Speaking Shame

Today I am feeling discombobulated and out of sorts. Tiredness is making it hard to process my emotions, but I am trying to allow myself to feel them instead of burying them; to appreciate that, in this moment, this is how I’m feeling, and whilst it may not be that pleasant to feel this way, it’s okay, and it will pass. I have learned through my studies that acknowledgement without judgement and self-compassion are essential when dealing with negative emotions, so as well as doing my best to practice those I’m trying to rebalance my mind and body with gentle exercise classes like Pilates and Body Balance (particularly the latter with its mix of Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga).

As part of my Master’s research I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly by shame researcher Brené Brown, in which the author stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to become resilient to shame. In the spirit of this teaching, the following is a snapshot of the things currently swirling around in my brain:

  • I’m worried about the world my son is going to grow up in.
  • I’m worried I’m not doing enough to make it better for him.
  • I’m worried I’m not a good enough mother, that I’m too selfish to ‘do motherhood’ properly.
  • I’m worried about having another child, and whether I would cope.
  • I’m worried about having another miscarriage, or not being able to have another child at all.
  • I’m worried that sometimes I’m not a sensitive enough wife.
  • I’m worried about my ability and motivation to succeed in my chosen field.
  • I’m worried that this venture will fail like others before it, and that I will let this failure eat away at me until there is nothing left.
  • I’m worried about money.
  • I’m worried about (everyone’s) health.
  • I’m worried about death.
  • I’m worried that even when my life is damn near perfect (which it is) I still manage to find things to be worried about.

Many of the things in this list elicit feelings of shame, but as Brown herself says, speaking shame is the first step in defeating it. When we keep these kinds of emotions secret, they send us into a negative spiral, preventing us from connecting and empathising with those around us. They gain power over us, making our focus turn inwards and closing us off from the world. But when we shine a light on those emotions, admit to having them, share them with others, we realise that we aren’t alone in having them, and their power dissipates into the ether.

After writing my list I already feel lighter. What’s on yours?

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Five Weeks to Wed: Reflection on Youth

By the time I was seven I had the whole marriage thing wrapped up – my husband would be tall (at least a head taller than me), dark and handsome, I would be bedecked in lavish jewels and wear a big meringue dress (almost exactly like the one Jennifer Connelly wore in Labyrinth – see below). The ceremony, no less lavish than the dress (naturally), would take place in a beautiful church, with the reception in a grand country mansion. Guests would eat plentifully (mostly chocolate), and I would spend the remainder of my days tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Or something like that.

Fast forward 27 years (ouch) and the reality isn’t so far from the dream. My husband to be is indeed tall (not quite a head taller, but let’s not, if you’ll excuse the pun, split hairs) and handsome, if not quite dark (but red haired will do nicely). The lavish jewels are out (clearly my seven year old self had no concept of money), the dress thankfully not quite in the meringue league, and the ceremony will not be in a church (this part I’m sad about, but as we are not Catholic we weren’t allowed to marry in the on-site chapel, and will instead do it outside on the lawn, weather permitting…). And much as I’d have liked a meal made entirely of chocolate, my 34 year old self has to acknowledge it’s not to everyone’s taste. But on one front I’ve trumped seven year old me entirely, for we are not getting married in a grand country mansion, but an actual bona fide castle (albeit because our original, far less grand and ergo far less expensive venue cancelled, but still..). And in Austria, land of stunning lakes and mountains.

With five weeks to go the nerves are kicking in, not about the marriage itself (fortunately), but rather about the plethora of things still to be ticked off the to do list. And the weather. Such a thing shouldn’t matter, of course, but as putting up a marquee will cost us an extra grand I would dearly love to see a forecast devoid of rain when it comes to marquee decision day (two days before the main event). And also, given that our loved ones are making such an effort to be there on our special day,  I would love to have sunshine as much as for them as for us. But what will be will be. I’ve learned a lot during this process about not stressing over things you can’t control. It hasn’t always been easy but it’s another part of growing up. And on the whole, I think we’re both doing pretty well. Next stop: tripping the light fantastic and dancing on sunbeams with unicorns. Bring it on.

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Eight Weeks to Wed: An Update

Last weekend I went to Las Vegas for my hen party with six close friends. It was predictably fabulous. We crammed an enormous amount of fun into a short space of time and did ourselves – and Vegas – proud. Wild, unbridled hedonism like that is harder to come by as you march inexorably further into adulthood, which is why it’s so important to appreciate it when you have it. The same applies to friendships. Whilst they should be nurtured throughout life, opportunities to  celebrate them become fewer and farther between as the myriad demands of life creep into our daily existence. And so the memories of last weekend and all the laughs we shared will stay with me forever. I am truly grateful.

