Polluted Lessons

Her disheartened frame rests on the bleachers, shoulders slumped forward while tracing her fingers across the worn strap of her duffel bag. She tries to hide how upset she is. “They are just safety pins,” she repeats to herself, half reassuring and half berating the disruption she feels stirring within. But she knows they were more than just safety pins – and the others know that too.

As a runner she was accustomed to wearing a number during each race – a bib number – a paper number fastened to the front of a runner’s jersey with safety pins securing each corner in place. Attaching a bib number to your jersey is a routine part of cross country and track & field. During her early teenage years she developed a habit of saving these safety pins after each race. It started after a particularly strong race performance as a small token of remembrance of that sweet feeling of victory, and it evolved into her own special post-race routine. After each meet she would remove the number from her jersey and then carefully connect the safety pins onto the white strap of the duffel bag she brought to each meet. It wasn’t long before she collected a very noticeable display of these pins on her bag.

Other girls on her team knew of this routine. They also knew of other things. They knew their coach spent more time with her than he spent with them. They knew he drove her home from practices, and they watched him treat her differently than how he treated other girls on the team. Whether it came from anger or frustration or whether it was an innocent moment, one day several girls were preparing for their race at a track meet when they realized they didn’t have any safety pins. They approached her on the bleachers and asked if they could use some of hers. She realized in this moment that as meaningful as her display of pins was to her, to others they presented nothing more than a back up resolution for their current problem. Feeling unable to refuse their request she unfastened several pins and handed them over. Her teammates collected the pins and disappeared off to their race. Then, as she sat by herself clutching the strap and looking over the new empty gap created in her carefully lined up display, her coach approached her. In private he spoke to her about trust. He spoke to her about loyalty. He spoke to her about self protection.

When she returned home that evening after the track meet she used a pair of scissors to remove the strap of safety pins from her duffel bag. Then while staring at the empty space along the strap and hearing her coach’s words in her mind, she picked up a black sharpie and wrote the words “the lesson” along that open space on the strap. In that moment the lesson was crystal clear to her. The lesson she learned was that others cannot be trusted. Never reveal to others what is important to you. They will use it against you. They will use it to hurt you. The deeper lesson that was impressed upon her that day was one that reinforced all that her coach had been working hard to sear into her adolescent brain. His words were, “they do not care about you.” He used that moment to impress upon her what he had been training her to believe. He was the only one that she could count on – he was the only one that she could trust – he was the only one looking out for her. Even more, he had her convinced that others were trying to sabotage her – trying to bring her down. Her lasting lesson from him was to stay close by his side and to maintain a distance from others to keep herself and what she cared about protected.

It worked. She hid that strap of safety pins in her bedroom where no one could steal them – where no one could take from her again. And then she returned to school and to practice each day believing that he was helping her – protecting her – caring for her.

This memory jumped into my mind recently after a therapy session, and it led me into a bit of a tailspin. First it caused me to react in a very unnecessary and reflexive way, berating myself for trusting my therapist and believing that she cares. Then later it caused me to step back and pull apart where these feelings originate. Part of my therapy work involves using my writing and art to help me work through and process various emotions and memories that surface. My therapist and I have maintained an agreement from the start that some between session communication and sharing of my writing and art is welcome. After a particularly difficult session I shared some writing that triggered some intense wobbly feelings inside. I reached out through email and shared my concerns as well as the writing that accompanied it. My therapist, away for a long weekend, did not respond. Days passed and I found myself growing increasingly unsettled inside. When I finally heard from her on the morning of my next session, I received an apology for not replying sooner and a brief explanation that she was unfortunately out of reach for a long weekend. My adult self understood and accepted this immediately. I understand what this therapy relationship is and is not. I understand that I am not entitled to unlimited access of my therapist. But the little wounded ones within that we have been working hard to create safety and space for do not know this. They freaked out. They were on fire for days and days without a life line. They thought they’d been tricked. They felt wrong for having let her see the vulnerable parts of them that have been softening in her presence. They went right back to the damn bleachers, holding onto that duffel bag strap. In an instant this young wounded girl within me was swept away to a time when a lesson around trust and self protection became polluted with the calculating messages from a man who used his position of power and authority to deliberately hurt and abuse her.

Some lessons I’ve learned throughout my life are very clear and easy to make sense of. But the things I learned about myself and others throughout the years where regular sexual abuse occurred can at times feel so cloudy, confusing, and nearly impossible to untangle. I don’t fully understand why this particular memory pushed forward so strongly in that moment outside of my therapist’s office. But what I do know is that past and present feelings often feel so thoroughly and painfully intertwined.

Perhaps the new lesson I can learn from this recent experience is that voicing the hurt from the young wounded one within is not only important but it’s a very necessary part of my healing work. Providing the opportunity for these silenced parts to have a voice now – to safely express the hurt that shows up today will help to reveal the lasting hurt they have been burdened with. It can help to shine a light on the wounds that need care. Perhaps allowing this young one to voice her pain and all that she carries is precisely how I can begin to untangle the polluted lessons that exist within.

