In the fight for recovery there are all kinds of opponents: fear, pain, the fear of pain, anger, trauma, grief, and many, many more. But when it came to my battle, I’d have to say that my fiercest opponent was shame.
By far it was shame. Shame, and it’s usual sidekick Guilt, were so much a part of my being that for the first few years of my struggle I didn’t even recognize their existence, couldn’t even speak their names. I was literally too ashamed to say the word Shame, because of everything that it stated and implied. I didn’t realize, and wouldn’t for many years, how tight a grip Shame had on me, how deep it was in my core. And that depth of shame would contribute to the lengthy, drawn-out process my recovery became.
Shame can arise from any number of experiences and beliefs. It’s different for every person; however, when it comes to eating disorders there are usually some common threads. Trauma, particularly sexual abuse or assault. Emotional abuse, which can range anywhere from bullying at school to being the only “adult” in an alcoholic family. Media exposure and societal pressure to look a certain way. Abusive relationships with domestic partners. Many of these things show up in the history of a person with an eating disorder. All of them have the ability to cause crippling internal shame.
For me, it was pretty much all of those. Incest and rape from an early age, by two family members, one coach, and one stranger. Physical abuse. Emotional abuse that included being the “adult” of the family from an early age, severe bullying at school, and neglect from my father (when he wasn’t molesting me). And of course, I grew up exposed to the same media bullshit in the 80s and early 90s that everyone else did, when “heroin chic” was hot, and if you didn’t look like Kate Moss you were fat. That didn’t help. So by fifteen, I had a severe eating disorder, dependence on pills, and was cutting everyday. Suicide was constantly on my mind, my plan B, my way out if things got desperate. Which of course, they did.
Shame can make you do things you never thought you were capable of. Like go for years being sexually abused without telling anyone. Or eat ridiculous amounts of food huddled in the corner of a dark kitchen. Hide bags of vomit in a closet. Shoplift pills from a store. Lie to everyone you know about everything you do every single day.
This is the life of a person consumed by shame. It has such power; you live in terror of anyone finding out how awful you truly are, how horrible and ugly, and all the other bad things you believe to be true about yourself. And when shame is confronted, one of two things usually happens: either you run to avoid it, or you lash out in rage. No matter what, rage is fueled by shame. Anger is different than rage. Anger has a point behind it, a logical reason, an argument to be made. A person can be angry and still reasonable. However, an enraged person has no real argument and there is no reasoning with them. They are projecting their own self-hatred onto another for a little while, to mask the embarrassment and the fear that they have been found out.
I did this a lot. Anytime someone tried to tell me I was bulimic, I lashed out. I was totally cool with being anorexic, even with purging; I just couldn’t stand the shame that came with bingeing, with losing control like that. It took me nearly ten years to fully get over my shame about my bulimia, which seriously hindered the efforts of the people attempting to treat me. I was more willing to talk about being raped than to talk about my problem with overeating, if that tells you anything.
Shame is such a large result of (particularly sexual) trauma. However, even very minor events or comments can trigger internal shame we may not even be aware of, but that stays with us. When working toward recovery, shame is obviously not the most comfortable or fun thing to address. Still, I believe you’re better off just facing it as soon as possible. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say: “Yes, these are the things I’ve done and am doing that I don’t like. These are the things that have happened to me. These are the things I’m ashamed of. And I don’t want to feel like that anymore.” Because, in the end, doing that is the only way to truly dispel it. Shame feeds on fear and lives in the shadows. So let’s keep up our courage and keep shining a light on the scary stuff. If we’re all in this together, shame doesn’t stand a chance.
© Sarah Henderson 2010