Confession, or “Shame is a Bitch”

But would it set me free

If I dared to let you see

The truth behind the person

You imagine me to be?

Or would your eyes be opened

Or would you walk away?

Would the love of Jesus

Be enough to make you stay?

~ Casting Crowns, “Stained Glass Masquerade”

***

I had made plenty of confessions before, and I felt like I needed to do that more often than others did. But, this was my first confession with Mother Jennifer, and I was nervous, not only because of the content of my confession, but because I didn’t know her style. Even though the rubrics in The Book of Common Prayer were the same no matter which Episcopal Church you were in, each priest still had their own distinctive style, the little things that they preferred to do. She had been nothing but kind to me, and I couldn’t imagine her being any different in the context of confession, but I was still nervous. I always felt like the priest would hate me after my confession, even with the old priest to whom I made many confessions to.

I arrived at the church at the appointed time, and I was shaking with fear and nervousness. I had an appointment first thing in the morning. Mother Jennifer smiled as she let me in.

***

In fact, one day I had an appointment with my doctor, and she asked me:

“So, what have you been up to?” The doctor asked me.

“Mostly work and school.” I said.

“Where are you working now?” She asked.

“I’m working for my church,” I said.

“Is this the same church whose priest you cursed out?”

“Yes.”

“So, let me get this straight. You curse out a priest, and he gives you a job?” She laughed.

“Well, there was over two years between those two things,” I said “and it’s not the way I recommend anyone finding a job. I was so fortunate that he took a chance on me, and I think he did so because he had come to know me. I was honest about my rocky job history and all.”

“He must be a good priest.” The doctor said.

“He’s amazing,” I said.

***

Underneath this fragile frame

Lives a battle between pride and shame

~ Macklemore “Neon Cathedral”

“The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is the slogan that the Episcopal Church is well known for, and it has always been my experience. Of course, the Church isn’t perfect, there are several things I could name that I don’t like, but the fact of the matter is that when I was down and out, at the lowest point in my life and fucked up beyond recognition, the Episcopal Church welcomed me. They didn’t try to change me and mold me into who they wanted me to be, they accepted me for who I was and where I was at.

I’m a person who takes things very seriously most of the time. So, when I say the words of the liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer, I truly mean what I am saying, and if I don’t, I don’t I won’t say it. It’s one of a few reasons I don’t allow my kids to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school, because they are too young to know what the words that they are saying mean. So, before I make a confession, I review the two options for a confession, to see if I’m truly willing to promise what is contained in them. I usually have one over the other that I prefer in each specific circumstance, and sometimes the priest will ask which I want to use and sometimes the priest will be guided to a particular one themselves. I always have a preference, but I’m also always willing to follow the direction of the particular priest, and, in all except one circumstance, the two have always lined up. I also prepare for my confession by reading, and praying, and taking inventory of my life.

It was in doing this for this instance that I came across something that was potentially life-changing for me. “Guilt is about behavior that has harmed others; shame is about not being ‘good enough’. To be ashamed is to expect rejection, not so much because of what one has done as because of what one is. In other words, guilt means that you have made a true mistake, and your actions have wronged someone or something. Shame, on the other hand, makes you feel that you are a mistake, and therefore worthless.” Says Hillary D. Raining in her book Joy in Confession: Reclaiming Sacramental Reconciliation. It made me realize that I had been living in shame rather than guilt. My therapist called it “low self-esteem.” Growing up, I had been repeatedly told that I did not need any self-esteem, that it was a worldly construct, that what I needed in my life was “God-esteem.” The thought process behind that was if I just radically pursued God and obeyed a literal interpretation of the Bible, my life would be amazing.

***

I remember one of many such conversations with my dad.

“Some people would tell you that I abuse you, remember, it’s important to keep family business to yourself.” He said to me. I had been brought up to believe that I deserved the abuse, and so, even though I was miserable, I thought it was my fault.

“But, I’m a sinner, and need to learn not to sin.” I said, shocked that people would think I was abused.

“That’s right, I only discipline you when you deserve it.” He said to me. “One day, when you grow up, people will try to get you to see a psychologist, who will try to tell you that you were abused and get you to explore those memories. Psychology is a wicked, worldly thing that has no place in the life of a Christian.” I remembered this conversation many years later, when I was having anger management issues at work, and instead of firing my ass like they should probably have done, they decided to give a very sheltered, fundamentalist eighteen-year-old a chance.

“You need some help with anger management,” my boss said in a disciplinary interview. “So, we’re going to require you to complete some counselling with our psychologist here on campus that usually sees students but has agreed to see you, for free, as a favor to us.” I should have said thank-you, but I remembered what my dad said about how wicked psychology was.

