Dealing with Long-Ago Shame at a Joyful Event
February 1, 2019 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Two of my dear college friends are getting married (from two different friend circles that later found each other). Several folks from my younger days will be there, including one that I hurt really badly. I'm feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and shame, and I'm trying to find somewhere to put that shame that isn't harmful.

I began to develop a substance use disorder in college along with PTSD and MDD. I was filled with self-loathing and was a pile of self-destructive behavior. Basically, he tried to love me, I was like, "AAAAGH THIS IS SCARY BUT DON'T GO BECAUSE I ADORE YOU BUT AAAAGH," and we left each other wrecked. The majority was my fault, because alcoholism + hurtful behavior + relationships = disaster. We were both very young - him, 18, and me, 21, and it's been over ten years ago. I sent him a facebook message that he didn't read (at least the messenger app says he didn't) or respond to about 4 years ago, after I had been sober for a while. I haven't reached out to him in any other ways, though we are still facebook friends and will occassionally write happy birthday messages to each other.

The rational part of my brain is like, "It's been 12 years. You both turned out fine. There's very little you can do." But the freak out part of my brain is like, "Aaaaah person who is the target of a lot of shame and regret that I haven't processed."

Basically, I'm worried I'm going to spend the next four months freaking out. I don't want that. Any advice or support would be appreciated.

(Just to clarify - I am currently in a really happy and healthy relationship. I have told my partner about this anxiety and he is compassionate and kind.)
posted by socktothepuppet to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One idea would be simply not to go. That is probably the route I would choose, and I would message him and just let him know that you are not able to make it, with no emotional content. That would both be healthy for you and, it sounds like, something that you could do to affectively make up for what happened.

I’m not saying that you have to do this, but it strikes me as a fairly good solution.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 6:38 PM on February 1, 2019

Perhaps there are people who get through early adulthood without having at least one major relationship end in a gruesome, cringeworthy mess. But I doubt it. It's pretty much par for the course. If it helps, you might reflect that--as far as I can see, anyway--the VAST majority of people have experiences that are very similar to what you're describing, in their emotional contours if not in their particular details. Like most problems, it's more a part of the common human experience than you probably imagine when you're feeling bad about it.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:44 PM on February 1, 2019 [24 favorites]

(Just as a note - I know not going to the wedding is an option, but it's two of my best friends getting married and I will not miss it - I'm in the wedding party.)
posted by socktothepuppet at 6:47 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Well, I think it's hard to know how he feels about it at this point. I guess I could be your ex, more or less. I certainly have a partner in my past who was bad to me and who I've forgiven at this point. Not, like, rewritten history—I still remember what happened—but forgiven. If I met her at a wedding now and she seemed like she was in a better place, I'd probably be cautiously friendly toward her. I'd want to say hi and see how she was doing. I wouldn't try to initiate a post-mortem on our relationship because that's not how I would want to spend my time at a friend's wedding.

I have another former partner who I have not forgiven, one who I just don't want to talk to again, the end. If I met her at a wedding, I'd give her the cold shoulder.

Neither of them are people who I behaved perfectly toward myself. That's how bad relationships go. But they did me wrong and fucked me up, that's for sure. I'm trusting you when you say that this particular relationship problem was mostly on you.

I think, given all that, that you should let him determine how much if any interaction he wants to have with you. I'm sure he knows you're coming, just like you know he's coming. When you go, don't seek him out. Don't hide from him, but also don't go find him or put yourself in conversations with him, and whatever you do don't try to apologize or seek his forgiveness. Maybe he'll come talk to you—in which case you should be friendly and interested and not go any deeper with the conversation than he does—and maybe he won't. It is what it is. If other people ask you what's up, I'd just tell them that you're not sure that he wants to talk to you but it's not a big deal either way. Which it isn't, unless you allow it to become one.

Basically, just go to the wedding, do your own thing, and don't force the issue but also don't actively hide from him. It doesn't have to be a big thing.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:49 PM on February 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

... though we are still facebook friends and will occasionally write happy birthday messages to each other.

You guys are water under the bridge. Calm. Breathe. Forgive your youthful self for being a age-appropriate narcissist who indulged in unhealthy behaviors and experimented with being an indecisive warmth-craving jerk! It happened to a lot of us. It's a thing.

But if your old friend ignored your message (maybe, maybe not, hard to tell with f'book) and you have floated non-committal birthday greetings, you need to let this go and not make a new thing about it. Go to the wedding. Don't get blasted! Have a buddy who will keep an eye on you if you can. If you see your friend and the moment seems private enough you can say, with a big smile, "I'm so happy to see you. I really feel like I treated you so badly when we are younger and I definitely regret it. But I love seeing you here and I hope you are well and happy." Then shut up. Listen. Don't force forgiveness but do let this go.

I have one person that I would feel similarly about if I had to go and see them and we have no water under the bridge but I would definitely owe them an acknowledgement, a sincere expression of regret and then the grace to let it go. Don't make the party or event or re-meeting all about your feelings of guilt. That's likely annoying for the person who was already wronged and doesn't do much to actually heal the wound and put it firmly into history.
posted by amanda at 6:52 PM on February 1, 2019 [17 favorites]

(Sorry - will not thread-sit anymore - I appreciate this compassionate advice. I'm in recovery [very happily], and will not be drinking. The message was basically an apology for being shitty when I was younger + drunker + crueler.)
posted by socktothepuppet at 6:55 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Without knowing more I wonder if it might be worthwhile to talk to a therapist about the shame and regret you're struggling with from that part of your life?

