In the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “And everything conspires to keep quiet about us,/ half out of shame perhaps, half out of/ some secret hope.” Shame is a treble hook that tells me that 1) I not only fail but am a failure, that 2) I not only damage people but I am damaged, and that 3) I not only lie but I am a lie. This pervasive shame hooks the near and distant past. No catch and release, only a catch and kill rumination over an endless list of self-recriminations. Shame occupies past present and future tense all at once, eradicating hope.
I am always five years old in an emergency room with a broken arm. I thought I was Wonder Woman with superhero leaping powers and jumped down a flight of stairs. As the doctor is about to reset the bone, he says to his residents gathered around my stretcher, “Get ready. This is when the kid starts screaming.” I flush with shame. I’ll show them. Wonder Woman doesn’t cry. I grit my teeth. The pain is almost unbearable. Almost.
I am always eleven years old in the schoolyard at recess, surrounded by a pack of girls and boys pointing at my flat chest, pinching at my shoulders for the bra straps that aren’t there, and shouting, “Skeleton! Olive Oyl!” Everyone chases me and I try to outrun them, forever hoping for the bell, but I don’t scream or cry because it’s true: I am tall and ugly and skinny.
I am always fourteen at a party, guzzling my first beers. Their immediate effect? I feel funny and pretty enough to talk to the boy of my dreams. When I am drunk enough, we kiss in the backyard, his lips on mine, and I know that the beer’s effects are why I can kiss back. We are temporary boyfriend-and-girlfriend, drunk-kiss a few more times, but I don’t know how to kiss sober. “You don’t know how to be a girlfriend,” he says, ending us. I don’t scream or cry. Instead, I cut my arms, and, of course, drink beer and vodka and wine for the next twenty years because that helps me kiss and suck and fuck better.
I am always drunk fighting with my college boyfriend who says, “You’re crazy. No one else will ever love you. Only me.” I believe him: my arms are cut up, and once, drunk and depressed, I jump into a lake on campus in the middle of winter and a security officer has to tow me to shore. His frat brothers call me “Lady of the Lake.” I stay drunk when I’m around them so I can laugh when they say this to my face.
I am always crazy and unlovable—the professor, the writer, the wife and the mother who cuts her arms, starves and purges, gets drunk, and destroys herself, who fails at recovery over and over. And when I finally do get my shit together? All the retrospective shame keeps me hooked into then, now, always will be.
Early in my recovery, I was at the pump at a gas station when I saw my former riding instructor, Lee. She was standing by her truck, her thumbs hooked in her belt loop, boots mucked up with manure and mud. I’d disappeared from my twice-weekly lessons when I went to rehab and never got back in touch. I was immediately flooded with shame: hot, nauseated, and unable to think clearly. My response? I got in the car and drove off without my gas. Ridiculous, right? But shame twists me into knots and makes me small, smaller, then gone.
And shame keeps me small, keeps me from having any expectation of the restoration of joy and love and forgiveness. I only knew Lee as funny, gritty, and supportive. She knew about my struggles with bipolar disorder (some of my meds made balance on the back of a horse tenuous) and worried that I wouldn’t be able to grip the horse with any leg strength since I was so obviously anorexic. She didn’t know about the drinking, but I imagine that wouldn’t have shocked her—she seemed like she’d lived a rough life, too. “Don’t let the wicky wackies get to you, Kerry,” she always said when I tensed up on the horse, but meaning so much more than that.
I imagine now what Lee might have said: We’ve missed you at the stable. The horses have missed you. When are you coming back? Empathy, concern, friendship. But I’ll never know because I skittered away.
Shame. Shame. Shame. We disappear inside of shame, our eyes closed and hands over faces, a double-walled darkness, refusing to be seen, refusing to meet the empathetic gaze of another, suffering alone with that punishing feeling that ultimately comes from believing in our unworthiness. It’s the difference between healthy guilt (I did something wrong and will make amends), and unhealthy shame (I am wrong and there’s no amends for that). Recovery teaches me to counter shame with hope. Shame, like mold, grows in the dark. Hope is illuminating; it is the belief that spring will come after a brutal winter, that the ground will thaw and warm, that trees will bud, that birds will reappear at the feeders, that forsythia will burst with yellow blossoms. Shame believes you-are-never-good-enough. Hope believes in the wild, extravagance of you-are–enough-and-more. Shame contracts expectations, so you expect less and less and then nothing. Hope expands expectations, so you believe everything might be possible which makes hope the greatest super-powered leap of all.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.