I have cursed myself, as a matter of survival. As a child, walking past a table of classmates in the cafeteria, and hearing their mocking laughter, I avoided emotional collapse only by — paradoxically — supporting the claims of my tormentors. I distracted myself from their words by doubling down with internal, vile self-indictment. Somehow my uncontrollable mind screams was able to mask the external cruelty. Stumbling in the din, I scarcely felt the chairs or people I stumbled into, as I sought escape.
This was typical. To recover from any childhood social ineptitude, from bungled interactions, from awkward moments of clear otherness, I would repeat a self-abusive phrase so foul, even as an adult I have not dared reveal it. I lived my youth with this brutal, effective and uncontrollable method to cut out the rest of the world and distract myself from the shame-filled pain of social ignorance.
In adulthood, the environment changed. I learned enough to craft a fragile social mask through which I interacted with others. There was less overt mockery of my mistakes, as they were less evident and my peers less cruel. Though my social blunders were rarely the focus of others, each still ignited a firestorm of shame in my brain. I needed a tool to overcome the internal pain of my own mistake, not manage external ridicule. Cursing myself in harmony with the mockery of others wouldn’t work.
Instead, I would reflexively vocalize the word “hello” in rapid-fire repetition. Saying “hello” was an unconscious social compromise. It necessarily distracted me from the unbearable pain of shame. At the same time, my utterance could draw unwanted attention. Still, “hello” was an innocuous word that didn’t cause too much surprise if others happened to overhear — even if they might have been curious why I had just repeated it half a dozen times in four seconds.
Sometimes all it took was a single “hello” or a double “hello-hello.” The intense pain from a serious gaffe could take more than a handful of repetitions. I would blurt the sequence several times in the first minute in reaction to the unstoppable looping of the fresh memory of my mistake. Each outburst would allow me to forget the shame for increasingly longer periods of time. By the time an hour passed, the memory would intrude only every few minutes. Hour by hour, then day by day, the pain of any particular blunder required increasingly infrequent blockage.
The level of pain didn’t change. Each recollection was a brain stab requiring an automatic burst of “hello-hello-hello-hello.” But as the frequency of recall lessened, so too would the disruption to my existence, even if the memory of any particular mistake never quite disappeared. Shame never left me. Every so often — years later sometimes — the recollection of blunder would pop up unbidden, needing to be verbally quashed with my special word.
My reaction was wholly uncontrollable and doubtless noticeable to those close to me. I would try to minimize the volume, but this was not easy, as the reaction was a reflex. If others heard, I could pretend to be singing a song under my breath by switching — once my mind was back in control of my vocal chords — to more meaningful, lyrically expressed words. But it is hard to be that clever in bed, awakening to a painful memory, already drowning it out with “hello” before being fully alert. My loving wife Karen simply accepted my outbursts as part of my autistic behavior.
This past February, Karen reached a milestone birthday. We celebrated, in part, by seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway. The very first word of the show was “Hello.” My eyes widened. In fact the name of the first musical number was “Hello!” Oh, glory! For the rest of the musical, I squirmed with delight, doing my best to remember to remember.
The next morning, I startled Karen as she read in the sun room, by bursting into the room with an unartful rendition of “Hello!” complete with a lavalier microphone taped to my forehead in imitation of the way Broadway performers are electronically enhanced these days. Immediately, Karen and I had a new private joke. And I had a new way to cover my tracks.
Earlier this year, I had a revelation. In some of the moments of intense social discomfort, I may not have so much blundered as called attention to myself while successfully navigating a complex and tricky interaction. That warning I gave the CEO about a startling business risk might have caused him to wonder, to notice me, perhaps even for some period of time to doubt me, but he paid attention to the issue. The pain of sticking my neck out was rewarded with recognition and success.
In countless other ways, I realized, I had successfully negotiated the situations where previously I exposed myself to ridicule. The encounter wasn’t any less painful, but I had skills I lacked when younger. I was more adept, even if no more comfortable, at navigating human social engagements.
Since that discovery, If you listened to me carefully, you might have heard me mumble, “hello-hello-hell-no wait, that was a good thing. It worked. Good job, Jim.” as my conscious recognition of success took hold in recalling such a successful interaction. The startling result, though, was those added words inoculated me against the pain. Forever. It wasn’t distraction I needed. It was achievement.
There are pains that we live with that come from malfunction, or from the exterior world. Some can be alleviated by healing, or by removing the source of the pain. Some pains are physical. Others are mental. There are pains of both types, though, that are structural. I have dozens. I wake up with them. Sometimes they color my dreams. They don’t define me, but I wouldn’t be me without them. I neither welcome them, nor lament their existence. These living pains may change over time, as I learn to suffer them or conditions change.
I have had joint pain, at times debilitating, my whole adult life. I have adjusted my gait and my habits to manage this. This other pain, my shame, is part of how my mental structure articulates. It is inextricable, yet I have adjusted. I have learned its measure and its cadence. I know if I bear it for some period, I will arrive at the other side free from it, at least for a time. I accept this because I cannot not. I am glad for most of the rest of me. The shame just comes along for the ride.