“My religious beliefs prevent me from seeing a psychologist,” I said sadly. “Would I be able to see my pastor for counseling instead?” I asked.

“I’ll consider it,” she said, “if he were willing to sign an agreement with us for a certain amount of sessions.”

Apparently, my pastor was willing to do so, but his counseling basically destroyed me.

“I feel so depressed,” I told him in the first meeting.

“Well, what I want you to do is to make a list of 100 things you are thankful for. If you start to be thankful for things, you’ll not be depressed anymore.” Even in my sheltered state, I knew this was a load of bullshit, but I really didn’t have any choice but to complete the assignment. “During the next few months, you’ll also read the entire book of Psalms. If you simply read the Bible, it will also help with the depression as you soak in God’s word.”

Weeks later, I was frustrated. I had written a list of 100 things I was thankful for, and I’d also read a lot of Psalms, and yet here I was, still depressed. This whole “Biblical counseling” thing didn’t appear to be working for me, but my beliefs dictated that I had no other option. My pastor would also use things I revealed in counseling in his sermons, and everyone knew who he was talking about.

“One of the young women in our church struggles with what the world calls an eating disorder” he said from the pulpit. “What this woman needs to learn is that she is trying to control her own life instead of letting God control it. If she let God be the Lord of her life, she would not have an issue. She wants to control something, anything, so badly, that she’s willing to not eat anything. She’s gripping so tightly to control she’s willing to make herself sick.” I slunk further down into my seat as people began shooting looks in my direction. I went home alone to my apartment to cut myself, partly to atone for my lust for control over my own life, and partly to drown out the fact that I had been betrayed.

***

Shame is a bitch, and I grew up with so much shame, and I suppose it transferred to my adult life more than I had thought. Shame is what made me believe that all of my sexual assaults had been my fault. I was a bad person that inherently had no real value. It’s part of what fucked up my relationship with God for so long. I guess to be brutally honest my relationship with God is still fucked up, but it’s getting better.

I’ve spent a good part of my ex-fundamentalist life working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, usually alone. Although I went to meetings at first, I also felt like a misfit there, and never could be brutally honest about my addiction as others were about theirs, because shame overcame me. I felt like I was alone. The Southern Baptist counselor I was seeing at the time had recommended Sex Addicts Anonymous instead, because my particular problem was porn, but when I called about the meetings, they told me that it was a men’s only group and women weren’t allowed there, which made me spiral further out of control because I felt deep shame at having a “man’s addiction.” I’m also not quite sure if Sex Addicts Anonymous would have been the right fit, because as far as sex went I hated it and truly couldn’t see what the big deal was about. I could have lived my entire life without sex (except that I wanted kids) and been perfectly content.

So, when it came to my turn at AA, I would simply introduce myself in a way that wouldn’t expose me.

“Hi, I’m Katy-Anne. I’m an addict.” I knew they would assume I was a drug addict with that introduction, and I didn’t care. For me, having people think I was in recovery for drugs was far better than the truth. And so, even in a program that values honesty about addiction, I wasn’t able to be honest, which I’m sure reduced the effectiveness a lot.

I mean, I was able to follow along with Step 1, admitting that I was powerless over my addiction and my life had become unmanageable. I was able to do Step 2 with no problem, because I truly did believe that a power greater than myself, in my case, God, could restore me to sanity, although I was not sure how and I’d been struggling with this since I was 19 and God hadn’t magically made it go away yet. I guess I was still expecting for that to happen. Step 3 was a little harder, and I actually at the time had problems with the wording of the third step, because it said that we would make a decision to turn our lives over to God as we understood him, and I felt that it didn’t matter how people understood God, that my rigid view was correct, and therefore there was only one way to understand God.

I felt like I had been doing Step 4 my entire life, making a searching moral inventory of myself, although I didn’t understand the difference between using it to drown myself in shame and using it to better myself. Step 5 was where it got hard and fell apart for me. Admitting something to God was doable for me, but admitting it to someone else, I just couldn’t. After all, I struggled with something that I believed was mostly a man’s problem, which made me an oddball right from the start. I began wishing that my problem really was alcohol as that seemed far more respectable than porn. Step 6 was something that I totally wanted, but I couldn’t get through 5 to get to 6.

Step 7 was also something I could do, but after that, for me, the steps got harder. It was actually after my first my first confession with my new priest that I realized that confession basically took care of Step 5, but when I talked about that with my friend, Louis, on messenger, he said to me, in a message:

Well, you’re right, but really a good confession covers Steps 1 through 7 really well. He wrote.

You know, you’re right, I wrote. So yes, I progressed through Steps 1 through 7 during the confession process, however that eighth step isn’t so easy.

