Sunlight on My Shadow, begged to be written. It sat there for 40 years, this quiet weight on my heart, a story bound in secrecy and obscured by years of neglect.

So about 5 years ago, I started tapping on the keyboard. The words flowed easily but when I thought of anyone reading what I wrote, I cringed and the words dried up. You see, I was paralyzed with shame and regret. So I just wrote it for myself, pretending no one would ever read it. It seemed to be the only way to keep the words flowing onto the page.

During the writing, I re-visited the confusion that I lived with as a 16 year old. I had the great pull of first love and wanting closeness and sex with this high school boy, but my catholic training taught me that sex outside of marriage was a grave sin. I battled my inner war and finally rationalized that the purity doctrines were unreasonable and unnatural, so I went ahead and got myself pregnant. Not on purpose, mind you, but accidentally, when my boyfriend’s prophylactic split in two. Then I hated myself for my lack of self-control and
weakness at not being a good catholic girl. This was the start of my life with a debilitating shame.

As I wrote my story, I re-lived the dark guilty place of sneaking around with my boyfriend, losing my virginity, and the horror of my blooming pregnancy as I attended the all-girls, Regina Dominican High School. I concealed my thickening belly for five months, holding my uniform skirt together with looped rubber bands. We wore blazers that kind of covered up this thickness that was growing. Finally when the rubber bands couldn’t hold anymore, I was forced to tell my mom and dad. They sent me 100 miles away to the Martha Washington home for unwed mothers in Wauwatosa Wisconsin.

While I was at the home for unwed mothers, waiting for my baby to be born, I had expected that upon her birth, I’d be free of this nightmare and never have to look back. I pictured myself resuming my place of honor in society as a good college bound student, my secret hidden and protected.

But it wasn’t that easy. When I heard the baby’s first cry, I fell in love with her and was hopelessly attached in a way that would persist.

Giving my baby away added more shame. I thought, what kind of mother relinquishes her own child? And the worst part was, I knew I was walking away from her because I had to keep the secret. You see, we had told everyone I was sick with a kidney disease.

I labored alone and never held my baby. Although we were allowed to go into the nursery, I believed that holding my baby girl would be toying with the impossible and too dangerous. I didn’t want to love her more than I already did because that might cause me to question my decision to give her up. So I just looked at her through the nursery window and admired her and was proud of her beauty. I ached to hold her but never went inside the nursery to pick her up. I visited the window and looked in on her many times. When her crib was empty, I knew they had taken her away.

John Bradshaw writes in his book on shame:

“If a traumatic event happens to you when you are young and you are not able to talk about it, it gets frozen in you as a picture of the event. So if anything similar occurs in the future you go back to that place and churn up the same old emotions and act as an adult child. A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior and defective. Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up. This takes away your authenticity. These scripts are the roots of violence, criminality, war, and all forms of addiction.”

So the very act of not speaking, keeping my story a secret, froze the event in time, and kept me from healing. When I thought about my baby or my pregnancy, I forced myself to “not think about it”; shutting off the natural flow of emotions.

Brene Brown, the researcher and psychologist, says that you can’t selectively weed out emotions. You can’t say I don’t want to feel the bad stuff and then be filled with joy. When you stop feeling the negatives, you stop feeling everything. So carrying this toxic shame was a kind of death of the spirit.

Several years after the birth of my child, I yearned to break the secret and talk about it, but I didn’t know how. If I was with a group of people and the topic of teen pregnancies came up, I would begin to shake— deep inside my gut. “Oh that happened to me.” I would blurt out in a high-pitched voice, forcing myself to speak through a tight throat. The sweet listeners would nod and be wordless. I am sure they didn’t want to probe and could feel the shame behind my squeaky words. But Oh how I wanted them to ask me about it so I could have license to talk.

Brene Brown goes on to say, “Shame is the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that if other people know or see, I won’t be worthy of connection?

To alleviate shame, she says, you have to have a sense of courage, which comes from the latin word cour which means heart. So you tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. To do this you need the courage to be imperfect. You must have compassion for yourself and others. And in speaking your truth, without cover ups, you experience connection with others. It is based on authenticity.

You must be willing to let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are. You must fully embrace vulnerability and know that being vulnerable makes you beautiful.”

So how did I get rid of this toxic shame that bound me in its grip for 40 years? I laid down my words and dripped tears. I relived all the events leading up to and past my pregnancy. I recalled my isolation and suffering at home and school as I guarded my secret. And I wept. The writing was like a desert rain that brought the memories back to life. As I cried, I came to understand why I made the choices I did and I came to understand that I had done a great thing. I had given birth to a beautiful child who was perfect in her existence and she was a gift from God. I realized that, “when you know better, you do better.” And I forgave myself for my mistakes and I accepted my vulnerability, my humanness, and my imperfections. And then I was able to talk to others about it.

Miraculously, I didn’t care anymore what others thought of me because I had forgiven myself. I realized that if they truly understood, they too would forgive me and not judge. Just a year or so ago, I never would have been able to get up here today and give a talk about my shame. But today I am free and I hope that my story will encourage others who have been tethered by shame and regret, to finally speak their truths openly, abolish the secrets. And soar whole-heartedly into the open sky.