Shame is a challenge to talk about.  Shame is about Being wrong.  Shame makes you feel you shouldn’t exist.  So, how did I talk about it?
 For me, it required therapy, group therapy, and, especially, journaling.  Extensively.  Trying so hard to get to the root of things so that I could tell my therapist. One of those stories is about a time I shoplifted. Funny, it was almost 40 years ago and the shame of it still wants to rip me apart.

I must have been 10. Every day I walked my sister and a little girl from our building to and from school. There was a five and dime on the way home.  Most days we stopped there.

I was hungry for something.  Not the candy bar.  I had the money in my pocket.  Not for the trinkets, pencils, and erasers. The simplest way to see it is that I was stealing attention, maybe even love. 
In my family, as, perhaps, in most, grandparents and other adults would use things (presents) to show they cared.

I had a younger cousin.  I loved her. However, I was also frequently jealous of her.  She had lots of things.  Tons of stuff.  In her father’s eyes, she could do no wrong. My father’s brother.  I had been his favorite person in the world. Until one day I wasn’t.  He dropped me like a burning ember.

So, I felt deprived. I felt anger I dare not express. Most of all, I felt abandoned. By so many people in so many ways.
So, back to the five and dime.  I knew the store, nearly, by heart.  I would gaze longingly, at the same silly trinkets.  Day after day.  Week after week.

I had this big, billowy reversible cape my cousin’s mother had given me.  I wore it all the time. It was the perfect way to disguise my movements in the store. A slight of hand that made the cheap piece of silliness mine. I could never use or enjoy the items.  I also couldn’t throw them away.  So, they sat at the back of my desk.  Hidden.  So that I could see them and burn with shame all over again.

The day I got caught I knew there was something wrong.  I felt more nervous.  I kept looking around. My hands were clammy.  I wiped them off with my cape. I felt an anxious urgency. I was hot.  Yet my insides felt like ice.

 After picking up and putting down a dozen different things I settled on a pencil. While I stood in line to pay for it, I snuck a candy bar under the cape.

Still, I knew something was wrong.  I felt nervous and scared.  Not in control and victorious as I usually felt.  No doubt, that is the reason they caught me.

I had just paid for my trinket, with my candy bar safely inside my cape, when a security guard came up to us.  He asked me about the candy bar.  I immediately handed it over.  Tears instantly fell down my face.  I told him I could pay for it.  But it was too late for that.

He took me to a room above the store floor.  For a time, I sat there, alone.  My mind screamed danger.  I wanted to escape.  But this was not inside my mind. No amount of dissociating could make this end.

 I had been carrying my clarinet with me.  I had put it down at my feet.  The guard noticed it. 
He chided me, telling me that band kids were good kids.  He was disappointed in me.

 After anther break, he asked me for my mother’s phone number.  That is when I started to cry pitiful, hiccupping sobs. 

I told the security guard my sister and the little girl were outside waiting for me.

 He sent them home.

 I felt sure her mother would never trust me again.

In the meantime, a police officer had arrived.  He told me that he was going to give me another chance.  I was to go home and tell my mother what I did.  Then she could call the station and they would decide what they were going to do.

I quickly walked home.  My head was low.  I prayed no one would see me.  I was sure, if they looked at me, they would know what I had done.

 Which only made sense, since I believed there were invisible people watching me all the time.  There were no secrets from them.  So, of course, I believed I was transparent to others, as well.

I sat on the sofa at home, waiting for mom to get home.  When she did, she was surprising calm.  She was upset she had to come home from work.  She asked me what I had been thinking.  Then I told one of the more egregious lies I had ever told.

I told her that I knew my father had shop lifted when he was young. So, I wanted to know what it felt like. I wanted to know if I could do it. Conjuring up my father brought me sympathy.  As I figured it would.

  I could hardly tell her it had been going on for a while.  That jealousy and resentment had led me to a sense of entitlement.

That night I lay in my bed and cried.  When I got up in the morning, I was terrified.  I couldn’t face school.  I couldn’t cope with people knowing I had been so bad.  Surprisingly, she let me stay home.

For one day.

It was such a kind thing. So empathetic.  If made me feel good, and rotten.  Apparently, who I was wouldn’t garner me love and attention.  But dragging my father into it earned me a reprieve.

