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Take Me Away – #3

I recently started a creative project. I have a room in my house with empty walls, begging for artwork. After thoughtful consideration of a variety of ideas I decided to dedicate the walls of this room to scenic memorable places. I began sorting through photos of all of my favorite trips and places I have visited, making note of my top contenders. Then I decided to take this project one step further with my plan to now paint each of these places. Painting is very cathartic for me and has provided opportunities for expression in a way words cannot always capture. (See how artistic expression has been a part of my ongoing healing journey on my Art page). 

This painting took me away to Yosemite National Park in California. I have been there several times and have experienced its astounding beauty in various seasons. I have so many fond memories of hiking and exploring in Yosemite. This painting depicts the view of Half Dome, one of Yosemite’s iconic mountains, from the valley floor. On this particular trip, my husband and I soaked our weary legs in the icy cold waters of the Merced River after enjoying a long hike.

Yosemite holds memories of precious time with my husband and I as newlyweds as well as more recent adventures with our children. Each time I have visited I have been blessed with unique experiences and have marveled at the beauty of this place. I can only hope to someday return once again.

The Journey of Seven Rocks

A few years ago while on a trip visiting my family in my hometown I scheduled an afternoon to myself. Typically these trips are consumed with scheduled gatherings and events as I come from a large family that has grown and spread out and isn’t often able to reunite. But on this particular visit I had something very important that I decided to create time for.

My hometown is a place full of all sorts of memories. There are places I remember fondly – my youth soccer fields, the creek that meanders near my childhood home, and the front yard of that same home where countless family baseball and football games were played. There are also places with memories attached to them that I wish to forget – places where pieces of me were taken.

The man who sexually abused me for over three years was my high school coach. After months of careful grooming he positioned himself as my designated ride home from practice each day. This became a carefully calculated daily opportunity for him to make a detour on the way to my house and violate my teenaged body. He developed an ongoing list of secluded places to take me – places that he could access easily to provide ample time to assess privacy, carefully maneuver and position his car for optimal shielding, and then take from me almost always within the confines of his car.

Each time I return to my hometown I am caught off guard by triggers that come up in conversations, places I visit, or places I simply drive past. My abuser took me to so many different places over those years that it is very hard to avoid encounters with these memories each time I visit. Yet on this particular trip I decided to face these memories in a different way.

I wanted to find a way to revisit some of the places that hold a tangled mess of painful, confusing, traumatizing, and shameful memories. I wanted to face these places to help release the painful grip they held on me. I wanted to face them to help make sense of the tornado of memories and feelings I carried. I wanted to redefine what those places meant to me – to be able to see a parking lot simply as a parking lot, instead of feeling overwhelmed by all that occurred there. Simply gathering the courage to return to these places seemed more than adequate to fulfill this need in me. But it felt symbolic to do even more. I chose to leave something behind at each location – a mark to signify that I came back and reclaimed the parts of me that were taken in those places.

Prior to my trip I gathered a handful of rocks from my home – small white rocks from a bucket I used for my physical training regimen. I lifted and carried this 50 pound bucket of rocks for strength training purposes to push myself physically and to prepare for obstacle races that I competed in. These rocks were a part of how I tested my physical limits in training. These rocks were a perfect simple representation of my personal determination, perseverance, and fighting spirit. These rocks were exactly what I needed to leave behind at each of the chosen locations – an acknowledgment of my determination to reclaim, reconnect, and refuel the parts of myself that were broken there. I scooped up a handful of the rocks and painted them blue so they could stand out among the surroundings where they would be placed. I packed the rocks in my luggage and took them with me for this planned day of reclamation.

On the day of my rock journey I ventured in solitude to a predetermined list of places from that area that carry the heaviest weight of memories inside of me. Once I reached each location I got out of my car and took a walk, quietly talking to myself about what happened there. Memories and feelings flowed out of me as I spoke of my experiences. I was alone and yet I found myself speaking out loud to various people. I spoke to the young girl inside of me that holds all of the torment from these moments within her. I calmly reassured her that she was safe, that I was with her, and that he could no longer hurt her. I spoke out loud to my abuser, expressing what I remembered and processing when, how, and why he took me to each place. When I felt ready to move on I placed a single blue rock on the ground and carried on to the next stop on my journey.

