Internal Parts

When your voice grows quiet what does your mind say? Do you sense a recurring tone or message from within, or do you experience a variety of internal processing content and intensity? I imagine for most, internal dialogue depends on situational factors. Yet the voices that rise up in these instances are uniquely their own. What do you hear in your own stillness?

Some of my internal voices were born from childhood sexual abuse. They seem to be the loudest and strongest voices, often muting others that may exist. Yet even though decades have passed and I am safely away from abuse now, these parts are still on heightened alert maintaining their dutiful roles. Only now these roles no longer serve me. Instead they are often a hindrance to feelings of safety and security and developing healing connection in my life.

My efforts to identify and untangle these various internal parts that live deep within me has proven to be a difficult task. It feels like these parts wish to exist independently and without my awareness. When I try to shine a light on them they retreat – like cockroaches they scatter and flee into hiding. Approaching these parts with words often leaves me empty handed. They don’t seem to communicate with words. So recently I ventured into the task of attempting to communicate with them in a different way – expressing what they feel in images that they could visually present to me.

I held a pencil in my hand and without deliberate effort I let it move across the page, sketching what each of these parts felt like inside of me. Before long my page began to fill with grayscale images. Then color emerged as I sunk deeper into this exercise. When the images and colors stopped freely moving across my page I set my pencils down, understanding that although my drawing was not complete four distinct parts showed up for me that day.

The curled up grey figure at the bottom is shame. I have been drawing different versions of her since I was a child (see My Shame is a Shapeshifter for more drawings of shame). She feels the need to hold herself desperately together, shrinking into the smallest space that she can occupy. Shame is so powerful and pervasive that she feels it consuming her, changing her in a way that will make her unrecognizable – losing her form – blurring the lines between who she is and who she fears to be.

The fiery figure above her is anger. Anger conveniently positions itself over shame for a reason. Anger is fueled and intensified by feelings of shrinking cowering weakness. Anger lashes its fury outward at times, directing focus and blame on those that hurt us or left us susceptible to harm. Yet it is often an inward path that anger chooses – fueling thoughts of self blame and self loathing as its weapon of choice.

The dark hooded figure turns its back on everyone else. She outwardly projects that she doesn’t want to see nor does she want to be seen. Yet she stands nearby, quietly wrestling with what she feels as a need to be noticed – a need to be seen – a need to be saved. This one feels like a teenager inside of me.

The purple figure feels heavy and desperate. The heavy weight of what she carries is dripping and oozing out of her. She looks and feels like pain to me – a frightening and messy kind of pain.

Four parts showed up in this first attempt at visually meeting my internal parts. I know there are more – I can feel that there are more parts within me. They just need patience and safety before they will step forward and present themselves to me. Drawing these figures does not rid me of their powerful presence. My goal is not to erase them (even though at times I wish to do so). Instead I am learning that I need to understand them. I need to build a bridge between my current self and each of these parts. I need to learn to work with them instead of against them. They were created out of necessity. They were created in me and for me. Learning to build new connections with them might allow me to help redefine their roles in my life to better suit my current needs. It feels like a daunting task ahead of me, but it is also one that I recognize as necessary.

What has helped you to identify and connect with your internal parts?

When Cancer Meets the Mother Wound

This feels messy in a way that I’m not certain I can describe. It feels like a tangled ball of barbed wire deep inside my chest. To untangle it from within me will be impossible without indescribable pain, but to leave it there means allowing it to grow and further ensnare me.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer last week. Simply typing that sentence halted my thought process and led me to read it over to myself several times.

My mom has cancer.

The complicated relationship I experience with my mom makes this news carry a polluted burden of feelings. I am scared. I’m scared for the battle that my mom faces. I am scared of the uncertain future that this presents for her. I am scared to lose my mom. I feel powerless. I don’t know what this beast of a disease has planned for her. I am desperately trying to figure out how to help while living far away from her in the midst of a pandemic. I feel a pull to be there to help in any way I can – to be a source of physical and emotional support – to simply be there with her and for her. Yet the obstacles before me are making a difficult situation exponentially more complicated.

