The Reckoning

A long hard look

straight into the eyes

Past the superficial nonsense

that preoccupies the senses

A truth revealed

from deep within

An image that words

can hardly conjure

A message that rings

from the place that echoes

This valley you reside

is no place

to welcome their peak

Scatter, vanish, dissipate

Protect them from

all that you feel

Shield them from what may be

Unknowingly, unintentionally

cast onto them

Because of you

The Portal

Round and round, back and forth, it moves in erratic loops. My eyes are drawn to it. It isn’t creepy to me as most insects are. It’s just a tiny bug crawling around on the floor of my therapist’s office no more than a few feet away from me. I hear my own voice in my head, curiously wondering where this tiny bug is trying to go. Then I wonder why I am wondering about the bug. I hear my therapist’s reassuring words that I am safe, reminding me where I am, and asking me questions I don’t know how to answer. I hear more words – they come from inside and feel like a reminder. “The bug is here – in your therapist’s office. You are in your therapist’s office too.” Those words seem to repeat like a mantra as my eyes continue to follow its unpredictable pattern across the floor.

I feel confused and scared. I can’t sit still. Something feels loud inside.

I see the bug. I know it is there. I know it is in this safe room with me. But that’s not what the young one inside of me sees. She sees the blinds in his bedroom. It doesn’t make sense. I look away from the bug to make the blinds go away. It works. I look back at the bug. The blinds come back again. I look away again. I don’t understand. I don’t know how to vocalize what is happening. It’s a bug on the floor in my therapist’s office. Just follow the bug. If you can see the bug then you are in this room with her.

I know I am safe here, but I can’t stop shaking. My body doesn’t feel safe. The young one inside of me doesn’t feel safe. Finally I reveal what she sees. She is confused. She thinks the bug and the blinds are the same – an indication that we must disappear from our body into them because something bad is about to happen. She thinks we’re not safe. She thinks we need to go away now. But I know it’s not the same. I feel my body fidgeting. I can’t stop moving. I can hear my therapist’s voice reminding me where I am – reminding me that I didn’t do anything wrong. I need the young one to hear that too. But she can’t hear it. She’s too afraid. She feels an urge to apologize and an urge to go away – somewhere far away inside of herself. I feel it too. I feel me. I feel her. I feel scared trying to hold both of us in this space. It feels slippery – like I could easily get lost here. I keep looking at the bug as if it’s some sort of portal of connection between me and her. But the portal feels hypnotic. If I look too long I start to believe what she sees too. In and out I move from my thoughts to hers, from my eyes to hers, from my body to hers. It moves faster and holds on longer and makes me dizzy and I feel sick inside. It’s hard to see. It’s hard to remember what is mine and what is hers. It blends. It confuses.

She begins to cry – big heavy tears. I don’t know why we are crying, but she does. She knows exactly why and that is enough for me. I let the tears that she’s been holding in for all these years pour out from me. It feels explosive, and I don’t have any say in what it looks or sounds like. I don’t like it. But in this moment we are as close as we can get. I feel everything she holds overflowing from me – everything she has felt and needed to release but never had a safe place for.

When the shaking and crying finally stops I breathe. Everything slows down. My awareness returns to the room and my sweaty body that sits in bewilderment at what just transpired. I feel embarrassed. I don’t fully understand what or how that just happened. I don’t want to look at my therapist. I’m worried about what she thinks of me. Shame tries to creep in and pollute this healing moment. Shame tries to attach this feeling to what it knows from other times. It tries to tell me that positive feelings of relaxation, release, or relief are gross and wrong. It tries to tell me that it’s the same as all the times pleasure was mixed with pain. It tries to convince me that I did something bad again.

My therapist’s reassuring eyes encourage me to look into hers, and her words remind me that I did nothing wrong. This helps to loosen this shameful feeling that sticks to me like thick tar. The shame doesn’t go away, but it doesn’t drown me either.

I feel something else too. I feel this young one relax just a little bit inside of me. It feels like maybe she’s been given a moment that she has desperately needed. She’s been waiting for this safe place to share what burdens her and shed these tears for a very long time. This makes me feel like maybe I did something right in my therapist’s office this time. And although I get a strong feeling inside that there are more tears to come another day it feels okay in this moment to close my eyes just for an instant and breathe. And that feels okay for the young one too.

A Dream Of Safety

Her eyes are fixed, not on the slender blinds that cover the window across the room, but on the tiny spaces that exist between each and every horizontal slat that make up these blinds. These spaces allow the soft glow of the streetlight nearby to enter the darkness of the room she occupies. Just enough space to capture the flash of headlights that she hopes will soon appear for her. She stares at these small spaces wishing to disappear into them. Maybe if she can focus hard enough and long enough she will be pulled from this place and can breathe in the safety of what might exist beyond them.