I visited seven locations that day – each one intertwined with its own unique and lasting impact on me. One place in particular led me to a great deal of internal dialogue and self reflection. It was a small college campus only about a mile away from my high school. I wondered out loud why he chose this place – a place that was never quiet – never empty. I walked around the parking lot where he often parked alongside the nearby train tracks, and I asked questions. “Why did you bring me here? Why did you choose this busy place?” As I replayed memories and thoughtfully processed out loud I began to understand exactly why he chose this bustling location. The first obvious answer was its proximity to my school and my home, which allowed for less travel time and therefore more time for him to be alone with me. He was always careful to avoid the watchful eyes of students and teachers at my high school. Although this campus was almost always full of people when he brought me there, it was full of different people. The people roaming around were students and staff at this small agricultural college. There were no familiar faces at this place. We were anonymous there, and he knew that. This campus was also just full enough that the surrounding parked cars allowed him to blend in among them. Unlike most of the other vacant places he took me, this one created a camouflage among the commotion. He could abuse me while students and teachers were walking to and from classes in nearby buildings, while sports teams were practicing on nearby fields, and while commuters waited at a train stop less than 100 yards away. He could discretely abuse me right there in the midst of all of the busy surroundings.

As I paced back and forth along that parking lot I felt my fearful and troubling overwhelm slowly become replaced with a feeling of confidence and strength. I grew less shaken by my surroundings. The more I began to understand and piece things together, the more I felt myself breathing easier and standing up straighter. For the first time I could separate the painful memories of this place from what it truly is – a college parking lot. This journey did not erase the memories that exist in this parking lot or in any other location I visited that day. But the overall weight of those places felt less imposing with each rock I left behind.

I did not know what to expect from this journey I set out on. While I was relieved to feel myself strengthened by facing these places, I also felt an impact in a much more unexpected way. Some of these places on the day of my rock journey were quiet and easy to discretely take the necessary time to feel and process what needed to rise up from within me. But a few of the places were less private, and I felt the watchful eyes of a neighbor or passerby. While this kept me from being able to fully connect in the moment, it strangely provided its own healing result. The eyes of these strangers were exactly what the girl inside of me needed at these locations years ago. The attentive suspicion of someone appearing out of place is precisely what could have saved her in any of the memories I visited that day. This prompted a mournful feeling that the wounded girl inside of me was never seen or protected by these watchful eyes. But at the same time it made me feel encouraged that more people are watching now. I can only hope that the eyes that watched me place rocks on the ground that day are the same watchful eyes capable of protecting young girls today.

As I continue to build a connection with the parts of myself that were injured back then I am curious to one day return for another rock journey – to visit these places again or to venture further to other places I have yet to return to. I wish to continue to close the gaps of disconnect with my wounded inner parts, to take further steps towards empowerment and healing strength, and to remind all of me just how far I have come. Until then I will hold onto the healing strength I gained on the day of my rock journey.

Message to My Armor

You are my trusted companion. You keep me composed – buttoned up – sealed off from harmful intrusions. Your presence allows me to appear calm and confident. You are my protector – my shield. You contain all of me in a way that makes others unable to notice the turbulence beneath the surface. When other parts of me are screaming for attention in moments where I cannot tend to them, I can feel you quietly shushing, assuring, and nudging them aside.

You were created out of necessity, and I am grateful for your presence.

I ask a lot from you. I place us into settings that demand you to work overtime. I feel the strain this places on you. I feel your exhaustion in the way this leads to physical ailments and urges. I feel your need for relief – your need to come up for air.

How can I offer you a break? What can I do for you now to let you know that it is safe to relax a little?

I am not asking you to leave. Trust that I recognize my need for you. Instead I wish to grant you a healthy release. I need to find a way to let you rest and recover after placing these persistent demands on you. We are safe now. You can rest. We can let the other parts that you have fiercely and effectively protected come forward a bit. It is time to lean into what they need to share with us now. Can you soften a bit and let them step forward? Can you drape yourself around them like a warm blanket, letting them know that you can hold, protect, and support them while also letting them carefully creep forward to whisper their messages? They need your support. They need your protection. They just need you to loosen your grip ever so slightly so they can climb up out of the darkness. You can still be their shield while also allowing them to peek out into the light.

