Her eyes are fixed, not on the slender blinds that cover the window across the room, but on the tiny spaces that exist between each and every horizontal slat that make up these blinds. These spaces allow the soft glow of the streetlight nearby to enter the darkness of the room she occupies. Just enough space to capture the flash of headlights that she hopes will soon appear for her. She stares at these small spaces wishing to disappear into them. Maybe if she can focus hard enough and long enough she will be pulled from this place and can breathe in the safety of what might exist beyond them.
A sudden spray of scattering light is cast on the walls all around her. The soft hum of an approaching car engine breaks the deafening silence and becomes the definitive sign. “They’re here! They came back for me,” she thinks. Thunderous slamming of doors and hurried footsteps signal a wave of protective care as it bursts into the house. Instantly they appear before her, overwhelming this small room like flooding water. They lunge forward, ripping him away from her, and sending him helplessly flying across the room and into a shameful motionless heap on the floor. They immediately turn their attention to her. They drop down beside her, moving in slowly and thoughtfully, offering safety in the focused gaze that looks deeply into her eyes. Without words they can see all of the fear and pain that lies behind her dazed and trembling stare. Her body is carefully and firmly wrapped up in a soft blanket and scooped up into the protective arms that came to save her. These arms wrap around her with such strong and tender care. She slowly softens into them, recognizing that she is now safe. And although her body continues to shiver, she closes her eyes. She can rest now.
New lights and colors begin to glow through the blinds and into this small space, and new footsteps are heard as she is removed from here. The protective arms take her away, straight out the door, past the flashing lights and commotion from strangers in uniform that begin to enter through the same door that she was carried out from. The arms hold her close, letting her soft sobs be cradled and absorbed into them. She feels so small and so safe in these arms that seem almost designed to hold and protect her. “Can I stay here forever?” she wonders as she slowly drifts off to sleep.
The blinds fall back into focus. The tiny gaps between them, glowing softly from the nearby streetlight, remain unchanged. It is dark and quiet around her. She is alone now, but she can sense that it hasn’t been that way for long. All of the hope of rescue that she felt just moments ago has vanished. In its place is a heavy weight that she cannot name but instead must learn to carry. She brings herself to her feet and scrambles to recover her scattered clothes, all while continuously and deliberately swallowing the rising lump that burns from within. There will be no more tears here. She must figure out a way to become the strong arms that she needs to carry herself out of here. She will have to learn how to emerge as her own hero.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
This first step I am taking feels more like a giant barefooted and blindfolded leap – a leap right towards all of the thoughts that try to convince me to stay still, silent, and small. This painting marks the beginning of this leap.
Next month I plan to enter a new adventure – attempting to begin selling my artwork. I am in the process of creating an Etsy shop and will provide the link here on my blog once it is up and running.
It’s exciting to inch towards this new adventure, and it’s also terrifying. I know I am not alone in my thoughts of not being good enough or talented enough or whatever enough to attempt a new challenge. I know that even on the day I choose to open my shop and attempt to market and sell my work to others for the very first time that the voice inside that screams “your art is not good enough to exist anywhere outside of the walls you create it in” will still be there. And it might even get louder.
But I have to try.
Why? Because as long as I’m still breathing I need to keep trying. And right now I really need to try something new. I feel so incredibly broken inside. This feeling of being insignificant – that it wouldn’t matter if I just suddenly disappeared from the world – is immense sometimes. And it feels like it’s growing. I have this new default answer that comes to my mind every single time I meet someone new and they ask me what I do for work. I hate that it’s my first thought. I hate that it’s such a strong thought. But it comes screaming forward in response to that question every single time.
What do you do for a living? I take up space.
I need to push back on that thought. I need to find a way to create a new answer that I can fully believe in. When I paint that thought and that feeling shrinks just a little bit. It gives me space to breathe. It creates room for possibility. It gives me a momentary sense of purpose.
That is how I arrived here. Full of doubt, loaded with questions, and sprinkled with hope. This new adventure feels like something worth pursuing.
I sat at a table of mostly strangers. We were engaged in the kind of small talk that induces a moderate level of anxiety within me as an introvert with socially uncomfortable tendencies. But it was a welcoming and lighthearted get-together, and the connection that brought me there was strong enough to make me feel secure in this setting. I approached this gathering prepared to be introduced or identified as a sexual abuse survivor. While this was an unusual setting of disclosure for me, it felt okay as it was thoughtfully discussed beforehand with the close friend and fellow survivor that invited me to the table that day.
As the conversations moved from various topics I recognized a similarity between myself and one of these strangers. We both have children the same age. I offered up this common ground that we share, creating a brief moment of connection before the conversations continued. Then later this common ground resurfaced. It was discovered that not only do we have kids the same age, but they also go to the same school. And not only do they go to the same school, but her child has participated in a sport that I have coached there. In a matter of seconds it was revealed that I was her son’s coach a couple of years ago. Suddenly this person who was supposed to be a complete and total stranger to me became something different.
This revelation would hold little significance to me in most circumstances, but there was something uniquely different about this particular connection that day. I was in unfamiliar territory. I had offered up my title as a sexual abuse survivor in a setting where I didn’t expect to be connected to any other aspect of my life. And there I was facing a collision course of identities as both a youth sports coach and a survivor in one setting. Internal rattling ensued.
It took some time to unpack what this encounter meant to me and why it resulted in an uproar of internal disruption. After all, I rationally know that I am both a coach and a survivor. Those two identities can and do coexist. So what’s the big deal? The big deal for me is that my life is organized into compartments – separate and distinct compartments. Certain parts of my life do not intersect with other parts. This is by design. This is surely a result of a compartment that was painfully thrust upon me as a child. But my maintenance of these separate compartments has kept me alive and safely protected over the years.
