The shame of shitting

My seventeen year old slept overnight at school last night with a group of forty other senior school girls in a gesture of solidarity with the homeless. It was intended as a fund raiser but my daughter is a little sceptical about the value of such exercises when it comes to making a real difference to homelessness.

‘Better to join a soup kitchen,’ her boyfriend had suggested. I’m inclined to agree.

I bought my daughter a padded mat from Kathmandu to avoid sleeping on the bricks of the school’s breezeway and despite the fact that such a ‘mattress’ does not exactly emulate the plight of the homeless my daughter agreed to use it.

Now we have to figure out how to deflate this amazing piece of padding. It is self inflating and operates by opening and closing the nozzle. Every time I open the nozzle though I cannot be sure whether it is inflating or deflating.

Perhaps, as my husband says, we should read the instructions first.

I tend to by pass written instructions. I like to figure out things for myself and invariably as with this inflatable self inflating sleeping bag I find myself in trouble.

It’s a type of laziness I expect, the voice within that says ‘let me at it’. I can figure it out, only to be stymied at the first obstacle.

I have been reading about shame these last few weeks, shame and the way it links to grief and death. Jeffrey Kauffman’s series of essays on The shame of Death grief and trauma I had never thought of shame like this before, I had never considered that the essence of shame lies in our bodies and our vulnerabilities and how difficult we find it to accept the limitations of our bodies, especially when it comes to illness and death.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I hesitate to go through the process of having a colonoscopy. I even shudder to write the word. I expect you all know the procedure.

For some reason that I cannot fathom I have always held a morbid fear of getting bowel cancer. There is no history of bowel cancer in my family, not as far as I know.

I’m not sure how to put this. I wonder whether it has to do with that part of the body, the hidden part that ends in the anus and is so closely related to the toilet. I suspect part of my fear and my deep shame goes back to some childhood anxiety about bottoms and poos and all those secret bits of bodies that go on underneath.

When I was little I imagined that my soul which was meant to stay pure and white was located in my bottom close to my poo hole. I do not know where this idea came from but it has long stayed with me. The idea that centre of my soul on which all sins were marked as dark stains was located so close to the dirtiest part of me.

Maybe my adult fear of bowel cancer harks back to this. And perhaps for this reason I have long resisted the idea that I should endure a colonoscopy if only as a screening procedure to rule out any polyps or precancerous cells.

Shame and the body. If I put those two things together, the first thing I think about is the shame of shitting, then I think of the shame of sex and then I think of the shame of illness generally and finally I think of the shame of dirt, as in a dirty house and of getting things wrong in areas where I think I should get them right.

I’m not too ashamed of being unable to deflate the Kathmandu bed mat. I don’t expect that of myself, but there are areas where I do expect more of myself and it is in these areas where I suffer the most.

In an effort to break up the text and to illustrate some aspect of my earlier shame I include a picture here from my childhood, one that demonstrates the clutter in which we once lived. I’m the headless one on the bed.

And in this photo, I’m the one on the left with long fair hair. The girl facing the camera was a visitor. The other two are siblings. In black and white the room may not look quite so bad as I once imagined, the mess and the clutter that is, but in my memory it is.

And did you know that shame and pride are close cousins? Pride to cover over our shame. I think often about my mother’s pride and how much I have soaked it in.

These days I sit with my mother in her retirement village room and listen yet again as she boasts about her age.
‘I’m 91 years old. I don’t get sick, It’s amazing. Other people here, all the other people here are coughing and spluttering. So many have the flu, but me not a sniffle.’

‘That’s good’ I say. ‘But if you get so much as a sniffle, or a tickle in your throat you must tell the doctor straight away.’

It feels like a threat. My mother towards the end of her life refuses to recognise the possibility of her death any day now, and I’m not far behind reluctant to acknowledge the same about my own.

In my family we boast about our good health, our genes, our immunity.

I spread the sorbolene cream over my mother’s legs and pull back once again at the stale smell that wafts over me whenever I take off her slippers. They are all she wears on her feet these days, special slippers, with Velcro strips that adhere together to make for easy wearing. She cannot otherwise get her slippers on and off. They smell of the vinegar of old age and dead skin.

She knows it, I suspect. My mother knows that her feet let off this sad stale smell but she says nothing.

I say nothing but spread the white smooth cream up and down her ankles and calves as if they are my own.

There’s a dark spot like a blood blister that I had not noticed before. I rub it with the tip of my finger. It’s smooth to touch.

‘I noticed that too, my mother says. It wasn’t there before.’
‘The mark of death,’ I want to say. ‘Your skin is breaking down.’

But no. ‘It’s probably just a blood blister,’ I say. ‘I get them all the time, ever since I had babies.’

‘Nothing to worry about then,’ my mother says.

‘Maybe mention it to the doctor next time you see him.’

All this emphasis on our bodies. All this effort to reduce our skin and bones into efficient machines that might go on forever, if only to keep out the cold and the shame.

Is this a sin?

I have jaywalked through my life, taking short cuts wherever possible. Three weeks ago I was stopped short. Three weeks ago I walked into a car driven by a young P plate driver who herself was in a hurry. We met in the middle. Her life has moved on, it seems, but mine has stopped, if only temporarily. I broke my leg. Up high under the kneecap, a crack along one side of the long bone, my tibia.

