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.
I recently started a creative project. I have a room in my house with empty walls, begging for artwork. After thoughtful consideration of a variety of ideas, I decided to dedicate the walls of this room to scenic memorable places. I began sorting through photos of all of my favorite trips and places I have visited, making note of my top contenders. Then I decided to take this project one step further with my plan to now paint each of these places.
Painting is very cathartic for me and has provided opportunities for expression in a way words cannot always capture. (See how artistic expression has been a part of my ongoing healing journey on my Art page). This current art project of mine did not intentionally begin as a healing mental health exercise. Instead it came from a simple desire to decorate the walls of this room in my house. Yet after careful reflection it began to evolve into something much more.
My role has changed during this pandemic. My pre-Covid part time coaching job, combined with volunteer work, as well as my ever present and important role as a mom has been dramatically redefined with full time remote learning support and household management duties for my two children. I have come to realize very quickly since school began last week that I am both an essential and intermittently needed part of this remote learning equation. This is a role I want to take on for my kids, but I am noticing that I need to find ways to take care of myself and remain full of the drive and purpose that keep me upright – even though the majority of my days are now spent in the confines of my home. I think this painting project was calling on me to satisfy this very important need.
This week I ventured into my first painting of this new series. It’s from one of my favorite trips that my husband and I took shortly after we got married. We traveled to Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada and enjoyed days filled with hiking, exploring, kayaking, and white water rafting. This painting depicts one of the many picturesque lakes we encountered on this trip.
This is Bow Lake. It is situated along the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Park. The vibrant blue water that we sat beside among the array of wildflowers was truly stunning. I recall sitting beside this lake and waiting for clouds to disappear and allow the sun to reveal the incredible clarity of the crystal blue water. Painting this picture this week allowed me to recapture the moments of that trip – the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by so much natural beauty. It also allowed me to reflect on that precious time with my husband and how much we enjoyed adventuring together and getting to know each other more deeply as newlyweds.
This painting took me away to that amazing trip and all of the memories I treasure in my heart. Now that it’s complete I look forward to diving into my next painting to see where my mind takes me.
Shame is a topic that is at least as difficult to talk about as it is to experience. I find myself flooded with thoughts and emotions just contemplating this blog entry. I have so much to learn about my own shame – how I experience it – where my blind spots reside that make me susceptible to it – why at times I can move out of shame and other times feel endlessly consumed by it – and how I can work to build a stronger resilience in the face of shame. These are the thoughts that swirl in my mind as I work to better understand myself and all of my wounded inner parts that require my healing attention.
I am an avid follower of Brené Brown. I have found her work on shame particularly helpful in my own understanding and untangling of the lasting impact of my childhood abuse. So much of what she says and writes resonates on such a deep level that it inspires me to dig deeper within myself. I have come to understand that while we all experience our own unique triggers and set of underlying circumstances, shame is a universal experience. As we begin to understand and identify our own shame we can then begin to learn how to build a resilience that allows us to move out of shame when we experience it instead of feeling swallowed by it. Being able to identify it, for me, means that I need to wrap words or an image around it to help me recognize its presence. These words need to be carefully selected and specific to my experiences in order for them to be of use.
Nearly every word Brené writes resonates with me, however there is one description of shame that she often uses that I struggle with. She uses the phrase “warm wash of shame” to describe the feeling of shame taking over – being consumed by it. This is a phrase that from the very first time I heard it felt an immediate contrasting response to. A warm wash to me feels inviting, comfortable, and refreshing. There is nothing refreshing about being consumed by shame. This phrase feels both contradicting and unrelatable to me. Each time I hear or read these words I find myself getting stuck in resistance to them.
So I began to ask myself why. Why would Brené choose this wording? Perhaps she uses this phrase to signify how easily shame can unknowingly engulf us. If it were an icy cold or scalding hot wash we would be instantly alarmed and responsive to it. Maybe that warm wash represents shames cunning way of taking over beneath our radar – sneaking up on us to seize control. Shame can often be so automatic and feel so familiar that it covers us like a blanket. In that sense, her description begins to feel more palatable to me. Still overall I feel a resistance to this phrase, which inspires me to ask more questions.
Why does the description “warm wash of shame” not sit well with me? I believe this comes from my own personal struggles with shame. The feeling of its overwhelming power and seductive influence in my life demands stronger language around it. “Warm wash” feels too lighthearted and trivial to describe something with such life altering force. In some of my previous writing I have referred to shame as “a shapeshifter” – “changing its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain” (My Shame is a Shapeshifter). However inviting and familiar my shame feels, I feel as though I need adversarial language wrapped around it to remind me that its calculating company is something I wish to rid myself of.
