I’ve aired my mom and dad’s dirty laundry. It’s only fair that I air mine.
If you haven’t read any of Brené Brown’s books, I’d highly recommend that you do. She is a research professor at the University of Houston with a doctorate in the Philosophy of Social Work. Her research revolves around shame, vulnerability, and how to be your authentic self. Shame is why we hide away certain parts of ourselves that we deem undesirable and it forces us to live in a way that is not true to ourselves.
I credit Brené Brown with helping me see how badly shame has impacted my life and showing me that I can let it go. She says that shame cannot survive being spoken. Once we tell our story and it’s met with empathy, the power that shame holds over us vanishes. I would like to thank those of you who have read my story so far, those who have reached out and shared their stories with me, and those who have given me a big old virtual hug in the comments. I appreciate you more than you know.
So far, I’ve written of a mother who couldn’t be the mother I needed, even though she tried and of a father who didn’t care to be a father beyond keeping a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. I was told to keep quiet (shame) about my mother’s illness and so I did. However, that family shame was just the beginning. The decades of shame that came after are all mine, so if it’s true that shame cannot survive being spoken, then I’m willing to speak of mine. I’m tired of being ashamed of my past and who I’ve been so far. Being part scientist, I’ll consider this an experiment to prove or disprove her theory myself.
I like to think that I first learned shame from being told to hide my mother’s illness, but it started before that. When I was eight or nine, I loved to perform “shows” for the neighborhood – mainly my parents and their friends across the street. I would perform a one-girl variety show with my brother doing puppet shows while I got ready for my next act. Our audience was small, but appreciative.
One day, I decided to go all out and do a dance skit that involved a choreographed number utilizing the entire backyard and the swing set as a prop, like Gene Kelly and his lamppost. I was rehearsing my big number, Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” at the top of my lungs, when a couple of boys popped their heads up from behind the fence and began teasing and taunting me, laughing about how stupid I was. I was mortified. I promptly cancelled my performance. From that day on, I have suffered from tremendous stage fright, terrified to look stupid in front of other people. I even have trouble trying new things because I don’t want to look dumb and chance having people laugh at me.
I used to spend summers with my grandparents, especially after my mom got sick. Until I was about thirteen, I mainly hung out with my grandparents and their friends. I got lots of attention, so I didn’t mind. However, my grandmother’s hairdresser suggested that I meet her niece and two of us became fast, summer friends.
She was the person I first started drinking with. The first time, I was spending the night at her house, when she suggested we sneak a drink out of her parent’s liquor cabinet. I don’t remember exactly what the drink was – some kind of hard liquor and Coke – but I do remember how it made me feel. It was warm and soothing. Although I didn’t necessarily like the taste, it washed away all my anxiety, as if someone had swaddled me in a big, warm blanket. That feeling made me happy.
My friend and I would drink whenever we got the chance, which wasn’t all that often. We used the old tried and true method of refilling the liquor bottles with water each time we took some. The first time I got truly drunk though was on beer. We knew some older girls who could get beer, so we planned a night at the drive-in. That was my first experience with binge drinking. Beer tasted awful, but it made me feel good. There were boys around too, and being drunk made me more outgoing and comfortable with them. The first time I made out with a boy was that night, in the backseat of the car. Luckily for me, the girls were watching out for me and knew how drunk I was. They kicked the boy out of the car and drove my friend and me home.
Being a night of firsts, it was also the first time I ever threw up from drinking too much. We got home and tried to act sober as we chatted with her mother before we rushed off to my friend’s room. After a while, as I was laying in bed, the room began to spin and my stomach started to churn. I leaped out of bed to make a run for the bathroom, but I didn’t quite make it. I threw up in my hand and it leaked out as I ran. After I’d gotten everything out of my system, I went back to bed and passed out.
The next morning, my friend’s mother asked if one of us had gotten sick in the night because there was vomit on the carpet. I said that it must have been the dog. So, she said okay and made us breakfast, and although I was in no way hungry, my friend told me to eat or else her mother would know that we were hungover. So I ate with what I’m sure was a very green face as her mother eyeballed me closely. She knew it wasn’t the dog.
I started drinking for real my freshman year of college. The drinking age in Kansas at the time was eighteen, so I took full advantage of it. I would go out five nights a week. Thursdays, I stayed home to prepare for the weekend and Sundays were reserved for recovering from the weekend. Every other night, they had drink specials to entice me. How could I turn down dollar pitchers?
