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 Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. This lake was truly breathtaking with the surrounding mountain peaks and glaciers that serve as a backdrop beyond the beautiful blue/green water. On this trip we took years ago, my husband and I enjoyed a morning boat tour on this lake and then spent the rest of the day hiking nearby. My favorite memories of this day include watching a deer swim beside the boat as we toured the lake. After the boat ride we hiked a trail called Moose Lake Loop with the hope of catching some moose sightings along the way. We didn’t see a single moose and instead renamed that hike Mosquito loop as we were eaten alive the entire way. In spite of the mosquito bites I have wonderfully fond memories of our day at Maligne Lake.
I enjoyed revisiting the memories of this trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks as I worked on this painting as well as my previous painting of Bow Lake. I look forward to being swept away to another memorable trip when I venture into my next painting.
Take a look at this drawing. What do you see? A child reaching and stretching to take a lollipop from a man’s coat pocket. Perhaps this man is the child’s father and her sneaky attempt to swipe the candy can be viewed as innocent or even cute. But what if I told you that the artist of this drawing was a child herself who was in the midst of silently suffering regular sexual abuse by a trusted man in her life. Does that make you view this drawing any differently?
For years I have overlooked this drawing as an insignificant part of my collection of adolescent art. For years I saw it as nothing more than what it depicts at first glance – a child stealing candy from an adult.
In recent years I have focused my attention to the artwork I created in my youth and the messages they can tell me about the injured girl that created them (see my Art page for more information). I have copies of many of those pieces and an old sketchbook as a part of this collection. These are the only possessions I still have from a period in my life I have often wished to forget. Recently this particular drawing caught my attention and after years of casting it aside it now demands more contemplation from me. This drawing that at first glance appears very simple and innocent is now uncovering something much deeper for me.
When I completed this drawing I was in high school in the midst of enduring regular sexual abuse by my trusted coach. His careful grooming followed by ongoing manipulative control kept me both silently compliant and simultaneously responsible for all of the pain and shame that he inflicted upon me. He had a careful way of crafting each encounter to make me feel as though I was making choices when in fact he was merely spinning and tangling me deeper and more fully under his control. It was so confusing for my adolescent brain to make sense of. I believed everything he trained me to believe about him, about others, and even myself. I was so driven to reach my fullest potential, and I looked up to him as the teacher/role model/coach to help me get there that I wasn’t able to see the situation he placed me into in any other way than how he presented it to me. How could I?
The last conversation I had with him when I was finally able to break free from his abusive grip occurred when I was in college. The words he said to me on that phone call I can still deeply feel. “You simply used me to get yourself a college scholarship.” When I hung up my phone that day I felt two distinct feelings. The first was an immense weight off of my shoulders – a sense of relief to finally be free from him. The second feeling was much different from the first and was the exact response I had been conditioned to feel – full of shame and an overwhelming weight of responsibility. This was a glaring sign of the wake of damage he left inside of me. His words sunk deep into the parts of me that believed I was to blame for what he did to me. I carried those words that he laid onto me that day – that I used him – and they became my deeply silent and shameful reminder that I was a dangerous and defective person.
Now as I look at this drawing decades after creating it I question what my child self was expressing. Is this merely an expression of childlike innocence and seizing a moment of candy temptation and opportunity? Or was she perhaps expressing something that was being deeply ingrained in her mind – that she is the dangerous thief – she is taking from an unsuspecting adult. Could this be an expression of shame, guilt, or wrongdoing? The entire drawing was completed in pencil, a grey scale image, with the exception of both the child’s shirt and the lollipop which are both a deep rich red. Does this red represent danger? Does she feel that she is the danger to others, or does she recognize that she is in danger? Perhaps her red shirt comes from a undying and alarming need to be seen – noticed – cared for. What if there is something significant in the matching reds? Perhaps the red candy that perfectly matches her red shirt represents part of her that was taken away. Maybe she is reaching to try to regain that part of herself. Maybe she was expressing a sense of confusion and overwhelm as the child in the drawing is so young and so small compared to the man towering before her. She strains to reach up onto her tip toes just to barely grab hold of this enticing object. Maybe she was expressing how small and defenseless she felt in the face of his dominance, control, and deception.
Perhaps I am overthinking and over analyzing this drawing. Maybe it is in fact nothing more than a mindless sketch of innocence. I don’t know what prompted the wounded girl inside of me to draw this years ago. But I suspect she is telling us more than what we see at first glance.
We are all too familiar with the term “shelter in place” as we have separated from our communities to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I have found another connection to this term as I continue to navigate my personal healing through this time.