The rest of the tangled feelings inside of me represent, among other things, a mix of anger, guilt, hurt, and shame – the complex result of a deep mother wound that exists in my heart. I know those feelings are there because I have felt them with each interaction I’ve had with my mom throughout my life. Yet at this moment I cannot access those feelings. The fear, uncertainty, and concern over this diagnosis and the complex surgery that is fast approaching is all that I can feel. And right now it’s all I want to feel. Untangling the barbed wire will have to wait. Right now I need to help my mom.

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.

The Rising Tide

As the tide rises
the broken pieces are stirred
and awoken once again.

The earth beneath her begins to shake.
The broken pieces rattle
like shards of glass
clanging, scraping, cutting
into the parts that have been so tenderly cared for
that she has worked so hard to heal.

She tries to shield herself.
Yet the more she tenses in self protection
the more those pieces seem to cut into her
weakening her defenses.

Her confidence and security begin to shudder and shrink
transformation looming against her will.
She struggles in resistance.
Yet there she slips back into that familiar skin
becoming the part of herself that she wishes to forget.

It chases her back into hiding
deep down to a place that should not exist anymore.
There it tries to convince her to stay
small, silent, alone, and broken.

An automatic inevitability each time the tide rushes in.
If only the waves could quiet down
and the tide retreat long enough for her
to catch her breath before
returning once more.

At First Glance

Take a look at this drawing. What do you see? A child reaching and stretching to take a lollipop from a man’s coat pocket. Perhaps this man is the child’s father and her sneaky attempt to swipe the candy can be viewed as innocent or even cute. But what if I told you that the artist of this drawing was a child herself who was in the midst of silently suffering regular sexual abuse by a trusted man in her life. Does that make you view this drawing any differently?

For years I have overlooked this drawing as an insignificant part of my collection of adolescent art. For years I saw it as nothing more than what it depicts at first glance – a child stealing candy from an adult.

In recent years I have focused my attention to the artwork I created in my youth and the messages they can tell me about the injured girl that created them (see my Art page for more information). I have copies of many of those pieces and an old sketchbook as a part of this collection. These are the only possessions I still have from a period in my life I have often wished to forget. Recently this particular drawing caught my attention and after years of casting it aside it now demands more contemplation from me. This drawing that at first glance appears very simple and innocent is now uncovering something much deeper for me.

When I completed this drawing I was in high school in the midst of enduring regular sexual abuse by my trusted coach. His careful grooming followed by ongoing manipulative control kept me both silently compliant and simultaneously responsible for all of the pain and shame that he inflicted upon me. He had a careful way of crafting each encounter to make me feel as though I was making choices when in fact he was merely spinning and tangling me deeper and more fully under his control. It was so confusing for my adolescent brain to make sense of. I believed everything he trained me to believe about him, about others, and even myself. I was so driven to reach my fullest potential, and I looked up to him as the teacher/role model/coach to help me get there that I wasn’t able to see the situation he placed me into in any other way than how he presented it to me. How could I?

The last conversation I had with him when I was finally able to break free from his abusive grip occurred when I was in college. The words he said to me on that phone call I can still deeply feel. “You simply used me to get yourself a college scholarship.” When I hung up my phone that day I felt two distinct feelings. The first was an immense weight off of my shoulders – a sense of relief to finally be free from him. The second feeling was much different from the first and was the exact response I had been conditioned to feel – full of shame and an overwhelming weight of responsibility. This was a glaring sign of the wake of damage he left inside of me. His words sunk deep into the parts of me that believed I was to blame for what he did to me. I carried those words that he laid onto me that day – that I used him – and they became my deeply silent and shameful reminder that I was a dangerous and defective person.

Now as I look at this drawing decades after creating it I question what my child self was expressing. Is this merely an expression of childlike innocence and seizing a moment of candy temptation and opportunity? Or was she perhaps expressing something that was being deeply ingrained in her mind – that she is the dangerous thief – she is taking from an unsuspecting adult. Could this be an expression of shame, guilt, or wrongdoing? The entire drawing was completed in pencil, a grey scale image, with the exception of both the child’s shirt and the lollipop which are both a deep rich red. Does this red represent danger? Does she feel that she is the danger to others, or does she recognize that she is in danger? Perhaps her red shirt comes from a undying and alarming need to be seen – noticed – cared for. What if there is something significant in the matching reds? Perhaps the red candy that perfectly matches her red shirt represents part of her that was taken away. Maybe she is reaching to try to regain that part of herself. Maybe she was expressing a sense of confusion and overwhelm as the child in the drawing is so young and so small compared to the man towering before her. She strains to reach up onto her tip toes just to barely grab hold of this enticing object. Maybe she was expressing how small and defenseless she felt in the face of his dominance, control, and deception.