Is this a sin?

I grew up in the spirit of the Catholic Church in a religion that held sin to be a voluntary act that came in two forms – the venial and the mortal.

Venial sins were easy to tackle. Off to confession, confess and be free of your sins after a few prayers, as determined by a priest in black, who absolved you without question, that is as long as the venial sins were of a generic nature – sins of disobedience, lying, stealing and the like.

Serious sins, the mortal sins, tended to be the sexual ones, those of impure thought, and impure thoughts covered a broad spectrum. Murder, eating meat on Fridays, missing Mass on Sundays or failing to fast for at least three hours before taking Holy Communion were also mortal sins, but in a clear cut, black and white way.

The line between the venial and the mortal blurred however when it came to impure thoughts because venial sins happened more by accident, as if without proper intention, but impure thoughts, loaded with intentionality, carried more weight.

You should be able to eradicate such thoughts and if you entertained them, if you allowed them to flourish in your mind, then you were indeed a sinner.

I could not sleep last night. My husband snored. My foot was hot. I could not switch off my mind. I was restless. This sedentary life does not suit me. There is an absence of any sense that I have something to look forward to beyond the next ten days and the next trip to the surgeon. My life is bracketed by this broken leg.

My husband tells me he dreamed last night that I had been kidnapped and he had been terrified for himself and for me.
‘You have Stockholm Syndrome’ he said to me in his dream. Stockholm syndrome develops when someone becomes attached to her jailer and persecutor.

I thought of my leg, my attachment to this part of my body by which I am held ransom. I cannot escape. I am tied to it, as a child is tied to her mother’s apron strings.

We visited the surgeon again on Thursday, nine days after our last visit. We had booked an appointment for the Tuesday but his secretary rang to cancel. He had a funeral to attend.

I had looked forward to the visit all week. We went first to medical imaging for the mandatory x-ray of my leg then off to the private consulting suites to see the surgeon.

He is running late. An early morning meeting at the Alfred, his receptionist says. He is now caught up in traffic on his way back.

The surgeon appears. He looks at the x-ray.
‘Where are we now?’
I tell him three weeks on Saturday.
‘Right, then I’ll see you in another ten days.’
Ten days before he wants to see me again, and the surgeon has not so much as looked at my leg, not once. He has not laid his hands onto it in any way, shape or form. He looks only at the x ray of my leg that stands silhouetted against the bright light box on his consulting room wall. He looks at this dark shadow on the wall and pronounces that I am doing well.

He speaks into a Dictaphone, his mouth close the recorder,
‘Elisabeth H is doing well, the bone is holding.’ He turns to me. ‘Ten more days and then we can get your knee moving.’ He smiles.

Small signs of progress. I wonder that I even needed to attend for this visit. I could have stayed at home, organised the x ray from elsewhere and sent in the film in my place.

I am sensitive to my transference to this doctor. I want to engage with him beyond a peremptory chat about the bone in my leg.

Before we leave, the surgeon jokes about the brace and tells me that it makes me look like a ‘dominatrix’.

The surgeon is married to a psychiatrist, he tells me, after I tell him that I work as a psychologist. ‘What sort?’ he asks. I mention psychoanalysis and the surgeon jokes that I should see some of his colleagues. ‘Personality disorders,’ he says. Then as a final after thought he adds, ‘surgeons cannot afford to have too much insight. It interferes with their work.’

Psychologists used to present Rorschach ink blots to test for personality attributes, these days they offer photographs of typical family scenes, a kitchen table, people gathered around, and they then ask the interviewees to describe what they see. The same family can become a family riven by conflict, a family drowning in grief, a family of strangers.

The same family can be in equal parts happy, in equal parts sad. To one onlooker, the older male figure is malleable. To another, he is a despot.

We see what we see from behind our eyes, from within our minds and not so much the ‘facts’ of the picture, when we are given permission to imagine.

There is room then in our imaginings to see all manner of things that invariably arise from within our own experience. We can only imagine from our experience, however wild and woolly our imaginings, because we come with a past, and an unconscious that is fuelled by experiences that go back to infancy including, the primitive thought processes that existed then, within our pre-cognitive minds, before we could think, when we were a mass of sensations, a body without clear form, arms legs mouth, teeth, tongue and inside. Skin, hair nails, fingers, toes taste smell, sight of objects as yet undefined, wordless, reliant on another or others outside for our very survival.

This dependence, this at one time persecutory, and at other times bliss-filled state of infancy stays with us forever and can be triggered by images, tastes and smells and all manner of experience in later life, but later filtered through our conscious mind, our thinking mind, our ego, as Freud would have it. Filtered as well through our super egos, our consciences, often into states of guilt.

The surgeon fingers my brace. ‘It makes you look as though you’re into S and M.’

I had not entertained such a thought till then, and wondered about the surgeon’s self-confessed lack of insight. Jokes can be revealing.

Certainly, the process of recovery from a broken leg has its masochistic moments, though perhaps not of a sexual nature, unless we dig deeper and reflect on the helplessness of it all. A turn on for some perhaps, but not for me.

Now I should not reflect on this further or my sin of jaywalking will slide into one of impurity, and that will never do.