The Secret of Shame

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Shame is a terrible feeling, like the worst case of heartburn coupled with a swift quick in the gut. But what is shame really? And more importantly, why do we give it so much power?

Shame is defined as, “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable or improper done by oneself.” Shame is a nutshell is about self-inflicted pain. Shame doesn’t just stick around in the immediate aftermath. We think we need to carry it around, hold onto it, keep it alive.

Is shame useful? Well, sure we’ve all done things we needed to feel shame over. However, most of us in the world don’t go around doing really horrible things. Yet we still want to keep our shame! That’s not okay. Shame is a secret self-hate that we polish with additional feelings of disgust and inferiority. Shame means we don’t deserve forgiveness or the right to move on.

Shame is something we are taught to feel as a child, as in “shame, shame I know your name.” In a way, it teaches us right from wrong. Then we grow up. As adults, we mess up a lot. But there’s shame to greet us and remind us we’re terrible human beings. We welcome it. We let it cloud our minds, making us completely irrational. Shame doesn’t allow us to let go of what happened. It sticks out its tentacles and lashes on. We’re stuck in shame.

I am not immune to shame. I’ve been my biggest disappointment many times. I’m sure I will be again. Shame doesn’t have a hold on me anymore.

I’ve felt episodes of shame many times in life; the biggest being due to the many bad decisions I’ve made in relationships. I’ve hurt people. I’ve hurt myself. Probably the biggest shame I allowed to invade my life was the shame of divorce. Nobody wants to say, “I’m divorced.” I didn’t grow up dreaming of my divorce, but I certainly knew what it was since I was so young when my parents divorced. Divorce is very common in our culture; some people do it a lot! I don’t think, though, that most people go into marriage thinking about divorce.

My shame about divorce was really about the fact that my ex-husband was not a bad guy. We had problems, but it was never ugly between us. He loved me very much and was good to me most of the time. I hurt him badly. There’s nothing I can do that will ever change that. I’m sure he has healed from it and moved on with his life, hopefully to find love. But the fact is I married someone I didn’t love, and three and half years later, I finally had the guts to say so.

So I became the bad guy. I was the bad guy. He didn’t really see me this way because that’s not the kind of person he was. But others did. So I let the shame roll over me. It was intoxicating. I deserved it all. I messed up both of our lives for a little bit. I never meant to hurt him or myself. Sometimes, we do the best we can.

In the immediacy of the break-up, it was not something I wanted to reveal to anyone. There have probably been many people I’ve known between then and now who didn’t know. And occasionally when I was honest about it, I would get interrogated as to why! Sure, it’s personal, not really something that comes out naturally. But I was a bit shocked that even the doctor’s office wanted to know. That’s right, on the form there was a checkbox for single, married or divorced. Why is this information their business? Does being divorced mean the doctor gives me a sad face? So I knew logically this was ridiculous, but I still checked single. That was shame winning. I was too ashamed to check the right box. Even though, I don’t believe this is information they should be privy; I still felt too ashamed to check the damn box.

So how can we shed shame? It starts with forgiveness. You can hope that you’ll be forgiven by others, but don’t count on it. Instead, forgive yourself. What’s done is done. You can’t change it. You can be accountable and remorseful. You can try to be a better person.

No one is perfect. We are a breed of imperfect creatures. Life is hard enough without the added deluge of shame. If you can shed that shame today, just think of how much more room you’ll have for joy and acceptance.

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Thoughts on Charlotte, My City

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I’ve been struggling for days now to express my feelings about what has been going on in the world but more specifically in the city I live in, Charlotte. The eyes of the nation have been fixed on the Queen City since the officer involved shooting last week. The first few days seemed to be filled with anger and violence. And I saw the places I walk by on my way to work, places I’ve been many times and places that hold many memories being destroyed. I heard the helicopters and sounds of tear gas from my back porch. The reality of what I had been witnessing from afar for years had now landed literally in my backyard. I was shaken, confused and sad.

