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Lather, Rinse, Repeat: The Shame Cycle

M, D3, R

I have been told my daughter is a mini-me… what do you think?

It was a low-key recent Saturday morning, and my husband called me over to the computer to watch a video with Dr. Brene Brown talking about shame.  At one point Dr. Brown remarked that specific memories can bring up shame for us, and, as I listened, a personal childhood memory popped into my head.

I couldn’t tell you my exact age, but I was old enough to make my own toast for breakfast, which I had done the Saturday morning this event took place.  My childhood home had myself, my three siblings, two parents, a grandparent and a dog all living under one roof, and consequently there were always multiple things going on at any given time.  So I happily buttered my toast, then sat down to eat it and watch Saturday morning cartoons (this was during the era when you could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning, kids these days don’t understand how good they have it!).  Unbeknownst to me, my mother had taken note of how many pieces of toast I had made for myself, which was apparently too many, because suddenly I was the focus of her attention; an unusual occurrence, given the number of people in one household.  In this particular case, being the center of attention was not a good thing.  “Do you have any idea how bad that is for you?!?” she exclaimed.  “How could you possibly even think to eat all of that?”

As I re-read the nuts and bolts of that story, it doesn’t look at all horrifying; in fact, it is probably a commonplace occurrence in the average American household.  But I can tell you, it is at least 30 years later, and I can still feel the shame in the pit of my stomach when I recall that incident.  I can place myself in the room in which it took place, 70’s decor and all.  That feeling is one that would repeat itself, time and again, through the next 3 decades of my life.

So I recall the incident, I finish watching the video, and I walk into the kitchen to thank my husband for showing me the video.  Instead of my husband, I find my 13-year old daughter pouring herself some cereal out of a Tupperware container, which is now almost empty.  The problem is that I had only filled the container two days before.  The container easily holds 12 servings of cereal, possibly more, so in doing this math, I am quite alarmed, and I start my interrogation:  who has been eating this cereal?  The discovery portion of this investigation yields that my daughter has eaten the lion’s share of this cereal in the past two days.  I point to the Tupperware container in astonishment, and I exclaim, “Do you realize that this container holds 12 servings of cereal, and it now almost empty?”  She just looks at me with an expression that in all likelihood mirrored the expression I had when my mother admonished me for the toast.

Sometimes when I say there are no coincidences, I say it with some sadness.  I have shame as I am typing the story of how I handled The Cereal Incident.

I am no expert on shame and parenting, but I believe that if I were to read up on the subject, I would find that it is not a good thing to use shame as a parenting tool.  Since my daughter has entered adolescence, I have been vigilant in how people speak to her about eating, because I know from personal experience the outcome of using shame to change a child’s eating decisions.  Not too long after my issue with the toast is when I decided that food was best enjoyed in solitude, I began to eat in private, and the results of that decision have ultimately led me into recovery from substances other than food.  So I have said to my husband, when he feels frustrated by my hampering of his conversations with our daughter, “Look, I don’t claim to have all the answers.  I only know what not to do, because of what has happened to me.”

And yet, here I am, fresh off of listening to Dr. Brene Brown, and doing the exact opposite of what I have been preaching for years.

So how to handle the situation where your child is making decisions that are the opposite of what you have taught them?  I have been very, very open about my struggles with weight.  I truly believe in open communication with children when they are old enough to hear it, and, at 13, my daughter needs to hear about the consequences of overeating.  And who better to tell her than someone who has lived through it?  So we have had multiple conversations.  I am honest with her about my bad decisions (regarding weight, we are not quite up to mind-altering substances yet, but that conversation is coming soon), and the way the consequences affected my entire life.

At the same time, who better than me to have empathy for poor eating decisions?  Because I still make bad choices, all the time!  So why would I react with frustration to a child who is doing as I have done (and, let’s face it, am doing)?  There are no easy answers here, at least none of which I am aware.  For now, I keep the lines of communication open, I make amends when I make mistakes like the one I just described, and I attempt to be observant for patterns of behavior.  And the end result?  I guess time will tell…

Today’s Miracle:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Argument Mediation Number 243 of Thanksgiving Break:

12-year old sister (with malice aforethought):  “Mommy, Danny just said something he shouldn’t have said.”

10-year old brother:  “Mommy, I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

Me:  “So, Reilly, after all the times we have talked about tattling, you are choosing, again, to volunteer information to get your brother in trouble?”

Verbatim will take this post into the 1,000+ word category, so let’s fast forward.  Reilly tattles, the incident is small, but extremely typical of Danny.  Danny flat-out denies, and a heated argument ensues.  I ask Danny to admit what he did, he repeatedly denies his wrongdoing, and now I get involved.

Me:  “So, Danny, you are saying that even though the incident sounds exactly like something you would do, and even though Reilly has never been known to lie, and you have been known to be less than honest, you are still claiming that you did not do it?

Danny:  “Yes!”

Me:  So someone is blatantly lying, and must be punished.  If you are telling the truth, then Reilly has just made up an outrageous lie for no reason other than to get you in trouble, and she will be punished severely.  Are you okay with this?”

Danny:  “Yes, I am okay with this.”

At this point we are getting out of the car and into our home.  I hand out various punishments, and start to send them to their rooms.  Danny lingers, and I seize the opportunity.

