When I was a little girl, following severe meningitis at 18 months old, I was left with a hearty dose of trauma to work through, alongside a fair amount of “neurological damage.” The leg braces I wore for years to help me walk were awkward, ugly and embarrassing, but nothing compared to the horror of continuously losing control of my bladder and bowels.
And so as a young child I never knew when the limitations of my body might betray me; when I might trip and fall, limbs clanking to the ground, or soil my clothes without a moment's warning. Needless to say, this provided a continuous experience of anxiety and fear of humiliation.
One of the many consequences of this neurological situation was that I wet the bed for many years~ into my early teens. As a child of 8, 9, 10~ I didn’t know if this problem would ever be resolved. Nobody knew. When I visited the doctors, they would shake their heads and offer the latest experimental medication, some of which I tried, to no avail.
The bed-wetting was an issue at home of course, but mostly stressful at sleepovers, where I invented the strategy of “spilling my water,” all over the sheets, if I happened to wet the bed at a friend’s house. This lying strategy would usually work well, saving me from the embarrassing truth about my body exposed. But it made me feel deeply lonely and somehow fraudulent, exacerbating the sense that I had to hide the ugly truth of my body's imperfections. Discerning the degree to which this neurogenic bladder issue might cause me stress impacted every choice I made when it came to attending events, outings, camps and slumber parties.
I have one vivid memory of being a young girl, about 9 years old, having just woken at home in the middle of the night to my bed soaked with urine. I quickly took the rubber pad I slept on off the bed, but the pee had soaked through, and the sheet underneath the pad was also wet. So I grabbed a towel from the bathroom, and positioned it on the wet bed to go back to sleep on, like I had done so many countless times before.
As I lay there in the dark on top of the towel, trying to relax back into sleep, I had a horrifying little girl revelation: What man would ever want a woman who wets the bed? I tried to imagine my future husband, sleeping next to a woman who would wake in a puddle of pee… and I just couldn’t see it; it seemed impossible. And for the first time in my life I considered that my broken body might exclude me from knowing adult romantic love. This felt like such a powerful and heartbreaking reckoning to my little girl heart ~ the idea that I might never get to experience such a beautiful part of life~ that I burst into tears in my bed, turning my face and drenching my pillow with disheartened sorrow.
Years passed and by Grace healing continued to come for my body and my heart. The many neurological issues I dealt with became ever-more subtle, and bed-wetting ceased to be a common occurrence. In college, as part of my commitment to my own evolution, I embraced the rich challenge of coming fully into my body. I bravely devoted myself to the study of modern dance and yoga, which powerfully cleared and strengthened the neural pathways between my mind, pelvis and legs, while helping me to reunite, forgive, and fall in love with my body once again. Granted, the neurogenic bladder issues did not completely resolve, but I was able to confidently release any sense of myself as a “bed-wetter.”
After college, while I was attending a remote, residential healing school in the mountains of Northern California, I became romantically enraptured with a beautiful young man who lived and worked at the school. I was 22 and he was 28; he was the third man with whom I had ever explored the wilderness of raw love and intimacy. We were young, tender, and emotionally fixated, wrestling with issues of image, jealousy, and future commitment. But in the privacy of my dorm room and his forest-nestled trailer, we made love so sweetly. We laughed abundantly, welcoming in many sunrises together. We saw each other through the eyes of our most generous hearts, in moments tasting authentic love, respect, and trust.
One night, in the middle of the night, with my beautiful lover cuddled up next to me in bed, snoring softly, I suddenly awakened to the horrifying realization that for the first time in many years, I had wet the bed. Oh my God. Could it be true? My hands reached down to feel the wet spot, and it was confirmed.
I descended into a full-blown somatic shame response. My heart started pounding, my breath got short and tight, my system flooded with cortisol. I closed my eyes and prayed that it was not so, that I could somehow disappear, or fast forward into a new moment and not have to face this humiliation. Quietly, not wanting to wake him, my hand reached down to see if the wet spot was moving in my boyfriend’s direction. To my horror, I discovered that the pee had already seeped into the space he was sleeping! What could I do? I was trapped. I lay there for many moments, frozen in terror.
