The Stories We Hold

watercolor painting – by Sara

I know it feels messy, scary, and loud. I know it feels as though you are tainted – that you will stain everything within your reach. But no amount of running, hiding, or hand scrubbing will take this feeling away. What if you could reach out and intentionally glide those saturated hands across a canvas. What would we see? What could we learn? Maybe freedom comes from releasing the story that exists within. What might our world look like if we let our colors be seen?

Take Me Away – #9

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

This painting kept me close to home. A place where a creek brings fresh snow melt down from the surrounding mountains. The trails that meander through this area are ones I visit frequently. Whether I am enjoying a quiet run in solitude or a family walk filled with conversation and laughter, the beauty of the surroundings combined with the steady sounds of the water flowing and splashing along the rocks brings peace to my soul.

Take Me Away – #8

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

This painting took me away to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. This image was captured along a family hike to Emerald Lake that we ventured into in early spring. The trails were snow covered and the lakes were completely frozen and blanketed in snow. We came prepared that day with our yaktrax securely attached to our hiking shoes to provide some traction on an otherwise slippery 4 mile trail. The clear blue skies created a striking contrast against the snow covered mountains. This hike is one I hope to revisit in various seasons to witness the ever changing beauty of the surroundings and impressive colors that it offers.

When All Roads Lead To Failure

I crossed the finish line, sweat pouring from me, exhausted and depleted. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know how to feel. I knew it in the midst of the race. I knew it deep inside when I was unable or unwilling to tap into the part of me that would allow an effort to dig deeper and go faster in the midst of hurt. I felt defeated. This was not my best race – not by a long shot. Disappointment poured over me, and this moment immediately attached itself to failure. I failed myself with a poor championship race performance. I failed my team and our chances of a top finish. I failed my coach – the one who I thought believed in me – the one whose approval I worked so hard for – the one who used his position of authority to manipulate and abuse me. I crossed the finish line that day and lowered my head in shame. I knew I let everyone down. I failed. 

My mom was a spectator at this race. She approached me afterwards, proud of my effort, proud to be my mom. She didn’t know I fell short of my goal. She had no idea what my goals even were. But she was there cheering for me – no matter what. I hardly even acknowledged her in that moment. His lessons over the years ingrained a message deep within that no one else cared – no one else saw me – no one else paid attention – no one would support me like he could. To keep me close and obedient he taught me that everyone else in my life was failing me. So in that moment I followed his lessons and deliberately brushed past my own mom. I ignored her out of anger – anger towards myself and my own failure that day and anger towards her for failing to see me – failing to really know me – failing to care enough to know what I was aiming for that day. Whatever she wished to say, I didn’t want to hear. So I walked away from her. 

When I reflect upon this moment today, in the midst of a cyclone of feelings around facing a very recent grim prognosis for my mom, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My reaction right now is that I failed as a daughter that day – along with so many other days. 

I don’t know what to do with all that I am facing. Memories of our relationship from throughout my life are replaying in my mind. Each moment leaves me feeling this sense of failure as a daughter. All of the anger I’ve carried about not being seen by her feels trivial. Instead I want to push all of that aside and focus on caring for, supporting, and loving my mom. But my brain can’t seem to do just that. Instead I pull apart each of these memories and find fault and self blame within all of them. Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my default response self judgement, self blame, and self hate? Maybe hating myself somehow feels like an alternative to facing the pain of losing her. Why can’t I just be sad? I’m losing my mom, and while our relationship has been complicated, I love her and don’t want her to die. I feel the helplessness of this situation driving me towards self blame, maybe because it’s something I can control and it’s something I know. I can hate myself for all of my shortcomings. I can be angry with myself because I’ve been doing that my whole life. That comes easy. But it is also hurting all of the parts of me that I am learning to tend to. Directing my anger inward is reminding all of these young parts what they have always believed. It is their fault. They are worthless. They failed again.

