I have never been a fighter. Even when I was just a toddler, I was not one to hit or try to hurt others. I don’t consider this a virtue; a willingness to defend yourself is an important life skill. From my earliest memories, however, I was always afraid of hurting others, so I was very reluctant to fight for anything or defend myself.
When I started school, my unwillingness to stand up for myself made me a convenient target for bullies. There were other factors as well. I was usually the youngest and smallest child in my class. The fact that my dad was a laborer at the mercy of the job market and that we did not own a home meant that we often moved where the jobs were and where the rents were low. So I was often also the new kid in class.
None of this seemed to make a big difference to me until I reached sixth grade. Sure, I got shoved around a bit and excluded from playground activities. With three sisters near my own age, I was more comfortable playing with girls than with boys, but playground gender divisions were strict. None of the girls would let me play with them, and the boys’ play was too rough for me, so I spent most recess times alone.
In sixth grade, however, I met a boy who took an interest in me. I don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him Sergius. His interest was not positive. He used to curl his hand as if holding a cylinder and hold it up to my mouth. I was naive and wanting to be liked, so I smiled. “Look,” he would say to his coterie of hangers-on, “He likes it.” It didn’t take long for me to learn that what I supposedly liked was sucking cock. I was not well-versed in the the world of sex, whether hetero- or homoerotic. The idea of actually putting a penis in my mouth was unspeakably disgusting to me, and I concluded that it could only be a metaphor for something I did not know or understand. I have often wondered since how Sergius came to know anything of it in sixth grade.
But I couldn’t stop myself from smiling whenever Sergius pretended to hold a penis to my mouth. I didn’t like him, but I also didn’t want to hurt him. I just wanted him to leave me alone. For a bully, of course, the victim’s desire to be left alone is like pure oxygen to a fire. He became my tormentor. Nor would it be the last time that other boys identified me as gay.
Sixth grade was also the first time I fell in love. I do remember her name. She had dark hair and freckles, and her name was Jill. My heart beat faster whenever she was near, and I felt a kind of vertigo. One time, we were assigned to update the bulletin board together. This involved tacking up construction paper and then attaching to it cut-outs of turkeys or Pilgrims or pumpkins according to the season. I was elated and fearful. I did not say a word the entire time.
One thing I never did at school was use the restroom. I was afraid to. I’m not sure why. Other boys seemed to have no self-consciousness at all about peeing in the communal urinals common in grade school, but I could not bring myself to do it. That was something I only did at home. I became quite good at holding in my pee and poop. One time in second grade, I made it all the way home on the bus, but the walk up the lane from the road proved to be too much for me, and I pooped my pants before I got to the house. My sister told my mom. Really, there was no way she could have been kept in the dark about it. I was so ashamed, and I expected to be punished, but my mom just cleaned me up, bathed me, and had me put on clean clothes, and no one ever spoke of it again.
By sixth grade, I had had years of practice avoiding the restrooms at school. My family moved again when I was in sixth grade. I was glad to leave Sergius behind. My new school was in Galena, OH, and my teacher was Mr. Churchill, who was also the principal of the school and up on all the latest educational theories. What that meant to me was that he very quickly diagnosed me as a slow reader and committed himself to helping me improve. I was resistant because by this time, though slow, I was an avid reader and remembered virtually everything I read. He told me I would never make it in high school because of all the reading I would have to do. (I actually had no difficulty).
There were two boys in my class who quickly smelled fresh blood when I arrived. They did not bully me as relentlessly as Sergius had, but they were more physical. They played a “game” where they would feint a punch at my face. If I flinched, then I had to pay a penalty of letting them hit me in the shoulder. One day at recess, they did this to me repeatedly, and I went home with both shoulders covered in livid bruises. My mom was incensed. She talked to Mr. Churchill. I do not know what she said or how things played out, but I was never hit again.
My dad during those years often urged me to fight back, to stand up for myself, but I couldn’t. It was just not in my nature. I was quite simply more afraid of hurting someone else than of being hurt myself. Coming from my dad, this advice was also odd. He was no more a fighter than I was, and I had never seen him hit anyone (apart from spanking one of us kids, which was an entirely different category).