I balled up my cape.  My beloved cape that had brought me so much enjoyment.  I threw it in the back of the closet and tried never to see it again.

The shame of my discovery cut deep.  I didn’t tell the story, except to my husband.  In all those years. It never came up in therapy.  Until this last time.

Until then, I couldn’t admit it.  It illuminated a vicious black side of me I couldn’t bear. I felt flayed open.  I honestly believed people would see the evil inside. That all the good I had poured into my persona would be washed away.

Anger and Shame

The shame that I felt over the things I did, the things that were done to me, morphed into anger. But not anger at my father, or even my mother. There was anger at Them. But mostly, it turned into anger against me. There was this violent feeling that I was desperate to alleviate. I felt darker than a black hole.
While I was there, I expressed that rage by forcing myself to approach them. I purposely encouraged sexual activity as a preemptive move. But, I think, that meant that there were times there was sexual activity when there might not have been, if I hadn’t teased, touched, and generally initiated it.
My therapist insists there is no way I child can be held responsible. And I understand that. The fact that I physically touched them. That I teased and aroused them should not have mattered. Even if I did all that, they should not have responded. Most adults would have pushed me away. Put up limits.
Except that I knew they would respond. They started it. They showed me their buttons. Fairly demanded that I push them.
It was what my father wanted me to do. No question. He taught me the skills I used to seduce them. He taught that sex was this wonderful, wholesome thing. For children and adults. For every- and any-one.
There was no question in that little Me’s mind. I was the problem. So, I kept trying and trying. Not only to be safe. Not only preemptively. I wanted—I needed—to master this. Why couldn’t I be the person he wanted me to be? What was wrong with me that these things made me want to die. Made me want to punish myself. Made me run away into that swirling colored spot way deep in my mind.
There was anger. And fear. Focused on my father. I would never have admitted it. Would ever even had dared think it.
I didn’t let myself remember the violence from when I was very small. But whether it was the anger in him or the anger in me, every so often that fear reared its head.
One day, in Shirley, my father decided we were going on a family outing. For reasons lost to the vagaries of time I did not want to go. At some point I ended up under his desk. He was yelling, I was screaming.
He stood there in the doorway, sternly demanding that I put on my shoes and get in the car. Under the desk, I sat holding my breath. I started to feel lightheaded, and no less angry, or scared. To defy my father meant defying his perfection. A belief I had to believe.
I sucked in a deep lungful of air and scooted out from under the desk. Before he could move or react, I was out the door and down the stairs. I ran out the front door. The tiny rocks biting at my feet. I could hear him behind me. My heart was throbbing in my ears. I reached the barn. And impromptu haven. I found myself up in the hayloft, looking down from the open doorway to the gravel filled area below.
Then I heard him coming. Up the ladder. For the briefest of moments, I hated him. Within that moment I felt my full fear of him, as well. The certain knowledge that I was not safe. I simply did not know what he would do should he catch me. I was unwilling to capitulate. So, I stood in that doorway, surrounded by hay bits. I held onto the side with one hand. My screaming had turned into growls of rage. Where there words that he could decipher? I don’t know.
I do know he backed down. He was cooing calm words that I was in no frame of mind to decipher. Finally, he left me alone there. Without further conversation, demand, or request, he packed everyone up and drove off.
How long did I stay there? How long were my mind and body numb? How long did I stay abandoned there?
I know, eventually, I came down. The house was empty and quiet. I knew I had won, but I felt no elation. I felt certain there would be a price to pay.
The cold yet burning knot inside me turned it all on myself. I had been wrong. I had betrayed him. If I were just a better kid, it would not have happened. What if he didn’t love me anymore?
I had exposed a moment of impotence. What would happen if it caused someone else to deny, or defy him? And, tiniest of all, what if he never came back?
Though I didn’t remember it then, there was a reason for a fear so profound I would jump put a hay loft to avoid him. When I was quite small there was a day when I went to my daddy’s den to say good night. I’m sure I bounced in there in some cute little night dress. When I opened the door there was something wrong.
He didn’t smile and hug me. Instead, he seemed to growl. When I moved, said something, he turned. Another tentative step and he stood up. Some tiny voice in my tiny head yelled run. So, I did. Towards my mother. She grabbed me and threw me into my room, demanding I stay put as she slammed the door.
I was confused. I was scared. I could hear my daddy screaming. My mother’s voice softer, cajoling. I could hear things breaking. Finally, there was a dull thump. Then, nothing. I didn’t dare move. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. How could I have understood about drug use and violence. I couldn’t.
I don’t know how the story ends. It is simply a little vignette floating around free. I know the thump was my mother’s head sitting the hearth. Other than a confirmation that it happened; I have nothing to connect it to.
Does that violence explain the fear I felt that day in the barn? Is that little girl’s belief it was her fault what caused the shame I felt that day?
In both there is a sense of betrayal. Of causing my father to do something bad. That ever-growing shame. I was, simply, wrong.

