Guilt, Shame: Parents

If I had to pick the event that set my life into motion, I’d go with the divorce of my parents. It happened when I was close the the age of 5 or 6, and I don’t recall the specifics of it. The parts I remember about life at the time overall are fleeting. I remember Voltron and Gumby on an old school cube shaped CRT TV. I remember the mumps, chicken pox and stepping on a sticky glue mouse trap. I remember crying the first time I saw Michael Jackson transform into a Werecreature in Thriller and I remember my intrigue when a video tape dub of a movie turned out to be a porno. My mother was young, my father was old. I remember an uncle and remember living in one of the outer boroughs of New York City. 

One day everything changed though I’m confident it took much longer than that. Where once I had two parents, suddenly I only had my mother. Where we once lived in a stable home, I now moved from place to place with her, apartment to apartment, and for a long time, couch to couch. I remember a boyfriend in the Bronx and being awake for hours watching Sunday TV as my mom and her boyfriend slept the night off. I remember being in a dump in Brooklyn living with god knows how many people. I recall us living with cousins in there apartment for a few years and then moving downstairs to live with my grandmother for several more before we finally got our own place in the projects. 

The Bronx boyfriend was not very fond of me. Another boyfriend was in jail for most of my childhood. My brother’s father was an abusive alcoholic who abused my mother before my eyes, holding her at gun point in front of me when she decided to leave him. My youngest brother’s father was married with children when he got my mother pregnant. My own father settled in Manhattan and provided anything I asked him for until material things no longer fit the bill. He made lots of promises he never ended up keeping and I saw him once a week until we left New York. 

My mother was no angel. She was admittedly way too young to have me, yet she did anyway just shy of 18 years old. As a person who at the end of her life had gotten her GED, her sobriety coin, lost a mother and a son, had no real father, suffered through undiagnosed depression, disability and alcoholism, she did the best she could with the cards we were dealt. When I was 18, I left her and my brothers behind to serve in the Army. She died several weeks before the start of the new millennium. My father died in 2010. 

So, where is the shame in all this? Where does my guilt lie? 

  • I could not keep my parents together. 
  • I did not have the strength to protect my mother from abuse. 
  • I left my mother behind to start my own life. 
  • I severed contact with my father after my mother’s death, never speaking to him again. 

Pondering on the first bullet is pretty straightforward when I read the words: just how does a 5 year old child keep his or her parents from divorcing? Does a kid have that power? I know I didn’t, just as my own children did not have the ability to keep their mother and I together. 

The second point is harder to address. Saying I didn’t have the strength is accurate. I was 10, short and scrawny. He was in his mid to late 30’s, an army veteran and endowed with drunktard strength. I didn’t have a chance if it ever came down to physicalities. He could have easily snuffed me out. These first two points truly come down to things outside of my control. Perhaps it makes them easily to address and overcome. 

The last two points are not so easily dismissed in neither my heart nor mind. Leaving home was a personal decision. So was cutting my father out of my life. Still in hindsight, there are differences between the two decisions. 

Leaving to the military was a strategic decision. There was no college scholarship or inheritance coming to me. There was family business to take me under it’s wing. I would have graduated, went out into the world to try and make a name for myself like everyone else while trying to help my mother raise my brothers. Yet as I theorize on what I would have done and how things may have been, the flip side of that coin is that if I’d stayed, it is very possible that my mother would not have returned to New York, where my brother would later die the same year, and her the year after. It can be said that her choice to move back was hers and hers alone. It can also be said that she may not have left if I had stayed with her. These are what if’s, woulda-coulda’s that were still out of my control to a point. 

Locking my father out of my life however, was all me and that’s hard to swallow because there was no good reason to do so. He did nothing wrong. I simply threw a temper tantrum. In the wake of losing my mother, I lashed out at my father and exiled myself until his death. The last words I ever said to him were out of anger and we never spoke again. There’s no one or nothing to blame my actions on. I had ten years to come around and reach out to him and I never did. I let him die thinking his only son didn’t love him. 

My behavior towards my father was inexcusable and something I have to live with for the rest of my life. It’s a despicable act I’m not proud of doing that I have to come to terms with. Some might say my reaction to losing my mother was natural. The ten years as an absent son was anything but. In this, there is real, true shame that I cannot explain away. 


Guilt, Shame: Parents

Guilt, Shame: Prelude

I’m going to go pretty deep and personal on this one. This is about guilt and shame, something I have been feeling since I was a child, and something I try not to think about. I think many of us try not to think about the things which make us feel guilt and shame. I know I don’t because I end up not only feeling wrong about the choices I’ve made in my past but also flawed somehow fundamentally. 

It started with deep feelings. I feel something, along the lines of sadness, inadequacy, regret and remorse. When I boil these ideas down, they are guilt and shame. For clarity, a quick google search of the definitions read: 

Guilt – The fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.

Shame – a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

So the question becomes, what do I feel ashamed about? What do I feel guilty of? Why should I or should I even care? The last question of course is moot: I do care or I wouldn’t be writing about it, would I? Someone suggested I should start from the very beginning, address the earliest feelings of guilt and shame and more on from there. 

One day everything changed. Where once I had two parents, suddenly I only had my mother. Where I once had a stable home, I now moved from place to place with her, apartment to apartment, borough to borough for the rest of my childhood.  

I can go on and on and never touch upon the opening event which shook my life, the divorce of my mother and father after 5 or so years of marriage. What was it about this event that shaped me to who I am today? More importantly along the lines of the topic, why does a five year old boy feel guilt and shame about the divorce of his parents? I mean, did I pit one parent against the other and drive a wedge between them intentionally or not? No. Is it rational or logical then to feel like there’s something I could have done to keep them together? I know I didn’t cause the split between my mother and my father, so what’s it going to take for that knowledge to sink into my head and heart? 

There have been other matters I’ve discussed with people, only to be told there was nothing I could have done better or differently. They’ve told me that it’s not my fault. I’m certain anyone who has felt guilt and shame has heard similar answers. Did it make the sense of shame or guilt go away? For me it didn’t. 

People in this world tell us we’re to blame or tell us we shouldn’t feel the way that we do. For thousands of years, women were told they were meant to be at home in the kitchen. People have been told only love between a man and a woman is real for about the same amount of time. We’ve warred over skin colors, beliefs, sex and all sorts of ideas and probably for all of human history, one group has exercised control over another using shame and guilt. 

Just what the hell should we be ashamed of really? Really ponder this idea of feeling bad about something you did or didn’t do, or felt inside. What should we really feel shame and guilt about? Off the top of my head: Starving children, abusing other life forms and shaming others. Shame for feeling and ideas I can’t really buy into any more. 

By sharing, I hope someone out there feeling the way I feel, sees that they are not alone out there. Perhaps reading my own words here in front of me. Transcribing my thoughts and feelings about my shame and guilt mean dissecting the events of my life where I have those emotions. The idea is if I lay it all out on the table, I will start to see that everything is not on me, not everything is my fault. The endstate is that I can accept responsibility for what’s mine, understand what’s not and let go of guilt and shame that is not genuinely mine. 

Guilt, Shame: Prelude