One day at school during lunch, I realized I had to pee. I went to the restroom and stood at the urinal, but there were other boys in the restroom, and I could not make myself go as long as they were present. I stood at the urinal flushed with fear and shame, feeling the pressure in my bladder but unable to release it. When the bell rang, I returned to class. I sat down and started working on some in-class assignment we were all doing. My discomfort grew and grew. It got so bad that I knew I had to do something. Perhaps I could ask to use the restroom. I got up from my desk and went to the front of the class where Mr. Churchill sat grading papers. Instead of asking to use the restroom, I asked a question about the assignment. But I had reached my limit. I could not longer hold in the pee, and it came out, soaking my blue jeans and spreading out in a puddle on the floor. I started to cry.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Churchill,” I said again and again, as if the repetition could undo my shame. He was not unkind. He called my mom, who came to school and picked me up. He told her he thought I was so focused on my work that I did not realize I had to go. I did not tell him—or anyone—that I knew very well I had to go but was too afraid and embarrassed to say anything about it. My mom kept me out of school for a couple of days and it was given out that I was sick.
I knew I was not sick. I knew that what had happened was my own fault. I knew that it was fear, plain and simple, that had led to me peeing my pants in front of my entire sixth grade class. I did not tell anyone what I knew. I played along. I pretended I was sick. I pretended I was a normal kid. I pretended nothing untoward had happened. When I returned to school, I got a few side glances, but none of the other kids said anything to me. No one asked me any questions, and I didn’t volunteer anything. I didn’t have any friends.
Now, more than fifty years later, I still cannot think of that day without shame and embarrassment. When I’ve been to parties where everyone is asked to share their most embarrassing moment, this is the incident that always comes to mind, yet I never share it. I always pick some other incident that will elicit more laughter and less pity. It was years before I discovered that paruresis (also called shy bladder syndrome) is a common social anxiety with an estimated 220 million sufferers worldwide.
I have not told this story to raise awareness about paruresis, although that seems a worthwhile aim. I tell it because it is part of my own identity whether I like it or not. I still sometimes feel nervous in public restrooms when other people are in them. I have mostly overcome it just by keeping at it, distracting myself from my thoughts while peeing, and other similar strategies. I rarely struggle with it any more. But like I said, it’s still part of who I am. I want to be clear. Peeing my pants in front of my sixth grade class did not cause my social anxiety. It was the other way around. My anxiety led me to pee my pants. It was part of a broader pattern of fears and anxieties, possibly exacerbated by frequent moves that made my childhood more miserable than it might otherwise have been. I was very good at covering up, and my dad and my siblings may be surprised when they read this. Social anxiety was a major influence on my behavior as a child, but I tried hard not to let on about it.
Nor do I blame anyone but myself for it. The shame that was part and parcel of my anxiety led me to keep it as secret as I could. I never told anyone how afraid I was. I never acted scared. I never asked for help. I pretended I was fine. Only occasionally did my behavior become so bizarre that others could not help noticing, but I always covered it up, smoothed it over, lulled everyone I knew back into believing nothing was wrong.
So the reason I have told this story is so adults can see how resourceful children are at portraying themselves as “normal” even when they feel they are not. Children want to be brave. They want to be noble and courageous, and they will conceal their fears however they can, including confessing to fears they don’t really feel in order to keep secret something they regard as even more shameful. As adults in their lives, it is not necessarily our job to expose their fears or make them face them. Doing so in the wrong way or at the wrong time could harm them. It is enough for them to feel safe with us and to trust us with whatever vulnerabilities they are willing to share. What they need is weapons to slay the dragons in their lives and our confidence that they will emerge triumphant. Those weapons are skills they see us use to confront our own fears and slay our own dragons. If we lack those skills, then for the sake of our children we need to acquire them. They need to know how to be kind without being a pushover, how to be firm without being cruel, how to look in the mirror with neither arrogance nor disgust.
6 responses to “Shame is Invisible”
Chip, this is profound, and you have my utmost respect. I wrote about my own childhood shame, being severely beaten by my mother during my childhood, on Mother’s Day. “Everybody” knew what was going on, but nobody did anything to help. I am proud that we not only survived, but prospered.
Such beautiful truths woven throughout profound vulnerability. Thank you for sharing.
What a wonderful essay. When you were in school at Galena, I was in a management training program with MONY. The manager of the agency was Richard Wetherbee, whose children also went to school at Galena. At least once a week he would remark about those intelligent Burkitt kids: “so polite, well behaved and SMART”. I soon realized I had to live up to his expectations of a Burkitt. BTW, I wouldn’t have put it so eloquently but children ARE brave, courageous and noble…it’s the only way to get through childhood. Thanks again for this.
Thank you for your exceptional vulnerability. It makes me love you even more.
Thank you for sharing your story, it was insightful and makes me think about how my own kids may be hiding something when they say they are fine.
Thank you for allowing me in.