The Rising Tide

As the tide rises
the broken pieces are stirred
and awoken once again.

The earth beneath her begins to shake.
The broken pieces rattle
like shards of glass
clanging, scraping, cutting
into the parts that have been so tenderly cared for
that she has worked so hard to heal.

She tries to shield herself.
Yet the more she tenses in self protection
the more those pieces seem to cut into her
weakening her defenses.

Her confidence and security begin to shudder and shrink
transformation looming against her will.
She struggles in resistance.
Yet there she slips back into that familiar skin
becoming the part of herself that she wishes to forget.

It chases her back into hiding
deep down to a place that should not exist anymore.
There it tries to convince her to stay
small, silent, alone, and broken.

An automatic inevitability each time the tide rushes in.
If only the waves could quiet down
and the tide retreat long enough for her
to catch her breath before
returning once more.

Take Me Away – #2

I recently started a creative project. I have a room in my house with empty walls, begging for artwork. After thoughtful consideration of a variety of ideas I decided to dedicate the walls of this room to scenic memorable places. I began sorting through photos of all of my favorite trips and places I have visited, making note of my top contenders. Then I decided to take this project one step further with my plan to now paint each of these places. Painting is very cathartic for me and has provided opportunities for expression in a way words cannot always capture. (See how artistic expression has been a part of my ongoing healing journey on my Art page). 

This painting took me away to Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. This lake was truly breathtaking with the surrounding mountain peaks and glaciers that serve as a backdrop beyond the beautiful blue/green water. On this trip we took years ago, my husband and I enjoyed a morning boat tour on this lake and then spent the rest of the day hiking nearby. My favorite memories of this day include watching a deer swim beside the boat as we toured the lake. After the boat ride we hiked a trail called Moose Lake Loop with the hope of catching some moose sightings along the way. We didn’t see a single moose and instead renamed that hike Mosquito loop as we were eaten alive the entire way. In spite of the mosquito bites I have wonderfully fond memories of our day at Maligne Lake.

I enjoyed revisiting the memories of this trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks as I worked on this painting as well as my previous painting of Bow Lake. I look forward to being swept away to another memorable trip when I venture into my next painting.

At First Glance

Take a look at this drawing. What do you see? A child reaching and stretching to take a lollipop from a man’s coat pocket. Perhaps this man is the child’s father and her sneaky attempt to swipe the candy can be viewed as innocent or even cute. But what if I told you that the artist of this drawing was a child herself who was in the midst of silently suffering regular sexual abuse by a trusted man in her life. Does that make you view this drawing any differently?

For years I have overlooked this drawing as an insignificant part of my collection of adolescent art. For years I saw it as nothing more than what it depicts at first glance – a child stealing candy from an adult.

In recent years I have focused my attention to the artwork I created in my youth and the messages they can tell me about the injured girl that created them (see my Art page for more information). I have copies of many of those pieces and an old sketchbook as a part of this collection. These are the only possessions I still have from a period in my life I have often wished to forget. Recently this particular drawing caught my attention and after years of casting it aside it now demands more contemplation from me. This drawing that at first glance appears very simple and innocent is now uncovering something much deeper for me.

When I completed this drawing I was in high school in the midst of enduring regular sexual abuse by my trusted coach. His careful grooming followed by ongoing manipulative control kept me both silently compliant and simultaneously responsible for all of the pain and shame that he inflicted upon me. He had a careful way of crafting each encounter to make me feel as though I was making choices when in fact he was merely spinning and tangling me deeper and more fully under his control. It was so confusing for my adolescent brain to make sense of. I believed everything he trained me to believe about him, about others, and even myself. I was so driven to reach my fullest potential, and I looked up to him as the teacher/role model/coach to help me get there that I wasn’t able to see the situation he placed me into in any other way than how he presented it to me. How could I?