I wanted very much to write about what I was seeing and feeling. But I thought, who am I to have an opinion on this situation? I’m a white woman who grew up in an all white suburb and attended an all white elementary and high school. I’ve also never been arrested and had very few interactions with the police. I have never felt harassed or that my rights were violated in any police situation. So why should I have anything to say?

Although my experience with the police has been minimal and without incident, I do know what it’s like to lose a family member with police involved. 

Almost 20 years ago my brother was killed while being chased by police. He was on a motorcycle without a tag. The police attempted to pull him over, but he ran. He wrecked a few minutes later. His rib broke and punctured his heart. He died instantly. I could have spent the last 20 years blaming that police officer. I could have held onto a lot of anger and blame. Instead, I realize that my brother made a critical mistake; one that cost him his life. I certainly wish the officer hadn’t given chase, but that’s not what happened. I can’t change it. 

I also have something to say because I’m a writer, and this is how I make sense of the world. Finally, I think my voice has some place in this conversation because I live my life embracing differences. Your skin color or religion or gender will never be the reason I can’t tolerate you. I say tolerate because I’m not going to say hate or dislike because those aren’t feelings I feel toward really anyone. I will find you intolerable based on your actions and words. I care if you are honest, kind, accepting and empathetic. I care if you do what you say you’re going to do. I care if you base your words on facts rather than hearsay or opinion.

This is what I know. A man lost his life last week. The police seem resolute on their version; the family seems to be also resolute on their version. I have seen the evidence provided to the public. I am not a criminal justice expert nor an attorney so I don’t believe I’m qualified to make any judgments on what occurred in that parking lot. But I will say two things about the police (and these are my beliefs): 1. People of color are targeted more by the police than their white counterparts. There is a bias. 2. Most officers seem to be focused on doing what’s right and protecting their community.

I can make some assessments of the aftermath. Our constitution allows for the citizens of this country to protest and speak freely. We are very lucky to have this ability. In case you have forgotten, this freedom is not a given around the world. Peaceful protests can be a powerful way to spur change. Martin Luther King, someone I greatly admire, was a remarkable crusader for change through peaceful protest. He is the type of man we should aim to emulate when there is a time for protest.

Because I just don’t get how destroying the city and making it unsafe for people to come to work or go out to eat helps anyone. This city has now lost critical dollars. And I don’t mean the city lost money, which they did. I mean the business owners who had to close lost money. The individuals who work for them lost money. These aren’t the big bad corporations. The people losing are real people with real bills to pay. Yes, the city has lost as well. The costs have probably been millions of dollars to bring in the National Guard and other resources. I’ve heard protestors say they want this to happen – they want the city to suffer – why?  I can’t understand this reasoning. Our city has already lost so much because of HB2, a law that has made me ashamed to say I live here (and if you think it’s about bathrooms, you’re wrong.).

I also want to point out the role of the media and social media has played in escalating this incident. Think about this – who profits when something horrible and tragic occurs? The media. Their ratings go up and so do their advertising dollars. We all know this, but we need to be reminded. The media will spin the story in a way that most increases ratings. Most of the coverage in the first few days centered on the violence then there seemed to be a shift to calling for unity and peace. I don’t believe that everyone in the media thinks this way, but business is business. The other culprit is social media. How many live feeds or phones in the air were seen? Thousands probably.

And do people act differently when the camera is on? Yes, I think so. I think many people out on the streets were looking for a chance for their 15 minutes of fame. They wanted to capture something on video that would go viral. While social media seems to connect us in many ways, it has also elevated our self-importance. We think we are the star of our own show. In a way we are, but it’s not a show. This is real life.

Social media has also allowed people on both sides to play armchair detective and spout off their opinions (not facts) on the matter. Social media allows people to make statements with little consequence. You don’t have to be brave to make a comment or post a tweet. You do have to be brave to really want to see change.

