There is a universal term we all know too well and that’s the word shame, a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. Shame is a powerful protective emotion and as shame researcher Brené Brown PhD, said, “Shame is best defined as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Shame reeks havoc on our lives and can lead to addiction, and Kelley Kitley knows this oh too well after the shame of abuse secretively ruled her life. In a recent interview with Kelley, I asked her to take me back to the pain of when it all started.
Me: Kelley so many people are surviving from abuse and some have been from a very young age as was the case with you. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime 1 in 5 girls are victims of childhood sexual abuse. Take me back to that space of when you were ten years old and the abuse began.
Kelley: I am the oldest of 5; my parents owned a bar and were alcoholics so there wasn’t a lot of parental guidance. My life changed at the age of 10 by the neighborhood friend, the handyman. His daughter asked me to have a sleep over, and her father, the handyman, crawled in bed with me, his daughter was next to me fast asleep. I just lay there paralyzed and sick to my stomach, I just wanted it to be over as he was rubbing himself on me until he finally came, he was breathing heavy in my ear and there was wetness on my back, it was over. I rolled over and pretended to fall asleep as he got up. The next morning he acted as nothing had happened, it was breakfast as usual for that household. I was so confused; my innocence had been taken away. I felt so conflicted at the time and pretended it didn’t happen. He would come over to our house, and due to the lack of supervision, we would all play games, me and my younger siblings like Sleeping Beauty where we would hide around the house and the only way we could come out is if he found us and gave us a kiss and then we could wake up and become princesses. This went on with the handyman for 6 months. I started to learn in school about appropriate and inappropriate touch. My face turned beet red and I was sick to my stomach feeling like I had done something wrong. I was so scared but told my Dad when I got home and he of course didn’t believe me. Eventually we moved out of the neighborhood and the situation with the handyman took care of itself. But it didn’t get taken care of within side myself.
Me: Now shame if not dealt with can cause sadness, depression, loneliness and emptiness. Kelley was that the case with you? You carried shame with you all those years until high school and then what happened?
Kelley: I was attention seeking, loud, boisterous, trying to get boys attention and I desperately wanted a boyfriend, and I was sneaky with kissing boys and sexually promiscuous. I didn’t talk about the abuse until I was in high school; I was 16, when my Mom took me to therapy for an eating disorder, which started when I was in eighth grade. I became obsessive with working out and binging and purging. This went on until I left for college, in and out of therapy for 2 years. But that wasn’t the only problem that started when I was 13, alcohol use did as well, so getting away from my family and going to college was helpful. I started to become focused on school and continued therapy throughout college.
Me: I can understand why you turned to alcohol. You felt a sense of violation and abandonment and the vulnerability and the lack of value became so unbearable that you medicated or numbed the pain. There were multiple addictions going on from eating disorders to alcohol abuse, a means of covering up the flaws and undesirability that you felt for yourself. The trauma can be over bearing. What did it feel like in that space of shame?
Kelley: The shame felt dirty, broken, and imperfect, I felt like I was crawling out of my own skin. There is an overpowering critical internal negative self-talk; I hate myself. I wasn’t able to get totally honest with people because of the internal disgust and the concern that people would look at me a certain way if they found out.
To cope, I became engaged in as many things as I could on the outside hoping that something would make me feel better and after years of doing that nothing helped, it was the internal work that I needed to do that truly made a positive difference.
Me: So you had all of this locked away shame throughout college and then what happened next?
Kelley: My parents were going through a divorce and I needed to move back to my state college in Chicago since I now had to pay for it; I was 21 at the time. I was studying social work. I knew I wanted to become a therapist. So to help pay for college, I was working in a bar and one night I was walking home from work and I was attacked in the streets by a random act of violence. I thought he was after my cash but he came out of the middle of nowhere and pinned me to my back and I was wearing a dress, he shoved his fist up my vagina and I was urinating and bleeding all over. I was screaming and it felt like I was in a slow motion movie. My body felt heavy and I had taken a self-defense class that semester, I used some of the moves I learned and got him off of me and ran to a public place. This blaming shame idea of bringing it on is what came over me as people kind of shrugged it off. The PTSD and shame that followed was horrific, I was afraid that he was going to come back after me. Others down played the incident because there wasn’t penetration, which caused more shame to rear its ugly head. I wasn’t able to sleep at night and my drinking escalated, I couldn’t go anywhere by myself for about 6 months to 1 year. Therapy and my committed relationship with my now husband is what got me through it all.