Marble Jar

I have an unhealthy tendency to look for evidence to support my belief that I am alone and not cared for. Like an internal scorecard, I keep a tally of incidents to prove that others cannot be trusted. This is a highly effective tool for self protection, and it is also a guarantee for loneliness and isolation. Perhaps to counter this faulty pattern of mine I can try to infuse a more hopeful approach in building and developing relationships.

Trust is built over many tiny moments – our brains record and store these moments, building a case for growing safety and connection in relationships. The hope is that over time safe people emerge in your life that can hold space for all of you in a genuine and unconditional way. Each trust building interaction adds reinforcement and stability to the relationship, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connection while keeping small disruptions within this healthy environment from fracturing the relationship beyond repair.

Brene Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar to demonstrate this idea. Each time I show up for a friend in a meaningful way a marble is added to my jar, over time creating a solid foundation of trust in our relationship. Marble upon marble of fueling connection helps to build safety and stability. When, as a flawed human, I fall short of expectations and a marble is lost we still have a full jar to lean on and can continue to rebuild and grow from those small breaches.

Long ago, I was not seen and was consequently routinely abused in plain sight. Trust was used as a weapon against me. My high school coach carefully manipulated his way into the most trusted and valued position in my life. Over the course of a year of grooming he deliberately and methodically crafted moments to fill his marble jar and guided me into a position of complete trust and obedience. He then smashed the marble jar right over my head the day he first violated me. His actions over the course of the following several years deadened the parts of me that could soften in the safe presence of another person. And from those moments new internal protective parts were formed to try to keep harm away. Decades later I carry these protective parts into each new relationship I encounter. They have a keen sense of danger. They expect it, releasing warning signs to keep me at arms length from others at all times.

I have a new therapist. As with all new relationships I am guarded. Yet I show up to my appointments trying to let down this guard in order to seek help for the wounded parts that tremble inside of me. My rational brain tells me that I need to open up and let her in in order to receive her help. Yet the guarded parts of me will not be subverted. These parts try to convince me that she cannot be trusted. They reach and search for evidence to prove that her care is not real, trying to fill her scorecard with enough distrusting tally marks to keep me far from her. I know two things about this response in me – this was a very critical life saving protective defense that was created inside of me long ago, and it is no longer serving to help me but is in fact now a hindrance for me.

In one of my first appointments with my new therapist I brought with me a series of drawings and paintings that represent various internal parts of me. I did not hold expectations around what it would feel like to share these with her. In that moment I was merely trying to bring more of myself in front of her. As I sat across from her and opened the folder revealing each piece of artwork, she watched intently. After I held up and described each piece that I chose to share she then leaned in and asked if she could take a closer look. I reached across the space between us and handed them to her. Then I watched as she slid down from her chair onto the floor, carefully spreading these pieces of me all around her. She then picked them up one by one and studied them. I watched the way she held each piece, bringing a few of them in close to her as she described what she saw and felt in them. That moment left a mark on me that I could not identify in session but worked to unpack in solitude afterwards. The parts of me that I brought into her office that day had never been held that way by another person. She saw those wounded parts of me and offered comforting support in the attentive way she held and tended to each one of them.

I have since then been trying to understand how all of my internal parts feel about her and the help, care, and support she is offering. From the youngest parts I feel a hopeful longing. They want to crawl out of the darkness closer to her. They want her to see how much they hurt. They want her help. Other parts of me are harder to convince. They keep looking for the trapdoor. They are convinced that her words are hollow and will just lead us to more hurt and isolated misery. And then there is the adult me in the room – the one that carries around all of these fractured pieces that exist inside of me. I sit before her and wrestle with all of these conflicting thoughts and feelings and am often unable to make a sound. None of it makes sense. It’s a tangled mess of incomplete thoughts, layered with fragmented images and sensory experiences. In those moments I cannot answer how I am feeling. I’m not withholding. I simply can’t grab hold of anything. It’s all spinning, tumbling, and tangling around inside of me. I don’t have a voice in those moments. No one does. It feels like a crowded bus in an uproar with all passengers fighting for the drivers seat, but no one has control. The bus just gets jerked in different directions while moving at a higher and higher speed.

I keep coming back to that moment in her office with my artwork and checking in with all of my internal parts. How do they feel about the way she held us that day? The parts that want to lunge forward into the comfort of her arms believe in her. They are craving to be seen and cared for so badly that they are ready to trust her. This feels reckless and naive to other parts that struggle to believe. They impose a judging eye roll while they resume their scorecard tallies. These are the parts that need more time. These parts need more marbles added to the jar before they will soften in front of her. So that is precisely what I have decided to give them – more time and more opportunity to build trust. These parts prefer to hold onto questions and thoughts because they fear that releasing them gives another person power over them. But what if I can allow these thoughts and questions to emerge? What if I can lay down my scorecard for a moment and provide an opportunity to offer my therapist just one small marble at a time?