Releasing the Balloon

When I was a child I remember the simple fun of blowing up a balloon and then releasing it into the air to playfully watch it race all around in different directions as it made its erratic path to the ground. It was fast and unpredictable as it jumped, bolted, and zipped around me. I’d chase after the balloon as it quickly changed directions, unable to catch it on its unpredictable course. Once it landed on the ground I’d scoop it up and send it off flying again and again.

This childhood memory came to me late last night while lying in bed, flooded with thoughts from a counseling session I had earlier in the evening. I found myself in that moment strangely relating to that balloon. During my counseling sessions it often feels as though I am carefully stretching my inner limits much like a balloon – pushing, searching, and expanding myself towards deeper understanding and healing. There are injured parts of myself that I really struggle to connect with so it often feels like a bit of a tug of war, trying to stretch and compassionately connect with the various injured and protective parts that live deep within me. Each session is a dance – stretching and breathing air and life into one part and then feeling resistance and backing away from another part. Back and forth, expanding and retracting, stretching and retreating, always wishing to seek, understand, and further heal without breaking the balloon.

When this carefully guided therapeutic dance comes to an end I often find myself feeling flooded and exposed. Just like that inflated balloon being released into the air, I feel myself jumping from thought to thought, memories and emotions zipping around inside of me. I have learned to recognize this feeling enough to know that I can not simply switch gears after a counseling session and get behind the wheel of my car and carry on back into the world. Instead I often need to take a walk to try to let the injured parts that feel as though they are dangling out of me, half exposed and half processed, have the space to tell me more and to settle slightly before I have to pack them back up again. Sometimes this walk helps. Other times it isn’t enough.

Last night I found myself at home after my session surrounded by family, smiles, and conversation. I was with them. I was engaging – as best I could. But the feelings inside of me were still zipping uncontrollably all around and leading me increasingly drained and crashing towards the ground. I held on tight, trying to control and direct how I was feeling. This false sense of composure lasted for a little while. Then I felt my body give way to the emotional ride, and I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. I excused myself after dinner and, without anger or judgment, I curled my depleted body up under a blanket to allow myself to fully unravel, release, and recover. I gave myself permission to let go – to allow the painfully erratic balloon to follow its own uncertain path.

As much as I dislike this feeling, this wild ride of post counseling emotions, I have come to learn a very important lesson. I think the uncomfortable unraveled exposure I experience at the end of a counseling session is the birthplace of healing progress. It is often that feeling that leads to deeper self reflection, awareness, and connection. Instead of tensing, bracing, and trying to dominate this unpleasant feeling, I want to curiously soften into it. I want to learn from it. If I can meet myself in these moments with open curiosity instead of the tempting guarded control that has for so long been my defensive posture, then I can inch my way forward towards building a healing connection with my injured inner parts.

The journey towards healing is clearly not linear. Sometimes it is slow and steady. It can present surges as well as setbacks. Other times it is a wild ride of a free flying and unpredictably racing balloon. The key for me is not only learning when to hang on and when to let go, but also learning that no matter the momentum or direction, I need to learn to keep my eyes and heart wide open throughout the process.

Message to My Anger

We have a complicated relationship, but overall I like you. You provide me with a strong facade when the world feels threatening. You help me armor up and face challenges that I don’t often feel strong enough to address on my own. You cover up all of the parts of me that wither in the face of adversity. You help to hide the parts of me that were broken long ago. You have stepped in to protect those parts from further harm. For that I thank you.

You represent the strength and fortitude I wish to always possess. You don’t hesitate. You don’t second guess. You rise up strong and fiercely determined – an impenetrable force to combat both my external and internal perceived threats. You come prepared for battle and do not back down. I am grateful for all of the times you have shielded me from pain.

Please hear me when I say this – I need your strength – I need your presence. But I also need you to share the weight of your responsibilities. You carry a heavy burden all alone. It’s time we find a way to help alleviate that load. I need to help give a voice to all of the other parts of me – the scared, injured, muted parts that are still bleeding on the inside. Can you help to make space for them to step forward? Can you offer them the guided support to speak up? Can you use your fiery strength to help light the way forward for those buried inside? Those parts are equally essential for our healing. They can help guide us to create new pathways towards a stronger healthier connection within our self as well as with others. As shattered pieces of the same soul we can use our strengths and the lessons we’ve learned to find a way to collaboratively come together in order to heal as one.

