Edge of Darkness

She speaks to me in dreams. She comes to me in waves of panic. She visits me without warning. I struggle to openly receive her messages without feeling flooded and retreating away from her. I wonder how I can learn from her without getting lost and overwhelmed by all she needs to share with me. How can I choose to carefully and safely venture into her pain? I begin to think that perhaps I need to stop bracing and shielding myself from her sudden incoming messages and instead find a way to compassionately build a bridge towards her. Perhaps if I could be curious and brave enough to approach her – to visit where she lives – that we could learn to soften our approach with one another.

Where does this child inside of me live? What does she experience? What can I learn from spending time with her where she resides?

I sit with these questions and begin to search within myself and ask her if she might invite me in. I ask her to help me understand – to help me see all that she needs to show me. My initial requests are met with nothing – silence. I keep trying. With each failed attempt I begin to ask more questions.

Why does she feel so far away from me?
Will she not let me find her or is it that I am too scared and unwilling to see her?

I take breaks from my asking and searching with the hope that a fresh mind will bring clarity another day. Then I try again and again and again – each day coming up empty. Then one night while lying in bed, without conscious thought or awareness, I receive her answer. She tells me that she lives where she’s always been – in the place I created long ago.

Immediately an image appears in my mind. I know exactly where she is. When I was in high school I was assigned a self portrait project in my art class. Of all of the countless ways to best represent oneself, my wounded 17 year old self related most accurately to this self representation – desperate, terrified, and gripping helplessly onto the edge of darkness – looking up for light, life, any sign of hope. The fear in her eyes shows that help is not coming.

The child inside of me lives exactly where I painted her years ago in the midst of her suffering. She’s still there. She’s still hanging onto that ledge desperate for help.

I have shamefully hidden from this place that she resides for so long – denying its existence – denying her truth. I have lacked the understanding, strength, and courage to face her. I have felt too scared to look over the edge into her desperate eyes. In my bravest moments I have tried to reach for her and attempt to help her. But she cannot be convinced to let go of the ledge and reach for my hand. She doesn’t trust my hand to save her. I don’t blame her for that. My hand is the same one that has tried to pry her fingers from that ledge many times before to make her disappear – to make it all disappear. How can she know that it is safe to trust me now? And how do I know if I can be trusted? What if I try to reach for her and fail? What if I’m not strong enough to carry the weight of her hurt? What if my efforts to save her lead us both to a life ending fall?

Maybe my challenge is not to pull her out. Maybe instead of trying to lean over her and help her out of her darkness I need to climb down there with her – to listen to her – to really see her. Maybe we’re supposed to find our way out together.

I want to be strong for her. I want to courageously enter that endless shaft and join in close beside her feeling confident in our ability to navigate our way out. But the truth is that I’m scared. I’m afraid of failing her. I’m afraid of failing us – again.

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.

When Dreams Speak

I wake up in a puddle of your 

unacknowledged tears.

I hear your desperate calling

reaching out from inside my dreams.

Your screams feel so familiar

a song of sadness that lives in my soul.

It places a weight upon my chest, fighting 

mightily against my need for breath.

Slowly I bring my dripping self down

from this sudden impending doom.

Then I look inside for answers

coming up empty and confused.

What prompted this sudden terror?

What is it I should know?

I can sense that this alarm is coming

straight from inside of you.

I feel its unbearable weight.

I sense its unfinished work.

Yet as I try to slow down and listen

your silence is all that I can hear.

What are you needing from me?

What do you wish to say?

Why do you wake me in terror

just to leave me rattled and unglued?

You were left alone and shattered

by those who took from you.

Left to gather scattered pieces 

of your stolen innocence. 

With no reprieve or guiding hand

in your suffering you constructed 

loyal soldiers for your defense.

They shielded you from your torment

offering numbing detachment and rage.

We lean onto these protective guards

years after they were required.

We fear asking them to step aside

might overwhelm our injured system.

Our guards provided safety, shelter

from your indescribable truth.

We learned to wield our broken pieces 

into weapons of self defense

lashing out in terror, keeping danger far away.

Yet those same jagged pieces

so difficult to handle

we turn them towards ourselves at times

harming even with our most careful intentions.

Can we try to stand together

without their self protective plan?

Can we sit with one another

and let our collective truth guide the way?

Can’t you see we are together broken 

shattered pieces from the same soul?

Our healing can only build from 

how each damaged portion is handled.

Together we can work

to safely gather and regroup

those broken pieces when shared between us 

won’t hurt the way they once did.

We can gather them together

in their fragmented disarray.

We can learn to lift them out of darkness

washing shame and self blame away.

We can strive to shine healing light through them

make those shattered pieces glow.

A kaleidoscope of healing color

can bring re-birth to our battered soul.

Don’t you see that I am with you?

Can’t you feel that I’m hurting too?

We can’t continue on wounding each other. 

Healing only comes when 

you see me and I see you.

Tangled in Hurt

Sometimes feelings come to me in images – images that I can draw or paint to express emotions that I cannot yet find words for. Through art I can bring emotions out from the depths inside of me and shine a light on them in whatever I have created. It is often in the midst of the process of drawing that the words slowly reveal themselves to me. It feels like my pencil becomes this tiny release valve that slowly lets my feelings escape with each stroke across the page.

I sketched this piece a few years ago while intensively engaged in therapeutic healing work. I remember what I was expressing. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed with all of the ways that my past abuse was impacting my current life. I remember feeling how painful that part of my healing process was – like trying to rip out the damaged parts of myself in a frantic fury. I remember pushing myself so hard towards healing that the healing process itself felt as though it was hurting me. It felt like the harder I fought to release myself from the tangled web of confusion, pain, and shame of my past, the tighter its growing grip entrapped me.

