My last post, on shame, resentment, hurt and pain, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever published on this blog. It’s scary to let our truths out, to expose our cracks to the world. But it’s also been my most resonant post, by far, based on the reactions and the responses I have received. I am glad I wrote it.
I am not alone in my pain. I am not alone in my shame. Yet we all feel alone. We feel alone because we don’t feel like we can talk about it and thus we never share our shame or our pain with others. Others who are feeling the same things and who are also unable to share.
Why is that? Why don’t we share?
Because we feel unworthy. Embarrassed. Humiliated. We might feel like we have failed everyone, not the least of whom is ourselves. We think we’ve failed our families, our partners, our friends, our coworkers. We’ve failed society. We’ve failed the medical professionals and therapists who weren’t able to fix us.
We let everybody down because we have pain. Or illness, or depression or anything perceived as not optimally healthy. We are flawed. Damaged. Defective. Unfit. Undeserving.
Or perhaps we feel we’re deserving of what we’ve got. Maybe we did something to bring it all on. Maybe we’re paying some price, being punished, being taught a lesson.
Have you ever thought that of someone else? That they brought it on themselves? That they’re to blame, for whatever it is? Accident, illness, pain, suffering…it’s easier to swallow to think they’re at fault because the alternative would mean believing such a thing could happen to anyone. To us. To someone we love.
So we hide. We hide within a shell of armor to protect ourselves from the judgment of others, and from the judgment of ourselves (which can often be the harshest, the most cruel, the most unforgiving).
The best way I know to shed that armor–to let down my guard, to stop protecting myself from the (largely unknown and often misunderstood) judgment of others, to stop protecting myself from my own judgment, to break down these barriers–is to share my story. To let others know they are not alone, that I hear their hurt, that I understand their shame. Because I feel it, too.
Labels as armor
I’d shielded myself with labels. Firefighter. Crossfitter. Heavy lifter. Runner. Paleo. Badass.
When I lost them, when I was forced into retirement, when I was sidelined by pain, I felt naked. Vulnerable. Lost.
So I searched for new ones to replace them. I tried out former firefighter and medically retired firefighter, but they felt desperate. Like I was clinging to the past.
I tried chronic pain patient and person with chronic pain and person living with pain. But they felt defensive. Trying to explain myself, my current set of circumstances. Trying to cover my shame of no longer working, my embarrassment over gaining weight and not being as fit as I once was, my inability to do the things I used to do.
Plus, I didn’t want to be a patient forever. And I was failing treatment after treatment (surely my fault) anyway, so I wasn’t even a good patient. I like to be good at things (I’m ashamed when I’m not).
I tried grad student, which stopped working after I graduated. I tried Master of Science after graduation (just kidding, just wanted to see if you’re still paying attention). I tried writer, which always felt fraudulent and arrogant. I tried coach, which didn’t really hit the right mark.
Eventually I stopped trying. This doesn’t go over so well in a society that always asks ‘what do you do?’ though.
What are we if not our labels?
During the worst of my pain my best answer to the question ‘what do you do?’ would have been ‘I exist’ or ‘I’m a wife’ with the caveat that I wasn’t much of one. As things got better I could have added ‘I read. I cook. I walk. I do gentle movement. I love and am loved.’
But these are not acceptable answers either. Bookworm is not an acceptable label. Nor walker nor gentle mover nor amateur home cook. Lover would raise some eyebrows for sure.
I was embarrassed that I wasn’t doing more, that I wasn’t more. That I wasn’t a better person. A stronger person. I was ashamed to find myself in that position.
There I was, free of my labels, naked, vulnerable, nothing to hide behind because I didn’t know what to call myself, I didn’t have a shield, I had no armor.
It was terrifying.
Eventually I was free to figure out who I was without the labels, though, without the preconceived notions of who I ‘should’ be or what I should be doing. Free to discover what made my life meaningful, what gave me purpose, what I valued.
It wasn’t easy work, you have to go deep and going deep can be dark and scary. There are parts of ourselves we might not like, after all. It’s much easier to keep up superficial appearances, to fit in the boxes assigned to us, to act within the parameters of our ascribed labels.
Was this what made me worthy?
We are not our jobs, though. We are not our titles. We are not our labels.
Could that mean that I wasn’t worthy because I’d been a firefighter, that perhaps I was worthy because of the qualities within me that made me want to be a firefighter in the first place? The qualities that got me through years of testing and training, through an academy and that made me a good firefighter on the job? Could that mean that I wasn’t unworthy just because I wasn’t a firefighter anymore?
Whoa. That was a big question for me. It was hard to wrap my head around.
Walking a different path
And if that could be true, couldn’t I start applying that same thinking to other areas of my life where I felt shame? Had I only been worthy because I was an athlete? Because I was physically strong? Lean? Could lift? Run? Throw ladders? Could that really be what defines a person’s worth? My worth?