A sudden spray of scattering light is cast on the walls all around her. The soft hum of an approaching car engine breaks the deafening silence and becomes the definitive sign. “They’re here! They came back for me,” she thinks. Thunderous slamming of doors and hurried footsteps signal a wave of protective care as it bursts into the house. Instantly they appear before her, overwhelming this small room like flooding water. They lunge forward, ripping him away from her, and sending him helplessly flying across the room and into a shameful motionless heap on the floor. They immediately turn their attention to her. They drop down beside her, moving in slowly and thoughtfully, offering safety in the focused gaze that looks deeply into her eyes. Without words they can see all of the fear and pain that lies behind her dazed and trembling stare. Her body is carefully and firmly wrapped up in a soft blanket and scooped up into the protective arms that came to save her. These arms wrap around her with such strong and tender care. She slowly softens into them, recognizing that she is now safe. And although her body continues to shiver, she closes her eyes. She can rest now.

New lights and colors begin to glow through the blinds and into this small space, and new footsteps are heard as she is removed from here. The protective arms take her away, straight out the door, past the flashing lights and commotion from strangers in uniform that begin to enter through the same door that she was carried out from. The arms hold her close, letting her soft sobs be cradled and absorbed into them. She feels so small and so safe in these arms that seem almost designed to hold and protect her. “Can I stay here forever?” she wonders as she slowly drifts off to sleep.

The blinds fall back into focus. The tiny gaps between them, glowing softly from the nearby streetlight, remain unchanged. It is dark and quiet around her. She is alone now, but she can sense that it hasn’t been that way for long. All of the hope of rescue that she felt just moments ago has vanished. In its place is a heavy weight that she cannot name but instead must learn to carry. She brings herself to her feet and scrambles to recover her scattered clothes, all while continuously and deliberately swallowing the rising lump that burns from within. There will be no more tears here. She must figure out a way to become the strong arms that she needs to carry herself out of here. She will have to learn how to emerge as her own hero.

When The Young One Cries

When the young one cries
Tears seep from jagged places
A deep salty sting
That burns from within

When the young one cries
Her voice is inaudible
But her pain is palpable
Shrinking and shuddering
Inside her own skin

When the young one cries
She asks herself why
They don’t notice
Why they fail to see her

She wonders what if
She could matter
Only for a moment
Just long enough
To help dry the tears
From this young one’s tired eyes

Tuesday

Tuesday wears the scars of yesterday
while clinging to the promise of tomorrow
She has seen enough to be afraid
but not enough to abandon hope

She is unaware of what lies ahead
Blinded by faith and youthful innocence
Tuesday believes what she is served

She trusts the messages
in place of her own experiences for
She has not witnessed enough sunsets to
understand the difference

Later days will teach her
Later moments will change her
but for now
Tuesday’s teary eyes still gleam with
hope and possibility

This poem begs for an explanation. It was born from a very recent connection to a set of conflicting feelings from my inner wounded child. With some time and reflection I have come to understand a difference or split between the child within me at the time when the abuse first began and the older child who experienced routine abuse for years. This poem is a connection to that younger wounded child – the one who hurts but still believes in and longs for help and care. I call her Tuesday because in the span of a week Tuesday holds hope. Even with a bad taste from Monday, Tuesday offers the days ahead to look forward to – to turn everything around and make it alright.

Living With Compartments

I sat at a table of mostly strangers. We were engaged in the kind of small talk that induces a moderate level of anxiety within me as an introvert with socially uncomfortable tendencies. But it was a welcoming and lighthearted get-together, and the connection that brought me there was strong enough to make me feel secure in this setting. I approached this gathering prepared to be introduced or identified as a sexual abuse survivor. While this was an unusual setting of disclosure for me, it felt okay as it was thoughtfully discussed beforehand with the close friend and fellow survivor that invited me to the table that day.

As the conversations moved from various topics I recognized a similarity between myself and one of these strangers. We both have children the same age. I offered up this common ground that we share, creating a brief moment of connection before the conversations continued. Then later this common ground resurfaced. It was discovered that not only do we have kids the same age, but they also go to the same school. And not only do they go to the same school, but her child has participated in a sport that I have coached there. In a matter of seconds it was revealed that I was her son’s coach a couple of years ago. Suddenly this person who was supposed to be a complete and total stranger to me became something different.

This revelation would hold little significance to me in most circumstances, but there was something uniquely different about this particular connection that day. I was in unfamiliar territory. I had offered up my title as a sexual abuse survivor in a setting where I didn’t expect to be connected to any other aspect of my life. And there I was facing a collision course of identities as both a youth sports coach and a survivor in one setting. Internal rattling ensued.

It took some time to unpack what this encounter meant to me and why it resulted in an uproar of internal disruption. After all, I rationally know that I am both a coach and a survivor. Those two identities can and do coexist. So what’s the big deal? The big deal for me is that my life is organized into compartments – separate and distinct compartments. Certain parts of my life do not intersect with other parts. This is by design. This is surely a result of a compartment that was painfully thrust upon me as a child. But my maintenance of these separate compartments has kept me alive and safely protected over the years.

I am very actively involved as a survivor in both my own individual and group healing work as well as through a passionate involvement in education and abuse prevention efforts in youth sports across the United States. This is a huge part of who I am. And yet this part exists separately from all other aspects of my life. The work I do and the amazing connections I have made within this community are treasured by me, and yet they are kept almost entirely disjointed from the rest of me.