I have moments of true connection to my inner child where I can feel her messages and am learning to understand her more fully in order for us both to heal. I have also noticed moments of complete disconnection, where I cannot reach or access her at all. This frustrates me, as it leaves me searching with questions unanswered. It feels like she is running away, avoiding and hiding from me. Yet as I sit with this idea I can’t help but wonder that maybe there is more to it.
Perhaps my inner child’s retreat is less about pushing me away and more about holding herself safely together. Just as we all are currently learning, perhaps instead of resisting her need to shelter in place I need to find a way to safely support her from afar.
I can hear her – the child inside of me. She cries out for me to pay attention. She speaks to me in dreams, reminding me of moments of helpless desperation. She feels my nervous uncertainty of the world around me – a world in struggle and pain. This familiar feeling causes her to scream out for self protection.
Powerlessness is a futile fight against an impenetrable force. It is a feeling of being engulfed and swallowed whole – a feeling that only worsens when I attempt to resist it. It is a desperate lonely battle where time for rescue is quickly fading away.
Powerlessness is the ever present feeling that no matter how hard I try, I cannot guarantee my safety or the safety of my children. It is the nagging feeling from the child within, telling me that I am not safe.
Feelings of powerlessness and fears around this have been incredibly difficult to overcome in my healing journey. These fears show up in the way I approach relationships – with a heightened sense of guarded skepticism and mistrust. It is only through a growing connection between myself and this child within that a sense of peace, safety, and trust can slowly replace the constant sound of alarms and danger that she sends my way.
My help feels like a blinding spotlight in her desperate eyes. She reaches out and reluctantly hands me a piece of myself because she hopes that I can help her, yet at the same time she is afraid. She is afraid to let go of these pieces that she’s been holding onto – parts that have somehow shielded her and given her protection and comfort in the darkness. Holding onto these pieces is all she has ever known. It has kept her alive. She fears what I will do with them as she hands them to me. Will I help her to put them into place or will I use them to hurt her as I’ve done so many times in the past? Can she trust me enough to let me see what she needs to show me?
My shame is a shapeshifter. It changes its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain. It hunts and stalks me with careful precision, lurking in dark places where it can remain undetected. My shame transforms into whatever I think I need, masked as protection as it tempts and lures me into its darkness. It looks like a friend sometimes, offering me comfort and relief. But as soon as I accept it, my shame once again changes form and devours me.
My shame craves the silent darkness. It grows strength there, waiting and watching, and always knowing when to strike. It senses my vulnerabilities and seizes those moments as opportunity to inflict harm. At times its attacks are quite subtle. It slyly lingers nearby sending quiet whispers that seem to slither their way into my brain. Other times it brings an overwhelming force so loud and so heavy that it demands submission and engulfs me in a way that makes me feel unrecognizable. It takes who I truly am and buries it under all that I fear about myself. When I surrender and crumble into its grip, my shame claims victory. It sharpens its knife with a knowing smile, offering a simple solution to dull my pain. Only that solution merely becomes more fuel to a destructive fire already burning inside of me.
My shame does not like you. It feels threatened by you and in turn works to keep me from getting too close to you. It doubts your sincerity, questions your intentions, and urges me to remain quiet and small. When I choose to reach out to you my shame works overtime to reel me back in. When I stumble – when I fall – when I withdraw from you, my shame becomes my only companion. It guides me back into its darkness. Its consistent messages somehow feel safe and reliable when faced with the alternative unpredictability in you. But there is a cost to this perceived safety. The cost is relationship – the cost is true connection – the cost is a sense of belonging anywhere outside of the prison I feel myself trapped in. My shame tries to convince me that its protection is worth the cost. Often times I am persuaded. Yet somewhere inside of me shines hope for another way.
I have learned that my shame has a weakness. Its power wilts and fades away when it is exposed to light. I try to use this weakness to defeat it. I venture into the darkness, searching and digging through all of the crevasses where it hides, tracking its movements and patterns in an attempt to cast a light onto this enemy of mine. But no matter how hard I search and how deep I dig, my shame’s quick and clever maneuvers keep it one step ahead of me. It seems to multiply at every turn, making it harder for me alone to chase. I need an army – an army of light to help me hunt down and destroy my shame. But there is risk with this army. To call upon this army means that I must be willing to let them see all that I wish to keep hidden. My fear is their judgment, which keeps me silently cowering in hiding, clutching onto my shame as a familiar safety blanket. My shame knows this. It depends on this. It thrives in this. The only way to defeat my shame is to call it out by name for my army of light to hear and to allow their presence, their comfort, and their healing light to shine on all of my dark places.