Edge of Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Butterfly Effect

Perhaps you have heard of the term or have seen the movie. The butterfly effect is the idea that even the smallest of incidents can have a dramatic impact on a future event. More specifically the name comes from the analogy that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado in another part of the world. Aside from watching the movie years ago this is not a concept I have ever given any thought to, but the name came to my mind when reflecting about a small moment that occurred in my kitchen just the other day.

I had just gathered our mail from the mailbox and was sorting through it on my kitchen counter when I came across a letter addressed to my eleven year old daughter. It was a letter from her 6th grade social studies teacher. I paused when I read his name on the return address label. I felt a very uncomfortable feeling start to rise inside of me simply holding this letter in my hand. I attempted to dismiss those feelings by rationalizing why this letter would exist. It is the end of the school year and my daughter had given this teacher a small gift and handwritten card. This was undoubtedly a thank you note. I swallowed my discomfort and called to my daughter to let her know that she received a letter in the mail. When she yelled back, asking who it was from, I answered. My answer prompted a sudden jolt up from whatever she was doing in our family room into an excited trot to meet me in the kitchen. I noticed her excitement and again felt the uncomfortable feeling rise. I tried to dismiss it again and handed the letter to her, paying close attention to every detail in this moment. She quickly tore open the letter and with a very upright and eager posture she read each word to herself, wide eyed and with a slight smile. When she finished reading I took a breath and asked her if I could read it too. Her hesitation followed by an uncomfortable no sent alarms blazing inside of me. Still trying to discretely silence those alarms and press her slightly, I continued. When she answered that she didn’t want to share the letter because it felt too personal, I struggled to contain myself. However, my everyday attempts to not burden my kids with the aftermath of my own past trauma kept me outwardly composed. With a curious tone I explained that a thank you note from her teacher for an end of year gift that I purchased shouldn’t be anything to keep from me. She indicated that it felt more personal than a regular thank you and continued to hold the note close to her.

How can I respond in this moment? What am I supposed to say? My insides were screaming, “That’s how it started! That’s how it started!”
What am I supposed to do?

I was 14 years old when my abuser entered my life. He was my high school coach. I developed a growing connection and looked up to him throughout my first year on the team. I was unaware of all of his subtle grooming tactics designed to gain my trust and slowly entrap me. The summer after my freshman year on the team, just a few months before he sexually abused me for the first time, I received a letter from him. I remember my nervous excitement when I received that first letter. This man that I admired and whose approval and attention I craved, was opening a line of communication that transcended our coach/athlete relationship. It made my adolescent heart feel special. The letters continued back and forth that summer, progressing from strictly sharing training details, to then more playful, personal, and connecting dialogue. By the time summer ended and our team reconnected for our first fall practice, I could sense a difference in the way he looked at me. Looking back now I understand what that difference was. He knew his grooming of me over the previous year had been successful and now he could move onto the stage that he had been carefully preparing and waiting for. That point in time marked the beginning of over three years of very regular and intensely traumatizing sexual abuse.

Standing in my kitchen with my daughter clutching this note from a male teacher against her chest was all I needed to be taken on this violent ride of terror. In the seconds it took me to respond I felt every emotion from the nervous excitement of receiving the first letters from my coach to the visceral fears and aversion to touch that my body still carries twenty five years after all that he did to me. I had to somehow swallow all of that down and respond to my innocent daughter standing before me. Without an ounce of calm inside of me, I conjured up calm and responded with a polite request for her to share this note with me. After a brief hesitation she complied and handed it over. I read through it, outwardly projecting a composed caring presence, while inwardly frantically teasing apart everything from the stationary he selected, the length of the note, the handwriting, down to every single word and punctuation choice.

I hated this note and everything about it. I hated this man for violating our safe space and reaching into our home to connect with my daughter. I hated every male teacher she has had and will ever have for bringing on this unbearable worry. I hated the man who abused me for causing all of these extreme reactions I feel every day as a mom. I hated that the hurt he caused decades ago still has the power to hurt me now.

I feel no greater responsibility in my life than to protect the little ones I’ve brought onto this earth from the horrors that were inflicted upon me. I feel this weight with every breath I take. It is exhausting to be on high alert at every moment. It is crushing to feel pulled into the violent ride of terror that this small moment caused.

This little envelope that arrived in the mail and contained no more than a thoughtful and well articulated message of gratitude was the butterfly, and all of this unrelenting torment unleashed inside of me as a result. This is not a new experience for me. This is just one day – just one example of how the smallest moments can trigger the greatest storms inside my wounded soul.