Shame involves that pervasive gut-twist of fear. It is the awareness that someone has learned some deeply hidden truth about you and they may think less of you, because you think less of you for it.
When I first left my ex-husband, I felt a lot of shame. That inner voice didn’t just whisper, it battered me with my own judgmental thoughts. It weighed me down physically and emotionally. Thoughts that were harsher than I would offer any other person in my situation.
Through sickness and health, huh? What a liar I am.
What a selfish person – my spouse is mentally ill. I am leaving, and he is probably going to hurt himself. It is my fault. I must not care about anyone except myself.
Wow. Divorce? I stood up in front of a crowd of people and promised ‘”til death do we part.” Guess I didn’t mean it. How can anyone trust anything I say ever again?
Wow. Divorce? Good Christians don’t divorce. My family must be disappointed in me. God must be disappointed in me. Everyone who I care about must be so disgusted with me.
At my core, I have always believed myself to be a very loyal, honest, giving person. While I struggle with the traditions of religion and the impact of fallible humans on the institution of the church, I still believe in God and Jesus. I still consider myself a Christian. I felt such shame at leaving, because all the best things about myself, the things I valued, seemed such a sham. My ex had layered in such disgust and judgment about people who divorced into his constant social commentary, and I was unconsciously accepting all those things as truth. There were two absolutes I believed:
I have to leave.
I am a horrible person.
That was perhaps my lowest point in my life. Emotionally, physically, I simply could not maintain that relationship. I was approaching the point of a meltdown of Chernobyl proportions. I’d nearly crashed the car, when I fell asleep at the wheel. I was unable to function anywhere.
Midnight. The morning before I left. I chivvied my (now ex) husband to bed. Then I went and erased my information on our game system, since I was going to leave it for him. When I crawled into bed, it did not take long for him to ramp up into one of his manic moods again. Up he stormed, and down the hallway to our living room. In a panic, I got up to try and soothe him. My greatest fear was that he might try to turn on the TV, and notice my information was missing. Then he would know something was up. Then he would guess I was finally leaving and neither of us would live to tell about it.
So I made tea. I hugged him. I sat beside him. He would randomly jump up and storm about the house, talking about how terrible his life was.
And I am about to make it worse. Those are the words that came to me. I couldn’t process that he was ranting. I couldn’t process that he kept throwing out he wanted to put a bullet in his brain (we had no weapons in the house, by my choice). I couldn’t process that, right before he finally came back to bed, he downed a substantial amount of whiskey.
I heard it, glug, glug, glug, echoing down the hallway. What lingered, however, was the refrain of failure that echoed in my thoughts.
After he fell asleep, nearly 2 AM, I began to lose my fight for calm. Laying in bed beside him was torturous. Before the threatening sobs could wake my ex, I had the presence of mind to scramble into the bathroom and climb in the shower.
The water on my face will mean my tears aren’t obvious. The shower-spray will cover the noise I make. If he asks, I’ll tell him my asthma was acting up.
I huddled in a corner of the shower, texting one of my best friends, shielding the phone from water-splatter.
I don't know if I can do this. I have to. I know I have to. But I feel like I am going to kill him by leaving. I am a horrible person.
She kept me from tipping over the edge. From losing the nerve that was on it’s very last thread. She told me it would be okay. That morning would come soon. That I was almost out.
The truth of the matter, the truth I couldn’t see through the pain in that dark night, was this: this result came about from his choices.
I couldn’t see it then. I’d invested so much, trying to keep him employed, stable, alive. And most of his energy went to selfish pursuits. Rants. Threats of violence. Sulks if we played a game he didn’t end up winning. Alcoholism. He wouldn’t take his meds. He’d break things. He used his doctor appointments as a bargaining chip to control me. He would blow up at me over mindless things and then ‘forgive’ me, for them, at great cost to himself.
Those were all his choices. But at the time, I was so worn down. So full of shame. The very things that made me me had been so trampled, and I had been maintaining for so long, that that had become my new normal. I had taken far too much as my responsibility. I can see that now, so very clearly.
I am not ashamed of myself anymore. Sure, there are moments I have feelings of shame. But I look at myself in the mirror and I say this:
I am loyal. Many of my friendships span a score of years.
I am more honest now. I never lied during the divorce, or about what happened to me. I lied more before I left, hiding all the things that made my ex upset over.
Sometimes it is healthy to be a little selfish. I took care of a grown man. Fed him. Sacrificed too much for his success in lieu of mine. I enabled a little too much, trying to be selfless. I took a little too much pride in that selflessness.
I am still me. I can still be the person I want to be.
I am still lovable.
And you know what? If someone is judging me for getting out of that situation… who cares! I made a mistake. I chose a person to marry who was not healthy, or safe. It isn’t the end of the world. I will learn from it. I will soldier on.
But before I could accept that, I had to first forgive myself.