Having a short, simple speech prepped in case you have a chance to speak to them is a good plan and will probably give you some peace of mind for the next few months. At the wedding itself if you're in the party you'll be busy a good deal of the time and this will probably keep you fairly distracted from worrying about the situation. Presumably your partner will also be there and you'll be able to rely on them for emotional support.

Finally, here's a suggestion my therapist gave me for coping with rumination - sounds like it might be helpful. Write down on paper:
What is the problem I’m trying to solve?
is this a solvable problem?
If it’s not solvable am I trying to understand something?
If not understandable can I reach acceptance?
Is this really something I need to grieve?

Good luck to you. I hope you get some answers that ease your mind and I hope the wedding goes well.
posted by bunderful at 7:11 PM on February 1, 2019 [13 favorites]

we are still facebook friends and will occassionally write happy birthday messages to each other.

I mean, that's better than it could be. I would be more concerned if he'd unfriended you without a word or something. The rational part of your brain is correct. He may not even think it's as big a deal to see you again as you're worried about.

I personally would plan on not bringing it up to him at the wedding at all, and if you do end up saying hello to each other I would recommend just keeping the conversation light. I obviously don't know the guy but, just knowing people, I think there's a good chance he'd rather your past relationship wasn't brought up at the wedding.
posted by wondermouse at 7:12 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I had a friendship blow up last fall that really devastated me, and was wrapped up in all sorts of difficult things, including PTSD. This friend is also a classmate, and so I’ll necessarily be seeing him at major events like our graduation a few months from now. I’m seeing a trauma therapist right now, and one of the things I’m working on with her is getting me to a point where I can not just survive these events, but truly enjoy them. I think some similar work might be really helpful for you. You don’t have to accept awkwardness and shame.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:00 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Forty years ago in my youth I did something horrible to my best friend after which we lost contact.

Somehow my friend found me last month and we've been emailing reminiscences. I began with an apology for the horror and got a reply about how funny they found it in retrospect.

Time heals wounds.
posted by anadem at 8:36 PM on February 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

If I were in this situation, I'd check in with the person through an intermediary—specifically through the couple who invited both of us to the wedding. Basically say "hey, back at school I was a real shit to X and it's possible he won't be happy I'm there. Can you check in with him to let him know I'll be there and ask if that would create problems for them?".

This is a thing that happens at weddings sometimes, and it's absolutely better to let the couple know about the issue than to hide it from them.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:39 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

"Aaaaah person who is the target of a lot of shame and regret that I haven't processed."

One option would be to try to process it. Times when shame is surfacing like this are really valuable -- in my experience, I learned lessons that really helped me going forward.
posted by salvia at 8:50 PM on February 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Unless it’s a tiny wedding, hopefully there will be enough people there that you won’t be forced to mingle. Keep your distance and if your eyes do happen to meet, smile and nod. There are very few people who will actively want to cause a scene at someone’s wedding and I can guarantee you your ex will be wanting to limit your interactions as well (given that they haven’t even read your previous message.)

So breathe, don’t engage unless they want to and if they do, keep things light and civil and try to enjoy the day. Don’t try to rehash your relationship or apologise, it’s not the time or place and if the conversation goes pear shaped, you don’t want a screaming match on someone else’s big day, so leave that topic alone. You’ll be fine. I’ve been there - it really sucks but you can get through it and then you never have to see them again.
posted by Jubey at 9:27 PM on February 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Look up Brene Brown - she's done a lot of work on dealing with shame. Enough that you can probably take your pick of formats - podcasts, books, TEDtalks etc.
posted by penguin pie at 5:18 AM on February 2, 2019

Hey all - I wanted to thank y'all for the comfort and the perspective. Amanda's script is particularly useful. I have talked to my therapist about this and why this of all things is such a big source of shame and regret, and we're working on it, but yeah. I don't know if reaching out pre-wedding through an intermediary is appropriate in this situation - we are both fairly private people, and I am not sure to what extent any of our friends know about what happened. I had thought about pinging him a second time with a 4-years-later "hey, still sorry, but am excited to see you at the wedding," but that sounds like it might do more harm than good. I will definitely not make my shame/feelings about him the center of the wedding - it's not the time. I love Brene Brown, and honestly, I have processed and forgiven myself and feel so much shame than I did before I stopped drinking 6 years ago, and I haven't really done anything I feel ashamed of since. For whatever reason, this is kinda the last big shame.
posted by socktothepuppet at 6:36 AM on February 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just so you are aware, if he hasn't read the FB message, and he's been fine sending happy birthday stuff, it is extremely likely that he hasn't seen it. Messenger can be glitchy and weird.
posted by Mistress at 5:41 AM on February 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Final update - after Mistress's post, I decided it probably wouldn't do any harm to send a second, follow-up, hey, sorry message. He responded almost immediately, and was extremely kind and gracious. Thank y'all for talking me through this - I appreciate y'all.
posted by socktothepuppet at 10:31 AM on February 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

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