When the Body Speaks

She shifts her body back into her seat, puts her seatbelt on, and tries to make sense of what has just happened. She is unsure of what to feel as her system is overwhelmed with emotions around the details that replay in her mind. She needs a guide to help her navigate the confusion that swirls from within. But he is all that she has. So she turns her uncertain glance in his direction. Upon noticing a slight smile on his face she thinks she must have done something right. But she wonders why she doesn’t feel right inside.

Moments ago she was scared. Moments ago she was lost in overwhelm. Moments ago she felt sick inside and wanted to get far away from here. She was touched by a man that she calls her coach, and yet moments ago her body responded with pleasure to his sickening touch.

Her first orgasm was experienced in his car in response to what he does to her. Each time his touch results in this response from her body layer upon layer of evidence that she asked for it – that she wanted it – that she is to blame for it piles upon her. How is a child supposed to process this tangled mess of pleasure and pain of sexual abuse?

I have been told that my young body did exactly what it was biologically designed to do in those moments. I have been told that I should carry no burden of responsibility or blame or shame for how my body reacted to what was done to me. This response from my adolescent body was not an indication that I asked for it, was defective in some way, or was complicit in what was repeatedly done to me. The only thing it indicates is that my body did exactly what it was physically designed to do.

This has been an incredibly difficult concept for my adult brain alone to accept. For the young parts of me that remember what it feels like to sit in his car on the drive home after he touched me it is still so confusing. If he was hurting me, why did it feel good sometimes? If I was so scared and wanted to go home, why did I relax and let his hands access everywhere he wished to touch? And why did I let it feel good? Doesn’t that say something about me? Doesn’t that mean there is something inherently wrong with me?

I sit curled up on the floor in my therapist’s office. Our work together is aimed at releasing the stored physical sensations I experience today as a result of childhood trauma. As she guides me through this session I notice that the calming effect I can achieve from the slow deep breaths I am focusing on only goes as far as my tensed and coiled up body position will allow. She gently invites me to uncoil in front of her, reassuring me that I am safe – that she will not hurt me. Immediately I begin to feel my hands, arms, and shoulders begin to tremble. The mere suggestion of letting my guard down in front of her begins to overwhelm my system. I keep trying to breathe, relax my body, and stop the shaking. But she then asks if I can try to stop resisting it – instead allow the shaking to come if it wishes to come. She gently reassures that it is safe to tremble there. And with that comes a wave of trembling, shaking, and eventually a flood of tears as my body releases the enormous wave of energy around this fear of vulnerably relaxing from my protective curled up position.

I do not have a sense how long I was shaking and crying in there, but after some time it slowly began to fade. First the tears stopped. Then the shaking slowly softened. Afterwards I felt a calm and relaxed state restore throughout my body. My therapist gently encouraged me to notice both the physical calm I felt in my body along with the safe and nurturing care I received from her. It was safe to relax there. It was safe to lower my guard and release the stored pain my body carries.

I noticed every bit of this. I felt my shoulders relax. I felt my breathing slow down. I felt my hands unclench. I felt comforted by her words that I let enter my ears and embrace me from within. It felt freeing and calming. It felt incredible. But I felt something else too. In that moment I chalked it up to being freaked out by what had just occurred. After all, it was an incredibly frightening experience to welcome an overwhelm of uncontrollable shaking and crying that took over my body. But there was another feeling – a feeling that has continued to linger unidentified until right now. As I sat on the floor in front of her after my body trembled violently and tears poured from my eyes, I felt exposed. What just happened? That was terrifying. Did I do something wrong? Did I do something right? What does she think of me? Am I ever going to be able to look her in the eye again? I felt an urge to apologize. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I was far too confused and disoriented to say any of it out loud. So I just tried to focus on the calm I physically felt while the other feelings waited in the background for me to acknowledge later.

Away from her office I realized that this experience connected directly to something for a young part inside of me – the young part that remembers putting her seatbelt on after something felt both horribly painful and terrifying and also somehow good. This part whose body betrayed her by responding with pleasure to his touch sat frozen on the floor in my therapist’s office scared that she did it again. Did she just let her body feel good when something bad was happening? Was this feeling of calm the same as what she knows from long ago?

