Why don’t we ask for help?
I want to tell you about shame.
It is like sea mist, rolling in silently, obscuring us from the world and the world from us. Shame clings, pervading and invading, blinding our ability to know what is true and what is not. Shame has been used throughout history to destroy individuals, groups, even whole societies by isolating themselves with its stigma.
I will tell two stories about shame, one is a tapestry, the other a true story.
A young man was given a talent that set him a part from others, a creative sensitivity that enabled him to create magical worlds so elaborate that it was impossible not to look at his pictures and be drawn into the scenes that he conjured up. His pictures transported people, reminding them of the better versions of themselves, the ones in which they did the right thing, and stood up for what they believed in.
The young man was lauded and applauded for his wild and tender portrayals of human frailty, family life, and love.
Only the young man knew that the great driving force of his creativity was his terror of being cut off from the very things that made his creative heart beat. He believed that this could really actually happen because he was hiding something from everyone he loved.
He adored his uncle, his father’s younger brother. While his father was a carefully studious and dutiful man, his uncle was wild and fun. He made up stories that made the world seem better, more exciting, a place where everything was possible.
The young man was this uncle’s favourite nephew. He once told the boy that as long as they were friends everything would be well in the world. The boy wrote this down so that he would not forget. He drew around the words, until the whole page was filled with the magic that he had felt in his uncle’s words.
When the young man was eleven his uncle forgot his birthday. He was furious. It was so important. How could his favourite uncle forget something that mattered so much to him? He hated his uncle for this failure and imagined beating him with his fists until his uncle cried out in pain.
Three days later the now twelve-year-old boy’s father told him that his uncle had been killed in a fight.
The boy believed it was his fault. He believed that had caused his uncle’s death.
Shame crept in over him like sea fog, hiding him from the world and the world from him.
Now this young man can only connect with the world through the pictures he creates of the world his uncle made him believe in.
He still believes that he is responsible for his uncle’s death.
He still believes that if his family knew the story they would cast him out from their lives.
A woman lives in a place where extended families still live together. There is an expression there, a threat that ‘every girl will lose her virginity to her uncle’. When the woman was ten years old it was not her uncle but her cousin who took her virginity. He was twenty-one.
The clearest memory she has of the first time was seeing her school bag hanging over the chair where she had just left it. She remembers staring at it, imagining the books inside, her homework, separating her mind from what was being done to her body.
Her cousin went on abusing her until she reached puberty, and then he stopped. The girl had already closed down in so many ways, and when the abuse ended, she stopped speaking as well.
She believed that no-one could ever understand. She did not know how to ask for help. She was ashamed that she had never cried out when he was touching her, forcing himself into her. She could not make sense of anything that she was feeling.
Shame fogged her whole world so that she could no longer find any words to express how she was feeling. Numbness followed.
When she was sixteen her younger sister was ten. She knew that her cousin had started to abuse her sister because she recognised the blankness in her eyes, the disconnection. And still she could not find any words.
The shame was so strong by now that she would pass out, sometimes for up to an hour, and still she could not ask for help.
One of these people does not exist—they are a conflation of a thousand people, a hundred thousand people melded into a one, a human plea imploring others to ask for help. The other has agreed to let me tell their story because they tried to kill themself as this was the only way they could imagine escaping from the agony of the shame.
Societies have codified shame, but individuals compound it. We create the stories that we tell ourselves, stigmatising ourselves, fogging the truth—that an adored uncle just got into to fight, that childhood sexual abuse is the fault of the abuser, not the abused, not the child.
This is why reaching out for help when lost in the fog is the most important thing to do, because someone, and something will guide the way out of the shame.