Taken part 2

First, there was food. Or rather the lack of food. As I had mentioned, my father expected us to follow a macrobiotic diet.  Brown rice, vegetables.  Plus, admonitions to eat your drinks and drink your food. One hundred chews of each bite. No liquids at meals or for a time afterward.

And fasts.  My father was a huge proponent of fasting.  Nothing but water, sometimes for multiple days.

This is one time I actually got lucky.  When I was seven my father had run out of juice in the house.  He told me to drink water, instead. I got rebellious and stubborn. I didn’t drink.  For 2 or 3 days. Finally, he became concerned I would get dangerously dehydrated.  So, he took me to the local 7-11 and got me an enormous slushie.

For that day forward, I would not drink water, no matter what.  Therefore, my father left grape juice for me to use instead, during fasts.  That juice tasted more wonderful than anything you can imagine.

It is hard to know, in some cases, whether They were too busy getting high to think about us, or whether they were simply sadistic. There would be separate food for my sister and me.  Rancid brown rice. Over ripe fruit. Rotting vegetables. Anything. I think, that they felt they could get away with.

When there was simply no food, I would scoop snow from outside and pour maple syrup over it, telling my sister and Moses (the other child) that it was ice cream.  Other times we would eat frozen orange juice concentrate out of the container. It was sticky, and very sweet.  We ate it with a spoon, on the sly.  My heart raced every time.  I didn’t know what would happen if they caught us.   I knew, however, that it would be something awful.

This alone was enough to give me serious food issues. My father added to the confusion by bringing food, especially Chinese take-out, home when he had been gone. He told me to eat my desert first because life is to be savored.  So, I would eat and eat.  Perhaps trying to store it up in my stomach for the inevitable drought to come.

He was my savior.  That food was a tangible expression of love.  I never allowed myself to think that all the deprivation was on his command.

Perhaps it seems strange that I did not question all of this.  Why I didn’t try to get help.  Why I didn’t tell someone. 
We were completely isolated.  We didn’t go to school.  We didn’t see people of any kind, other than Them and, sometimes, families having a baby.  It may as well have been a cult.

Next, were things that violated my mind and my body.

My father taught me to do guided relaxation, tensing and releasing each muscle group in succession.  He also coached me to Astral project.  To imagine myself somewhere far away.  To leave my body and fly to there.  He would have me sit in one position, either cross-legged or on my knees. To would coach me to go within.  To ignore the discomfort.  I would find a place filled with lights within me and float along with them.

That, along with the lessons on how to do sex acts, certainly served me well.  I spent most of my life blaming myself for the levels of depravity to which They sunk.  I was sure my father knew nothing.  I didn’t even wonder if it was a coincidence that they demanded or required skills he had created.

Still, it seemed he was gone more than he was there.  When he was gone it was a whole different world.  They loved to get high, drink, take drugs, and experiment with all things sexual. Between parties and overly sexual activities they enjoyed small tortures.  A soapy hot enema. Or, sometimes, as a douche. They would scream and hit. Knowing we would never tell.

At the parties I would bring a joint around the room or go fetch drinks.  They thought it was funny to blow smoke in my face.  I would try to hold my breath.  That didn’t go over very well.  Once, one of the women got tired of me holding my breath.  She forced me onto the bed and spread my legs.  She ran her tongue over what she found; then blew smoke into me.  “one hole is good as another” she fairly crowed.

 Sometimes, they would bake pot brownies.  They didn’t taste very good, being filled with crumbled leaves and the occasional seed. But they were sweet.  They were food.  They didn’t have to tell me twice.

