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Challenging a foundation of shame

Challenging a foundation of shame

Challenging a foundation of shame

Catherine Philpot, left, with her husband David, centre, and son Harrison.

by Dr Catherine Philpot

When I was 11 years old, my family moved. I started at a new school where I was teased and bullied in ways that made me think there must be something wrong with me. My insecurity built over the year, to the point that I wanted to be sick so I could avoid school altogether. When I eventually did get sick, I felt guilty for wanting it. I was scared of returning to school, scared of getting better, and of people thinking that I was a bad girl who had faked it all along.

My sickness worsened and with it, depression. Though I did try to get better, I was hospitalised, not eating and not able to walk. After a month in the Royal Darwin Hospital, I was flown to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, where I stayed for another two and a half months.

DEFINING TIME

That was one of the most defining periods in my life. My extended family lived in Adelaide, and my grandma came to visit. I’d just been diagnosed with depression. I felt bad because I didn’t understand the diagnosis and thought it meant people would think I had made the whole thing up, that I wanted it, and was just doing it for attention.

And then that’s what my grandma said – those words that I was worried that people were thinking. But with such venom. She added to it, too, saying, “We always knew you were a faker. An attention-seeker. I can’t believe you would hurt your family like this.”

That moment, that whole period of illness, haunted me in lots of ways. I wanted to get better and get out of there in a hurry. I worked hard and was allowed to go home.

My psychiatrist at the time said that people wouldn’t understand what I’d been through, so maybe just tell them that you were sick. The sense that no one would understand me and that perhaps I had done something wrong stayed. I carried a sense of shame but also a feeling that if I worked hard enough and looked good on the outside, everything would be okay again. So that became the new kind of Catherine.

My parents weren’t perfect, but they never failed to love me. My mother heard what my grandma said at the time and argued with it, said it wasn’t true. That’s not who I was. That’s not what happened. I think it was a situation that hurt them and was hard for us to talk about, but their love never wavered. That was an important part of my survival and my understanding of love.

GRACE

But it would take over 10 years for that foundation of shame to be challenged. I was in a church meeting, yet again feeling ashamed of standards I couldn’t meet, when the person leading the service said, “I invite you to picture yourself in the presence of God.”

I closed my eyes, and the picture that came to mind was me: bowed down, on the floor, head in my hands. Behind me was Jesus with his arms open wide, just waiting for me to stand up, see he was there and that he loved me. It helped me realise that my shame was keeping me down and that Jesus’ love for me was bigger than anything I’d ever done wrong. That was the defining moment of Catherine the Christian. Though I grew up in the Church, that was when I understood the grace of God for myself.

It’s ironic that God called me and engineered my life so that I became a psychologist who listens  to  people’s  stories  over  and  over  again – people who don’t feel worthy enough, who feel ashamed. I can show people the love and grace that Christ has shown me. As I do that, I receive it for myself. When you love someone else with the love of Jesus, you can’t help but get it on the rebound. You realise God loves them so much because he loves you that much too. It just becomes this beautiful circle of love. And that’s where I like to live my life.

My 15-year-old self is somewhere in that mess of having the shameful past that she doesn’t tell anybody about, ever, and feeling alone at another new school. She doesn’t think she fits in. So, what do I say to her? God loves you so much just the way you are, and you don’t have to be good enough for him.

Dr Catherine Philpot is a psychologist and Salvation Army officer.

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