“What’s your biggest fear?” I asked my teenage boyfriend as we lay side by side on the top of a picnic table, looking up at the night sky ablaze with unmolested stars.
His body, once subtle and molded to mine, became firm, rigid even with anger and intent, as he replied,
“Turning into my father.”
His father was a man who was once successful but squandered it away. His father was a man feared by many but respected by few. His father was an alcoholic who courted drink at night rather than his wife. His father was a man who went from top billing in his career to collecting unemployment. His father was a man who was unreachable to his son, there but not there.
I looked over at my boyfriend, recalling his openness, his resolve, his capacity for intimacy and couldn’t imagine him turning into his father.They were polar opposites in my view and I assured him as such.
I should have listened.
Fast forward a few years and that boy became my husband. He worked hard and found success. He created a life he could be proud of, a life worlds apart from his father.
And then something happened.
I’ve had to make educated guesses about this part, since this is where the lies began. It may not be entirely accurate, but it certainly feels right.
His company closed. He lost his job. He couldn’t find another. This happened when those around him were finding success. He probably saw echoes of his father’s fall from grace when he plummeted from the tops of the working ranks.
He let his job tell him what he was worth. So when he had no job, he had no value.
He felt ashamed. And scared.
As before, he worked doggedly to carve out a path different than his father. Only this time he was desperate. Blinded by fear and shame.
And his desperation led him along a path parallel to that of his old man.
He lied about employment, using credit to create “income” where there was none.
And the shame grew.
He began to drink, turning to alcohol to try to hide from the truth.
And the shame grew.
He created an alternate persona and introduced him to people that didn’t know his past. That persona never faced failure. Never felt fear. Never experienced shame.
But the real man was buried deeper. Each action making it harder for him to ever come out of the hole in which he found himself.
Shame told him he was broken. Worthless. Unworthy as he truly was.
And he listened.
And his greatest fear came true.
Because he was too ashamed to look vulnerable.
Too ashamed to ask for help.
Too ashamed to face his choices.
He gave up the fight.
He gave up himself.
A dishonorable dischange from his own life.
When he left, some of that shame latched on to me. I felt a fool for being blind. I felt like I failed by not stopping the descent. I felt stupid for trusting.
These mantras wrapped through my mind like the stock updates in Times Square.
That was bad enough.
But it was private shame. Bearable.
But when I had to face others with financial reality of it all?
It still stops me in my tracks.
Every time I have to act on a bill from him or face the reality of my piss poor credit, I cower. I tremble. I feel sick, my insides churning.
I feel unworthy.
I feel dirty, broken.
I feel ashamed.
I allow the numbers on the accounts to dictate my value and I feel judged for their balances.
It should be improving.
But it’s not.
I still let money, or the lack thereof, tell me what I’m worth.
I’m listening to shame.
And she lies.
She tells me to hide rather than face.
Conceal rather than reveal.
Which is precisely why I share.
Shame is like a vampire, exposure to the sun can weaken or even kill it.
I know her tricks. The fear she uses to try to bury her victims.
And I won’t be one of them.