordinary spiritual awakening it was causing. I wanted to share the humor, the unlikely but plentiful laughs I had. And I wanted to share the pain. In short, I wanted to be seen. Loss had placed me on a transformational journey full of warts and wonder both, and I didn't want to travel alone. It was too hard and too delicious not to share. I'd already learned my lesson. Silence breeds shame, and I refused to feel ashamed of something I had no control over. Clearly, I'd come a long way.
My compulsion was so fierce I didn't think much about what I was doing. I didn't think about potential consequences or the magnitude of risk. I just wrote, and pulled together stories from my hospital journal. I put those stories into a loose order and invited friends and family to a single performance. For two hours, I held their hands as we trekked somewhat sloppily through my disability experience.
When it was over, I felt elated, expansive. This was breathing.
A few weeks later, when I sat down to watch the video footage, I was dumbstruck. Something magical had happened in the theater. The audience had been transformed. My story had moved them in ways I didn't anticipate, and far more deeply than I ever hoped. And the woman I saw on stage was glowing. She was vibrant, overflowing with life. Never before had I experienced myself like that. The woman on stage was home.
A year and a half later, I opened a polished version of that first performance, a one-woman play called Caterpillar Soup. We planned to run for three weekends, but didn't end up closing until six months later. Critical praise was abundant, but audience response was astounding. People came back three or four times to see the show. They sent me cards and gifts. They wrote me long letters. And the theme was always the same: immense gratitude.
Telling my story in intimate, artful detail had allowed people to see not only me but themselves in honest, compassionate light. It let them acknowledge their fears and own their strength. And for some, it let them release, if only for a moment, their shame. People with no disability experience, whose personal stories were very different from my own, found courage, hope, and inspiration in my journey made transparent. And the effect was deeply healing. For all of us.
Soon the show was touring theaters nationally, and I was being invited to speak at universities around the country. Where once I couldn't connect with a single friend, now I made my living authentically connecting with thousands.
And Dean? The accident we shared brought us ever closer. For two years, I challenged him to leave, still afraid of what being close to him could mean. Love, relationship, family.... That's where real injury can happen. I pushed him so I'd be sure he was staying for the right reasons. But he refused to budge. And eventually, he loved me into loving him. We married on New Year's Eve, 2006, in the company of one hundred friends, an evening bursting with romance, laughter, and love. And four years later, we were blessed with a beautiful baby boy.
I wish I could stop right here, let this essay end on the high. But if I did, the point of it would be lost. So, I'll tell you this: Despite my accomplishments and the generous admiration of others, I still frequently feel inadequate. I have trouble seeing myself as others see me. I still suffer hindering insecurity, and I still feel, more often than I want to admit, fundamentally flawed. And every time I do, I feel ashamed. Ashamed that I still feel that way. Ashamed that, sometimes, I still believe it.
Perhaps that's the power of shame bred in childhood, when synapses are rapidly forming and the psyche is so impressionable. But the remedy is always the same. Tell the truth. No matter how much I want to hide. No matter how dangerous it feels. I have to flex my authenticity. Because when I do, even while sweating, sure that no one will understand, that this time people will surely abandon me or lose respect for me, three critical (and glorious) things happen. Shame is robbed of threads to build its smothering coat. I am afforded the healing of genuine connection. And others are given permission to hold themselves a little more gently, perhaps to thin the coat they've worn too long, the coat that stifles them.
The truth is a very big place, maddening and marvelous. And the joyous life I live depends on it. It depends on meaningful connection made possible only by embracing the wholeness of me, and letting her be seen. Only then can I truly be free. Only then can I shine.
WHAT Lyena HOPES READERS WILL TAKE AWAY FROM HER STORY
"My hope is that readers gain greater compassion for themselves and perhaps a bit of courage to risk letting themselves be truly seen."
THE CICADA KILLER
When I was ten years old, I had a bug collection. As a young girl, I thought it was a perfectly reasonable hobby. As I grew older and watched most every person I knew recoil before a daddy longlegs, my appreciation of the insect world began to seem more unique.
Everything can be traced back to my father. Dad was a distant, troubled man who had little use for children. He was often angry, especially when buoyed by his lifelong love affair with Scotch. His alcoholic moods charted our family's daily life, and few things besides an unfiltered cigarette and a strong J&B on the rocks seemed to bring him much pleasure. But he did have an infectious passion for the beauty and wonder of the natural world. He could name all the birds in our yard. He could mimic their songs. We had a robust vegetable garden and a lawn full of flowers. During interludes of sobriety, he taught me to fish for perch and bluegills on nearby lakes, to scout the local woods for edible berries and mushrooms, and, one memorable summer, to collect and identify the bugs that lived near our house in Pittsburgh.
The first thing a serious bug collector needs is a bug-killing container. Mine was a simple glass applesauce jar, with cotton balls soaked in turpentine layered in the bottom (Dad was a patent-holding chemist and designed my system). The fumes in the tightly sealed contraption quickly killed the luckless insects. There was a large flat piece of styrofoam for mounting my bugs, and each night I would sit in my room and identify and label that day's catches. With great care, I would impale each bug using straight pins from Mom's sewing box. Because dead bugs are fragile creatures, careless mounting could damage a precious specimen, breaking a delicate wing or brittle antennae. Precision was paramount.
Every day that summer, I hunted for bugs. It's a solitary, absorbing activity, and that was what I needed. Because my father was so unpredictable, his moods so isolating, we did not have visitors or play with friends at our house. My dad might just as easily dazzle the neighborhood kids with his repertoire of magic tricks as fly into a rage and try to strangle my mother. We kept to ourselves. When the doorbell rang unexpectedly, we all panicked, worried that our crazy world would be exposed. And we made excuses for the screaming, the door slamming, for my father staggering and weaving his way up our street every night, and for the occasional presence of the police.
The coral rose bushes in the front yard were a reliable source of striped potato bugs and metallic Japanese beetles. The uncut fields bordering the county park were jumping with mean-spirited grasshoppers. Hairy wolf spiders hid under the porch, tent worms and woolly bears clung to cherry tree bark, crickets and lightning bugs were ubiquitous. I was busy.
Collecting bugs can be hard work for a kid. What kept me going was the interest my father took in my project. He was genuinely attentive in a way that I had never experienced. Every evening, I waited at the end of our street for him to ascend the rickety wooden stairs that led to the old trolley, as he returned from his salesman's job in the city. On the way home, I'd breathlessly recount my adventures, and he'd promise to look at my new bugs as soon as he'd changed out of his suit. This was remarkably high status in my house.