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?

The Butterfly Effect

Perhaps you have heard of the term or have seen the movie. The butterfly effect is the idea that even the smallest of incidents can have a dramatic impact on a future event. More specifically the name comes from the analogy that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado in another part of the world. Aside from watching the movie years ago this is not a concept I have ever given any thought to, but the name came to my mind when reflecting about a small moment that occurred in my kitchen just the other day.

I had just gathered our mail from the mailbox and was sorting through it on my kitchen counter when I came across a letter addressed to my eleven year old daughter. It was a letter from her 6th grade social studies teacher. I paused when I read his name on the return address label. I felt a very uncomfortable feeling start to rise inside of me simply holding this letter in my hand. I attempted to dismiss those feelings by rationalizing why this letter would exist. It is the end of the school year and my daughter had given this teacher a small gift and handwritten card. This was undoubtedly a thank you note. I swallowed my discomfort and called to my daughter to let her know that she received a letter in the mail. When she yelled back, asking who it was from, I answered. My answer prompted a sudden jolt up from whatever she was doing in our family room into an excited trot to meet me in the kitchen. I noticed her excitement and again felt the uncomfortable feeling rise. I tried to dismiss it again and handed the letter to her, paying close attention to every detail in this moment. She quickly tore open the letter and with a very upright and eager posture she read each word to herself, wide eyed and with a slight smile. When she finished reading I took a breath and asked her if I could read it too. Her hesitation followed by an uncomfortable no sent alarms blazing inside of me. Still trying to discretely silence those alarms and press her slightly, I continued. When she answered that she didn’t want to share the letter because it felt too personal, I struggled to contain myself. However, my everyday attempts to not burden my kids with the aftermath of my own past trauma kept me outwardly composed. With a curious tone I explained that a thank you note from her teacher for an end of year gift that I purchased shouldn’t be anything to keep from me. She indicated that it felt more personal than a regular thank you and continued to hold the note close to her.

How can I respond in this moment? What am I supposed to say? My insides were screaming, “That’s how it started! That’s how it started!”
What am I supposed to do?

I was 14 years old when my abuser entered my life. He was my high school coach. I developed a growing connection and looked up to him throughout my first year on the team. I was unaware of all of his subtle grooming tactics designed to gain my trust and slowly entrap me. The summer after my freshman year on the team, just a few months before he sexually abused me for the first time, I received a letter from him. I remember my nervous excitement when I received that first letter. This man that I admired and whose approval and attention I craved, was opening a line of communication that transcended our coach/athlete relationship. It made my adolescent heart feel special. The letters continued back and forth that summer, progressing from strictly sharing training details, to then more playful, personal, and connecting dialogue. By the time summer ended and our team reconnected for our first fall practice, I could sense a difference in the way he looked at me. Looking back now I understand what that difference was. He knew his grooming of me over the previous year had been successful and now he could move onto the stage that he had been carefully preparing and waiting for. That point in time marked the beginning of over three years of very regular and intensely traumatizing sexual abuse.

Standing in my kitchen with my daughter clutching this note from a male teacher against her chest was all I needed to be taken on this violent ride of terror. In the seconds it took me to respond I felt every emotion from the nervous excitement of receiving the first letters from my coach to the visceral fears and aversion to touch that my body still carries twenty five years after all that he did to me. I had to somehow swallow all of that down and respond to my innocent daughter standing before me. Without an ounce of calm inside of me, I conjured up calm and responded with a polite request for her to share this note with me. After a brief hesitation she complied and handed it over. I read through it, outwardly projecting a composed caring presence, while inwardly frantically teasing apart everything from the stationary he selected, the length of the note, the handwriting, down to every single word and punctuation choice.

I hated this note and everything about it. I hated this man for violating our safe space and reaching into our home to connect with my daughter. I hated every male teacher she has had and will ever have for bringing on this unbearable worry. I hated the man who abused me for causing all of these extreme reactions I feel every day as a mom. I hated that the hurt he caused decades ago still has the power to hurt me now.

I feel no greater responsibility in my life than to protect the little ones I’ve brought onto this earth from the horrors that were inflicted upon me. I feel this weight with every breath I take. It is exhausting to be on high alert at every moment. It is crushing to feel pulled into the violent ride of terror that this small moment caused.

This little envelope that arrived in the mail and contained no more than a thoughtful and well articulated message of gratitude was the butterfly, and all of this unrelenting torment unleashed inside of me as a result. This is not a new experience for me. This is just one day – just one example of how the smallest moments can trigger the greatest storms inside my wounded soul.

Simple Precious Moments

The concept of resourcing is very familiar to trauma survivors engaged in therapy. Resourcing is the means of finding and creating a state of relaxation in a hyper aroused nervous system. It is a calming communication with the brain. Resourcing draws one’s mind and body away from past dangers and into the safety of a memory, place, or person that elicits a calming response in the nervous system. As trauma survivors our brains were trained to be on guard in a hypervigilant state of self protection. To a survivor, relaxation itself can feel threatening. Resourcing becomes a challenging skill that requires attention and practice.

For me, resourcing has always involved my children. Holding and cuddling with them in the corner of our sectional couch is where I currently feel my most calm, relaxed, peaceful state. It is where my nervous system can take a necessary break – like coming up for fresh air after holding my breath under water.

I find myself looking towards and leaning on my children for healing comfort quite often. It is amazing to think about how much these two precious beings that depend and rely on me for comfort, safety, and care can also satisfy those exact needs in me.

I find myself, in the midst of the tumultuous feelings of uncertainty and worry that this pandemic has thrown into our daily lives, focusing and resourcing more on the simple moments of joy that my children offer. They have recently been enjoying our new tree swing that my husband built for them. As I sit and watch them play from our kitchen window I notice my breathing slow down and a sense of calm wash over me, allowing me to soak in these simple precious moments with each breath I take in.