Perhaps I am overthinking and over analyzing this drawing. Maybe it is in fact nothing more than a mindless sketch of innocence. I don’t know what prompted the wounded girl inside of me to draw this years ago. But I suspect she is telling us more than what we see at first glance.

Melancholy

I have a music playlist on my phone called Melancholy. I think this fact makes my husband feel a little uneasy. After all, why would I seek out music that fuels my sadness? While perhaps this may be a misguided practice, when I feel an incoming heavy weight of hurt sometimes it helps me to sink into it in order to better understand where it came from and what it needs from me. Sometimes softening into my melancholy feels as though I am positioning myself in a place to better hear from my wounded parts.

There are certain song lyrics and melodies that allow me to sink into my hurt – not to get lost in it – although that does happen at times. But the dark places are where my greatest wounds exist, and from time to time I feel a pull to venture there.

My experiences with dark feelings often come without warning. They originate from every day circumstances that slyly connect themselves to something deeply painful within me. I can’t often make those connections in the moment. My nervous system is too activated to allow space for that. This is where music enters the equation. The music I am drawn to in these moments both allows me to deeply feel the rising heavy emotions while also offering a soothing and comforting release in the melody and lyrics expressed. This keeps me from avoiding or pushing away emotions that need to rise to the surface. It also feels as though the music gives me permission to feel and connect with my dark feelings. It allows me to feel while also gently reassuring and reminding me that I don’t need to live there – that I can and will rise from that dark place.

I think being open to my darkness helps to make me less afraid of it. I think this curiosity is a crucial part of my healing. The important thing for me to be mindful of is that my use of music to connect to these feelings can be productive as long as the feelings are temporary. Extended stays in darkness seem to require a different approach or intervention for me. But for my intermittent encounters with darkness I will continue to open my wounded heart to music and take solace in the sounds of my Melancholy.

Sunshower by Chris Cornell – one the most frequently played songs on my Melancholy playlist

Do songs of melancholy bring you comfort or distress when you are in struggle? What helps you connect to the parts of yourself that are calling out for attention in those moments?

Trust Your Gut

Trust your gut is one of those phrases that feels so trite and dismissive to me. Yet we all use it on a regular basis – listen to, pay attention to, follow your gut. It seems very obvious, but to be honest, I don’t know what to make of this phrase. I don’t even know what to make of my gut. I don’t feel like I have a relationship with my gut. I am overflowing with internal voices. If my gut is supposed to represent some internal guiding voice, then which voice is it? Could it be that all of the noise I experience equally represents this voice, or is my gut somewhere buried beneath the barrage of noise? What does “trust your gut” even mean to a trauma survivor?

When I was a child and being routinely abused I was taught to accept the messages being spoon fed into my brain by my manipulative abuser. This was not a choice. It was a devastating reality. I was taught that my internal messages were to be dismissed and to instead accept all that was imposed upon me. This not only buried me under a mountain of silence and shame, but it also disconnected me from the ability to engage with and trust my own feelings.

I find myself decades later depending on outside voices to help guide my internal feelings about situations and circumstances that require reflection. It seems if someone else can validate a feeling, that allows a single voice to step forward inside of me. It gives that voice permission to feel and express. But what if I’m receiving the wrong input and igniting the wrong voice inside? What if this outward reliance is just feeding my maladaptive internal processing?

Much of my recent healing work has involved identifying and connecting to the various wounded and protective parts that exist within me. A friend recently described this so accurately for me as possessing a clown car of internal parts. Imagine a clown car of internal voices all jockeying for the driver’s seat. Who has the loudest voice? Who is in control? The answer to these questions seems dependent upon circumstances, triggers, and needs. If a situation triggers one part to step forward, that part rules my clown car and takes the wheel. I’ve got some loud and messy voices inside of me. I am trying to identify each one of them in an attempt to understand how they have served to help me in the past and what I can do to better integrate them into my present self. I am no longer in constant danger. My body is no longer under the regular threat of violation. Yet some of these internal parts don’t seem to know this, and they react to situations with such overwhelm that it sends all of me back into reflexive survival.