I have this picture in my mind.  A picture of me, kneeling at the side of the enormous waterbed.  Watching the water undulate as they coupled in every combination you can imagine. That picture allowed me to survive.  To pretend that I was merely an observer.

The truth is far more complex and far more depraved.

It began with me on that side of the bed.  Watching.  But soon I was enlisted to be a part of their party games.  I would sit on the bed, in the middle of the tangle of bodies.  A touch here, a touch there. They especially thought it was fun to make me aroused, with angry shots of electricity that made me need to pee. That feeling always made me cry.  I soon learned not to give them the satisfaction, however.

It was a slow, long road to my capitulation.  To get to the point where I believed I was a black and ugly as they were. To the point where I would not just watch, would not just do as ordered.  A point where I would initiate sexual activities.  I have been assured that I had no choice.  That, in my mind at the very least, I was doing what I had to in order to survive. To protect my sister and Moses.

It wasn’t a pretty road.  I witnessed Buffalo raping his wife.  Heard him say time and again that soon I would be big enough and that would be me.  They degraded me. Touched me and made me touch them.  I don’t know which was worse, the men, or the women.

It was as if, with no contact with others, stuck there is our own bubble of a world, they lost their moorings.  Every indignity, every shameful action, emboldened them more.

I had only two choices, live, or die.  Accede to their desires or fight back.  I supposed it was inevitable that, sooner or later, Buffalo would rape me. 
The memory is fuzzy, feelings more than thoughts or visions.  I was face down on the waterbed, his weight focused in his hand on my back.  It hurt.  Of course.  But it also made it very clear that he could, and would, do anything he like. 

I decided then that I would take control.  If I initiated sex acts, I would be the one with the power.  I would be safe.  I could guide the game, keep me safe and the other children, too.

I began to push myself. To force my body toward pain.  To take joy in hurting and shaming myself. I hated me as much as I hated them. I deserved to suffer.  I wanted to suffer.

All of this was hidden, behind that frozen memory, until I was well into my 40’s.  Because I couldn’t afford to know I had been that person. 

I was already suffering from severe depression.  I spent years fascinated with death.  Longing for the release. But I couldn’t do that, either.  I knew I had to be there. There for my sister.  There for my father.

So, I did what I had been taught.  How often did I abandon my body, once I had approached them sexually?  Hoping against hope that, somehow, I would be freed.  I feared them far more than I feared death. 
I couldn’t imagine ever leaving that house. Going back to my mother was out.  Because my father needed me.  Loved me.  And because she frightened me.  Around her I feared this deep, dark blackness. Something so horrid I couldn’t even imagine it.  Something far worse than death.


I think, when people treat you like a burden, like a throw away, you start to live down to those expectations. There were occasions, when we were in that house, of downright defiance.  Of taking my life in my hands, just to spite them. Because it was taking my life into my hands.  With the things they had done, and would do, being killed did not seem out of the realm of possible.
The physical and emotional pain was intense. There was nothing to compare it to.  There was no release.  I didn’t believe I would make it out of there, many days.

This was not one of those days.

Moses, my sister, and I were thrown in the bathtub.  Something that was not, sadly, a daily experience.  Still, we were children, and even in the middle of any horror children will find a way to be children.  We were splashing and laughing. They were no where around, so we were ignored.

Moses got out of the tub to go to the bathroom.  After he had sat there for a few moments he stood up with a mischievous look in his eyes.  He put the seat up and reached down into the pot.

We shrieked. He laughed and put his hand down into the water.  Amid the squeals and laughter, he covered his belly in the stinky. When They still didn’t appear, we also got out of the bath.  Still dripping water, we all reached into the bowl, using every bit of the stinky. We covered ourselves as best we could.

Someone used a handful to wipe it on another.  Soon, we were laughing and chasing each other around the upstairs. 

Of course, that much fun could not go unabated. Soon enough, an angry mother came up to see what was going on.  Somehow, we decided we would not stop.  We ran from her.  Down the staircase and out the door. An act of defiance that usually would be far beyond me.

They were dangerous, there was no question.  Any such display should have been impossible for us. Normally, we were too cowed for such behavior.  Perhaps it was because he had joined us.  Perhaps it was so outside the expected that she didn’t know what to do.

Soon enough, the laughter and fun were going to have to end.