To me, there’s fault and causation on both sides of the issue. The chasm between the two seems to be getting larger. But how about we stop blaming and making excuses? Listen, really listen. Don’t just listen to have your retort ready. Change really can start with one person. Be the kind of person that you can be proud of every day when you look in the mirror. That’s a start.

I didn’t know if I could find the right words. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe they will just fall on deaf ears. I do believe in the power of words. They’ve helped me along the way more than you could know. However, words go both ways. They can never be erased. You can’t take them back. Use your words in a constructive manner; more people will want to hear them and embrace them. They can ease pain, heal wounds and close the gaps between us. Just give them a chance.

One final thought: We are all human. We are all mortal. We are all imperfect. We all have pain. We all want to have joy. If we keep these things in mind, maybe we can start from a place of “us” rather than “them.”

September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month

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September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.  I want to make sure that all women understand that this is a serious, yet treatable cancer. However, early detection is key to survival. Ovarian cancer isn’t as high profile as breast cancer, yet it is one of the deadliest cancers effecting women. The World Health Organization estimates that over 238,000 cases are diagnosed annually with 152,000 deaths annually.  Even though it’s highly treatable, death usually occurs because the disease isn’t caught in the early stages. I could very much be a statistic right now. I didn’t have any awareness of ovarian cancer nor do I have a family history of this kind of cancer. I just knew something wasn’t right.

I was diagnosed the first time at 23, which is 40 years younger than the median age. So don’t think this is only a cancer that threatens older women or post-menopausal women. My symptoms were bloating, abdominal pain and having to pee all the time. I went to my gynecologist and shared my symptoms. The doctor examined me and performed routine tests. She could find nothing wrong. She also did not recommend an ultrasound. What really blows my mind is that I could feel something on my left lower abdomen. I was really thin at the time, and it was almost obvious that my left side more pronounced than the right. Had I just kept going then who knows what might have happened. Instead I went to an urologist, thinking there was a problem with that area. The urologist performed an ultrasound immediately and found the tumor. He was in the same building as my gynecologist. He called them and told them they needed to see me immediately. I had another ultrasound and was in surgery days later. On the day of my surgery, I saw the urologist in the pre-op area and thanked him again. He probably saved my life.

However, most women probably don’t have a tumor the size of a football; it was so big and putting so much pressure on my bladder, that’s why I couldn’t stay out of the bathroom. There is no actual “screen” to diagnose ovarian cancer. A CA-125 blood test is about the best non-invasive diagnostic tool. There are multiple types and stages of ovarian cancer. It can also recur. And just because you don’t have ovaries or a uterus doesn’t mean, you’re in the clear. I had a hysterectomy after my third recurrence, but the cancer cells had spread to my lymph nodes. The type of cancer I had is very slow growing with general consensus being that chemo doesn’t help so I have to keep living with the possibility of recurrence, now most likely in the abdominal area. I still see my oncologist regularly and have CT scans. The type I had is also very rare. To help continue research, I agreed to donate tissue from my first two surgeries.

So how can you protect yourself? If you have a family history, there is a gene known to be a carrier so there is the option to undergo genetic testing. Many have no symptoms and depending on your overall health and age, this might not even be on your gynecologist’s radar. So keep it on yours! Also, Pap smears have nothing to do with ovarian cancer; they screen for cervical cancer.

Here are three things you can do:
1. See a gynecologist for an annual exam.
2. Pay attention to your body.
3. Ask your Doctor questions about ovarian cancer and what he or she recommends.

Learn more at www.ovarian.org.

My Love Song to Sara Bareilles

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Dear Sara,

I finished your book a few weeks ago. I bought it when it first came out, but I was saving it like a long hidden Reese’s cup. I knew there would be a time I needed it, and that time arrived. I would probably prefer to read words by you every day, but then we’d need to be friends in real life (there’s still hope for that; I’m available!).

