The Healing Tree – Why Shame?

What a surreal existence to have so many show you love and support and you end up feeling the exact opposite of how they wanted you to feel and you can’t even begin to control it.

(My name is Mary Beth Orr. I am a professional horn player and currently 3rd Horn in the Grand Rapids Symphony. The following is my story in hopes it may be a helpful resource.)

So, let’s talk about shame. Why? Because that is a surprising little nugget that popped up for me during my recovery. It sometimes would slink in as a companion to my depression or come on like being hit by a 2×4 when someone said just the right thing meant to make me feel better. You know what pairs super well with shame? Rage. Oh yeah. That one never slunk in… nope. It travelled right alongside shame like nails on that 2×4. Along with dealing with physical injury repair to my face, teeth, neck, internal soft tissues, etc.… my brain had its own journey as well. This post will cover all the wonderful mixed up, messed up, jacked up things losing your career, passion, and brainpower can do to you, but more specifically, did to me. Concussions for women are a bitch. Pun definitely intended. And brain injury lingers on like a bad chain letter that keeps making its rounds. You forget about it and forget they exist until you get one and are once again reminded what a nuisance it all is. 

So where did my shame come from? The accident was my fault. Do I KNOW this? Not really since I can’t remember anything. But that is what I was told and that is the only information I have. Do I believe it? I actually don’t know and at some point, realized it doesn’t fucking matter. You know what else triggered my shame? The rage I would feel every time someone was kind to me. People I loved and even just acquaintances were trying to everything they could to support me. You know the feeling you get when someone you know has something really terrible happen to them, you see it posted on Facebook, or see them and know you should say something supportive and amazing to make them feel better but have no clue what that is because deep down you know they’re in hell and nothing can really make it better? I’m pretty sure a whole truck load of people in my life felt that way. And so, they would say amazing things like, “Well, you look amazing”, or “You are sooooo lucky”, or “At least you still can play piano and sing”, and my favorite “If anyone can get through this and come back you can”. 

Honestly, even writing these again make me want to punch a wall. WTF?! WHY DO THESE THINGS TRIGGER ME SO MUCH! Now I’m having rage at myself for allowing myself to be triggered by these kind and supportive phrases. What a surreal existence to have so many show you love and support and you end up feeling the exact opposite of how they wanted you to feel and you can’t even begin to control it. Enter shame. Dirty, sexy shame come right on in. And now let’s compound this with fear you can’t live up to everyone’s expectation of your strength, that no amount of support may get your career and livelihood back, that what made you special was possibly gone forever, that this was all your fault, etc.… blah blah blah blah blah BRAIN. My trauma therapist Angie and I had a good time with this cyclical thought process. 

On a side note, I started out with a speech therapist to help my lingering memory issues after the accident. We established where I was on what is called their “Bell Curve” to establish a bit of a baseline and then work at improving from there. Ultimately, there was a point I reached the max of my improvement and discovered my emotional and chemical trauma were the squeakier wheel.

While Angie was helping me adapt my hyper productive oriented approach to living to a new normal that was supportive in my healing process, we also had to get to the root of each of these phrases. 

“Well, you look amazing” 

Thank you? I mean yeah, normally that would make me feel great. Accept, not only was I feeling like physical shit almost all the time, I really didn’t have the ability to show emotion or experience a wide range of emotions other than fear, shame, and rage. It’s so complicated. And I’m pretty sure the rest of what I’m going to write about won’t make much sense but here it is…. Ultimately, I kind of wanted to just be left alone. But I also wanted to be working. Doing anything that felt like me. Or who I used to be. But I really couldn’t do that in the way I wanted and that pissed me off. I also really felt like a ghost and couldn’t feel emotions the way I did before, nor did I have the energy or the ability to match others energy with a similar reaction to our interaction. Follow?  Did I want to look amazing? Sure. Did I want people to know how badly I was struggling? No. But I also, didn’t want people to have unrealistic expectations of me either. And I felt how I looked on the outside may have sent a false message I couldn’t begin to really get into in a casual conversation. #COMPLICATED

“You are sooooo lucky”

This was a little more clear to me as to why I wanted to punch walls… or people… when this phrase passed my ears. OF COURSE I KNOW I’M FUCKING LUCKY! Christ almighty! Like, what the actual fuck am I supposed to say to that? Ummm yeah, I know? Thanks for reminding me of something I live with every day? What am I really supposed to do with that comment. I respect that sometimes is the only thing someone can think of because they are grateful I’m still here and intact, but to my over achieving up tight, control freak classical music trained self, that said to me, “You’re not acting grateful enough so I thought I should let you know”. So initially I would feel the thud of the shame 2×4 in the gut and in true form, those sharp nails of rage would rip right into me just a teeny tiny moment later. Is this rational? Not even remotely. But I have never asserted any of these posts about my experience would make sense, be moral, or even inspirational. It’s just honest, unfiltered, and vulnerable. Just in case I might not be the only one, I’m putting it all out there. Because these feelings were isolating and made me feel terminally ALONE.

