At times, the weight of the shame in my life is felt, when another layer of the onion is reached.
Last weekend, a person from my past attended an event I was part of creating.
I am not at a point in my recovery where I can speak of this in general terms, and yet this layer has been trying to shed itself in me for about a week. I’m not even sure how to write about it – it seems beyond words — so I will simply begin, and hope for the process of making it tangible.
I attended a private school through to grade 8, here in the place I am living. It has taken me until the last few months to begin identifying myself as a survivor of abuse there. I always knew, in my adult life, that something had happened that had affected my psyche deeply. It was the beginning of two decades of wanting to end my life, steadily for 10 years, infrequently for 10 years after that, and here I am today as a survivor of an attempt.
The thing that has kept me from acknowledging myself as a survivor is the subtlety of the abuse – nudity, nude massage, cuddling, and time spent alone with this male teacher on a daily basis over the course of my 12th summer, as well as over at his house, with his immediate and extended family. Kisses (pecs) on the lips, sleeping together in his tent on class camping trips … all this, but nothing ever overtly sexual, never once even a hint of an erection was known to me. Covertly, he was the first crush of my life. I was completely infatuated with this man, and waited by the phone for his call during those summer months. I would fantasize about him rescuing me, and making love to me. And in all of this, I became almost completely separated from my peers. I had no interest in them.
My Mother worked with the school on their board of directors, and as school secretary for several years. We were a part of the school’s very first class, which began in the idyllic setting of a family farm, where a group of parents had gotten together to build a school house, and hired a professionally trained teacher to teach their children in it. The philosophy of this particular education system practices having one teacher take a class all the way from grade 1 to grade 8. To my Mother, and the entire school, he was a dear friend and a devoted pioneering first staff member. As a single mother, my mom believed that he was filling in the role of Father in my life.
It ended when his common law partner at the time called my Mother, and informed her that he needed to be spending more time with his family. I imagine that the partner had probably thought long and hard about how to end the situation in a respectful and innocent way that would not rock anyone’s boat.
When school began again that year, my teacher tried to re-establish some healthy boundaries with me, his student; though the pecs on the lips and cuddling in the tent on class field trips continued. Despite these brief interludes, the transition from daily jogs to the river, skinny dipping and naked massage was experienced by me as abandonment. Each night, I cried myself to sleep to James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend, and the music of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. At 12, I now fantacized and longed for a way to kill myself. I’m coming to understand the emotional neglect I received in my home, born as a sensitive child to begin with (predisposition), and how this contributed to the situation and my response; this insight is part of my understanding of trauma as a subjective experience (see trusting perception + trauma is trauma).
When we moved to a larger city after that school year of grade 8, I did not reconnect with my peers, and continued feeling suicidal. I felt like I was in a deep black hole, looking up as I tried to climb out. The light was a spec in the miles of darkness between it and me.
For a short while, my teacher would visit occasionally for an afternoon walk.
A year or so later, I left the public school system and began home schooling. I also began seeing men in their 40’s, entering sexual relationships with them, all the while continuing to do well in school, never engaging in alcohol or drugs, lying to my Mom about my whereabouts, which was easy to work into the strong, intelligent, capable and independent persona I had unconsciously become trapped in.
My Mom worked as a house cleaner, and later a home care worker, caring for the elderly and physically disabled. She looks back on the money going out and the money coming in and has no idea how she put food on the table.
I continued to uphold the image to anyone but my peers of being smart and beautiful and talented with everything going for me; yet at home, and in my private life, I lived with immense isolation and depression.
Randomly and rather accidentally, I spoke about my relationship with the teacher to various school counselors and the like, and all of them proclaimed the wrong-ness of it.
After my first break down, I ended up at home again. I finished high school in an adult program and graduated as a class valedictorian, also winning a Governor General’s Bronze Academic Medal for Excellence for having the highest marks at my school.
This was also around the time I saw my first therapist, and decided to file a report to the police about what had happened. My Mother remained at arms length from the whole process. What I remember is her rolling her eyes; what I took from her at the time is that I was being a drama queen, dramatizing the whole thing, making a beautiful man into a criminal. I don’t remember any feelings of my own around this time, or this act. The weight of the shame in me, and the degree to which I was covering it up on a daily basis had not even begun to hit me. I still saw myself as the star student, full of promise, who could do anything she put her mind to, and presented myself as such to the outside, with great care and effort and unconscious vigilance. A police man visited me and recorded a full statement from me in his car. A couple of months later, I got a phone call from the Municipal Crown Council. An investigation had been conducted including several community interviews. Not enough evidence had been found to proceed with a hearing. No one had either known or backed up any of my story.
I remember reacting as if I had conducted some kind of scientific experiment. Hmm, I went, interesting. I didn’t even ask the lady on the phone for more information, like how many interviews had been conducted, or with whom, or what evidence if any had been gathered. She informed me of my option to appeal and the avenues I could take; I thanked her kindly and graciously, as if she were calling from some kind of college and telling me about my schooling options.
I and my Mom still thought of the teacher as a family friend. I wrote him the occasional Christmas card and sent photos now and again, and still thought of the school with fondness.
And so he contacted me in the wake of my report to the law, and we met to talk about it in person. I told him of feeling suicidal frequently for the past 10 years (at the time), my pattern of relationships with older men, and my continued disconnection from my peers. I never shed a tear while telling him this; again, it was like I was reporting. He cried, and told me he’d let himself get too close to me; and he promised he would never let anything like that ever happen again.
