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Shame feels like jumping in the deep end of the pool. You think you’ll be able to swim, but you can’t.

Let me paint a picture for you: It’s summertime in the early 2000s and the sun is scorching. My brother and I are at Stars and Stripes Summer camp in Oak Park, Michigan. We’re in elementary school. Our parents work full-time jobs and this is where we stay during the summer months.

It’s swim day and I decide to be bold. I had been swimming in the somewhat shallow end of the pool for a while. I keep looking over at the deep end where the bigger kids were swimming. I say to myself, “I can do that,” and waste no time. Soon I’m standing on the ledge of the deep end staring into water that seems to have no floor. I’m scared but I think, it’s now or never. I hold my nose and dive in heels first.

My body sinks to the middle of the pool and I begin kicking my feet to push up back toward the ledge. There’s nothing there. I begin to panic. I think to myself, why would you jump in here knowing good and darn well that you can’t swim?! At this point, I come to terms with the fact that I might drown in this pool and my lifeless body will be found floating at the top.

It’s when I stop struggling and accept my fate that I begin to float. My hands eventually come back in contact with the ledge I boldly jumped from.

To my surprise, when I get out of the pool I see that no one noticed my struggle. I keep it to myself. I’m happy to be alive.

Empathy is the antidote for shame. If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.

  • Brené Brown
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I can’t help but find similarities between this traumatic experience and my journey with shame and vulnerability.

Much like the incident at the pool, during my journey to accepting my hidradenitis suppurativa (HS), I saw people living in their truth and admired them for it. I said to myself, “I want that.”

I didn’t know how deep I would have to go to achieve a sliver of that freedom. I dove in feet first with some tools, limited knowledge, and a ton of desire. I was tired of being hard on myself for something I couldn’t control. I wanted to start telling my HS story as a Black queer woman. I wanted to inspire other patients to tell their story and embrace their truth.

I admire myself for being bold and to taking that leap. I found exactly what I was looking for. 

But I also recognize that if I had more tools at the beginning of my journey I could have saved myself a lot of hardship and heartache.

It’s possible to unpack shame and embrace vulnerability without having someone to hold your hand through it, but you might find yourself being vulnerable in spaces that can’t support you. Subsequently, this might inflict trauma and induce isolation due to rejection or misunderstanding.

If I knew how to swim, jumping into the deep end of the pool wouldn’t have seemed so life threatening. In the same way, if I had a therapist I felt comfortable with at the beginning of my journey I would have been able to talk through my insecurities and how I felt undeserving because of my chronic illness. I could have avoided certain addictions to people, places, and substances.

I have to be honest, living in my truth is painful because it’s a constant cycle of unpacking, assessing, and healing. It’s exhausting! Yet, I’d rather this than numbing myself and believing in toxic narratives about my body and the world around me. When I was in that space, I was deteriorating. As I started to heal, my evolution began. I’ve had moments of clarity when I realized all of what I’ve worked toward and how much of myself I’ve repaired.

With this newfound sense of freedom, I began creating documentaries about HS, writing articles about it, pitching columns highlighting the experiences of Black patients with HS, creating organizations to serve the community, and so much more.

While your healing might not look like mine, I believe unpacking shame helps us to find our purpose. Embracing vulnerability and changing my relationship with shame introduced me to a world that I never knew existed. When you start to realize your truth, others begin embracing their own. It’s a domino effect that starts with the individual.

I challenge you to think of some of the ways you can begin living in your truth, whether that be telling your family you have HS, telling the world, or just coming to terms with your diagnosis. Wherever you are in your journey, you’re valuable, you’re seen, and you’re heard.

Let’s discuss! Use #BlackWithHS to talk with me about how you’re embracing your truth, shame, and vulnerability.