The last conversation I had with him when I was finally able to break free from his abusive grip occurred when I was in college. The words he said to me on that phone call I can still deeply feel. “You simply used me to get yourself a college scholarship.” When I hung up my phone that day I felt two distinct feelings. The first was an immense weight off of my shoulders – a sense of relief to finally be free from him. The second feeling was much different from the first and was the exact response I had been conditioned to feel – full of shame and an overwhelming weight of responsibility. This was a glaring sign of the wake of damage he left inside of me. His words sunk deep into the parts of me that believed I was to blame for what he did to me. I carried those words that he laid onto me that day – that I used him – and they became my deeply silent and shameful reminder that I was a dangerous and defective person.

Now as I look at this drawing decades after creating it I question what my child self was expressing. Is this merely an expression of childlike innocence and seizing a moment of candy temptation and opportunity? Or was she perhaps expressing something that was being deeply ingrained in her mind – that she is the dangerous thief – she is taking from an unsuspecting adult. Could this be an expression of shame, guilt, or wrongdoing? The entire drawing was completed in pencil, a grey scale image, with the exception of both the child’s shirt and the lollipop which are both a deep rich red. Does this red represent danger? Does she feel that she is the danger to others, or does she recognize that she is in danger? Perhaps her red shirt comes from a undying and alarming need to be seen – noticed – cared for. What if there is something significant in the matching reds? Perhaps the red candy that perfectly matches her red shirt represents part of her that was taken away. Maybe she is reaching to try to regain that part of herself. Maybe she was expressing a sense of confusion and overwhelm as the child in the drawing is so young and so small compared to the man towering before her. She strains to reach up onto her tip toes just to barely grab hold of this enticing object. Maybe she was expressing how small and defenseless she felt in the face of his dominance, control, and deception.

Perhaps I am overthinking and over analyzing this drawing. Maybe it is in fact nothing more than a mindless sketch of innocence. I don’t know what prompted the wounded girl inside of me to draw this years ago. But I suspect she is telling us more than what we see at first glance.

Take Me Away – #1

I recently started a creative project. I have a room in my house with empty walls, begging for artwork. After thoughtful consideration of a variety of ideas, I decided to dedicate the walls of this room to scenic memorable places. I began sorting through photos of all of my favorite trips and places I have visited, making note of my top contenders. Then I decided to take this project one step further with my plan to now paint each of these places.

Painting is very cathartic for me and has provided opportunities for expression in a way words cannot always capture. (See how artistic expression has been a part of my ongoing healing journey on my Art page). This current art project of mine did not intentionally begin as a healing mental health exercise. Instead it came from a simple desire to decorate the walls of this room in my house. Yet after careful reflection it began to evolve into something much more.

My role has changed during this pandemic. My pre-Covid part time coaching job, combined with volunteer work, as well as my ever present and important role as a mom has been dramatically redefined with full time remote learning support and household management duties for my two children. I have come to realize very quickly since school began last week that I am both an essential and intermittently needed part of this remote learning equation. This is a role I want to take on for my kids, but I am noticing that I need to find ways to take care of myself and remain full of the drive and purpose that keep me upright – even though the majority of my days are now spent in the confines of my home. I think this painting project was calling on me to satisfy this very important need.

This week I ventured into my first painting of this new series. It’s from one of my favorite trips that my husband and I took shortly after we got married. We traveled to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada and enjoyed days filled with hiking, exploring, kayaking, and white water rafting. This painting depicts one of the many picturesque lakes we encountered on this trip.

This is Bow Lake. It is situated along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Park. The vibrant blue water that we sat beside among the array of wildflowers was truly stunning. I recall sitting beside this lake and waiting for clouds to disappear and allow the sun to reveal the incredible clarity of the crystal blue water. Painting this picture this week allowed me to recapture the moments of that trip – the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by so much natural beauty. It also allowed me to reflect on that precious time with my husband and how much we enjoyed adventuring together and getting to know each other more deeply as newlyweds.

This painting took me away to that amazing trip and all of the memories I treasure in my heart. Now that it’s complete I look forward to diving into my next painting to see where my mind takes me.