Ten years later, and after two more break downs in two more cities, I was living with my now ex-husband. It was one of the strongest times of my life, and still the only time in my adult life that I had managed to bond deeply with a small group of female friends. Somehow, as these things do, it came up, and I told him, and a few months later, he brought it up again, and said that he found it really disturbing that this teacher was still teaching. I had seen several more therapists that past decade, and two of them had said the same thing. Although it resonated with me also, I did not see what else could be done. I had felt that his apology was genuine, and that he had made an honest mistake. I did not feel he was ever a pervert, but someone with poor boundaries and unmet needs that had gotten the best of him. I am also not aware of any further incidents that have happened with any of his students.
And yet, there was still some action that was calling me; still something that felt unresolved about it. I decided to write the school a letter. I decided to tell them what had happened and ask them to watch over this instructor to make sure that nothing like what had happened with me ever happened again with any other of his students. I made it very clear in my letter that my intentions were not to press charges, destroy or even damage his career as a teacher in any way; that I simply wanted someone at the school to know what had happened and watch over the situation to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Unfortunately, the principal of the school, to whom I had addressed the letter, felt that he was legally obligated upon hearing of this event, to report it to the police; and somehow, there had been no record made available to him that this had already been done. So the teacher was put through the same investigation again. This time, I got a call from the police. The female officer attempted to sum it up by saying to me, “You just needed to get it off your chest, didn’t you.” And in the heat of the moment, I agreed with her, thanked her for calling and hung up the phone. Again, I do not remember feeling much at all, but the kind of niggling anxiety that has slowly been eating at my insides all my life – the kind I have become so accustomed to that I hardly notice it.
The person at the event last weekend was the mother of one of my class mates at the school. Her daughter and I were arc rivals in our class, competing with each other on all fronts of talent and personality. I cannot imagine that she would not have been one of the people interviewed by the police. I have not spoken to her since our graduation, and when I tried to friend her on Facebook several years ago, she simply did not respond.
If her mother knew anything about what had happened, she did well in not letting on. So she pretended she didn’t know, and I pretended I believed her, and we pretended to be genuine and caring towards one another. We pretended to honor our past acquaintance, as if it were nothing but happy. I met her grandchildren (of my former classmate), and her brother and sister in-law (the parents of my classmate’s husband). They said that my classmate and I should get together. I said to say hello to her.
Like is so often the case, I do not feel the truth of things sometimes until days after the fact, and so here I am.
What in the hell would her daughter and I ever say to each other?
Being back in the same town as the school, the thing that has bothered me is that no one I run into from the school seems to know anything about an incident reported to the police, or about the letter I wrote. I have used very subtle ways of finding this out. What has made this possible is that my Mother is friends with the woman who served as Chair of the school’s board, as well as the woman who was the head administrator there for a decade after my Mother and I moved away. These women get together occasionally for movie night, which I attended one evening, with some hesitation. At first I was pleasantly surprised that there did not seem to be any awkward reaction to me whatsoever. Then, I asked the former Chair if she knew anything about something that had happened with me and the school. She said, it was so long ago–what could possibly be the point of talking about it now? I said that if she knew the nature of what I was talking about, she wouldn’t have said that. She never asked to know more.
What bothers me now, is that I never did hear anything back from the school, in response to my letter. Not one word. Not, we’re deeply saddened to hear that this has happened at our school to one of our students by one of our teachers, and we appreciate you telling us about it, and here’s what we’re doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Just. Nothing. At all.
How many times can I be abandoned over this? Disqualified, invalidated? By how many people? No one gets it.
And the feeling of shame, of being stained irrevocably remains. And the implications of those feelings and the depth of them continue to be illuminated to me in layers with each passing year of my life.
Abuse is subjective, and it is a permanent scar.
Now, I am so ashamed to still be thinking about this, that I can barely even write about it here.
The shame almost literally suffocates me. I do, I feel a physical sensation of choking as I come in touch with it. And mixed in with it is despair and fear for the rest of my life – that is the snow ball that gets going, or that has been going in me unconsciously, and sabatauging absolutely everything all this time. The feeling that there is something horribly wrong with me. I have tried not to give it energy or attention, I have tried to think positively, see the positive, not focus on the negative, be kind to myself, love myself, be grateful, fake it ‘till I make it. And yet still, this is all there inside me, at my core.
I find it astonishing and baffling how deeply ingrained these patterns are in me; that even as intelligent and aware as I am, they can still undermine my life in permanent and irrevocable ways. The degree to which I am uncomfortable around people from my past is an indicator of how much healing is left to be done.
Twenty years later, still yet another whole new layer of truth is opening up — painful, scary, ugly truth. In these moments, when I see the dark side of how these experiences of neglect and abuse have affected me, and continue to affect my daily life, my ability to function in life, and most specifically, my inability to form lasting and meaningful friendships and professional relationships; in these moments, I do not feel for a second misplaced or at all fraudulent in applying for permanent disability as a person with internalized Borderline Personality Disorder. The fact that I am actually coming by it honestly turns the prospect of the rest of my life into something quite horrifying.
It is when I forget that all this exists, in between triggers, I wonder what all the fuss was about. I wonder what the hell I am doing calling myself disabled. This is the unstable sense of self that is the chronic condition. The split in my understanding of myself and my life and the impulsive and flawless automatic ability to cover it up, until I inevitably slip and my world crumbles. Until I forget again.
And so, I must be ready for the next layer of truth and action and healing. I feel like I cannot bear to have my life fall apart again. I am scared and vulnerable.
I move the slider on my progress bar to the left today. I am humbled.
(Though this link still works, I’ve greyed it out since I first posted this post because it has been identified by a reader as not being coherent with this post, and/or simply not a helpful resource on the topic of shame. See the comment below for more on this)
An intriguing chart of the relationship between guilt and shame at: (www.emotionalcompetency.com/shame.htm)