I loved drinking while I was drinking. I became outgoing and talkative and wasn’t afraid of anything. However, I didn’t love the after effects. Not only did I have what I believe to be the world’s worst hangovers, I was also always horribly embarrassed by how I had behaved while drunk. The outgoing, talkative, brave person I was while drinking was the very person I was embarrassed of the next day. Ever since the incident with the boys, I hated looking foolish and I felt that drinking made me look foolish. It didn’t have to be anything major to embarrass me, perhaps just talking too much or showing too much emotion. Sometimes it was major, like passing out in a bar or going home with the wrong guy. I didn’t like being out of control, but that was also part of the reason I drank, to relax and loosen up the reins I kept myself restrained with. I was ashamed of my behavior and every time I went out, I promised myself I would maintain control and not get hammered, but I always did.
Drinking wrecked my first college career. I went to several universities, only staying a year or two at each. I usually did fine in my classes despite my partying, but soon I would wear out my welcome. My friends would get serious about school so they could graduate, while I was still only interested in partying, so I would transfer somewhere else to start fresh, because “this time will be different.”
The last university I went to before I dropped out was Colorado State. At the time, Colorado State was the #1 party school in the country. I didn’t know that when I went, but I soon found out why. They had a bar in the student center, so all I had to do was walk across a field and I had all the beer I wanted. I even took a bowling class because you could drink during class. I took it twice. I found the party kids right away, so I was never at a loss for someone to drink with. I had tried a few drugs in the past, a little speed and pot, but at CSU, I had access to cocaine. While I liked it quite a bit, alcohol was still my drug of choice, so luckily for me, I didn’t add cocaine addiction to my repertoire.
Colorado State had a yearly event at the time called College Days. A few weeks before finals, they let classes out for a couple of days so that the students could let loose a little. That year, my favorite band ever, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, performed for us followed by a few teeny, tiny, unscheduled riots in which things got burned, bottles were thrown, and kids were injured. We weren’t mad about anything. It was simply a case of too many kids, and a whole lot of drugs and alcohol. Needless to say, they don’t do College Days anymore. (Read about the riots here).
Naturally, I started the party a couple days early and by Saturday, my body couldn’t take any more booze. It shut down. I passed out at a friend’s apartment in the early afternoon on Saturday. When I awoke, I thought I ought to rejoin the party. (FOMO is a real thing.) However, my body had different ideas. My legs wouldn’t support me going down the stairs, so my friends had to drag me home and put me to bed. It took me a couple of days to recover from that binge, but I was so ashamed of myself that it left me in a severe depression. To top it off, during dead week I came down with strep throat. I didn’t study for any of my finals and I didn’t even bother to go to a couple of them. When I got the letter over Christmas break saying that I was on probation, I decided that I had had enough of college for a while.
Not only was I ashamed of how I acted when I was drunk and the amount I was drinking, but I was ashamed of my drinking and driving. It is truly a miracle that I never hurt myself or anyone else while I drove with one eye closed so that I could drive in a nearly straight line. Or the times I drove completely blacked out and not remembering how I got home. I’ll tell you just a couple of those stories.
One night, during my freshman year of college, some dorm mates and I went to a frat party where they were serving Purple Passion. It was the best bathtub mixed drink ever. It was made with grape juice and grain alcohol, so it was sweet and went down easy. As was my way, I wasn’t done drinking when the Purple Passion ran out, so I decided to go to another house to do some more drinking. Since I had already been drinking grain alcohol, I decided that I’d bypass the grape juice and just drink Everclear straight. Everyone told me not to, but apparently I took that as a challenge and took a few long swigs straight out of the bottle. It didn’t take long before I decided that I had better get back to the dorm. I knew I’d crossed the line. I got in my car and even though I was only blocks from campus, the next thing I knew, I was out in the country headed away from town. I tried to turn my car around, but having little control of my body by that point, I ended up in a culvert and couldn’t get out.
I swerved and staggered the mile or so back into town and found a gas station that was still open. I told the employee what had happened and asked him to help me. He drove me in his tow truck out to where my car was, but because it was on private property, he had to get the owner’s permission to pull the car out. Unfortunately, the people wouldn’t open the door to give permission (probably because some crazy person had just been gunning their engine trying to get out of culvert) so the guy said that he’d have to get permission from the sheriff. Again, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the sheriff was out working a motorcycle accident, so we had to go out there to get him to sign the paper, which gave me a chance to sober up a little.
I suppose the gas station employee told him how drunk I was and what had happened, because when I got there, I had to do a field sobriety test. The sheriff told me that he didn’t know how, but I had passed the test and he said he would sign the paper as long as I promised not to drive the car home after we got it out. Drunk driving laws back in the early ’80’s were not as strictly enforced as they are now. Who knows if I really passed the test or if he just took pity on me, but I’m grateful to that sheriff for not throwing me in jail that night. And of course, I drove the car back to the dorms that night.
