An Anniversary of Sorts

May 11. This date carries incredible significance for me. I wrote about this day one year ago as I ventured into the world of blogging. Today I am revisiting this post to remind myself of what I wish to hold onto – to keep my focus aiming forward towards hope, healing, and empowerment – to remind myself of how far I have come on this journey – to keep raising my voice however shaky it may feel at times – to no longer be silenced.

Wishing Tree

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.

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Growing New Beliefs

What truths do you possess about yourself? What beliefs about who you are provide a foundation of guiding support in your life? These are questions that have been swirling in my mind this past week. These are questions that don’t seem to have easy answers that I can securely hold onto.

I enjoy hiking. Summit hikes are a particular favorite of mine for the effort it takes to reach the reward of a beautiful panoramic mountaintop view. I love to let my mind wander as I hike, absorbing the surroundings with each turn I take. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in the types of plants and trees I encounter along the way. Instead the artist in me is struck by colors, shapes, and unique features that catch my eye. I’ll stop and study a tree whose trunk is twisted and contorted in awkward directions on its journey upward. I’ll wonder what forces caused such a dramatic shift in its growth. And I’ll marvel at how the tree did not stop growing despite the overwhelming obstacle that required it to shift and adapt. Its twisted shape tells a story of its resilience to grow and adapt against the odds placed before it.

There are so many metaphors that can be connected to the qualities and characteristics of a tree. A resilient twisted trunk, a firmly rooted foundation, swaying branches of openness, renewed blooming life each spring, and rings that record its ongoing journey of growth. If you’re at all familiar with my writing then you’ll understand that metaphors tend to be my language of choice. In fact you don’t even need to look further than the name of my blog to recognize the significance and connection of the tree.

I have spent some time recently talking through this metaphorical concept with a close friend who was asked a question about what qualities and beliefs exist at her core – what makes up the trunk of her tree?

As she described her difficulties in answering this question, I found myself connecting and relating to her struggles. I can find the answers that I want to say – that I think I’m supposed to say. But finding answers that all of me firmly believes in and is proud of is another story. Trying to search for what I deeply and truly believe about myself leads me straight into another metaphor – the spiderweb. I can’t seem to connect to genuine positive answers without feeling tempted, tangled, and pulled into beliefs that I wish to shed from myself. I struggle to feel a genuine connection beyond the dark, dead, and rotting tree trunk that feels like home inside of me. Yet as my friend described this darkness that overrides her system, I felt a calming that only comes from this type of understanding and validation. While we talked and related and joked about our dead trees, I noticed something important. It’s not that I am unable to recognize the qualities in myself that I am proud of. It’s that the messages I learned long ago have twisted and contorted the lens in which I view myself. These messages take all of what I wish to be true about myself and sprinkle poison into it. This makes it difficult for newer and healthier messages to flourish. With all of the healing work I have ventured into, I have felt growth and progress. This is an indication of hope and life within in my tree. Where I find myself stuck is that my progress feels fragile. Just like new leaves that bring life and color to a tree, I experience healing growth. But these leaves are often at the mercy of strong winds that threaten their place on the tree.

I think it is hope that has kept my tree alive for all these years. But I am humble enough to recognize that I need help to keep my hope alive. Connection and support from others helps to bring new life to my tree. It shows me that healing happens both from the flicker of life that shines from within as well as reaching out for the transformative growth and support that can be created from the outside. It comforts me to know that my tree is not the only one twisted and contorted and struggling to maintain life. And that knowledge alone allows hope to flourish and more healing growth to emerge.