Me: Wow as if abuse from a young age combined with the affects of dealing with shame, eating disorders and alcohol abuse weren’t enough. Then to get attacked violently on the streets of Chicago, that’s enough to push anyone over the edge. But you persevered; you were determined to not stay in that victim mind set. What were the steps you took to heal during those 14 years from still walking the path of shame until you became free of alcohol addiction on 3/10/13?
Kelley: I went back to school and got a graduate degree studying addiction, I got married, and we moved to California. I was so desperate to have the man that I loved who was so supportive and safe to marry me and I’m thankful to this day that he asked for my hand in marriage. I’m now a mom of 4 and we moved back to Chicago but the shame was still there, I felt like an inadequate mom as I suffered from anxiety and panic. The way I felt after my assault was brought out after kids, post partum depression is real. I wasn’t able to sleep or calm myself, constantly worrying and that shame and embarrassment took hold and I couldn’t talk about it because I was supposed to be happy for just having a baby. I was reluctant to go back on medication because I was nursing. So I started self medicating with alcohol as I tried pushing down the feelings but then shame took hold, it wasn’t going away, it became a vicious cycle. This was a common thread from age 10 until I got sober in 2013. I didn’t drink when I was pregnant, it was the best I felt, and there was no anxiety. So, I knew I could be sober if I wanted to be. I noticed a huge spike in my drinking consumption; I was drinking a bottle of wine daily after my 4th child. That’s when I decided enough, was enough. My friend had gotten sober, I saw how awesome and glowing she looked and I decided I wanted that peace and self love that she had. That’s when I decided to trade in my victim card and become a victor and it’s the best decision I’ve made for myself.
Me: Bravo Kelley! You’ve done a multitude of healing modalities since to bring you to this place of surrender, connection, and internal peace. What would your biggest message be for readers on the subject of shame?
Kelley: When we say it out loud, it tends to evaporate and so when we can own what it is that we are so afraid of and can speak it out loud to a trusting receiver, that is when the healing process starts because we named it and we start to let it go.
Me: Absolutely, there is nothing more powerful than owning and speaking your truth. Tell me about your path and what you are positively doing to impact the world?
Kelley: I am a survivor of many different forms of shame it has supplied me with an abundance of speaking platforms and my book, My Self, opened media doors. It’s my mission to be honest and tell my story and from it spawned numerous emails from people saying, “I decided to tell my parents about when my uncle sexually abused me” and “because of your appearance on The Today Show it inspired me to never pick up a drink again.” So it’s my passion to help others break free from Shame so they can live the life of their dreams.
Kelley is no longer a victim she has overcome a multitude of adversities and has transformed into a victor, if she can do it so can you!
Shame is such a powerful emotion, if not dealt with it can bind us preventing us from living a fulfilled life. So if you are feeling the spiral negative effects of shame here are 6 quick tips on how to transform into healing.
1. Keep a gratitude journal and write down what you are proud of and thankful for this will shift your focus.
2. Surrender to what happened and forgive yourself, accepting that what happened doesn’t define you as a person; it was an event that happened along your journey of life.
3. Acknowledge when you are in shame and write down what triggered it, try to avoid the triggers and if it’s not possible to avoid the triggers go back in your mind and recreate how you would have liked the scene to play out differently.
4. Reach out and share your story, find a tribe that you can trust, this will prevent shame from holding on.
5. Look at your past from an observatory position with no judgment asking yourself what positive purpose it can serve for your platform today.
6. Own what happened, don’t shrug it off or stuff it down low, someone can benefit from your story when it ends in a twist of light.
You may be wondering how Kelley is doing today. She is thriving, and owns Serendipitous Psychotherapy located on The Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago. She’s a licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been inspiring clients for the past 15 years. Kelley is a sought after international women’s health expert and author. She has appeared in hundreds of publications, podcasts, live news, and radio including WGN, NBC, The Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Self, Shape, and as a columnist for Fitness Magazine and Recovery Connection. Kelley has shared her experience, strength, and hope through her best selling autobiography My Self and on national media outlets such as Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, TODAY, Access Live, and as a TEDx speaker.
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