*Content warning: vivid descriptions of finger/skin picking in first paragraph, death described later, along with small spoilers for the manga, Tokyo Ghoul:re*
Over the past six months or so, I’ve developed a bad habit of picking the skin around my fingernails. I didn’t really notice it at first. People had to point out that I was zoning out and just scratching at my fingers. At first it was seconds, now its more like hours; just endless scratching at my skin until my fingers are raw and bleeding. I swear it happens in the blink of an eye. I see a part of my nail that isn’t right and then I blink and I’m crying trying to get my fingers to stop pulsing. There is a wave of something within me that keeps me trapped there; some all coming void inside of me, threatening to engulf me. When I finally come to, I feel shallow and numb. I don’t have a word for this feeling or this experience. I can’t say why I do it. I just know that it is nearly impossible to stop.
My brother has been making me read the manga, Tokyo Ghoul, about a boy who, by mere misfortune alone, becomes half man, half man-eating monster. Half ghoul. The protagonist, Ken Kaneki, finds himself unable to eat anything besides human flesh; he is unable to stomach anything he attempts to eat, not even his favorite foods. In one scene, he tries desperately to stomach any of the contents of his fridge until he finds himself lying on the floor, half-chewed food sprawled out around him.
*manga panels are read right to left*
I haven’t been able to describe how I feel for the past couple of years, but that shot of Kaneki lying on the kitchen floor sat with me. I have not been able to eat consistently for a while now. It’s hard to explain; its not a body image thing; physically, I have become content with my body and have become more focused on how I feel rather than how I look. I have simply become…disinterested in food. My stomach is always in knots. Sometimes the thought of food gives me a physical adverse reaction. Somedays I’ll be starving, willing my body to eat, and she simply revolts against me. My list of safe foods has dwindled away to a mere handful. I feel like no one understands how painful it is to try desperately to take care of your body, only for her to reject every gesture of love you extend. It is excruciating. I want to scream what the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you so fucked up?! My stomach aches and my body is falling apart and I can’t even manage to give them the basic nutrients they need to survive, let alone fight against my plethora of chronic illness. The pit in my stomach grows deeper and deeper. I feel like Kaneki, attempting to force his body to be normal.
This past semester I had to take a course on group therapy. During that class, I got to observe, participate in, and lead a process group; a group about practicing focusing on the here-and-now. Alongside that, some of us elected to read a book called Group: How One Therapist and a Room Full of Strangers Saved My Life, a memoir by author, Christie Tate, about her own experiences in group therapy. At first, the entire thing made no sense to me. I had no idea what we were supposed to be talking about or focusing on in my own group, and the book didn’t seem to clarify much. I had no idea what “here and now” meant when it was just me and a bunch of my classmates sitting around in a circle staring at each other; each of us lost in our own heads trying to figure out what we were supposed to be talking about. But then I read a part in Group that stuck with me and continued rattling around in my brain for months after I read it.
Christie tells a story to her group about her childhood and a traumatic event that occurred while she was on vacation with her best friend and her family; she and her friend were getting ready to swim and had run out to meet her friend’s father on the beachfront, however, when they arrived, they found him unconscious in the water, and less than an hour later, they watched him die alone while they waited for her brother to get help. Despite how shocking and traumatic that story was, Christie had never considered it impactful, since it was her best friend’s dad that had died, not her own. She got to go back home to a normal life; she assured herself she couldn’t have been traumatized; she didn’t have the right to be.
Yet after telling the story in group many different times and opening up about the experience, the group draws attention to one detail.
“The sign” they say. “You always mention the sign.”
In every rendition of her story, no matter how short or long she tells it, she always mentions the detail that there was a “no trespassing sign” on the beach. That was where it all came from; the lies about her worth, the ruined relationships, the self-harm, the eating disorder, the fear of intimacy; all of it.
The sign says, “No Trespassing.”
Her middle school brain latched onto that detail in her mental rehashing of the story; her brain struggled to make meaning out of the extreme situation and it came upon this story; this was your fault. You read the sign that said you were not supposed to be on that beach. You knew better. You could have stopped it. He is dead because of you. Sometimes the stories our brains make up to survive are untrue.
She has a moment where she collapses in on herself; completely overwhelmed with this feeling of all-consuming void. Bad feelings. Just grime and filth. It just feels like mold growing in the pit of your stomach. A black hole opening in your chest. An explosion waiting to happen.
Her therapist called it shame.
Researcher, Brene Brown famously said that “the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt says, ‘I did something bad,’ and shame says, “I am bad.”