Wherever my gut is buried underneath all of this noise, I feel like I need to somehow uncover it. I need to find a way to build a relationship with that part – to give it the strength and confidence to step forward when I need it. The more I learn about myself, the more I have come to understand that all of my other internal voices are not going to simply step aside upon my request. They won’t be dismissed or bullied or cast aside. They require the same care and attention that was lacking when I was young. They need me to build a trusting connection with each one of them before they will let me even get close to my gut. They were born from my past experiences, and they have much to teach me before they will let me influence who gets to be in the driver’s seat of my clown car.

Purpose

Writing helps me access that which I cannot speak. I write in order to release – to free myself of all that entraps me – to give a voice to all of the parts inside of me that cannot make a sound. Writing teaches me to listen to those muted parts and helps attach words to them. I work hard to uncover the words that best express what is deeply held within me. I sit with those words, formulate them, and then release them onto paper. My deepest wounds, questions, doubts, and fears are then in front of me – staring back at me and demanding attention. Sometimes those words don’t leave my grasp. Other times I send them out into the world.

Then what?

I am often left unsure what to do with the words that I express. When I share I often wonder where or if they ever land – like sending a message in a bottle. Did my message make it across the ocean or get stuck on a submerged branch just beyond my reach? Why do I choose to share my writing if I struggle with the uncertainty of whether or not my words are ever seen or provide impact in any way? Why do I write if I do not often even speak of what I have written? This leaves me with the ongoing gut wrenching question, “what is the point of all of this?”

I don’t believe in the notion that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that my teenaged body was routinely abused by a trusted adult as a part of some master plan. My abuser’s own criminal choices combined with the absence of my family’s support led to a perfect storm of opportunity and misfortune. The moments of my abuse left me without choice. This seemingly simple statement took me a long time to understand and believe as fact. Yet while I was without choices back then I believe in my own lonely healing battle that choices lie before me now each and every day. With each day and each new challenge I have the choice to pick myself up and carry on or to lay down my fight and surrender. Life has tempted me to surrender before – that is a voice inside of me that I know all too well and fear greatly. But there is also a scrappy warrior inside of me that urges me to wrestle my way to find healing, direction, and purpose. I may not have had choices in the way I was treated as a child, but I have choices in how to respond today – even when life tries to convince me otherwise.

I am armed with the choice to use my experiences to create meaningful change in myself, in the confines of my family, or even for a broader community or societal impact. That choice has transformed into an automatic responsibility for me. I carry the weight of protecting my children as a badge of honor – a terrifying and overwhelming weight at times, but an ever present focus of attention that was not afforded to me as a child. I accept the responsibility of devoting my energy and using my voice in order to educate and make meaningful policy changes in sports to better protect children across the world.

My greatest daily struggle is not to find a reason to fight for others. That is an easy source of motivation. My greatest struggle lies in my own personal daily battle with feelings that haunt me – voices that try to convince me that I am not strong enough or capable enough or worthy enough – that my presence on this earth is inconsequential. I push back on those feelings every day to claw my way into some sense of a meaningful existence.

I write in order to better understand my experiences. I write to uncover and tend to the pieces of myself that require healing attention. I write in order to connect with others and feel the validating support of the shared impact of abuse. I write because sexual abuse is not something that a person simply leaves in their past. It changes a person and becomes entangled in how they relate to themselves and the world around them – and the world needs to understand that! I write because the days of swallowing down the aftermath of the hurt that was inflicted upon me are over. I am tired of feeling broken and beaten down and silenced. I am tired of feeling so alone in my daily battles. If my writing lands in the hands of just one person – if I have made an impact on just one soul, then my struggles with uncertainty and purpose in sharing are resolved.