Adult me understands the difference. Adult me understands what we accomplished in the therapy room that day. Adult me understands the importance of this approach to healing the wounds that linger and impact me today. But this young part is left rattled and wondering, “Did I do something bad again?”

Army of One

She stands in front of a police station – preparing, breathing, second guessing. Four adults surround her – protecting, supporting, embracing. She steps inside and lets her shaky voice tell her story, exposing the evil that was done to her. With her army of four by her side she feels scared yet capable. When she cries, comforting arms are wrapped around her. When she falls fearfully silent, her eyes are met with a supportive gaze to help her carry on. As she releases the unspeakable words from her lips she watches each and every small reaction occurring in the faces around her. She searches for evidence in their expressions to prove whether or not what occurred was her fault. Shame combs through their reactions and claws at her from the inside, searching for any crumb of evidence to sink its teeth into to convince her she is to blame. Her army of four knows this and stands close by, persisting in their efforts to remind her that none of this belongs to her.

When justice fails her in this moment she begins to feel herself sinking into a place of self blame and despair. Yet as she shrinks the voices that surround her get louder and angrier on her behalf. They sweep in around her like a protective cloak, embracing her with the kind of reassurance that helps to chase her shame away.

No one should have to endure the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. But for those who know these experiences, this response from caregivers seems like an ideal model of support for this situation. These four adults cannot undo what has been done to this child, but they can rally around her and constantly reassure her that what happened was not her fault and that she is not alone.

While some of the details feel eerily similar to mine, this is not my story. It is instead a fictional scene I recently stumbled upon on television. I’m not sure how wise it is for me to watch things like this. These scenes are surely very triggering. I typically avoid tv shows and movies involving childhood abuse. It just hits too close to home. But other times I unknowingly stumble into this type of plot twist and then find myself feeling strangely compelled to see how it plays out. This was exactly the case with this particular tv show. A teenaged girl character with no prior history of sexual trauma suddenly in one episode becomes the target of sexual abuse by her teacher. Once it began to unfold before my eyes, no matter how much I could feel the stinging internal impact of the story, I needed to see what happened. So I continued to watch, curled up in my blanket, sometimes feeling comforted by the familiarity of the scenes, sometimes cringing over it, all while regularly swallowing the rising lump in my throat. But over several scenes I began to notice something particularly interesting.

I know what it feels like to share details of sexual abuse to a police officer. I know what it feels like to answer questions about where and how I was touched by my abuser. I know what it’s like to describe the kind of physical details that one would only know if they had the type of close physical interaction and exposure that I experienced. But what I don’t know is what it must be like to be a child with adults to turn to in a situation like this. I don’t know what it’s like to talk about and process the immediate aftermath of sexual abuse surrounded by attentive and caring support. I don’t know what it’s like to hear an army of protective voices countering the onslaught of shame that tries to destroy an abused child from within.

As I watched this girl’s story unfold on my TV screen I realized that while the subject matter hit very close to home and was perhaps not my best choice of shows to watch, the most difficult part for me was watching the girl on the screen receive something I never received. In the midst of all of her confusion and pain this girl is constantly reminded by loved ones that what happened was not her fault, that she is loved, and that she is not alone. And it’s not just their words that hit me. It’s the way they held her. It’s the way they sat down with her, looking into her eyes to speak their compassionate message directly into them. Each and every scene where this girl is tended to with loving, caring, and ever present support began to overwhelm my system with hurt, grief, and longing for these things.

The young girl inside of me that was routinely abused with no one to turn to aches to be seen like this. Her pain went unnoticed. She had to carry on with this unimaginable burden thrust upon her completely alone. I think when I feel an internal reaction to watching scenes like this I am hearing directly from this wounded girl inside of me. The tears I fought back while watching this tv show are her tears. The sadness and longing pushing forward is her trying to tell me how much hurt she faced and how much pain she still carries – not only from what was done to her but also because no one ever saw her. No one noticed what was being done to her. No one paid attention. No one stopped to ask questions or leaned in close and looked into her eyes to tell her that she was not alone. She watches these scenes play out on tv and cries out, “Why didn’t anyone take care of me?”

