I started writing this blog to share my dreams, but also allow myself to talk about some of the more difficult challenges that arise in this human experience of mine– particularly the trials of overcoming addiction. The topic I am reading this week in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is “Recovering a Sense of Power.” Julia discusses how many of our creative voices were stunted earlier in life, often out of reoccurring shame. I found it a moving chapter and have a daunting set of tasks ahead.
“Those of us who get bogged down by fear before action are usually being sabotaged by an older enemy, shame. Shame is a controlling device… Making a piece of art may feel a lot like telling a family secret. Secret telling, by its very nature, involves shame and fear. It asks the question ‘What will they think of me once they know this?’ This is a frightening question, particularly if we have ever been made to feel ashamed for our curiosities and explorations… Art brings things to light. It illuminates us. It sheds light on our lingering darkness. It casts a beam into the heart of our own darkness… Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing. But before a wound can heal it must be seen, and this act of exposing the wound to air and light, the artist’s act, is often reacted to with shaming… If a child has ever been made to feel foolish for believing himself or herself talented, the act of actually finishing a piece of art will be fraught with internal shaming… A lifetime of this kind of experience, in which needs for recognition are routinely dishonored, teaches a young child that putting anything out for attention is a dangerous act….”
And so even writing this blog can sometimes feel like a dangerous act to me. “Uh-oh, I’m putting myself out there. What will people think of me?” When my topics are a little less than enthusiastic, I feel hesitation to post it. Just as I feel as I write this. But, through all my struggles I have wished that there was someone I could have looked to who was willing to talk about the things I couldn’t. So, as I struggled to work through so much, I feel it is necessary to share it with others. Because I know I’m not alone.
It was an awful feeling to admit I was depressed when I had a lovely home, a wonderful husband, two healthy children, and a successful career. What did I have to complain about? I feared that admitting my depression would cause everything to fall apart. I tried to push through. Then the further I pushed, the more I fell apart. Every night I cried and cried. My home was the safest place I had ever known, I didn’t understand how I could be so unhappy. Little did I know that the security of my home and my relationships was what allowed my to begin unloading the baggage I had carried around for so long.
Often I was able to keep my adolescent and early adult memories of intense anxiety, sexual assault, domestic disputes, financial crisis, drug and alcohol abuse, unstable relationships, and emotional neglect at bay by burying myself in my work. In ways, working on a reservation felt familiar, it felt like a distant home. I was baffled as students felt so at ease with me, as I did with them. Sadly, this put me in a situation where I began to hear familiar and heart breaking stories. I wasn’t just hearing their stories, I was hearing my own. They were still there.
Breaking through denial and addiction is the only way to really get through to the truths, not shame them, but accept them. Writing has been the way for me to do this. I’ve been writing in personal journals for almost two years now, resulting in a shelf full of realized fears, anger, frustrations, guilt, and shame. My journals became a safe place in which I could be honest with myself, in which I could explore the tangled web of emotion and turmoil that existed within.
The addiction to work is an old one for me. It goes back fifteen years to when I first began working. It didn’t take long for me to realize that work was a place I could act like everything was okay, even if it wasn’t. Soon, I was working as many hours as I could– 25-35 a week, through high school. I would take someone’s closing shift in a heartbeat, just so I wouldn’t have to walk into a potentially explosive environment. Sometimes I’d arrive at work, dry my tears from the crisis earlier in the day, and proceed to give the best service I could to my customers. It was an easy trap to get into: I achieved an emotional high and received better tips by entering this state of denial. This pattern easily rolled over into academia, where I could escape into a world of possibility and gain positive feedback through grades. Eventually, this pattern stopped benefiting me.
This pattern of addiction wove itself into a fabricated existence, a blanket of denial in which I wrapped my overwhelmed soul. I continued to deny that any pain remained, that any anger was warranted, or that any fear was related. As I began to work through my issues, I saw the signs of denial and addiction so obvious in the words and actions of others. They end up getting stuck in the same problems over and over again. They’ll need help but say, “I’m not the one who needs help.”
I am ready to say that we all need help. We are all human and hurting for some reason. If your first response is, “I don’t want to talk about that stuff. It’s too painful.” Then all the more reason to bring it into the light, release the shame, and recover the power.
Cameron says, “Many blocked people are actually very powerful and creative personalities who have been made to feel guilty about their own strengths and gifts… Made to feel guilty about their talents, they often hide under a bushel for fear of hurting others. Instead, they hurt themselves.”
I am tired of hurting myself. My creative core is tired of being abused. I refuse to carry baggage of a shameful past, in which I need no reason to feel shame. I’m ready to be honest with myself and share myself with others. Perhaps my words can help loosen a the grip of fear for someone else. So here, I declare, without shame: Yes, I have lived in denial. I was raised in a dysfunctional family. I don’t have many fond memories of the holidays. I called 911 on many occasions. I smoked marijuana for twelve years with varying degrees of habitual dependency. I was raped and sexually assaulted as a teenager. I attempted suicide more than once. I lost many friends because I did not know what healthy relationships looked like. I felt ashamed at school. I relied on addictions to numb out the pain. I let myself remain in romantic relationships that were degrading. I practiced self-loathing.
I’ve admitted something was wrong. I’ve been in therapy. I’ve been learning to be honest. I’ve been learning to draw my own boundaries. I’ve been learning to share with others. I’ve been learning to care for myself. I’ve been learning to accept and let go of the pain, rather than numb it. I’ve been learning to love myself. I’ve been learning to accept that others love me. I can say it has been and continues to be a difficult path. It doesn’t have the comfort level of denial or the highs of addictions. But there is joy in living in the present. That makes it worth continuing no matter how dark the memories are or how painful it becomes.
This week’s tasks in the Artist’s Way are designed to look back at some of the childhood times. Many of which may have elements of joy and shame. It’s a process of becoming honest and having the courage to recover the power lost to shame.
- Describe or sketch my childhood room. What was your favorite thing about it? I had several rooms growing up; I might have to sketch several to find out which one felt most like mine.
- Describe five traits I liked in myself as a child. This requires the kind of love an acceptance I give my own children.
- List five of my childhood accomplishments.
- List five of my favorite childhood foods. Buy myself one of them this week.
- Take a look at my habits. Many of them may interfere with my self-nurturing and
cause shame. List three obvious rotten habits. What’s the payoff in continuing them? Some rotten habits are more subtle. List three of my subtle foes. What use do these forms of sabotage have? Be specific.
- Make a list of friends who nurture me— that’s nurture (give me a sense of my own competency and possibility), not enable (give me the message that I will never get it straight without their help).
- Call a friend who treats me like I am a really good and bright person who can accomplish things.
- Explore my inner compass. This is the instinct that points us toward health. It warns us when we are on dangerous ground, and it tells us when something is safe and good for us. I will take an hour to follow my inner compass by doing an artist-brain activity and listening to what insights bubble up.
- List five people you admire. Now, list five people you secretly admire. What traits do these people have that you can cultivate further in yourself?
- List five people you wish you had met who are dead. Now, list five people who are dead whom you’d like to hang out with for a while in eternity. What traits do you find in these people that you can look for in your friends?
- Compare the two sets of lists. Take a look at what I really like and really admire— and a look at what I think I should like and admire. Note the differences.