- Brian M Winningham
Brave Little Boy (Not a Poem)
A little light reading about shame and trauma. The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame The Neuroscience of Shame **How Trauma and Stress Affect the Body**
Definition (Oxfords) Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Definition (MINE) Shame: Secrets that would rip your heart out if told, but that you can’t change no matter how much you want to. Death is preferable to shame, but you don’t always get to choose.
Shame has been such an integral part of who I am. It’s held an inordinate place in shaping decisions and life choices for me. I mostly have tried deflecting throughout my life rather than facing my shame. In the past, I have laid a lot of MY shame at my mom’s feet, putting it on her mental illness, her fear and shame. It’s much more complicated than that. Yes, she played a part, but I need to own my own shame. I’m pretty sure mom and dad both did everything they knew to do.
I had several serious problems growing up, but one was particularly bad. I had no tools to deal with the emotions of it and it seriously scarred me. I wet the bed every day from when I was born until I was 12. Beginning around the age of 5 or 6, my mom refused to wash my sheets for me anymore. If I woke up early and it was still dark out and I couldn’t get up yet, I would look for a dry spot on my bed and maybe shove the top sheet into my sleep shorts to try and go back to sleep. Mom would check on me every morning and would usually curl her lip at me and either ridicule or berate me. So, I would get up every day and wash my sheets. If I was running a little late for work (I had an actual job starting at 10 years old) she might smile and help me sometimes. Mostly it was just disgust or anger. It was also a family secret but not the only one.
After getting the sheets started, I bathed or showered. This was my routine. Every. Single. Day. Wetting the bed impacted every aspect of my life. It meant never sleeping over at a friend’s house. It meant never going camping with Boy Scouts. It meant that friends couldn’t come to my bedroom and sit on my bed, because they would hear the plastic sheet I had to sleep on to protect my mattress. If they heard, they would know. It meant never, ever sleeping with anyone else in the same bed. Not even for a nap. That made nap-time in kindergarten interesting, for sure. It was a secret that could never be told to anyone.
A really hard thing was coming up with new excuses for why I couldn’t do the normal things my friends and everyone else were doing and inviting me to do. I ended up convincing myself I didn’t want to, and it wasn’t long before they stopped inviting me. Then later, I couldn’t understand why my best friends were suddenly better friends with other people. I was doing the best I could but that doesn’t mean I was doing well. Because of my shame, I had a lot of “surface” friends and very few close friends. I was afraid they would find out my secret and betray me. I still don’t make friends easily. I also still shower every morning, first thing. Both are as much a part of me as my skin. These are just two of many examples of impacts this caused.
I can still feel deeply what it feels like to wake up, wet, cold, frustrated, disappointed, disgusted, hurt, and ashamed. The sticky, dirty feeling and the smell of urine aren’t something I am likely to ever forget. Those are big emotions for a 6-year-old child to feel, especially all at once, every day, without fail. Year. After. Year. 7 years old, then 8 years old, then 9, and so on. I wasn’t given any tools to deal with these big feelings, so I developed my own. I built walls that I still have a very hard time letting people through. I become a victim at times and an overachiever at other times. I let some people walk all over me and push away others for the slightest affront. I was always afraid that someone might discover my biggest shame, so keeping people at arm’s length became a habit. Some of my current habits are still about protecting myself from something I haven’t done since I was a child. This is why facing your past is so important. If you don’t, then things can’t change.
According to my mom, I had a lot of problems getting potty trained and just never stopped wetting the bed in my sleep until I was 12. I have had sleep issues most of my life, even as a child I suffered from frequent nightmares and insomnia. I was tested in 2019 and it was discovered that I have very severe sleep apnea (I stop breathing/wake up more than 70 times an hour) and now sleep with a C-PAP machine every night, even when traveling. I wonder if I had been treated for some of these sleep problems (did treatment even exist outside of prescribed narcotics in the 1970’s?) if it might have helped with wetting the bed and maybe vice versa.
How did I stop wetting the bed the day I turned 12 years old? I decided that was what was going to happen and it did. The year I turned 8, my family was staying in a trailer park in Oklahoma for the summer because that is where my dad was working. I met a 12-year-old boy that summer. He was my hero. He was kind to all of the little kids and was kind to me. He saw my stripped bed with its plastic sheet one day and told me that he had used to wet the bed too. He said he just grew out of it and finally stopped. I decided that day, to grow out of wetting the bed the day I turned 12 just like him and I did. You would think this kind of will power and mind over matter would count as a win, but you would be wrong. I couldn’t see the win for the 12 years (sic) of failure that preceded it.
Wetting the bed isn’t the only thing I have carried crushing shame for in my life, but it is certainly one of the bigger things. I have also carried shame for being sexually molested for almost two years by another child. I have been ashamed of my two failed marriages. I have been ashamed by my lack of education. I have been ashamed of feeling sexually inadequate. I have been ashamed that I can’t seem to stop myself from interrupting people. I have been ashamed of talking about people behind their backs. I have been ashamed to be so fat and out of shape. I have been ashamed of the unkind thoughts I have toward my wife and children sometimes. I am ashamed that I feel so inadequate to all the tasks set before me to be successful. I feel shame for every failure I have ever experienced, even though my job is to help others approach failure differently! I am ashamed that I don’t know what to do next, most of the time.
I’m sure there is probably more, but I think it is more important to take a moment and acknowledge the brave little boy that was and who is still inside me. I got up every day and went to school and work and acted as if everything in my life were normal. I carried this huge secret for years as a child, and although it has caused me emotional problems and made it harder to make friends, it also made me a very strong, independent person who isn’t afraid to go their own way. There are myriad other ways I am still affected by this in ways both positive and negative. It is part of who I am and how I got to here. Now I am learning to accept those positives and building better habits to address my negative reactions.
I spent 12 years of my life wetting the bed and I have spent the next 45 still being affected by it in many ways both large and small. I’m not ashamed any longer and I even understand that I’m probably not too many years away from peeing my pants again. I wish it hadn’t taken so long to figure out how to let this stuff go, but I am where I am now and moving forward is key to getting better. I want more than anything to be better.