The Impacts of Grooming

She is 14 years old. She sits in her school hallway on the floor with her back against the wall. Her legs are outstretched and crossed in front of her. She wears an oversized hand-me-down t-shirt and athletic shorts. Her feet are laced up in well worn running shoes. She waits for the rest of her teammates to emerge from the locker room ready for practice. Small conversations and laughter spark between the girls as they begin to gather. Her coach enters the hallway and greets the team. As he passes in front of her he slows to a stop, bending down and reaching towards her. He grabs the top of her shoe, giving her toes a gentle squeeze and a subtle shake as he smiles at her and says hello. She looks up at him and smiles back, feeling a momentary glimpse of special because she received slightly more than the simple verbal greeting that he offered to the rest of her teammates. He then takes a seat on the floor among the girls. He doesn’t sit next to her but is instead across the hallway from her between two of her older teammates. As the pre-practice chatter continues he leans in towards one of her teammates, nudging his shoulder into hers as they talk and laugh. Watching this interaction from just a few feet away she laughs along while quietly wishing it was her that he chose to sit next to.

The next day or the next week or the next month it will be her. She’ll feel a jolt of special each time he slides in beside her on the hallway floor – each time he grabs hold of her foot as he walks past her – each time he leans in with a nudge – each time he places his hand on her back after a race – each time he tips his glasses forward on his nose and looks directly into her eyes to talk to her. She’ll feel noticed. She’ll feel seen. She’ll feel important. Until the day arrives that this feeling of being special becomes intertwined with other things.

I sit on the floor in my therapist’s office. She is slowly and carefully teaching me how to feel safe in my own body. She is helping me calm my jittery nerves as I sit across from her wrapped in a blanket. I am learning to trust that her care is real and genuine – that her offer of help does not come with strings attached. I am feeling the internal pull of wanting to lean into the safety that she offers me. I feel parts wanting to soften and accept her office and her presence as a safe place where I can lower my ever present protective guard. Yet I struggle to fully trust this feeling. As she offers to sit closer to me to provide comfort I feel a flurry of confusion swirl inside of me. Some parts want to reach out, hold on tight, and melt in the safety of her care while other parts of me get angry and loud inside. Their anger is not directed at my therapist, although they feel guarded and distrustful of her in these moments. Instead their anger is aimed inward at the parts that want her to move closer – the parts that wish to receive her care. They blame these parts for inviting harm, so they lash out at the feeling of softening into safety. They silence these parts that welcome her help by placing a barrier of resistance between them. These loud parts watch my therapy process unfold, connecting the dots to form immediate protective conclusions. Moving closer leads to warm feelings which leads to a trapdoor to betrayal. Holding hands leads to a comforting and calming reaction which leads to a lowered guard and an opening for attack. Eye contact leads to exposure which leads to longing for connection which welcomes the trap. No warm feelings. No sliding in close. No calming comfort. No connecting eye contact. Stand your ground, and don’t let her see you.

Grooming is the process of building a trusting and connecting relationship in order to manipulate and abuse. My 14 year old self was groomed by the predator that called himself her coach. She couldn’t possibly identify his seemingly innocent interactions over all of those months as anything different. My 14 year old self should not feel responsible for being lured in and falling into his carefully woven trap. What happened to her was the result of calculated grooming designed to fool everyone. And it worked. Yet parts of me were imprinted with a very strong and lasting self impression from that time. They are angry at the parts that welcomed him in and unwilling to allow any signs of manipulation to enter their space again.