Recently we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. She is a teenager now. On the day of this celebration she encountered an issue with one of her gifts and became quickly and increasingly preoccupied with correcting the problem and making it just right. Tears began flowing from her out of frustration. All of this build up and excitement for this special gift that suddenly in the moment was not measuring up to her expectations. Then mixed with her own tears came self judgment. “I don’t want to cry. I don’t even know why I am crying,” she screamed. Of course she didn’t know. She’s 13 years old and her body is coursing with hormones and changes that make it hard to understand any overwhelming feeling. As a mom I know this. But in that moment my own ingrained messages got in the way of meeting my daughter the way she needed me. In that moment her tears felt ungrateful and spoiled to me. All of the energy, thought, and care I put into making her birthday special, and here she is crying that this one thing isn’t absolutely perfect. I could feel my anger rising inside. I just wanted to lash out and tell her to shut up – that she was being ridiculous, spoiled, and incredibly ungrateful. While I could feel myself boiling on the inside, I didn’t lash out at her. I didn’t say a word. I know my silence sent its own message to my daughter, but in that moment silence was the best I could offer. I found some space to quietly remove myself from the situation, and I allowed her dad to proceed with helping to solve the issue with the gift. As I gave myself this space I started to feel a shift. I began to experience anger towards my own anger. How can I not make room for what is very clearly a response in my daughter caused by an overwhelm of emotions and hormones? She was even telling me that in her frustration with her own tears. My anger and the way I wanted to respond to her in that moment felt so strong, so automatic, and so familiar. And the more I sat with it the more I realized that my knee jerk reaction was exactly the opposite reaction I wish to have for my child in this moment. My knee jerk reaction is what I experienced throughout my own childhood. 

Don’t cry. Don’t be dramatic. Don’t be so self involved. Get over yourself. Your tears are weak. Your tears are pathetic. Pull yourself together, and get back in your place.

My reaction in that moment was nothing more than wanting to stuff my daughter’s feelings down and teach her that the tears she didn’t understand were ridiculous and should not be there. My reaction in that moment wanted to make me feel more comfortable by shaming my daughter out of her own expression of feelings. This anger I felt quickly turned to shame. By wishing to stuff her feelings, I am failing to meet her – failing to guide her – failing to see her – failing to show her a healthier way than what I learned. What if I am not equipped to model a better way for her? What if she will struggle in the ways I have struggled and experience the same level of lasting hurt? What if I am hurting my kids? This spiral of thoughts continued and attached to other pieces of evidence in my brain to convince me that I am failing the most important people in my life. And if that’s what I’m doing then what good am I to anyone?

After a little time, tears, and along with a heavy dose of caring support these strong feelings have subsided just enough to make it possible to look at these situations with a bit more clarity. I understand how quickly present feelings can get tangled up with old ones and make it nearly impossible for me to see clearly. I know that my daughter entering her teenaged years attaches to fears in my mind about what happened to me in my past. It makes me constantly overwhelmed and fearful that I am falling short of protecting her from the pain I experienced. It blinds me of all of my strengths and magnifies my shortcomings, convincing me that I am failing her. I know that my own mom is facing this prognosis that is ripping her away from life, away from me. I am scared, and I don’t know how to do this. I know that recent shifts and ruptures in the relationships within my own family of origin is making me feel more alone at a time when I need support more than ever. I know it all just feels like too much and makes it hard to say no to the temptations of numbing relief that simply result in an added layer of failure and shame. And I know I want to do better and be better for my kids as well as for the trembling hurting young one that resides inside of me. Sometimes I just don’t know how.

Conditions of Worth

Care was always conditional. It was a matter of consequences and rewards. Refusing to comply with the things he wanted from me always led to the same series of potential outcomes. I would be ignored. He would stop coaching, helping, and speaking to me. He would threaten to fire my brother whom he craftily hired as his assistant coach. He would no longer help me try to earn the college scholarship I was working hard to achieve. I would be alone with no one to turn to – no one to care for me – as his efforts to keep me isolated drove a wedge between me and everyone else in my life. By contrast, complying with the things he asked of me meant I would be given gifts. The gifts arrived in the form of extra attention – extra coaching – extra care. These types of rewards always made me feel so special. The gifts were also sometimes more tangible – a new sweatshirt, a new pair of running shoes, a bracelet, a special handwritten note from him, among many other things. 

