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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

Anatomy of a Shame Storm

"The Truth shall set you free." (John 8:31) The journey into our own hearts is the bravest journey we will ever take, but it is essential to living a wild, beautiful life of peace, purpose, and joy.

 

It has been several years since I wrote this piece.  Learning about trauma and abuse and its impact on my way of being in the world has been heart-breaking but transformative. My healing has been vast, my freedom expansive, but I won’t sugarcoat the ugliness of going deep into my heart. With God’s grace and professional help, my husband and I have both dismantled mountains of shame within us. I share these raw words so every person knows freedom and healing are not just possible, they are the promise. You are not alone. Come with me on the Journey of the Beloved. The Truth will set you free.


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It has been five months since I learned that I was sexually abused as a child. My deepest inner self was not at all surprised. My emotional and reptilian brain said, YES. This feels so true.  But tell that to my frontal lobe that engages intellectually and grapples with understanding. I have really, really struggled to process this knowledge. My rational brain analyzes. How can it be true if it doesn’t make sense? How can it be true if I don’t know the details? I continue a decades-old war with myself:

 

Body versus mind.

Emotion versus intellect.

Intuition versus reality.

 

I was sexually abused. For five months, I have attempted to numb this news. I ignored this news. I tried to process it intellectually by finding podcasts and articles and books that talk about abuse and trauma. But the hard work of sitting with this news with my own self, in my body, is still really, really painful. I can’t tolerate it for very long before I have to put the news back in its box and make a feeble promise to myself to take it out again later.

 

In the last five months, I have learned something with certainty that will determine the outcome of this interior conflict:


In trauma, the symptoms don’t lie. (1)

The earthquake of my initial flashback experience, the multiple shockwaves since -- they don’t lie. I must accept and believe my body. If I can ignore my frontal lobe for a little while, this is not hard. The truth is, everything about being sexually abused as a child fits. It is the missing puzzle piece to an inner battle I have never understood about myself.


Little Girl Me

Today I recognized the parts of me that react out of childhood sexual abuse and engaged them with kindness and compassion. Like many abuse survivors (and victims of betrayal trauma) I am insecure about love relationships. I struggle to trust. I struggle to believe I am worthy of love. I am hyper-vigilant and easily threatened by seemingly innocent situations. People or interactions can feel dangerous and I get small out of helplessness and fear, or I employ my inner defenses as fierce protection, all of which set off a fiery shame storm as I struggle to understand what is wrong with me.

 

Several months, I went to my husband's office to bring him lunch on his birthday. When I got there, I saw an over-the-top birthday balloon by his desk.  He said it was from Stephanie. IMMEDIATELY my body escalated to red-alert. “Who the *%@! is Stephanie???” I wanted to demand.

 

It was a familiar moment. My blood pressure went up, my skin tingled, my face was hot. I didn’t know if I could keep the panic out of my voice to ask about her. It was perfectly reasonable to ask my husband about a ridiculously large birthday balloon from a woman I had never heard of, but I still felt shame. “Who is Stephanie?” I managed to ask with as much normalcy as I could muster. He said she was a girl who worked at the front desk.

 

I could tell my husband knew this was thin-ice for me.  He worked hard to be detached and normal about it, but this had the undesired effect of making me feel worse because it confirmed that I was “such a problem.” I am not sure he heard the emotion in my first question, but he couldn’t miss it in my response, “I hope she gets a balloon like that for all the providers in the office.”

 

The implication of my comment was obvious: Do you and Stephanie have something going on here? Does Stephanie have a thing for you? What does she mean with this balloon? The thoughts raged uninvited. He answered simply, “I don’t know.”


My dear husband loves me so much and knows my struggles, has been walking closely with me through my trauma. I am grateful he was gentle and gracious with what surely sounded like an accusation.

 

We both let it go, and I stayed and visited with him while we had lunch. I tried to manage my fear. It is so hard for me to articulate exactly what the problem is in these situations. I do not believe my husband is being unfaithful to me or inappropriate with the woman from the front-desk. It is not as simple as jealousy.

 

It is danger. Terror. The balloon is a threat, hurting me in a way I couldn’t quite understand. I tried to coach myself: There is no fear here. There is only a balloon that has come from a woman you don’t know. I tried to imagine an alternate scenario where I exclaimed: “Oh my goodness, what a big balloon! How fun! Who’s that from?” “Oh, Stephanie from the front desk,” he answers. “Oh wow, that’s so thoughtful!” I respond cheerfully and I enjoy the feeling of my husband feeling appreciated and cared for at work. 

 

Why does it TERRIFY me that my husband would feel cared for and appreciated by a woman at work? Because I am not enough.  Relationships aren’t safe.  People can’t be trusted.

