When I left my ex-husband, I took very little with me. Clothes and shoes, some movies and books, a few knick-knacks. And shame. Lots and lots of shame.
In those early days, shame was everything. I was the one who made my child storm out of the room in disgust. I was the one who made another one cry “No!” in a way that will never fully be erased from my memory. I was the one who had lied and cheated, tearing apart a relationship that had existed more than two decades. It was right and good that I feel shame.
One of the things that helped keep that shame in forefront was the wedding album from my first marriage. It was a big, blue, padded book that contained memories from that day. Pictures of our families, pictures of the pastors who married us, pictures of the two of us. Everyone smiling, everyone happy. The devastation that would happen years later unrepresented.
Carrying that with me to my new home felt like the souvenir that I needed to remind myself that I shouldn’t be too happy, I shouldn’t be too content. It sat on a shelf. I didn’t pull it down, torturing myself by paging through the pictures, but it was there, whispering that I wasn’t the person I was supposed to be. Sometimes if I was putting away something in the closet, I would see it there, a monument to my failures. Each time we moved, I would pack it up, carefully placing it next to items from my new life, tainting all of it – the memories of what I had, and the new memories being made.
This is shame. We carry it, packing it up right alongside the parts of our lives that have moved past the inciting incident. We cling to it, thinking that maybe if we beat ourselves up enough, we can finally make ourselves worthy of happiness, meanwhile it lies, telling us that we should never be happy. We internalize the shame until the only reflection of ourselves we can see is one so twisted and distorted that we can only barely recognize the person that we are through the lies surrounding us.
One day Rich and I were organizing our bedroom, sorting through the items that we had been moving from one house to another, choosing some items to be donated to our local Goodwill, combining the memorabilia that we wanted to keep, filling garbage bags with the items that we no longer used or wanted.
I pulled down the box that contained the wedding album from my first marriage, and for the first time since I had left, I flipped through its pages. I looked at the faces of our families, smiling in front of the church, surrounding us. The pictures of my dad and I looking so awkward as he walked me down the aisle and then so ebullient as we danced later than evening. The pictures of two people who were far too young to know just how difficult the road ahead would be.
As I looked into the face of the young woman, I could see myself there. This woman wasn’t planning something malicious. She had no negative intentions in her. She was simply naive, trusting more in stories than her own experience. She had been in love and right then, that was enough. It wouldn’t be enough for the long haul, but that isn’t what pictures are for. Pictures capture moments in the present, not expectations of moments to come.
As I turned the pages, I knew that this physical token of my shame no longer had a place in my life. I closed the heavy cover and slid it into a trash bag containing other unnecessary markers of our past. There was sadness in that moment, yes, but there was freedom.