I am very actively involved as a survivor in both my own individual and group healing work as well as through a passionate involvement in education and abuse prevention efforts in youth sports across the United States. This is a huge part of who I am. And yet this part exists separately from all other aspects of my life. The work I do and the amazing connections I have made within this community are treasured by me, and yet they are kept almost entirely disjointed from the rest of me.
This compartmentalization, for better or worse, is how I function. When a situation like this arises where two compartments that don’t operate together are suddenly thrust into interweaving light it causes two things to happen inside of me. First, there is panic. An automatic emergency response happens inside indicating danger and a need to fix, or change, or flee the situation. When I can eventually ride that feeling out (hopefully without succumbing to the panic) then a second feeling always follows. Self-judgement. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel the need to hide? The fact that these compartments still strongly exist for me today fills me with uneasiness and uncertainty about myself and my own healing. It makes me question how secure I can feel in my own story if I must keep these parts entirely separate. If I claim to own my story of childhood sexual abuse then why must I keep it separate from some other areas in my life? Doesn’t that mean I am still bound up in the same shame I have been working so hard to break free from? Doesn’t that mean I am much farther away from healing from all of this than I even imagined? Does that make true healing even remotely possible for me?
I think the answers to these questions have many layers. I unfortunately know first hand how much ignorance and cruelty exists in the world around the topic of childhood sexual abuse. I have heard comments with my own ears and have read statements with my own eyes that have placed the blame of what happened to me squarely upon my shoulders. And I know that no matter how strong and secure I can feel in the knowledge that what happened to me was not my fault or the result of some kind of brokenness or defect in me, the words of others still have a way of cutting into me in a deeply damaging way. This reality makes me hold my story close to me. It makes me very selective in who and in what settings I choose to share. I can never be certain that ignorance or cruelty will not interfere with my coaching positions, so I don’t advertise it there. This saddens the advocate in me as I believe I am a better and more equipped coach because of my experiences of abuse in sports. But I can never be certain that ignorance and cruelty wouldn’t find me in this role. And I can’t bear the thought of even one parent wrongfully expressing that my history makes me a potential unsafe person around their child. That kind of ignorance exists. And that kind of ignorance hurts too much. So I choose to keep these compartments separate. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it feels safer for me now.
The fact is, no matter how much work I do and no matter how secure I feel in my story, my story is still my own. It still hurts sometimes, and it can still cause hurt when it lands in the wrong hands. My healing progress should never be measured by a willingness to shout my story from the rooftops. It’s much more complex and personal than that. I get to be careful and selective in who I allow to see each compartment I carry. I get to decide, as Brene Brown has so powerfully described, who “has earned the right” to hear my story.
Sometimes I will mess up and share with the wrong people. I will have to learn from those moments, pick up the pieces, and carry on. And I will be okay. Other times, I may sit at a table and share with the right people, and it might make everything inside of me shake a whole lot. That doesn’t mean I messed up. It doesn’t mean it was wrong. It just means it is scary. And that’s okay too.
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.
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.
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.
Anniversaries are thought provoking. We use the word “anniversary” to label a wide variety of events, each with their own layers of memories and emotions attached to them. We celebrate joyful milestones, and we also acknowledge painful moments in time with this one single word.
A few days ago I received a notice from WordPress acknowledging my one year anniversary of this blog. And just like any anniversary in my life this has generated some deep self reflection. I looked back over my very first post – a post about connection – a message that still resonates deeply for me. This led me to question where I started and where I have come on my writing journey here.
When I started this blog one year ago I found myself grasping for something I could focus on as a global pandemic began to tear through our lives. I wasn’t entirely sure about my purpose and intention here. I think I hoped that my words and actions would carve their own way towards purpose.
There were a few things I was certain of one year ago. I was struggling to maintain my footing in the healing progress I had begun to make. And I knew deep down, no matter how hard shame tried to tell me otherwise, that I was not alone in my feelings and struggles. I struggled then and I struggle now with the idea that my words could possibly have an impact anywhere outside of my own head. Yet here I am one year later still sending my thoughts out into the world.
I write in an effort to untangle the confusion and pain that lives within me. And I share because I know that my experiences exist in the minds and hearts of others as well. I reach for that validating support while at the same time offering it up wherever it may be needed.
Healing – Connecting – Empowering – Thriving. These words appear as the tag line on my site. While the writing and art I express here often comes from the darkest places within me, it is hope that urges me to write, inspires me to draw, and begs me to share. I hope for continued steps in my own healing. I hope for deeper connection within myself as well as with others because healing doesn’t happen from a place of lonely isolation. I hope for empowerment of my young wounded internal parts that were never seen and afforded a voice just as I hope for empowerment and freedom for all of the silenced voices of abuse. I hope and I wish to achieve a state in my own healing journey where my wounds can fully heal – where I can rise with confidence no longer burying but instead wearing the scars of my past as a cloak of all that can be overcome. This is where thriving begins.
One year ago my wishing tree was created and shared with all who welcome my words into their hearts. And now on the first anniversary of this space I created, while I still wrestle with the darkness inside of me that regularly tempts me into silent withdrawal, the gratitude I feel for this community of readers and writers has become a new beacon of healing light.
We were not meant to silently wrestle with our deepest struggles alone. Thank you for being a part of my wishing tree.
“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.
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?