I didn’t have a word for it as a child, but it’s as clear as day now….the word was: shame. I have carried that feeling with me for as far back as I can remember being alive, and by five years old it had already begun to strip me of my childhood. By definition, shame is a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by wrong or foolish behavior. In my case, that foolish and wrong behavior came with a name attached to it – -“Daddy.” I distinctly remember the first time the word “daddy” rolled off my tongue; it felt unnatural – and yet I still I opted to call my step-father by such an endearing word because I desperately wanted to have a father figure in my life. I had never met my biological father, as he had left my teenage mother when she was eight months pregnant. Because of this, I was happy to have both a mom and a dad, and beyond ecstatic to have a new baby sister.
Our life seemed pretty “normal” Monday through Friday, but once Friday night rolled around, everyone and anyone that had eyes or ears knew that hell existed behind the doors of 37-28 95th street. By five years old I could already identify that there were different levels of being an alcoholic. As the years passed, he went from being a happy, talkative drunk, to a depressed drunk, then to an angry drunk, and eventually graduating to a violent drunk. For years I had to endure watching him being physically abusive to my mom. One moment all would be okay at home, and the next there would be horrifying screams that were silenced only by the blaring sirens of police cars pulling up to the front of our house. This would happen week after week. I would run to my living room window that faced the front of the house and peek through the blinds to watch these larger than life figures make their way out of their car; everything happened in slow motion. I recall seeing the swirl of the flashing lights blinding me, but even through the glare, I could still see the nosey neighbors standing outside waiting to catch a glimpse of the freak show. In spite of this, once I knew police were at the scene I could exhale. Then came the explosive knock on the door. “Llego la policia!” Sometimes my step-father would be forced out in handcuffs, but on most weekends he would just get a verbal warning. It was just another domestic dispute in the hood, and by Monday morning all would be back to normal, including my fake smile for the world.
I recall feeling ashamed that others thought that this monster was my father, and so one day when someone said something about him, I blurted out with great joy “he is not my father!” It was as if the veil of shame had been lifted. It was a great feeling, and I wanted more of it. It was the first I had the understanding that speaking my truth was liberating. I started standing up for my mom, fighting back against my step-father verbally and sometimes even physically. I felt empowered for the first time. My newly found voice, however, came with a price. I began to feel a deep rage brewing within me, and eventually, I came to the realization that I too now had a monster living within me.
I was probably about ten when my monster was finally born. I don’t recall exactly when, but when she did make her debut I felt protected. She would lie quietly asleep inside me until provoked, and then burst forth into an uncontrollable rage. She had no reasoning skills, she lacked compassion, and her only objective was to protect me by using her venomous tongue to destroy anything or anyone that appeared to pose a threat. Thankfully she wasn’t physically violent, but if necessary, she was prepared for any and all battles, big and small.
“My monster” seemed to be working for me; I almost always got my way, and was quick to put people in their place – from the store clerk who wasn’t fast enough ringing me up to the guy who cut me off on the highway. If you didn’t get the flip of my middle finger, you got a piece of my mind, and I always felt good about it. I never felt shame for my actions, I only felt powerful.
At 23 years old, I met Marlon. I had known him from the neighborhood and never thought much about him. One day I saw him with new eyes. He was kind, compassionate and treated me like a Queen. He brought out the best in me. I felt safe, protected, loved and adored. I learned how to love for the first time in my life. I also began to realize that I no longer needed “my monster” to protect me. Unfortunately, that realization was short lived.
By 2008 we had three children and three businesses. Then the stock market crashed. With the crash came the downfall of our businesses as well as our marriage. As our future seemed unclear I once again felt unprotected. In my despair, I became so verbally abusive towards him that eventually, I drove him to the point of abandoning me emotionally.
Without realizing I began to revert to the behaviors that had protected me in my youth; except I wasn’t that same person anymore. Resorting to my old, barbaric strategies when I knew better created new problems and internal conflicts. I was ashamed, and this shame brought me to the precipice of a mental breakdown. We spoke of divorce, but thankfully never followed through with it. Miraculously we “fought” our way back and entered a period of healing that allowed us to repair our marriage. It was just in time. Six months after our reconciliation Marlon was diagnosed with cancer. A little over a year later he passed away on May 7, 2013.
For most of my adult life, I lived in fight or flight mode. When people hurt me, or I perceived a threat, I would make it a point to hurt them first. I wounded people with words as sharp as daggers. In operating from this space I’ve caused others unnecessary pain, mostly myself. It took my husband’s death to realize that I had a great deal of work to do within. My healing has come via tremendous physical, mental, emotional and spiritual work. It has also come by way of unexpected redemption. I became an accidental story-teller, and in sharing my truth over these last five years since my husband’s death, I have been able to free myself from the shackles of shame. Our truth often comes with great discomfort and uncertainty, but there is no greater pain than carrying around shame from our past. Shame is the sister of guilt, and together they weigh upon us like a bag of bricks. But we can release ourselves from the grip of shame, and navigate our way through it with grace by letting go of the abuses and injustices that have been done to us, as well as those we’ve inflicted on others. We can choose to set the burdensome bag down, and in doing so, find miraculous healing, and beautiful new beginnings.