In that moment, however, we had the upper hand. A feeling I was going to transfer to other, far more dangerous, situations before too much time had passed.

Daddy’s suicide attempt

When I was four the second early shame trauma happened.

I was standing on my yellow stool washing the dishes.  It was one of my favorite things to do.  My Mom had gotten a set of plastic dishes, so that I could wash them unsupervised.  My Mom and little sister had gone over to our babysitter’s house.

My Dad was in the bathroom.

I was having a great time.

Then I heard my Dad’s voice.  I didn’t want to be disturbed from my task, so I kept on washing, hoping he wouldn’t call again.  But, of course, he did.  I turned off the water. He was definitely not talking to someone on the phone.  He was calling my name.

Reluctantly, I climbed down from the sink and walked over to the bathroom door.  I called to him.  In a raspy voice, he ordered me to come in.

I hesitated.  My tummy felt tight. Somehow, I felt it was vital that I did not open the door. Still, he called me again.

When I stepped into the bathroom there was steam billowing through the air.  It felt heavy.  Through the mist, I saw Daddy reclined in the tub. But there was something wrong.  There were red swirls in the water. His mouth was covered in tiny white bubbles. He was sunk down in the tub so that the water nearly came to his mouth.

It was scary.  My Dad’s cry battled with the panic inside me.  My Dad won.  I came closer to the tub. He told me that he was stuck and that I had to help him out of the tub.  That didn’t make any sense. He was very big, and I was so little.  I stood frozen. 

In that funny, raspy voice he commanded that I take his hand.  When I did, he told me to pull. So, I did.  Water splashed all over the floor. I pulled again.  He grabbed the side of the tub and gave a mighty push. 

Soon, he was lying on the bathroom floor, like some sort of grounded whale. Cuts on his wrists were still oozing blood, diluted by the bath water.

In that same strange voice, he told me to come and sit on his chest.  When I did my panties and dress got all wet.  Next, he ordered me to bounce on his chest.  He told me it was the only way to get him to breath. 

I did it, over and over, until my little legs were shaky.  He was depending on me.  Feeling both validated and afraid, I dared not stop.

The rest of the story I must guess at.  I remember my Mom coming back and taking me to my room.  I have a sense that there were flashing lights and lots of grownups talking.  My mother says he doesn’t remember it.  I know he was hospitalized for suicide attempts.

In the end, what really matters is how this incident affected me.  I felt so important.  I had saved my Daddy. But I also felt empty and confused.

Why had my Daddy done that?  Why would he want to leave me?  If he could do that to himself, what might he do to me? What would happen if I made him mad? If I made a mistake.

The only thing I could figure was that I must be perfect.  That mistakes could be fatal.

I was convinced that I was not only bad. I was flawed.  Why else would such a thing happen?

These early events did more than create a deep sense of shame and inadequacy.  They set me up to accept anything my Father did, no matter how bad it might make me feel.  Later it would turn into suicidal ideation.

No matter what my father did, I accepted the responsibility for it.  Because there was more to come.  A lot more. 

The fate of the puppies

When I was four years old our family dog had a litter of puppies.  They were these cute, snuggly fur balls.  It was so much fun to play with them. They stayed in our screened in porch off the kitchen.

One morning I woke up early.  I was eager to play with the puppies, so I put on my slippers and creeped across the cold linoleum floor.  Very carefully, very quietly, I opened the door to the screened in porch. Ever so quietly, I made my way over to the box where the mommy dog lay.  Lucy, my favorite puppy, was lying in the box next to her mother. 

I went to pet her, and she didn’t stir.  A sudden coldness grasped me.  I tried to pick her up.  She didn’t stir.  Her little eyes stayed closed. I put her down and made my way back to the kitchen. 

I didn’t know what to do.  I wasn’t really supposed to go out to the dogs by myself.  Still, I felt certain there was something terribly wrong. I was so scared I wanted to sink to the floor.  I wanted to disappear. 
I forced my little body to move. I half ran, half tiptoed my way to my parent’s room.

Mommy and Daddy were sleeping.  I went to Daddy’s side of the bed.  I tugged gently on his arm.  I half wished he wouldn’t get up.  Nevertheless, I tugged harder.  “Daddy”, I gave a loud whisper. Then again.

