Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Trouble With Shame

My husband and I were high school sweethearts.

I know. Barf.

A funny story from our early dating years comes back to me now as one worth sharing. At the time, it was just an embarrassing incident but now I see it as having greater significance as a true “life lesson”.

At the time, we both lived with our parents in cities some 5 hours apart. I would often drive up for a weekend and sleep on the lumpy hide-a-bed in his parents’ basement. It takes some getting used to life in other households, especially when you want desperately to fit in and win everyone’s approval so they will endorse your candidacy for future spouse.

Now you must understand that my (then future) husband’s family were and are warm and gracious hosts who welcomed me in every way. His mother is an amazing cook who serves beautiful dinners every night and always had home made desert afterward. There was just one teeny problem: their stoic devotion to not eating after supper. Like, ever.

It is pretty common for teenage girls to be self-conscious about eating in front of a boyfriend and it’s likely I was shy about taking that second or third helping I would have  certainly eaten back at home. And moreover my family is famous for the enjoyment of a bedtime snack – a bowl of cereal or a slice of pie left from dinner is as much a part of preparing for bed as brushing the teeth and saying good night.

So not only was I eating less than I’d have liked at supper, but also I was dearly missing that bedtime snack and sorely in need of it. It was more than just shyness that kept me from saying I was hungry, though. It was shame.

Shame that I lacked their discipline. Shame that I was weak. Shame that I had failed to be honest at supper and eat what I needed. I was hungry and I was ashamed.

One restless night, I laid on that sofa bed in the basement and waited for the house to fall quiet (all but for the gurgling of my stomach). When I was sure everyone was asleep, I tiptoed up to that kitchen as quiet as a mouse and stood in the dark kitchen in my white flannel nightgown. I couldn’t open the fridge – they might hear it or notice the flash of light. But I remembered that the bread was always tucked out of sight behind a recipe stand and I reached behind it. Slowly, quietly, I took a piece of bread from a bag and stood nibbling it in the dark.

It was rye bread, a little dry and in need of some butter but I ate it anyway and felt better. I crept back down to the basement and was finally able to sleep.

The next morning, I came upstairs and joined the family in the kitchen where Sunday brunch preparations were already underway. Juice, fruit, bacon, eggs, pancakes with whipped cream – these people know how to eat a good breakfast! I quickly volunteered to make the toast, worried that if anyone else reached for the bread they might notice that the bag had been moved or a slice was missing (As if! Who on earth knows how many slices of bread are left in the loaf? But a guilty conscious make such things seem possible).

I moved the recipe stand to get the bread and gasped. There were two loaves of bread there. One fresh white load of bread…and one not-so-fresh, very green and moldy loaf of rye bread.

“Eeeek!” I shrieked. “It’s moldy!”

My stomach started flopping and tears began welling in my eyes. I realized to my horror that I stood in that kitchen hours before and eaten a slice of that rotten, disgusting bread.

Of course, my future mother-in-law had no way of knowing this – all she saw was a silly girl over-reacting to seeing a little mold. “Well, throw it out and toast the fresh bread,” she said in her practical, no-nonsense way.

I started to laugh. I ‘fessed up through tears and giggles: “I ate that. I snuck upstairs and ate a piece of bread in the dark and it was the moldy loaf.”

29 years later, I can still feel the anguish and relief of that moment. I had to get real with these people, and thank God I did. Because as much as they value discipline and self-control, they value honesty and a good laugh even more.

The moral of the story here is that shame causes us to hide and in doing so, we fool even ourselves into thinking we have found satisfaction in things that would utterly disgust us by the light of day.

We filled the glass before it was empty so we could say it was still “just one”.  We bought wine by the box so even we couldn’t see how much was gone each night. We pulled the damn bag out of that box and squeezed each last drop into the glass, hoping no one would see our desperation. Shame made us hide. Shame made us lie. Shame burdened us and caused us to keep drinking because the truth was just too embarrassing to face.

And now, those of us lucky enough to be standing in the light of truth – having pushed past shame as some life-preserving instinct told us we must “STOP!” – we can see those moments with all the disgust and amazement as my young self holding that bag of rotten bread.

The truth is hard to accept, but it’s a darn sight better than fumbling shamefully through the darkness.

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