And now it’s time to look ahead. Eight weeks ahead, in fact, to my wedding day. As a child I always dreamed of this occasion, wondering who I would marry (or, more specifically, who would want to marry me!) Now it’s nearly here it feels surreal, like a dream. The organisation has been a  challenge, but I know it will be worth it when we look around at the hundred or so loved ones who are so generously travelling to Austria to share it with us. I feel so blessed not only to have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and to be so utterly confident in that statement, but also to have such wonderful and supportive people in my life.

Getting married feels like such a grown up thing to do. I feel ready for it, yet at the same time the little girl in me is tugging at my sleeve, chewing her nails down to the stub with worry. Will I be a good wife? A good mother? Am I actually mature enough to take this step? I have always felt a dichotomy within me. On the one hand there is the dreamer, the thinker, the artist; the one who likes to party and who yearns to travel, to explore, to be free. And on the other is the planner, the matriarch-in-waiting who wants nothing more than to care for others, to have a family and thrive on being responsible for others, instead of being concerned only with myself.

In some respects I suppose I’ve always felt that having a family would save me from myself, and stop me from pursuing the relentless search for meaning that drives my every waking moment. But now I’m on the cusp of that I’m filled with fear; of all that I ‘should’ have done up to this point in my life, and of all I will not be able to do if and when I take that next step. I suppose these worries are normal, and that everyone has them at some point in the run up to making such a big commitment to another person.

I don’t expect for one moment that getting married will mean a life free of worry and drama; far from it. But what it will do is cement our partnership in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God, in whom I do believe, at least in some form. It is a statement of intent on both our parts that we are prepared to put each other first, to work through all our issues together, and to co-create a stable and loving environment for our future children. The divorce rates reported so gleefully in the news don’t bother me at all. Marriage has always been important to me, and I am entering into it with my eyes and heart wide open.

The fun-loving, free-spirited party girl will always be a part of me, I have no intention of shunning her or locking her away. But despite my fears what is becoming ever clearer to me is that I owe it to myself to explore the other side of who I am, to get to know the girl who wants so desperately to help, to make a difference, to put love above all else.

This is a new chapter in the story of my life. And I am ready to turn the page.

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Mister Moneybags

(I wrote this yesterday and, for reasons I can’t go into now, didn’t get round to posting it. Let’s just say yesterday was a tough day).

Hey Mister Moneybags, look at you! In your high rise office with your high flying job. Is that suit from Savile Row by any chance? I knew it! And those shoes, genuine Italian leather from last weekend’s jaunt to Milan? How’s the wife? The kids?The mistress? What’s that-two mistresses?! Gosh, you really do know how to live the high life! Has your golf handicap improved? Surely those expensive clubs have paid off by now? Not to mention that public school education. By golly your parents must be proud.

You know what Mister Moneybags? You really have made it, whatever ‘it’ is. You are the definition of success. Everything you ever wanted is yours. You’ve got properties and cars by the dozen, private jets and yachts the likes of which most of us can only dream of. Your family must adore the lifestyle you’ve created for them.

What’s that Mrs Moneybags? You’d rather have a husband than the lifestyle? And not have to share him with dozens of floozies at that? You’re sick of making excuses to the kids about why daddy’s let them down again? And actually if truth be told you’re starting to re-think the marriage altogether?

Oh dear Mister Moneybags, maybe you can’t have it all, after all…

The Wait

This wasn’t the first time Carrie had been late, but today Max was worried. He’d been waiting for nearly twenty minutes and every further second that passed felt like the ticking of a bomb. His shirt was drenched in sweat and he knew his hands would be trembling were they not stuffed deep into his pockets.

Why was he so worried? He had no reason to be. She’d seemed fine when she left the house yesterday-all smiles in fact. But she’d left her phone on the kitchen work top so he couldn’t call her now to check she was alright. Not that she’d have her phone with her now anyway, he thought.

Don’t panic, he told himself as he checked his watch for the hundredth time. She’ll be here. She’ll be safe. An unwanted image popped into his head of a mangled car wreck with a pale, slender arm extended through a broken window. He shook his head as if the physical motion of the gesture would dislodge the negative thought. It didn’t.

He wasn’t sure he’d ever felt such strength of passion towards her as he did in these interminable moments of not knowing she was safe. For five years now they’d been almost inseparable, and all of a sudden as he stood here waiting for her and thoughts of losing her sprang unbidden and unwelcome into his mind he felt he simply couldn’t live without her.

As his fretting reached a crescendo music began seeping through the window of his consciousness. A flurry of movement brought him back to himself and his immediate environment. The heavy wooden door creaked open behind him and his heart leapt into his mouth as realisation dawned. She was here, at last. And in a matter of only a few minutes more, she would be his wife.

The Boss

I’ve decided to enter a short story competition, and this is my first attempt at the beginning of the story. What do you think? Honest opinions welcomed…

The Boss

The first time Matt slammed Annie’s head into the wall he said it was an accident. He was going to punch the wall, he said, but her head had got in the way. It was her fault, naturally. It always was. The second time was harder for him to deny. They’d been having breakfast in the conservatory on what she remembered to be a hot and sticky summer’s day. He’d asked about her male colleague, Sam, who he’d met at a work function the previous evening. Had they ever been alone together, he’d wanted to know.

