Living With Compartments

I sat at a table of mostly strangers. We were engaged in the kind of small talk that induces a moderate level of anxiety within me as an introvert with socially uncomfortable tendencies. But it was a welcoming and lighthearted get-together, and the connection that brought me there was strong enough to make me feel secure in this setting. I approached this gathering prepared to be introduced or identified as a sexual abuse survivor. While this was an unusual setting of disclosure for me, it felt okay as it was thoughtfully discussed beforehand with the close friend and fellow survivor that invited me to the table that day.

As the conversations moved from various topics I recognized a similarity between myself and one of these strangers. We both have children the same age. I offered up this common ground that we share, creating a brief moment of connection before the conversations continued. Then later this common ground resurfaced. It was discovered that not only do we have kids the same age, but they also go to the same school. And not only do they go to the same school, but her child has participated in a sport that I have coached there. In a matter of seconds it was revealed that I was her son’s coach a couple of years ago. Suddenly this person who was supposed to be a complete and total stranger to me became something different.

This revelation would hold little significance to me in most circumstances, but there was something uniquely different about this particular connection that day. I was in unfamiliar territory. I had offered up my title as a sexual abuse survivor in a setting where I didn’t expect to be connected to any other aspect of my life. And there I was facing a collision course of identities as both a youth sports coach and a survivor in one setting. Internal rattling ensued.

It took some time to unpack what this encounter meant to me and why it resulted in an uproar of internal disruption. After all, I rationally know that I am both a coach and a survivor. Those two identities can and do coexist. So what’s the big deal? The big deal for me is that my life is organized into compartments – separate and distinct compartments. Certain parts of my life do not intersect with other parts. This is by design. This is surely a result of a compartment that was painfully thrust upon me as a child. But my maintenance of these separate compartments has kept me alive and safely protected over the years.

I am very actively involved as a survivor in both my own individual and group healing work as well as through a passionate involvement in education and abuse prevention efforts in youth sports across the United States. This is a huge part of who I am. And yet this part exists separately from all other aspects of my life. The work I do and the amazing connections I have made within this community are treasured by me, and yet they are kept almost entirely disjointed from the rest of me.

This compartmentalization, for better or worse, is how I function. When a situation like this arises where two compartments that don’t operate together are suddenly thrust into interweaving light it causes two things to happen inside of me. First, there is panic. An automatic emergency response happens inside indicating danger and a need to fix, or change, or flee the situation. When I can eventually ride that feeling out (hopefully without succumbing to the panic) then a second feeling always follows. Self-judgement. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel the need to hide? The fact that these compartments still strongly exist for me today fills me with uneasiness and uncertainty about myself and my own healing. It makes me question how secure I can feel in my own story if I must keep these parts entirely separate. If I claim to own my story of childhood sexual abuse then why must I keep it separate from some other areas in my life? Doesn’t that mean I am still bound up in the same shame I have been working so hard to break free from? Doesn’t that mean I am much farther away from healing from all of this than I even imagined? Does that make true healing even remotely possible for me?

I think the answers to these questions have many layers. I unfortunately know first hand how much ignorance and cruelty exists in the world around the topic of childhood sexual abuse. I have heard comments with my own ears and have read statements with my own eyes that have placed the blame of what happened to me squarely upon my shoulders. And I know that no matter how strong and secure I can feel in the knowledge that what happened to me was not my fault or the result of some kind of brokenness or defect in me, the words of others still have a way of cutting into me in a deeply damaging way. This reality makes me hold my story close to me. It makes me very selective in who and in what settings I choose to share. I can never be certain that ignorance or cruelty will not interfere with my coaching positions, so I don’t advertise it there. This saddens the advocate in me as I believe I am a better and more equipped coach because of my experiences of abuse in sports. But I can never be certain that ignorance and cruelty wouldn’t find me in this role. And I can’t bear the thought of even one parent wrongfully expressing that my history makes me a potential unsafe person around their child. That kind of ignorance exists. And that kind of ignorance hurts too much. So I choose to keep these compartments separate. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it feels safer for me now.

The fact is, no matter how much work I do and no matter how secure I feel in my story, my story is still my own. It still hurts sometimes, and it can still cause hurt when it lands in the wrong hands. My healing progress should never be measured by a willingness to shout my story from the rooftops. It’s much more complex and personal than that. I get to be careful and selective in who I allow to see each compartment I carry. I get to decide, as Brene Brown has so powerfully described, who “has earned the right” to hear my story.