 “At least you still can play piano and sing” 

This. Was. A. Doozie. I know full well people were trying to help me stay positive. But this also links up to the “lucky” shame cycle. If I’m not okay with that outcome, does that make me ungrateful? I am a punishingly honest person so for me to try and smile and say, “Yes, I know. It’s such a blessing” just couldn’t come out of my mouth. My main reaction was to kind of nod my head, look away and try to change the subject. Just that little bit of deflection or redirect was exhausting and made it hard for me to want to be around people in broad social situations. I did not want and could not even begin to explain to every single person that uttered those words, what it would cost my soul to lose the job I had recently won and gotten tenure in after 15 years of auditioning in one of the hardest career markets. The shame of wishing I had lost one of my feet instead of one of my teeth. Yeah, I actually had those thoughts…. Which also caused massive amounts of self-loathing and shame. Because that is a fucked-up way of thinking. But, again, that is the truth of what passed through my brain. I remember trying to find some peace one summer evening, somewhere between recovering from my lip surgery and waiting for my implant surgery, by sitting outside and trying to enjoy a beautiful sunset and crisp G and T. I had yet to find any sign the 25 years of technique/lip I had cultivated would either still be there once the implant was done, or would come back even remotely to the level it had been. I also wondered how far back to square 1 would I have to go? In my mind, it felt like watching a Druid be so close to getting that last stone in place before they slipped and stone rolled all the way back down the hill…. And the rest of “Henge” went with it. Would I have to just move one more stone back into position? All of them? Or had the stones broken completely and now I must find all new stones… The resounding thought in my brain was. “Girl, if you can’t play horn anymore, there may not be enough medication to save you”. 

So, when I got the “At least” comment, it instantly brought all the fear, shame, and isolation front and center. No Bueno. 

“If anyone can get through this and come back you can”.

And this brings us to this little gem. Look, I pride myself on being strong. I am a believer you can actually choose to be as strong as you need and/or want to be. However, in this situation, though these loved ones, friends, and supporters were trying to build me up, instead triggered the implication in my mind that if I somehow didn’t come back, I wasn’t strong enough? Or the frustration that deep down I knew there was a distinct possibility I had nerve damage in my lip. There was a distinct possibility the implant would fail. These are things beyond my control. What if there was a physiological reason that all the strength in the world couldn’t overcome? Plain and simple, this statement made me feel vulnerable. Or I allowed this overwhelmingly supportive statement to trigger my vulnerability. 

Honestly, most of the time I wanted to be left alone. Yes, there were times getting out of the house was good, felt good, felt necessary. But in those times, I dreaded the simple question “How are you?”. You know, the one where they give you that certain pointed look with wide eyes and a tone of voice resembling something between awe and terror? I mean, how exactly was I supposed to really honestly answer that question. Enter my amazing therapist Angie. Together we came up with a great answer to both be honest, simple, and redirect the conversation to what I really wanted. A distraction from my reality. I wanted desperately to know how everyone ELSE was. So here was my answer “Oh, it’s too complicated, but I’m really interested in how you are? What’s new?” 

Even though having that phrase ready helped, I still preferred being alone. It was comfortable because I could be a mess, a complete mess and not have to try to navigate social interaction. This, also made it easy to go deep into my doom spiral which, also wasn’t good. What is comfortable isn’t always what is good. Which brings me to a last surprise little nugget….

“You are such an inspiration” 

Oh, this phrase pretty much just killed my soul. What a ridiculous thing to live up to! My first thought would be…. “Do you have any idea what kind of stupid, impulsive, and compulsive things I am doing right now? The destructive cyclical thoughts constantly spinning my brain until I’m just paralyzed”? I strongly felt that if the world could see what was really happening behind the scenes, they might think differently. It’s hard for me to accept a compliment I don’t feel I’ve earned. I’ve been called strong, but I prefer the more truthful word to be compulsive. As in, everything I do, I’m compelled to do because I can’t live with the alternative outcome. My drive and my compulsions were my strength and also my vice. I did some stupid shit when trying to bring my playing back. I doom spiraled my brain out of having any creative energy to write songs or arrangements, or do all the painting I always said I would do if I had the time… 

I guess I’ve had to do some thinking on my definition of inspirational. As previously mentioned, I was “lucky” surviving this car crash. I guess I can take credit for being smart enough to wear my seat belt, sit far away from the steering wheel, and purchase a super safe car (Love Ya Honda). But I didn’t have one ounce of control over how fast I healed, or coming out of the coma…. It is true everyone around me said I was fighting all over the place, i.e. Constantly removing my cervical collar and restraints (yep I had to be put in restraints), moving too much to let them give me an MRI, etc…. But that wasn’t conscious. That wasn’t a conscious decision I made to do. BECAUSE I WAS UNCONSCIOUS. So, I couldn’t, right? When I woke up I was told to rest. Rest was what my body needed. I did not do that. I wanted out of that bed and walk around. So, I did. Against orders. My actions and decisions came from my compulsion to get my horn career back. Entirely. Rest was not an option because of the urgency of those compulsions. So, during my recovery and rehabilitation back to playing, I had a constant tug of war with those compulsions. Sometimes my healing won, and sometimes my compulsions did. Being inspirational and strong to me, is being more and better than your compulsions to do what is smart, and uncomfortable because it is patient, and requires grace and diligence. 

There were times I had those things. And times I didn’t. The times I gave in to the negative, panicked, or impatient choices, made me feel shame. At times like I was betraying everyone that thought I was an inspiration. Those lingering thoughts became the motivation for this blog, really. I felt that I could handle the “inspirational” moniker if I shared everything and THEN, people decided it still fit their ideal. If you or they saw all the dirty corners of my journey, and still wanted to say I was inspirational, I could live with that. Because at least it’s based on truth and it isn’t my place to tell someone how to feel or think, just give them the information to make an informed decision. 

As you might notice, I haven’t provided a shrewd and uplifting analysis of my thoughts from that period. I am not placing judgment on any of it. Because the truth that runs through all of it is that it flows like a tide… This experience goes so much farther beyond good or bad or right or wrong; would, should, or could. It just was, and is an experience. My experience. I want to empower you to have your own without judgement. I want you to feel less alone when those surprise “Oh shit” nuggets hit you that you have no clue how to sit with, or react to. Your Healing gets to be YOURS. You don’t have to rationalize your thoughts, choices, or feelings to anyone. 

Until next time reader, be well. 

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