 

This is all so familiar. I have lived this scenario, the assessment of danger and a similar reactive response, for as long as I can remember. Most of the time, the flow chart of “Why-Do-I-Feel-This-Way-And-Why-Is-This-Happening” ends in the bubble that declares: YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. Then, I either try to become so small I can disappear, or my inner defenses come out swinging and I blame the other person.



 I am grateful my understanding of shame allowed me to recognize that I deeply trust my husband and that this situation was not about him. It was about me. That understanding did nothing to quell the terror, though. A visceral reaction spiraled my body into shame and self-rejection: Oh, my goodness. Here you go again. What is wrong with you? You are not normal. Why are you such a problem? You are so dramatic. Everything upsets you. You will ruin his birthday. This will make him leave you.  

 

Several hours after I left, my husband sent me a picture of his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing that someone at work bought to celebrate. I was at the grocery store buying the ingredients for this same cake and I immediately felt selfishly deflated. I realized that making this cake was not about me; it should be about my husband enjoying the cake, but my joy was gone. I flooded with shame and my nervous system kicked into self-defense. I couldn’t think of a reasonable response.

 

Well, fine, then I won’t make you a cake.

Why don’t you bring that dumb cake home and we’ll eat that???

 

Stupid, stupid stuff. I then shamed myself for feeling shame. For having a flood of uncontrolled emotion that I didn’t understand and I couldn’t stop. It was primal.

 

If my husband doesn’t really appreciate me on his birthday then he won’t really need me and our attachment bond isn’t secure and I will feel afraid because he may leave me. I have to be the only special person to be safe.

 

Is that it? I struggled to listen to my heart and my body. After decades of similarly reactive responses, it was new to consider this could be about attachment. I told myself the cake could have been from anyone. Maybe they do this in the office for all the birthdays. It does not need to mean it’s personal. But I still felt threatened. There was still danger. Other people providing love and care for my husband, even in a very appropriate way, made me feel scared and small. My reactive inner defense, I call her the Warden, was angry and protective.


This all happened in the span of moments as I stood in the aisle of the grocery store staring at my phone. I couldn't respond to his text. My shame was enormous because I was again the problem. I was shallow, selfish, ridiculous, stupid, and unreasonable.  This was familiar. My litany of self-contempt flowed into the growing pool of reasons to reject myself.

 

Knowing my husband would like a reply, I typed a cryptic response: hmmmmm. Stealing my thunder. Then I felt shame for my words and added: “Are you sure you want another cake? I don’t have to make one.” I am not proud of these texts, but they were the best I could do.

 

I put my phone away while I pushed the cart around the store.  My shame storm grew.  I could barely regulate my emotions while checking out with the clerk. I looked at my husband’s last text: “I am sorry, love. I didn’t mean to upset you by sending the picture.” His response was so sweet and loving. He was so patient, but his kindness increased my shame and made me feel worse. I couldn’t receive his love and understanding because I KNEW I was ridiculous; the only thing I deserved was for him to call me out on how unreasonable I was being, even though it would have crushed me.

 

Frozen, I couldn’t respond to him though I knew my silence would hurt him. I withdrew deep inside, hoping the storm would pass and I could get myself together and respond with maturity. But before I could do that, he called. I didn’t want to talk to him but not answering felt cruel. My husband loves me and knows me well. He has been with me every step of the way and knew that behind my abrasive texts, I was hurting. “Hey,” he said, “I am afraid you are feeling sad and small.”

 

I had just hurled the shopping cart violently into the corral in the parking lot in a way that felt really good and really wrong at the same time. In the car, the tears began to fall when my phone rang. I was moved that he called but the tenderness of my heart was shielded by shame. 

 

He was exactly right. I felt small. There was comfort in being seen and known this way. When I heard his voice, it felt beautiful and terrible. His kindness was exactly what I needed to soothe the panicked, threatened parts of my heart, but he couldn’t yet speak to the broken little girl inside me. He was only dealing with my fiercely protective outer layers, the Warden ready to take him out or a wall of Sentries prepared to fight. I was petty and angry and my voice raged.

 

“You should not have called me,” I hissed, full of shame. “Was the cake from Stephanie?”

 

My loving husband showed me the growth and holiness of his own journey because he did not hang up on me. He heard that the terror was real to me, even if it was about cake. He knew the fear was real to me, even if it didn’t make sense to him. He knew it wasn’t about what is was about. I live in fear that I don’t really matter and someone else will do a nice thing for him and that will take him away from me. I won’t have earned my place in his heart for the day. I recognized this made no sense. Trauma responses usually don’t.


I was held captive by a force that suffocated me in shame, even with the balm of my husband’s love in my ears.

I thanked him for calling and apologized for being ME. He was gentle as he said goodbye and asked me to reach out when I could. I drove home, the tears falling heavy on my cheeks.


