This is a story about shame.
Last fall, my colleague, Tom, and I were invited to an event on the opioid crisis hosted by the Clinton Foundation. Tom was a VIP at the event. He was a panelist, and a speaker. He’s a big deal. I was more of an IP. Important, but not Very Important. To explain the difference, Tom left the event with an official photo of himself with Bill Clinton. I sat in the second row of the audience and shook hands with Clinton on C-span. I’m not knocking this. It’s a highlight of my life to be an IP and have my mom text me to say she saw me on C-span shaking hands with a former president, and that she liked my yellow scarf. (I’m not picky. Any former president will do).
In the morning session, I met a woman named Julie (another IP), and we became instant friends. You know when you just click with someone? That’s me and Julie. Most people at the event were stuffy and serious, but Julie was smart and funny and fun! She knows her shit, too, when it comes to harm reduction. We understood each other. We respected each other. Julie is a Woman Who Gets Shit Done. At the end of the day, we found ourselves waiting on our VIP companions, and we stopped for a chat. We didn’t talk about work – we swapped stories about family, music, and the management of curly hair on rainy days. Then we had a conversation that was something like this . . .
Julie: I am so glad you came. You’re a star! There is a reason I met you.
Me: Oh, yes. We’re going to do something! I was so proud to be here to to see Tom on the panel! How cool that he got to do this! All my colleagues in Cincinnati do such good work, and I love when they are recognized for it!
Julie: He was great. But so were you, Kelly. You are very, very good at what you do. One of the best in the country. That’s why you were invited to this event - to recognize you. It’s important that you were here.
I felt a weird heaviness in my belly and in my cheeks. I wanted to run away. I didn’t know what to call it then, but I have learned in the year since that this feeling is called shame. I’ve also learned that I feel shame A LOT. Like, a WHOLE LOT. When shame hits me, my initial impulse is to steer the conversation away from myself:
Me: Well, I’m just so lucky to know so many smart people! I’ve learned so much from them! Didn’t Tom do well on the panel? I’m so proud of him.
Julie looked at me sideways and grinned.
Julie: OH MY GOD! You’re sincere. You really don’t know!
I must have looked confused. Or flustered. She paused and said this. (These are words I remember so clearly and precisely, they will be engraved in my heart for the rest of my life.)
Julie: Look, yes, Tom is good at these things. He is very big. He fills up a room. But you, Kelly. You are so, so bright. You light up every room you walk into. Look. Did you notice that all the speakers came to introduce themselves to you? It’s because you have so much light. Four hundred people in that auditorium this morning, and you were the only woman there.
Now friends, I like to call that overt flattery. I mean, that is a hell of a compliment! It was meant to make me feel good, but it made me feel so ashamed. I wanted to cry. Or run. Or run while crying. I am not so good at compliments, and I tried (again!) to turn the conversation away from me, but she was on to me. She was having none of it.
Me: Oh, thank you. I have so many good people! My colleagues have taught me a lot.
Julie: I’m sure they have. And I’m sure you have taught them a lot. Look at you and Tom . . . each of you on your own is formidable. But the two of you together, you’re electric! Tom can do what he does because you’re there for him. I’m sure learn from him, but he learns from you. You make each other better. Oh, Kelly, one day you’ll understand what you bring to the table.
Who was this woman, anyway?! She would not let up! Thank God, it was time to go. I was thrilled to exit that conversation. It weirded me out. But it stuck. It was uncomfortable, but also something I needed. Julie was trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand. I had eyes but could not see. I had ears but could not hear. I’d encountered a prophet.
Most people, I guess, would be thrilled to be in such a high-profile setting and have someone tell them they’re brilliant. But most people are not me!!! I managed to turn that sour. On my insides, I was ashamed! I kept ruminating over the day, wishing I’d said fewer things, or maybe not introduced myself to so many people at lunch. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn the yellow scarf . . . was it too much? I found myself wishing I hadn’t gone to the event. I should have stayed home. The story I wrote in my head was that I’d undermined Tom. I ruined his VIP event. I stole his big moment. I was there to be supportive, but I was a distraction. He would hate me for that. I felt so guilty, I didn’t want to be around him, or talk to him, or make eye contact with him. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to be invisible. (I use two main strategies for managing shame - becoming invisible, and flinging flattery at other people. Turns out neither is terribly effective.)
