Lessons From The Body

We all have memories tied to different sensory experiences. The sight, sound, or smell of something can take us on a ride back to a memory that left a lasting impression. This is a gift when we are reminded of a loved one or of an experience we wish to treasure in our heart forever. Yet it is a curse when these experiences are attached to memories we wish to forget. In these moments we are swept up from safety and thrown back into the grip of despair – all in response to a simple benign sensory experience that enters our awareness.

In my teen years I was routinely sexually abused by my high school coach. The vast majority of these experiences of abuse occurred in his car. It was through his calculating planning of offering me a ride home from practice that he found opportunities to hurt me. He regularly found new secluded places to park his car away from the eyes of bystanders in order to take what he wanted from me. To this day, the sight of a car parked discretely away from others or with the windows blocked in some way elicits a strong feeling within me. When I first started acknowledging and speaking about my abuse these responses overwhelmed me. I could feel my heart pounding and this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that held this toxic concoction of fear, pain, disgust, and shame. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings so I would quietly hold and stuff the panic deep down inside of me. With the help of therapy I have since then learned to safely process and move through these experiences more effectively. Now when I see a parked car that triggers this nervous or panicky feeling I can both acknowledge the triggered parts of me and keep myself grounded in the safety of the present. Quietly to myself I can say words like, “of course that is scary to see”, followed by words like, “but it is just a car and you are safe now.” I don’t know that I will ever be free of these triggering moments, but by learning to safely move through them I can keep myself from being entirely swept away into the horrors of the past.

Recently, while working with my therapist, I have noticed a desire to physically “get small” when difficult feelings arise inside of me. At first this felt like a very natural, comforting, and self protective response for me – to tuck my legs in close and wrap my arms around them squeezing my body into the smallest space it can occupy. I have been expressing myself this way through art for as long as I can remember. It feels like home.

Yet in my therapist’s office, each time I allow my body to move into this position it desires, I feel an immediate sensation of relief and comfort followed by a barrage of memories of where the need for this position first emerged. These memories contain moments immediately after being abused when I would curl up my naked body and weep. So here I am in the present day trying to provide physical comfort to my body in the safe presence of my therapist, but the position I default to is one attached to trauma. It’s no wonder I can’t seem to stay present once I allow myself to move into this curled up position. I am instead swept away to a time of complete powerlessness.

Much like I learned how to safely respond to the sight of parked cars, I need to learn how to offer my body a new feeling of physical comfort. I need to learn to identify when my body wants to get small and begin to learn from it. What am I feeling inside that signals this need? Why does it feel that need right now? How else can I soothe this ache from within? Perhaps through careful curiosity I will uncover new ways to help my body feel safe today.

Self Care

I chase my hurt away
one stroke at a time
across the inviting canvas

Moving my brush
with enough intention
precision and speed
to evade the grip
of what claws at me
from deep within

Immersed in the colors
contours and textures
I welcome this ride
of fleeting freedom

A gift of escape
without the strings
attached to my other
less desirable choices

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

Take Me Away – #7

I recently started 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 now 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 one of my favorite places – Lake Tahoe. I was fortunate enough to live just a short drive away and call this stunning place my year round playground for over ten years. I soaked in the stunning winter scenery as I skied the surrounding mountains each winter. I explored the trails of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with hikes every summer. But I think some of my favorite Tahoe memories are of our fall and spring visits, when the crowds of people that flock to this area quiet down and you are left with the simple quiet beauty of a lake that shines as blue as the sky above it. While I no longer live nearby, the countless memories I have of adventuring on, in, and around Lake Tahoe will always hold a special place in my heart that only a home can occupy.

Take Me Away – #6

I recently started 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 now 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 southeastern France where the striking peaks of the Alps surround the beautiful still waters of Lac d’ Annecy. Years ago my husband and I spent two weeks cycling through France while we followed along and cheered on the professional racers of the Tour de France. On one particularly long bike ride we ascended the 5,010 ft. Col de la Forclaz to wait and watch the racers climb up and over the summit. After the flurry of helicopters, racers, and team cars passed by we then descended the mountain and found ourselves pedaling alongside the bright blue/green waters of Lac d’ Annecy. I recall briefly stopping at this location where colorful flowers filled the outdoor seating of a restaurant. It was a beautiful spot for a photo break, and it also gave me a chance to calm my nerves after speeding down the steep, narrow switchbacks of the alps on my bike.

As my first and only experience in France, it was amazing on this trip to not only visit the iconic sights in Paris but also to have the unique opportunity to explore various and more remote parts of the country on a bike, soaking in the beauty and charm of the many small towns we ventured through. It was truly an adventure I will never forget.

Internal Parts

When your voice grows quiet what does your mind say? Do you sense a recurring tone or message from within, or do you experience a variety of internal processing content and intensity? I imagine for most, internal dialogue depends on situational factors. Yet the voices that rise up in these instances are uniquely their own. What do you hear in your own stillness?

