So what are we going to do about it?
December. I was standing in the kitchen of the 1000 sq ft, two bedroom rental house I shared with my mom and my sister when a tiny light bulb appeared over my sweet, five year old, ratty-haired head. We weren’t bloated-belly starving poor, but excess was not a concept with which I was familiar. We had just enough. Just barely. My mom had made cookies the night before and the scent still lingered…a rare indulgence. It was 6:30am and dark outside as we rushed around stuffing sweatered bodies into tattered coats and pulling on snow boots to leave for the morning. I stood on the curling vinyl tiles of the kitchen floor watching my sister and mom fuss with mittens. The light was off. The air was cold. The glow from the little bulb over my head felt bright and warm.
I glanced over to the counter and there were one, two, three…six cookies left. I feel compelled to reiterate that those kind of treats were scarce in my life. I think I know why that idea came into my head. I wanted the other kids to like me…maybe even love me. I was only five but was already a socially inept little weirdo who struggled to make friends. Regardless of the retrospectively selfish undertones, I remember it as being my first real altruistic impulse. While my mom had her back turned, I grabbed a generic sandwich baggie from the yellow box in the creaky drawer and stuffed all six of those cookies into the baggie to take to my second home: day care.
I had to hide them from my mom because she would have shit if she knew I was going to give our precious stash of cookies away, so into my pocket they went. I was literally giddy with excitement at the idea of having the means to give something to my playmates. Those cookies were soooooo good. I wanted to share more than anything . This was new for me. It’s not that I was greedy and selfish, it’s just that I had never really had anything to share with anyone outside of my house. I wanted badly to give of myself to someone…to be the person that had enough to give.
We got to daycare, signed in, and after I saw the door close behind my mom, I pulled the now semi-smashed 6 chocolate chip cookies out of my pocket and began handing them out. The kids at my daycare were pretty much like me…poor, working class, not a lot of extras in our lives…and as soon as one or two had been handed out, I was bum rushed. Kids were grabbing and snatching and started fighting over those six precious treats at 6:45am. I didn’t realize it at the time but almost every kid there was hungry.
It wasn’t more than 20 seconds before Miss Kathy stomped over and roughly tore the cookie bag from my hands and started snatching the baked remnants from anyone she saw. “Knock it off!” she screeched as the crowd dispersed and her furrowed eyes trained on me.
I can still feel the fear that washed over me, knowing I had done something really wrong but not knowing what. I was still startled from the way the kids had rushed me and that fear turned into shame as Miss Kathy grabbed my arm, led me to the corner of the room, and started berating me for bringing those cookies.
“Why would you bring these? Huh??? Don’t you know that you don’t bring something to share unless you have enough for everyone??? What were the kids who didn’t get any going to have? Nothing??? Answer me!”
The tears poured out of my eyes….My tiny heart couldn’t bear the pain. I couldn’t speak. The more I cowered, the louder she got. I had only wanted to share…that’s all. I could barely count at that point, let alone possess the capacity to know that six cookies, which looked like a goddamn feast to me, wouldn’t make a dent in feeding the hungry, deprived kiddos who spent 10–12 hours per day with me at daycare. I remember being overcome with such a powerful sadness. My heart that was so full of joy just 15 minutes before, was now crushed. I couldn’t figure out what had happened. My mom got called. She reamed me, too. I went to bed without dinner, which worked because I wouldn’t have been able to eat anyway. My gut was already filled with shame.
Goddamnit, I can still literally go back to that moment, 33 years later. It wasn’t about the fucking cookies. It was about being poor. It was about looking for love and feeling rejection instead. It was about innocence lost and making losing bets. It was about feeling lonely and thinking I had found a fix, only to fail. It was about being taken down a notch and reminded of my place. It was about how, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t good enough.
Shame is powerful. Shame will eat your self-esteem and make you question yourself in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise. Shame will haunt you. It’s buried deep and yet affects you on the surface. And we all harbor shame from childhood. Shame about our circumstances. Shame about our bodies. Shame about sex. Shame projected onto us from our parents. Shame about being poor and dressing in shabby clothes. Shame about misunderstandings and even shame from the best of intentions. Shame about poor choices that you didn’t know at the time were poor.
Letting go of shame is hard, but its important. The memories may never leave you, but the way you process the feelings and the degree to which you allow them to limit you are within your control. I know this because I had to do that work. I wish that the cookies were my worst experience with shame, but that’s simply not the case. That experience was my first, but certainly not my last or my most powerful.
We’ve got a couple of choices. We can indulge the feelings of inadequacy and arrange our lives around limiting the negative feelings, thus granting those feelings permission to make decisions for us — or — the other option is to revisit the experiences and reframe them. We get to dictate their meaning. We aren’t helpless anymore. We get to go back in our memories and choose different endings.
In my mind, the cookie memory is strong and I can still feel what I felt in that moment, but I no longer want to crawl into a ball and hide like I used to. I also don’t feel shame for borrowing my sister’s toothbrush when I was six or putting my Grandma’s stamp in the wrong color ink when I was 7. I don’t feel shame for being an ugly duckling or socially inept grade schooler. I don’t feel shame for being promiscuous in high school or for any other choices I made when I was merely a child looking to be loved.
I decided recently to stop allowing shame to dictate my thoughts and actions. It was a conscious choice. It was painful but necessary, just like sharing this story was. As fellow Big Book scholars know, you are only as sick as your secrets. I don’t intend to keep the secrets that feed my shame anymore.