Shame: Here Now Still Again

By Kerry Neville 05/02/18

I have learned that my scars are words, inked in blood but healed over, that read: Pain Here Here Here But I Am Still Here Here Here.

Woman's face and hand through curtain or fabric.
I write not because I am courageous but because I am afraid. I discover my courage in the writing and am no longer silenced by fear.

A few years ago, I was sitting on my daughter’s bed and we were having our nightly chat, running through the day, giggling over silly things that happened at school, wondering whether the beginning of puberty might be as angst-ridden for her as it was for me, and regarding the divorce, that yes, it was absolutely okay to feel sad and angry and confused.

And then she ran her fingertip up my forearm and said, “How did you really get all these scars? It wasn’t really from a cat, was it?”

The cat. The crazy, mysterious unnamed cat had been my demonic perpetrator every time my daughter had asked about the cross-hatching of scars on my forearms. Of course, no cat could have methodically clawed me in such a brutal, linear fashion. More like the regular centimeter marks ticking up a ruler than any irrational, frenzied clawing.

But because my daughter herself had been scratched up by her own kitties; because my daughter believed that I would tell her the truth; because my daughter wouldn’t yet know that it would be conceivable to pick up a razor, a shard of glass, or a knife and cut into your very own self, why would she think my scars could have come from anywhere else?

But now she was 12, old enough for the truth.

“No,” I said. I live in truth these days and my relationship with my daughter is one based in appropriate truth. If I do the calculations, by the time I was her age I was already edging toward my descent into depression and two years away from my first drink and first time cutting. She needed to know I’d been through it and had come out on the other side and that she could come to me if in her own peril.

She ran her finger over my scars. “Did you get them from cutting?”

I held my breath. No. I couldn’t breathe. What I was most afraid of—that she would know—and she could see—and I had to get this moment right because so much was riding on it: she would remember if I could tell her the truth, so that in the future she could come to me and speak her truth and confide her shame.

“I did,” I said. “I went through a really hard, long time when I thought that would make me feel better.”

“We learned about it in health class,” she said. “But I still don’t understand why someone would cut themselves. Why did you?”

“Oh, it’s hard to explain. But I’ll try. When I started out, when I was a teenager, I was really depressed and alone and thought feeling outside pain would make inside pain real.”

“Couldn’t you talk to your parents or friends?” She leaned her head into my shoulder. I wrapped my arm around her.

“At the time I didn’t think my parents wanted to hear about how I was really feeling. They thought if I tried to be happy, I would be happy. And my friends didn’t really want to hear about how I really felt either. And after a while, cutting felt like speaking truth. Does that help?”

“I just don’t like thinking of you like that. It was like when you used to go away all the time to the hospital. I missed you so much.”

We looked at each other, both of us crying.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve been in the hospital? Almost four years. My medicine has been working and I’ve been stable which means I get to stay here with you.”

My daughter hugged me and then sat back. “Remember what you told me about the scar on my eyebrow? It gives me character. You just have a lot of character.”

Being seen in all my battle-worn, scarred resiliency isn’t always this affirming. Sometimes when I glimpse my arms crisscrossed with those scars, more than one hundred, I am caught off guard and seized by shame. A few hours after my son was born, my then-husband was showing me photos he’d taken minutes after the birth, my son’s mouth already on my nipple, my eyes wide with delirious love and wonder. “No,” I said, pointing to one photo. A wave of hot sickening shame annihilated the bliss of my son sleeping in my arms.

“Delete it. Now.”

My husband didn’t get it, didn’t see it but I did. Scars visible. My angry ruin juxtaposed against my beautiful, unmarked, untroubled boy. No one could ever see this photo, certainly not my son.

Crazy fucked up Momma.

He deleted it.

But there is no erasing this history. No hiding it. I wonder if my public transparency and writing about my recovery journey are worth it. I know this has cost me potential second and third dates with potential partners who Google me, read my essays, and believe that my history (bipolar disorder, alcoholism, anorexia, cutting) is all that I am which is too much of a risky gamble, a long shot of dubious value.

