Shame Spiral: The Scenic Route.

It’s Sunday, and I just got back from the community meditation service at Portland Insight Meditation Center. I was tired and grumpy and whiny and the meditation sucked arse because I was either falling asleep or having mild panic attacks about money, both of which made me want to crawl out of my skin. The nice thing about insight meditation (also known as vipassana meditation for those who like to know the groovy Sanskrit names of things) is that you can’t really do it wrong – if you’re having an arse-sucking meditation full of tiredness and whiny-ness and Grumpy Eeyore crap attitude, rather than seeing it as a failure to get your ohm on you can view it as an opportunity to observe tiredness and whiny-ness and Grumpy Eeyore crap attitude. Which, as it turns out, is kind of interesting.

For instance, I observed a strong desire to either shimmy under the bench and take a nap or leave the center so that I could go look at my finances and worry about them in a more focused manner. In the grand scheme of things, the outlandish ridiculous childish thing (taking a nap under the bench in a public place because I am grumpy) would probably be more helpful and less destructive than the supposedly normal adult thing (staring at numbers and freaking out because they are small-ish) because while a nap would have the effect of reducing my grumpiness, no amount of palpitating about my finances is going to increase my bank account. In the end I did neither, and I walked out kind of chuckling to myself about what a po-faced weenie I can be sometimes. And that was, in its own weird way, a valuable insight.

A couple of weeks ago I had a similar opportunity to observe a seemingly intolerable emotional process and learn something from it, the tale of which I shall now recount.

To lay the foundation I must tell you that I have some body problems. Besides a zillion miscarriages and endometriosis and ruptured ovarian cysts and a whole host of other catastrophic ladypart issues I have bursitis in my hips and tendonitis in my right arm/shoulder, which can make it very difficult to sit upright without a chair back for very long. When I first started meditating at home I would lay on the floor because breathing could be difficult with all my core muscles wonking out to compensate for the effed up hips and shoulder. The first few Sundays at Portland Insight I’d sort of tucked myself into the back of the room and lain down while the guided meditation and subsequent lecture was going on, and no one had mentioned anything so I didn’t think anything of it. One Sunday I thought I’d get a little more involved and tried sitting up on some cushions in the center of the room like the pros do. I got a bunch of cushions and shoved them wherever things felt iffy and settled in. It very quickly became incredibly painful, but it was a great way to practice noticing sensations without clinging, right?

When the meditation was over I stayed where I was and propped the pillows under my head so I could lie down and rest my hips and back and shoulder, which were now kind of yelling at me. The director of the center started the lecture (about impermanence and present moment, good stuff) and I was enjoying it. Then out of the blue he looked right at me and asked, “Would you mind sitting up?” I was totally shocked and mortified and awkwardly started sitting up, and then he said “Unless you need it for your back, in which case stay down.”

I spluttered that I do indeed have back problems and was it ok if I stayed where I was, and he said again that it was fine and then noticed with a laugh that he had forgotten to take his shoes off (which you’re totally ‘posta do). He made a joke about how bare feet aren’t any more spiritual than shoes and if some people needed their shoes on that was ok too. That was it. That was the whole thing. I went back to lying down and he went back to his talk.

And I began to slowly implode with shame.

Like an avalanche, like a riptide it took me, so violently that I barely heard anything else for the next 15 minutes. People must think I’m rude. He must think I’m rude. I had no idea this was a rule – is it a rule? If so, why is it a rule? Is it some kind of respect thing, like I’m being disrespectful? How the hell was I supposed to know that? I felt so comfortable here and now maybe I can’t come back. Can you get kicked out of a meditation community for lying down during the Dharma talk? God, look at everyone else, sitting up with their straight backs and their strong core muscles and their nice clear minds, and I’m over here all broken and fucked up being disrespectful in some way I didn’t even know about. And EVERYONE is looking at me. CLEARLY. 

I had a sudden flashback to 3rd grade, when Mrs. Uyeda with the one scary permanently raised eyebrow would bring my math workbook up to the front of the class to show everyone the pages I hadn’t done. That burning, that sinking, that feeling of being trapped paralyzed in the chair with no good way out of that endless, torturous moment. That shame. Oh god, that shame.

And all the other kids around me are smart and can pay attention, they’re clean and loved and not dying of fear all the time. Their houses are safe and their parents are sober and help them with their math homework instead of yelling and nobody beats them or punches holes in doors when they try to get away. Their teeth aren’t ugly and gapped and their fingers aren’t bitten bloody and their insides aren’t rotting and corrupted with whatever this thing is inside of me that makes me so, so weird and bad and unlovable.

