Peeling back the layers of my shame and self-sabotage.
My mom died in February. To say we had a complicated relationship would be an understatement. While mother was in the hospital, my sister and I were scrambling to get our dad placed in a long-term care facility, which meant spending more time with him than I have in twenty years. Processing everything that happened has been a full time job.
My childhood was horribly dysfunctional. My dad is a bipolar schizophrenic and recovering alcoholic. My mom had her own set of mental health challenges that went undiagnosed and untreated for all of her sixty-eight years. We lived in poverty and constant conflict. I was the first born, and therefore the caregiver in our home from the time I can remember. When I was twenty-two years old, I moved five states away from our little trailer in rural Michigan, and never looked back.
Self-esteem has always been a struggle for me. Sexual abuse in my early childhood, amplified by my dysfunctional upbringing, filled me with a deep shame and painfully low self-worth. I saw myself as damaged, less than and broken.
Like many survivors of abuse, I struggle with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Shame is a big part of that cycle. When I get triggered, shame shows up to remind me that I suck at everything and nobody loves me — the messages I internalized from my childhood trauma.
Shame and guilt are very similar, but there’s one huge difference. Guilt is feeling bad about something we did or said. Shame is feeling bad about ourselves.
Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”
Everything about my childhood taught me that I was bad, and I hated myself for it. When we are abused as children, we don’t stop loving the people who hurt us. We stop loving ourselves. We internalize emotions that are impossible for our delicate little psyches to process, and they come out in other ways for the rest of our lives until we choose to heal them.
I had been mostly estranged from my family since leaving my hometown in 2000. I made an occasional trip home, but never for long. The eleven days we spent with mother in the hospital were about eight days longer than any visit before.
Being out in public with my dad was very difficult for me. He is so unpredictable. I feel like I have to apologize for him constantly. It’s so awkward and embarrassing, and it stirred up all kinds of stuff that reminded me how ashamed I was of our family when I was a kid.
I went out of my way to not be seen with my parents as a teen. I would walk way in front of or behind them in stores. I told my dad he was not allowed to attend my school events anymore my freshmen year of high school, after he humiliated me in front of the whole town. I was marching with my high school band in a parade at a street festival when he jumped in front of us and pretended to be our drum major. I was so embarrassed, I think I was homicidal and suicidal at the same time. I was certain everyone knew the jackass high-step marching through town was my dad. I was completely mortified.
My dad’s erratic behavior and loud outbursts were a big part of my shame. Being poor was a big part, too. I remember standing at the check-out counter in a department store, listening to my mother on the phone begging the credit department to increase her limit, so she could afford to by winter coats for her children. I remember watching my parents put two dollars worth of gasoline in our car at a time, pay for groceries with coins and let the phone company disconnect our service for months at a time because they just couldn’t make it paycheck to paycheck. I’m still healing my relationship with money forty years later, and still feel deep financial shame when I overspend or forget to take care of something.
Teenage me was far too angry and wounded to see my parents were doing the best they could with the most unimaginable challenges to work through. I hated my parents when I left that place. I didn’t want to be associated with them, or even with my hometown for that matter.
I was poor, white, trailer trash. That’s how I saw myself, because that’s how I saw my family when I was young and hateful. How could anyone feel good about themselves if that was their perception of who they were and where they came from?
I’ve come to understand it is not possible to love one’s self unconditionally while simultaneously hating the people and places that made us who we are.
When I returned home to Tennessee after mom passed, I was so sad for her. My mom went in for a routine surgery expecting to be home in a couple of days. She had no way of knowing that procedure would result in the loss of her life. She left behind piles of unfinished projects, unfulfilled dreams and a long list of things she intended to do someday. She spent her life taking care of everyone but herself, and clinging to the tiny little piece of the world that was familiar to her. My mother died having never really lived, a heartbreaking legacy I refuse to repeat.
Grown-up me has forgiven my parents over and over. I let go of my anger and hatred years ago for my own health and happiness. But, I don’t think I ever let go of the shame. Being ashamed of my family was part of my self-hatred I had never considered, and fixing it is helping me tremendously.
Grown-up me can look back on my childhood with the empathy and compassion my younger self lacked. My parents had it rough. They had so many challenges, and so little support. They did the best they could with the resources and knowledge they had to work with. That’s all any of us can do. They loved me in the way they could. They didn’t set out to make my life miserable, or their lives, either. They just didn’t know how to make things better than they were.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family programed me for failure, struggle and poor self-worth. It’s taken four decades for me to unlearn the damaging messages I learned in my childhood home, and replace them with loving, supportive things that help me feel healthy, happy and whole.
Letting go of my family shame has helped me see all of us in a new light.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. My parents certainly didn’t ask for it. None of us do. Having a mental health diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. It simply means that our mental health will always be on our list of selfcare needs. We can still have awesome relationships, successful careers and all the fun things our imaginations can dream. Therapy, medication and all kinds of resources are available, we just have to be brave enough to reach out for help.
Being poor — also not the end of the world and nothing to be ashamed of. No matter where we came from, we can choose to educate ourselves, work hard and dream big. So many people are born to families like mine and choose to repeat history simply because they don’t know that other options are available to them.
Miraculously, I knew from the time I was small that I would leave that place. I never felt like I belonged there. I knew I wanted more for myself, and I wanted a better life for my children. Giving myself geographical distance from my family allowed the emotional space I needed to break our cycles of addiction, abuse, poverty and dysfunction.
I know that I couldn’t be who I am today without all of the experiences and people who helped shape me. I wasted many years beating myself up, feeling like a fraud for trying to better myself, holding myself back in fear and insecurity because I felt like I didn’t deserve to have anything good. Today, I know those feelings were a completely normal part of my journey. Acknowledging the pain and shame I carried with me was the first step in working through it.
My greatest accomplishment in this whole world is the beautiful family I have today. My children grew up in a nice home in a thriving city where they had access to every imaginable opportunity. Even more importantly, they were raised by a woman who knew how important it was for them to have a mother they could talk to about important things, who loved them unconditionally and had their backs no matter what. I learned how to parent them through the failures of my parents.
I have a stable, supportive, loving marriage today in large part because of my parents’ relationship. Watching them tear each other down day after day left an impression on me to say the least. I fell into abusive relationships for many years, something I decided to change about a decade ago. My husband today is the man I’ve waited for all my life. He’s a wonderful parent to his daughters — the kind of dad I wished for when I was a kid. He loves me in all my white trash glory. He never makes me feel ashamed of where I came from, and tells me how proud I should be to have overcome so many obstacles.
Our home is a loving, peaceful place where everyone is respected and supported. Sometimes I almost can’t believe this is my life. If I had told my angry teenaged self where we’d be in thirty years, she never would have believed me. But, here I am, loving myself and all the parts of my story that made me who I am.