Me:  “Danny, here is the issue.  Everything about this story leads me to believe you are lying, and, if this is true, then you have turned an extremely minor incident into an extremely major one by not simply admitting what you did.  I am going to give you one more chance to tell me the truth.”

Long, long pause… then Danny:  “Alright, I did it.”

This leads to a discussion about how lies exacerbate whatever problem you are trying to solve, and how the fallout of lying is broken trust.  He becomes extremely agitated at this point, and is crying as he yells, “well, since you are never going to trust me again, why even bother trying?”

Here is the turning point of the conversation for me, the pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel.  Sadly, I have been exactly where Danny is right now, feeling the frustration and desperation he feels, and I am quite a few years older, and should know a hell of a lot better.  So I say to him, “There are two ways to deal with this situation, and it is your choice.  You can be angry and feel like a victim, believing no one will ever trust you again, and you can continue to kick and scream.  You have taken that road before, and you know where it leads.  Or you can try another path.  Admit you did wrong, accept the consequences, and do your best not to repeat the mistake.  It’s the only way to build back the trust.”

I can now process this incident in one of two ways.  I can feel immense guilt that my past mistakes have somehow taught Danny by example how to lie to get out of uncomfortable situations, and I can beat myself up for being the worst Mom in the history of the world.  Or… I can use my past as a tool.  First, I have an empathy for Danny, because I have been there and done that.  And since I am actively working on correcting my past, I am in a position to teach him how to do the same.

I guess time will tell…

Wreckage of the Past

“We all make mistakes, have struggles, and even regret things in our past. But you are not your mistakes, you are not your struggles, and you are here NOW with the power to shape your day and your future.”
Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

We have all heard this line before…  we are not our mistakes… but when you are new in recovery and struggling to reclaim your life before addiction, mistakes, if dwelled upon, can overshadow all of the advances that have been made.  So, it is as important to learn how to effectively deal with the mistakes from the past as it is to learn to abstain from using any mind-altering substances.  Because, if I continue to brood over all of my past failures, then I am on my way to relapse.

When I think about my personal past errors, I categorize them:  there are mistakes that have consequences outside of the realm of family and friends, and these mistakes must be dealt with first.  They are often the most frightening of the consequences, but usually the good news about these mistakes is that you have little choice but to deal with them.  So, these are the easiest to square your shoulders, and prepare to simply get through them.  The upside is that once you correct this category, it is done, and you can feel a great sense of accomplishment in having dealt with it.

The second, and in my opinion, more difficult category under “wreckage of the past” is the mistakes made with regard to family and friends.  There are usually many examples of this kind of mistake, and range in severity from the damage done to your spouse and children, to the petty behavior displayed to more casual acquaintances.  There are too many varieties to count in this category, and the length of time it can take to clear up these mistakes is indefinite.

The most important thing to remember, in the early stages of becoming sober, is that clearing up mistakes from the past takes time.  It took time to make the mistakes, so it is only logical that it will take time to correct them.  It is my experience that people are generally more tolerant, and have more patience for me than I have for myself, and their main objective is for me to be well, so they are more than happy to give me the time I need.  And for the people who aren’t so patient and understanding… well, I will probably need a separate post to delve into that set of problems.  In the meantime, dealing with mistakes requires the same mentality as dealing with recovery… one day at a time!

Faith Without Works is Dead

The title of this post has come up for me in several readings recently, and I really did not have a good understanding of its meaning.  Finally, today, I think I have it.  Which is why “there are no coincidences”… I obviously have been meant to understand this phrase, and if I just gloss over it (which I have), it will come back again and again until I take the time to understand it.

I believe it was originally used in the Bible, on more than one occasion, but it is also used in the AA Bible (the Big Book), and in other AA literature that I have read.  As recently as today, I have come across a similar line:

…faith alone is insufficient.  To be vital, faith must be accompanied by self-sacrifice and unselfish, constructive action.

So why does this keep coming up in my life?  There are probably a lot of reasons, but today especially, I believe I was meant to put it into practice.  Recently, I have been struggling a bit with my son in helping him to understand why he needs to change his behavior.  I feel like I have tried everything:  talking, threatening, punishment, silent treatment (try the silent treatment on a 9-year-old boy if you want to have a good laugh!), you name it, I feel like I’ve tried it.  He is such a smart kid, but he keeps repeating the same mistakes (wonder where he learned that?).

Of course, as a Mother, I feel completely responsible… if he cannot grasp the concept of learning from past mistakes, then I am not doing my parenting  job properly.  In addition to the actions listed above, I have also prayed on this subject, and actively tried to turn it over to God, but still the answer had not come.

And then I read the sentence above this morning, and it hit me… am I doing enough unselfish, constructive action as far as my son is concerned?  Sure, I’ve tried to instill the idea of consequences, but how about proactively guiding him in the right direction before he makes the same mistakes?  I don’t think I have ever tried to get in front of the problem, I’ve only reacted to mistakes after they are made.

Disclaimer:  this is going to get a little religious…

And I was only able to have that thought after reflecting on the idea of what I can do in an unselfish way to better act out God’s will.  I pray every morning for God to direct my thoughts and actions to better serve Him, but what am I actually doing about it?  Faith without works is dead… I can believe in God all I want, but until I can talk the talk, and walk the walk, then my faith really has no meaning, and just understanding that has opened my mind up to new possibilities.

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