And in the meditation hall I could feel all this happening, could feel the stinging shameful tears starting behind my eyes and my breath going ragged with the effort of keeping it together as my brain catapulted me backward in time with the force of a sci-fi blockbuster. And I kept reminding myself that what I was feeling was totally ok because it was what I was feeling, and that it was transient, and that it didn’t define me because the past is not happening right now, in the present, in THIS present where I am safe and loved and loving and he said it was ok and anyway nobody is probably even fucking thinking about me anymore because I am not actually as important as all that, for fuck’s sake.

And I started to get a hold of it – or no, to NOT hold it, to just let it through and let it go. It was the end of the talk and he asked if anyone had any questions. A woman asked about how to stay mindful with her 2 year old. And I fell apart again.

As he spoke, answering the woman’s question beautifully, he got choked up for a moment talking about the incredible heartbreaking power of parents’ love for their children. I felt my belly ripped apart with the ache, the longing, the unbearable knowledge that I will never know that love. I will never hold my own baby and watch it grow and have my heart broken by it. All the old alienation returned, enthroned like a sainted idol in a feast day procession, flanked by the clean, safe, unbloodied children in my 3rd grade classroom and all the normal people with their normal bodies that do normal things sitting in normal positions all around the room. Everything I am not. Everything I am not. Everything I am not.

Holy shit, that shit is powerful.

I managed to stay in the room. I didn’t flee; I let tears and snot run down my face because there was nothing I could do about it. I tried to be as silent as possible because I didn’t want anyone to notice me and try to comfort me. The director noticed, I’m fairly sure of it, and he said a couple of things that suggested that he was trying to make space for whatever incomprehensible shit was going on with that new woman who was lying down and is now sitting up with tears and snot running down her face. I can’t remember what they were but I noticed them. I even managed to stay through the part where everybody stands up in a circle and holds hands and chants stuff, although that was mainly because by the time I’d made it back to the door it was already blocked by hand-holding people and it was either hold hands or bust through them running, and I thought the former would be far less disruptive. When it was over I walked to my car with my whole face flowing, drove home with my whole face flowing, and my whole face continued flowing as I went through my day trying to synthesize and learn from what had happened.

What I took from it was this:

Shame is one of the most powerful hallucinogens on Earth. It can literally warp your perception of reality and make you absolutely, unequivocally sure that you know what the people around you think or will think if the object of your shame becomes known. It is also incredibly narcissistic, casting you as the star of your very own diabolical horror movie because of course, you are so important that everyone else is going to expend their hard-earned time and energy thinking shitty thoughts about you. And we become wasteful ourselves – the incredible acrobatics we go through to mitigate shame, intellectualize it, avoid it, repress it, become rageful in defense against it, are all extravagantly unnecessary because shame, like all other emotions, is a transient state that does not define us. As real as it feels in the moment, it’s a delusion. In the end it’s all ok, because we are where we are and we’re allowed to be exquisitely kind and compassionate toward ourselves, even when we are covered in tears and snot because a total stranger asked us to change position.

Happy Sunday, y’all.
Postscript – Are any of my readers good draw-ers? I came out of the service today with a mental picture of Eeyore meditating, sitting cross-legged on a cushion made of thistles with his little front hooves resting on his knees and a grumpy yet resigned expression on his face. I totally need to have this image for my practice. I’ll send you awesome pictures of my weird looking dog in exchange. 

M-m-m-myyyyyyy Mirena…

I got an IUD on Thursday.

I almost want to just leave that there, mic-drop style, and then go wander off to take a nap because it’s just too much to wrap my head around. Also, I got up too early to make bread this morning and I’m feeling a bit rubbery, so that might be part of it. But probably not much. This is kind of a big deal.