After abusing me in his car he would often stop at the drive through of a nearby McDonalds before taking me home. Growing up in a large family without much discretionary income it was rare for us to eat out for dinner. A fast food meal was an infrequent and very special treat. The first time my abuser bought me a meal at McDonalds after violating me I was excited. I got to pick whatever I wanted, and I ate every bite of that meal. The next time he drove me home I wondered if I’d get this treat again. I hoped for it. I waited for it. Whether my body was treated violently and physically injured or it was exposed to the kind of touch that produced feelings of pleasure, I always hoped for a treat afterwards. And I wondered what it meant on the days that he took me straight home without a fast food stop. It was confusing. Did I do something wrong? Was I not enough of whatever he wanted that day? What was I supposed to do differently? This added a layer of confusion to the overwhelm that I was already facing in these experiences of abuse. Since his treatment of me was always determined by my level of obedience to his demands, the meaning my adolescent brain assigned to these moments was that I was not worthy that day.

As I work now to heal the wounds that still ache from this young girl inside of me, I have taken notice of some confusing reactions that I feel at times. I recently wrote about the somatic work that I am pursuing with my therapist and how calm and comforted I have felt from receiving her safe and caring contact in response to releasing a flood of emotions in front of her. While it has been confusing for my system I have felt held, safe, and cared for in these therapy sessions. Since then I have experienced a session in which memories and feelings from this adolescent part of me were once again expressed through words and art. This session did not lead to the same type of emotional release nor did it result in the close comforting contact that was a part of my previous session, and yet it still felt meaningful, productive, and necessary. I reached the end of this session without feeling anything particularly off or left unaddressed in the moment. But this strange feeling came over me later that day. It was a disturbing and questionable feeling inside of me. After spending some time with this feeling and seeking help from a trusted friend I was able to begin to untangle it.

The strange feeling I experienced after that therapy session was one of longing and regret. It was this deep inner feeling of, “I would do anything to be held in there again. Why didn’t I fall apart and let myself be cared for the way I need?” It was this feeling of coming up short – not doing enough or being enough to deserve to be held and cared for. This feeling of regret for not doing something right and longing for something that was missing made me also begin to doubt my own feelings, experiences, and needs. It forced me to question the authenticity of what I express in therapy. Am I somehow subconsciously trying to perform in some way to receive the care that parts of me desperately need? Is my desire to crumble merely a manipulative effort to get what I want? Is this the same as that familiar feeling of wanting to be good enough to earn a trip to McDonalds? My adult brain is fairly certain this is not the case, but this young part is convinced that her actions determine whether or not she is worthy of care. This young part of me still wanted to feel physically seen and held and nurtured even though no tears emerged that day, but the meaning my brain assigned to not receiving this type of contact was that I must have done something wrong. I must not be deserving enough for it, and I must do better next time.

After careful introspection I began to understand why that feeling would arise here. Of course I felt a reaction like this. Of course I felt like I did something wrong. Of course I was left feeling desperate to be held and simultaneously inadequate and unworthy. After all, the lasting message for this young part inside of me still remains. Care is conditional. It is always a matter of consequences and rewards.

When the Body Speaks

She shifts her body back into her seat, puts her seatbelt on, and tries to make sense of what has just happened. She is unsure of what to feel as her system is overwhelmed with emotions around the details that replay in her mind. She needs a guide to help her navigate the confusion that swirls from within. But he is all that she has. So she turns her uncertain glance in his direction. Upon noticing a slight smile on his face she thinks she must have done something right. But she wonders why she doesn’t feel right inside.