It took me a long time to realize this. It took years. I was locked into feelings of unworthiness and shame for a long time. Desperate for new labels that could define me, that could make me worthy.
But pain has a way of changing your perspective. Of helping you find what’s truly meaningful.
I mean, did I really think those labels mattered as much as my friends and family? My husband and dog? I’d stopped being a good friend. I was a distant family member. A changed wife.
It took a long time to try to start fashioning a new life out of the shattered pieces of my old one, but start I did. Bit by bit.
I started with my husband. We talked. Really talked. Not superficial bullshit, not ‘I’m fine’. Not silence. I was vulnerable. I opened up. I let him see my shame, I owned up to my weaknesses, I told him my fears, worries, anxieties. I told him about my shame. And he did the same.
It took too long for us to do this. Years. But once we did he understood that he didn’t need to fix me. That when my pain flared I needed a hug, a kiss on the forehead, an ‘is there anything I can do’, not a solution. And I understood that his silences were not because he didn’t care, but because he did and didn’t know what to say or do. Because he couldn’t fix it, and it was killing him.
We learned how to communicate within this new reality. I learned, over time of course, to not bottle everything up and just try to tough it out. That I didn’t have to be alone with the pain. I could live with, really live, without shame. I worked toward accepting pain as a part of my current reality. It just was. It wasn’t because I was being punished or because I was a bad person.
So that meant that having pain didn’t have to be punishing and, most importantly, having pain didn’t mean I was a bad or unworthy person.
Communication and vulnerability
He learned to not be reactive to my emotional outbursts. That they would pass but that I also needed to feel whatever it was that I was feeling, be it anger, frustration, sadness. And he began to see that these emotions were usually directed at a situation or sensation, not at him.
And I learned not to be so reactive, too. To not judge myself so harshly. Meditation helped me a great deal with this (I use the Calm app now). And writing and nature walks and playing outside and mindful movement.
Cross-country skiing, March 2016
We came to a better place. We became closer. We loved and were loved by one another.
I saw that being vulnerable wasn’t all that bad. That shedding some of my armor, my badassedness, my ‘tough it out’ mentality made me lighter, more adaptable, more flexible and more open. More present.
I started talking to my family again. And my friends. It’s hard when you go a long time (I went a couple years with little contact with folks) to reconnect. And the longer you go, the harder it seems. But it’s never impossible. You might not always get the outcome you want, but knowing the outcome is much easier than worrying about what the outcome might be.
I was vulnerable. I was honest. I didn’t hide my pain. I didn’t try to pretend it wasn’t a part of my life. I didn’t make it the center of my life either, though. Pain wasn’t everything, it was just a part of things, and it was ok. (Not that it doesn’t really suck sometimes, it does. But there’s a lot of not suck, too. Does this make any friggin’ sense??)
Suddenly I could start going out with friends again. We’d eat at high-top tables so I could stand and I’d stand at the back of the movie theater through a movie. We’d stand at concerts and music festivals. Not being able to sit wasn’t all that big a deal. And if my pain went up, I’d just say, ‘hey, my pain is up’.
Sometimes I’d stick it out, sometimes I wouldn’t. People would know that I’d be quieter, my decision making ability would diminish, I might be cranky and they were ok with that.
There is no right way
Granted, I’m not always good at this. Sometimes I still try to pretend I’m not in pain because I don’t want to ruin some event or someone else’s time. It always backfires, though. I’m still learning here, too, folks!
Whether I’m up front or I pretend and it backfires, the people who want to spend time with me understand. They get the deal.
And they’re ok with my other quirks, too. My fear/aversion of the phone, for one. I’ll go months without talking to the people closest to me, which many people find odd (I’m not friends with those people), but when we’re together in person it’s like no time has passed at all. We’re fully present and engaged. We cherish our time together. We laugh, sometimes cry. We live.
I’m weird. I was weird before pain, too, pain just made me weirder.
Unafraid and unashamed
We all have our shit, though, you know? My friends and family have their shit, too. When someone matters to you, and you matter to them, you just figure out how best to deal with each other’s shit. Only then can you enjoy all the wonderful parts, too.
I did lose friends, don’t get me wrong. I lost contact with a lot of folks, particularly folks I used to work with. But that’s ok, too. That’s not to say that I wasn’t sad and sometimes angry. That I’m not still sometimes sad. I’m human, and I’m ok with that, too. It serves to make me even more grateful for the friends and family I do have.
The relationships I have now are more meaningful, deeper and more full than my relationships before pain. Granted, some of that is just getting older, too, but that’s sort of the point. All of this stuff, pain included, is just a part of life and life ain’t all puppies and pizza.
Life is weird. Pain is weird. I am weird.
I’m not afraid to be weird anymore. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed of my pain anymore either. And I’m not ashamed of my life.
Buster was never ashamed of me :)
As always, thanks for reading my always-too-long posts! I just have too many words and not enough editing skills. I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, questions or feedback.
We don’t talk about this stuff enough and I’d like to change that.