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.

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.

Edge of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Answers Within

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

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

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

Connecting in a Time of Disconnection

There is an image we all have become familiar with lately. A loved one placing their hand on a window to connect with another on the other side. We’ve seen these images on the news and on social media as caring gestures towards elderly or sick family members and neighbors during this pandemic. The simple message of love and connection – of letting our loved ones know that we are there for them in the midst of a time when we must maintain physical distance from them.

I was reminded of this image recently in my own personal connection to it. Through all of my healing work I have learned to slowly open a connection between my current self and the child inside of me that was left to suffer alone in silence for so many years. I have learned that much of the pain I feel today is directly connected to what that child was and is still feeling. Much of my healing has surrounded the idea of creating safety for her – to enable her to open up – to trust, share, and work with me to help heal those deep wounds. As with all aspects of my healing, I find myself intermittently making progress as well as faltering sometimes. Yet my desire to bridge the gap toward our shared needs causes me to seek her – to check in with her – to visit with her quite often.

When this virus quickly changed our daily lives and the manner in which we interact with one another, like most people, I felt overwhelmed. I felt the need to streamline the essential needs in my household and place onto the back burner what I deemed less immediately pressing. In these moments of prioritizing I could feel myself operating at a capacity that would not allow for safe thoughtful intrinsic work. I made a conscious decision to pause my healing work. In the meantime something interesting began to happen. My stressful dreams that are somewhat expected during a stressful time began to worsen. I began to notice an increase in wakeful and fitful moments throughout the night. I noticed an increase in heavy foreboding feelings when I awoke each morning. I was feeling the compounding nature of the physical and emotional impact of inadequate sleep. Then the most alarming thing happened. My stressful dreams involving various representations of pain, panic, and helplessness suddenly infused into them the most powerless details that my mind can conjure. In an instant, my dreams of stress and worry took on a completely different feel when my abuser began to appear in them one night. This sounded all kinds of alarms inside of me, shaking the foundation of every inch of healing progress I have made on this ongoing journey. In a mix of overwhelm and denial, I first tried to shrug these dreams off and categorize them as no different than my other random and sometimes bizarre stressful dreams. But these dreams carried a different weight and stayed with me in a profound way that made dismissing them feel impossible.

When this wave of distress would subside just long enough to make space for other feelings I began to sit with all of the questions that these dreams brought up for me. Why is he here now? It’s been a long time since he’s haunted my dreams. What does this mean? How can I make it stop?

That’s when I was reminded of those images of loved ones placing their hands on the glass to show one another that they are still there for them, however different that may seem right now. Perhaps I need to find a way to place my hand on the window to my inner child right now. I think maybe she is feeling shaken and alone and is needing some reassurance. I think she needs to know that I am still here – that I still care – and that I will not abandon her. It just might feel different for a little while.