My adult self understands the process we are working towards in the therapy room. My adult self understands I am paying a professional trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy to help me process and heal the trauma related physical sensations that are a present barrier in my life today. I keep thinking I need to bypass these voices that scream out from within. I keep thinking that healing comes from my adult self overriding whatever it is they are trying to communicate. It sounds and feels crazy inside. I don’t understand what they are feeling. It’s constantly conflicting and it doesn’t make any sense, so I get stuck trying to find words and can’t say anything at all. But what these parts feel and what they need to express is exactly where my healing resides. I need to learn how to release the confusion and ambivalence that I feel. I need to learn to express that parts of me want my therapist to sit close, and parts of me feel like they are sitting in the hallway at my school about to be tricked. I need to allow all parts to have a voice and a choice about how we heal. I may be the adult in the room, but it is the kids inside of me that hold the answers and direction for my healing.

The Hollow Place

pencil drawing – by Sara

There is a hollow place that finds me. It knows me by name. Its reach can cover any distance I travel. Its strength can multiply, creeping and surrounding me as it wishes.

There is a hollow place that hunts me. It lurks and stalks and waits for the prime moment to pounce. Its jagged grip pierces and swallows upon contact, making it hard to distinguish where my body ends and its darkness begins.

There is a hollow place that seeks my surrender. Its isolating presence, although ominous and layered with pain, is familiar to me. Its constant company tries to convince me that my efforts to evade its grip are insufficient.

There is a hollow place that believes it has already won. It feels rooted inside of me. Can I possibly convince it that there is still fight left in me? Can I convince myself?

Impossible Hope

My vision spins before me
Circling the drain
Energy spent against
A formidable foe
That laughs in the face
Of opposition

Where does clarity exist?
Where does safety reside?

I can taste the temptation of surrender
An impossible option
Bringing questions and doubt, while
Igniting an impervious hope
in an otherwise barren wasteland.

Spiderwebs

You know the feeling. You’re walking along and suddenly and unknowingly enter into the nearly invisible presence of a spiderweb. You’re startled. You did not see it ahead of you and even now can’t see it on you, but you can feel its stretchy fibers reaching across your skin. First you feel it on the side of your upper arm. You swipe your hand down the length of your arm only to find your other arm now involved. As you turn and twist to free yourself from it you then feel it on your neck and face, making you work more frantically to get it off of you. It seems the more quickly you wipe, pull, grab, and brush it away the more it continues to wrap and tangle itself around you. Pulling one part of it seems to attach it to other places, making your efforts to remove it feel futile for a little while. Then even after you finally free yourself from it you still continue to brush and wipe your hands across your body a bit longer because you’re convinced it is still there.

I walk through life constantly getting tangled in spiderwebs. I enter what feels like a simple and lighthearted moment and am fully present and engaged only to find myself quickly and unexpectedly neck deep in a thick tangled mess of spiderwebs. The simplest of things manages to attach itself to the darkest of places within me – linking, connecting, and attaching a very benign moment with something quite the opposite.

pencil drawing – by Sara

Recently I was involved in a conversation with some friends. They were talking about sibling dynamics and those influences in shaping their choices and direction through adolescence and early adulthood. I was actively engaged in this discussion, soaking in the similarities that existed between the stories shared from the three separate people I was with who each grew up with only one other sibling. After they shared their experiences attention was turned to me, and with genuine curiosity they wished to hear my perspective and experiences of growing up in a large family. I looked inside for answers to express authentically. Yet as I quickly sorted through how to respond I kept getting stuck. The genuine answer to the questions they were asking me could not be told without the inclusion of other things. All I could hear in my head were young voices inside screaming answers that did not belong in this setting and in the presence of these people. I couldn’t connect to an honest response without sharing more than what this lighthearted conversation was equipped to handle – and more than I was willing to divulge.

