Monthly Archives: October 2013

Graduation and Shame

I had the expectation that once I graduated from college I would be able to find a job that would allow me to be independent and support myself.  It did not happen.  In 1993 the economy was in recession.  I sent out a bunch of resumes but no one was hiring in my field.

I also had the sense that things had changed since my parents’ generation graduated college.  When I graduated there were more college graduates and fewer jobs to go around.  Despite this change the same expectation existed that a college graduate should be employed and making a living. There was an easy comparison to make.  My parents did it and I could not.

I felt a deep humiliation for which I had no psychological defenses.  That is, I felt humiliated but had no internal resources to address the problem and come up with a solution.  I was still a young man in my early twenties and despite how I felt, I still had a lot of time and opportunities.  Instead my shame convinced me all my opportunities had been squandered, I was a failure and would be for the rest of my life.  The fact that I had no psychological defenses, in turn fed the humiliation and made it stronger.  It froze me in my tracks and my life stalled.  Instead of making goals and persistently pursuing them I felt like I had to hide from the world.

My shame tells me that my predicament was my fault.  When I blame the economy or that my parents did not properly prepare me psychologically for the real world I am trying to pass the blame on to others.  I am not taking responsibility for my own failure. In truth, I believed my shame and always felt like the fault was mine.  I was not assertive enough.  I was too interested in partying during college and did not concentrate on studying to the extent that I should have.  At the same time I graduated in four years with a 3.0 grade point average.  That was not the real cause of my failure.  But even if it was the cause I still should have had the internal resources to pick myself up and move forward.

My shame tells me that someone has to be at fault.  Fault and shame are what keeps civilization in tact.  If I do wrong and do not feel ashamed I am shirking my responsibility.  If everyone shirks their responsibilities then civilization declines into something worse than what had been in place before.  The reason the World War II generation was the “The Greatest Generation” was because they did not shirk their responsibilities.  In this sense feeling ashamed is being responsible or so it was in my mind.  But feeling ashamed to the extent I did paralyzed me and kept me from success and thus perpetuated more shame.  Of course I learned to think this way from my parents.  The way they taught me was based on the way they were taught.  They were successful in a way I was not because they had certain advantages.  Because they were successful they did not have to feel the same shame of being unemployed the way I did.  The way they taught me combined with my unique circumstances (e.g., the recession in 1993) made for the bad outcome.  I see that now.  At the time all I could see was my failure to succeed.

My life up until graduation was a like roller coaster ride.  All I had to do was stay in the car and I would eventually make it to the end of the track.  Once the ride was over I had to get out of the car.  At that point I was on my own.  In my case I found myself lost and could not hack it.  I felt so humiliated because I did not have a job.  When I heard of peers finding employment I felt my shame even deeper.  The fact that they could succeed where I could not was direct proof of my failure.  Because I had failed I also felt like I did not deserve happiness or even to enjoy myself.  In my mind those things came after success.  If they came before success then I was taking something I did not deserve and shirking my responsibility.

I had to reject this line of thinking to move forward in life.  That part, however, is a future blog post. For now, it is important to know that I had a hard time rejecting this mind-set precisely because doing so felt disloyal, irresponsible and a shirking of my responsibilities.  So I hid with my shame and I did not grow because I felt like that was what I deserved and my motivations were all based on minimizing my shame.  Going after what I wanted in life had no meaning to me.  In fact, at that point if someone asked me what I wanted my mind would go blank (and then I would feel ashamed because I could not come up with an answer).

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Another Job I Had in the University Office of Housing

My freshman I brought the savings I had accumulated from working in restaurants with me to college and they quickly melted away to nothing in about a month.  I then got a job working in my dorm cafeteria thinking my restaurant experience would translate but that did not last long.  It was dirty and smelly and I did not enjoy getting up early in the morning to work the breakfast shift after drinking the night before.  I also felt embarrassed serving the other people I saw everyday in the dorm.  So I quit.  I am not sure what I did for money the rest of the year.  Somehow I made it through.

