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.

Inherited Fear

What if loving you is not enough?
What if I look at you every day but never fully see you?
What if the way I view you is distorted by what I wish to see?

What if I am unable to recognize the things I fear the most?
What if harm creeps into the spaces between my love and your needs?
What if I spend my life trying to keep you from knowing the darkness I know only to lead you straight to its doorstep?

What if my lessons teach you to swallow your pain?
What if my methods create a barrier that drives you away from me?
What if my efforts lead you to retreat within yourself?

What if I thought I was doing enough?
What if I believed that your mask held your truth?
What if I never saw your tears…your pain…your need for me?
What if I couldn’t even see the ledge you are clinging onto?

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.