I remember the first time I felt shame. As a child the emotion of shame was alien to me. It's a complex emotion, one that needs a person to be self-aware and self-awareness is not a priority when the biggest problem in your life is paint turning brown when you mix all the colours together.
I'd recently moved to a small village in Westmeath from the metropolis of Mullingar. I’d invited a few girls from my new school as well as my best friend and her older sister from my old town, to the mother of all sleep-overs. I had marshmallows and hot chocolate as well as the Spice Girls’ unofficial biography fresh from the travelling school library. I learned so much that night. I learned Emma Bunton attended the same stage school as Denise Van Outen. I wondered if they were pals, what did they talk about while following their dreams? I also found out that allowing yourself to breathe 'down there' was not as common as I thought and that wearing knickers is generally considered appropriate sleep-over attire.
I understood at the time that this get-together was a big deal. I'd moved schools a few times before I was eight, this was not my first rodeo. However, because I'd moved around a lot I’dended up reading books and talking to my parents more often than socialising with children my own age. This sleep-over was going to be a level playing field.
But I had a deep secret. I occasionally pissed the bed. I hadn't done it in a few years and it never phased me but somehow I knew just like wearing no knickers to bed this wouldn't wash in a group environment. So I emptied my bladder as much as I could before getting into the shared single bed with four other girls. As my eyes grew heavy I dreamed of Geri Halliwell's adventures in Turkey as a young woman before the Spice Girls.
Suddenly a hand shook me. My best friend's older sister loomed over me, her face in an expression ofdisgust as the piss ran cold down my leg and as my face heated up hotter than a blow torch. My chest felt like an airbag exploded inside and time slowed down as the liquid spread on the mattress like a horrible army invading a stricken country.
Everyone looked at me. The party was ruined, my Spice Girls book was damp, and I wondered would I ever learn more about Mel C. There was no laughter, just shock, as mam bundled the sheets into the washing machine, commending her own foresight in not having removed the plastic protector. I stood there slightly damp, praying we'd have to move to Longford where no one would know me. I could begin again as a cool funny girl incapable of expelling any bodily fluid. I'd be a queen held on the dry shoulders of my peers. But I was here and would have to plough through, facing up to the horrible incident.
I still slightly blush while writing it.
Over time worse things have happened, but you never forget your first feelings of shame. My brain felt flooded with an emotion I've never felt before. It would happen again and again, but the results were the same. My friends stayed my friends and life didn't change much.
I barely feel shame anymore, after a few small doses in my life I'm inoculated.
You realise after a while that everyone has their own stuff to deal with and no one cares. Years ago I used to pour over the embarrassing stories section in teen magazines. They would have fun little blushing graphics and rate the embarrassment on a scale of ten, so that as a reader you could gauge where you belonged in the ‘scarlet scheme of things’.
It was weird. I wondered did lads have this same fascination with embarrassing stories? I carried out a survey (a few of my friends). Yes they entertained themselves by sharing embarrassing stories but it was more jokes about the origin of nicknames and for the sake of a good story.
Meanwhile, girls had shame in a package to be bought and consumed in teen magazine format, telling tales of blood spotting and falling on a school tour. Reading the embarrassing stories was a way of making yourself feel better. You may have called your maths teacher mammy that day, but at least you didn't leave a used tampon beside your crush like a hand grenade.
Now I see those ‘cringe’ sections of teen magazines as a disaster for young girls, a tool to keep shame a large part of girls’ lives. Originally those stories were a way to know that life continues after blowing snot on the school bus window and sure if you tell Mizz about it you might win a new Rimmel make-up set for your trouble. But in the end they did more harm than good, teaching girls that self-awareness they’d so far avoided and left unexplored.
But who told the lads not to experience shame? They had a jury of shit-head peers and they didn't have Lizzie Maguire making a tit of herself and overcoming her shame every episode. I would see fist fights at the back of the school that were essentially over shame, as if beating the crap out of each other would get their pride back. I think there would be a lot less violence if more people read confessional literature. Let's make every arms dealer slip in a few old copies of Just 17 with an AK-47, we may not all believe in the same god but at least we didn't sext our dad by accident.