Melancholy

I have a music playlist on my phone called Melancholy. I think this fact makes my husband feel a little uneasy. After all, why would I seek out music that fuels my sadness? While perhaps this may be a misguided practice, when I feel an incoming heavy weight of hurt sometimes it helps me to sink into it in order to better understand where it came from and what it needs from me. Sometimes softening into my melancholy feels as though I am positioning myself in a place to better hear from my wounded parts.

There are certain song lyrics and melodies that allow me to sink into my hurt – not to get lost in it – although that does happen at times. But the dark places are where my greatest wounds exist, and from time to time I feel a pull to venture there.

My experiences with dark feelings often come without warning. They originate from every day circumstances that slyly connect themselves to something deeply painful within me. I can’t often make those connections in the moment. My nervous system is too activated to allow space for that. This is where music enters the equation. The music I am drawn to in these moments both allows me to deeply feel the rising heavy emotions while also offering a soothing and comforting release in the melody and lyrics expressed. This keeps me from avoiding or pushing away emotions that need to rise to the surface. It also feels as though the music gives me permission to feel and connect with my dark feelings. It allows me to feel while also gently reassuring and reminding me that I don’t need to live there – that I can and will rise from that dark place.

I think being open to my darkness helps to make me less afraid of it. I think this curiosity is a crucial part of my healing. The important thing for me to be mindful of is that my use of music to connect to these feelings can be productive as long as the feelings are temporary. Extended stays in darkness seem to require a different approach or intervention for me. But for my intermittent encounters with darkness I will continue to open my wounded heart to music and take solace in the sounds of my Melancholy.

Sunshower by Chris Cornell – one the most frequently played songs on my Melancholy playlist

Do songs of melancholy bring you comfort or distress when you are in struggle? What helps you connect to the parts of yourself that are calling out for attention in those moments?

Trust Your Gut

Trust your gut is one of those phrases that feels so trite and dismissive to me. Yet we all use it on a regular basis – listen to, pay attention to, follow your gut. It seems very obvious, but to be honest, I don’t know what to make of this phrase. I don’t even know what to make of my gut. I don’t feel like I have a relationship with my gut. I am overflowing with internal voices. If my gut is supposed to represent some internal guiding voice, then which voice is it? Could it be that all of the noise I experience equally represents this voice, or is my gut somewhere buried beneath the barrage of noise? What does “trust your gut” even mean to a trauma survivor?

When I was a child and being routinely abused I was taught to accept the messages being spoon fed into my brain by my manipulative abuser. This was not a choice. It was a devastating reality. I was taught that my internal messages were to be dismissed and to instead accept all that was imposed upon me. This not only buried me under a mountain of silence and shame, but it also disconnected me from the ability to engage with and trust my own feelings.

I find myself decades later depending on outside voices to help guide my internal feelings about situations and circumstances that require reflection. It seems if someone else can validate a feeling, that allows a single voice to step forward inside of me. It gives that voice permission to feel and express. But what if I’m receiving the wrong input and igniting the wrong voice inside? What if this outward reliance is just feeding my maladaptive internal processing?

Much of my recent healing work has involved identifying and connecting to the various wounded and protective parts that exist within me. A friend recently described this so accurately for me as possessing a clown car of internal parts. Imagine a clown car of internal voices all jockeying for the driver’s seat. Who has the loudest voice? Who is in control? The answer to these questions seems dependent upon circumstances, triggers, and needs. If a situation triggers one part to step forward, that part rules my clown car and takes the wheel. I’ve got some loud and messy voices inside of me. I am trying to identify each one of them in an attempt to understand how they have served to help me in the past and what I can do to better integrate them into my present self. I am no longer in constant danger. My body is no longer under the regular threat of violation. Yet some of these internal parts don’t seem to know this, and they react to situations with such overwhelm that it sends all of me back into reflexive survival.

