Times I've Felt Most Ashamed
This letter is sort of a grown-up Trauma-rama, I guess...
Shame is the opposite of unconditional love. And yet it grows like spiritual/emotional mold in our lives. I’ll share a goofy situation that came up for me recently. And, of course, some less goofy ones to follow.
I was visiting my aunt in Connecticut: My cousin was there with her newborn. It was so nice getting to hold the baby, sitting outside, enjoying the family, and the late summer afternoon. When we headed back inside to the kitchen, my aunt noticed some water on the back of my dress and was dabbing at it with a napkin. Pretty quickly, she realized it wasn’t water. Ummm…it was blood…menstrual blood. 😬 I had gotten my period while I was sitting outside with the family. And I wouldn’t ordinarily note this because I consider them blood (bad pun not intended) – but technically they are my in-laws (my ex-husband’s aunt) so there is that added layer of visiting them solo for the first time since my separation. So there we are in the kitchen with my cousin, her husband, their young son, and baby and everyone literally staring silently at a Bounty napkin covered in my period blood. I mean….can you imagine? 💁🏻♀️ I can’t get in their heads but I’m sure they had this moment of WTF do we say?
I burst out laughing: “I am officially an icon now!” Luckily, I happened to have a change of clothes in the car because I was going out of town for the weekend and as they say, all’s well that ends well. In this case, with a good chuckle and an new, but unexpected, level of intimacy and trust with my family.
Compare this with another summer day, years ago when I was Editor of Seventeen.
I was in a design meeting with my Art Director and Deputy Art Director. People who work with me know that I’m generally pretty dramatic and performative when I am expressing myself, and that day was no different. So I was moving all over the place during the meeting from sitting cross legged, legs stretched out on my desk, pacing, you get the drill. Except after the meeting, I realized I’d had a massive period leak and my white pants were drenched in red. It was kinda a blood bath. Of course, I was horrified about Jess and Mike having seen and suffered through the meeting without saying anything. (They have since claimed not to have noticed but…it was super cringey). What’s more interesting is how I handled it back then.
I was so ashamed, my instinct was to hide it before anyone saw anything. I grabbed a jacket and tied it around my waist. (It was a $2000 Pucci jacket by the way, not disposable fashion but that’s all I had.) Instead of going home to change and get cleaned up, I kept the jacket in place, got right into my then-husband’s car after work and we drove 3 hours out to the Hamptons, picked up our friends at the airport (I remember doing little maneuvers to make sure no one walked behind me) and then back to our house in East Hampton where I finally cleaned up HOURS after the leak occurred. I know: Gross, sad, so many adjectives would work.
Talk about not showing up for myself. I was so embarrassed that all I focused on was covering up what was giving me shame as opposed to loving and caring for myself through it. On one level, this probably sounds like the adult version of Traumarama – the embarrassing moments section of Seventeen and the other teen magazines. And sure…it is. But even those stories were something deeper: A communal acknowledgement and release of moments that have brought us shame. And here’s what is important to me in this phase of my life: Shame is so powerful… but I don’t want it to overpower me. My very different reaction to the same situation relates to the unconditional self-love I’ve cultivated since then. (More on that at the end!)
Shame was a tool that my mom (like many parents!) used to control me.
Here’s a fucked-up story: This one time when I was in college, I was home for summer break, and had gone out on a date with some guy. It was a standard first date, nothing crazy. But when I got home later that night, I noticed that there was an open condom on the sidewalk in front of my house. I grew up on a street where something like that wasn’t as common as it may be if you’re walking on a street in Manhattan. But some times there was random trash floating around here and there. It wasn’t a pristine upscale neighborhood with long driveways and such. I remember thinking yuck and assumed it would sort of (magically) be gone in the next day or so. (My own children are much more proactive garbage picker-uppers than I was! One of the girls once brought me a disposable mask filled with shit that someone had tossed on the ground at the park so I could throw it out. I know! I just had to share the tasty tidbits we find on the streets in Manhattan. 🤪 ) Anyway, I didn’t think about it. I just went to bed.
