Once upon a time, my embarrassment threshold was incredibly low. Everything was a potentially embarrassing moment.
Toilet paper stuck to my shoe? Oh my god, how horrifying.
Mother discussing my breast development with a friend? Agonizing embarrassment.
Stinking up the office washroom? Death by embarrassment.
Having something stuck in my teeth in public? Scarring embarrassment.
Someone posting an unflattering photo of me on Facebook? Lifelong embarrassment.
First kisses, pap tests, my rear-end in a bathing suit, a stray nose hair, walking in late to university classes, public speaking, tripping… oh god, so many ways to be mortified in public.
I don’t really get embarrassed now. Funny how one truly mortifying experience can cure a person of that, isn’t it? Here’s my story.
The Burning Truth
In 1995 I was entering my first year at university. I was living in a residence that was in a really old building (and apparently housed ghosts of orphans and elderly folks). It was packed with ~40 first-year university students who, for the most part, spent their time “studying” (read: smoking weed and learning exactly how much alcohol they could ingest before passing out in a pool of their own vomit). I was drunk with freedom, having lived at home with fairly strict parents my whole life. I was excited to be on my own, making my own rules, with all these brilliant students.
I was also nearing the end of a particularly typical high school romance. I had dated a boy who was controlling, romantic, insecure, bossy and, as it turned out, also a very skilled stalker. He was a prolific writer of delightfully cheesy love letters and I had brought them all with me to school. I had photos along with his letters from the past two-and-a-half years packed into a large shoe box in case I felt particularly lonely one night, in between his uninvited visits to spy on me.
One day, my friend and I decided that now that I’d broken up with this guy, it was time to purge my life of all these memories. So of course, instead of dumping them in the garbage, a fitting end would be to burn them all. And of course, the bath tub in our res room was the best place to do this. It would be safe, with water nearby to douse the flames. Smart, right?
We started the fire by dramatically lighting a picture from my prom… we watched his face melt and distort; we were giggling maniacally. A letter was next, then another photo. Ohhh, how great it felt! He’d be so upset, knowing we were destroying all his hard work! I would finally be free of him! I’d be the phoenix, rising from the ashes of this ridiculous relationship!
Over and over, we lit his cheesy words on fire and watched them burn. We watched photos of a soured romance shrivel and contort, succumbing to the flames. This was what university was all about, right? Taking control of our lives, becoming who we wanted to be by shedding all that kept us down. Growing up! (Haaaaaaaaa.)
In a matter of minutes, the smoke from my disintegrated relationship set off the house alarms. It would be ok, we’d just run down and let the house don know everything was fine, right? What we didn’t realize was that the smoke detectors in our house were also linked directly to the local Fire Department. Momentarily, an enormous pumper truck and two smaller fire trucks arrived, lights flashing and sirens wailing on our street… in the middle of our campus housed in the middle of a quiet neighbourhood… where hundreds of other students lived, amongst the community.
My friend and I stared at one another as we heard our house-mates loudly chattering and escaping what they thought was a burning house. We could hear them running heavily down the stairs, the sirens outside and people yelling, “GET OUT! STAY CALM!”
By the time my friend and I sheepishly exited the building, the fire brigade had identified that there was no life-threatening blaze. A crowd of more than 200 students and neighbours simultaneously slow-clapped as my friend and I, heads down, walked through the crowd next to a firefighter who then had to lecture us on how serious a mistake we’d made. The crowd parted like waves for Moses as she and I were ushered through.
Whispers of what had really happened trickled through, person-by-person; snickers and giggles, mouths covered as the truth of what we’d been doing in that bathroom spread across the congregation.
Though there was no real repercussion from that event, I can tell you that the embarrassment was far worse than anything they could have charged us with.
And now, every time I feel a little embarrassed about something, I remember the that day, and recall the destruction of my ego, and the sensation of it withering and burning up in the heat of true embarrassment.