“No drama, no drama, no drama,” these men write in the dating profiles. “Don’t be a crazy.”

In my daughter’s estimation and now my son’s (who also knows the true story of my scars), they love me a priori. I’m their warrior momma. But in a stranger’s estimation? I’m the Ford Edsel or Cheetos Lip Balm or New Coke, so I don’t even bother to “Like” these men or send them a “Wink” because in Georgia’s eternal summer? Long sleeves aren’t possible. (Of course, these men might simply be afraid of women who have a rich and varied emotional life, i.e., are not silent sex robots.)

Honestly, I don’t often feel shame for my scars. No recent additions as it’s been seven years since I turned on myself in this way, seven hard won years of learning self-compassion and understanding that Pain + Pain does not cancel out Pain, but does = Pain to the 100th power.

But for many decades, I was a shame-pain-shame martyr, a perverse St. Sebastian piercing my own body with arrows (though more like a self-devouring ouroboros). My anger, my volatility, my drinking, my starving, my purging, my failing my family, friends, and all others in small and large ways? My shame-full failures required sharp unforgiving, equalizing in kind payment. An If-Then equation: If I hurt others, then I must hurt myself.

I used to be compulsive about covering them with makeup, stacks of bracelets, and long sleeves, and when someone saw them, made even an innocent comment, I felt exposed and stupid, devolved into ruminating self-recrimination: I should have hidden better should have become more invisible should have bundled up more should not have opened myself up to speculation to having anyone who is not close, not part of my inside circle—should not have allowed anyone outside to see me should not have allowed anyone in at all ever.

Over time, through years of therapy and the right meds and perhaps simply understanding that I must not, with missionary zeal, add to my pain but to my joy, I have learned that my scars are words, inked in blood but healed over, that read: Pain Here Here Here But I Am Still Here Here Here. Besides, most of the people in my life now are similarly scarred—if not by self-injury, then by addiction, mental illness, and trauma. We are an empathy tribe bound in our vulnerabilities and strengths.

Recently, before one of my public readings from my new book of short stories, an attendee came up to me and said, “Your essays about having Bipolar Disorder give me courage to be more open about my struggles with it, too, to talk about it with friends and family. How did you find the courage to write about the scary shameful stuff?”

I said, "I write not because I am courageous but because I am afraid. I discover my courage in the writing and am no longer silenced by fear."

Who needs dates with fearful potentials whose hearts are shriveled prunes? This life is about risk and revelation and hearts that are generous and wide open.

Carl Jung writes, Only the living presence of the eternal images can lend the human psyche a dignity which makes it morally possible for a man to stand by his own soul, and be convinced that it is worth his while to persevere with it.

How do I hold fast to dignity and stand by my own soul? Sometimes, on the hard days, it takes hourly convincing to believe it is worthwhile to persevere in my life, in this project of soul-making. I am Lighthouse Keeper and Lifehouse Keeper. Sometimes, on the hardest of days, the external reasons that should convince me—my children, my writing, my friends and family, my dog, the ocean, trees, coffee, a ripe Georgia peach—fail to do the job. How to believe in a dignified (not shame-full) existence? And by dignified, I don’t mean prim and proper Kerry with nary a scar. What I mean is having enough of an attachment to life and its future promises and permutations so that shame won’t require that I wound myself, cut into myself, or more directly, kill myself, but ask, instead, to be healed over and over and over again.

Instead of risky gamble, I now go all in on Pascal’s Wager. His is a better If-Then equation than mine. Pascal argues that we bet with our lives on the question of God’s existence, Choose God (belief), he says, because even IF we lose the wager and God does not exist, THEN our losses are still negligible and finite: hope over nihilistic surrender (aka, suicide). But IF God? THEN Infinite gains. Heaven or a belief in its earthly possibility: scars are not dead ends and pain is not end all, but they are roads I’ve taken that have brought me to the Here Now Still Again.

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Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.