I have great admiration for you and your talent. Your beautiful words and songs have meant a lot to me over the years. After I bought Little Voice, I listened to it over and over. It was my refuge from a bad marriage. I’d put my earphones on at night, listen to your album and cry, tears of hurt, fear and hope. I didn’t know how to get out. I was in an emotional meltdown because for so many years there had been a ban on feelings (as in feelings will not pass go and be sent straight to jail). I had been solely in survival mode. I was in trouble. Your music made a difference in my life. They aren’t just songs; they are mantras, they are inspiration, they are as you might say, “satellites.”

I thank you so much for sharing your talent and for allowing us a glimpse behind the music in your book. As women, we often face more challenges than men, especially relating to our appearance and self worth. Your candid and refreshing stories cemented what I already heard in your music: you are someone who cares, you like all of us are human and flawed.

Your next album Kaleidoscope Heart helped me through heartbreak. It fed my courage. It made me believe that I would come out the other side. It helped me understand that love is a lot different than the notions we have in our heads. Thanks for keeping me steady.

I listen to at least one of your songs most every day. They are a friend and a comfort to me. Because some days are good, some are okay and some are really horrible. Something will happen almost every day that breaks your heart a little. It’s what we do with all those little cracks that matters. My heart has a lot of cracks, tributaries of fissures from one side to the next. But it’s still beating; it’s still strong. Maybe stronger than it would have been untouched.

Thank you for being a part of the fabric holding all those cracks in place and for reminding me to hold my own heart.

This, Sara, is my love song to you.

What I Learned from Loss

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From the What I Learned Series

People like to say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I understand why they say it. It’s meant as a comfort. It reaffirms we can’t always control what happens to us. Because we can’t control it! Sometimes I can see the truth in those words; other times not so much.

Maybe everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Maybe an alternative way to digest the things that happen is that really bad things happen to really good people every day; it’s what happens next that matters. What will you do with your loss?

You can learn from loss and adversity; after all it builds character (another one of those helpful things people say). For better or worse, loss has shaped me. It has woven its way into my DNA.  Did it change me? Yes. Did it destroy me? No.

Even though I’ve probably had more than my fair share of loss, I understand that loss is relative to one’s own experience. But in the end no matter how great or how small your loss may be, you have two choices: bloom out from it or succumb to it. Yes, there is a choice. It may not seem like it most days. But you did get a choice.  You can’t change it. You do, however, get a chance to decide what happens next.

Loss never leaves you. My mom died almost 20 years ago. I’ve now lived more of my life without her and most of the rest of my immediate family. So in these 20 long years, time should have done a lot of healing (yet another helpful adage). Time is something that keeps firmly marching ahead, moving you further away from those losses. Yet I’m not sure if time heals because  it feels like it just happened most days. So for me, my loss is still part of my thoughts, my skin, my breath. I’m just not ever going to get over the loss of my mom. I used to think I needed to “get over it,” whatever that means. I thought I was dragging my loss and heartache around like some badge of honor. Believing in order for the person and their loss to mean something, it had to be held onto.

Yet when you carry it around, you don’t forget. And maybe it’s good not to forget. I make a conscious effort to not forget my mom’s face, voice or smell. I see her picture every day so that’s the easiest. Her smell I can mimic with her favorite perfume. The voice is the hardest. I’m losing it. I try to imagine in my head the words she said to me so often. I want to recall without effort just how she said my name or the way she laughed.

So maybe time doesn’t heal. But I like to keep the conversation alive. I want to still talk about those I’ve lost. That’s not true for everyone. Sometimes I think it’s easier for some to just forget who they lost ever existed. That’s what people do to survive. That’s just not how I chose to handle loss.

Loss will trick you; trick you into thinking you’re alone and that life will never be good again or normal. It will trick you into blaming yourself. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty just for being alive. It also tricks you into thinking it’s best to not get attached because you know what it’s like to lose. Nothing penetrated my heart for a long time. It just made me lose more: time, relationships, opportunities.