Sensitive to the shift in our sacred sleep cocoon, he started to stir, reaching for me. He said, sleepily: “Love? What’s wrong?” My heart raced with the dark pulse and heat of shame. This man I loved was going to find out, oh God, please no. I wondered if there was some water somewhere I could quickly spill onto the bed. The 9 year old girl who had imagined that no man could ever love a bed-wetter was looking at this situation frantically through my eyes, begging me to find a way to hide us and all our dirty, messy brokenness.
Suddenly all the shame and lying and hiding of my entire life became unbearable and I simply couldn’t contain it a moment longer. I started crying, softly, deeply. He sat up, confused in the dark, reaching for me: “What is it?” And then I wept: “I’m so sorry. I have a problem, with the nerves in my bladder, from the time I was a baby. I peed in the bed! And now it’s wet, and you’re in it. And I’m just so sorry. God! I’m so embarrassed and so sorry...” Now I was crying really hard, hopelessly exposed; it was all coming undone.
How many choices this young man had right then. He could have responded in any number of ways; just imagine. But do you know how my lover chose to respond?
He chose kindness. Without hesitation, he crawled over to me, closer into the wetness, gathering me in his arms, kissing my tear-drenched face. He said over and over again into my ear: “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care. I love you and I don’t care.”
We lay there in the puddle of pee for what seemed an eternity, and he just held me and stroked my hair and my back as I wept, whispering pure acceptance into my ears, as I let go of all my life-long efforts to hide, all my self-disgust, all my years of tightly guarded shame, my fear that these battle scars had rendered me unworthy of intimate embrace.
In that fleeting life moment, this young man served as an incredible shame-healer, with all the power and grace of a skillful shaman. With his simple, selfless, and generous choice of compassion and kindness, he held space for long-held shame to clear, lift, and release from my body’s psyche, forever. And somehow I found the wisdom and self-love to let him.
Bless his heart! What a gift he gave me. I wonder if he knew?? I wonder if I had the presence to tell him, to let him know how this choice he made changed my life.
I’m quite certain the fruits of his choice have rippled out in infinitely un-trackable ways. Not only into my own life~ in relationship with myself and my body~ but into all my relationships with other men, into my healing work with the shame-wounds and trauma of others, and into my heartful approach as a mother.
We might not ever get to know the true impact of our choosing kindness. We might never get to see the countless ways our compassionate response alters another's life and the many lives they will go on to touch; changing the very fabric of the universe! I only know it’s wise to assume our responses in the world matter deeply, and that it’s skillful to imagine the potential influence of our embodied kindness is immeasurable indeed!
Compassion and kindness are undeniably curative. And kindness can be chosen in as many ways as there are moments to live. It is not necessarily a grand or potent gesture. It can be as simple as a true smile tossed inwards or outwards. It can be as simple as your own hand tenderly resting upon your heart. It can show up as a deep breath, a willingness to be present. It can arise as the choice to say nothing, or as courageous transparency. It can be offered as an open hand to hold, or a truly listening ear. It can feel like painfully stretching our hearts open wider, to ourselves and one another, into the places we have resisted feeling, embracing, and loving.
We always know within ourselves, if we dare to check and see, what the choosing of compassion or kindness might look like for us, in any given moment. The kindness of patience, of boundary, of self-awareness and honesty, of acceptance, humility and forgiveness.
Today I’m bowing with gratitude to my long-ago young lover, who had the presence and wisdom to choose kindness and compassion, embracing me so fully in one of my most vulnerable places of harbored shame. And I’m bowing to the countless, unrecognized, un-witnessed moments in our world where kindness and compassion are courageously chosen.
I’m bowing to the skillful shame-healer, the compassionate one, within each of us, who has the power to change the world in more ways than we can know, one gesture of kindness at a time.
photo credit: (the endlessly talented) Ahri Golden