This is the complex aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. This example is just a snapshot of what I experience inside of me in one way or another nearly every single day. If healing from childhood trauma was simply a matter of acknowledging the past and moving forward in life I would have this handled by now. The problem is that nearly every day I encounter something that attaches itself to my past. It doesn’t have to be an obvious connection. Those are the ones I have learned to sometimes expect and more comfortably move through. It’s the little moments that seem so distant and detached from any linear connection to my experiences that seem to trip me up the most. I don’t expect them. I don’t recognize them in the moment. And yet I am immediately thrown into a gauntlet of internal reactions when they emerge. A simple conversation with friends about siblings…waiting for the results of my mom’s medical tests…noticing an area of thinning fabric on my cycling shorts…listening to my in laws share stories about my husband’s childhood friends…watching a movie that I thought was about music…sorting my daughter’s clothes in our laundry room…sitting in my therapist’s office before a long therapy break. These are just a few of the tiny moments that have grabbed hold of me in just the past couple of weeks. These are the moments that feel so incredibly innocent and separate when I enter them and yet somehow manage to get interwoven with the poisons from my past.

pencil drawing – by Sara

It’s like I’m playing a disturbing game of chutes and ladders. I’m trying to make my way through the ladders of healing without slipping down the chutes. I step carefully. I plan each move with intention. The unique catch with childhood sexual abuse is that the ladders I climb are linked by spiderwebs that keep me tethered to experiences and messages from my past. With each step I risk disturbing and awakening the web, which seems to be constantly shifting and adapting around me. And it’s always ready and waiting to catch me. Falling into the web brings the past and present together. It means the current moment and what was awakened from the past become indistinguishable, and my ability to reach for the ladder is diminished as I feel increasingly bound by the messages and connections that ensnare me.

How do I stop getting caught in the spiderwebs? How do I take steps forward without awakening and igniting the past? Is it realistic to think I can ever achieve freedom from these moments – freedom from this web? If I can someday learn to make new connections and weave new fibers into this web then perhaps my footing would feel more stable and secure. Perhaps for now the best way to help myself is not to frantically avoid, brush, and swipe the spiderwebs away. Maybe in these moments I can try to slow down and simply acknowledge that they are there for a reason. Maybe I can aim to become less afraid of the spiderwebs and instead begin to learn from them.

No Longer Silenced

“I couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted
Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now” – Shrike by Hozier

These song lyrics are a reminder of why I venture into the painful work of healing from childhood trauma. They are my reminder that my own voice can help connect to and heal the wounded child within me from the prison of silence, pain, and shame she was left trapped in. They are my reminder that while her voice was taken from her, my voice can help set her free.

One day at school, he pulled me out of math class. He was angry with me about something – I don’t remember what. He was often angry with me – for talking to kids he didn’t approve of – for not being focused enough, dedicated enough, or just not being enough of whatever he wanted me to be for him. He was my coach, and he was my abuser. I remember that day clearly, standing in the empty inner hallway of my high school and taking his quiet verbal beating while the rest of the kids that weren’t secretly raped by their coach sat at desks in classrooms throughout the building. After several minutes passed my math teacher, Mr. B, opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. He asked if everything was okay, but when he asked it felt as though he was looking with genuine concern directly at me. He wasn’t asking if we were okay. He was asking if I was okay. It felt as if I was nearly seen for the very first time. A lifeline was standing right in front of me in the form of my math teacher. I stood there and looked back at him, hoping my eyes could tell him what my voice could not say. I stood there screaming on the inside for help, but I was so full of confusion, pain, and shame that I didn’t even know what I needed help for. My abuser stepped in so quickly with a lighthearted comment and a pat on my back, sending me back into the classroom. He spoke for me that day – just like every other day. He taught me that I didn’t have a voice. The words that needed to be spoken could not come out of my mouth. Trapped in silence, my body followed the commands they were given. I walked back into my classroom, sat down at my desk, and resumed my best attempts at performing as a normal student – a normal kid, even though there was nothing normal about what was happening to me. Although Mr. B could not save me that day, he was the closest thing I ever felt to being rescued.

I think this young part of me is still longing for a Mr. B to truly see her – to rescue her. If she is able to make her shaky voice heard will help step towards her, or will it turn its back on her? She may not yet trust that I wish to help her – that’s fair as I don’t always trust myself with this task. Yet the one thing I am certain of at this point in my life is that I won’t let her feel silenced anymore. While she still feels trapped and unable to whisper, I will keep trying like hell to sing like a bird until I can set her free.

Shrike – by Hozier