Loss made me angry. Angry at the situation, the lost person, myself. It was intense in the beginning; it still lingers. The anger flares up the most during the important times in life because I can’t share it with those gone. They have missed my triumphs and failures. Everybody has that longing to be number one to somebody and to have someone always on your side.  That was my mom for me. When I lost her and a million times since, I was mad that I’d never be that important to anyone ever again.

I’ve felt anger at myself as well. Either because I couldn’t move forward or was moving too fast. Should I be enjoying life? When was it okay to be happy again? Survivor’s guilt is real. I’ve asked myself many times, why am I still here?

Grief doesn’t have a timetable. I’m not sure if it ever really ends. You don’t wake up one day and are cured from your loss. I’ve learned it doesn’t have to disappear. Loss created a big hole in my heart. It can’t be filled.  I know I’ve tried. I don’t feel the need to close the hole anymore. It’s a part of me. It’s influenced my choices, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad.  Grief, in a way, is like the personification of the bond you had with that person.

But I won’t wallow in loss. The world is full of grievers. Tragic things happen all the time. Loss still wraps its arms around you, but if you let it be your focus, you will lose so much more. It’s just one part of me. Not my first or last thought every day; just somewhere in between. In my loss, I eventually found a better person. I never gave up on and will never give up on trying every day to be better.

Loss cannot be undone. Sooner or later, it will visit us all. I’m not unique. What I do want to do is share my story. To tell everyone that life rarely turns out as expected, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be great.

Pop

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Pop and me at Tweetsie, circa 1982

We don’t all have the good fortune to have great role models. I had a lot of exceptional women around me, but there weren’t many examples of how a man should be. For the first 12 years of my life, I did have my Pop. Although he’s been gone for quite a while, I think of him often.

This is what I can tell you about my Pop. He was a doting husband, father and grandfather. He was always so sweet and sincere to my Granny. My grandparents had a real love story. I still have letters that he wrote my grandmother through the years from first dating to long married. When I think about a happy marriage, I think of them. They laughed a lot and were always very affectionate. I’m sure they didn’t agree on everything (she was a Democrat; he was a Republican), but I never heard either say an unkind word about the other.

My mom was a daddy’s girl. She was much closer to him than my grandmother. It wasn’t until after his death that my mom and grandmother became close. My mom loved sports and was very athletic, which meant she had more in common with my grandfather. My Pop even played minor league baseball when he was younger. After being wounded in WWII (he was shot in the hip and received a Purple Heart), he was never the same physically. He and my mom watched a lot of sports together and were always talking about the Yankees or the Redskins, depending on the season.

To become this eventual great man, my Pop had to go through a lot. He lost his parents and younger brother in an accident at a young age. Only he and his older brother survived. They were then raised by his grandmother. I don’t recall him ever talking about this to me. I’m not sure how old he was when this happened, but I’m sure it shaped him forever. It led him to be thankful and grateful for life. He always seemed to convey this with his smile and kind nature. I’m sure he never got over it. And that’s why I’m glad in a way that he passed when he did. He would have been devastated to watch my mom go through her illness. It literally broke my grandmother’s heart; I’m sure it would have done the same to him.

What I remember the most about my Pop was the time we spent together. He often picked me up from school and took me to dance class. He had this green Hornet that I can still picture. It was easy to spot! When I would visit, he always had time to play with me. We’d set up Monopoly or play banker. He would often tell me ghost stories, which fed my hungry imagination. As I got older and started writing, I’d read my stories to him.

He always smelled like aftershave and tobacco. After he passed, my grandmother held onto many of his clothes for a while. I’d sometimes go in the closet and smell them so I could somehow feel him around me.

