Rant 50 March 2009: Ain’t that a shame

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

–US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1914, later quoted by Barack Obama

Thankfully, I’ve never had a fear of public speaking. Unlike many people who are presently suffering through sales presentations and seventh-grade speech contests (either as senders or receivers, I imagine), the part of my brain that inspires the protohuman fight-or-flight reaction lies quiescent over the notion of running my mouth in front of an audience. I’ll get up in front of anyone to talk about anything. I can’t promise it will be interesting, relevant, or amusing, but hey, you get what you pay for. At least I’m up there and not losing sphincter control.

So it was a rather interesting experience to find myself crying in front of an audience. And not just a nice little politician’s crocodile tear. I mean full-on, let ‘er rip, snorking complete with the DTs and PTSD. WTF?

To be fair, I was one of the final speakers on a panel at a women’s roundtable where some pretty personal shit was going down. The purpose of the discussion was to share our experiences, and talk about some of the lessons we’d learned. Thus far from the panelists there’d been some A++ tear jerking material: self destruction, sexual assault, mean parents, abusive partners, and various other events inspiring a sulphuric-acid-strength corrosion of personal esteem. We were surfing a massive tsunami of estrogen, and the waterworks were on full strength. It was like some kind of hormonal wave pool. You know that feeling the day after a crazy squat workout, when you’re waddling like a penguin and getting stuck on the can? I feared that would happen to my tear ducts. There is something horrendously contagious about bodily catharsis: observing yawning, puking, and crying all inspire us to join the fun.

Aside from being generally sucky stuff, these confessions had two key things in common:

  • by the standards of normative social interaction they were deemed shameful; and thus
  • people tended to keep them secret. Unless you’re one of those desperately socially awkward people who doesn’t have an internal editor, you don’t lead with your wife beating story at a cocktail party.

In comparison to the high-quality suckitude described by many others there, my story was pretty weak. I began with a discussion of my experiences in academia, with the modest intent to describe how although I had loved the university, it had not loved me back. I wanted to share the principle of finding a situation that fit, and escaping ones that did not. I wanted to say it’s OK if you don’t fit in — that it’s probably the situation that’s fucked up, not you. I wanted to tell people to be their whole, fully developed selves in all their glorious idiosycrasy, not partial, half-formed fakes trying to fit an image. I wanted to tell people to trust themselves and their guts, and to listen when those guts are screaming GET OUT like the Amityville Horror.

I kinda managed that, in an intelligent and rational way, for about twenty seconds. And then, some sort of Snot Demon took over my body, wracking it with deep croaky sobs. My body was shaking. Years of emotions that had obviously been buried somewhere just south of my liver had just found the escape hatch, and they were leaping into lifeboats and blasting off like rats from a flaming ship.

I soldiered on, though, managing to describe my experiences and insights in sputtered, half-formed words. I think they got the idea, even if half of it was more or less Neanderthal-quality utterances punctuated by honking. (Imagine a strangled trumpeter swan trying to give a wedding speech.)

Oddly enough, although I felt mildly embarrassed by the whole thing, I didn’t feel ashamed. Here’s why.

  1. Everyone else was bawling by that point anyway. Strength in numbers! Ha!
  2. More importantly, though, shame and stigma thrive in silence. Difficult as these things may be to articulate, they derive their strength and power from our silence and fears: What if nobody else shares this? What if nobody else is like me? What if they think I’m crazy, or a freak? When you speak openly about your shame, it’s as though you’ve reared up a big black-booted steel toe and nailed that shame right in the nards.

After I had used up about 20 tissues and calmed down, and after the spell was broken by an errant male wandering into the room by mistake to discover approximately 40 weeping women (poor guy), I felt better. Way better.

Then I got to thinking about it, how much we hold inside ourselves because of shame and stigma, and how incredibly freeing it is to speak the unspeakable things.  When we name our bad things, we give them an identity. Just like finally seeing the monster in a horror movie, the unimaginable becomes real. What is real is almost never as terrifying as what is imagined. (Exhibit A: Blair Witch vs Godzilla.)

