Today I had the most wonderful experience.
I got to speak to the staff of Hopewell (hopewellrecovery.com), a program that offers extended care and transitional communities for individuals afflicted with substance abuse issues to help them build a foundation of recovery.
Why was it so wonderful, you might ask? Many of the staff that work at Hopewell are individuals who have been through and are continuing through the recovery process themselves. Each person in the room not only wanted to learn more in order to help their clients, but they also wanted to enrich themselves, their own lives, to continue healing their own stories of shame with love.
I was deeply moved by this passion and desire, and it made me think about my own story of overcoming shame — one that I have shared with many people and wrote about in my first book, The Love Response, though I think even back then, I didn’t focus on the shame part very much, more on the love part.
You see for me, as is true for many people, my feelings of shame were buried really deep. And like many, my shame drove my negative behaviors and habits, my inability to take criticism, my inability to ask for help, and my never-ending need to feel better, want more or prove something.
But one day, that changed.
As a second year resident at Boston Medical Center in 1996, I was all set to do a fellowship in Pulmonary medicine. I was invincible, headstrong and capable, and rarely, if ever, asked for help.
So when the nurse called at 3am to report that a patient’s central intravenous line had to be replaced, I jumped out of bed and shuffled readily to the patient’s bedside.
During the procedure, the patient coughed, causing the needle contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C to slip, puncturing my finger.
Do you know what I felt in that moment?
No, it wasn’t fear.
I felt shame. I messed up. I should have asked for help. I shouldn’t have lost my footing. I shouldn’t have… You know that drill.
And as I was squeezing my finger until it was blue under the running water, fear finally did set in and I knew I was going to need help.
Anxiously, I called the chief resident, who sent me home after getting me started on AZT, a medication used to treat HIV disease. On arriving home, my phone immediately rang. It was the infectious disease attendant on call, “Eva, I heard about the needle stick. I am sorry to inform you that this is a high risk exposure and it is not good.”
My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. My hands quivered. My throat clamped shut. Tears formed in my eyes.
He continued… “there is a new study about to be released by the NIH about post-exposure prophylactic medications for HIV needle sticks. I think you should get started on the protocol now.”
He talked statistics but I didn’t hear anything except that I was going to get HIV.
My mind raced to all the negative possibilities — I was going to get sick and die. How could I do this to my family? Who would be left paying my loans? How would I work? Shame and fear shot through my body in waves.
Of course, these thoughts upset me most: “Who will love me now? I will die alone. I will die single for ever.”
I didn’t stop crying for six weeks. I had to take 14 medications a day which made me sick — anemic, abdominal pains, fatigue — you name it. I learned for the first time what it was like to be truly ill. The only thing that kept me together was love from my family and friends. And yet, it wasn’t enough. I still felt so alone.
I bargained. I said, “If there is a God, please let me live. Please don’t make me have HIV. Please. I promise I will be a better person. I promise I will work harder, be kinder. Whatever I did wrong to deserve this, I will change. I promise.”
At this point, it did not occur to me that my bargaining language was pointing the finger to my deep shame — shame that I was somehow bad and did something wrong that caused the problem to happen.
My blood tests did eventually come out okay and I did live up to my part of the bargain. I became a “better person.” I volunteered with a midwife, helped more around my parent’s house and worked harder in general. I also changed my intended career course and decide to go into primary care medicine to help people live better lives.
But as life would have it, my “learning” did not stop at the needle-stick. Over the next four months I suffered a series of events one after the other, including the death of my grandfather, the death of my dog, being harassed by someone I didn’t know whom I had to take to court, my apartment burning down into nothing but ashes, and my father suffering a heart attack.
Even before my father’s heart attach (which he thankfully survived), I shut down. I cried a lot asking, “Why me? what did I do to deserve this? Am I so bad? I don’t understand.”
I became profoundly depressed. I could not sleep, eat, or think. I wanted to die. What kept me from actually being suicidal was guilt that I would hurt my family with such actions. But in truth, I had no energy to keep living.
Then one day a few months later, a friend took me out to dinner and said something that awakened my spirit. She said, “You know Eva, you haven’t ben the same since the needle-stick. We miss you. We miss your smile. We want you back.”
I can’t tell you that I know what happened in that moment. I just know something clicked. Some light switch buried deep inside of me turned back on. Nature, just as soon as it lets a forest fire burn, lets a flower bloom. It’s not personal. All along, I had been asking “why me?” as if I have done something wrong but what I needed to be asking was “why not me?” Shit happens.
I got it. Nothing and no one determined my value, including bad stuff that happens. It just happens.
Rather, I determine my value in how I choose to react. I can choose to view myself as a victim or as a victor; as loved or unloved; as a weak person or a strong one.
Don’t think for a minute that I suddenly woke up and became a brave, strong and confident woman. It did not happen overnight, but that night I knew that my belief system — that I was somehow bad, not good enough, or in need of proving my value — needed to change. I knew the first step was learning self-love.
When I discovered self-love, I began to heal. I continuously asked myself, “If I loved myself would I eat this food? Would I date this man? Would I not give my body the nutrition and rest it needs?”
I meditated. I spent time in nature. I developed nurturing relationships. I learned to feed my body with fuel and move it as it was meant to move. I reprogrammed my underlying beliefs and caught my body or myself when it was triggered into feeling shame or not enough.
And I pushed myself.
And one day, many years later, and not so long ago, I found myself actually liking me… a lot. My body felt healthier, my mood happier and my mind sharper. I was strong — not just the lifting weights kind of strong, but the inside and out kind of strong.
And so you see, you may not think you carry any shame or feelings of not being enough, and maybe that is true. But maybe not. Maybe you too could use some love to remind you that you are valued simply because you exist. What you do with that value is up to you.