Army of One

She stands in front of a police station – preparing, breathing, second guessing. Four adults surround her – protecting, supporting, embracing. She steps inside and lets her shaky voice tell her story, exposing the evil that was done to her. With her army of four by her side she feels scared yet capable. When she cries, comforting arms are wrapped around her. When she falls fearfully silent, her eyes are met with a supportive gaze to help her carry on. As she releases the unspeakable words from her lips she watches each and every small reaction occurring in the faces around her. She searches for evidence in their expressions to prove whether or not what occurred was her fault. Shame combs through their reactions and claws at her from the inside, searching for any crumb of evidence to sink its teeth into to convince her she is to blame. Her army of four knows this and stands close by, persisting in their efforts to remind her that none of this belongs to her.

When justice fails her in this moment she begins to feel herself sinking into a place of self blame and despair. Yet as she shrinks the voices that surround her get louder and angrier on her behalf. They sweep in around her like a protective cloak, embracing her with the kind of reassurance that helps to chase her shame away.

No one should have to endure the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. But for those who know these experiences, this response from caregivers seems like an ideal model of support for this situation. These four adults cannot undo what has been done to this child, but they can rally around her and constantly reassure her that what happened was not her fault and that she is not alone.

While some of the details feel eerily similar to mine, this is not my story. It is instead a fictional scene I recently stumbled upon on television. I’m not sure how wise it is for me to watch things like this. These scenes are surely very triggering. I typically avoid tv shows and movies involving childhood abuse. It just hits too close to home. But other times I unknowingly stumble into this type of plot twist and then find myself feeling strangely compelled to see how it plays out. This was exactly the case with this particular tv show. A teenaged girl character with no prior history of sexual trauma suddenly in one episode becomes the target of sexual abuse by her teacher. Once it began to unfold before my eyes, no matter how much I could feel the stinging internal impact of the story, I needed to see what happened. So I continued to watch, curled up in my blanket, sometimes feeling comforted by the familiarity of the scenes, sometimes cringing over it, all while regularly swallowing the rising lump in my throat. But over several scenes I began to notice something particularly interesting.

I know what it feels like to share details of sexual abuse to a police officer. I know what it feels like to answer questions about where and how I was touched by my abuser. I know what it’s like to describe the kind of physical details that one would only know if they had the type of close physical interaction and exposure that I experienced. But what I don’t know is what it must be like to be a child with adults to turn to in a situation like this. I don’t know what it’s like to talk about and process the immediate aftermath of sexual abuse surrounded by attentive and caring support. I don’t know what it’s like to hear an army of protective voices countering the onslaught of shame that tries to destroy an abused child from within.

As I watched this girl’s story unfold on my TV screen I realized that while the subject matter hit very close to home and was perhaps not my best choice of shows to watch, the most difficult part for me was watching the girl on the screen receive something I never received. In the midst of all of her confusion and pain this girl is constantly reminded by loved ones that what happened was not her fault, that she is loved, and that she is not alone. And it’s not just their words that hit me. It’s the way they held her. It’s the way they sat down with her, looking into her eyes to speak their compassionate message directly into them. Each and every scene where this girl is tended to with loving, caring, and ever present support began to overwhelm my system with hurt, grief, and longing for these things.

The young girl inside of me that was routinely abused with no one to turn to aches to be seen like this. Her pain went unnoticed. She had to carry on with this unimaginable burden thrust upon her completely alone. I think when I feel an internal reaction to watching scenes like this I am hearing directly from this wounded girl inside of me. The tears I fought back while watching this tv show are her tears. The sadness and longing pushing forward is her trying to tell me how much hurt she faced and how much pain she still carries – not only from what was done to her but also because no one ever saw her. No one noticed what was being done to her. No one paid attention. No one stopped to ask questions or leaned in close and looked into her eyes to tell her that she was not alone. She watches these scenes play out on tv and cries out, “Why didn’t anyone take care of me?”

The Impacts of Grooming

She is 14 years old. She sits in her school hallway on the floor with her back against the wall. Her legs are outstretched and crossed in front of her. She wears an oversized hand-me-down t-shirt and athletic shorts. Her feet are laced up in well worn running shoes. She waits for the rest of her teammates to emerge from the locker room ready for practice. Small conversations and laughter spark between the girls as they begin to gather. Her coach enters the hallway and greets the team. As he passes in front of her he slows to a stop, bending down and reaching towards her. He grabs the top of her shoe, giving her toes a gentle squeeze and a subtle shake as he smiles at her and says hello. She looks up at him and smiles back, feeling a momentary glimpse of special because she received slightly more than the simple verbal greeting that he offered to the rest of her teammates. He then takes a seat on the floor among the girls. He doesn’t sit next to her but is instead across the hallway from her between two of her older teammates. As the pre-practice chatter continues he leans in towards one of her teammates, nudging his shoulder into hers as they talk and laugh. Watching this interaction from just a few feet away she laughs along while quietly wishing it was her that he chose to sit next to.