I called my mom at work the next afternoon when I woke up, (Remember when we used to sleep until the afternoon??) but her voice was cold as ice. After asking her a few times what was wrong, she finally unleashed her thoughts with venom. “I know what you did last night! I saw that thing in front of our house.” TBH, I was pretty flustered. As she continued her accusations, I started to put two and two together and finally understood what she was referring to (she never actually used the word condom). She ended her rant with the following threat: “I’m going to take you to your doctor and have your virginity tested!” I felt so terribly ashamed, angry and indignant: Insisting through hot tears that I had nothing to do with the condom. She never actually had my virginity tested. (Can you imagine marching into the pediatrician’s office asking him to examine my hymen??) I’m not even sure why she threatened that – I guess to ensure I didn’t have sex? (Well, that didn’t work.) In any event, today I understand that seeing that condom on the street, touched something in her relating to her past that she has since revealed to me. When she was a teenager, her own mother wrongfully accused her of sexual behavior and shamed her terribly. In our culture, in Iran, this was a particularly shameful thing to be accused of. My mother was so horrified, she tried to take her own life. Although I didn’t have the same reaction, the whole incident felt awful. And if she wanted to make me feel like a dirty whore, mission accomplished…even though the condom wasn’t mine. It’s like she took the unprocessed shame inside her and just rubbed it all over me. And it definitely had the opposite impact of what she hoped. I internalized what she said about me instead of loving myself through the verbal attack. Calling me a “slut” landed because it hooked into my existing feelings of self-judgement beause of the incest I had survived for much of my childhood.
Part of why I wanted to share this whole shame thread today is that my mom is giving me the cold shoulder again. A daughter of her friend is a reader of this newsletter (Hi ✌🏼) and she told her mother, “Atoosa is writing about very bad things.” And so her mother called my mother (who is almost 90 by the way) and said, “Did you know Atoosa is writing about very bad things??” My mother then called my sister and said, “Is Atoosa writing about very bad things???” And so on and so on. You get the drift. The very bad things are the hard moments of my life. The very real moments of my life where I made choices that weren’t great, that I’ve learned from. To hold any of those experiences with shame or secrecy would be to say there are parts of me that aren’t worth loving. And every part of me is worth loving unconditionally. It’s unfortunate that so many people are made to feel that our darker experiences are bad, shameful or needing to be kept secret. Ultimately, it’s an indication of lack of self-love of the person doing the shaming.
And to you, dear reader, whether it’s a family member or some sad sack on social that tries to shame you: Please love yourself through it and breathe. As you know, I just put my hand on my belly, breathe deeply, picture myself as a little girl and say those important phrases I wish I had heard when I needed unconditional love as a child: “Atoosa, I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere until you feel it’s safe to come back into your body. I’m going to stay with you until you feel safe, and seen and heard.” The brilliant Mark Wolynn taught those phrases to me. You can read his book, “It Didn’t Start With You.” And this advice may sound hokey…it may sound corny…but honestly? 🤷🏻♀️ I’m not here to try to be cool. As far as I’m concerned, I’m already fucking cool. I’m here to share the real tactics that changed my life for the better.
I’m been through a lot of stuff other people may want to hide about thenselves, but I’m not ashamed anymore about any of it. It’s only by loving myself and unpacking the tough stuff that I can enter this next phase of my life ready and excited to do the real work of relationship, intimacy and connection with my partner. And he knows all of me. Not just the highlights that make it to my Wikipedia page but also the low lights where I learned the most…and am continuing to learn. Earth School, my sister, Earth School. Where class is always is session…and ya never know when your period is going to hit. (That’s not true – I have my handy dandy MyFLO app…but a lot of good that did me last month.)
If you have a story you want to share with me or the community at large, please email me. I’m here for you, 24/7, as always at email@example.com.
The soundtrack of my 🤍🖤❤️ :