Daddy stirred. His eyes opened. It took a minute for him to focus on me. When he did, he looked annoyed.  I wished I could crawl back out and go back to my bed. Lucy needed me, though.  So, I stayed.

He asked me what was wrong. I tried to explain about Lucy not answering me, not feeling soft and fluffy.

Suddenly, he threw back the cover and grabbed his robe.  I struggled to keep up as he raced to the covered porch.  I stood in the doorway while he went out to investigate.  He told me to go back inside and help mommy make breakfast.

I heard the screen door open, shut, and open again.  I was crouched on the kitchen chair.  Daddy came back inside.  I saw him give my mother a look.  He put up his hands in an “I don’t know” gesture.

I very quietly asked him where the puppies where.  I wanted to know when I could play with Lucy.

He sighed and sat down on the kitchen table.  He explained to me that someone had left the screen door unlocked.  The puppies got out of the door.  They climbed through an open space under the porch.  There they found broken glass. The puppies ate the glass.  The glass cut them inside and they were dead.

He told me we were going to have to bury the puppies.  He got a large box and gently put the puppies in it.  Then he put on the lid.

He was going to take the puppies up to the forest behind our house and bury them.  I didn’t know what bury meant. I didn’t really understand dead.  I was sure I was the one who left the door open. Surely my parents weren’t that careless. It was my fault the puppies were going to be up in the forest, cold and alone.

Daddy put on his shoes and picked up the box.  He asked me to come with him, but I refused.  I climbed up on my yellow foot stool, the one I used to reach the sink, and watched him climb the hill behind our back yard. 
Suddenly, I wished I had gone with him.  I longed to race after him, to yell for him to wait.  Because I knew I was a bad person, a careless person.  Because I couldn’t even remember to close a door the puppies would be gone forever. They would be stuck in the wood, cold, lonely, and scared.

Now, frightening as that experience was, there is obviously as back story.  No child takes on that level of responsibility unbidden. So, what was life like for little Debby before the puppies died?  What made me vulnerable enough to wish I didn’t exist?

Well, one of the earliest memories I have was of being unsafe.  My mother took me for swimming lessons.  I was about 2 ½.  In the dressing room there was a huge window that showed the pool.  The only thing was, the water line was above the window. I saw other children diving and swimming under the water.

I was no dummy. I knew I couldn’t stay under the water without breathing. Of course, I could not have told my mother that. I just knew that I couldn’t go in that pool under any circumstances. 
I did what any smart kid would do.  I threw a huge tantum.  I didn’t believe that my mother could keep me safe. I did not trust her, somehow.

At another time, perhaps even before that, my mother left me alone in a shopping mall. It was time to go home, but I didn’t want to leave. So, I dragged my feet. I sat on the ground.  I refused to go.  I don’t know why my mother didn’t just pick me up. I do know she said something to the effect of get going or I’m going to leave you here.

She did.  Much to my surprise and dismay.  I saw her walk away. I don’t know if I could see the car. Apparently, she drove around the block, then came back for me. My life was definitely not safe.

I did mention that there were two major contributors to my sense that I shouldn’t be.  Stay tuned…..

Start at the beginning


I’m Debi. Shame has been my companion since I was very small. There were two incidents that really framed my early years. Both occurred when I was about 4.

But before I get into that, perhaps you would like to know what you are getting into, before you invest your precious time in my words.

My life has been pretty chaotic. The first 5 years involved repeated traumas. When I was 6, my parents separated. That was something odd, and it made me odd. Divorce was still relatively uncommon.

Like some other survivors of sexual abuse, I found an inappropriate man and let him make me his. Within a few years, we were active in alternative life styles. For those who don’t follow, that was a variety of atypical sexual activity. OK. I’ll say it. We started by looking for someone to have a threesome and ended in a cozy swingers group.

After my marriage ended I drifted through life. I tried desperately to find some meaning, some purpose. When I failed I landed myself in a psychiatric day program.

That was the start of a whole other life. I started to want to want to get better. From there to here is a whole other story. It has been almost 13 years. I have built a life for myself. A life with little drama. I have friends, and a part time job. I am on disability. I had to truly struggle to find acceptance of that. Things are good, now.

The thing is, I feel that there is something in my healing that could benefit others. I want to write about my journey. To offer a smidge of hope to others.