Michael Gingerich and Tom Kaden are two men who believe that we are created for deep, meaningful, and emotionally intimate relationships. The authors have found these relationships with their wives, and they are models for their children. They experience this kind of relationship with each other. They share how vital these relationships are through their non-profit: Someone To Tell It To – www.someonetotellitto.org. They create safe environments for people to share the stories of their lives openly and unashamedly and they encourage others to find safe people in their lives to foster relationships that provide true support, unconditional love, and grace.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape is happy to share their voice this week in our weekly blog. Michael and Tom have learned so much from listening to the stories of those who have experienced abuse. They offer some of their thoughts in this week’s blog about Shame.
We want to share one of the most poignant accounts that has emerged from our work providing a compassionate presence and offering compassionate listening to those who need a safe place to share their stories.
As Independence Day approaches, we thought that it would be appropriate to show the freedom that someone can receive from sharing her story of rape and sexual abuse – after keeping it in for decades. In the sharing, the debilitating secrecy and shame begin to be destroyed.
This story appears in our book, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey, which will be available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, starting July 10. You can also order it by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anything mentionable is manageable.
That which is most personal is most universal.
“What we need to do is reintroduce more shame into society.”
When the government official stood up to share about what he perceived as the historic breakdown of the family unit and uttered those words about shame, we were astounded. It was in the midst of a monologue in which he was expressing his opinion that there aren’t enough repercussions in society “about the bad things that people do.” He said that by creating a culture of shame, where “deadbeats and scumbags” (his words) are reprimanded and called out for their mistakes, they would stop doing destructive things and making continually “bad” choices.
At that, we looked at each other, and one after the other, we whispered, “That’s not true! I don’t agree!”
“Yeah. Neither do I. Not at all!”
We both vehemently felt that this man’s approach was not the right one.
The next day we blogged about it.
A few days later we were interviewed on our local (central PA) public radio station, and the interviewer pressed us about the concept of shame. He had just read our blog post “Shame and the Breakdown of Society.”
Later that afternoon, as the manifestations of what we were asked about shame during the interview continued to occupy our discussions and minds, we received an email from a woman with the subject line “Self- Hatred and Shame.” It said,
I sat in my car with tears in my eyes this morning listening to the entire interview … I’m at a very bad point in my life and have tried unsuccessfully to get an appointment with a counselor that I can afford. I’m a widow who has been living alone for 15 years. Each day I struggle to get through what I have to do and then drink myself into oblivion every night. As I review my life, I can show that every single thing I’ve done has been wrong. Every single thing. And now I’m getting older, watching friends die, and can’t bear the thought of my life going on like this with such hopelessness. I’m not suicidal—just desperate for some relief from the loneliness and heaviness that I live with. You are probably being inundated with contacts … but if at some point you could contact me, I would appreciate it.
We immediately responded.
… Thank you so much for reaching out to us. Your words touched our hearts and we want you to know that your story is very important to us. It takes a lot of strength to reach out like you did. We want to honor that and help you to find the peace, grace, hope and relief that you deserve and need …
Soon, she wrote back, “I’ve never told anyone else before. Never. No one.”
It was hard, very hard, for her to say what she knew she needed to say. She spent a lifetime keeping it (repeated sexual abuse and rape by her father) in. After decades of secrets, hiding who she was and both the things that were done to her and things she had done to others, she had grown accustomed to the darkness that lurked within her. It was comfortable in its own deeply uncomfortable way.
But it was time to be released from the prison she had locked herself in. The guilt. The shame. The regret. She was ready to pour it out. All of it. As much as she could. It was time for the hurt to go away. Time for amends to be made. Time for healing to begin. Time for light to shine through. When she started talking, everything poured out. The abuse heaped upon her. The years of binge drinking. The lying. Sneaking around. Betrayals. The anger and disappointment she caused her family and friends. The lost years, too many to count. She hated them all. She relived them day after day, night after night. She hated herself for the anger and disappointment she caused, for the lost years.
But in telling it, a lock was turning inside her, and freedom was coming.
I’ve decided that initially I would like to just communicate via email. I’m not sure if it will even go any further than that. I decided against Skype to start because the things I have to say are so awful and I’ve never told anyone most of it. I think I would try to make you like me on Skype, and if I did that, I would not be able to tell the truth. I’ve tried writing all these things down before, but it does no good to just tell it to myself …
I’m terrified of putting all this in writing for someone else’s eyes. But it is so ironic that I found out about you now, because this is something I need so badly now at a time when I’m doing a great deal of self-examination. Thanks again for your patience with me … I have to tell you I’m afraid. I was going to just tell you about my life, but I realized that in doing so, I would be trying to show you all the reasons that I am such a failure. So instead, I’ll just tell you what I feel guilty about. And “guilty” is a mild word …
I’m rambling. I guess it is an outlet for me to just be able to write these things down that have never, never been written. And then to send them to someone, instead of just deleting them …
I know I’m being punished. In fact, all this depression and stuff is only a part of the punishment I know I’m due … My father used to tell me how stupid and lazy and clumsy I was. I always wanted to be a dancer, but to this day, I am unable to learn dance steps …
On and on she wrote, pouring it out, telling her story.
Her story and so many others like hers accurately describe many in today’s society who feel as if they cannot share their true insides, their real selves, because of the judgment they receive, the condemnation, and the harsh words that cut them off and close them down. People can’t heal if they don’t first reveal.
“Your caring means the world to me. I’m hoping that I may be entering a period of peace after a few really awful weeks. The sun is shining, it is warm and pretty outside and such a day has to give one hope,” she wrote .
One of our spiritual idols is the late Fred (Mr.) Rogers. He used to say, “It’s impossible not to love a person if you know their story.”
We shared that quote with her. We shared it to let her know that there was nothing she could say to us that would make us love her any less. Her value is not wrapped up in the mistakes she’s made or the shame she feels. Her value, instead, is in her humanity and the simple fact that she is alive and here on this earth. Here for a purpose. Here to have meaning. Here to love and be loved. Shame does not help her to feel loved, nor does it help her to love more fully and deeply. Shame only makes her—and most of us—feel unworthy and unloved. Shame, instead of motivating us to “do better,” usually causes us to give up, to try less, and to wallow in our humiliation.
And that doesn’t help us at all.
Shame is a very common reaction for survivors of sexual abuse. But it is also something that can be overcome. Those who abuse often inflict shame intentionally, knowing its power to keep people silent and thus hide their crimes. Telling your story is a great way to begin that journey, to see that others do not blame you nor feel you should be ashamed of what someone else chose to do to you. Telling your story is the beginning of healing and of a new life of wholeness and peace.
We leave you with these words, which we hope serve as an encouragement when shame and secrecy threaten to hold hostage your life:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
― Brené Brown