Just under two years ago I was falling inexorably towards a breakdown more intense, more anguished than even I had felt in six decades.
i’m not going to share that experience here, other than to pick up on one word that resonated (from another’s tale) during the “Fall”, and which was serendipitously offered as a ladder from the “Pit,” as part of my recovery.
And that word is “Shame”.
I’m sure that much has been written about shame by very many analysts and story-tellers. All I can say is that for me, shame was something of which to be – well, ashamed
It was a therapist who introduced me to the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who has unearthed the huge energy behind expressions of shame and vulnerability – energy that can be released for integrity, empowerment, connection, and true humanity. In admitting (in the sense of “letting in”? like a door-keeper?) our own brokenness and imperfection we can reach out to others without dissimulation, and that contact can lead to a sharing that is simultaneously gifted and gift.
What struck me as I began to work with the freedoms of true self-honesty and self-compassion was how visceral that experience can be. The experience of shame in the first place, and the Really Noticing of its viscerality, as a barometer, an internal weather-vane.
And value of the speaking of it… As Brené Brown says: “if we speak shame, it begins to wither”.*
One of my friends had shared a an honest account of how she had felt looking back at the last years of her mother’s life, when she had been the primary care-giver: “I felt drenched in shame”.
At the time my friend shared this with me, during my Fall in 2016 (though neither of us realised that I was falling), myself I was going through some very internal processing of memories from my own mother’s untimely death, thirty years previous. This was intensely embodied and anguished, almost as if I was carrying in my own body some of the toxic experiences that my mother must have felt as her organs began to fail, one by one. (My mother had declined medical treatment for her breast cancer, and associated secondary cancers, right up until her final days.)
And the phrase “drenched in shame” was uncannily accurate too, describing how I felt as my shame about what I was experiencing – and why – was compounding the anguish and making it frankly unbearable.
The journey out of the Pit was long and difficult. I am only beginning to look at that with the objectivity and perspective that I need. My tricky relationship with my mother is not over, although it is easing, and yielding its own richness once more.
However, I will tell you of three things that, for me, were essential companions on my journey out of 2016:
1) appropriate medication: the “drenching” was so visceral, that I believe that the associated hormonal soakings were “drownings” . It was vital (life-saving) that I had relief from this;
2) recognition, primarily by myself and also by those around me, that my distress was pathological and real. Indeed it had been real, on and off, for all of my life. It had taken courage to carry this burden so far and for so long;
3) the barely-remembered vision (from another Fall, in 2011) that I had imaged, of myself hunched on a chair, with another, slightly larger version of myself sitting right next to me, her arm behind my back, holding me.
The last one, number 3), was barely accessible at the time, and needed the other two things to allow me to find her. People in mental anguish often need appropriate medication and an appropriate hearing, before they can dare to access their inner wisdom.
Yet she is the most dearly won, because to me she represents the self-compassion that slowly, tenderly, can be alongside to empathise with the woundings, to bathe the wounds, and to heal.
* Brené Brown (2012) ‘Daring Greatly,’ Penguin; page 58
see also Kirstin Neff about her own work on https://self-compassion.org/