Releasing the Balloon

When I was a child I remember the simple fun of blowing up a balloon and then releasing it into the air to playfully watch it race all around in different directions as it made its erratic path to the ground. It was fast and unpredictable as it jumped, bolted, and zipped around me. I’d chase after the balloon as it quickly changed directions, unable to catch it on its unpredictable course. Once it landed on the ground I’d scoop it up and send it off flying again and again.

This childhood memory came to me late last night while lying in bed, flooded with thoughts from a counseling session I had earlier in the evening. I found myself in that moment strangely relating to that balloon. During my counseling sessions it often feels as though I am carefully stretching my inner limits much like a balloon – pushing, searching, and expanding myself towards deeper understanding and healing. There are injured parts of myself that I really struggle to connect with so it often feels like a bit of a tug of war, trying to stretch and compassionately connect with the various injured and protective parts that live deep within me. Each session is a dance – stretching and breathing air and life into one part and then feeling resistance and backing away from another part. Back and forth, expanding and retracting, stretching and retreating, always wishing to seek, understand, and further heal without breaking the balloon.

When this carefully guided therapeutic dance comes to an end I often find myself feeling flooded and exposed. Just like that inflated balloon being released into the air, I feel myself jumping from thought to thought, memories and emotions zipping around inside of me. I have learned to recognize this feeling enough to know that I can not simply switch gears after a counseling session and get behind the wheel of my car and carry on back into the world. Instead I often need to take a walk to try to let the injured parts that feel as though they are dangling out of me, half exposed and half processed, have the space to tell me more and to settle slightly before I have to pack them back up again. Sometimes this walk helps. Other times it isn’t enough.

Last night I found myself at home after my session surrounded by family, smiles, and conversation. I was with them. I was engaging – as best I could. But the feelings inside of me were still zipping uncontrollably all around and leading me increasingly drained and crashing towards the ground. I held on tight, trying to control and direct how I was feeling. This false sense of composure lasted for a little while. Then I felt my body give way to the emotional ride, and I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. I excused myself after dinner and, without anger or judgment, I curled my depleted body up under a blanket to allow myself to fully unravel, release, and recover. I gave myself permission to let go – to allow the painfully erratic balloon to follow its own uncertain path.

As much as I dislike this feeling, this wild ride of post counseling emotions, I have come to learn a very important lesson. I think the uncomfortable unraveled exposure I experience at the end of a counseling session is the birthplace of healing progress. It is often that feeling that leads to deeper self reflection, awareness, and connection. Instead of tensing, bracing, and trying to dominate this unpleasant feeling, I want to curiously soften into it. I want to learn from it. If I can meet myself in these moments with open curiosity instead of the tempting guarded control that has for so long been my defensive posture, then I can inch my way forward towards building a healing connection with my injured inner parts.

The journey towards healing is clearly not linear. Sometimes it is slow and steady. It can present surges as well as setbacks. Other times it is a wild ride of a free flying and unpredictably racing balloon. The key for me is not only learning when to hang on and when to let go, but also learning that no matter the momentum or direction, I need to learn to keep my eyes and heart wide open throughout the process.

Message to My Anger

We have a complicated relationship, but overall I like you. You provide me with a strong facade when the world feels threatening. You help me armor up and face challenges that I don’t often feel strong enough to address on my own. You cover up all of the parts of me that wither in the face of adversity. You help to hide the parts of me that were broken long ago. You have stepped in to protect those parts from further harm. For that I thank you.

You represent the strength and fortitude I wish to always possess. You don’t hesitate. You don’t second guess. You rise up strong and fiercely determined – an impenetrable force to combat both my external and internal perceived threats. You come prepared for battle and do not back down. I am grateful for all of the times you have shielded me from pain.