During this week I have felt a deep struggle rising up inside of me, stirring and awakening the hurt. This struggle has not yet inspired me to draw or to write. Instead it has urged me to dig up this drawing and just sit and look into it. Each day this week I find myself looking at this drawing, connecting more and more to it. It’s a different connection than how it felt several years ago, and yet it feels just as heavy. I feel myself looking into this drawing for direction. Maybe if I stare at it long enough I will find the answers I need to free myself. Maybe looking deeply into this piece will help me to shine a light on the parts of me that still beg for healing.

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.

An Anniversary of Sorts

Sunshower
pencil drawing – by Sara

Four years. Today marks four years since the man who sexually abused me was arrested based solely on my police report. Today marks the pivotal day where this man learned that he can no longer hurt me.

As a reminder of this day I have the lasting image of his mugshot in my mind. His beady tear-filled eyes – his short trimmed spiky hair – his sun damaged wrinkled skin revealing his aging face – a face that is tangled up with countless memories and experiences that I did not choose. However, the most striking detail of this image for me is not in his face but instead the orange jumpsuit that he was wearing. Seeing him in orange in that mugshot four years ago changed the way I viewed him.

In an instant he transformed from a manipulative, haunting, shame inducing abuser to one single redefining word – criminal.

I have often wondered what must have been going through his mind in that moment. In the moment of his arrest, standing before a camera in a police station in an orange jumpsuit, what was he feeling? Perhaps it was confusion. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps he twisted his pedophile mind into believing that this was injustice – that he was being wrongly accused. I like to think that he felt a taste of what I experienced for over twenty years – a shame so deeply penetrating that you simply want to retreat to a place inside of yourself and never be seen again.

I’ll never know what his thoughts were in that moment, but I will forever remember my own thoughts when I first saw this image. My thoughts were full of empowerment and determination. My thoughts were of healing validating strength. He was in that police station because I found the courage – I found my voice. I found the strength to rise up from the prison of shame he had placed me into two decades prior. My thoughts in that moment were a resounding affirmation that he can no longer hurt me. My thoughts were of strength and protection for the child that no one was able to save back then. My thoughts were of protecting the children who sat in his middle school classroom each day. My thoughts were with my own children who are my daily source of healing motivation.

While the months that followed this day four years ago produced more pain than healing, today I choose to hold onto the feeling of what this single day represents in my healing journey – the day I took my power back.

Finding Answers Within

I wish to be able to speak the unspeakable words that exist inside of me while also feeling and navigating my way through them. I wish to stop getting stuck in the parts of me that feel too vile for daylight – that parts that make me feel broken – the parts that when even partially spoken make it hard to look you in the eye. I wish that current struggles wouldn’t connect themselves to old hurts, attaching new experiences to past suffering and creating a tangled web of confusion and pain. It makes me feel everything all at once, and it is too much for me to sift and sort through and speak through at the same time. It is too heavy for me to do anything except to curl up in a ball inside myself and protect what is left of me.

I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to feel broken. I want to rip all of these parts out of me and shine light on them. I want to heal the wounds that exist deep inside of me, but I don’t even know what it is that is so broken. Where are the wounded pieces that need my attention? What do they need from me? Is it possible to reach a place where my past and present experiences can become fused together in a healthy way to allow me to move forward without this anchor of hurt that has been a part of me?

It seems the child inside of me may hold the key to finding these answers. At times, I can feel her creep out of hiding to speak to me – sometimes in whispers and other times in screams. She guides me with signals that beg my attention – a deep sinking feeling in my stomach around the safety of my children – an entire fired up nervous system response to a gentle touch on my back from my husband. It is in these moments that she speaks to me, offering me clues for where I need healing attention. So I get curious. I try to seek her out to better understand her messages. I wish to learn from her so that she and I can heal together. Yet, often times when I try to reach out and connect with her I feel her recoil and disappear back into hiding where she cannot be reached. I often wonder where she goes when I can’t find answers. Where does she hide when my connection to her feels lost? I need to somehow convince her that I cannot do this work without her. I need her to trust that I am here with her and for her. I need her help so we both can heal.

The Child Within

“The Child Within”
pencil drawing

Art Reflection

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

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.

Life as a Puzzle

Imagine your life as a puzzle. Each piece represents a small part of what makes you who you are – physically, biologically, spiritually, relationally. Each piece adds its own color and flavor and is unique to only you and your experiences. While perhaps a single piece of your puzzle may appear insignificant on its own, when put into place it brings your life into focus – connecting to other pieces that ultimately make you complete and whole.

Imagine your puzzle contains a few missing pieces. Perhaps there are enough other pieces surrounding those empty spaces that it does not impact the entire puzzle. You can still see the whole picture even without those small pieces. Those empty spaces may exist, but they don’t make you feel or appear any less whole. Now imagine you are missing some critical pieces of your puzzle that make it nearly impossible to connect the surrounding pieces. You are left with floating gaps and holes that draw attention and confusion and make it difficult for the entire image to come together. This leaves you searching for those missing pieces – searching for completion – searching for wholeness. You seek not to dwell on the emptiness that exists in those gaps, but instead you yearn for the healing victory that comes from finding and carefully placing a single new piece into position.

Your search begins to shape you as you learn just as much about yourself from your failed attempts as you learn from your victories. This journey, while at times feels life consuming, becomes life altering as you discover and connect the various qualities and experiences that have come to shape you and ultimately make you who you are. You wonder if you will ever succeed in completing this complex puzzle. Will you ever come to a place of feeling truly complete, together, and whole? While this question may remained unanswered, you press on, digging and searching with the hope that each new day brings the possibility of adding just one more piece to your puzzle.