As part of my recovery, I had to learn how to recognise feelings. I was aware of the saying “name it to tame it”. I’m autistic, and I have alexithymia. How do you tame what you cannot name? I had to get up close and personal with shame, which may sound strange because I’d been steeping myself in shame for decades. I just didn’t know that’s what it was.
I set out to learn as much as I could about shame. With hindsight, I wonder if I tried to think my way through the shame material, which merely served to confuse and frustrate me. The shame associated with sexual abuse is multi-layered. I felt as if shame was embedded within every single cell in my body. I felt as if I were shame.
Sexual abuse defies rational thinking. There is nothing neat or orderly about abuse. It’s messy. It’s confusing. Learning to accept and manage the confusion & mess of recovery was as important as learning how to live with reminders of the past, the shame memories and the shame triggers.
I knew the social purpose of shame was to prevent me from being ejected from a group; it was telling me I needed to do something. After that though, things became complicated. Despite the fact that everything was pointing to the need for connection, I found that virtually impossible to do. To truly, authentically connect with another human being. To connect, I needed to be willing to show my vulnerable self. The part of myself that had been deeply hurt. A self I had tucked away, protected by layer upon layer of thick, virtually impenetrable defences. I was well armoured.
I experienced shame as an all engulfing glue. It quite literally seized me up, both internally and externally. Very often it was the simple act of sitting down opposite someone and making eye contact. That was enough to make me want to run away and hide. Shame was triggering, feeling vulnerable was triggering, and so I would do everything possible to avoid them. I made it incredibly hard for people to help me. How on earth do you then make progress when every attempt at a connection is triggering?
The answer? Slowly. Very, very slowly, but with repetition and sufficient momentum that I gradually became accustomed to feeling shame within the safe, non-judgemental confines of a therapeutic alliance. I had a breakthrough after one therapy session during which I’d somehow managed to look up, to make eye contact and connect. That simple action headed off shame in the milli-second before it took hold. And that single example became my template for recognising shame. I could link that felt sense to how I would feel so often. How I had felt in fact, for so much of my life.
In the aftermath of trauma, it became easier to just accept the status-quo. To believe my own internal narrative; the “i’m worthless” shame-script that ran on a perpetual loop in my head, which of course fed my sense of self-loathing. I know now that merely fuelled the cycle of learned helplessness. It kept me trapped in the cycle. I kept myself trapped in that cycle. By trying to avoid the shame memories, I simply gave them even more of a powerful hold over me. Naming shame and repeatedly looking shame memories in the eye was exhausting and intensely painful in the short term. However, the more I looked at shame, spoke about shame, the more I noticed the memories had less of a hold on me. I also began to appreciate I was far from alone in my experiences of shame.
And now, when I’ve been triggered by shame, I need to remove myself from the situation. If I’m at home, I’ll sit quietly, acknowledge the thoughts and then self-soothe for 10 minutes before very purposefully turning my thoughts to positive things, things that I know will make me smile. Watching clips of dogs or otters works for me.
Author and artwork above by Felicity Douglas
Epione would like to express immense gratitude and personal thanks to our friend, colleague and author, Felicity Douglas. Not only was Felicity was the first-ever #SeeMeHearMe blogger, she was instrumental in creating the ‘see me-hear me’ space for other survivors and lived experience to follow. Not for the first time does Felicity provide a unique and thoroughly intriguing insight and personal reflection into trauma and how the heavy burden of shame, guilt, and self-loathing almost destroyed her. Felicity helps us understand recovery is always possible.
If you would like to collaborate with us and share how you have overcome trauma and how you have been recovering, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – We look forward to hearing from and seeing you in 2021!