We’d been talking about it since the last miscarriage in July. I’d decided I couldn’t survive another loss, which meant that (since I appear to get pregnant every time he walks past me these days) if we wanted to continue having sex (which we do), we were going to have to figure out some birth control. I am kind of a contraceptive conundrum – I have endometriosis so the copper IUD wasn’t a great option, but I also have this extremely rare autoimmune reaction to hormones called erythema nodosum which causes my joints to swell and hurt and giant painful fist-sized lumps to form on my legs and arms (AWESOME), so any kind of hormonal birth control was a risk as well. My very enlightened husband offered without reservation to resume contraceptive responsibility upon himself, but frankly after 5 years of lovely condom-free sexytime who wants to go back? So after consulting with the amazing folks at the Oregon Health and Sciences University Family Planning clinic, I decided that the Mirena would be worth a shot. It’s a low enough dose of hormone that the erythema might not get triggered, and it has the added bonus of stopping your periods altogether – kind of a sweet party trick for those of us who enjoy the adventures of endometriosis every month.

I had mixed feelings about it. Duh. It was heartbreaking. It wasn’t where we meant to be. You’re supposed to go back on birth control because you’re done having kids, not because you’re done having your soul torn out of your vagina every few months. Nobody ever intends to have their soul torn out of their vagina every few months. It’s like we got all dressed up for prom and took all the pictures and were filled with all the promise and butterflies of a mythical magical night, and then the limo drove us to the DMV instead. You go home afterward the same as if you’d made it to the dance, but you’re not happy about it.

But on the other hand…

The week before I went in for the Mirena, I thought I was pregnant. It’s been two months since the miscarriage and I haven’t gotten my period, and when my husband came home from the last tour we were a little…um…imprudent. We just aren’t used to thinking about not getting pregnant. So after a little quick freak-out math, I realized I was going to have to take a test.

As I drove to my old friend the Dollar Tree, my guts churned. I was filled with dread. The thought of being pregnant felt like a prison sentence, a death sentence. Like an eldritch hand gripping my ankle and pulling me back down into watery madness. I was weirdly ashamed – how could I put everyone through this again? My family, my friends? I felt like that one friend you have who calls you joyfully every few months to tell you about the new amazing guy she’s just started dating, and you roll your eyes and try to keep the cynicism and disgust out of your voice as you pretend to be stoked for her, because you just know that in no time at all you’re going to have to go pick her up from the bar where she’s just seem him tonguing some skinny new cupcake on what was supposed to be their three month anniversary and hold back her hair while she pukes and weeps about how great he was. I felt like we are all just about OVER it. And here I go again.

And of course it was negative. There may have been a little reflexive sadness there, the vestigial convulsion of a dumb organ that doesn’t know any better. But mostly it was relief. I am in such a good place right now. A better place than I have been in since we started this idiot limo ride 5 years ago. To give that up would feel calamitous.

I am sad about that. I am sad that the only way I can feel sane is to stop trying. That sucks. It’s unfair beyond reason. If I let it, it’s enough to bring on a bout of The Bitterness. And there’s something else, too, that I don’t really have a word for. Something like: I don’t want you to think I’m ok with this. It’s really comforting and relieving for people, the idea that I’m ok with this. Folks who don’t have to think about losing babies, who get uncomfortable when challenged on their own privilege by the suffering of others, who desperately want there to be an answer or a cure or a treatment or a reason so they don’t have to sit with the colossal, unbearable helplessness of my empty belly – I don’t want to give them the solace of my recovery. She’s fine now, back to your regularly scheduled blissful ignorance. I know that this is crazy, a toxic scrap of The Bitterness discarded in the corner of an otherwise clean and breezy room. I’m only admitting it because I want to take responsibility for it. If I pretended it wasn’t there, that I’ve somehow achieved some kind of nirvana of universal compassion and forgiveness just because I started meditating, I’d be just as big an asshole as someone who pretends it’s no big deal that all my babies die.

The room where I’m sitting right now is lovely. I’m snugged into a corner of what was once the almost-baby’s room that I converted into a writing room. My husband bought me my dream chair – it’s a corner unit from an Ikea sectional couch, and it’s wide and deep and perfectly fits the way I write, with the laptop on my legs pulled up crisscross-applesauce and a cat squished in beside me. Dappled sun is falling across the remains of my coffee and there’s an industrious squirrel who keeps doing drivebys across the fence outside the window with two giant chestnuts jammed in his face. Every half hour I get up to turn my dough, and by the end of the day there will be two gorgeous burnished loaves bursting with tangy goodness. Later on we’ll take Hobbit Dog out into the woods so he can pee on every growing thing, and when we get home I’ll drink some wine while I zen out in my kitchen creating something ridiculously complex and too fancy for two people.

The truth is that I am ok. More or less. In this moment. Which is all there is, really.

Post-publish update: Industrious Squirrel just went by rocking THREE chestnuts. Playah.