A trusted friend recently shared her own personal experiences of reading the work of a writer when she was young and struggling with her own abuse. She expressed to me that the author of the words she read during that time will never know how impactful and healing they were for her as she sat in solitude and absorbed those meaningful messages long ago. While I may live with the uncertainty that my words have any meaning or impact outside of my own mind, it is my deep purpose fueled hope that drives me to share. It is that hope along with my promise to all of the wounded parts inside of me to never stop fighting for them. However alone and broken I feel, I have to keep fighting every single day. That is my choice today – a day where I want to lay down and quit. Today I choose to fight. Tomorrow I can only hope for the strength to make the same choice again.

Survivors Speak – Sara’s Story — Surviving Childhood Trauma

I am honored to be a part of the Survivors Speak Series on survivingchildhoodtrauma.com where I share some of my experiences. Finding and giving a voice to all of the wounded parts that live deep inside is a tremendously healing gift for survivors. We may have vastly different experiences and struggles, but the lasting impacts of abuse are often quite relatable. Yet the isolating dynamics of abuse create this perpetual feeling of being alone in those deep struggles. I am wrestling with this exact lonely feeling as I write today. The timeliness of my story being published on Surviving Childhood Trauma is quite the profound reminder of the importance of the collective healing strength found in a community of survivors. I am on an ongoing healing journey. I experience moments of great strength and empowerment. I also struggle, fumble, and falter. While healing may not be a linear path, it is still the path I choose to pursue each day. I invite you to follow the link below and read more about my journey.

Today I am excited to share Sara’s story. Her’s is a story of amazing resilience, and desire to heal and live fully. She is a 41 year old mother of two children and she been married for 15 years to a caring and devoted husband. She is also a part time youth sports coach and…

Survivors Speak – Sara’s Story — Surviving Childhood Trauma

Buttoned Up

There is this buttoned up and composed version of myself that I let the world see. It is the part of me that protectively works to keep my outward self appearing calm, safe, and secure. Underneath this facade lives a multitude of other parts, some healthier than others, that come together to make me who I am today. This buttoned up part of myself that I present to the world could not exist without a self imposed part designed as a pressure release valve. Both parts exist as a means of self protection. Both have been a critically necessary part of my survival. And both are creating a barrier to feeling, creating, and connecting to a whole-hearted approach to healing in my life. I wish to shed these parts through my healing process. Yet the desire to shed these internal parts of myself is perhaps a misguided goal. I cannot circumvent the very parts of me that were put in place to keep me safe. I need to instead somehow connect to these parts and learn to work collaboratively with them.

When I was seven years old my grandfather (Pop-Pop) died. I remember with such clarity several moments of the day of his funeral. I recall standing in line in a room that smelled of flowers. I remember watching his wife, my Mom-Mom, walk into the room quietly crying with two adult family members clutching her arms to keep her steady as she walked. I remember feeling uncomfortable and nervous because I had never before seen Mom-Mom cry, and this room full of quiet sad looking people dressed in dark clothes felt unsettling to me. I understood that my Pop-Pop died – as best as a seven year old can understand death. But I didn’t understand what we were doing there. What was this building we were in? What was this line of people we were standing in?

When the line inched forward I was suddenly scooped up off of the ground and found myself face to face with Pop-Pop’s lifeless body positioned in a casket. I wasn’t held in a comforting closely held manner with caring guidance to help me comprehend what I was experiencing. Instead I was perched up facing outward and away from my dad, who held me extended out in front of himself by my underarms. I dangled there and experienced my first view of death all alone. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand why I was being held up and instructed to look at him in there. It didn’t even look like Pop-Pop. My Pop-Pop’s skin didn’t look like that. My Pop-Pop’s lips never rested tightly together quite like that. My Pop-Pop always had a crease across the bridge of his nose from his glasses. There were no glasses on his face and no crease marking where they normally rested. This didn’t look like my Pop-Pop. I looked directly at his face and immediately turned away. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being disrespectful so although I wanted to jerk my head, squirm out of my dad’s hands and run away from this room in sadness and fear, I instead simply diverted my eyes away from Pop-Pop’s face. I focused on the edges of the casket and the flowers surrounding it – anywhere I could discretely look to help subside the fear, sadness, and confusion that swirled inside of me until at last my feet were brought back down to the ground.

