500+ Miles In, Reflections on Shame, Stigma and Unconditional Love

500+ Miles In, Reflections on Shame, Stigma and Unconditional Love
May 17, 2018 Heather Starbuck

“I have struggled with being able to articulate exactly what it was that brought Matt into our hearts and tonight it hit me: he was a giver of unconditional love, and a protector. Of course we all say we know what unconditional love is but to truly feel it is something very different and that’s what Matt gave to every single one of his friends and family: unconditional, selfless love”.

– Suzy, Matt’s former boss and mentor

This post is a long time coming for me. As has probably been apparent, I’ve had a rough ten or so days setting me back in my pain and grief to ground zero it seemed. Through these days I utilized all my spare energy into simply surviving. One of the girls saw me mid-breakdown and reminded me that I only need to focus on the next 60 minutes, getting through the next hour, then I could focus on the hour after that, as I stepped through the day. As those of you who’ve survived a great loss know, grief is unpredictable and can send you into a whirlwind of emotional chaos for brief, or, as this last week proved, extended meltdowns. For that, I was unable to really focus on much else beyond breathing, hence the long break from my last post.

Through the turmoil, I reached out to my core support system, grasping at any wisdom or insight they could give me to pull me out of this black hole of pain and hopelessness. I truly have come to believe that Matt and whatever greater power we have out there in the universe is working in overdrive to bring individuals into my life who both relate and serve as a beautiful examples of people transforming their pain into love and hope for those around them.

One of such people was like an Aunt to me growing up, my best friend Katherine’s Aunt Shiela. When I first met Shiela I must have been about 7 years old. She was this striking, youthful, blonde woman who often resided with Katherine’s other Aunt and cousins. As an honorary Finnegan over the years, I’d see Shiela rather often whether at family gatherings or just her coming by for visits. I remember her always dressing in colorful, stylish clothing, laughing and exuding humor and light. To sum it up, in my young eyes, Shiela radiated. Both Katherine and I wanted to some day have that ease and comfort she carried, be like Shiela… the cool Aunt.

What I didn’t know at the time was that when Shiela was my age, her world shattered. At around 30, days after getting engaged, she lost the person she loved most in the world to a sudden accident, her partner, her future, her fiancée, her Bob. Upon hearing the news about Matt, Shiela was one of the first to reach out, and probably the only person able to actually break through and understand me in those extremely dark first weeks. There was something so knowing about everything she said, it all struck true and continues to do so today. She opened my eyes to the phenomenon that Matt truly was all around me, that I’m not alone and some force, whatever it may be, was somehow going to guide me through the volcanic landscape of my grief. I call her often at my most crisis moments, when I’m getting swallowed up in the murky quick sand of depression that can make you want to give up on living as a whole. From the start, she’s been candid and honest with me, affirming that yes this is going to be absolutely brutal, unyielding and horrific, but that if I try, in this emotional and vulnerable state I can learn so much about the truths of life and what actually matters. That really, through his loss, if we listen, Matt is teaching us infinitely valuable wisdom, more than all the self help, yoga retreats or life coaches money could buy.

Because in reality, Matt somehow knew the single most important thing in life. He knew how to unconditionally love. I can’t adequately describe what it was like to be cared for by Matt, but his boss and mentor, Suzy, captured it well in a message she sent me this weekend. “I have struggled with being able to articulate exactly what it was that brought Matt into our hearts and tonight it hit me: he was a giver of unconditional love, and a protector. Of course we all say we know what unconditional love is but to truly feel it is something very different and that’s what Matt gave to every single one of his friends and family: unconditional, selfless love”. It was his very nature that made so many of us around him feel whole, and loved and valuable. It may seem surprising that this hippy skater man could have a profound impact on everyone who walked through his world, but he did and I’ve come to realize through this loss it was because of how deeply and unshakenly he loved the people in his life. He made every one of our lives better.

That same weekend, Scissors had talked to her hometown friend who also tends to carry enlightened insights, somehow inline with when needed most. Scissors started talking to me about unconditional love and how her friend told her that we need to learn to give it not only to others but also to ourselves. Another serendipitous moment where I am trying to work through this giant tangle of thoughts, memories and questions when the answer lands in my lap from two completely different directions.

