Out of the Ashes of Shame, A Phoenix Risen

“It is the false shame of fools to try to conceal wounds that have not healed.”–Horace

There wPhoenix Risenas infinitesimal shame in being a victim of intimate partner violence: the shame of being violated by the person who “loved” me, and the shame of believing that somehow I deserved it.  The shame of changing my entire being to fit his expectations, and the shame of knowing it was never enough.  The shame of others’ frustrations over his treatment of me, and the shame of watching them fade away when it was too great for them to bear.  The shame of others judging, “I’d never let that happen to me” and the shame of wondering why he did it to me.  The shame of excusing his behaviors, and the shame of the behaviors I enshrouded myself in to cope.  The shame of not leaving before his first punch, and the shame of filing for a restraining order after it.

There was shame because I didn’t cook like his mother, and then shame because I tried and failed.  Shame because I struggled to meet my child’s needs, and shame because—to keep her safe—I met his demands first.  Shame because I didn’t copulate like the women featured in his porn movies, and shame because having someone else’s baby proved I was a slut.  Shame because I was too depressed to function, and shame because, while in survival mode, I had no desire to be a mother and wife.

Everyone had shame to dole out—shame to spare.  A youth leader shamed me for having “premarital sex” because I must have misinterpreted his intentions, or I must have been wearing or saying or doing something that turned him on.  One pastor shamed me for being a “rebellious child” continuing a dating relationship with him against my parents’ wishes (even though “premarital sex” meant that I was “contracted” to him as a wife).  My mother shamed me for being “the first” in my family to have a child out of wedlock and divorce—neither was true.  My grandmother shamed me for having an interracial child.  My marital counselor shamed me for not working harder to meet his demands.  One boss shamed me for missing too much work to get a restraining order, saying I needed to “get (my) priorities straight.”

Even after I left, there were many more pangs of shame.  The shame of knowing I was not “normal.”  The shame of being triggered into panic attacks by every-day events. The shame of recognizing that the coping skills I learned to survive a dangerous relationship were harmful to building a healthy one.  The shame of explaining to a new partner that I was divorced because my former husband used me as a punching bag and at-will inflatable sex doll.  The shame of failing to make ends meet and having my car repossessed, because he refused to pay support.  The shame of making too much money to qualify for food stamps, and the shame of asking for them in the first place.  The shame of living in a shelter, and the shame of having to go back home to mom and dad with my life in shambles.

The shame I lived under was chronically oppressive.  For more than a year after I left him, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.  He, and many others, had me convinced that I was less than dirt.  Deserved what I got.  The drumbeat in my head said, “Shame-on-YOU!  Shame-on-YOU!”  I was buried alive in ashes of shame.

At this time, I was singing in a choir with my father.  Singing hymns and other songs of praise to My Divine was the only comfort I had during those months; the most sublimely beautiful was blending my alto with others in Handel Messiah’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”  Every practice and performance was God’s wrapping His hedge of protection around my heart, His reminder that I was a Daughter of God.  The only reminder I had that I was worthy of being loved and cared for deeply and unconditionally, despite my filthy ashes.

One Sunday morning, I was called by the pastor to meet because we needed “to chat.”  My internal alarm immediately sounded, and I asked my father to come with me.  This “man of god” invited me into his office to explain that, as I was making a choice to be a single mother, I was no longer a welcome member of his church choir.  I was not the kind of person they wanted.  Because I was choosing to divorce (and live, rather than reconcile and die), I set a bad example for others.

This news was devastating to me, crushing my already fragile spirit.  Shame welling up and spilling down my cheeks, I struggled to explain that the last time I had seen him, he was strangling me and threatening to do the same to my baby—it was his intention to kill us that day.  If I went back, I was sure we would die.  The pastor looked at me patronizingly (I’m sure he thought kindly) and pronounced my sentence: “It doesn’t matter what your husband did to you.  You belong back with him.  That is God’s will for you, and He will NEVER bless you while you live outside his will.”  He off-handedly said to my father, “And YOU need to withdraw yourself and your support until she does.”

Then, something extraordinary happened.  My father stood up for me.  Indignant, he lashed back at this man of shame, “You cannot tell me—YOU CANNOT tell me that you would listen over the phone to your daughter screaming in fear for her life, and tell her to go back!?!”  The pastor considered my father’s words smugly, dismissively: “Yes, I would.”  My Dad said, “Then-YOU-just-don’t-LOVE-her.”  My Dad, grabbing for my hand, led me out the door.  “Com’n, Kathy.  We’re leaving.”  And we never went back.

All of a sudden, in one thunderbolt moment, a new drumbeat reverberated through my bones: “I-AM-worthy; it’s NOT my shame, IT’S HIS.  I-AM-worthy; it’s NOT my shame, IT’S HIS.”  That simple act of love exhumed me from the ashes.  I was my Father’s Daughter, worthy of his love.

A new revelation welled up within my soul: “my” shame was really others’ judgment of me.  I could continue to internalize it, or I could reject it—and I (slowly) pushed it away.  As I rejected the judgment of others, I came to understand that they were judging in me the fears they harbored of themselves.  THEY felt unloved, and so they acted unloving.  THEY felt unworthy, and so they projected unworthiness onto me.  It was NOT my shame; it was theirs—their unhealed wounds. It was easier to judge and shame me then to heal themselves; easier to bury me in their ashes, then dust themselves off.

It was not enough to reject others’ judgment; I had to mantle myself with acceptance.  Give myself a break.  Acknowledge that I wasn’t perfect, but didn’t need to be, that I am pretty damn wonderful—all purple, artistic, neurotic, single-minded, pleasantly-plumped me.  I needed to array myself in my new robe of worth, brush the ashes off, and rise above them.  I was worthy of being loved unconditionally.

And rise I have, I know it.  A few weeks ago, my girls helped brush the last of the ashes off this old bird.  In their own ways, they told me that despite my ashes—or maybe because of them—they are proud of who I was and who I’ve become; from the ashes of shame, a phoenix risen: blessed, cherished, alive, loved unconditionally.  I am a Phoenix Risen.

©2012 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r