I have things that I still can’t talk about in therapy without being hit by crashing waves of shame. Sometimes this is true even about topics we’ve previously discussed. It’s definitely the case when talking about some abuse experiences. I might know, intellectually, that I’m not the one who should be ashamed about what happened. But my emotions don’t know that!
Except maybe sometimes they do. Last Thursday night, for example.
I started taking a six-week mindful writing course on Thursday evenings. There are about ten of us in the class, and we spend a little time each week meditating and then quite a bit of time writing to a prompt. Then we have the choice to read the raw piece we’ve just written (or not) and to get some very gentle, supportive feedback from others in the class.
Last Thursday was only week two of the class, so we don’t know each other very well yet. Still, the mindfulness component and the nature of the prompts means that much of the writing is quite personal and vulnerable. It’s moving to be given an opportunity to see beyond the image people project into their psyches, and it awakens the urge to reach out and be kind to one another.
One woman, for example, wrote about her husband’s depression, how big and frightening it is, and how guilty she feels to even take a couple of hours away to be in the writing class instead of home with him. One young man wrote that his father says he only uses his intellect to think up excuses. There’s often a lot of emotion embedded in the words people come up with in a ten- or fifteen-minute free write.
Our second prompt this past Thursday was “I don’t remember…” It’s a rich prompt–that is, there are so many directions you could take it in. Several people wrote about what’s in their DNA, carried inside of them from the experiences of past generations, of people they never knew and can’t remember.
When I start, I don’t necessarily know where I will go with a prompt. This time, I wrote about what I do and don’t remember about a guy I have often called “Creepy Neighbor.” He lived a couple of houses down from us when I was in elementary school and was friends with my parents. And he crossed some boundaries with me. My experiences with him were not the worst things that ever happened to me, but they have stuck with me. They were my way into talking to E in therapy about ways I’d felt violated, before I had the courage to talk about other events that felt far worse. They were the first such experiences I managed to tell my husband about. But still, they aren’t something I’ve talked about much.
As others read their stories, I asked myself whether I should skip reading this time. Was this a bit too much? Maybe no one wanted to hear something so intimate. It might make others feel uncomfortable, I worried. One by one, all the others read. I was the only one left.
The teacher looked over at me, quizzically, but without pressure.
I took a breath. “I guess I’ll read,” I said. And so I read this short piece.
I don’t remember, Mr. Mason, when I first met you. I imagine I must have been five. Your son was in my kindergarten class, and your wife and my mother became friends. Sometimes our families had dinners together. But you faded into the background, like wallpaper, like the lingering smell of smoke after the dads extinguished their pipes.
I do remember you when I was nine, because you told the story of your car having been stolen off the street one night. I found that exciting, a little scary in a not-too-scary way. Just scary enough for nine years old. I do remember you got your car back, but I don’t remember how. Perhaps the police found it after some teenagers had enjoyed an exhilarating, forbidden ride. Perhaps you’d just forgotten where you parked it.
What I remember all too well, Mr. Mason, is the time you stood outside my bedroom door and make a joke about how messy my room was. I was twelve, and my bedroom was always messy, books and clothes and violin and record albums and stuffed animals strewn around the room. I was surprised, though, that you’d make fun of me. I was more surprised when I stepped into the hall with you and you ran your hands over my chest. “Why are you wearing a bra?” you asked me.
Are you surprised, Mr. Mason, that I remember this now, decades later? Does it bother you that it’s one of my main memories of you? Here’s another one: I rode with you in the car to go and pick up your son. This was a little later; maybe I was thirteen by then. You pulled the car over and kissed me. You told me to kiss you back. Do you still remember? How does it feel to you that I still remember?
I don’t remember why I didn’t tell my mother about that kiss. How I wish I had. I wish I had told her that very night, when we got back to the house and entered the bright, warm kitchen. I wish I had told her even before we sat down at the table, where she served us sausage lasagna garlic bread and salad, followed by chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
So here’s the thing. It’s not like it’s a great or important piece of writing. But for me what was great and important about it was that I read it aloud to the class, and I didn’t cringe or want to hide or feel in any way ashamed. It was just something that happened to me when I was little. It was about a person I remembered and didn’t remember. It was empowering to read it and hold my head up. It felt powerful to use his real name. I loved even imagining that I was reading those words to him.
I know I’m not (yet) free of my past. But I do feel free of the heavy backpack of shame I used to carry about this particular experience. I was in seventh grade. It’s been a long time. I am so happy to set down this burden, to let it lie by the side of the road, while I continue on my journey without it.