Now, let me step back and clarify. There is no way Tom would have been angry about this. If he’d been standing there, Tom would have agreed with Julie. You see, Tom is one of my big brothers, and even though he picks on me, I know he cheers for me. Truth be told, he’d probably cheer for me more if I didn’t act like such a turd when people are nice to me. But it wouldn’t have mattered that day, because I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. In fact, it would have only made me more ashamed. I didn’t understand it then, but I was so stuck in this shame spiral that shame was the only thing I could hear.
You see, shame is a sneaky and powerful demon. It had invaded my soul. It made me very small, and it built a giant wall between me and everyone else. Shame stole my joy. It stole my friends. It stole my sparkle. It robbed me of my ability to receive love, kindness, compliments, or help from other people. Shame is an evil force, y’all. At that point in my life, I wasn’t capable of taking anything good from the world. It’s counter-intuitive, but getting more compliments would have only made it worse.
I angsted over the conversation for weeks, writing and rewriting the words between the words, trying to interpret Julie’s intent in the whole thing. Why would she say those things? I could not take it for what it was. I simply couldn’t believe that I was special, or valuable in any way. That I would make an impression. That someone would compliment me. I was trying to find a way to interpret the conversation and make it fit into my view of the world. I wanted it to align with my view of myself.
It did not align with my view of myself, because my view of my self was distorted by shame.
Flash forward to August, and I’m chatting with a reporter from the Washington Post. We’re talking about the opioid crisis and my experience in the field for the past few years. She’s interviewed a lot of my colleagues, and we were comparing notes on the cast of characters. I was doing the thing I do best: bragging on the people I know.
Me: I know all the smartest people. Sometimes I don’t understand how in the world there could be so many amazing people in the same place at the same time!
Reporter: Kelly, have you ever considered that it’s you?
Reporter: You have an energy about you. It’s the first thing people mention when they talk about you. Your energy. You inspire people. They want to be around you. You make them better than they would be.
And in that moment, I could hear Julie’s words:
You are so bright. You light up every room . . . You make each other better.
And then I remembered other things people have said to me in the year since I met Bill Clinton. A million tiny moments that didn’t register at the time, but sounded kind of similar:
There is no way I could have done that without you.
You make people into superstars.
You have been called to the top of the world.
This is Dr. Firesheets. She can move mountains. She is smart, she is sparkly, and she is brave. (This one makes me swoon. And blush.)
I think of you every day, and it keeps me going.
I asked everybody in Ohio who I could call to get this done, and they all said, “Kelly Firesheets.”
I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. (And how many times have I said this to other people?)
Kelly, you belong on a much bigger stage.
Kelly, you’re special.
And for a moment I could see shame for the fraud that it is. And it all clicked. You know all these great people I am so lucky to know? They are lucky to know me, too. I make the people around me better.
I am bright. I am sparkly. I am special.
WTF?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Seriously. What. The. Fuck. In that moment, the entire world looked different.
In a world without shame, I am a lovable, valuable person. I am bright. I am sparkly. I am strong. I am special. I love my people ferociously and unconditionally. I back them up. I show up for them when no one else does. I’m brave enough to be there when it matters, big enough to step back when it doesn’t, and smart enough to know the difference. I can move mountains. I am not perfect in a world without shame. Sometimes I am a handful! But that’s okay. There are people who love me for all my mess, and they think I’m worth it. They want me around. Those are my friends, and they are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and more successful than they are on their own. I make my people better, and they make me better. We are electric! Zap!!! Get out of our way!!!!!
Now, I’m going to be honest. Most days my world doesn’t look like that. I always thought fear was going to be the biggest challenge of my life. But it isn’t. It’s shame. Shame built a big wall between me and the rest of you. I’m really lonely back here, y’all. I’m chipping away at that wall, trying to get out - that’s part of the reason I write. But some days it is so difficult. I could use some help to knock it down. That’d be very nice. But I have hope for me. I can see light through the cracks now, and I cling to that moment when I understood that I am more than my broken parts.
So now when shame pops up, I am starting to talk back to it. I am not a liability. I am not a burden. I don’t have to care what other people think. I don’t have to make myself invisible, or smaller. I bring something to the table. I deserve a seat. I am fine just the way I am. Poop on you, shame.
Poop on you.