Shame is a powerful force. It lingers and spreads, evolving unnoticed until it touches everything. Shame carves a path that annihilates whatever is in its way. And once it’s got a hold, it takes an iron will to overcome it.
Wouldn’t it be nice to remember a time without shame? Those hapless days without concern for what others think, how they see you. None of us were born ashamed. We arrived in this world unblemished. We could run around naked, sing our hearts out and ask for love when we needed it. We cried and laughed when we wanted to, simply because it felt right.
I can’t quite recall that time in my life. I look at photographs and try to picture those moments, but they feel as though they belong to someone else. Because the only child version of myself I can really see is the one who was abused. The little girl who was coerced, and later, forced into taking part in vile acts she didn’t understand.
That girl knew it was wrong. But she wanted her big brother to love her. She believed that when he violated her on those summer evenings, what was going on was normal. She hated how it felt and his smell. She hated not being able to shake those feelings afterwards.
When the abuse was discovered, nobody stepped in to protect that child. My mum waited a week after finding out to go to the GP and ask some advice. The GP had an obligation to report it to the police. But they weren’t really interested. They cautioned him and sent a social worker to interview the victim. That was all.
My brother and I were then sent to (separate) counselling sessions. I think I had six. My brother saw his counsellor for a lot longer. The emphasis was on lowering his risk of re-offending. At the same time, no professional or family member saw it fit to remove him from our family home. For five more years I lived in fear. I lived with his face, a constant reminder of the disgusting ordeal he put me through. And that was just fine for everyone who was supposed to care for me.
All of this is why, until I reached a point in my life at which I understood what my sexuality was really about, I thought what had been done to me was normal. I thought it was inconsequential. At age 15, I came to the the earth shattering realisation that it was wrong. It was all horribly wrong.
That’s when the shame really took hold. It hit me with an unbelievable force. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, so I was alone with that horror. The humiliation, disgust and self-hatred seethed in me. I loathed myself; my body, my voice, my thoughts. I assumed that everyone else thought the same. I doubted every relationship in my life and couldn’t believe that anyone wanted to be around me.
It was over a decade before I could label that awful, self-destructive emotion that lived in me. Today I know it is shame. It was always shame. Shame that doesn’t belong to me and never did. And now, in my thinking, intellectualising place, I can attribute it to the man who abused me. He should be the one consumed with shame.
What’s harder is translating the cognition into a feeling. A sense of worth and goodness and value that I wish could be intrinsic for me. But a belief entrenched through twenty years of hiding and cowering is so very, very difficult to shift.
Photo: Judy Dean, Creative Commons.