Confronting Shame

16 years ago I lived in LA for 3 months to take an improv class. Me and 2 friends (one a boyfriend) rented rooms in a house around Silverlake. One day I was walking down the street holding hands with the boyfriend when we passed a neighbour on her lawn a few houses down. Out of nowhere she suddenly yelled “we don’t like your kind here! You’re not welcome! Get out!!” We were so confused. Everyone in this scenario was white, no accents, and dressed very plainly. What did she mean by “our kind?”

The best theory I could come up with was that we were mistaken as a gay couple. Here are the reasons why:

  • I wasn’t very attractive in those days, and as recently as a couple months earlier I had been mistaken for a dude.
  • Then one month earlier we were again holding hands in (bigotry capital of Canada) Calgary when some cowboys in a truck pulled up and yelled “F*GGOT!” directly at my boyfriend.
  • My boyfriend wasn’t the most masculine guy. He was plump and had man boobs. Maybe we had been mistaken as a gay lesbian couple.

If we were gay, there would be no shame. Obviously we were in the right and that would be the end of that. But because of the way it happened, I have carried shame all this time. We were a hetero couple and since it was my first real boyfriend, I wanted desperately to LOOK like one. I wanted to look “normal.” Pretty, like a girlfriend. I wasn’t trying to look like a dude. I was trying to look my best. I was just ugly, so much so that randos on the street felt obliged to tell me. The hurt stuck all these 16 years.

Anyways, I JUST realized my theory was most likely wrong. Since it was a neighbour, they probably saw my car parked in the driveway every day with it’s Ontario license plates. It was that we were Canadian. And in that case, just like gayness, it was something I had no control over. The shame was on the neighbour. (Not that anyone should carry shame for being ugly, but I’m sure you can imagine how that could happen.)

Why no shame on the Calgary incident? I think it was because my boyfriend walked like a dork. It’s hard to describe, but I can see why he’d stand out. I think “f*ggot” was just a catch-all insult for them. Why no shame on the dude incidents? I dunno. Mistakes happen. And I did improve my looks, which is something I’m proud of. There was just something about the fact that I was PAIRED with a BOY, playing a specific role- holding hands is THE boyfriend thing!- and very much not passing. (The fact that I was paired with the boy pretty much ONLY so I could play that role is another story for another time, but also important.)

I wondered what other shame I had been carrying simply because I hadn’t thought it through since the event. Then another one came:

One time at Girl Guide camp I got injured playing a game that the adult Guiders had organized. It was bad enough that I needed stitches and my clothes were soaked in blood. After they brought me back from the hospital I found a bucket, filled it with water and put my clothes in (as my mom had taught me- soak blood in cold water ASAP.) Then I hid the bucket under some deck stairs. A couple of hours later a little girl found it and screamed her head off. The Guider pulled it out from under the stairs, figured out what happened and yelled “AMY HENKEL!” It was a big scene, shaming me in front of everyone.

You would think that I had purposefully caused the blood- that this was a Carrie situation and I had planted it there just to traumatize this little girl. I think I was even punished for it. Thankfully it was the second last day but I was treated like I had very bad cooties by all the girls from that point on.

So obviously now that I’ve thought it through, I’ve realized that the shame was on the adult. They decided it would be a good idea to have kids hammer giant iron spikes as a game, and they left me to figure out what to do with my blood soaked clothes. All the anger they pointed at me was probably actually guilt. This isn’t a story about me realizing I was fundamentally gross, this is a story about irresponsible adults, and I had been telling myself the wrong story all this time.

As an exercise, I’m going to try and pull up as many shame sources as I can and confront them. They’re probably all pretty good stories too, but ones I’ve never told because I didn’t want to “go there.” What a treasure trove awaits! And no more shame!

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