Getting to use the word “antithesis”.

I’ve been thinking a bit about shame. Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about self-worth, and it kind of feels like shame is the antithesis of self-worth.

“Antithesis” is a fun word to say.

I’ve been trying to be a bit more open about telling my story, but there are parts of it I’m really ashamed of. I shouldn’t be, I know that, and people much cleverer than me tell me not to be ashamed, and I’m working on it – but a big part of me is ashamed of what happened to me, of what the last ten years have been. Each time I hear myself telling the story, I hear how sordid it is; and I hear my own shame in my voice.

I’ve got to get out from under that. There’s a shame monster in all of us, which lurks quietly behind our thoughts and keeps us from valuing ourselves. I can’t really imagine what he looks like. I think he looks like a rumour; he looks like a whisper; he looks like suspicion and innuendo. He is quiet, and clever, and almost invisible, unless you know how to find him. We’ve all got one – and my shame monster has grown healthy and strong on a diet of abuse and undermining and blaming.

He’s starting to get a bit peckish, though. It’s been a while since anyone other than the shame monster himself called me horrible names, or threatened me, or told me that I’m useless. Eventually, at some stage, it will come to a battle between me and the shame monster – and I’m starting to think that odds are that it just might be a fair(ish) fight.


The other girl in the lift.

Once a month, give or take a week or so, I go for a half-hour bus ride to the community health centre in one of Newcastle’s outer suburbs. I take the lift to the third floor, which is occupied entirely by the sexual assault support service.

I always feel a little awkward pushing the button for the third floor, especially when there are other people in the lift – as though it’s an indication of some moral flaw, something to be ashamed of – like making a surreptitious visit to a parole office, or the good kid in the class not wanting everyone to know that she’s been summoned to the principal’s office for a bollocking. Which is stupid: I shouldn’t be ashamed at all. I should stand tall, and say: Look. This was done to me. Watch me have the grace and the courage to heal from it. Instead I find myself hoping that anyone who sees me going up to the third floor will assume that I’m a community health worker. Maybe I should start carrying around a clipboard.

Last time I was there, another girl got into the lift with me on the ground floor. She was beautiful: long, toned legs and a healthy glow and glossy blonde hair, and she would have looked at home on any beach or in any university lecture hall in the country. I immediately felt short, dowdy and frumpy.

I was standing nearest the floor buttons in the lift, and with a furtive sort of defiance I pressed the button for the third floor. I glanced at her in invitation – which floor do you want? – and she raised her eyes to mine and said: “Me too”.

Me too. What power in those words. Me too for the third floor, thanks for pushing the button for me. But more than that. Me too, that I’m going to a sexual assault service. Me too, that I need that support, that I’ve also survived sexual assault. Me too, that you’re not the only one.

There was a frisson of understanding that passed between us. Both of us knew what service is located on the third floor. Both of us knew that the other was not a community health worker, but a client. Both of us knew, intimately, how much strength it takes each time to walk through those doors, to be seared down to the bone by the discussion of our own experience, to walk out shattered. Both of us are victims, and survivors, of one of the worst, most brutal things that can be done to another human. Both of us are seeking healing. And we smiled at each other.

I will never know her name. I will probably never see her again. In a city the size of Newcastle, the chances of us running into each other – inside or outside the community health building – are minuscule. But in that moment, of fear, of anticipation, of vulnerability, we were not alone. Because we were in the same lift, going to the same floor, and we shared a smile: we also shared an experience.

And we are not alone.

Themes and wriggling puppies.

It’s strange, but my healing seems to run by themes. First it was decision-making, the frightening freedom I stood looking at. Then it was safety, diagnosis and symptom-management. Then there was victimisation, and coming to terms with my status as victim as well as survivor. Learning to make space for my anger, and the twisted, bitter feeling of hatred. Trying to work out where my own responsibility lay, and what if anything I deserved, needed to take the blame for. Wave after wave, and I’ve ridden each of them and then turned to face the next one.

The current theme seems to be self-worth. What, if any, value I have in the world. From where do I take my self-worth: from external competencies, from internal strengths, or from something deeper? Why do my friends like me, and would I like myself more if I could see myself through their eyes?

These are the questions with which I’m wrestling, and I realise that having the courage to answer them honestly will make me a better person. All of this is working towards something. There is a reason for it all.