She should have said no but she told him the truth; that of course they had on the odd occasion, travelling to meetings and so forth. It was the wrong answer. She spent that night in A&E with a split lip, black eye and bruised collarbone. He’d been treated for scratches where his hand had made contact with the glass of the conservatory. They knew, the hospital staff, it was obvious. But though they pleaded with their eyes for her to tell the truth she knew the consequences of doing so were far more dangerous than even they realised. And so she stayed silent.

It hadn’t always been like this, of course. When they met at Matt’s university’s graduation ball five years ago he’d bewitched her. Six foot two with gladiatorial stature and eyes the colour of swimming pools he’d not only been her type, he’d been her Adonis. Annie hadn’t thought it possible such a man could exist; as it turned out, he didn’t. When she looked at him now she saw not infinite possibility in his azure eyes, but infinite cruelty – how had she not seen it before?

He was an excellent liar – that much became apparent early on in their relationship, when she started to find the receipts in his jacket pockets, the clichéd lipstick on his collar. She should have left him then, of course, but she was pregnant with Jack. How could she have left? Her parents were dead, she had no savings to her name – he’d made sure everything was in his name. So instead she stayed, played the role of the oblivious wife perfectly. He never suspected a thing.

If there was any solace it was that he didn’t lay a finger on their son. The beatings lessened in severity during the pregnancy, and he was careful not to punch her near her stomach. He may have been a soulless man, but even he knew harming his unborn child was going too far. Instead he slapped her face, burned her legs with cigarettes, just enough to keep her in line, to show her who was boss – oblivious to the fact she would soon show him that it was her.

Raw

Why do they say that the air is crisp, as if it were something that one could bite into, that one could touch? The air’s no crisper than the sun, though that at least would burn you to a crisp if you could get close enough to touch it.

It’s funny what thoughts pop into your mind, unbidden, after a traumatic life episode. Here I am, lacing up my boots – the ones with the dodgy soles that let the water in, which are really altogether pointless as it’s almost always wet outside – and instead of thinking about what’s happened I’m ruminating on the physical qualities of the air and the sun. I suppose this could be called a ‘coping mechanism,’ in which case I should probably be glad of it. Lord knows I’d rather think about the air and sun than all the other jumbled mass of thoughts and emotions that are swirling around in the background of my mind.

I call Betty and she tears into the room with her trademark boundless enthusiasm. Betty is a cocker spaniel. She’s brown with white splodges of various shapes and sizes that look as if someone’s used her as a canvas to try and recreate a Jackson Pollock painting. She’s named after the landlady at the bed and breakfast where we got engaged. With hindsight that’s ridiculous, but when we bought her we were sickeningly in love and blind to sense.

I’m walking down the road now, treading the path that’s been so well trodden over our ten year marriage. The tarmac’s hard and unforgiving beneath my feet. Betty’s straining at her lead; she may be an old girl but she’s got more life in her than I’ll ever have. But I won’t let her off the lead until we’re on the footpath. Can’t risk anything happening to her – she’s all I have now.

Charles Reginald Harper (prefers to be known as Reg).

Likes: Arguing (loudly), snoring (ditto), mustard on rare roast beef, red wine, cherry jam, walks in the country, art (except, ironically, Pollock) and obscure foreign literature.

Dislikes: People not agreeing with him (always), his wife (most of the time).

As we veer off the road onto the footpath – Betty scrambling over the muddy terrain as if her life depends on it – I run our last argument through my mind. It was over nothing, as always, something as inconsequential as him not having done the dishes. But then it wouldn’t have killed him to do them, would it? Once in the whole damn marriage?

But I digress. His not doing the dishes aside, all of those silly, petty arguments aside; he was a good husband. It’s funny how it takes something like this to make you realise the good things about a person, to see them in a light that has been dimmed for far too long.

Still. We walk on, Betty and I, through the fields of corn that sway in the light breeze like lovers clasped together in a slow dance. I remember then the dance of our wedding day, the way his hand rested on my waist, the reassuring weight of it.

Where did we go wrong? Somewhere along the journey of our lives together we took diverging paths. I’m not sure either of us knew it at the time, but by the time we did realise it was too late to go back; weeds and thorns had grown across the paths behind us.

When we return from our walk I unclip Betty’s lead and pour myself a scotch; his favourite drink. I sit in his favourite chair and look out across his favourite view. And then it hits me. A tidal wave of grief that I have hitherto suppressed rises up and catches in my throat, emerging as a roar of emotion. Or should that be a raw of emotion, because that’s all I now am – raw.

I don’t blame him for leaving, how can I?

I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.

I took this picture yesterday in East Stratton, Hampshire. It was the inspiration for this story.