Several years later, I was working in Vicksburg, MS as a plasma center manager. I decided that I wanted to go back to Colorado, so I packed all my stuff into my Land Cruiser and headed back to Colorado. I left in the late afternoon, and to celebrate, I bought a six-pack of Budweiser tall boys for the road. I didn’t get through Louisiana before I had gone through them all, so I stopped for more.
The plan had been to drive to Wichita Falls and stay the night, but at some point I missed my turn and ended up in Dallas. I stopped to use the restroom at a convenience store and I had to ask someone what town I was in. Even though I could clearly see the skyscrapers on the Dallas skyline, I wasn’t supposed to be in Dallas, so I didn’t believe that’s where I was. After I accepted the fact that I was truly in Dallas, I headed back out to try to find my way to Wichita Falls.
At some point, somewhere on a two lane highway, I realized that I was never going to make it. I wasn’t even sure where I was and I was nodding off at the wheel, so I simply pulled over, leaned back in the front seat, and went to sleep. I slept for eight hours on the side of the road. I awoke to the wind from the passing semis rocking my car. I looked around to try to figure out where I was and wondered how I had made it through the night without getting arrested or hit by a semi in the middle of the night. I thanked my lucky stars once again and took off back down the road.
There were many more, less dramatic, drunk driving incidents. I am mortified and deeply ashamed that I put so many people at risk, but I am so very grateful to whomever is watching over me for keeping everyone safe, even me.
Another big part of my shame has to do with some inappropriate relationships with men. I dated a few guys in college, but after one particularly painful rejection, I gave up. I was convinced that I was unworthy of love, so I quit looking for relationship while I watched all my friends get married. I still dated from time to time and some of them probably did like me, but I would deem them losers, because only a loser would like me, right? Besides, the most important marriage in my life was my parents’ and I didn’t want to end up like them. I found most of the guys I dated to be needy and I had no desire to take care of anyone, like my dad had to take care of my mom.
That’s not the shameful part though. The shameful part is the fact that several times over the years, I had what I term “booty-call relationships” with married, or otherwise taken, men. It didn’t happen often, but when it did I felt like the worst person in the world. They would tell me “I’m not leaving my wife, you know” and I said that I knew. Their being unavailable made it easier for me not to get attached. It kept me from being rejected because there was nothing to be rejected from.
Even though you claim that’s not the kind of person you really are when you do something like that, people argue that you wouldn’t do it if that’s not who you are. I’m not sure how I feel about that. All I can say is that I would never have done it if I had been sober and I have never fooled around with a married man since I got sober. The problem at the time was I wasn’t sober that often.
Eventually, all that shame and embarrassment piled up on me. Although I couldn’t stop drinking, I also couldn’t allow myself to keep doing things I knew were wrong, so I simply started drinking at home alone. I figured if I stayed home and drank, at least I wouldn’t hurt anyone else.
I bargained with myself to try to keep my drinking under control, because I couldn’t imagine never being able to drink again. I would go buy a couple of beers, promising myself that that was all I would drink that night. Inevitably though, I would want “just a couple more.” However, I was embarrassed to go to the same store where I’d bought the first beers, so I’d have to go to a different store to buy the next ones. Every time I went to buy beer, I had to go to different stores, so the liquor store employees to know how much I drank.
I tried to quit drinking numerous times, but inevitably I would con myself into allowing just one or two. I really thought I could keep it under control. and it even worked for a day or two., but very soon, I got right back up to speed.
As the years went by, I started to become more and more afraid that my luck would run out and something bad would happen. I knew I was biding my time. I was terrified of getting a DUI. Sometimes, on my third trip out for beer, I wouldn’t remember whether I had paid for it and I wouldn’t go back to that store for fear of getting arrested. I did everything I could to try to control it, but there was no way I could.
One day, I was at home with my nieces. I had been drinking a little, although I did maintain a little control when I was with them, and it dawned on me that that was how they were going to know me. I would be their “drunk auntie.” Despite the embarrassment, the drunk driving, the unavailable men, and my fear of running out of luck, the thing that ultimately made me quit drinking was the fact that I didn’t want “Drunk Sissy” to be how they remembered me. So on September 4, 2007, without any fanfare, I quit drinking.
Quitting drinking was by far both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been sober for almost ten years now and I am finally rediscovering the person I came into this life to be – the real me and not the lie. I’ve kept the real me hidden away for a long time, because I was embarrassed of who I thought I was. I thought alcohol made me better, but it only masked a whole lot of sadness and shame and drove the real me deeper undercover.
I wasn’t even sure I would be able to survive the pain I felt, but there was always a tiny spark of light hidden deep within me that kept me going. I like to think of that spark as my true self – my soul – and I hope to honor my soul by throwing off the thick, heavy blankets of shame that almost smothered it, so that I can be more authentically myself, whoever that is. As Marie Forleo says, “The world needs that special something that only YOU have.” I hope I can find my special something soon.