When I was very young, my shame kept me voiceless. As an older child, clueless. As a young adult, it left me friendless. In my early career shame rendered me joyless. Today it just hobbles me less.
I must admit to a particular conceit. I have always appreciated that I never fly into paroxysms of rage. In fact, I don’t do anger well at all. I experience occasional flashes of it, as anyone might, but I invariably tell myself I am reacting to an uncontrollable release of hormone into my bloodstream and if I wait thirty seconds or so, the chemical will dissipate to an undetectable level along with the accompanying negative feeling. And so it does.
I watch curiously, bemusedly, as others fly off the handle, spitting out the venom of their anger onto others, even onto me. I marvel at their inability to control this emotion. Who would want to suffer the pain of boiling blood, when they could instead quickly revert to a calm, rational assessment of the situation that caused the initial flash of anger?
I have come to realize my hubris is misplaced. I have my own just-as-damnable faulty mental hardware. I fly into paroxysms of shame. I manage my emotion no better than abusive spouses in need of anger management training handle theirs. At best, my weakness may be of lesser concern, only in that my uncontrolled outburst is solely self-abusive. I fly off the handle on the upstroke rather than the downstroke, so the loosed axe head strikes me and not those around me. That’s bad luck for me, and good luck for the rest of the world, but it’s still bad luck for me.
I have this flaw, but it’s hidden from society. No judge will sentence me to shame management classes. In fact my victim has been invisible, as reticent to reveal the abuse as a battered spouse might. This essay, then, is an act of revelation, even bravery, written by the victim. I lay myself bare to the shame of shame, in the hope — as in most of what I write here — that the exposure, while painful to me, might enlighten others.
There’s slim chance somebody’s life might be improved with this knowledge of me. Even if I am the only person to benefit, it might still be a net positive to write about this. The reader, then, is simply witness to my growth. Who knows how that might enrich such an observer? But I hold out hope others might recognize this sensitivity in someone else — or even themselves — and find a way to help that person through it, to lessen the disabling sting of shame, to find their own private “hello.”
Ouch. Typed my comment and then remembered to log in… It is painful when I remember a comment that was based on what I understood (or misunderstood) about the rules for school buses in a town where they used busing to equalize racial percentages throughout the city, where I was thinking you had to get on the bus no matter what, and so said something that probably sounded like I didn’t think the African-American students *should* go to play with the European-American kids after school. More than being in the TAG room (only place I technically didn’t eat lunch alone) and hearing every other person in my class there plan something and my being invisible, even if I borrowed a pen or something. I’m ashamed of my 5-year-old self for searching her sleeping bag and under nearby furniture for her little doll while a 6.5 y/o “friend” sat and watched me and shrugged and said “sure” when I asked her to keep an eye out for it as I went home, and at not picking up when she told me that this girl I didn’t even remember being in my home had stolen a little Barbie toy I didn’t know was missing. Telling myself that I was Autistic and that my last year of elementary school I got on the bus that dropped me off at the previous elementary school (now serving k-3 only) every single day, as did the only person I really interacted with, and that theft was not something in my experience doesn’t help much. A bit, but not much…
Jennifer, thanks for your contribution, as always. It’s remarkable how you routinely find a way to relate to what I’ve written.
I relate to your struggle with shame and I thank you for writing what you have.
It has been positive to me to read it.
I am now in my mid 50s and, like yourself, I now experience acheivement. My life is transformed by what I am capable of.
And by what I am doing in my everyday work.
In young adulthood I enjoyed to read folks’ bookcases. I didn’t touch the books just read the titles and got my own meanings from them.
The book I remember because it impacted on me was “The Shame Is Over”
I have no idea what the book was about, it is of no matter.
It was the statement; somebody was experiencing being past shame …. telling me it was possible.
A place I could one day reach.
kind regards to you from Heather
Thank you for letting us in on your experience. I don’t see how the shame will ever be over, but that isn’t the worst thing in the world for me. We all live with stuff. Having said that, the idea of losing the burden of an ever present shame seems very attractive. That’s something worthy of work.
Hi Jim. I just started reading your blog. I don’t really know what it is I want to say, but I can relate to this post very well. I appreciate how clearly you are able to describe such a complex inner experience. I think you writing this will help others. It is helping me to frame my similar experiences in ways that may ultimately be more useful for me and reading this made me feel less alone. Thank you, Tracy
Thanks, Tracy. Your words alone give me all the justification I need for writing this piece (let alone the reaction of others). Keeping reading and let me know what you like or don’t.
I Read your blog to understand my mostly non-verbal autistic son better and because I really appreciate and admire your brutal honesty in expressing yourself. Every time I read something your shared I learn and understand more. I believe that my son lives in his own “normal” world next to my “normal” world, mostly I am not sure who’s world is more “normal” and which world is better or worse.
Thank you for writing this.
Marius, thank you. Your comment came at just the right time. I am at the start of a new piece, with the tentative title “Littera Scripta Manet” (the written word endures). What you have helped me realize is that my legacy is not in my printed words — though I may be at times overly fond of them — but in their imprint on others. The only evidence I have of this are the words composed in response. There is no greater gift in my life than what you have given me.
I hope for your further understanding, from any source, and for a world where there is less of a need to determine the relative merits of each of our particular normals.