Autonomy v. Shame

I’ve thought a lot about shame and depression since I last posted, and was startled to realize how the act of describing my depression experience distinctly defined the moment when depression whimpered away and shame stormed in. I shared this with my therapist, who summarized this as “so, you are unable to accept your experience of depression because of your shame around it.” To which I was like, right, exactly, I don’t know why I’m paying you, even though I had definitely not reached that conclusion and it would probably take me 49 more blog posts to do so.

It’s been interesting to think about further differentiating shame and depression from one another instead of experiencing them as jumbled and overlapping and intertwined, like stumbling into a Pollock painting and then having to live there for a few days. It was surprising to realize – and I like surprises, so there was even some joy in this process – that for the most part, my depression is benevolent. Depression doesn’t mean me any harm, it just wants to hang out. Actually, I don’t even know that it wants to hang out, or views seeing me as more of an obligation, a monthly (or so) visit to check off it’s to-do list before going to Costco and stocking up on movies about death or the Six Feet Under DVD set. I started to visualize depression as one of those big, hairy dogs that doesn’t know it’s size and sits on your lap and you can’t really breathe, but it’s tolerable for the most part. I imagined it as an aging Newfoundland, who was exhausted and near the end of it’s life, and needed a place to lay down and weeze for awhile. Depression for me, these days, is sort of clueless and old. And as a friend noted about her experience of depression, at times,  it is comfortable and warm. It hasn’t always been this way.

Shame, on the other hand, is the classic female villain trope: for me, this invariably is a woman who I perceive to be doing the presentation of woman better than me. She is always taller, always slimmer, sometimes blonde, sometimes dark-haired, and she can wear crisp white shirts without spilling on them, and can use the words “hedge fund” in a complete sentence without thinking of a hedgehog, or a wedgie. Also, she knows what a hedge fund is. She smiles cooly and she doesn’t make mistakes. She is the prototype of the mean girl and also someone I will never be. By and large, she thinks I am kind of disgusting, out of control, and a mess. I want to be her friend so bad.

Initially, I thought, this shame person has been in my life forever. Let’s just blame this all on our mothers and move along. But as I reflected further, I realized that there were two very different versions of me that existed when I was younger: me: before shame, and me: with shame.  And so I started to think about this younger girl, who was without shame. Who was, in fact, shameless. I want to illustrate some things for you.

In third grade, I started doing theatre. I auditioned for a role for the first time, told literally everyone that I met about this, was convinced I was going to get the lead part, and was furious – I mean furious – when I didn’t get the part. I’m pretty sure I quit the play. I’m pretty sure that I’m still mad about it. But I didn’t feel shame about this rejection. I felt like everyone was an idiot and I would be on the Mickey Mouse Club any day now and show them all.

In 4th grade, things had progressed enough in my musical theatre career that I decided – and I have no idea why I thought this was an OK thing to do or WHY MY MOTHER AND FATHER LET ME DO THIS – I decided that my peers at school were really missing out on something here and started promoting myself to my teachers and then asked if I could perform for everyone in front of the class. Two teachers in the grade politely declined (actually, one was kinda rude about it), but my homeroom teacher let me do it. So, I proudly sang my little heart out in front of my class. during valuable academic time. No embarrassment. If anything, it felt right.

In 5th grade … sigh. In 5th grade, the universe started to tilt a little and teach me a few valuable lessons about myself, namely, that I was just a girl, just an ordinary girl, and should probably stop walking around like the world owed me something. There were a variety of minor embarrassments along the way, but the day that I peed my pants in front of the entire class was probably the clencher for the year. How does a person lose control of their bladder, a developmental task that we generally master as toddlers, when they are 11 years old? Simple. Catholicism.