Some of my internal voices were born from childhood sexual abuse. They seem to be the loudest and strongest voices, often muting others that may exist. Yet even though decades have passed and I am safely away from abuse now, these parts are still on heightened alert maintaining their dutiful roles. Only now these roles no longer serve me. Instead they are often a hindrance to feelings of safety and security and developing healing connection in my life.

My efforts to identify and untangle these various internal parts that live deep within me has proven to be a difficult task. It feels like these parts wish to exist independently and without my awareness. When I try to shine a light on them they retreat – like cockroaches they scatter and flee into hiding. Approaching these parts with words often leaves me empty handed. They don’t seem to communicate with words. So recently I ventured into the task of attempting to communicate with them in a different way – expressing what they feel in images that they could visually present to me.

I held a pencil in my hand and without deliberate effort I let it move across the page, sketching what each of these parts felt like inside of me. Before long my page began to fill with grayscale images. Then color emerged as I sunk deeper into this exercise. When the images and colors stopped freely moving across my page I set my pencils down, understanding that although my drawing was not complete four distinct parts showed up for me that day.

The curled up grey figure at the bottom is shame. I have been drawing different versions of her since I was a child (see My Shame is a Shapeshifter for more drawings of shame). She feels the need to hold herself desperately together, shrinking into the smallest space that she can occupy. Shame is so powerful and pervasive that she feels it consuming her, changing her in a way that will make her unrecognizable – losing her form – blurring the lines between who she is and who she fears to be.

The fiery figure above her is anger. Anger conveniently positions itself over shame for a reason. Anger is fueled and intensified by feelings of shrinking cowering weakness. Anger lashes its fury outward at times, directing focus and blame on those that hurt us or left us susceptible to harm. Yet it is often an inward path that anger chooses – fueling thoughts of self blame and self loathing as its weapon of choice.

The dark hooded figure turns its back on everyone else. She outwardly projects that she doesn’t want to see nor does she want to be seen. Yet she stands nearby, quietly wrestling with what she feels as a need to be noticed – a need to be seen – a need to be saved. This one feels like a teenager inside of me.

The purple figure feels heavy and desperate. The heavy weight of what she carries is dripping and oozing out of her. She looks and feels like pain to me – a frightening and messy kind of pain.

Four parts showed up in this first attempt at visually meeting my internal parts. I know there are more – I can feel that there are more parts within me. They just need patience and safety before they will step forward and present themselves to me. Drawing these figures does not rid me of their powerful presence. My goal is not to erase them (even though at times I wish to do so). Instead I am learning that I need to understand them. I need to build a bridge between my current self and each of these parts. I need to learn to work with them instead of against them. They were created out of necessity. They were created in me and for me. Learning to build new connections with them might allow me to help redefine their roles in my life to better suit my current needs. It feels like a daunting task ahead of me, but it is also one that I recognize as necessary.

What has helped you to identify and connect with your internal parts?

The Lion’s Den

She enters, inching her way forward into the darkness, unsure of what she will encounter. She is here fueled with purpose and armed with selflessness. Routinely she will remind herself of this in an effort to remain focused on her mission, knowing that any deviation may lead her into the grip of what she fears most.

One small step at a time she creeps, grasping tightly onto the cloak she is draped in. This cloak offers her protection – her armor – her shield. It conceals all of the parts that exist inside of her, providing shelter and safety from the elements that exist here.

She feels these parts shiver as she ventures deeper into this place. Each step awakens a different part, sending small electrical impulses creeping, jolting, and flashing their way through her.

She wishes to peek beneath the cloak to settle all of these disrupted parts. Yet she fears that unbuttoning her shield will expose them to unimaginable harm. They must be protected, and this place is not safe for them to emerge.

Instead she holds tightly onto her cloak, wrapping it fully around herself, hoping that the parts underneath can also feel this firm embrace. Gripping, squeezing, and inching along she continues – one tiny step at a time. This is her responsibility. This is what she needs. All she can do is hold herself tightly together until she exits the lion’s den.

Take Me Away – #4

I recently started 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 now 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 Charleston, South Carolina – a place that I hold very dear to my heart. Charleston is a charming city with so much history and character. This particular scene is from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. The trees in this area are enormous – with branches covered in spanish moss that reach and stretch out wide, sometimes even kissing the ground.

This painting was just what I needed today – to be taken away in the midst of the enormous weight of stress I have felt all day. This painting took me about six hours to complete – roughly the same amount of time my mom was in surgery today, having a cancerous tumor removed from her bile duct. With a stressful presidential election also weighing on my mind, painting helped to slow down my thoughts and allowed me to breathe and wait for the intermittent updates from the hospital. It also kept me away from focusing solely on the ongoing election drama. Shortly after completing this painting I received word that my mom’s surgery was successful and complete. The cancer has been removed, and now she has a long difficult road of recovery ahead of her.

I am grateful that painting has become a healthy and helpful outlet for me. It allows me to express myself, and it helps me stay grounded. Today certainly presented a need for staying grounded. This painting felt like a much needed gift to my activated nervous system on a day where much less healthy coping mechanisms felt tempting.