Moments ago she was scared. Moments ago she was lost in overwhelm. Moments ago she felt sick inside and wanted to get far away from here. She was touched by a man that she calls her coach, and yet moments ago her body responded with pleasure to his sickening touch.

Her first orgasm was experienced in his car in response to what he does to her. Each time his touch results in this response from her body layer upon layer of evidence that she asked for it – that she wanted it – that she is to blame for it piles upon her. How is a child supposed to process this tangled mess of pleasure and pain of sexual abuse?

I have been told that my young body did exactly what it was biologically designed to do in those moments. I have been told that I should carry no burden of responsibility or blame or shame for how my body reacted to what was done to me. This response from my adolescent body was not an indication that I asked for it, was defective in some way, or was complicit in what was repeatedly done to me. The only thing it indicates is that my body did exactly what it was physically designed to do.

This has been an incredibly difficult concept for my adult brain alone to accept. For the young parts of me that remember what it feels like to sit in his car on the drive home after he touched me it is still so confusing. If he was hurting me, why did it feel good sometimes? If I was so scared and wanted to go home, why did I relax and let his hands access everywhere he wished to touch? And why did I let it feel good? Doesn’t that say something about me? Doesn’t that mean there is something inherently wrong with me?

I sit curled up on the floor in my therapist’s office. Our work together is aimed at releasing the stored physical sensations I experience today as a result of childhood trauma. As she guides me through this session I notice that the calming effect I can achieve from the slow deep breaths I am focusing on only goes as far as my tensed and coiled up body position will allow. She gently invites me to uncoil in front of her, reassuring me that I am safe – that she will not hurt me. Immediately I begin to feel my hands, arms, and shoulders begin to tremble. The mere suggestion of letting my guard down in front of her begins to overwhelm my system. I keep trying to breathe, relax my body, and stop the shaking. But she then asks if I can try to stop resisting it – instead allow the shaking to come if it wishes to come. She gently reassures that it is safe to tremble there. And with that comes a wave of trembling, shaking, and eventually a flood of tears as my body releases the enormous wave of energy around this fear of vulnerably relaxing from my protective curled up position.

I do not have a sense how long I was shaking and crying in there, but after some time it slowly began to fade. First the tears stopped. Then the shaking slowly softened. Afterwards I felt a calm and relaxed state restore throughout my body. My therapist gently encouraged me to notice both the physical calm I felt in my body along with the safe and nurturing care I received from her. It was safe to relax there. It was safe to lower my guard and release the stored pain my body carries.

I noticed every bit of this. I felt my shoulders relax. I felt my breathing slow down. I felt my hands unclench. I felt comforted by her words that I let enter my ears and embrace me from within. It felt freeing and calming. It felt incredible. But I felt something else too. In that moment I chalked it up to being freaked out by what had just occurred. After all, it was an incredibly frightening experience to welcome an overwhelm of uncontrollable shaking and crying that took over my body. But there was another feeling – a feeling that has continued to linger unidentified until right now. As I sat on the floor in front of her after my body trembled violently and tears poured from my eyes, I felt exposed. What just happened? That was terrifying. Did I do something wrong? Did I do something right? What does she think of me? Am I ever going to be able to look her in the eye again? I felt an urge to apologize. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I was far too confused and disoriented to say any of it out loud. So I just tried to focus on the calm I physically felt while the other feelings waited in the background for me to acknowledge later.

Away from her office I realized that this experience connected directly to something for a young part inside of me – the young part that remembers putting her seatbelt on after something felt both horribly painful and terrifying and also somehow good. This part whose body betrayed her by responding with pleasure to his touch sat frozen on the floor in my therapist’s office scared that she did it again. Did she just let her body feel good when something bad was happening? Was this feeling of calm the same as what she knows from long ago?

Adult me understands the difference. Adult me understands what we accomplished in the therapy room that day. Adult me understands the importance of this approach to healing the wounds that linger and impact me today. But this young part is left rattled and wondering, “Did I do something bad again?”

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.