I went to a Catholic school from first to 6th grade and our morning and afternoon prayers were a sacred ritual that were not to be interrupted for any reason whatsoever. My 5th grade teacher was a domineering woman who had the high cheekbones of Maleficient and who liked me initially but who gave up hope when I watered the fake plants in the classroom. Ever since that day, I had been trying to win her approval back but was mostly afraid of her. On the day in question, for whatever reason, I had to pee really, really badly at the end of the school day, right before our afternoon prayers. I didn’t want to ask permission to use the bathroom because our teacher had denied so many innocent pee-seekers in the past, scolding them for intentionally trying to skip prayers. So I did the pee-pee dance in the back of the class until one of my friends called me stupid and told me to go ask to go to the bathroom. Once prayers were over, I raced to the front of the class, and as I opened my mouth to ask my teacher if I could leave, I started peeing. I stopped short (well, I stopped talking, but the pee continued to flow) and my teacher’s eyes widened as we stared at each other and she exclaimed “What are you doing!”

I froze. I peed. My teacher sent me to the bathroom with another girl, where I sat in a stall and started to cry. She also, inexplicably, asked the son of the school janitor (also a student in the class) to get the mop from the closet to clean up the pee. If that’s not some sort of Catholic school caste system, I don’t know what is. (Sidenote –  another classmate asked me if I needed any Pampers from CVS, because he was going shopping later. That was a pretty good joke for a 5th grader).

Anyway – I was mortified. I was horrified. I refused to go back to school the next day (but my mother made me). I had never been more embarrassed, or more convinced that life was over. But I didn’t feel ashamed. I didn’t feel like I was inherently a bad person, or that I was disgusting. I felt mad that I couldn’t use the bathroom when my body needed to pee, and instead had to ask permission from some lady who held a grudge that I had watered the fake plants like six months ago. And I was really worried about the teasing. But I recognized that it was a mistake, and mistakes happen.

So, what I have been trying to figure out since I last wrote is – what exactly changed? When did shame first show up in my life? When does this absolutely obnoxiously self-assured child start to question herself?

During this time, this quote by Chimamamda Ngozi Adichie slaps me in the face on Facebook:

“We teach girls shame. Close your legs; cover yourself. We make them feel as though being born female, they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up–and this is the worst thing we do to girls–they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.”

(This is an excerpt from the written version of her TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” Also – read Americana! It was excellent).

And after reading this quote, I realize – yes – BAM – in 6th grade, shame set in. In 6th grade, I started to feel uncomfortable in my body; I hated that my armpits got sweaty, I hated that my body shifted shapes and suddenly I was bigger, I hated the way I smelled. I felt ugly, I felt fat: I started to feel disgusting. I began to hunch up my shoulders to try to hide myself. I stopped wanting to be seen. And all that changed, really, was that I got my period. That’s all it took for me to begin to look at my body with mistrust, to separate my selves – mind and body – so that I could criticize my body with my mind, as my body no longer belonged just to me. Now I had breasts and hips. Now I could carry a baby. Now my body belonged to men, but I had better be careful around men, because I didn’t want to accidentally get pregnant. Nevermind enjoying my body. What joy could be found in a body that bled every month, and whose armpits smelled? Every thing around me told me I should hide these things, that I should be ashamed, that I should cover up my smells, and be ashamed to have my period, and purchase the smallest and most discrete tampon available.

And guess what else happened in 6th grade? I realized, after reading a Reader’s Digest article, that I had all the symptoms for depression. So what comes first in our culture – shame? Or depression? Is depression a reaction to that which we are taught to be ashamed of? Is it chemical – was it due to the hormones from my period? Was it a response to upcoming huge transitions – going to a new, stressful school for 7th grade , my father getting sicker? Was it this inner voice of criticism from years of being parented, of Catholic school, finally taking hold?

I don’t know – and that’s an infuriating aspect of depression – it’s everything, it’s triggered by nothing, it’s a mystery. It’s a secret, it’s something to hide. It’s omnipresent. But I know that shame and depression both showed up at the same time in my life, and shame (particularly about my body) and depression have stayed with me ever since. For me, I don’t know them to exist without one another. I just don’t know who got there first.




























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