The Assassination of Shame

editor’s note: May is National Mental Health Awareness month. We all have stories of troubled times, and we need to do our best to lessen the stigma of getting help. Here is my story.

I slowly open my eyes to the sight of an empty chair. My pulse is slow, my breathing light, but my hands are slightly trembling and I have the greatest sense of loss and lightness I have ever experienced in my life. My head is slightly hanging and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I am able to take in the deepest breath. By all measures of human physiology, I am relaxed and calm, but to me, I have just killed a man that needed killing, and I am one part relieved and one part empty at the loss.

Days before. 

The old man got to me and in a way that I didn’t expect to be gotten. I have talked to strangers for all of my professional career, so I am fully capable of looking people straight in the eyes and talking to them about all the things. I have heard stories that have made me cry and told stories that have made others do the same. I am an open book (or at least thought I was), but in this instance, in this small part of time that I didn’t, nor fathomed existed, I looked an old man in the eyes and stumbled to say one simple line. 

His face was kind, more kind than any I have seen in the many years of looking at people’s faces. He was polite in his gestures, slow in his movements and earnest in the way he looked at you. By all accounts, this was a person that was well respected and had spent a lifetime getting to that status. I would go on to learn about his childhood, the loneliness that he experienced and the lack of love he received. He came across as someone that was fully capable of showing and giving much love, a thing I would soon learn by his eagerness to hug goodbyes, but you could sense the longing in his stares, the acceptance of a fate his unloving parents put on him years ago, that he was nothing more than a little boy, and to this day, the old man remained a little boy in spirit, if not in hope as well. The only thing little boys want is the chance to be the super heroes they pretend to be in the fullness of the summer sun, but for this little boy that was now in his seventies, all he wanted was someone to play with.

He looked at you as if you were the most important person in the world, and to him I think I was, for the time he was talking to me at least. That kind of attention can only be given by someone that craved it as a child, and to this day, craves it as a man. The old man had the kind of stare that made you tell the truth, because how could you dare lie to someone that looked at you so lovingly, and the kind of persona that made you want to be better than you have ever been. And that is why, when I had to tell him the sentence, the simple words that were written on a piece of paper, I couldn’t do it without my voice cracking, because to tell him what I felt meant that I had to believe it myself, and when I had to look the old man with the kind face directly in his eyes and tell him that “I am worthy of love and acceptance”, I cried, because he demanded the truth from me, and I was no longer able to carry on with the lie.

As we talked, we learned more about the similarities that we shared, the childhoods in the country, the tasks that one does growing up in a small town that only those that grew up in a small towns understand. For the rest of this story, this is as far as I can tell you about his story, the old man’s, for it is his story to tell. There is code that I must keep, and keep it I will, but I needed you to know about the old man and the bond that we formed because later I will tell you how the old man broke me again, and I feel it important I tell you as much as I can before I continue on. 

Years before I meet the old man, I am sitting in my truck at a stop light and I am punching the center console. I hit it so hard that I am concerned for just a moment that I may have broken my hand. The pain in the hand goes away, the feeling of anger is carried away with it, and behind is the shame. The light turns green and I head south down a familiar road going nowhere in particular at this time, for I am just driving to get away from myself, even though I am the one behind the wheel. I am embarrassed of the behavior that I had just done, but more importantly, or sadly, I am in a very low place. I am not depressed, I am in the place where you realize your actions have consequences, and those consequences can hurt people. My fear at this point is I am not knowing what is causing this anger, the anger that I later realize comes from shame, that experience of feeling like nothing and that anger of feeling like you will always feel like a piece of shit.

I don’t mean to use words lightly, and for some, the use of certain words my seem a bit extreme and even unnecessary. But let’s not stop here and sugar coat the story I am telling you, for to do so would not let you in on the journey, or better yet, the reason for it. I felt like a piece of shit, or some type of derivative of something similar. I did not feel like this all the time, just the times when I let myself down, which was pretty much all the times I let others down. It should be noted here that whilst many will say “I know what you mean, I feel bad when I let others down”, there is a marked difference between the guilt of a situation (which is normal and healthy) and the shame of it. Guilt is the feeling of you doing something bad. Shame is thinking you are bad. I was a shitty person that did shitty things, and I was at the breaking point to where I needed to get my shit together. Shame, shame I know your name, and it is Mark Brown.