Once something has a name you can begin to take away its power. Speaking the bad thing into being begins the process of its erosion.

Once something has a name, and is spoken to others, we discover that others share our bad things… or things very much like them. We find we are not alone. In fact we find that we are less alone than we could have ever imagined. (See? Real vs imaginary.)

I started thinking more about this when I had a tablespoon in a jar of nut butter.

At that point I had probably consumed about a half-cup of the stuff, with no sign of abatement. My left brain was quietly, pathetically begging me to quit. It was presenting a variety of logical reasons to stop slathering the oily goodness all over my tongue but, like a nebbish ninth-grader attempting to rationally yet meekly debate himself out of getting a wedgie from the senior football goon, to no avail. My right brain was like Rodney Dangerfield on a bullhorn screaming FAT FAT FAT FAT BOOYAH FAT FAT FAT. Something in my body wanted dietary fat, and it wanted it real, real bad.

Some folks will say that cravings represent some real bodily need, that somehow the body knows what it wants and is always very reasonable about it. Shyeah right. Probably all my body knows is that glucose comes in many tasty formats, and it would happily enjoy them all.

But here’s the weird part: Right now, for me, the cravings are about fat. I wouldn’t care if suddenly all sugar in the world ceased to exist, although it would probably make fruit somewhat less enjoyable, not unlike those horrid Styrofoamy GMO out of season peaches that food producers inflict upon us. Salt is OK but I could take it or leave it. No, I want fat. I mean FAT, like coconut oil. I could seriously eat a block of lard or drink a jug of olive oil.

I have no idea what this is about. It started over the last several weeks. I’m still figuring it all out. What scares me is the compulsion. Suddenly, at age 35, with a healthy, happy body image, no major stress, and no definable food issues beyond just loving all of it, I’m acting like an eating disorder candidate. My nut butter noms are furtive. I’m having thoughts like “I could go out for a run and grab some tahini on the way home.” Even my liquid fish oil is looking kind of foxy. And once that rollercoaster crests the hill, there’s no stopping it until somehow I tear myself away from the kitchen with the last tattered shred of self control.

For a while I felt really strange and silly. I read up on eating disorders and nothing really seemed to fit me. I have no “issues”: no controlling father, no anxious desire to please others, no instinct towards self-obliteration. I don’t want to be skinny. I want to be a ninja but would settle for “normal person in good shape”. I can’t upchuck on purpose even when I desperately want to — which sucks when I have the flu or food poisoning and nothing would feel better than a good ol’ barf to let that dodgy shrimp salad run free.

And I didn’t tell anyone. Until one day I decided that the kookoobananas had to stop. I told OMGBFFA. Here’s the crazy shit: She said “ME TOO!”

Gah?! Did we somehow give each other a virus that makes a person devour cashews and avocado? She carries more bodyfat than me, so it’s not because I’m lean. She is apple shaped and I’m pear shaped, so it’s not because of some strange fat storage hormone situation. Spring is on the way and I’m getting outside to enjoy the strengthening sun, so it’s not the nesting instinct that seems to set in during late fall when the days shorten and the suprachiasmatic nucleus near the optic nerve says “It’s dark! Let’s eat!”

Despite my puzzlement, I felt an incredible, immediate sense of relief. I’m not crazy. (Uh, well, maybe I am crazy and she’s also crazy, which is totally possible.) Sharing the fear and shame instantaneously, dramatically reduced its power over me. Whammo! Right in the goolies with the boot!

Anyway, I’m binging on clinical studies at the moment, which are probably much better for me than a cup of almond butter. I want to get to the bottom of this before it gets to my bottom.

And I’m telling you now, to bust that stigma out in the open, to encourage you to share insights and experiences, and to remind you that none of us are alone in what we suffer. Sure, I have to endure a little nose-wiping in public, but it’s better than being alone with the Blair Witch.