My sophomore year I applied to work at the university Office of Housing.  I do not remember how I heard about the opportunity. I guess I saw it listed somewhere.  I remember showing up for my interview with a girl I had been dating.  The people in the office made fun of me for that once I got the job.

The Residents Services Office was on the second floor of the University Office of Housing. I worked in the Key department responsible for organizing and distributing the keys to all the dorm rooms on campus. The worst part was filing returned keys. Each key was engraved with a serial number that matched up with a specific lock.  The keys were filed according to the serial numbers in little envelopes in little library card catalog drawers. Key filing was tedious and everybody avoided doing it.

Sometimes we were sent out on errands to various dorms.  One of the perks of the job was the “P Slash” sticker on my student identifications allowing me access to any dorm at any time.  Students without the “P Slash” I could only enter their own dorm.  Otherwise they had to be signed in and only during certain hours.  This made it much easier my senior year when I had a girlfriend living in one of the dorms.

When we were not filing keys or out on errands we mostly sat around desks pushed together answering the phones and making fun of each other. All the other offices in the building looked down on us.  They called us the Romper Room. We had a reputation for goofing off and not doing any real work.  I would say that was about 80% accurate.

The people who worked in the office are what I mainly remember.  Betty ran the office.  She was a tall, older woman with short, coifed white hair.  She wore business suits and closed the door to her office when she ate lunch. I remember one time I was filing keys.  Betty came in the key room and asked me to sign out the master keys for a specific building.  I did not know how to do this task because I had never done it before.  She yelled at me because she thought I should know how to do that given the amount of time I had worked there.  I felt ashamed and pouted for the rest of the day.  Paul had my back but it still put me under, like the time my fifth grade math teacher yelled at me.  Disapproval and criticism always hit me hard at the time.  I guess she was right that I should have known how to do that task.  It was one of those things where someone explains how to do it but I forgot because I did not have to do it right off the bat.  As time passed people assumed I knew it and I was embarrassed to ask anyone because I should have known it (like when I forget a person’s name after I meet them).  So I avoided the task for a while but eventually it caught up with me.

My immediate boss, Paul was gay man with a Freddie Mercury haircut and mustache.  Until that point I never had much interaction with gay people.  I don’t think I handled it very well but I did my best and I was learning.  He was a nice guy most of the time.  One time Paul invited me out to lunch for my birthday.  This was something he did for other people in the office as well.  I remember feeling really awkward about it.  I guess he could tell because he said my friend Rod who also worked in the office could come along.

Every once in a while the reputation of our office would trigger Paul.  He would storm into the office with an angry look and say he was implementing a new management style.  He would send us in to file keys.  That would last a day or so.  Sometimes this would get to him and he would get angry and make us work.

Paulette came next in the hierarchy.  She had a thick Boston accent and a really loud voice.  I remember laughing at her a lot.  She would sometimes become sensitive about that.  My friend Rod and I went to this bar called the Dugout with her and her friends sometimes.  One time I interviewed her roommate about her menstrual cycle for a psychology of women paper.

Jason and Ron were two people that made the office unbearable sometimes.  Jason was this muscular, athletic tough guy.  Ron was this sycophantic, closeted homosexual who idolized him.  They would bust everyone’s balls in the office but they would do it in a really vicious way.  Everyone hated them but also feared being on their radar.  I remember talking back to Jason (just like that bully, neighbor family I mentioned in a previous post).   He got angry with me.  He threatened to beat me up.  I remember feeling a strong adrenaline rush.  That doesn’t happen to me anymore.  But now that I think about it happened quite a bit when I was threatened with violence as a kid. I remember being made fun of and my ears would become hot and turn bright red.  That doesn’t happen to me anymore either but it also used to happen quite a bit.  Working in the Office of Housing was the last time those things happened to me as far as I can recall.

There was Heather.  I went to see a movie with her. I think her boyfriend did not like me going to the movie with her. Later Rod and I went to a party at her apartment. I brought some pot.  We all smoked it and I passed out on the floor. When I woke up I found out that Rod had stolen the pot from my pocket while I was asleep and let Heather’s roommates (including her boyfriend) draw on my face with a magic marker.  I felt humiliated and angry with Rod for letting that happen.  Rod told me it was my fault.  That was funny though.