Unconditional love, it really is the most important thing. After having multiple hours long conversations these past few days regarding addiction in our lives, past and present, the common thread is people who know they are loved, unconditionally, will have a stronger support base for recovery and reaching out for help when needed. A young woman in recovery out here tells me again and again how essential it was that her family didn’t judge and shame her for her addiction, so she was comfortable and felt loved when she sought change and support from them to get clean. Both of us spoke to another local young woman from Damascus in a long term relationship with someone battling opioids. While we had no real answers, no road map for success, every person, relationship and addiction is so complex and individual, the best advice both of us could give from our personal stories was to make sure no matter what her partner knew he was loved and valuable. And equally important, was to be gentle and loving to herself as so much can be out of our specific control.

The latter is something so important I think. Matt was excruciatingly hard on himself over his past mistakes and any slips he had. He never learned to forgive the young, early twenties, naive Matt who got him on this road. While he wore his heart on his sleeve and made us all feel full, he didn’t actually gave himself that same unconditional love.

Certainly, there were people who Matt looked up to who themselves would never let Matt forget his past, but I think if Matt had been able to look beyond them and give himself a slice of what he gave everyone else, perhaps he could have healed some of the pain that he so desperately wanted to escape. But shame and addiction run hand in hand. Despite all the advocates trying to educate and correct people’s perspectives, many still reinforce the notion that addiction is a character flaw, rather than the disease it actually is.

I personally saw it in Matt’s life, particularly as we got more serious and started meeting each other’s extended circles. Sometimes people who I’d just met made sure to tell me, even in front of him, the ‘horror’ stories of his past. I’d always respond, thank you, Matt is very honest with me about his past struggles, but let’s talk about what he is doing now, how he is thriving and living this beautiful joyful life. I saw his career as a store manager belittled and referred to as a ‘stock boy’, our plans to buy a house scoffed at and followed up with condescending financial questions, and his stories of success disbelieved or even ignored. I can’t ever fully know how Matt felt, but these moments must have been like prison, where he felt trapped in the old life that he’d overcome, that try as he might, succeed as he had, the world and certain judgmental people in it were going to keep him behind those bars.

When others talk about the stigma associated with addiction and recovery these are the memories that haunt me. I’ve never seen any of my other friends or family members belittled and disbelieved when they tried to share their life like this. But because Matt had a history, that certain people viewed as shameful and irreversible, he faced this ridicule incessantly. It would break anyone, in fact it broke me and I even would cry to Matt that I didn’t understand how we’d ever be good enough. We were partners you see, so when people looked down on Matt and his life, I too felt the desperation and pain but had no idea where it was coming from. All I wanted was for him to be loved and respected, from everyone he cared about so deeply. With everything he’d overcome in his life, he of all people deserved it. Matt was a big feeler, the shame and rejection from others in his life rocked him at his core. While his mother, sisters and others in his family/friend circle told him how proud they were and how much they cared, Matt was still emotionally tormented by those who refused to give him acknowledgment, respect or love. It’s truly tragic, the very thing Matt was best at, making those around him feel valuable, was something Matt sought so hard in his own life but was far too often denied.

I hope that those touched by Matt, and those hearing his story, can all learn (or continue) to be a bit like Matt in this respect. There’s nothing more powerful than the unconditional love he bestowed on us, the world would be an infinitely better place if every single person learned how to give this like he did. I try to hold this lesson in my heart through these brutal days, the 8 month mark, picking out his mom’s flowers without him the first time, his birthday this Saturday, all remembering how Matt directed his inner pain to reach out to all of us and make our lives just a little bit brighter each day. It’s not easy, in fact it’s totally dismal sometimes, I’m indeed crying over my keyboard as write this, but it’s the only way we can turn something so awful into a more positive thing for the world, just as Matt did.

This Saturday, 5/19, marks Matt’s birthday. He would have turned 31 this year and in his honor and spirit we’d like to invite anyone moved by Matt and this story, those who’ve lost a loved one to addiction, those who are struggling with addiction and anyone who supports them to get out in the woods that day, climb a peak, tromp through a river or take an easy stroll, in honor of them and in honor of Matt on his 31st birthday. We encourage photos with the hashtag #hikforrecovery and #hikeformatt. Please see our event HERE and click attending, invite friends and join us Saturday to hike for recovery and hope across the US.

Thank you for all the continued support. Much love, Heather



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