My Pop was never really sick. He did have Parkinson’s. I remember his shakes and tremors. But I was never fearful. Eventually he had to stop driving, but he was never feeble. He passed one night in his sleep. It was my first death. I was 12. I didn’t really understand it all. Until I went to my grandparents house, and he wasn’t there. My Granny certainly brought a lot of life and joy into their home. But it was never the same after Pop passed. His kind eyes and sweet voice were such a big part of my experiences in that home.

My Pop was an amazing man. I wish I knew or remembered more about him. There’s no one to really ask anymore. I suppose what’s important is the feeling I have when I think of him: love, safe, peaceful.  He was the greatest man I knew. He shaped my life a lot in the 12 years I knew him, and I’m so very glad for that.

I Miss Botox

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I miss Botox, but not because of its magical way to erase wrinkles. Rather it has been the best preventative treatment I’ve ever tried for migraines.

The first time I had Botox was probably 14 years ago. It was finally becoming a recognized migraine treatment, one that insurances would pay for. Back then it was only a small amount injected just in the forehead. I had several treatments but saw no visible improvements. I had already exhausted most traditional treatments for migraines with either little impact or horrible side effects. My doctors have often called me a special case because I don’t respond to Triptans, which is the family of medicines used to treat migraines. I’ve tried them all. Either they had no effect or made me feel worse. Triptans are rescue medications taken at the onset of a migraine. My rescue meds for years weren’t Triptans but narcotics and muscle relaxers, which eventually made things worse. So my doctors started focusing on preventatives, which can actually decrease the number and intensity of migraines.

I tried a lot of preventatives. Everything from anti-seizure meds to medications for high blood pressure (it’s believed that these meds can prevent the constriction of blood vessels and therefore pain). Nothing helped, and I couldn’t deal with the side effects of lethargy and nausea.

I tried physical therapy, nerve block shots, chiropractors and acupuncture. So many years later, Botox came back around. Now Botox is a common preventative. There are even ads on TV recommending Botox for migraines! A lot changed since my first treatment. The dosage is greater, and there are multiple injection sites: forehead, temples, neck and shoulders. There were probably about 40 separate injection sites. It’s not painful. It’s a small prick. Initially, I didn’t think it would help. I didn’t see much improvement at first (I keep a headache journal that tracks when I have headaches and the severity). What I did see was that the Botox made my left eye kind of droopy. After all, Botox does paralyze the muscle. The Botox wasn’t injected for cosmetic reasons so my neurologist wasn’t going for aesthetics. It did improve, and as I got more treatments my eye seemed to get used to it.

After about six months (two treatments), it was starting to work. I wasn’t pain free, but the number and intensity of the migraines improved. I still had headaches about half the days of the month. This was a decrease from 20 to 30 days. So that was a success.

However, it’s now been nine months since my last treatment. The insurance I currently have does not cover Botox. In fact, it won’t cover much of anything. I made the choice to change insurance to reduce the premium cost, but of course you get what you pay for, which in this case, isn’t much.

I don’t mean for this to turn into a rant on healthcare, but I’m literally sick by the fact that as a tax paying, hard working person, I can’t get access to treatments that would dramatically improve the quality of my life. I don’t have any answers. I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for sick people to get help.

What may surprise you is that the insurance that paid for the Botox was a plan I found through the Healthcare Marketplace. The plan that denies everything is through my employer. Yes, the premiums were more but the coverage better. I remember a time not so long ago where I had phenomenal coverage. But that’s in the past. Employers are doing all they can to reduce benefit costs while insurance companies simply deny coverage. Healthcare is a for profit business in this country. If you need any proof of that, turn on your TV and wait for the numerous pharmaceutical commercials.

I’m not alone in my struggle to get access to the meds I need. This country is currently in a tailspin over the EpiPen price increase. I happened to read a good article on this, which basically called out the fact that Mylan has a monopoly on this type of treatment and because of government regulation can charge what it wants; the price is not set by the market.

Again, I don’t have any answers. I’m not an expert. I’ve always had insurance and paid my fair share. I just miss the Botox. And more importantly the relief it provided.