The job was good and bad.  Good because it gave me enough of an income to go out to the bars.  It was not very difficult.  The bad parts were the nastiness of some of the people working there and how judgmental they could be.  Even though I was in college I could still be threatened with violence for sticking up for myself (albeit in a passive aggressive way).  I could be robbed and humiliated and it was all in the name of goofing around.  If I felt bad it was because I needed a thicker skin or so I thought.

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My Work in a Urology Clinic Through the Lens of Shame

Digital rectal exam; drawing shows a side view...

Digital rectal exam; drawing shows a side view of the male reproductive and urinary anatomy, including the prostate, rectum, and bladder; also shows a gloved and lubricated finger inserted into the rectum to feel the prostate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer – I am not a doctor.  Do not take anything I write in this blog post as medical advice because that is not my intent.

In 1992, the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I worked for a urology clinic in Hartford, Connecticut compiling data about prostate cancer patients.

Mostly, I compiled data associated with the techniques for detecting prostate cancer.  There was the DRE (digital rectal exam) where the doctor sticks his finger in a man’s anus to physically feel the prostate for bumps that might be cancer.  There was the PSA (prosthetic specific antigen) blood test which detected a specific chemical in the blood that when elevated indicates the possibility for prostate cancer.  There was the ultra sound test where a technician puts a condom and lube on a large dildo looking object and then sticks it in the anus of the patient.  The dildo then captures a three-dimensional image of the prostate using ultra sound.  The dildo was also equipped with a spear gun that could shoot into the prostate and take a section for biopsy to test for cancerous cells.  One time, the ultrasound technician brought me into the room while he performed the ultra sound.  An old man lay half-naked on a table on his side.  He screamed and grunted as the ultrasound wand was inserted and rotated to change the angle of the picture.

I also reviewed patients’ files for treatment information and added it to the database.  Some patients had a procedure called a Radical Prostatectomy (the surgical removal of the prostate).  The chief side effects of this surgery are impudence and incontinence (to varying degrees).  The penis is also shortened by three inches after the surgery. Other patients were treated with radiation beamed at their prostate and others had radioactive “seeds” implanted directly into the prostate to shrink the tumor.  These procedures had similar side effects but not to the same degree as the Radical Prostatectomy.

It seemed to me that all the possible treatment options for prostate cancer were horrific.  I resolved that if I was ever diagnosed with prostate cancer, I would never be treated.  Of course detection and treatment options have improved since that time but I still would be hesitant to undergo any of that especially considering that many cases of prostate cancer are slow to progress and do not require treatment.  I am sure my reluctance to go through these treatments has shame at its core because the side effects I described are shame inducing in men.

Speaking of shame, I suppose I should describe an incident that happened while I worked in the office that I have carried around with me ever since.  A drug company representative came in with lunch for everyone in the office.  This happened frequently.  As we were eating a nurse raised the topic of how expensive college is.  Immediately, my shame radar kicked in and I hoped no one asked me where I went to school because it had a reputation for being expensive.  Of course, someone asked me where I went.  When I told them the nurse looked at another person at the table with a wink as if to say, “this is what I am talking about.”  What was particularly shaming to me about it was that I got the impression she did not think I would notice her doing this.  So not only was I a spoiled, rich kid in her mind but I was also stupid and unobservant.

My father worked for an insurance company in downtown Hartford at the time.  Sometimes I would meet him at his office after work and he would drive me home. I remember being impressed by his office, thinking someday I might work in a place like that.

That summer I had about $2000 of credit card debt. I experienced a lot of anxiety about that debt and looked back fondly on the days when I worked in a restaurant and had no bills to pay.  My father had paid it off and I was paying him back with the money I earned at the urology clinic.

