When I was a freshman in high school I wrote a fictional story for my English class. This story was about two sisters and a bad news boyfriend who enticed the older sister into taking drugs. This was a story about a disjointed family and a helpless young girl who longed to save her sibling from the gates of Hell where she was surely headed.
As with all my papers back then, I handed it shyly to my teacher and bit my fingernails for days until she handed it back with a grade.
I remember the day my teacher handed my story back to me as if it was yesterday. I was shocked to see an “A” at the top of the page with a long hand-written comment underneath. My teacher told me she thought the story was very well written and wanted to submit the story to “Scholastic Magazine” after I made a few suggested changes.
She felt this piece was worthy of publication.
My heart began to pound as I read those words. Wow! But then my heart dropped as I read the line about her suggested changes.
This was a woman who believed in my potential. This was a woman who encouraged me and saw right through my shy external persona and recognized my abilities. This was a woman who wanted me to succeed.
Although a part of me was doing back flips with great joy, the other, darker and much stronger side of me was saying things like: “yes, but it wasn’t perfect,” “yes, but she told you to make changes,” “yes, but they will never publish it.”
So, as I had done for the past 13 years of my life, I gave into doubt. I did not make the suggested changes. I did not resubmit my piece for her to send to Scholastic Magazine and I buried that paper away in a box underneath a stack of other things I wanted to forget.
Once again I had fallen into the story I had been told my whole life. I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t deserve good things in life.
I continued to struggle with these same doubts well into adulthood. Though I moved forward in life and earned college degrees, moved swiftly up the ladder in corporations and eventually began to have some of my writing published; in the back of my mind I had to continually fight the feeling that I simply did not deserve these things.
All the self-defeating messages that circled my mind in an endless symphony of pain. Thoughts that were conjured by childhood experiences and held tightly, based on the false belief that if released, there would be nothing there to fill the void. I knew little else outside of that ugly masquerade of shame. My identity was tethered completely to that smothering leach that is doubt.
For the longest time in my life I would push people away. I had built a pretty impenetrable wall of self-protection. I trusted few, based on a lifetime of people who had chosen to abuse my trust.
About two years ago I came across that story I had written in my freshman English class buried under a stack of old papers. I read it and I cried.
For three years prior I had been immersed in my thesis project for the Academy of Art University. Photography had become my soul’s outlet of expression. I had struggled with the same doubts in this program even though I had been encouraged and constantly told by some very caring people I possessed a lot of talent. This program and the focus of my thesis project was emotionally excruciating for me but at the same time it proved to liberate my soul.
Near the end of my studies at the Academy, I had been experiencing success with my writing and photography and was being published in magazines, newspapers and books. New doors had begun to open for me and I had learned to believe in myself and my abilities in new ways. My protective walls were finally crumbling.
About this time, Hollye Dexter and Amy Ferris walked into my life after I had joined a women’s writing site called “She Writes.” Eventually our lives became tangled in a variety of ways and soon they became two giant cheerleaders of my soul. I was humbled and honored the day they asked me to write an essay for their upcoming anthology “Dancing at the Shame Prom.”
My life had come full circle.
I bit my nails for days after I handed them my essay. Here were two amazing women who recognized my talent. Two women who saw the beauty inside my soul and wanted nothing less for me than to succeed. But doubt still echoed somewhere in the distance.
The day they emailed their response to my essay was like the day so many years ago when my teacher handed my story back to me.
My heart pounded…
My head hurt…
I had handed them a piece of myself, a raw piece of my soul. I had written about things that few others in my life had ever been told.
I felt naked. I felt scared. I felt alone.
When I opened up their email I was amazed by what I read. They loved what I had written and thanked me for my honesty. Yet as with most editors, they made suggestions for change. They wanted me to go deeper than I already had.
There were those words again. “Suggestions for change.”
It could have all ended right there just like it did 40 years ago. All that negative self-talk could have come rushing back in. I could have tucked my tail and ran, buried my essay in another dark box under a ton of worthless crap.
But I didn’t.
This time I stuck with it. This time I believed in myself. This time I realized I was not alone and there are a multitude of loving people who truly believe in me and want nothing less than for me to succeed.
Tomorrow, September 18th, is the official release date for “Dancing at the Shame Prom” by Seal Press. The book is filled with incredible, redemptive stories about shame by 27 amazing, successful women, including me.
Tomorrow and forever more, you will find me doing pirouettes in my living room; throwing out a couple of jazz hands in the aisle of the grocery store; doing a break-dance on the sidewalk for all to see and shaking my booty all up in the face of shame.
I have finally learned to dance at the shame prom with complete abandon and it feels absolutely incredible.