Please hear me when I say this – I need your strength – I need your presence. But I also need you to share the weight of your responsibilities. You carry a heavy burden all alone. It’s time we find a way to help alleviate that load. I need to help give a voice to all of the other parts of me – the scared, injured, muted parts that are still bleeding on the inside. Can you help to make space for them to step forward? Can you offer them the guided support to speak up? Can you use your fiery strength to help light the way forward for those buried inside? Those parts are equally essential for our healing. They can help guide us to create new pathways towards a stronger healthier connection within our self as well as with others. As shattered pieces of the same soul we can use our strengths and the lessons we’ve learned to find a way to collaboratively come together in order to heal as one.

Uprooted

Imagine yourself purchasing a plant and bringing it home to be added to your garden. You find the perfect spot. You dig an appropriate sized hole. You even purchase nutrient rich soil to assist in the healthy transfer of your plant to your garden. Then you remove the plant from its container, its tangled roots all tightly wound together. You loosen them slightly and then just as you are ready to place your plant into its new freshly prepared home you instead set it down right beside the hole. How long would your plant survive there, uprooted from its container, lacking nutrients and support, and lying with its healthy moisture rich roots exposed to the sunlight?

I moved to a new state last year, and then I moved to a new community within that state just months before this pandemic tore through our world. The amount of time that lapsed between my family’s move and the upheaval of this pandemic was not nearly enough to feel settled and connected here. Yet the growing disconnection from my previous home was set in motion. I have found myself stuck in limbo – removed from the comfort, connection, and stability of my previous home and simultaneously unable to connect in my new environment.

I am an introvert. My introverted response to the initial guidelines of social distancing almost felt like a gift. Stay away from other humans – check. Stay home if possible – check. I felt I was made for quarantine. Yet even at the beginning of this life altering pandemic I still recognized that while I welcomed the ease of retreating inward this was going to be very harmful for me over time.

It takes me quite a while to open up and connect with others. A history of childhood trauma, combined with a family upbringing of emotional unavailability, as well as my shy introverted personality creates a recipe for my tendency to distrust and keep people at a safe distance. I didn’t allow for deep personal connection in my life. It wasn’t until I began addressing my childhood trauma several years ago that I realized how important close honest relationships are and how critical they are in healing. I began to pay close attention to that and focused on cultivating more meaningful connections in my life. I started showing up in relationship like I never had before. I started connecting on a deeper level that I had never experienced before. It was life changing and soul fulfilling.

Then I moved – away from all of those deep interpersonal connections that I had learned to trust and depend on. I was painfully aware that this move felt different from all of the previous moves I have ventured into in my adult life. I knew that the long length of time that I had spent in my previous community, along with the fact that it was the only home my two children had ever known, layered with the knowledge that I built connections there like I had never done before placed a particularly heavy burden on this move. I knew it was really going to hurt. And it did.

For the first several weeks I focused intently on helping my children settle into new schools and new activities. After the initial stress and excitement of assisting my family in the adjustment of a new community began to wear off, I noticed that a space was created for my own grief. My husband was off adjusting to a new job. My kids were off adapting to new schools. And I was alone with my thoughts each day. I tried to busy myself with projects, volunteering, house hunting, and searching for part time work options. Yet nothing could stop the flood that was coming. Depression. I felt myself withdrawing from everything I cared about. I felt myself putting on this strong capable mask for others and then crumbling to pieces each time I was alone. In an attempt to care for myself I started individual therapy, which both created a life line for myself and also highlighted the sadness I felt from missing the incredibly impactful therapist I had moved away from.

One foot in front of the other. One day at a time. I slowly started to experience brief moments of improvement. My kids were beginning to feel settled. I was starting to get involved in my new community and meeting new people. We found a home to purchase after a lengthy stay in our temporary apartment situation. We finally got to fully unpack our lives and begin to settle into our new home.

And then a pandemic changed everything. Suddenly the very slow progress of meeting new people and beginning to build connections was shut down. I hadn’t yet built the kind of friendships that were equipped to handle this forced disconnection. My new surface friendships felt severed.

Now, as the world begins to slowly reopen and navigate what is to become our new normal, I feel vacant. What am I supposed to return to? I don’t have anyone to rush towards. Instead I am reminded of just how alone I feel and just how far away the ones closest to me feel right now. I feel as though I’ve been uprooted from healing connection and placed into an indefinite holding pattern. How long can one tolerate such a disconnect? How long can one sustain without a viable path towards rebuilding relationship? I ask myself these questions while I continue to sit in limbo, experiencing profound disconnection from others both near and far, all while struggling to resist the urge to retreat further and further within myself.

Edge of Darkness

She speaks to me in dreams. She comes to me in waves of panic. She visits me without warning. I struggle to openly receive her messages without feeling flooded and retreating away from her. I wonder how I can learn from her without getting lost and overwhelmed by all she needs to share with me. How can I choose to carefully and safely venture into her pain? I begin to think that perhaps I need to stop bracing and shielding myself from her sudden incoming messages and instead find a way to compassionately build a bridge towards her. Perhaps if I could be curious and brave enough to approach her – to visit where she lives – that we could learn to soften our approach with one another.

Where does this child inside of me live? What does she experience? What can I learn from spending time with her where she resides?

I sit with these questions and begin to search within myself and ask her if she might invite me in. I ask her to help me understand – to help me see all that she needs to show me. My initial requests are met with nothing – silence. I keep trying. With each failed attempt I begin to ask more questions.

Why does she feel so far away from me?
Will she not let me find her or is it that I am too scared and unwilling to see her?

I take breaks from my asking and searching with the hope that a fresh mind will bring clarity another day. Then I try again and again and again – each day coming up empty. Then one night while lying in bed, without conscious thought or awareness, I receive her answer. She tells me that she lives where she’s always been – in the place I created long ago.

Immediately an image appears in my mind. I know exactly where she is. When I was in high school I was assigned a self portrait project in my art class. Of all of the countless ways to best represent oneself, my wounded 17 year old self related most accurately to this self representation – desperate, terrified, and gripping helplessly onto the edge of darkness – looking up for light, life, any sign of hope. The fear in her eyes shows that help is not coming.

The child inside of me lives exactly where I painted her years ago in the midst of her suffering. She’s still there. She’s still hanging onto that ledge desperate for help.

I have shamefully hidden from this place that she resides for so long – denying its existence – denying her truth. I have lacked the understanding, strength, and courage to face her. I have felt too scared to look over the edge into her desperate eyes. In my bravest moments I have tried to reach for her and attempt to help her. But she cannot be convinced to let go of the ledge and reach for my hand. She doesn’t trust my hand to save her. I don’t blame her for that. My hand is the same one that has tried to pry her fingers from that ledge many times before to make her disappear – to make it all disappear. How can she know that it is safe to trust me now? And how do I know if I can be trusted? What if I try to reach for her and fail? What if I’m not strong enough to carry the weight of her hurt? What if my efforts to save her lead us both to a life ending fall?

Maybe my challenge is not to pull her out. Maybe instead of trying to lean over her and help her out of her darkness I need to climb down there with her – to listen to her – to really see her. Maybe we’re supposed to find our way out together.

I want to be strong for her. I want to courageously enter that endless shaft and join in close beside her feeling confident in our ability to navigate our way out. But the truth is that I’m scared. I’m afraid of failing her. I’m afraid of failing us – again.

The Butterfly Effect

Perhaps you have heard of the term or have seen the movie. The butterfly effect is the idea that even the smallest of incidents can have a dramatic impact on a future event. More specifically the name comes from the analogy that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado in another part of the world. Aside from watching the movie years ago this is not a concept I have ever given any thought to, but the name came to my mind when reflecting about a small moment that occurred in my kitchen just the other day.

I had just gathered our mail from the mailbox and was sorting through it on my kitchen counter when I came across a letter addressed to my eleven year old daughter. It was a letter from her 6th grade social studies teacher. I paused when I read his name on the return address label. I felt a very uncomfortable feeling start to rise inside of me simply holding this letter in my hand. I attempted to dismiss those feelings by rationalizing why this letter would exist. It is the end of the school year and my daughter had given this teacher a small gift and handwritten card. This was undoubtedly a thank you note. I swallowed my discomfort and called to my daughter to let her know that she received a letter in the mail. When she yelled back, asking who it was from, I answered. My answer prompted a sudden jolt up from whatever she was doing in our family room into an excited trot to meet me in the kitchen. I noticed her excitement and again felt the uncomfortable feeling rise. I tried to dismiss it again and handed the letter to her, paying close attention to every detail in this moment. She quickly tore open the letter and with a very upright and eager posture she read each word to herself, wide eyed and with a slight smile. When she finished reading I took a breath and asked her if I could read it too. Her hesitation followed by an uncomfortable no sent alarms blazing inside of me. Still trying to discretely silence those alarms and press her slightly, I continued. When she answered that she didn’t want to share the letter because it felt too personal, I struggled to contain myself. However, my everyday attempts to not burden my kids with the aftermath of my own past trauma kept me outwardly composed. With a curious tone I explained that a thank you note from her teacher for an end of year gift that I purchased shouldn’t be anything to keep from me. She indicated that it felt more personal than a regular thank you and continued to hold the note close to her.

How can I respond in this moment? What am I supposed to say? My insides were screaming, “That’s how it started! That’s how it started!”
What am I supposed to do?

I was 14 years old when my abuser entered my life. He was my high school coach. I developed a growing connection and looked up to him throughout my first year on the team. I was unaware of all of his subtle grooming tactics designed to gain my trust and slowly entrap me. The summer after my freshman year on the team, just a few months before he sexually abused me for the first time, I received a letter from him. I remember my nervous excitement when I received that first letter. This man that I admired and whose approval and attention I craved, was opening a line of communication that transcended our coach/athlete relationship. It made my adolescent heart feel special. The letters continued back and forth that summer, progressing from strictly sharing training details, to then more playful, personal, and connecting dialogue. By the time summer ended and our team reconnected for our first fall practice, I could sense a difference in the way he looked at me. Looking back now I understand what that difference was. He knew his grooming of me over the previous year had been successful and now he could move onto the stage that he had been carefully preparing and waiting for. That point in time marked the beginning of over three years of very regular and intensely traumatizing sexual abuse.

Standing in my kitchen with my daughter clutching this note from a male teacher against her chest was all I needed to be taken on this violent ride of terror. In the seconds it took me to respond I felt every emotion from the nervous excitement of receiving the first letters from my coach to the visceral fears and aversion to touch that my body still carries twenty five years after all that he did to me. I had to somehow swallow all of that down and respond to my innocent daughter standing before me. Without an ounce of calm inside of me, I conjured up calm and responded with a polite request for her to share this note with me. After a brief hesitation she complied and handed it over. I read through it, outwardly projecting a composed caring presence, while inwardly frantically teasing apart everything from the stationary he selected, the length of the note, the handwriting, down to every single word and punctuation choice.

I hated this note and everything about it. I hated this man for violating our safe space and reaching into our home to connect with my daughter. I hated every male teacher she has had and will ever have for bringing on this unbearable worry. I hated the man who abused me for causing all of these extreme reactions I feel every day as a mom. I hated that the hurt he caused decades ago still has the power to hurt me now.

I feel no greater responsibility in my life than to protect the little ones I’ve brought onto this earth from the horrors that were inflicted upon me. I feel this weight with every breath I take. It is exhausting to be on high alert at every moment. It is crushing to feel pulled into the violent ride of terror that this small moment caused.

This little envelope that arrived in the mail and contained no more than a thoughtful and well articulated message of gratitude was the butterfly, and all of this unrelenting torment unleashed inside of me as a result. This is not a new experience for me. This is just one day – just one example of how the smallest moments can trigger the greatest storms inside my wounded soul.

When Dreams Speak

I wake up in a puddle of your 

never acknowledged tears.

I hear your desperate calling

reaching out from inside my dreams.

Your screams feel so familiar

a song of sadness that lives in my soul.

It places a weight upon my chest, fighting 

mightily against my need for breath.

Slowly I bring my dripping self down

from this sudden impending doom.

Then I look inside for answers

coming up empty and confused.

What prompted this sudden terror?

What is it I should know?

I can sense that this alarm is coming

straight from inside of you.

I feel its unbearable weight.

I sense its unfinished work.

Yet as I try to slow down and listen

your silence is all that I can hear.

What are you needing from me?

What do you wish to say?

Why do you wake me in terror

just to leave me rattled and unglued?

You were left alone and shattered

by those who took from you.

Left to gather scattered pieces 

of your stolen innocence. 

With no reprieve or guiding hand

in your suffering you constructed 

loyal soldiers for your defense.

They shielded you from your torment

offering numbing detachment and rage.

We lean onto these protective guards

years after they were required.

We fear asking them to step aside

might overwhelm our injured system.

Our guards provided safety, shelter

from your indescribable truth.

We learned to wield our broken pieces 

into weapons of self defense

lashing out in terror, keeping danger far away.

Yet those same jagged pieces

so difficult to handle

we turn them towards ourselves at times

harming even with our most careful intentions.

Can we try to stand together

without their self protective plan?

Can we sit with one another

and let our collective truth guide the way?

Can’t you see we are together broken 

shattered pieces from the same soul?

Our healing can only build from 

how each damaged portion is handled.

Together we can work

to safely gather and regroup

those broken pieces when shared between us 

won’t hurt the way they once did.

We can gather them together

in their fragmented disarray.

We can learn to lift them out of darkness

washing shame and self blame away.

We can strive to shine healing light through them

make those shattered pieces glow.

A kaleidoscope of healing color

can bring re-birth to our battered soul.

Don’t you see that I am with you?

Can’t you feel that I’m hurting too?

We can’t continue on wounding each other. 

Healing only comes when 

you see me and I see you.

Tangled in Hurt

Sometimes feelings come to me in images – images that I can draw or paint to express emotions that I cannot yet find words for. Through art I can bring emotions out from the depths inside of me and shine a light on them in whatever I have created. It is often in the midst of the process of drawing that the words slowly reveal themselves to me. It feels like my pencil becomes this tiny release valve that slowly lets my feelings escape with each stroke across the page.

I sketched this piece a few years ago while intensively engaged in therapeutic healing work. I remember what I was expressing. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed with all of the ways that my past abuse was impacting my current life. I remember feeling how painful that part of my healing process was – like trying to rip out the damaged parts of myself in a frantic fury. I remember pushing myself so hard towards healing that the healing process itself felt as though it was hurting me. It felt like the harder I fought to release myself from the tangled web of confusion, pain, and shame of my past, the tighter its growing grip entrapped me.

During this week I have felt a deep struggle rising up inside of me, stirring and awakening the hurt. This struggle has not yet inspired me to draw or to write. Instead it has urged me to dig up this drawing and just sit and look into it. Each day this week I find myself looking at this drawing, connecting more and more to it. It’s a different connection than how it felt several years ago, and yet it feels just as heavy. I feel myself looking into this drawing for direction. Maybe if I stare at it long enough I will find the answers I need to free myself. Maybe looking deeply into this piece will help me to shine a light on the parts of me that still beg for healing.

Simple Precious Moments

The concept of resourcing is very familiar to trauma survivors engaged in therapy. Resourcing is the means of finding and creating a state of relaxation in a hyper aroused nervous system. It is a calming communication with the brain. Resourcing draws one’s mind and body away from past dangers and into the safety of a memory, place, or person that elicits a calming response in the nervous system. As trauma survivors our brains were trained to be on guard in a hypervigilant state of self protection. To a survivor, relaxation itself can feel threatening. Resourcing becomes a challenging skill that requires attention and practice.

For me, resourcing has always involved my children. Holding and cuddling with them in the corner of our sectional couch is where I currently feel my most calm, relaxed, peaceful state. It is where my nervous system can take a necessary break – like coming up for fresh air after holding my breath under water.

I find myself looking towards and leaning on my children for healing comfort quite often. It is amazing to think about how much these two precious beings that depend and rely on me for comfort, safety, and care can also satisfy those exact needs in me.

I find myself, in the midst of the tumultuous feelings of uncertainty and worry that this pandemic has thrown into our daily lives, focusing and resourcing more on the simple moments of joy that my children offer. They have recently been enjoying our new tree swing that my husband built for them. As I sit and watch them play from our kitchen window I notice my breathing slow down and a sense of calm wash over me, allowing me to soak in these simple precious moments with each breath I take in.

An Anniversary of Sorts

Sunshower

Four years. Today marks four years since the man who sexually abused me was arrested based solely on my police report. Today marks the pivotal day where this man learned that he can no longer hurt me.

As a reminder of this day I have the lasting image of his mugshot in my mind. His beady tear-filled eyes – his short trimmed spiky hair – his sun damaged wrinkled skin revealing his aging face – a face that is tangled up with countless memories and experiences that I did not choose. However, the most striking detail of this image for me is not in his face but instead the orange jumpsuit that he was wearing. Seeing him in orange in that mugshot four years ago changed the way I viewed him.

In an instant he transformed from a manipulative, haunting, shame inducing abuser to one single redefining word – criminal.

I have often wondered what must have been going through his mind in that moment. In the moment of his arrest, standing before a camera in a police station in an orange jumpsuit, what was he feeling? Perhaps it was confusion. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps he twisted his pedophile mind into believing that this was injustice – that he was being wrongly accused. I like to think that he felt a taste of what I experienced for over twenty years – a shame so deeply penetrating that you simply want to retreat to a place inside of yourself and never be seen again.

I’ll never know what his thoughts were in that moment, but I will forever remember my own thoughts when I first saw this image. My thoughts were full of empowerment and determination. My thoughts were of healing validating strength. He was in that police station because I found the courage – I found my voice. I found the strength to rise up from the prison of shame he had placed me into two decades prior. My thoughts in that moment were a resounding affirmation that he can no longer hurt me. My thoughts were of strength and protection for the child that no one was able to save back then. My thoughts were of protecting the children who sat in his middle school classroom each day. My thoughts were with my own children who are my daily source of healing motivation.

While the months that followed this day four years ago produced more pain than healing, today I choose to hold onto the feeling of what this single day represents in my healing journey – the day I took my power back.

Finding Answers Within

I wish to be able to speak the unspeakable words that exist inside of me while also feeling and navigating my way through them. I wish to stop getting stuck in the parts of me that feel too vile for daylight – that parts that make me feel broken – the parts that when even partially spoken make it hard to look you in the eye. I wish that current struggles wouldn’t connect themselves to old hurts, attaching new experiences to past suffering and creating a tangled web of confusion and pain. It makes me feel everything all at once, and it is too much for me to sift and sort through and speak through at the same time. It is too heavy for me to do anything except to curl up in a ball inside myself and protect what is left of me.

I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to feel broken. I want to rip all of these parts out of me and shine light on them. I want to heal the wounds that exist deep inside of me, but I don’t even know what it is that is so broken. Where are the wounded pieces that need my attention? What do they need from me? Is it possible to reach a place where my past and present experiences can become fused together in a healthy way to allow me to move forward without this anchor of hurt that has been a part of me?

It seems the child inside of me may hold the key to finding these answers. At times, I can feel her creep out of hiding to speak to me – sometimes in whispers and other times in screams. She guides me with signals that beg my attention – a deep sinking feeling in my stomach around the safety of my children – an entire fired up nervous system response to a gentle touch on my back from my husband. It is in these moments that she speaks to me, offering me clues for where I need healing attention. So I get curious. I try to seek her out to better understand her messages. I wish to learn from her so that she and I can heal together. Yet, often times when I try to reach out and connect with her I feel her recoil and disappear back into hiding where she cannot be reached. I often wonder where she goes when I can’t find answers. Where does she hide when my connection to her feels lost? I need to somehow convince her that I cannot do this work without her. I need her to trust that I am here with her and for her. I need her help so we both can heal.