Saturday, December 13, 2014

Use Your Shame Like Rocket Fuel

"High all the time
To keep you off my mind...."
- Tove Lo, "Habits"
"Pull up, I think we're here," I said.
I was so excited. It was late August 1987 and we had finally, finally landed on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Also known as home, at least in my mind, ever since I could pronounce the letters N.Y.C.
My father and mother were in the front seat of the nondescript but high-value kind of car my father prefers to drive. I was in the back seat with my bags, ready and revved.
"Here." My father turned and handed me a $20.
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's to help get you started."
That's not much money, I thought to myself. When was that last time my dad was in the city?
"Uh, thanks," I said and scrambled out of the car.
"Do you need any help?" My mom.
"No, I've got it."
I stood there and surveyed them for a second, my parents who seemed so clueless and yet so loving and loyal, in their way.
"Bye." And they were gone.
* * *
Upstairs, I surveyed the little studio I was to share with my roommate. It wasn't much. Walk in the door, and there's a fridge to your left. Straight ahead, a little shelf where you could eat standing up. In front of that, two beds so close together it was all they could do to put a nightstand between them.
Probably 640 square feet and I had $20 in my pocket. Not good.
Outside in the hall it was a scene right out of the movie Fame; we shared a floor with a school for ballet dancers.
Inside I sat there, feet swinging from the bed, looking out the only consolation, a window.
On the nightstand someone had left a local newspaper. I flipped it open and yawned. There in the back was an ad, which said. "Need $$$$$?"
I was curious at the ad. I needed $$$$$ for sure. Sixteen years old, having skipped two years of school in my early years, for reasons that I'll tell you about another day.
What do you have to do? I thought. I had become a fast typist, I could do that.
There was a picture with the ad. It was a line drawing of a beautiful woman, in a beautiful gown, in some kind of ballroom, doing what looked like a waltz.
They're going to pay me for dressing up?
As a teen my mom had taken me to a place in New Jersey where they supposedly discovered up-and-coming stars. I was not one of the ones discovered, unfortunately.
But this did not mean I lacked qualifications. I had done a production of "Hello Dolly" at the Jewish Community Center. Played Potiphar's wife in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" when I went to camp.
I could do elegant!
You know this isn't right, my gut said to me. Something about this stinks.
But I didn't want to listen to my inner alarm bells. Those were for "old people," I told myself. People like my parents.
More than anything else I wanted to be free. I wanted too have money, to never have to ask anyone for permission to do anything ever again.
What will they be paying you to do? My brain was screaming. Think!
I searched for some justification that would make this ad make sense.
"Go On Dates. Make Big $$$$."
You will not believe me when I tell you this. But I told myself that the ad was literal. That they needed pretty girls to go on dates with people like visiting diplomats, who just didn't know anyone and would have to go places with someone in a fancy dress.
Delusional...I know.
"What were you THINKING?" I can hear you saying. (I know, I know.)
I checked out the fridge. Seemed my roommate had already stocked it. There was Haagen Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream in the freezer. I found a spoon and took some.
We're roommates, I thought. She won't mind.
* * *
There was a bank a few doors down from the dorm. Feeling very proud of my newfound adulthood, I opened an account and put my dad's $20 in it.
Now I am a grownup, I thought. And I am totally broke.
I could have taken the bus home and asked my parents for money. Could have raided their fridge and gotten some food.
But I couldn't do that. You know that, right? That parents-dropping-me-off-at-college-with-a-$20-in-my-pocket scene was symbolic and I needed to hold it in my writer's memory.
No, I wouldn't go back across the Hudson River for anything.
Later I would figure out how to eat. Ever heard of Balducci's? It's a fancy food eatery. I ate their fancy muffins for free and bagged food.
A second job was typing up labels on prescriptions at a pharmacy across the street. Hopefully nobody died because I couldn't read some doctor's handwriting.
Yet a third occasional job was serving food on Saturday nights for a local Jewish caterer. It was the only time I ever made it to synagogue, and the leftovers were free.
All of that came later.
* * *
That day, that embarrassing day, the day I am lucky I wasn't raped, kidnapped or killed, I went to investigate the "Big $$$$" job.
I'll admit it. It was nice to be young and stupid.
  • Not to know what "tax-deductible" meant.
  • Not to think about saving up for retirement.
  • Not to worry about cross-checking credit card receipts against an end-of-the-month statement.
The sky was so blue, the air crisp and clean. I had more than a little bit of ice cream in my stomach. Replace the ice cream, I reminded myself.
It was about fifteen blocks to 56th Street and I walked there all the way for my "interview."
It was a happy, rich part of town. There is no doubt about it, wealth makes you ecstatic. That's gonna be me soon, how about it? I thought. Beautiful and happy. Me and the rich people. Us.
* * *
I found the building.
Don't do it, something told me. Don't don't don't don't don't don't don't.
"Shut up," I said to myself. I think I said that out loud.
The walls were made of thick black marble, threaded with flecks of light green. I pressed my hand to it. What a beautiful marble. I can't believe this is real.
I was spewed from the elevator on some very high floor. There were thick leather chairs. No receptionist, no people. Just a lonely sign that read, "Leave Your Driver's License Here."
Beneath it was a lonely bucket.
Instantly I knew that I was in the kind of place they warned me about at yeshiva. A very bad place. A den of evil. The smell of evil. It rose from the floor like smoke.
I clapped my hand to my mouth in shame. I knew what this place was.
I turned and pressed the elevator button, hard. Over and over again I pressed it. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
On the street - I don't think I ever touched the street. Just kept running, running, running till I got back to the dorm.
Whew, whew. Oh my G-d. I was shaking. The thought of what I had nearly gotten myself indescribable shame engulfed me. I was sure I was going to hell.
* * *
It's funny, I was so ashamed back then. But looking back, I only feel compassion. I remember all the feelings, how they were so real to me, and how raw and exposed I felt at my mistakes.
I think about all the other mistakes I've made, that frankly I make every single day. And with each mistake my brain stands there in self-judgment.
How could you be so stupid? I say to myself. You know better.
What are you, a moron?
The stumbles, and the fumbles, and the foibles and the fears. How the people I know also beat themselves up for the slightest thing.
And then I think something revolutionary:
What if we our screwups make us more likable?
What if our suffering and struggling make us better people?
I realize that these kinds of people are always the ones I instinctively like, whereas "perfect" people are annoying and even repulsive.
Like a flash it hits me that the most successful people also have spent their lives struggling to recover from some horrible experience.
And that the superstars somehow seem to own these, and make them into an asset rather than a curse.
Shame is not shame unless you torment yourself with it.
Walk toward the pain, not away from it. Stand with your feet on top of the emotional coals. It will burn for a while, sure.
And then one day when you're doing something else, you'll find out that you forgot all about it.
Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal is a seasoned communications professional with nearly two decades of progressive, varied experience in the public sector, private sector, and academia. Currently she is a public servant, as well as an independent freelance writer. This blog, like all of her public content, is written in her personal capacity unless otherwise noted. It does not reflect the views of the U.S. government, in whole or in part. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr