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.

Growing New Beliefs

What truths do you possess about yourself? What beliefs about who you are provide a foundation of guiding support in your life? These are questions that have been swirling in my mind this past week. These are questions that don’t seem to have easy answers that I can securely hold onto.

I enjoy hiking. Summit hikes are a particular favorite of mine for the effort it takes to reach the reward of a beautiful panoramic mountaintop view. I love to let my mind wander as I hike, absorbing the surroundings with each turn I take. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in the types of plants and trees I encounter along the way. Instead the artist in me is struck by colors, shapes, and unique features that catch my eye. I’ll stop and study a tree whose trunk is twisted and contorted in awkward directions on its journey upward. I’ll wonder what forces caused such a dramatic shift in its growth. And I’ll marvel at how the tree did not stop growing despite the overwhelming obstacle that required it to shift and adapt. Its twisted shape tells a story of its resilience to grow and adapt against the odds placed before it.

There are so many metaphors that can be connected to the qualities and characteristics of a tree. A resilient twisted trunk, a firmly rooted foundation, swaying branches of openness, renewed blooming life each spring, and rings that record its ongoing journey of growth. If you’re at all familiar with my writing then you’ll understand that metaphors tend to be my language of choice. In fact you don’t even need to look further than the name of my blog to recognize the significance and connection of the tree.

I have spent some time recently talking through this metaphorical concept with a close friend who was asked a question about what qualities and beliefs exist at her core – what makes up the trunk of her tree?

As she described her difficulties in answering this question, I found myself connecting and relating to her struggles. I can find the answers that I want to say – that I think I’m supposed to say. But finding answers that all of me firmly believes in and is proud of is another story. Trying to search for what I deeply and truly believe about myself leads me straight into another metaphor – the spiderweb. I can’t seem to connect to genuine positive answers without feeling tempted, tangled, and pulled into beliefs that I wish to shed from myself. I struggle to feel a genuine connection beyond the dark, dead, and rotting tree trunk that feels like home inside of me. Yet as my friend described this darkness that overrides her system, I felt a calming that only comes from this type of understanding and validation. While we talked and related and joked about our dead trees, I noticed something important. It’s not that I am unable to recognize the qualities in myself that I am proud of. It’s that the messages I learned long ago have twisted and contorted the lens in which I view myself. These messages take all of what I wish to be true about myself and sprinkle poison into it. This makes it difficult for newer and healthier messages to flourish. With all of the healing work I have ventured into, I have felt growth and progress. This is an indication of hope and life within in my tree. Where I find myself stuck is that my progress feels fragile. Just like new leaves that bring life and color to a tree, I experience healing growth. But these leaves are often at the mercy of strong winds that threaten their place on the tree.

I think it is hope that has kept my tree alive for all these years. But I am humble enough to recognize that I need help to keep my hope alive. Connection and support from others helps to bring new life to my tree. It shows me that healing happens both from the flicker of life that shines from within as well as reaching out for the transformative growth and support that can be created from the outside. It comforts me to know that my tree is not the only one twisted and contorted and struggling to maintain life. And that knowledge alone allows hope to flourish and more healing growth to emerge.

Anniversary Reflections – One Year on WordPress

Anniversaries are thought provoking. We use the word “anniversary” to label a wide variety of events, each with their own layers of memories and emotions attached to them. We celebrate joyful milestones, and we also acknowledge painful moments in time with this one single word.

A few days ago I received a notice from WordPress acknowledging my one year anniversary of this blog. And just like any anniversary in my life this has generated some deep self reflection. I looked back over my very first post – a post about connection – a message that still resonates deeply for me. This led me to question where I started and where I have come on my writing journey here.

When I started this blog one year ago I found myself grasping for something I could focus on as a global pandemic began to tear through our lives. I wasn’t entirely sure about my purpose and intention here. I think I hoped that my words and actions would carve their own way towards purpose.

There were a few things I was certain of one year ago. I was struggling to maintain my footing in the healing progress I had begun to make. And I knew deep down, no matter how hard shame tried to tell me otherwise, that I was not alone in my feelings and struggles. I struggled then and I struggle now with the idea that my words could possibly have an impact anywhere outside of my own head. Yet here I am one year later still sending my thoughts out into the world.

I write in an effort to untangle the confusion and pain that lives within me. And I share because I know that my experiences exist in the minds and hearts of others as well. I reach for that validating support while at the same time offering it up wherever it may be needed.

Healing – Connecting – Empowering – Thriving. These words appear as the tag line on my site.
While the writing and art I express here often comes from the darkest places within me, it is hope that urges me to write, inspires me to draw, and begs me to share. I hope for continued steps in my own healing. I hope for deeper connection within myself as well as with others because healing doesn’t happen from a place of lonely isolation. I hope for empowerment of my young wounded internal parts that were never seen and afforded a voice just as I hope for empowerment and freedom for all of the silenced voices of abuse. I hope and I wish to achieve a state in my own healing journey where my wounds can fully heal – where I can rise with confidence no longer burying but instead wearing the scars of my past as a cloak of all that can be overcome. This is where thriving begins.

One year ago my wishing tree was created and shared with all who welcome my words into their hearts. And now on the first anniversary of this space I created, while I still wrestle with the darkness inside of me that regularly tempts me into silent withdrawal, the gratitude I feel for this community of readers and writers has become a new beacon of healing light.

We were not meant to silently wrestle with our deepest struggles alone. Thank you for being a part of my wishing tree.

Take Me Away – #1

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 current art project of mine did not intentionally begin as a healing mental health exercise. Instead it came from a simple desire to decorate the walls of this room in my house. Yet after careful reflection it began to evolve into something much more.

My role has changed during this pandemic. My pre-Covid part time coaching job, combined with volunteer work, as well as my ever present and important role as a mom has been dramatically redefined with full time remote learning support and household management duties for my two children. I have come to realize very quickly since school began last week that I am both an essential and intermittently needed part of this remote learning equation. This is a role I want to take on for my kids, but I am noticing that I need to find ways to take care of myself and remain full of the drive and purpose that keep me upright – even though the majority of my days are now spent in the confines of my home. I think this painting project was calling on me to satisfy this very important need.

This week I ventured into my first painting of this new series. It’s from one of my favorite trips that my husband and I took shortly after we got married. We traveled to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada and enjoyed days filled with hiking, exploring, kayaking, and white water rafting. This painting depicts one of the many picturesque lakes we encountered on this trip.

This is Bow Lake. It is situated along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Park. The vibrant blue water that we sat beside among the array of wildflowers was truly stunning. I recall sitting beside this lake and waiting for clouds to disappear and allow the sun to reveal the incredible clarity of the crystal blue water. Painting this picture this week allowed me to recapture the moments of that trip – the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by so much natural beauty. It also allowed me to reflect on that precious time with my husband and how much we enjoyed adventuring together and getting to know each other more deeply as newlyweds.

This painting took me away to that amazing trip and all of the memories I treasure in my heart. Now that it’s complete I look forward to diving into my next painting to see where my mind takes me.

Connecting in a Time of Disconnection

There is an image we all have become familiar with lately. A loved one placing their hand on a window to connect with another on the other side. We’ve seen these images on the news and on social media as caring gestures towards elderly or sick family members and neighbors during this pandemic. The simple message of love and connection – of letting our loved ones know that we are there for them in the midst of a time when we must maintain physical distance from them.

I was reminded of this image recently in my own personal connection to it. Through all of my healing work I have learned to slowly open a connection between my current self and the child inside of me that was left to suffer alone in silence for so many years. I have learned that much of the pain I feel today is directly connected to what that child was and is still feeling. Much of my healing has surrounded the idea of creating safety for her – to enable her to open up – to trust, share, and work with me to help heal those deep wounds. As with all aspects of my healing, I find myself intermittently making progress as well as faltering sometimes. Yet my desire to bridge the gap toward our shared needs causes me to seek her – to check in with her – to visit with her quite often.

When this virus quickly changed our daily lives and the manner in which we interact with one another, like most people, I felt overwhelmed. I felt the need to streamline the essential needs in my household and place onto the back burner what I deemed less immediately pressing. In these moments of prioritizing I could feel myself operating at a capacity that would not allow for safe thoughtful intrinsic work. I made a conscious decision to pause my healing work. In the meantime something interesting began to happen. My stressful dreams that are somewhat expected during a stressful time began to worsen. I began to notice an increase in wakeful and fitful moments throughout the night. I noticed an increase in heavy foreboding feelings when I awoke each morning. I was feeling the compounding nature of the physical and emotional impact of inadequate sleep. Then the most alarming thing happened. My stressful dreams involving various representations of pain, panic, and helplessness suddenly infused into them the most powerless details that my mind can conjure. In an instant, my dreams of stress and worry took on a completely different feel when my abuser began to appear in them one night. This sounded all kinds of alarms inside of me, shaking the foundation of every inch of healing progress I have made on this ongoing journey. In a mix of overwhelm and denial, I first tried to shrug these dreams off and categorize them as no different than my other random and sometimes bizarre stressful dreams. But these dreams carried a different weight and stayed with me in a profound way that made dismissing them feel impossible.

When this wave of distress would subside just long enough to make space for other feelings I began to sit with all of the questions that these dreams brought up for me. Why is he here now? It’s been a long time since he’s haunted my dreams. What does this mean? How can I make it stop?

That’s when I was reminded of those images of loved ones placing their hands on the glass to show one another that they are still there for them, however different that may seem right now. Perhaps I need to find a way to place my hand on the window to my inner child right now. I think maybe she is feeling shaken and alone and is needing some reassurance. I think she needs to know that I am still here – that I still care – and that I will not abandon her. It just might feel different for a little while.