Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oh, The Shame

I recently got to know a woman who entertains in her pajamas. She said "I don't know you well, so I am dressed. But next time, don't be surprised to see me in pajamas and fuzzy slippers." Her house may not be clean, but she assured me she would always have wine. I, on the other hand, live in fear that someone will drop by unannounced and the beds will be unmade. Instead of the recurring nightmare people have about showing up naked in high school, I have dinner party nightmares. People show up at the door, no food is prepared, my family is not properly dressed, and worst of all, the house is trashed. How I admire my friend who can entertain in her pajamas.

Ever since I was a young girl, I kept a clean house. My mom went back to work when I was in middle school, and with two younger siblings, there was still a lot of house keeping to be done. I struggled to keep the house as neat as possible, to keep the laundry going and the grocery lists up-to-date. Why would a 12 year-old care? Because I lived in a house of dysfunction and shame. All said and told, my father was an alcoholic, my mother depressed, my sister eventually had problems with drugs and alcohol, and my brother had severe ADHD, which my mother was not treating medically. For some reason, to me, a messy house meant messy people. The more our house looked like the Cleavers, the more "normal" we would seem to the outside world. It was the only hope I had of controlling my out-of-control surroundings. Perhaps it was because when I was young, and my mother was present and attentive, our house was clean. When things got ugly, she only cleaned the house for special occasions or special guests. We were no longer worthy of that treatment. I figured, as long as our house was clean, no one would know our secrets. A kind of literal sweeping of things under the rug.

I carry this illusion of control with me today. Though I am not in the closet about any of our issues (I am writing about them on the web for the world to see), I cannot get out from under the shadow of shame. I am ridiculously uncomfortable unless my house is clean, and cannot even start doing anything else until my bed is made. If anything is out place when someone comes over, I apologize profusely. And almost every day I think about how much easier my life would be if I just got over it.

One winter's day in 1993, I tried to practice letting this go. We were having a big snow storm - a "nor'easter" as they call them in Boston. It had been a bad winter, and this meant there was already almost a foot of snow on the ground during these now blizzard-like conditions. Sam was a year and a half old, and a very busy and curious boy. His giftedness and hyperness made for a lot of mess during the day. He would empty everything out of the cabinets, organize them, sort them, stack them, and then destroy them. He did this with all his toys too. And he moved fast. Then, he would start taking pieces from the piles of destruction, organize them in some other way, and start lining the stairs with them. No walking surface was safe, unless I followed behind him, picking up the debris.

Today, I said to myself, is the perfect day to give myself a break and let the house go. No one can get in or out in this weather. It'll be just us, and I will let this all go until he goes to bed. I didn't even clean up the tray on his highchair right away. I was living dangerously! And though it made me a little uneasy, it was kind of nice to take a break - and I felt secure knowing no one could come over and "catch" me.

And then, the doorbell rang. What? Who could possibly be out in the storm? Was there some sort of emergency? For fear that someone might be in need of help, I sucked it up and answered the door. Before me stood a 10 year old girl, looking very much not in need of help.

"Are you okay?," I asked curiously.
"Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?" she asked cheerfully.
"Excuse me?" I asked. "What did you say?"
"I'm selling Girl Scout cookies. Do you want to buy any?" she repeated.
"Why are you out in this weather? Why would anyone be out in this storm?" What kind of parents would allow their child to venture out on a day like this?, I thought.
"Exactly," she proclaimed, "I've got the leg up on the competition. No one else will be out selling today!"
"Well at least come in and get out of the cold," I held the door opened a bit wider.

She walked into my house and looked around at the debris Sam had created with an air of disgust. "Well," she huffed, "somebody's been making a mess." I looked into her judgmental eyes and wondered if she was real. Was this Type-A Girl Scout a figment of my imagination - some hallucination of my deep subconscious, sent to scold me and make me feel guilty and dysfunctional for letting my house go? I wanted to defend myself. Yell out, "but it was just one day, I swear. Only because of the snow storm. I'll never do it again. I promise." It was all I could do not to pinch her to find out if she was an illusion.

"So, can I put you down for a few boxes of Thin Mints?" she persisted.

Suddenly I became very annoyed with her. Who was she to judge my one day off? She was the crazy one, out selling cookies in a blizzard! So I turned her down.

"Hum," she snorted, as she turned on her heels and left. Even though I was proud of myself for getting rid of her, I was still uneasy with guilt for having exposed my dirty house to someone - especially someone who clearly thought me a bad parent and a bad housekeeper for doing so. I have always wished I had bought a box of cookies from her, just to see if she would come back and deliver them - to confirm that she was for real.

But what I know to be very real are the feelings of guilt and shame we often unknowingly pass on to our children. Currently, my children seem ashamed of nothing. Sometimes this is almost a little embarrassing - like the times Tommy is willing to tell complete strangers that he is bipolar. I think better that than having him run around making beds and wiping counters all day. In fact, if anything, what I have to worry about is that my kids will associate a clean house with crazy people.

I often think that Tommy's bipolar is a gift in this way. A challenge to break the cycle of shame; a challenge to share it with the world on a blog. Who knows what could happen next? Bravery is so much more powerful than shame. If you live near me and plan to stop by, beware! I may start to leave the beds unmade.

No comments: