You know the feeling. You’re walking along and suddenly and unknowingly enter into the nearly invisible presence of a spiderweb. You’re startled. You did not see it ahead of you and even now can’t see it on you, but you can feel its stretchy fibers reaching across your skin. First you feel it on the side of your upper arm. You swipe your hand down the length of your arm only to find your other arm now involved. As you turn and twist to free yourself from it you then feel it on your neck and face, making you work more frantically to get it off of you. It seems the more quickly you wipe, pull, grab, and brush it away the more it continues to wrap and tangle itself around you. Pulling one part of it seems to attach it to other places, making your efforts to remove it feel futile for a little while. Then even after you finally free yourself from it you still continue to brush and wipe your hands across your body a bit longer because you’re convinced it is still there.
I walk through life constantly getting tangled in spiderwebs. I enter what feels like a simple and lighthearted moment and am fully present and engaged only to find myself quickly and unexpectedly neck deep in a thick tangled mess of spiderwebs. The simplest of things manages to attach itself to the darkest of places within me – linking, connecting, and attaching a very benign moment with something quite the opposite.
Recently I was involved in a conversation with some friends. They were talking about sibling dynamics and those influences in shaping their choices and direction through adolescence and early adulthood. I was actively engaged in this discussion, soaking in the similarities that existed between the stories shared from the three separate people I was with who each grew up with only one other sibling. After they shared their experiences attention was turned to me, and with genuine curiosity they wished to hear my perspective and experiences of growing up in a large family. I looked inside for answers to express authentically. Yet as I quickly sorted through how to respond I kept getting stuck. The genuine answer to the questions they were asking me could not be told without the inclusion of other things. All I could hear in my head were young voices inside screaming answers that did not belong in this setting and in the presence of these people. I couldn’t connect to an honest response without sharing more than what this lighthearted conversation was equipped to handle – and more than I was willing to divulge.
This is the complex aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. This example is just a snapshot of what I experience inside of me in one way or another nearly every single day. If healing from childhood trauma was simply a matter of acknowledging the past and moving forward in life I would have this handled by now. The problem is that nearly every day I encounter something that attaches itself to my past. It doesn’t have to be an obvious connection. Those are the ones I have learned to sometimes expect and more comfortably move through. It’s the little moments that seem so distant and detached from any linear connection to my experiences that seem to trip me up the most. I don’t expect them. I don’t recognize them in the moment. And yet I am immediately thrown into a gauntlet of internal reactions when they emerge. A simple conversation with friends about siblings…waiting for the results of my mom’s medical tests…noticing an area of thinning fabric on my cycling shorts…listening to my in laws share stories about my husband’s childhood friends…watching a movie that I thought was about music…sorting my daughter’s clothes in our laundry room…sitting in my therapist’s office before a long therapy break. These are just a few of the tiny moments that have grabbed hold of me in just the past couple of weeks. These are the moments that feel so incredibly innocent and separate when I enter them and yet somehow manage to get interwoven with the poisons from my past.
It’s like I’m playing a disturbing game of chutes and ladders. I’m trying to make my way through the ladders of healing without slipping down the chutes. I step carefully. I plan each move with intention. The unique catch with childhood sexual abuse is that the ladders I climb are linked by spiderwebs that keep me tethered to experiences and messages from my past. With each step I risk disturbing and awakening the web, which seems to be constantly shifting and adapting around me. And it’s always ready and waiting to catch me. Falling into the web brings the past and present together. It means the current moment and what was awakened from the past become indistinguishable, and my ability to reach for the ladder is diminished as I feel increasingly bound by the messages and connections that ensnare me.
How do I stop getting caught in the spiderwebs? How do I take steps forward without awakening and igniting the past? Is it realistic to think I can ever achieve freedom from these moments – freedom from this web? If I can someday learn to make new connections and weave new fibers into this web then perhaps my footing would feel more stable and secure. Perhaps for now the best way to help myself is not to frantically avoid, brush, and swipe the spiderwebs away. Maybe in these moments I can try to slow down and simply acknowledge that they are there for a reason. Maybe I can aim to become less afraid of the spiderwebs and instead begin to learn from them.
“I couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now” – Shrike by Hozier
These song lyrics are a reminder of why I venture into the painful work of healing from childhood trauma. They are my reminder that my own voice can help connect to and heal the wounded child within me from the prison of silence, pain, and shame she was left trapped in. They are my reminder that while her voice was taken from her, my voice can help set her free.
One day at school, he pulled me out of math class. He was angry with me about something – I don’t remember what. He was often angry with me – for talking to kids he didn’t approve of – for not being focused enough, dedicated enough, or just not being enough of whatever he wanted me to be for him. He was my coach, and he was my abuser. I remember that day clearly, standing in the empty inner hallway of my high school and taking his quiet verbal beating while the rest of the kids that weren’t secretly raped by their coach sat at desks in classrooms throughout the building. After several minutes passed my math teacher, Mr. B, opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. He asked if everything was okay, but when he asked it felt as though he was looking with genuine concern directly at me. He wasn’t asking if we were okay. He was asking if I was okay. It felt as if I was nearly seen for the very first time. A lifeline was standing right in front of me in the form of my math teacher. I stood there and looked back at him, hoping my eyes could tell him what my voice could not say. I stood there screaming on the inside for help, but I was so full of confusion, pain, and shame that I didn’t even know what I needed help for. My abuser stepped in so quickly with a lighthearted comment and a pat on my back, sending me back into the classroom. He spoke for me that day – just like every other day. He taught me that I didn’t have a voice. The words that needed to be spoken could not come out of my mouth. Trapped in silence, my body followed the commands they were given. I walked back into my classroom, sat down at my desk, and resumed my best attempts at performing as a normal student – a normal kid, even though there was nothing normal about what was happening to me. Although Mr. B could not save me that day, he was the closest thing I ever felt to being rescued.
I think this young part of me is still longing for a Mr. B to truly see her – to rescue her. If she is able to make her shaky voice heard will help step towards her, or will it turn its back on her? She may not yet trust that I wish to help her – that’s fair as I don’t always trust myself with this task. Yet the one thing I am certain of at this point in my life is that I won’t let her feel silenced anymore. While she still feels trapped and unable to whisper, I will keep trying like hell to sing like a bird until I can set her free.
We all have memories tied to different sensory experiences. The sight, sound, or smell of something can take us on a ride back to a memory that left a lasting impression. This is a gift when we are reminded of a loved one or of an experience we wish to treasure in our heart forever. Yet it is a curse when these experiences are attached to memories we wish to forget. In these moments we are swept up from safety and thrown back into the grip of despair – all in response to a simple benign sensory experience that enters our awareness.
In my teen years I was routinely sexually abused by my high school coach. The vast majority of these experiences of abuse occurred in his car. It was through his calculating planning of offering me a ride home from practice that he found opportunities to hurt me. He regularly found new secluded places to park his car away from the eyes of bystanders in order to take what he wanted from me. To this day, the sight of a car parked discretely away from others or with the windows blocked in some way elicits a strong feeling within me. When I first started acknowledging and speaking about my abuse these responses overwhelmed me. I could feel my heart pounding and this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that held this toxic concoction of fear, pain, disgust, and shame. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings so I would quietly hold and stuff the panic deep down inside of me. With the help of therapy I have since then learned to safely process and move through these experiences more effectively. Now when I see a parked car that triggers this nervous or panicky feeling I can both acknowledge the triggered parts of me and keep myself grounded in the safety of the present. Quietly to myself I can say words like, “of course that is scary to see”, followed by words like, “but it is just a car and you are safe now.” I don’t know that I will ever be free of these triggering moments, but by learning to safely move through them I can keep myself from being entirely swept away into the horrors of the past.
Recently, while working with my therapist, I have noticed a desire to physically “get small” when difficult feelings arise inside of me. At first this felt like a very natural, comforting, and self protective response for me – to tuck my legs in close and wrap my arms around them squeezing my body into the smallest space it can occupy. I have been expressing myself this way through art for as long as I can remember. It feels like home.
Yet in my therapist’s office, each time I allow my body to move into this position it desires, I feel an immediate sensation of relief and comfort followed by a barrage of memories of where the need for this position first emerged. These memories contain moments immediately after being abused when I would curl up my naked body and weep. So here I am in the present day trying to provide physical comfort to my body in the safe presence of my therapist, but the position I default to is one attached to trauma. It’s no wonder I can’t seem to stay present once I allow myself to move into this curled up position. I am instead swept away to a time of complete powerlessness.
Much like I learned how to safely respond to the sight of parked cars, I need to learn how to offer my body a new feeling of physical comfort. I need to learn to identify when my body wants to get small and begin to learn from it. What am I feeling inside that signals this need? Why does it feel that need right now? How else can I soothe this ache from within? Perhaps through careful curiosity I will uncover new ways to help my body feel safe today.
How do we show up for someone in a way that provides genuine support? How do we speak to someone who is hurting to provide reassurance that they are not alone? Our careful attention to the words selected in these moments can often directly impact the efficacy of our desired intervention. If we wish to wrap a blanket of support around another person then it is important to tune into the difference between what feels comforting and what feels distressing to that person. It requires us to listen to the needs of another. It requires us to recognize that what one person may find supportive could be received in an entirely different way by someone else. But what happens when the carefully chosen words themselves carry their own conflicting messages? How is a person supposed to absorb a well intended message that immediately attaches itself to a tangled mess of ambivalent feelings?
Early in my healing journey, with the guidance of my therapist, I was directed to various books to help me understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse. The words in these books allowed my adult brain to make connections and gain an understanding of what really happened when I was young. These lessons helped to rewire the faulty messages that were imposed upon my traumatized adolescent brain. Gaining an understanding of the stages of abuse, the behaviors of pedophiles, and the lasting and numerous impacts of these experiences allowed my brain to slowly begin to erase the message that what happened to me was entirely my fault and my choice and replace it with the acceptance of the term sexual abuse to describe my experiences. This process took quite some time, but making these connections and repairs in my adult brain provided me with the necessary foundation to begin to dig deeper into my healing work.
A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I began to connect with other survivors. The validating support that comes from the collective “me too” of trauma survivors is an immensely helpful component of healing. I first experienced this in a group therapy setting for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There I sat in a room with women who carried vastly different stories and experiences of abuse, and yet a common thread emerged again and again as we shared the impact of our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter how old we were when our abuse took place, the role our abuser held in our lives, or even how many instances of abuse we remembered. The heavy weight of lasting internal impacts and distorted views about ourselves and the world around us became common ground within this room of strangers. The more I allowed myself to share about what I could only describe as my own unique brand of crazy going on inside of me, the more I felt this comforting validation and reciprocation through healing connection. This experience reinforced the message that my adult brain was learning to accept. I am not alone.
Recently I have directed my healing to focus on working to build a connection with my internal wounded parts. I have come to understand that no matter how much my adult brain can rationally understand the dynamics of abuse, my inner child holds memories attached to feelings that impact the way I still function today. I cannot reason my way around these default responses no matter how hard I try. It requires a deeper understanding and connection. Through this work I am beginning to feel how my adult brain can receive and process messages differently from these internal parts. The same messages that have helped my adult self make healing progress are not received the same way by my wounded inner child. When my adult self hears that my fears, feelings, and experiences are common in survivors of abuse and I can lean on the words of survivors or experts printed in books to reinforce the concept that I am not alone, I am filled with the validation and hope that there is a way through and out of my pain. It makes me want to dig in and follow the research to guide me forward towards healing. But a strange thing happens when my inner child hears the same messages. She latches onto words like “common”, “typical”, and “expected” and instead of feeling validated and empowered she feels diminished. It feels like she is being told that her wounds are common and expected. It feels to her that all of the painful and specific details that she relives over and over inside do not matter. Instead she feels that she is being told to go stand in line and follow the provided script with all of the other injured kids who are just like her. Her experiences matter no more than the sea of faces she’s been lumped in with. Those words do not help her. To her those words feel dismissive and minimizing, and they connect directly to the messages that kept her silently suffering in the past. Instead she needs words that scoop her up out of the murky darkness, dust her off, and wrap her in comfort and security while looking deeply into her eyes and showing her that she is seen and heard and that all of her unique experiences matter.
How do I give this wounded child within all that she needs? How can I extract the messages necessary for my adult self to continue healing while also tending to the child parts that seem to require something entirely different? How can I decide which part of me is supposed to absorb each message that I receive to ensure that they provide help instead of harm?
You cross your legs and clear your throat. It’s time to show yourself. You shift in your seat. You swallow the trembles and carefully breathe in your surroundings. You sift and sort and try to decide which voice that you should share – internally fumbling around your rickety rolodex of parts and struggles that is busting at the seams. You try to summon the nerve to invite the quietest parts forward – the ones that beg most for your attention. You reach inside with careful intention and cautiously send out your invitation. You hear their reply and offer your hand to the young one that hides beneath a hood, afraid of the sound of her own voice. You tell her it is safe here – a word she does not fully understand. Then you ask her to creep forward and make herself carefully and comfortably seen, shifting and curling her body into the seat. You calmly urge her to find a position that feels comforting and safe for her, patiently reassuring her need for self protection. You feel her slowly calming inside of your jittery body, finding safety in the room – the voice that tends to her – the atmosphere that invites her – the soft chair that holds her. She removes her boots and tucks her legs carefully underneath her jacket that she drapes over herself, adjusting it as a shield and holding it closely up against her face. In this position you can feel her breathe slightly deeper than before. She feels as present as she knows how. Then you proceed to attempt to learn from her. She cautiously shares from behind the safety of her shield, offering as much as she can bravely reveal in that moment.
When the time comes for you to exit you look down at the floor beneath you at the sight of the boots you earlier removed from your feet, and you find yourself suddenly stuck. Instantly you feel drenched in a feeling so painfully familiar. Pushing that feeling aside, you place one foot at a time back into your boots, focusing on the simple task of tying your laces. You push down the heavy noise that is screaming at you and just follow the movements you have performed every day since you were a small child – looping, swooping, and pulling your laces into place. You don’t know what this wave of weight is that is trying to overtake you in this moment. You don’t want to know. You don’t want to recognize that it is shame. You don’t want to open your eyes to the disgust you suddenly feel. You don’t want to acknowledge that this weight is so powerful that it carries this hooded girl right back to its place of origin. In that moment as she looked down at those boots she was instantly swept away – to a place where shame was her companion as she gathered up her clothes and pulled them back onto her battered body after being abused. After softening into the safety of her surroundings in that chair and slowly allowing her quiet shaky voice to be heard, the simple sight of her boots on the floor was all it took to abruptly steal that safe moment away. In that instant danger swept in and the safe confines of her therapy room linked itself together with a place of terror, pain, confusion, and betrayal. In that instant she felt tricked. She felt dirty. She felt used. Shame envelopes her like a heavy blanket that she carries away from this place. Later in solitude she unknowingly coils up and sinks deeper. This is the place she feels that she belongs. A place so dark and lonely that it claws at her soul to forever stay.
When you finally begin to identify that this internal struggle is occurring, you feel powerless to change it. After all, shame has been your loyal companion for all these years. What makes you think you can change it now? Don’t you deserve all that it lays upon you? With each passing moment more of you gets swallowed by its messages, making it harder and harder for you to identify where it ends and you begin. Then in a quiet moment you make a choice. You begin to wrap words around your experiences, shining a light on this darkness inside of you. Your words link together, gaining strength as you find them. You begin to realize that your own voice may be the answer to set this young girl free from the prison of shame that she is trapped in. Perhaps if you can name this moment – speak it out loud – send your words out into the world – you can free this young one from its grip.
They filled your mind with promises An array of enticing colors Leading you up a perilous climb Achieving their desired seclusion
They lined your path with shackles Disguised as your own choices Led to a room with no exits, teetering On a place demanding submission
Close enough to rescue that its light Shines like a beacon upon you Yet others cannot see what they do not wish to see Leaving you doused in invisibility
They handed you poison dressed up as a toy An undetectable trap It feels heavy in your arms Yet you dismiss its discomfort Just as you were instructed
You were chosen You were special You stood out to them in some way
You hold their secrets Quiet and steady Not letting them see How it makes you tremble
You were never meant to understand The position they put you in Blind obedience is the Tower they constructed In the labyrinth you now reside
This weight placed upon you Was never your choice Its ensnaring complexity Contrived specifically for you To lure you in and then slowly break You into scattered pieces
I see your pain tucked in deep beneath your Outward strength and courage Far from their grip you stand frozen in time Afraid to step down and see The sight of your suffering Might carry its own weight somehow worse than living in it
How can you know that it is safer below Than the misery you are wrapped in How can I ask more from you Than what you have already given
I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.
As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.
I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.
Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?