I was walking home from the Cathedral tonight when I came across a couple walking a puppy. A pug, all squashed face and loud breathing and pig-curl tail and brand-new-to-the-world enthusiasm. I stopped to say hello (as you do) and allowed the creature to enthuse all over my lap and taste my fingers to see what they were made of, and I scratched its head when it stayed still long enough and told it what a good and dignified dog it would grow up to be.

Ardent, exuberant little scrap of Spirit. Small wriggling manifestation of the Divine. A soul of such worth just because it is a soul. Just because it is the creation of the Creator. Because it is its own expression of the Source of being in the world.

If that little fragment of anima, of soul, is worth something just for being what it is, then so must I be.

I’ve just got to get that through my head, that’s all.

Beer and grace.

I had a bit too much to drink today – two beers (yes: I’m a lightweight) at lunchtime with friends. I’m not a big drinker and one of the problems with me and alcohol is that it makes me talk too much. It thins the filter between my mind and my mouth, so the process of “No, wait, I probably shouldn’t say that” is far less likely to happen.

It doesn’t change me. I don’t get nasty, or more acerbic. It doesn’t make me violent, or reckless, or even particularly expansive. That’s not it at all. We all know that alcohol reduces inhibition: in me, this means that I simply express myself more. Without inhibition squeaking at me not to speak up, that I should talk less and listen more, that people will judge me if I dominate the conversation – without that nagging, frightening and frightened little voice I relax, and say what I think. I don’t monopolise the conversation (at least, I don’t think I do). I just participate in it more.

Which is pretty funny because flicking through my old journal this evening, looking for a book title I’d written down, I found the line “I shouldn’t need wine to be myself”. It was written at a different time and in a different context, but it’s relevant today.  My friends didn’t care that I spoke more after my beer. In fact, they seemed to welcome my comments and my input. And I’d really like to be able to say that I don’t need wine to be myself.

There’s a reason for all of this, of course. Over ten years I have learned that drawing attention to myself is bad, and will lead to some sort of punishment. I’ve learned to regard myself as not worth the attention of people who might be interested in what I’ve got to say. I’ve learned to be quiet, and self-effacing – something which I think I am naturally but which has been so brutally imposed upon me that I would have become that whether it was part of who I am or not. I’ve learned to stay still, on the outskirts. And the external oppressor who imposed that upon me has been internalised – now it’s the voice in my mind that says “Shut up, no one’s interested”.

Sometimes it’s an act of grace to be quiet and self-effacing, to create space for people to be who they are and to listen, really listen, to what they have to say. Often, though, it’s an act of grace to contribute, to be bold enough to add to the flow of conversation, to respect others enough to let them into your experience and your thoughts. To share your wisdom and observations.

I worry a bit about the fact that alcohol has this impact on me, but I also figure that the fact that I worry about it is the best predictor that I won’t develop a problem with it. It has, though, given me an insight into myself. That inhibition is not always a good thing, because it keeps me from my friends, because it keeps my friends from me. That, if my inhibition takes a step back occasionally, I can still be trusted. My friends still want me around. They either are genuinely interested in what I have to say, or they like me enough to pretend that they are. And that letting myself go enough to be more myself is an act of not selfishness but grace.

Grace is important. Now I just need to do it without the beer.

The threat of worth.

I’ve been working on letting people in a bit more. Being a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable. Being a bit more human, a bit more real.

It’s easy to do that in writing. But I’ve been trying to do it in real life as well – where I can see people’s faces, hear the tone of their voice, witness their responses. Hear my own voice talking about the experiences of the last ten years, rather than just the gentle rain-like patter of my laptop’s keyboard.

And here’s the unexpected by-product of letting people in: sometimes they want to do nice things for you. Sometimes they want to do something to alleviate, just a little bit, the injustices you’ve experienced. Sometimes they want to redress the balance in your favour. In my favour. And I have to accept that. I have to be gracious enough to allow that. To allow people’s generosity, and esteem; to allow them to care for me.

Which is scary. Not because I have lied, or kept secrets, or manipulated. Not because people’s kindness might be twisted and used against me. Not because I might be found out, or punished, by the person for whom me having friends was a great threat, and therefore not allowed. Not because of any danger to me. It is scary because (and this sentence has taken about four minutes so far to write: I’m procrastinating because even the words are scary) it means I’m worth something to them. Which means I’m worth something in general.