That summer on the weekends I hung out with my cousin and a mutual friend of ours.  The last weekend of the summer the two of them went up to Vermont and I stayed home.  I did not feel like I could go with them because of the debt.  My father put pressure on me not to go because in his mind it would be irresponsible to take a trip when I had a debt to pay off.  I asked my cousin to not go because it would be the last weekend I could hang out with them before going back to school.  He said he would not stay just because I could not stand up to my father.  I remember feeling ashamed and angry with him for this.

Ten years later, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer and elected to have the Radical Prostatectomy.  I remember him talking about the incontinence after the surgery.  In my life, he has never specifically discussed feeling shame with me (except when I was punished as a child he would say, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”). I assume the side effects of the surgery probably made him feel ashamed.  I think this because my mind reflects the programming I received from him and that he had received when he grew up.  I know shame is the place I would go under the same circumstances. He also started drinking more and became much less communicative after that point in time.  As such, I repeat – if I ever get prostate cancer I ain’t getting treated for it.

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The Grounds Crew

One summer I worked for the grounds crew at my high school with some other kids.  I attended (as a day student) an all boys, private boarding school.  The campus had these impressive, old, stone buildings built in the 1920’s by an eccentric Ayn Randish woman.  I worked with this kid named Sean who was a year behind me but my but much larger and muscular.  We hit it off because we both listened to Pink Floyd. I remember one time I was assigned to work with the little Vietnamese kid.  I wanted to work with Sean.  I felt like I was stuck with the nerd group.  It felt humiliating.

The permanent employees were a bunch of older guys.  There was Rodney (an anorexic Irishman), Lou (a seemingly semi-retarded Frenchman). The maintenance guys call the lunch truck the “garbage truck”.  “Garbage truck is right!” Lou would always say anytime someone mentioned it as if he had just come up with a new joke on the spur of the moment.  There was Paul, a large gray-haired man Sean and I called ‘Cerebral’ which was short for cerebral palsy.  Their leader was some big, tan, muscled douche bag with a bushy mustache.  He took a liking to Sean but seemed to not respect me.  I assume because I was not a muscular kid like Sean.  I remember there was one younger guy with the buzz cut who talked about drugs all the time.  There was also a teacher from my school who worked there. I forget his name but he always seemed embarrassed to be working with us.  I think his wife had left him that year which was a common thing for faculty wives to do at my school as I recall.  I guess the all boys environment was tough on marriages.

The older crew members were not that motivated. One time I walked past a classroom and saw one of them just sitting in a chair in the dark.  He told me he was riding out the clock until our next coffee break.

Much of our work involved the sewage filter area.  There were two big square areas filled with sand.  A large white pipe emerged from one of the corners of each square which extended to the middle of the square.  Every so often sewage would come out of the pipe and pour out onto the sand. The sand filtered the water out from the sewage.  After it dried, we shoveled out the sand with the shit on it into a wheelbarrow.  We would then push it up a ramp and dump it in the woods surrounding the squares.   That never seemed like a great system to me but I might not be remembering it correctly.

I remember it was hard to get the wheelbarrow up the ramp.  I had to get a running start, which was difficult pushing the wheelbarrow through sand.  If I had enough momentum by the time I hit the ramp I could make it to the top.  If not, typically the wheelbarrow would tip over and all the sand would pour out.  Then the other kids would laugh and ridicule me.  I remember feeling very humiliated when that happened. Sean was able to do it every time.

Most of the time we were assigned to go to the shit squares we goofed off and did not do anything.  Sometimes we would sit around and dip chewing tobacco.  We would listen to Sebastian (a local Howard Stern clone) on the radio.  We would whip crab apples at each other.  We even constructed a crab apple city we named Crabappolis.  It was a boring job.  The days seemed to drag, especially down at the sewage area. Working in restaurants certainly involved more pressure.

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My First Foray Into the Workforce – Restaurant Work

As soon as I turned 16 I got a job washing dishes at Abdow’s Big Boy.  I wanted to prove that I was capable of being useful and that I was not the pampered, rich kid I thought everyone perceived me to be. I wanted to be useful and a contributing member of a team.  They paid me $3.50 an hour.  I am not even sure that was minimum wage at the time but I did not care what they paid me.  I had no bills so everything I earned was disposable.  After a few paychecks I had more money than I knew what to do with. Once I heard someone who was just hired was making something like $5.50 an hour.  I confronted my manager.  He looked like he had been caught and then raised my pay accordingly. Eventually, I moved from the dishwasher to the kitchen and even waited tables. I continued to work in restaurants until I graduated and during the summers while in college.

