Some years back I took part in a series of group sessions that focused on helping people confront and deal with inner shame that had haunted them since childhood. It was the first group in my experience that got me to interact with other people not just through talk but through dramatic reenactments of past painful encounters. This experience was one of the first to wake me up to the ways other people might see me, free of the projection of shame I usually cast over the judgments of others. By working with the members of this group in recreating traumatic dramas and talking through each one afterward, I could finally begin to see the inner shame I carried as a depressed belief, not an objective reality. The people I knew only in this setting were tremendously supportive and gave me hard evidence to fight back against a heritage of shame built up in my boyhood.
There was one moment of frustration with that group, though, that opened before me all the emotional violence of my boyhood and teenage years. I had a choice to face it openly or keep clamping down and forcing the powerful emotions to break under the pressure of my refusal to let them out. There was no clear ending to that crisis.
The incident in the group that set me off isn’t even all that clear to me now. I just remember that I felt overlooked. I must have been bypassed as others were telling their stories and I was preparing to tell my own. Suddenly the focus of the group shifted, and I never got my turn. Since I had been getting ready to pour out hidden grief about a major event of the past, I felt betrayed by everyone. I was angry, hurt, even fighting back tears, and I found myself determined not to let any of that show. I spent the rest of the time shutting down and burning all the energy I had not to reveal what was storming around inside me. And then it happened that my past opened up, and I found myself holding tight to my feelings in the midst of a raging family fight of years ago.
My brother and father were locked in a furious fight, hurling punches, then stumbling over each other wrestling, knocking aside a table, hitting the floor, my mother screaming herself hoarse at my dad to leave him alone, my brother at some point breaking free and running upstairs to lock himself in the bathroom. But my father pursued him on a wave of rage that lifted him up those stairs to start beating on that bathroom door, then shoulder-smashing it open. My mom shoved him aside to grab my sobbing brother in her arms while hoarsely bellowing at my father to get out, get out forever. And there I was standing by, following the scene as it unfolded, silent, holding in all feeling, convinced that if I were to rage with the rest of them there would be nothing left standing of family, home, safety.
For this was no typical scene of domestic violence unleashed by an alcoholic parent on a battered family. It was an ongoing battle between my mother and father, mostly fought with quiet verbal knives but often breaking into shadow fights of shouted abuse. My mom looked to my older brother as her champion in this bitter contest, and he took my dad on physically. I was alert each night as I tried to study in my room to the sounds of my father entering the house, and I would wait to hear how violently my brother would greet him. Would this be a night of combat or merely a night of quiet tension and anger? If I heard the hard challenge in my brother’s voice, I’d move to get into that room with them, somehow hoping my presence would help avoid the worst. When I held back from the fighting, refusing to see my dad only as a monster to be hated and attacked, my mother called me a traitor and a coward. Yet I held my ground of not taking sides because a greater fear than her contempt was fear of the complete breakdown of this fractured household, the only home I knew. And in my heart I loved them all – my mother, my father, my brother – wanted them together, wanted a family, though love in that house was such a tortured and punishing thing.
There was only one way to express anger, aggression, violence in safety, and that was by directing those feelings inwardly at myself. I had little awareness of what was happening, but depression took hold quite early in my life. And the belief grew over time that the monster I refused to see in my father or my mother or my brother had taken up residence in me. It was a long and costly struggle to keep him well hidden.
Jelena Popic – Fotolia.com