Object Permanence

Each morning I park my car in my son’s school parking lot. I exit the car, put my mask on my face, and open the door to help him gather his belongings as he climbs out. I walk him to the edge of the parking lot, give him a hug and a kiss on the head, and wish him a good day at school. I stand at the edge of the lot as he continues along the crosswalk. Then I walk back to my car. I stand next to my car and watch him as he walks up the pathway to the side entrance where he enters the building. At some point along his path towards the school he always turns around to look for me. I wave my arm in the air, and he waves back. He then continues walking, sometimes turning around again and looking for another wave. I smile even though it is hidden under my mask and he is far enough from me to no longer see the details of my face, and I wave again. I repeat this process as many times as he wishes to turn around on his walk up that path in the morning.

I look forward to this small moment each day. It’s sweet, and it feels bigger than just watching him walk to school. It feels like he is routinely checking to make sure I’m still there for him – to make sure I don’t leave before he is ready – to make sure I don’t turn my back on him. To me these moments are priceless. I know a day will come when he won’t turn around to look for me anymore. Yet regardless of whether he turns around or not I choose to stay and wait while he is in my sight. I never want to be too busy or too preoccupied to remain fully present and connected in these small moments.

Kids are constantly engaged in a dance of stretching their independence and then turning to make sure that their stable base of support is still there. Just as a child grows to achieve the developmental understanding that an object continues to exist even if they cannot see or hear it, in a nurturing sense they also begin to learn that their own safety and care continues to exist beyond the immediate presence of their caregiver. A secure attachment between a child and caregiver enables that child to thrive and spread their wings facing new challenges while feeling seen, supported, and cared for in the process. As a parent that is what you work for – that is what you wish for. I can only hope that is how my son feels.

When a child is sexually abused their stable base of support is dismantled. Instead of turning towards others for safety and security, they learn how to provide those needs for themselves through a variety of coping mechanisms. They learn that trust is a dangerous weapon that can be wielded against them. This can teach them to become guarded, distant, and distrustful of others and of themselves. These are the lessons I learned as a child, and these are the lessons I strive to unlearn through healthier healing connections as an adult.

As I work to connect with and find healing for my inner child I feel much like my son on his walk to school. I feel this regular need from within to check and make sure my support is still there. Yet when I turn around I am unsure of who or what to look for.

One of the many challenges of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is learning to become the protective and nurturing caregiver that the internal wounded parts were lacking at the time of the abuse. It’s learning to pay attention and tend to the unmet needs that still exist and cry out from within. Yet here lies the tricky part. As I learned to cope with routine abuse on my own as a child, over the years I adopted a variety of coping mechanisms to keep me going – to keep me alive. Some of these choices like running, art, and music were and continue to be healthy and serve me well. But there are other less favorable choices I have made and at times still make as a result of the pain that was thrust upon me. These choices have created a different type of harm. These choices have constructed a barbed wire barrier where internal connection and trust is required. The aftermath of these choices leaves my entire system incredibly unsteady and unable to fully trust itself. So when my therapist calls upon the nurturing mom in me to tend to and care for these young wounded internal parts, it doesn’t yet feel right. It feels to the young parts that they are being tricked and will just be hurt, ignored, and left alone again.

Can it be okay that these young parts trust the comforting words of my therapist more than my own words right now? Can I stop asking and expecting more than what my own internal system can handle at the moment and just lean into the support and safety that comes from her? Can I help these young parts continue to build trust with her while she works to help and prepare me to take on that task when my system feels more capable of doing so? While the ultimate goal in healing may look different, can it be okay that it is her wave that I turn around and look for right now?

Spiderwebs

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.

pencil drawing – by Sara

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.

pencil drawing – by Sara

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.

No Longer Silenced

“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.

Shrike – by Hozier

Lessons From The Body

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.

Imprisoned

pencil sketch – by Sara

Asking why you are in there
is like questioning a person
for holding their breath
while underwater

This place was a necessity
when no other options existed

Yet in there your safety
is intertwined with
memories from which
this place was born

I will not ask
to lower your guard
or beg for trust
I have not yet earned

My promise to you
is to search for new comfort
free of the tainted feelings
that this posture incites

When Healing Words Cause Pain

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?

Releasing Shame

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.