I was exposed to a new group of people beyond the kids I went to school with.  There were some assholes.  There was the one guy who washed dishes with me.  We got into an argument and went out by the dumpster and he started to choke me.  The manager (I forget his name but he had a mustache) came out and saved me.  He told the guy choking me (who was probably twice my size) that I was tough and that he did not want to fight me.

There were also a lot of pretty waitresses.  There was a pretty black girl with an amazing body who took me by the hand into the bread room and made out with me. There was the beautiful, blond Romanian girl who I almost went on a date with but she backed out at the last minute because she had a boy friend or something.  There was the other blond girl who made my high school girlfriend jealous.  She then came in with her friends and sat in the girl’s section and said some things to piss her off.  I don’t remember exactly what it was.  I remember feeling a little embarrassed that she did that.  She messed with where I worked.

I remember another manager drove a car with the whole side smashed in like a train hit it on the tracks. She was a short, stocky woman with grayish curly hair.  She walked with a limp and had a worn, tired face.  One time she pulled me aside and said, “you know, you do a really good job washing the dishes…  You are never going to win any prize for it but good job.”

The people I worked with at restaurants treated me like a normal guy because they did not know me all my life.  I could re-invent myself.  For the first time I did not feel like the weakest, geekiest link in a chain. But I also remember feeling embarrassed that I came from a family that was better off than the other people who worked there.  When I worked summers while in college I remember feeling embarrassed that I went to college and that my parents paid for it.  I remember not volunteering that information and dreading when it came up in conversation. Sometimes I lied about it.

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Mowing the Lawn

I remember as a young kid feeling humiliated that I did not mow the lawn.  My parents hired a landscaper to do that.  I remember feeling like I should hide in the house on summer days when the landscapers were in the yard because if they saw me while they mowed our lawn they would wonder why I was not doing it.  They would think I was lazy or incompetent.

A family friend once ridiculed me because he mowed the lawn and I did not.  One time I asked my mother if I could mow the lawn but she told me no, the landscaper did that.  I remember feeling very unimportant and useless after hearing this.  I got the impression that she and everyone else looked at me and thought I was some pampered rich kid who did not know how to do anything.  I felt misunderstood. I wanted them to know that I actually did want to mow the lawn but was never given the opportunity to do it.  This is even more ridiculous given the fact that this family friend who ridiculed me came from a much more wealthy family than mine.  But some how he was allowed to become competent and I was not.  He could feel good about what he had and I had to feel like I had something I did not deserve.  I felt everyone assumed that I was and always would be incompetent from the very beginning.

I always wanted a mentor to take me under their wing and teach me.  But at the same time I felt humiliated for not knowing the things a mentor I never had would have taught me.  I remember wishing that I had an older brother to show me the ropes.  I now recognize that all these feelings resulted from not being mentored by my father.  If I asked him why he never mentored me I imagine he would say that he paid for my education and gave me a loan for my house and fed and clothed me all my life.  I would then feel very ashamed of myself for being ungrateful and wanting something that did not belong to me.  I would feel that I was somehow being irresponsible or selfish and trying to blame other people for my problems when in fact I was the one to blame.

But I must remember that I did not deserve the type of shame I have consistently experienced my entire life.  True, my father was successful and wealthy and was able to give me all I needed materially.  He may not have been properly mentored by his father (I do not know if this is true) and felt if he had not been mentored and succeeded then I should experience the same thing.  But for whatever reason this treatment infused me with the feeling that I never deserved anything I had and should feel ashamed for getting it.  I have to remember that I did not deserve this treatment because if I do not fully recognize that I was treated badly I will always be controlled by shame and will never fully live my life freely and authentically.

