As I took my seat on the train, I felt a surge of nausea in my belly, there was an underlying feeling of violation and I could feel people looking at me as though they could see it. I thought; “They know… they can see it in me… they can sense the disgust and how much shame I feel right now.” As we pulled out of the station and made our way into the city the feeling stayed with me, as I got into my apartment and pulled off my clothes, jumped into the shower and scrubbed my skin, it was still there. As I put clothes on and headed to work it was still there. I couldn’t shake it off. I felt sick. I felt like hiding. My skin was crawling. I wanted to shrink, contract, retreat and move inwards. I couldn’t. There was a big day ahead, the biggest event of the year and I was running it so I had to bring my A game for work and all the while I just wanted to curl into a little ball and hide so that no one would see, no one could tell and no one would guess. And so the day went on and I pushed through, smiled when I had to, focused on work and at the end of it went out for drinks with a work colleague. After our meal she asked me: “Are you okay? You seem a bit out of sorts…” It was then, after a few glasses of Dutch courage, that I let myself share what had happened.
I’d been seeing a guy for a few months, we started out as friends and it shifted into dating and the previous night we went out to dinner. I liked him. He seemed genuine and I was excited to see where it would lead. Looking back there were a couple of signs that kicked off alarm bells and yet I ignored them. One might say there is a naivety in me and I always want to see the best in people so I pushed the warning signs to one side and put it down as something in me that was overreacting. As the meal came to an end we went back to his place and I knew the minute I walked into his home that something was off. It felt too late to leave and we were in the middle of nowhere so I convinced myself that it would be okay… I could handle myself and I knew him. I guess, in this age of us wanting to be seen as equals, we as women don’t want to see that we still need support and help.
That night, I was sexually assaulted. I said no twice and he listened to the first no, then ignored the second and restrained me. I numbed out. I remember lying there and focusing my mind on other things like moving countries… I could just buy a plane ticket and never come back and then I would never have to see him or anyone who knew him ever again. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak and I felt completely paralysed. I can’t explain it, I don’t know why I didn’t fight him off, tell him to stop or even scream. I’ve asked myself the same questions over and over again and I’ve run the scenario in my head time and time again. I froze and then I exited the situation energetically and headed off to another land in my mind so I didn’t have to deal with what was going on in real time. I blamed myself for not being into what he was into, closed my eyes and willed it to be over.
The shame I felt was huge and it was only when I shared it with a friend and she said that what had happened was not okay that I realised the extent of what I had experienced. I went home that evening, had a cry and then pushed it away as if that was it done and dusted and it was time to move on and get over it.
Over the following months and years it would come up at random times and each time I glossed over it and told myself to wise up and let it go. It wasn’t a big deal, I hadn’t been raped so it was okay and actually I had gotten off lightly compared to other women’s experiences. Yet the same feelings of nausea would be in my gut, disgust in my throat and the crawling feeling in my skin. There was a sense of not being able to bear the shame I associated with it. I then convinced myself that even if I did share it, I would be admitting that I did something wrong, that I couldn’t protect myself and the shame of that too felt too much to handle. It’s been inside me for a long time and then last year I booked a shamanic retreat and I went to Peru.
My intention in going on the trip was to celebrate, celebrate all my personal work of the last number of years and to move into this new decade of my life with a sense of freedom and wonder, to be open and to clear the energy that was stopping me from living life fully. Being on a path to healing there is always an uncovering and another layer to peel away but on arriving in Peru this layer felt bigger than anything I had dealt with before and it was totally unexpected. As I said in my last blog, the trip was a subtle unfolding and even on writing my last piece I still didn’t have full comprehension of what I had processed and was integrating.
“Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.”
Not being good enough… the running story in me that always rears it head when things start to go a tad awry in life. When I was in Peru, the memory of what happened years ago resurfaced and I got angry. I was really angry; actually I was boiling with rage. I then moved from anger to feeling sad and then hurt. As I continued to track the emotions and went deeper, I saw the shame and fear sitting underneath it all. The shame was still there and it was coupled with a fear of it happening again and of my inability to stand up for myself and walk away. Listening to how someone else spoke about assault and the beliefs around it, echoed a long held fear in me that I am tainted goods and that ultimately I deserved what had happened to me. I didn’t do anything to prevent it; I actually agreed to go home with him and I trusted him so I invited it in on some level. The shame game kicked into gear and this time I was being forced to play it. After sitting in the stands for years and not dealing with my shame, I now had to look at it, step into the arena, lean into it and get dirty.
“…The next time you lose heart and you can’t bear to experience what you are feeling, you might recall this instruction: change the way you see it and lean in… Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the same stories we relentlessly tell ourselves. This is priceless advice that addresses the true causes of suffering – yours, mine and that of all living beings.”
When I returned from Peru I knew the game had just begun and that it was integration time and boy has it been a tough one to be with over the last few months. My shame game has an edge and harshness to it and has knocked me down again and again since returning. It has shown up in a number of different ways and this time instead of pushing it to one side, shrinking away and contracting, I have asked myself to be present to it, to ask for help and support from safe spaces and to feel into it. One of the most confronting parts of this was admitting to myself that I was being very hard on me, that I was my own worst critic and in a way I have been abusing myself since that night all those years ago. I have limited myself in terms of what is possible for my life by allowing shame to control me. My self-talk has, in a lot of ways, been worse than what happened that night or what others may have said about my role in it had I been brave enough to speak up and share authentically instead of laughing it off with girlfriends and minimising the reality and actual impact of it on me.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
In my quest for allowing myself to settle in a place, to build a home and to belong, I believe my relationship with shame has come up so that I can release the pain, the old belief patterns and really allow myself to come to a place of forgiveness and grace with the experience. In a lot of ways there are days I wish I could just sit back and not say anything, not share and continue to hide these hurt parts of myself away from the world but that doesn’t give others the opportunity to be open and honest about their stories. It doesn’t allow me or them to be brave.
Holding back doesn’t lead me to the most important relationship I want in my life - a graceful relationship with myself, that is open, honest and full of acceptance, forgiveness and love and held in beauty.
“The truth is unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.”
Dr Steve Marboli
Today I let go, I forgive me, the situation is over and it no longer owns me. I own my story and I accept that it has, in part, shaped me into the woman I am. It allows me to recognise a person who has also experienced similar trauma, hurt and shame. It has made me a more compassionate and empathic being in the world.
As of now, the shame game is no longer holding me to ransom or controlling me. I may still be standing in the arena looking it square in the eyes and watching it, but the difference is this time I am ready, I am willing to lean in and I have the tools to deal with it. They may not be the tools I expected to be using – forgiveness, acceptance, grace and connection to those I feel safe sharing with – and yet they are the tools that have been my greatest support over these last few months.
Most importantly through facing this healing process and leaning into the shame, the story no longer defines me. It is not who I am or who I may become.
In the words of one of my favourite writers and a woman who has spent her entire career researching shame and our relationship with it;
“When we bury the story, we forever stay the subject of the story.
When we own the story we get to narrate the ending.”
So here’s to a new ending and an even brighter new beginning!
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