The next day or the next week or the next month it will be her. She’ll feel a jolt of special each time he slides in beside her on the hallway floor – each time he grabs hold of her foot as he walks past her – each time he leans in with a nudge – each time he places his hand on her back after a race – each time he tips his glasses forward on his nose and looks directly into her eyes to talk to her. She’ll feel noticed. She’ll feel seen. She’ll feel important. Until the day arrives that this feeling of being special becomes intertwined with other things.

I sit on the floor in my therapist’s office. She is slowly and carefully teaching me how to feel safe in my own body. She is helping me calm my jittery nerves as I sit across from her wrapped in a blanket. I am learning to trust that her care is real and genuine – that her offer of help does not come with strings attached. I am feeling the internal pull of wanting to lean into the safety that she offers me. I feel parts wanting to soften and accept her office and her presence as a safe place where I can lower my ever present protective guard. Yet I struggle to fully trust this feeling. As she offers to sit closer to me to provide comfort I feel a flurry of confusion swirl inside of me. Some parts want to reach out, hold on tight, and melt in the safety of her care while other parts of me get angry and loud inside. Their anger is not directed at my therapist, although they feel guarded and distrustful of her in these moments. Instead their anger is aimed inward at the parts that want her to move closer – the parts that wish to receive her care. They blame these parts for inviting harm, so they lash out at the feeling of softening into safety. They silence these parts that welcome her help by placing a barrier of resistance between them. These loud parts watch my therapy process unfold, connecting the dots to form immediate protective conclusions. Moving closer leads to warm feelings which leads to a trapdoor to betrayal. Holding hands leads to a comforting and calming reaction which leads to a lowered guard and an opening for attack. Eye contact leads to exposure which leads to longing for connection which welcomes the trap. No warm feelings. No sliding in close. No calming comfort. No connecting eye contact. Stand your ground, and don’t let her see you.

Grooming is the process of building a trusting and connecting relationship in order to manipulate and abuse. My 14 year old self was groomed by the predator that called himself her coach. She couldn’t possibly identify his seemingly innocent interactions over all of those months as anything different. My 14 year old self should not feel responsible for being lured in and falling into his carefully woven trap. What happened to her was the result of calculated grooming designed to fool everyone. And it worked. Yet parts of me were imprinted with a very strong and lasting self impression from that time. They are angry at the parts that welcomed him in and unwilling to allow any signs of manipulation to enter their space again.

My adult self understands the process we are working towards in the therapy room. My adult self understands I am paying a professional trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy to help me process and heal the trauma related physical sensations that are a present barrier in my life today. I keep thinking I need to bypass these voices that scream out from within. I keep thinking that healing comes from my adult self overriding whatever it is they are trying to communicate. It sounds and feels crazy inside. I don’t understand what they are feeling. It’s constantly conflicting and it doesn’t make any sense, so I get stuck trying to find words and can’t say anything at all. But what these parts feel and what they need to express is exactly where my healing resides. I need to learn how to release the confusion and ambivalence that I feel. I need to learn to express that parts of me want my therapist to sit close, and parts of me feel like they are sitting in the hallway at my school about to be tricked. I need to allow all parts to have a voice and a choice about how we heal. I may be the adult in the room, but it is the kids inside of me that hold the answers and direction for my healing.

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?

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.

The Grip of Betrayal

Acrylic painting – expression of a sexually abused teen – by Sara

They filled your mind with promises
An array of enticing colors
Leading you up a perilous climb
Achieving their desired seclusion

They lined your path with shackles
Disguised as your own choices
Led to a room with no exits, teetering
On a place demanding submission

Close enough to rescue that its light
Shines like a beacon upon you
Yet others cannot see what they do not wish to see
Leaving you doused in invisibility

They handed you poison dressed up as a toy
An undetectable trap
It feels heavy in your arms
Yet you dismiss its discomfort
Just as you were instructed

You were chosen
You were special
You stood out to them in some way

You hold their secrets
Quiet and steady
Not letting them see
How it makes you tremble

You were never meant to understand
The position they put you in
Blind obedience is the
Tower they constructed
In the labyrinth you now reside

This weight placed upon you
Was never your choice
Its ensnaring complexity
Contrived specifically for you
To lure you in and then slowly break
You into scattered pieces

I see your pain tucked in deep beneath your
Outward strength and courage
Far from their grip you stand frozen in time
Afraid to step down and see
The sight of your suffering
Might carry its own weight somehow worse than living in it

How can you know that it is safer below
Than the misery you are wrapped in
How can I ask more from you
Than what you have already given

Hidden Tears

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?