I learned that day not to look directly into a casket. I learned in that moment that I needed to pretend to look. This would prove to become a lasting strategy, as my last living grandmother died nearly twenty years later. When faced with her funeral as an adult, I respectfully moved my way towards her body during the viewing, but I chose not to look directly at her face. Part of me didn’t want my last memory of her face to include a distorted image of what she looked like among all of my countless memories with her. But the stronger feeling inside of me was a need for self protection from the feelings rising inside of me. I didn’t feel confident to test the limits of my self composure in that moment. Instead, much like I did when I was seven years old, I looked at the edges of the casket and the pattern on the dress she wore and breathed slowly and deliberately, continuously swallowing down my feelings of grief until an acceptable amount of time passed and I could turn in a calmly composed manner and walk away.

I remember sitting with my family in our church during Pop-Pop’s funeral service. The same church that was typically full of people during our regular Sunday visits was eerily quiet and empty with just the front several pews filled with family and loved ones. Various people walked up to the alter and read words that I didn’t understand. A priest well known by my family spoke about heaven. All while that same box I saw Pop-Pop laying in earlier was positioned in front of the alter. I saw more tears that day than I had ever seen – from cousins, from aunts and uncles, and even strangers. But not one tear was spotted on my siblings or my parents faces.

At one point during the church service I went to the restroom with my mom. The restroom was near the front of the church behind several doors off to the side of the alter. I don’t remember the walk to the restroom, but what occurred both in the restroom as well as the walk back to our church pew left a lasting mark in my mind. While in the restroom I asked my mom why people have to die. I don’t remember how she answered, but I remember something about that brief conversation led to an overflowing of tears, sadness, and confusion pouring out of me. I missed my Pop-Pop, and I wept in that restroom over the loss of him. I’m sure my mom hugged me and comforted me. I don’t remember that part. Instead the lasting memory in my mind was standing before a mirror and desperately washing my face. With all of the emotions coursing through my young body at Pop-Pop’s funeral, my greatest concern in that moment was to wash away any evidence of my tears. I didn’t leave that restroom until I felt that I could walk back out into the church, facing all of the people in the church pews in front of me, feeling completely composed. At seven years old I had very carefully displayed an unspoken family rule that I must have learned long before that day. At seven years old I already knew that it was not okay to cry.

This buttoned up version of myself is exhausted from containing all that I experience. It needs healthy healing relief. It became a strong part of me at such a young age that simple expressions of feelings are often lost or muted by this ever present part. In my entire upbringing I never learned how to express my feelings. Instead I was taught that feelings were not welcome. I don’t want that for myself anymore, and I certainly don’t want that for my children. But I am scared and unsure of how to attempt to change something that is so deeply and fiercely a part of me. I feel myself often wishing and even envisioning a moment of releasing everything that feels bottled up inside of me – wishing to just let go and crumble in the comforting arms and safety of a loved one – wishing to fully release and express the depth of my feelings – to stop holding myself so desperately clenched together in my therapist’s office and just let go – to cry and unravel and release the overwhelming weight that I feel trapped in. But this buttoned up part is so strong and automatic inside of me that it prevents me from getting there. I don’t know how to turn it down. When I experience moments of being asked a question by my therapist that even remotely invokes a feeling of rising tears, this part reacts so quickly to either jump in with distracting sarcasm or worse, it creates an internal anger at my therapist for what feels like an attempt to make me cry. In an instant the flood of rising feelings subsides and composure remains in control.

The recent self realization and connection between this buttoned up part of myself and a release valve part that also exists within me is what draws my focus in very clearly on how important it is for me to carefully tend to and address these intertwined parts. Self harm is my release valve. These tendencies and urges have been a part of me since I was in the midst of abuse as a teenager. I am just realizing now how much my buttoned up self relies on self harm to maintain composure. Self harming for me is a means to release some of the overwhelm that exists within me. I can’t maintain a composed buttoned up facade without a place for my overwhelm to escape. The self harming part was created to help maintain the buttoned up part.

If I can learn to tend to and release the weight of responsibility that the buttoned up part feels, then perhaps my self harming urges will no longer feel necessary. But what does that look like and how do I even begin to try? This is where my mind resides at the moment – sensing an important need and struggling to determine just how to reach it.