I remember another dramatic, terrible moment that happened a few months later at an important family event, just a month before the abuse erupted into the light of day. My husband and I were dancing when I noticed a gorgeous young woman in a revealing dress dancing behind him. I was filled with fear and shame at her presence. My skin burned and a primal desire to flee filled my body. I was not safe. I saw Ralph glance innocently to see who was behind him and I was certain that he took in her perfection with desire.  My terror and shame exploded and I shoved his chest fiercely, hissing at him, “Do you want to **** her????”  We were both stunned and horrified by my vitriol, as if a demon itself had filled me and vomited its evil bile over us both. I was in a full-blown shame storm and raced off the dance floor. My face hot, my head roaring, my breath gasping, my body electrified with shame and adrenaline, I walked as fast as I could to escape, trying to appear normal, desperate to be invisible. Through the tables, out the doors, and into the night.

 

I felt Ralph behind me, trying to keep up. I sped blindly into the darkness, down the gravel road, off into the grass to hide in the shadows of the brush and trees. He was by my side trying to calm me and speak words I couldn’t hear.

 

I am shame. I am disgust. They are not feelings. They have embodied me. I want to end. To escape my body and the terror and shame and the image of this young woman that has followed me and continues to taunt me. He will remember her. He will want her. I am NOT SAFE.


The truth about the danger and the fear continues to elude me – I can feel it as I try to write. I have not found the core of the problem yet, have not made my way into the heart of the brokenness that is being so ferociously protected. It is not the girl. I know that, but what are these wounds? Where do they come from? How can they be healed? What more than abuse is there to understand?

 

For the first time, the healing work I have done allowed my inner dialogue to shift. Instead of shutting down further or more self-condemnation, I heard a timid voice speak inside me:

 

This is not your fault. This is not you being a terrible person. This is not you being selfish and childish. This is the result of what happened to you. These are the pathways that your brain formed to manage and understand unthinkable violations against you. To cope and protect yourself. This is not who you are. This is what happened to you.

 

The voice gained strength and I began to connect the dots in a way that brought comfort and compassion. Because my body suffered trauma and abuse, I act this way sometimes. It doesn’t make it okay and it doesn’t make it less distressing for my poor husband who is on the receiving end of my wounds, but it does mean I can engage these parts with kindness. I don’t have to reject myself and add to the huge lake of self-hatred I already carry. I can find the good, pure parts of me, my precious little girl, and sit with her and say, “I am so sad for us.”

 

I am learning to feel the weight of sorrow. I am so desperately sad that I was abused and didn’t grow up loved and protected the way I deserved. It is a crushing loss that is taking time to hold and heal. As I slow down and look at the ways this has affected me, I can let myself be loved, let myself grieve, and let myself hope for healing. I can be confident that, in time, the Lord and I can create new pathways in my brain and body.  

 

This is the reality of attachment trauma and sexual abuse. If you know and love anyone who has suffered these wounds, chances are they know the inside of a shame storm. I know I am not the only one that has wrestled with the demons of ugliness, terror, rejection, and shame. Someone else is lost. Someone else is hurting and needs compassion. Someone needs to know they are not the only one.

 

Shame storms happen to all of us.  Here are a few questions to consider for your story:

 

·      Do you recognize the experience of shame?

·      How well do you know the words or situations that cause you to feel shame?

·      How do you respond when you feel shame?

·      How do you speak to yourself?

·      What helps you to regulate your emotions?

 

Shame is always a cover-up.  It deflects the awfulness of what happened to us by making us believe we are the problem.


The key to taking out shame is bringing it into the light of day and having the courage to look at it and explore it.

We can respond to ourselves with kindness and be curious about what wounds the shame is trying to hide. The Lord invites us to then reveal our tender, hidden wounds for the healing balm of his truth, comfort, and grace. 

 

My deepest desire is to come fully into my own self – broken but whole, brave and afraid, honoring and loving all parts of myself and whole-heartedly engaging my story with faith, courage, and authenticity. I want to be free from the demons that have taunted me. I proclaim that endeavoring to own my story, love myself, and be healed on this journey is the bravest thing I will ever do. I believe God not only blesses my path, but that to let myself be loved is His call for me. Kindness and self-compassion will lead to transformation and restoration. (2) The rest is the Lord’s, through prayer, trust and surrender. I claim the Latin phrase Ero Cras, which means “I will come”. This is the antiphon of Christmas, but the season of hope and salvation is every day. The promise is our Savior will come and faithfully ransom our captive hearts for freedom -- our inheritance and His gift.

 

Let yourself be loved. May you let Him love you.



(1)           Adam Young, podcast. The Place We Find Ourselves.

(2)          Dan Allender, introduction, Healing the Wounded Heart online course.

 

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