This compartmentalization, for better or worse, is how I function. When a situation like this arises where two compartments that don’t operate together are suddenly thrust into interweaving light it causes two things to happen inside of me. First, there is panic. An automatic emergency response happens inside indicating danger and a need to fix, or change, or flee the situation. When I can eventually ride that feeling out (hopefully without succumbing to the panic) then a second feeling always follows. Self-judgement. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel the need to hide? The fact that these compartments still strongly exist for me today fills me with uneasiness and uncertainty about myself and my own healing. It makes me question how secure I can feel in my own story if I must keep these parts entirely separate. If I claim to own my story of childhood sexual abuse then why must I keep it separate from some other areas in my life? Doesn’t that mean I am still bound up in the same shame I have been working so hard to break free from? Doesn’t that mean I am much farther away from healing from all of this than I even imagined? Does that make true healing even remotely possible for me?

I think the answers to these questions have many layers. I unfortunately know first hand how much ignorance and cruelty exists in the world around the topic of childhood sexual abuse. I have heard comments with my own ears and have read statements with my own eyes that have placed the blame of what happened to me squarely upon my shoulders. And I know that no matter how strong and secure I can feel in the knowledge that what happened to me was not my fault or the result of some kind of brokenness or defect in me, the words of others still have a way of cutting into me in a deeply damaging way. This reality makes me hold my story close to me. It makes me very selective in who and in what settings I choose to share. I can never be certain that ignorance or cruelty will not interfere with my coaching positions, so I don’t advertise it there. This saddens the advocate in me as I believe I am a better and more equipped coach because of my experiences of abuse in sports. But I can never be certain that ignorance and cruelty wouldn’t find me in this role. And I can’t bear the thought of even one parent wrongfully expressing that my history makes me a potential unsafe person around their child. That kind of ignorance exists. And that kind of ignorance hurts too much. So I choose to keep these compartments separate. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it feels safer for me now.

The fact is, no matter how much work I do and no matter how secure I feel in my story, my story is still my own. It still hurts sometimes, and it can still cause hurt when it lands in the wrong hands. My healing progress should never be measured by a willingness to shout my story from the rooftops. It’s much more complex and personal than that. I get to be careful and selective in who I allow to see each compartment I carry. I get to decide, as Brene Brown has so powerfully described, who “has earned the right” to hear my story.

Sometimes I will mess up and share with the wrong people. I will have to learn from those moments, pick up the pieces, and carry on. And I will be okay. Other times, I may sit at a table and share with the right people, and it might make everything inside of me shake a whole lot. That doesn’t mean I messed up. It doesn’t mean it was wrong. It just means it is scary. And that’s okay too.

A Hero With A Blanket

She is alone. Desperately alone. He left her there unclothed. All curled up, she tries to cover and protect what is left of her. She faces the blue wall, her back to the door. She fears he will come back. She fears he won’t.

She doesn’t remember when her legs start working again and how she gets up from that bed and into his car to be taken home. But she gets there. She survives this day and all of the days that come to continually test her capabilities. This brave young warrior emerges from the pain she routinely faces and carries on. Again and again and again.

She grows up and begins to make a life for herself far away from the hurtful places. Joy finds its way into her heart again as she creates new memories to layer on top of the painful past ones. She begins to believe that she can bury her past deep down far enough that it can no longer touch her – no longer haunt her – no longer hurt her. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.

A simple sight, sound, or smell takes her right back to those buried places. It awakens everything inside of her, intertwining past and present until she can no longer distinguish the two. Unable to untangle this mess on her own she seeks the help of heroes trained to help her. Over time they help her find words to describe all that she has experienced. For a long time these words feel separate from her, as if she is telling someone else’s story.

Then one day her own shaky voice begins to speak. This young girl simply wishing to impress her coach steps forward and begins to tell her story. Her words feel like aching truth clawing out from within. What she sees – what she feels – all that she begins to express are words she has never both spoken out loud and truly felt before. Her fears, confusion, and shame begin to have a place outside of her own imprisoned mind.

She is not asked to change her story. She is not asked to minimize or omit parts that feel too vile to be spoken. She is not pulled from her experiences and from her truth to fabricate a rescue that never occurred. Instead, as she describes each detail that she can still deeply feel, she is offered the kind of comfort that never existed before. She is offered what she needed in the moments after what she has just described – in those moments where her naked body laid curled up on his bed all alone. Here she is offered a blanket and a protective presence to sit beside her and keep a careful watch on the door.

She feels strangely protected by this new image infused into her own painful reality. What happened to her in those moments before as well as the days, months, and years that follow cannot be changed for her. But in this moment, with a hero’s guidance by her side, a profoundly powerful and transformative breath of safety occurs for this young girl in his bedroom. In this brief moment she no longer feels alone.

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.

The Stories We Hold

watercolor painting – by Sara

I know it feels messy, scary, and loud. I know it feels as though you are tainted – that you will stain everything within your reach. But no amount of running, hiding, or hand scrubbing will take this feeling away. What if you could reach out and intentionally glide those saturated hands across a canvas. What would we see? What could we learn? Maybe freedom comes from releasing the story that exists within. What might our world look like if we let our colors be seen?