I was 16 years old when my mom came up to me while I was on the computer and whispered in my ear. She said, “Dad just left. He packed his bags and snuck out the backdoor. He said he can’t face you guys.” I didn’t understand it then, but I do now, maybe a little too well. My father has always been a man consumed by shame; I’m sure it started in his childhood, before I was ever around, but it went on past my birth and continues to this day. I don’t think he ever stopped blaming himself for the time my family got evicted from our apartment when I was in middle school, despite his layoff being out of his control. Or for the affair and the divorce. For my family’s trauma. For all the pain and abuse he perpetuated over the years. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he somehow blamed himself for his older brother’s tragic death, despite not being there or having had the power to prevent it at all.
Sometimes when our brain can’t find any meaning, it makes one up. That meaning becomes part of how we see ourselves and the world. It dominates the narrative we tell ourselves. My dad adopted the belief that he was the bad guy from a very young age; as he grew older, every decision was made based on the script he believed he was given; I’m the bad guy. He acted out that narrative every single day. Every mistake just proved to validate that story, sinking him deeper and deeper into the sea of shame until the only way to survive was to shackle it to someone else. Release the burden so it stops weighing you down; but shame is a bitch. She demands to be carried.
Every time I search for the root of my pain, I dig up shame. An endless supply of shame, buried deep inside of me, living and spreading while I remain completely unaware. Shame is difficult to look at; we don’t like to see it and we sure as hell don’t like showing it to others. We hide in a dark place where we think no one can see it, but we have no idea that it comes out whether we want it to or not. Every time I bite my nails or pick my skin, I uncover shame. I should not be doing this. I’m a bad person. I’m a failure. I told myself I wouldn’t do this again but here we are. Normal people don’t do this. This is your fault. Just stop. I look at Ken Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul and I recognize the exhaustion and hatred on his face, the look of complete failure; the kind that makes you push away everyone you know and put on a mask because when you can no longer hide your shame, you cannot be seen. Being seen becomes too vulnerable. Too painful. You can’t sit in silence with a group of people and be in the moment when you are too afraid that if someone looks into your eyes, they will see the fear. Shame causes us to dissociate from ourselves because we can no longer stand to see the person we have become. But the thing about shame is that it cannot be thrown out or forgotten; it must be processed, or else it comes out of the cracks, like a small but menacing weed, and if you do not acknowledge it, it will latch on to someone else instead. If you do not own your shame, someone else will.
I don’t know when I picked up my father’s shame and took it on myself. It probably happened slowly over time. Every time I was demeaned or invalidated or silenced or hurt, he handed me a small piece of his shame until eventually, it was all mine to carry. The guilt from the divorce, the shame of being homeless, the fear of being seen; he doesn’t hold it any of it anymore, instead it lives in me; it is his voice in my head telling me I will never be good enough; that everything is my fault.
I know that if shame isn’t felt, it will simply be passed on.
I’m done being stuck in the cycle of shame; of the self-hatred and the isolation. I refuse to let anyone else carry my shame. I will kill it where it stands because I refuse to pass it on to my siblings, my family, and the people I love. My shame runs so deep it can be traced back several generations in my family tree. We have passed down shame like a family jewel. I am ending the tradition.
This isn’t the story I want to live. This isn’t the story I want my siblings to live. I already see the ways they carry shame in themselves; shame from my father, from friends, from exes; people that have lied to them about their worth and value as people; I see the shame they have picked up from me that I unknowingly forced them to carry.
I am trying to own my shame; my fuck ups, my fear, my insecurities, all of it. It is scary because, like Brene Brown says, the opposite of shame is vulnerability. Shame hides, and vulnerability brings to light. Of course, light can seem painful if you’ve been in the dark for too long. It hurts to be fully seen and showing the parts of me that I am ashamed of; I want people to like me and think highly of me; I don’t want people to see me make mistakes. God, I don’t want my siblings to see me make mistakes; but being seen when we make mistakes and are hurting and caught in a shame storm is what not only brings us closer to other people, but also helps us process shame without giving it away. I know that it is the only way my family will ever break the cycle of shame that we have been living in.
I’m slowly cultivating a practice of forgiving myself for all the things I did not realize I had blamed myself for; the divorce, having to move from one family to the next while we were homeless, for my health issues, my mental illness, my failed relationships; all of it. I am learning to own up to my mistakes and forgive myself. I remember that little Faith was doing the best she could with what she had. I’m still simply trying my best, and that is enough.
I am writing myself a new story, one that is no longer defined by the narrative I let other people create. One not based on lies other people have told me about my worth; every partner, friend, family member coworker; everyone who told me I was a bad person, a sinner, a failure; I’m throwing it out. This will not be how I continue my narrative. I’m doing it for me and I’m doing it for my family.
We’re writing ourselves a new story.