Wherever my gut is buried underneath all of this noise, I feel like I need to somehow uncover it. I need to find a way to build a relationship with that part – to give it the strength and confidence to step forward when I need it. The more I learn about myself, the more I have come to understand that all of my other internal voices are not going to simply step aside upon my request. They won’t be dismissed or bullied or cast aside. They require the same care and attention that was lacking when I was young. They need me to build a trusting connection with each one of them before they will let me even get close to my gut. They were born from my past experiences, and they have much to teach me before they will let me influence who gets to be in the driver’s seat of my clown car.

Purpose

Writing helps me access that which I cannot speak. I write in order to release – to free myself of all that entraps me – to give a voice to all of the parts inside of me that cannot make a sound. Writing teaches me to listen to those muted parts and helps attach words to them. I work hard to uncover the words that best express what is deeply held within me. I sit with those words, formulate them, and then release them onto paper. My deepest wounds, questions, doubts, and fears are then in front of me – staring back at me and demanding attention. Sometimes those words don’t leave my grasp. Other times I send them out into the world.

Then what?

I am often left unsure what to do with the words that I express. When I share I often wonder where or if they ever land – like sending a message in a bottle. Did my message make it across the ocean or get stuck on a submerged branch just beyond my reach? Why do I choose to share my writing if I struggle with the uncertainty of whether or not my words are ever seen or provide impact in any way? Why do I write if I do not often even speak of what I have written? This leaves me with the ongoing gut wrenching question, “what is the point of all of this?”

I don’t believe in the notion that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that my teenaged body was routinely abused by a trusted adult as a part of some master plan. My abuser’s own criminal choices combined with the absence of my family’s support led to a perfect storm of opportunity and misfortune. The moments of my abuse left me without choice. This seemingly simple statement took me a long time to understand and believe as fact. Yet while I was without choices back then I believe in my own lonely healing battle that choices lie before me now each and every day. With each day and each new challenge I have the choice to pick myself up and carry on or to lay down my fight and surrender. Life has tempted me to surrender before – that is a voice inside of me that I know all too well and fear greatly. But there is also a scrappy warrior inside of me that urges me to wrestle my way to find healing, direction, and purpose. I may not have had choices in the way I was treated as a child, but I have choices in how to respond today – even when life tries to convince me otherwise.

I am armed with the choice to use my experiences to create meaningful change in myself, in the confines of my family, or even for a broader community or societal impact. That choice has transformed into an automatic responsibility for me. I carry the weight of protecting my children as a badge of honor – a terrifying and overwhelming weight at times, but an ever present focus of attention that was not afforded to me as a child. I accept the responsibility of devoting my energy and using my voice in order to educate and make meaningful policy changes in sports to better protect children across the world.

My greatest daily struggle is not to find a reason to fight for others. That is an easy source of motivation. My greatest struggle lies in my own personal daily battle with feelings that haunt me – voices that try to convince me that I am not strong enough or capable enough or worthy enough – that my presence on this earth is inconsequential. I push back on those feelings every day to claw my way into some sense of a meaningful existence.

I write in order to better understand my experiences. I write to uncover and tend to the pieces of myself that require healing attention. I write in order to connect with others and feel the validating support of the shared impact of abuse. I write because sexual abuse is not something that a person simply leaves in their past. It changes a person and becomes entangled in how they relate to themselves and the world around them – and the world needs to understand that! I write because the days of swallowing down the aftermath of the hurt that was inflicted upon me are over. I am tired of feeling broken and beaten down and silenced. I am tired of feeling so alone in my daily battles. If my writing lands in the hands of just one person – if I have made an impact on just one soul, then my struggles with uncertainty and purpose in sharing are resolved.

A trusted friend recently shared her own personal experiences of reading the work of a writer when she was young and struggling with her own abuse. She expressed to me that the author of the words she read during that time will never know how impactful and healing they were for her as she sat in solitude and absorbed those meaningful messages long ago. While I may live with the uncertainty that my words have any meaning or impact outside of my own mind, it is my deep purpose fueled hope that drives me to share. It is that hope along with my promise to all of the wounded parts inside of me to never stop fighting for them. However alone and broken I feel, I have to keep fighting every single day. That is my choice today – a day where I want to lay down and quit. Today I choose to fight. Tomorrow I can only hope for the strength to make the same choice again.