Sometimes I will mess up and share with the wrong people. I will have to learn from those moments, pick up the pieces, and carry on. And I will be okay. Other times, I may sit at a table and share with the right people, and it might make everything inside of me shake a whole lot. That doesn’t mean I messed up. It doesn’t mean it was wrong. It just means it is scary. And that’s okay too.

25 thoughts on “Living With Compartments

    1. Thank you so much for this comment. It’s incredible how comforting that reciprocation of shared feelings and experiences can be among survivors. Your comment is deeply felt. 💗💗

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Although our stories are different, I can relate in ways too. There are days when I feel that my healing journey has gone all the way back to the beginning and then there are days when I think, “I’ve processed that part now!” and that part returns again and again… It’s literally exhausting and I feel like a fraud most of the time- I’m sad about that feeling too. It’s all mixed up and difficult. I admire you so very much and I am grateful for you sharing. Your words touch me at my core Sara. Thank you ❤

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    1. Thank you for this, Michelle. It really is incredible to be able to relate to other survivors, no matter how different the details of our stories may be. Healing from childhood abuse is painful and lonely work. Being able to connect in these small ways helps to make that work feel a little less lonely. Thank you again for your kind and connecting comment. 💗💗

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  2. You are a success
    A thriver

    There will always be naysayers
    They will find something

    Look at our country and the divisiveness

    The lady who you coached her daughter

    She was in that same abuse group

    No way your compartment will be shared by her

    Think she may have same concerns about you

    Takes courage to do what your doing

    It does not make it easy

    And we do not know how things will turn out

    I struggle with being around people also

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Marty. After everything calmed down inside I was able to recognize that my information is safe with her. But the instant inner turmoil that erupted just speaks volumes to the impact of these moments that come up from time to time.
      I appreciate your thoughts and your support. It provides comfort to not feel alone in these experiences. 💗

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for this post. I use compartments too, to keep the stuff I can drown in away from the parts of my life I rely on to be secure.
    I recognised that sick squirming feeling of suddenly accidentally mixing compartments.

    I am a teacher (currently long term sick) and one of my biggest fears was accidentally finding that I had given this information to a parent at the school. While most parents would be decent and understanding, there’s always the fear of that one parent who would post about it on social media just to have something to say, shaming me and making my teaching position into a nightmare.
    You did well to cope with this. Good on you! ⭐

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing how you relate to this. All it takes is one person, comment, or post to turn everything upside down. That fear can be so paralyzing.
      I appreciate your thoughts and support. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really appreciate you writing about this. When youve experienced sexual abuse it’s so easy to feel completely alone in dealing with the fall out of all of that – so to read your post was very grounding and supportive. Thank-you!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. This comment means the world to me, Jo. 💗It is a hard and lonely struggle at times, but there is so much healing strength and power that comes from the connecting and validating support of other survivors. It fills my heart to know that my post was helpful for you. And you must know that your comments are healing fuel for me as well…a reminder that I am not alone in this. 💗

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Powerfully written and I’ve taken away so much from your experience that reminds me of some of my own, although in different settings. For instance the anxiety we feel about certain experiences or situations is usually caused from a wound that needs to be healed. A trauma that is stored within and that resurfaces in certain situations or triggers. It’s scary to think that we are not in control of it. That we are exposed and vulnerable for the world to take another stab at it. Haven’t we worked hard at keeping it hidden, including from ourselves. A stranger is far easier to warm up to and the pressure is far less. Now having been confronted with someone we share similarities, we have to uphold a certain perception. What will they think of us, will there be further judgement! I think you did great keeping your fear in check and to use it as a stepping stone in the future. Kudos. 🙏🏼💙

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. I agree. The anxiety around certain experiences like these definitely stems from a wound that needs healing. And while my healing work may never completely erase the anxiety I guess the goal for me is to make it much less crippling.
      Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate it. 💗

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It may never completely erase your experiences but the effect of it and what holds you in shackles will ease. You are doing important work and you are very brave. The rewards will follow. Keep going 🙏🏼💙

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I totally related to this compartmentalization. I always tried to keep my work life and personal life separate. I am a sexual abuse survivor and an art therapist in a psychiatric hospital. And now I lead groups through my church which incorporates art. The more I progress in my healing, the more compartmentalization seems to fade away.


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