***

Louis and I had talked about the differences between confession in our respective churches.

I can’t buy this whole venial sin and mortal sin thing, I wrote. Do you believe that? I’m not trying to be disrespectful, I’m just curious.

Yes, Louis wrote.

I think that the Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church probably have entirely different concepts on what sin even is. I wrote. My understanding of sin, much like my understanding of a lot of other things, had been evolving and was still evolving, since I came to the Episcopal Church. I still wasn’t sure that I was able to put into words what I believed about sin, but I like what the Catechism of the Church says about it: “sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” It was totally different to the fundamentalist view of sin.

Yeah, Episcopal confession is more therapeutic than anything, whereas Catholics believe it restores you to God and the Church. Louis wrote.

Well, if you read the forms properly, Episcopal confession also restores you to God and the Church, after all, it says that “I firmly intend amendment of life, and I humbly beg forgiveness of God and his Church” or “restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people” depending on which form you use.

Actually, rather than simply “confession” the Rite is actually called “Reconciliation of a Penitent,” which is really a good way to describe it, but we all get lazy and just call it “confession.”

***

I followed Mother Jennifer into the church. I noticed she had chosen to bring her purple stole with her, which is usually used during Lent, but it was also a color associated with penitence, so I was pretty sure that’s why she had chosen that one, because we were in the Easter season and white was the color for Easter.

She lit a candle as we sat down and opened our prayer books.

“This is to remind us that Jesus is present.” She said as she lit it.

We sat in silence for a few seconds, before I began:

“Bless me, for I have sinned…”

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2 thoughts on “Confession, or “Shame is a Bitch”

  1. I am not religious, however this particular article resonated with me. Especially the part of trying to get help for an addiction and having to skirt the truth. For me, addiction wasn’t porn or drugs or alcohol…. it was a person. Someone I had fallen in love with when I was 15 and I made the center of my universe. He got me pregnant and left and I raised our daughter on my own. He would come back but had no interest in being a father…. he would only want me because I have him absolute control of my life. He would get angry when I left the house without asking permission or talked to another male (whether it be the cashier at Wal-Mart or even a family member) he would hit me and abuse me. Tell me I was lucky to have him. That I deserved him cheating. And I believed him. I believed when he said he loves me and also when he said I was only good for sex. That was it. I calmed and soothed him when he got angry. I blamed myself for the emotional and physical abuse. When it came to sex…. I let him use my body however he saw fit. I didn’t care about my own pleasures. Only his. Whatever it took to atone for making him angry. I bit back tears and cries of pain as he punished me and used me. Even now…. I cringe at being touched intimately by a man. I tried AA. My desire to please this man who only wanted to control and hurt me… it was an addiction. However… since I could not be honest. Since I felt no one understood. It led me to spiral back into that lifestyle time and time again. He would tell me no one lover me like him. After being abused my entire childhood, I wanted to feel safe. He was an MMA fighter who would never let anyone harm me. I felt safe from the world with him. Safe from everyone but him. In my eyes, the cost of giving him absolute control…. it was a small price to pay. I wish I could say my addiction has been cured however it is something I still struggle with. I am covered in bruises and lay in the shower bleeding after sex however if anyone aside from him tries to hurt me… I know I am safe. When he says no one will ever love me they will only use me for sex… I believe him. Addictions are powerful and they aren’t regulated to drugs, alcohol, and porn. There are so many and so many people ashamed and hiding their addiction. Falling prey to it again and again because they feel…. there is no other way. Even when they know it is bad. Their addiction is slowly destroying them from the inside out…. chipping away at their self esteem, their soul…. they feel alone and so they keep going back. Thank you for your honesty and letting me vent. I envy you. Being able to believe in God and talk to your priest. Please don’t stop writing. It gives others the courage to do the same.

    • Hi Abby,

      I want to say that I am so freaking sorry for everything you have been through. If you continue to read here I think you might resonate with some more of the things I plan on posting particularly as it pertains to my childhood and marital abuse. Shame is a huge a factor in the lives of those of us who have been through hell.

      I don’t want to give trite answers in regards to God because I hate those myself. I respect people’s beliefs whether religious or not but I can assure you that if you ever feel drawn to God, God is there for you. I’m a terrible Christian woman who is always wandering away and yet God still loves me. Actually the whole concept of God loving me is something I still struggle with. If I you ever seek God in any way and I can help with that, please let me know. I hope you will find things you can use in my writing whether you believe or not because some days I don’t believe either.

      It is always good to tell our stories, it is therapeutic. I”m glad you told yours and I am so sorry. I hope that you get the help that you need no matter what that looks like.

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