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Elementary School Memories of Shame

I’m not sure when I started feeling insecure around my peers at school.  It definitely seemed to intensify as I approached middle school.  I remember feeling humiliated for being picked last for the kick ball teams at recess.  I remember wishing that I could be average at a sport (as opposed to the worst) so that I could blend in and not be singled out as the worst.

I remember feeling like my skin was too pale and tried to tan in the summer time.  Mostly I would burn and even if I thought my skin was brown people would tell me that I looked pale.  My skin color always lightened up soon after tanning anyway.  I hated the way I looked but this seemed to dissipate as I got older..

I remember people making fun of me for my first name because it was different or perhaps dorky and my last name because it was like a cartoon character.  Basically, the slightest detail that set someone apart was grounds for humiliation.  So my goal was to blend in and not be noticed.  Although, I did stand out for having a good senses of humor and I did like the attention that afforded me.

The third grade put on a play of Hansel and Gretel. I was very excited to play a role.  I auditioned and they assigned me to the part of “background tree.”  I had no speaking lines.  I remember being very upset.  I don’t think this was a humiliating feeling so much as the feeling that I was being left out and that no one recognized my talents.  I remember crying at night in my bed.  I don’t recall my parents being too concerned or supportive about this.  My mother may have tried but I don’t have a memory about this.  My best friend at the time got the part of Hansel.  I wonder why someone who was so similar to me was recognized and I was not.   At the time I saw us as pretty much the same, semi-outcast, wimpy but funny and smart.

In fourth grade I did a country report on Egypt and got the highest grade possible.  I remember being proud of this.  There was this kid named Jay that was one of the “smart kids”.  I recall he was dismissive of my achievement.  My sister accused me of copying her because she did a report on Egypt when she was in fourth grade.  Then she generalized that I always copied her.  This made me feel frustrated like I was being accused of something I did not do but there was no way to prove my innocence and nobody believed me.

I remember thinking that no teacher could think ill of their students.  This probably comes from the thought that parents should not pick favorites.  Looking back on it I don’t think that my fifth grade teacher liked me very much.  She was always yelling at me and acting like I did something I should be ashamed of.  I played drums in the band.  I sucked at it so the band teacher had me play the ride cymbal.  It was an upright cymbal that I hit with a drum stick.  It did not really require any skill.  I remember after the concert my mother praised me and I felt embarrassed.  In my mind either I had done something that required no skill but looked like it required skill in which case my mother’s praise was worthless.  Or I had done something that required no skill and looked like it required no skill and my mother was praising me to make me feel good about myself.  One time the band played outside and the rest of the class came out to watch. The drums were set up behind the band teacher who conducted facing the band.  At one point the drummers pretended to be in a sword fight with our drum sticks.  We were showing off in front of the class.  I did not think I was doing anything all that bad at the time.  Later I was surprised to hear my teacher saying to another kid that “they” (meaning us) did not deserve to be in the band. I remember feeling shitty but also angry that I did not expect to be accused of a crime and that this was somehow unfair.  I was used to being picked on and most of the time I felt like the abuse was deserved on some level.  This time was different.  I’m not sure why that is.

My fifth grade math teacher was an old man who pulled his pants up all the time.  I remember not understanding some math concepts.  He would correct my tests and hand them back to me marked up.  I remember going back to my desk and crying.  I’m not sure why this situation caused me so much grief.  I suspect it felt like yet another situation where I was not good enough.  It was one of many straws placed on an already broken camel’s back.  One day he yelled at me in front of the class saying, “No more baby tears!”  I remember feeling sort of shocked and humiliated at the same time.  I was shocked because I did not expect that and humiliated to learn that yet another trait or behavior of mine was bad or wrong.

I must have not been doing well in English either because my mother started dropping me off early for extra help.  I remember my teacher giving me work sheets but not really providing me with any guidance or instruction.  I told my mother I was not going any more because we weren’t doing anything.  I think my mother was angry about this but I did stop going.  I think my teacher did not consider me worth her effort and was appeasing my mother or her supervisor by having me come in.

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