This is not a fishing expedition. I know that I’m worth something to people: this is not a request to hear it again. It’s just that I’m not used to that yet. And it’s a big thing to get my head around. In some ways, it would be easier if I was just worthless. Then I wouldn’t have to shine in the world. But if I am worth something then I not only have to get that fact through my skull, I also have to live it. I have to live as a creation of the Creator, manifesting the Source of all life in my flawed and beautiful human way. And if that’s true, then it means I have to treat myself with respect. Not just in the easy, boring ways: eat well, get plenty of sleep, put the right things into my body – but in the ways that are difficult. In upholding myself as worthy of safety, but also worthy of respect and love. My own respect, my own love.

After ten years of learning that my soul is not worthy of love, I’m learning that not only is it worth loving, but that I have to love it – myself. I feel like I’ve just been told to treasure a used tissue, or an empty Coke can. But other people value the used tissue/empty Coke can/human being that is Naomi, and they can’t all be wrong, can they?

We have the right to walk the streets at night.

I’ve never been on a protest march. I’ve never done anything like that. It’s never really been my scene before. But tonight I went on a Take Back the Night march through the restaurant-lined foreshore of my town. It was loud. There was chanting and singing and dancing and a lot of annoyingly catchy slogans.

We were loud (well, I wasn’t. I’m not very good at being loud, other than by accident) and we were noticed. We vibrantly proclaimed that women have the right to walk the streets. To be free from rape and sexual violence. To be free from violence in any form. And it’s absolutely true. I was a good, sensible bear and took a taxi home through the darkness of the city’s streets; but I shouldn’t have had to. I should have been free to walk, certain in my safety.

And it’s not just the streets. I am safer walking the streets of my city late on a Friday night than I ever was in my own home before I took my freedom in my hands. More women are assaulted behind locked doors than on the streets; more women are beaten and betrayed by those with whom they should be safe than are ever attacked by strangers. For so many women, the home is not a place of safety, but a battle-field, a prison, a holding pen. Ironically, the night is actually safer.

We talk about reclaiming the night; sometimes we forget that we also need to reclaim the light behind closed doors, and make homes the sanctuaries they should be.

Rationality and blessed refreshment.

I sang with some choir friends at a funeral on Monday. I didn’t know the lady, but funerals always remind me of the deep connections between people. I never met this woman – who by all accounts was a pretty impressive woman; I think I’d have liked her, and I’d have hoped that she liked me – but she was my sister in this universe, a fellow creation of the Creator.

One of the comments I took away from the eulogy was that this woman – this beautiful, loving wife and mother, shrewd businesswoman, and vibrant human being – could not have articulated deep and elevated theology, but lived her faith. She could not articulate the theology of the Eucharist, but it was a part of her being. She drew comfort from it without understanding it – any more than we need to understand how hydration works in the membrane of our cells to be able to celebrate the cool refreshment in a glass of water on a hot day.

I’ve spent a lot of time with intelligent people. I value intelligence, my own and that of others. Theology is something that’s important to me and sometimes I want to weep at the theological illiteracy in our churches. I think that my theological understanding, and my capacity for analytical, reasoned and abstract thought enriches my faith.

But all my rationality, my intelligence, my reasoned thought processes and eloquent (or otherwise!) arguments are nothing without the faith that underpins them. That’s one of the things I’m learning, not just about my theological understanding of the world but about myself in general. Head is nothing without heart. Knowledge is nothing without the life that underpins it.

That’s something that I’m realising. I’ve spent the last ten years in my head. That’s been important – it’s got me through a lot of pretty horrible stuff, kept me from being overwhelmed by just how painful it’s all been. But here’s the problem which now comes with that: when I stop, when there are no thoughts in my head (which does happen, sometimes), then my feelings rise to the surface. All the heart stuff that I’ve masked with head stuff – it’s still been there, quietly and patiently waiting for me to notice it. I can articulate my pain and my healing, the process of my mental and emotional and spiritual and creative recovery. But that’s not enough. I have to learn to feel it.

I’m working on it. I’ll always value my head, the easy working of my mind. But I’m learning to value my heart too. My soul. What they tell me. What they yearn for, what causes them to recoil. And in doing that I’ll watch myself deepen. I’m watching my healing deepen and become real. I’m watching my faith expand from being limited by the realms of intellectualism, beyond those realms to encompass me as not only mind, but body and heart and soul.

I love being able to explain why the glass of water is important. But I’m learning to move beyond that knowledge, to revel in the blessed refreshment it offers on a hot day.