I could go on and give you more examples, examples that include more precise stories of the moments of shame that I felt and the lies and the actions that I performed to cover my shame. Just know that when one is in a shame spiral heading to the ground, they will do whatever it takes to 1) try to get out of it, or 2) accelerate it faster into the ground. The problem is sometimes you don’t know which is which, and you end up crashing anyway, which adds more fuel to the next time you have a shaming moment. Either way, the moment usually ends with a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling that even when you try your best, you end up screwing up, and that you basically are a screw up and always will be, so the hell do you waste time trying to not to be. It’s like you spend your entire life digging a hole, only to have the world keep pushing the dirt back in it. You get mad and angry and throw your fits, but you keep digging because you feel like this is the only job you are worthy of doing, and you are doing a shitty job doing it. At the end of the day you finally dig the hole only to realize that you basically dug your own grave, and then you get angry again because you didn’t realize you were wasting your life doing a task that was eventually going to kill you. You feel alone and you feel like you deserve to be that way, and that is where the abandonment issues start to come in, when you start to push people away because you know they will eventually find you out that all you are and all you ever will be is a hole digger, and they will want to push you away when they find out this truth. Which is basically a lie you keep telling yourself. And so you dig yourself a grave, and just sit in it, waiting for the universe to call your number.

Back to the time with the old man.

I have been to meetings, I have read books, I have taken classes, and I have started a blog. I am doing the work to understand the who and whats and the why of emotional sobriety. Emotional sobriety is the understanding of your emotions, and the not letting them overtake you, to be able to confront and cope with the negative emotions that one places upon themselves. Where as a functional person can have a glass of wine and be fine, an alcoholic can’t process that, and their need to keep drinking takes over. Same with emotions, functioning adults can feel happy or sad or angry, and then be done with it, whereas others may want to sit in pain, and feel like they deserve it and even try to recreate it. I am trying to understand the processing that I do and why I do it, and better yet, I am trying to understand this abandonment issue that I am doing before it gets worse. I have pushed away people, and I needed to know why, before my kid is old enough for me to start pushing him away as well.

The saying goes, if you are digging yourself into a hole, the first step is to put down the shovel. What they don’t tell you is some people are so desperate to dig the hole that they will keep digging with their hands.

And so now I sit in the chair and I close my eyes. We are at another crucial point in the details of the killing, and I am not willing to share those details here. Some things are best left to the people that experience them, and to me, this is one of those things. What I can and what I will tell you is I did face myself, the self that hated me. The one that called me worthless, the one that called me shitty, the one that caused me to hurt others. I faced the worst version of myself, and that version no longer exists. The grave I had dug all those years for myself had finally come to good use. I took the anger, the hate, and the shame. I made amends to myself and I let the bad out. I took a verbal scalpel and removed the cancerous shame that was consuming my insides. And I buried it all, but not in myself this time, but in the grave I thought I was digging for myself, where it will remain forever. 

What I came to realize was when I was digging all those years ago, when I was angry at the world and the universe for pushing the dirt back in, making my work harder, was that the universe was telling me to get out of the hole. Fate wasn’t fighting me, it was trying to help me, and I see that now, that the only thing we need to bury in the Earth are the things we don’t need to bury in ourselves. Let go and Let God is much easier said than done, that is until you see the face of God in person.

The old man looks at me with his eyes, and I am finally able to look back at him. I finally feel worthy of staring at a man like this in the gaze he blesses upon me, for we are both in our good places. I have sat and heard the old man’s story and he as sat and listened to mine. We know all about each other, things that no one else knows. He looks at me and smiles and I feel peace and joy.

And then he says it. He says the six words that break me for the second time during our time together.

I wish you were my dad.

I immediately shutter and and the tears again start to slowly fall down my face. Normally I would have made a joke, or pushed the compliment aside, but I saw the old man’s face, the honest one that was incapable of telling lies, and if he believed the statement, then I would too. My shame was now gone, and in its place is this gift from the old man, the gift of seeing me for who I am, and allowing myself to see that too, and believing it. 

I left the old man, and the place where we met. I did not mention my other friends there because their stories are their stories to tell as well. I only mention the old man because I often wonder if he was really real, if he was not some figment of our imaginations. Perhaps he is out there, with his kind face, making all that surround him feel better and loved. He must be real because his hugs were real, and warm and full. I will never see the old man again in this lifetime, I am pretty sure of that, but I know that for the rest of my days, my journey down the path of life will be much lighter now that I don’t have so much to carry. And because I have less to carry in my walk, I will have less to pass on to Jack as he one day makes his journey down the road of life as well. My travel now is full of sun, and the rains that meet me along the way are no longer looked at as obstacles, but spectacles. The view of the mountains that need to be climbed are no longer hazed with the grayness of self hate, instead I look forward to the climb and the views from the top because…

I am worthy of love and acceptance.

Amen.