Conditions of Worth

Care was always conditional. It was a matter of consequences and rewards. Refusing to comply with the things he wanted from me always led to the same series of potential outcomes. I would be ignored. He would stop coaching, helping, and speaking to me. He would threaten to fire my brother whom he craftily hired as his assistant coach. He would no longer help me try to earn the college scholarship I was working hard to achieve. I would be alone with no one to turn to – no one to care for me – as his efforts to keep me isolated drove a wedge between me and everyone else in my life. By contrast, complying with the things he asked of me meant I would be given gifts. The gifts arrived in the form of extra attention – extra coaching – extra care. These types of rewards always made me feel so special. The gifts were also sometimes more tangible – a new sweatshirt, a new pair of running shoes, a bracelet, a special handwritten note from him, among many other things. 

After abusing me in his car he would often stop at the drive through of a nearby McDonalds before taking me home. Growing up in a large family without much discretionary income it was rare for us to eat out for dinner. A fast food meal was an infrequent and very special treat. The first time my abuser bought me a meal at McDonalds after violating me I was excited. I got to pick whatever I wanted, and I ate every bite of that meal. The next time he drove me home I wondered if I’d get this treat again. I hoped for it. I waited for it. Whether my body was treated violently and physically injured or it was exposed to the kind of touch that produced feelings of pleasure, I always hoped for a treat afterwards. And I wondered what it meant on the days that he took me straight home without a fast food stop. It was confusing. Did I do something wrong? Was I not enough of whatever he wanted that day? What was I supposed to do differently? This added a layer of confusion to the overwhelm that I was already facing in these experiences of abuse. Since his treatment of me was always determined by my level of obedience to his demands, the meaning my adolescent brain assigned to these moments was that I was not worthy that day.

As I work now to heal the wounds that still ache from this young girl inside of me, I have taken notice of some confusing reactions that I feel at times. I recently wrote about the somatic work that I am pursuing with my therapist and how calm and comforted I have felt from receiving her safe and caring contact in response to releasing a flood of emotions in front of her. While it has been confusing for my system I have felt held, safe, and cared for in these therapy sessions. Since then I have experienced a session in which memories and feelings from this adolescent part of me were once again expressed through words and art. This session did not lead to the same type of emotional release nor did it result in the close comforting contact that was a part of my previous session, and yet it still felt meaningful, productive, and necessary. I reached the end of this session without feeling anything particularly off or left unaddressed in the moment. But this strange feeling came over me later that day. It was a disturbing and questionable feeling inside of me. After spending some time with this feeling and seeking help from a trusted friend I was able to begin to untangle it.

The strange feeling I experienced after that therapy session was one of longing and regret. It was this deep inner feeling of, “I would do anything to be held in there again. Why didn’t I fall apart and let myself be cared for the way I need?” It was this feeling of coming up short – not doing enough or being enough to deserve to be held and cared for. This feeling of regret for not doing something right and longing for something that was missing made me also begin to doubt my own feelings, experiences, and needs. It forced me to question the authenticity of what I express in therapy. Am I somehow subconsciously trying to perform in some way to receive the care that parts of me desperately need? Is my desire to crumble merely a manipulative effort to get what I want? Is this the same as that familiar feeling of wanting to be good enough to earn a trip to McDonalds? My adult brain is fairly certain this is not the case, but this young part is convinced that her actions determine whether or not she is worthy of care. This young part of me still wanted to feel physically seen and held and nurtured even though no tears emerged that day, but the meaning my brain assigned to not receiving this type of contact was that I must have done something wrong. I must not be deserving enough for it, and I must do better next time.

After careful introspection I began to understand why that feeling would arise here. Of course I felt a reaction like this. Of course I felt like I did something wrong. Of course I was left feeling desperate to be held and simultaneously inadequate and unworthy. After all, the lasting message for this young part inside of me still remains. Care is conditional. It is always a matter of consequences and rewards.

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.

Object Permanence

Each morning I park my car in my son’s school parking lot. I exit the car, put my mask on my face, and open the door to help him gather his belongings as he climbs out. I walk him to the edge of the parking lot, give him a hug and a kiss on the head, and wish him a good day at school. I stand at the edge of the lot as he continues along the crosswalk. Then I walk back to my car. I stand next to my car and watch him as he walks up the pathway to the side entrance where he enters the building. At some point along his path towards the school he always turns around to look for me. I wave my arm in the air, and he waves back. He then continues walking, sometimes turning around again and looking for another wave. I smile even though it is hidden under my mask and he is far enough from me to no longer see the details of my face, and I wave again. I repeat this process as many times as he wishes to turn around on his walk up that path in the morning.

I look forward to this small moment each day. It’s sweet, and it feels bigger than just watching him walk to school. It feels like he is routinely checking to make sure I’m still there for him – to make sure I don’t leave before he is ready – to make sure I don’t turn my back on him. To me these moments are priceless. I know a day will come when he won’t turn around to look for me anymore. Yet regardless of whether he turns around or not I choose to stay and wait while he is in my sight. I never want to be too busy or too preoccupied to remain fully present and connected in these small moments.

Kids are constantly engaged in a dance of stretching their independence and then turning to make sure that their stable base of support is still there. Just as a child grows to achieve the developmental understanding that an object continues to exist even if they cannot see or hear it, in a nurturing sense they also begin to learn that their own safety and care continues to exist beyond the immediate presence of their caregiver. A secure attachment between a child and caregiver enables that child to thrive and spread their wings facing new challenges while feeling seen, supported, and cared for in the process. As a parent that is what you work for – that is what you wish for. I can only hope that is how my son feels.

When a child is sexually abused their stable base of support is dismantled. Instead of turning towards others for safety and security, they learn how to provide those needs for themselves through a variety of coping mechanisms. They learn that trust is a dangerous weapon that can be wielded against them. This can teach them to become guarded, distant, and distrustful of others and of themselves. These are the lessons I learned as a child, and these are the lessons I strive to unlearn through healthier healing connections as an adult.

As I work to connect with and find healing for my inner child I feel much like my son on his walk to school. I feel this regular need from within to check and make sure my support is still there. Yet when I turn around I am unsure of who or what to look for.

One of the many challenges of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is learning to become the protective and nurturing caregiver that the internal wounded parts were lacking at the time of the abuse. It’s learning to pay attention and tend to the unmet needs that still exist and cry out from within. Yet here lies the tricky part. As I learned to cope with routine abuse on my own as a child, over the years I adopted a variety of coping mechanisms to keep me going – to keep me alive. Some of these choices like running, art, and music were and continue to be healthy and serve me well. But there are other less favorable choices I have made and at times still make as a result of the pain that was thrust upon me. These choices have created a different type of harm. These choices have constructed a barbed wire barrier where internal connection and trust is required. The aftermath of these choices leaves my entire system incredibly unsteady and unable to fully trust itself. So when my therapist calls upon the nurturing mom in me to tend to and care for these young wounded internal parts, it doesn’t yet feel right. It feels to the young parts that they are being tricked and will just be hurt, ignored, and left alone again.

Can it be okay that these young parts trust the comforting words of my therapist more than my own words right now? Can I stop asking and expecting more than what my own internal system can handle at the moment and just lean into the support and safety that comes from her? Can I help these young parts continue to build trust with her while she works to help and prepare me to take on that task when my system feels more capable of doing so? While the ultimate goal in healing may look different, can it be okay that it is her wave that I turn around and look for right now?

When Healing Words Cause Pain

How do we show up for someone in a way that provides genuine support? How do we speak to someone who is hurting to provide reassurance that they are not alone? Our careful attention to the words selected in these moments can often directly impact the efficacy of our desired intervention. If we wish to wrap a blanket of support around another person then it is important to tune into the difference between what feels comforting and what feels distressing to that person. It requires us to listen to the needs of another. It requires us to recognize that what one person may find supportive could be received in an entirely different way by someone else. But what happens when the carefully chosen words themselves carry their own conflicting messages? How is a person supposed to absorb a well intended message that immediately attaches itself to a tangled mess of ambivalent feelings?

Early in my healing journey, with the guidance of my therapist, I was directed to various books to help me understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse. The words in these books allowed my adult brain to make connections and gain an understanding of what really happened when I was young. These lessons helped to rewire the faulty messages that were imposed upon my traumatized adolescent brain. Gaining an understanding of the stages of abuse, the behaviors of pedophiles, and the lasting and numerous impacts of these experiences allowed my brain to slowly begin to erase the message that what happened to me was entirely my fault and my choice and replace it with the acceptance of the term sexual abuse to describe my experiences. This process took quite some time, but making these connections and repairs in my adult brain provided me with the necessary foundation to begin to dig deeper into my healing work.

A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I began to connect with other survivors. The validating support that comes from the collective “me too” of trauma survivors is an immensely helpful component of healing. I first experienced this in a group therapy setting for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There I sat in a room with women who carried vastly different stories and experiences of abuse, and yet a common thread emerged again and again as we shared the impact of our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter how old we were when our abuse took place, the role our abuser held in our lives, or even how many instances of abuse we remembered. The heavy weight of lasting internal impacts and distorted views about ourselves and the world around us became common ground within this room of strangers. The more I allowed myself to share about what I could only describe as my own unique brand of crazy going on inside of me, the more I felt this comforting validation and reciprocation through healing connection. This experience reinforced the message that my adult brain was learning to accept. I am not alone.

Recently I have directed my healing to focus on working to build a connection with my internal wounded parts. I have come to understand that no matter how much my adult brain can rationally understand the dynamics of abuse, my inner child holds memories attached to feelings that impact the way I still function today. I cannot reason my way around these default responses no matter how hard I try. It requires a deeper understanding and connection. Through this work I am beginning to feel how my adult brain can receive and process messages differently from these internal parts. The same messages that have helped my adult self make healing progress are not received the same way by my wounded inner child. When my adult self hears that my fears, feelings, and experiences are common in survivors of abuse and I can lean on the words of survivors or experts printed in books to reinforce the concept that I am not alone, I am filled with the validation and hope that there is a way through and out of my pain. It makes me want to dig in and follow the research to guide me forward towards healing. But a strange thing happens when my inner child hears the same messages. She latches onto words like “common”, “typical”, and “expected” and instead of feeling validated and empowered she feels diminished. It feels like she is being told that her wounds are common and expected. It feels to her that all of the painful and specific details that she relives over and over inside do not matter. Instead she feels that she is being told to go stand in line and follow the provided script with all of the other injured kids who are just like her. Her experiences matter no more than the sea of faces she’s been lumped in with. Those words do not help her. To her those words feel dismissive and minimizing, and they connect directly to the messages that kept her silently suffering in the past. Instead she needs words that scoop her up out of the murky darkness, dust her off, and wrap her in comfort and security while looking deeply into her eyes and showing her that she is seen and heard and that all of her unique experiences matter.

How do I give this wounded child within all that she needs? How can I extract the messages necessary for my adult self to continue healing while also tending to the child parts that seem to require something entirely different? How can I decide which part of me is supposed to absorb each message that I receive to ensure that they provide help instead of harm?

Marble Jar

I have an unhealthy tendency to look for evidence to support my belief that I am alone and not cared for. Like an internal scorecard, I keep a tally of incidents to prove that others cannot be trusted. This is a highly effective tool for self protection, and it is also a guarantee for loneliness and isolation. Perhaps to counter this faulty pattern of mine I can try to infuse a more hopeful approach in building and developing relationships.

Trust is built over many tiny moments – our brains record and store these moments, building a case for growing safety and connection in relationships. The hope is that over time safe people emerge in your life that can hold space for all of you in a genuine and unconditional way. Each trust building interaction adds reinforcement and stability to the relationship, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connection while keeping small disruptions within this healthy environment from fracturing the relationship beyond repair.

Brene Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar to demonstrate this idea. Each time I show up for a friend in a meaningful way a marble is added to my jar, over time creating a solid foundation of trust in our relationship. Marble upon marble of fueling connection helps to build safety and stability. When, as a flawed human, I fall short of expectations and a marble is lost we still have a full jar to lean on and can continue to rebuild and grow from those small breaches.

Long ago, I was not seen and was consequently routinely abused in plain sight. Trust was used as a weapon against me. My high school coach carefully manipulated his way into the most trusted and valued position in my life. Over the course of a year of grooming he deliberately and methodically crafted moments to fill his marble jar and guided me into a position of complete trust and obedience. He then smashed the marble jar right over my head the day he first violated me. His actions over the course of the following several years deadened the parts of me that could soften in the safe presence of another person. And from those moments new internal protective parts were formed to try to keep harm away. Decades later I carry these protective parts into each new relationship I encounter. They have a keen sense of danger. They expect it, releasing warning signs to keep me at arms length from others at all times.

I have a new therapist. As with all new relationships I am guarded. Yet I show up to my appointments trying to let down this guard in order to seek help for the wounded parts that tremble inside of me. My rational brain tells me that I need to open up and let her in in order to receive her help. Yet the guarded parts of me will not be subverted. These parts try to convince me that she cannot be trusted. They reach and search for evidence to prove that her care is not real, trying to fill her scorecard with enough distrusting tally marks to keep me far from her. I know two things about this response in me – this was a very critical life saving protective defense that was created inside of me long ago, and it is no longer serving to help me but is in fact now a hindrance for me.

In one of my first appointments with my new therapist I brought with me a series of drawings and paintings that represent various internal parts of me. I did not hold expectations around what it would feel like to share these with her. In that moment I was merely trying to bring more of myself in front of her. As I sat across from her and opened the folder revealing each piece of artwork, she watched intently. After I held up and described each piece that I chose to share she then leaned in and asked if she could take a closer look. I reached across the space between us and handed them to her. Then I watched as she slid down from her chair onto the floor, carefully spreading these pieces of me all around her. She then picked them up one by one and studied them. I watched the way she held each piece, bringing a few of them in close to her as she described what she saw and felt in them. That moment left a mark on me that I could not identify in session but worked to unpack in solitude afterwards. The parts of me that I brought into her office that day had never been held that way by another person. She saw those wounded parts of me and offered comforting support in the attentive way she held and tended to each one of them.

I have since then been trying to understand how all of my internal parts feel about her and the help, care, and support she is offering. From the youngest parts I feel a hopeful longing. They want to crawl out of the darkness closer to her. They want her to see how much they hurt. They want her help. Other parts of me are harder to convince. They keep looking for the trapdoor. They are convinced that her words are hollow and will just lead us to more hurt and isolated misery. And then there is the adult me in the room – the one that carries around all of these fractured pieces that exist inside of me. I sit before her and wrestle with all of these conflicting thoughts and feelings and am often unable to make a sound. None of it makes sense. It’s a tangled mess of incomplete thoughts, layered with fragmented images and sensory experiences. In those moments I cannot answer how I am feeling. I’m not withholding. I simply can’t grab hold of anything. It’s all spinning, tumbling, and tangling around inside of me. I don’t have a voice in those moments. No one does. It feels like a crowded bus in an uproar with all passengers fighting for the drivers seat, but no one has control. The bus just gets jerked in different directions while moving at a higher and higher speed.

I keep coming back to that moment in her office with my artwork and checking in with all of my internal parts. How do they feel about the way she held us that day? The parts that want to lunge forward into the comfort of her arms believe in her. They are craving to be seen and cared for so badly that they are ready to trust her. This feels reckless and naive to other parts that struggle to believe. They impose a judging eye roll while they resume their scorecard tallies. These are the parts that need more time. These parts need more marbles added to the jar before they will soften in front of her. So that is precisely what I have decided to give them – more time and more opportunity to build trust. These parts prefer to hold onto questions and thoughts because they fear that releasing them gives another person power over them. But what if I can allow these thoughts and questions to emerge? What if I can lay down my scorecard for a moment and provide an opportunity to offer my therapist just one small marble at a time?

Questions

pencil drawing – by Sara

My questions have sharp edges
They swirl around me
Gripping, stabbing, and bleeding from me
Swarming through my mind
Like a dense fog
Engulfing me in blind confusion

They tempt me to doubt hope
Draping me in loneliness
They live deep here
Layer upon layer
Creating an armor that
Keeps me from you

Whispers beg to give voice
To my questions
To reach for your hand
Accepting what you offer

Alarms warn that your
Hand is just an illusion
Another trick leading
To a dark place I know too well

Tightly I hold my questions
A line in the sand between me and you
A false sense of power
Providing no more than
Self destructive ammunition
For a battle I wish to surrender to

Ambivalence

It is confusing to feel drawn to and simultaneously repulsed by something. It is distressing to experience feelings that don’t belong together – pleasure and pain, assurance and fear, comfort and betrayal. This is the tangled web of ambivalence. It is a concept and a part of the human experience that is often confusing enough in everyday situations. I can feel genuinely happy and proud of a friend when she receives a promotion at work, while also feeling jealous and under appreciated with my own work performance and lack of recognition. Both sets of feelings are entirely reasonable and should be given space for deeper self reflection and understanding. Ambivalence as it relates to childhood trauma, however, is an infinitely more complicated mess.

Ambivalence by definition is a complex feeling involving conflicting and competing emotions. When I learned about ambivalence in the context of childhood sexual abuse, I realized that for me it is tied into some of my most difficult and lasting ordeals with shame. I was both physically injured and experienced my first instances of sexual pleasure at the hands of my abusers. The wake of that statement alone has left me with ongoing therapeutic unpacking over the years. To this day, feelings of warmth, trust, and safety ignite the contradictory feelings that were imposed upon me from long ago. These may be faulty connections formed decades ago, but the wounded parts within me know no other way.

I am currently in the early stages of building trust with a new therapist. Every message that I am receiving from her feels safe and comforting. Yet the slightest softening response I experience within myself immediately feels dangerous and leads to an internal recoil. Each time I hear her speak words that light up certain parts of me that desperately need to hear those words, I feel a tug of war happen inside of me. Those parts lean in for comfort, safety, warmth, and care – and then they immediately scatter and retreat in fear, suspicion, and distrust. Young parts within me want to reach out for her help and yet these other parts scream that it is not safe, that her help should be avoided, and they try to shut me down with judgment and self loathing. Being stuck in a virtual setting makes this work feel even harder. How can the smallest and most vulnerable parts within me feel safe when there is so much space between those parts and the lifeline being tossed to them?

I am quite certain that the path towards building a connection with my therapist is simply a matter of time and patient work together – slowing tip toeing towards feelings of safety while acknowledging, naming, and making space for each ambivalent feeling that arises. The parts of me that struggle to feel safe with my therapist were created out of necessity. I cannot simply bypass them however inconvenient they may be. I need to instead make space for all of these conflicting feelings. I need to feel her comforting support and also question and doubt it. I need to give a voice to all of the parts that both need her and wish to reject her help. It’s not about choosing the right voice. It’s about learning to listen to all of them.



The Journey of Seven Rocks

A few years ago while on a trip visiting my family in my hometown I scheduled an afternoon to myself. Typically these trips are consumed with scheduled gatherings and events as I come from a large family that has grown and spread out and isn’t often able to reunite. But on this particular visit I had something very important that I decided to create time for.

My hometown is a place full of all sorts of memories. There are places I remember fondly – my youth soccer fields, the creek that meanders near my childhood home, and the front yard of that same home where countless family baseball and football games were played. There are also places with memories attached to them that I wish to forget – places where pieces of me were taken.

The man who sexually abused me for over three years was my high school coach. After months of careful grooming he positioned himself as my designated ride home from practice each day. This became a carefully calculated daily opportunity for him to make a detour on the way to my house and violate my teenaged body. He developed an ongoing list of secluded places to take me – places that he could access easily to provide ample time to assess privacy, carefully maneuver and position his car for optimal shielding, and then take from me almost always within the confines of his car.

Each time I return to my hometown I am caught off guard by triggers that come up in conversations, places I visit, or places I simply drive past. My abuser took me to so many different places over those years that it is very hard to avoid encounters with these memories each time I visit. Yet on this particular trip I decided to face these memories in a different way.

I wanted to find a way to revisit some of the places that hold a tangled mess of painful, confusing, traumatizing, and shameful memories. I wanted to face these places to help release the painful grip they held on me. I wanted to face them to help make sense of the tornado of memories and feelings I carried. I wanted to redefine what those places meant to me – to be able to see a parking lot simply as a parking lot, instead of feeling overwhelmed by all that occurred there. Simply gathering the courage to return to these places seemed more than adequate to fulfill this need in me. But it felt symbolic to do even more. I chose to leave something behind at each location – a mark to signify that I came back and reclaimed the parts of me that were taken in those places.

Prior to my trip I gathered a handful of rocks from my home – small white rocks from a bucket I used for my physical training regimen. I lifted and carried this 50 pound bucket of rocks for strength training purposes to push myself physically and to prepare for obstacle races that I competed in. These rocks were a part of how I tested my physical limits in training. These rocks were a perfect simple representation of my personal determination, perseverance, and fighting spirit. These rocks were exactly what I needed to leave behind at each of the chosen locations – an acknowledgment of my determination to reclaim, reconnect, and refuel the parts of myself that were broken there. I scooped up a handful of the rocks and painted them blue so they could stand out among the surroundings where they would be placed. I packed the rocks in my luggage and took them with me for this planned day of reclamation.

On the day of my rock journey I ventured in solitude to a predetermined list of places from that area that carry the heaviest weight of memories inside of me. Once I reached each location I got out of my car and took a walk, quietly talking to myself about what happened there. Memories and feelings flowed out of me as I spoke of my experiences. I was alone and yet I found myself speaking out loud to various people. I spoke to the young girl inside of me that holds all of the torment from these moments within her. I calmly reassured her that she was safe, that I was with her, and that he could no longer hurt her. I spoke out loud to my abuser, expressing what I remembered and processing when, how, and why he took me to each place. When I felt ready to move on I placed a single blue rock on the ground and carried on to the next stop on my journey.

I visited seven locations that day – each one intertwined with its own unique and lasting impact on me. One place in particular led me to a great deal of internal dialogue and self reflection. It was a small college campus only about a mile away from my high school. I wondered out loud why he chose this place – a place that was never quiet – never empty. I walked around the parking lot where he often parked alongside the nearby train tracks, and I asked questions. “Why did you bring me here? Why did you choose this busy place?” As I replayed memories and thoughtfully processed out loud I began to understand exactly why he chose this bustling location. The first obvious answer was its proximity to my school and my home, which allowed for less travel time and therefore more time for him to be alone with me. He was always careful to avoid the watchful eyes of students and teachers at my high school. Although this campus was almost always full of people when he brought me there, it was full of different people. The people roaming around were students and staff at this small agricultural college. There were no familiar faces at this place. We were anonymous there, and he knew that. This campus was also just full enough that the surrounding parked cars allowed him to blend in among them. Unlike most of the other vacant places he took me, this one created a camouflage among the commotion. He could abuse me while students and teachers were walking to and from classes in nearby buildings, while sports teams were practicing on nearby fields, and while commuters waited at a train stop less than 100 yards away. He could discretely abuse me right there in the midst of all of the busy surroundings.

As I paced back and forth along that parking lot I felt my fearful and troubling overwhelm slowly become replaced with a feeling of confidence and strength. I grew less shaken by my surroundings. The more I began to understand and piece things together, the more I felt myself breathing easier and standing up straighter. For the first time I could separate the painful memories of this place from what it truly is – a college parking lot. This journey did not erase the memories that exist in this parking lot or in any other location I visited that day. But the overall weight of those places felt less imposing with each rock I left behind.

I did not know what to expect from this journey I set out on. While I was relieved to feel myself strengthened by facing these places, I also felt an impact in a much more unexpected way. Some of these places on the day of my rock journey were quiet and easy to discretely take the necessary time to feel and process what needed to rise up from within me. But a few of the places were less private, and I felt the watchful eyes of a neighbor or passerby. While this kept me from being able to fully connect in the moment, it strangely provided its own healing result. The eyes of these strangers were exactly what the girl inside of me needed at these locations years ago. The attentive suspicion of someone appearing out of place is precisely what could have saved her in any of the memories I visited that day. This prompted a mournful feeling that the wounded girl inside of me was never seen or protected by these watchful eyes. But at the same time it made me feel encouraged that more people are watching now. I can only hope that the eyes that watched me place rocks on the ground that day are the same watchful eyes capable of protecting young girls today.

As I continue to build a connection with the parts of myself that were injured back then I am curious to one day return for another rock journey – to visit these places again or to venture further to other places I have yet to return to. I wish to continue to close the gaps of disconnect with my wounded inner parts, to take further steps towards empowerment and healing strength, and to remind all of me just how far I have come. Until then I will hold onto the healing strength I gained on the day of my rock journey.