My contemplation around Brene’s word choice brought my mind to a place of deep self reflection and even more questions. Brene describes the necessity of being able to recognize and name when we experience shame as being fundamentally important in moving through it. If moving out of shame requires us first to recognize that we are in it, then what cues do I feel in my body that indicate I am in shame? How do I viscerally experience shame? These questions leave me in a tough spot, as I struggle with disconnection and identifying where I feel any emotion is very difficult and often impossible for me. Yet I continued to sit with this question, searching within myself for answers.
The closest thing I can identify to a bodily sensation around shame is a feeling of an immense slowing down and engulfing weight all around me – like sinking into quicksand or freshly poured cement. In fact, as I think about that feeling I am reminded of a very frequent recurring dream I experience where I am trying to run away or towards something as fast as I can, but while everyone else is moving at full speed I am moving in slow motion – like trying to run in a neck deep pool of cement. As I write this my mind is making deeper connections and traveling back to when I was in high school, in the midst of enduring very regular sexual abuse. During that time I wrote a short story for a creative writing class about someone at a construction site falling to their slow, painfully engulfing and drowning death in a deep pool of cement. As a side note, this memory cannot resurface without an immediate angry and protective response from within me, screaming, “how can a child write such a story without drawing concern, inquiry, or intervention from an adult?” Yet, as I shift back into my self reflection on how my body physically experiences shame, I see how much both this writing from long ago as well as my recurring dreams reflect exactly what my body seems to tell me in current instances of shame – a heavy overwhelming weight all around that slows me down and consumes me.
I sense that there is much more for me to learn and unpack about how my body experiences shame which will help me better recognize and build a stronger resilience to it, but this provides a starting point for me to work from. As a person who is prone to feeling shame instead of guilt, undoubtedly tied to my past experiences, I want to learn how to better recognize my own personal warning signs. I want to teach myself to be able to step back from a moment of shame and be better equipped to identify and draw it out of me. I think that wish needs to go hand in hand with the desire to not feel as though I deserve shame, as there is no movement out of shame if you feel deserving of it.
This is a realization I am having about myself as I reflect upon two very recent shameful experiences that occurred just this past week. One involved a battle between self care and self harm and the other was a situation of perceived parenting failure. Both topics (likely to be addressed in a later blog post) are highly shame inducing for me so it is not a surprise that these particular situations created a downward spiral inside of me this week. In both situations I was slowly and eventually able to recognize what I was experiencing as shame. Yet, unlike some experiences of shame where the mere acknowledgment of it helps to release its grip on me, the weight of these shameful feelings did not subside upon my recognition of it. These two very separate instances tapped into a feeling of shame that I struggle to be able to separate from. I struggle to move out of these moments of shame because something deep down inside of me feels that it belongs to me – that I deserve it. I believe these moments of shame originated from a tangled connection to my past abuse. It took me a long time to begin to let go of the shame I felt for my abuse – for every memory, every interaction, and every feeling. But shame is so pervasive that it intertwines itself in past and present experiences to create a recurring and ever-changing struggle. The identification of shameful triggers and blind spots in one area does not clear away all of ones shame inducing moments. Shame is too sly and cunning to be eradicated. Instead it slithers its way through one’s psyche, constantly searching for vulnerabilities. It takes situational awareness and effort to both recognize and resist its luring ways.
My shame surrounding my own perceived parenting failures surely stems from unmet needs I faced as a child. Each moment I recognize even the slightest disconnect in my relationship with my children, my shame connects this to my own past disengaged parental relationships and tells me that I am not equipped to do any better – that I cannot protect them from the horrors I endured as a child – and that I am ultimately failing them. When shame creeps in over my mistakes in choosing self harm over self care, it reminds me of all of my past struggles in coping with my abuse and makes me believe that I am not strong enough to change these unhealthy patterns – and that I am not equipped to manage my emotions without this type of harmful intervention. In its worst form, it even tempts me to believe that hurting myself is what I truly deserve.
Learning about my shame will be an ongoing process for me. While it is certainly not a comfortable topic to address it is an incredibly necessary beast to venture into along my healing journey. I cannot expect to always learn to recognize and respond to my shame in real time. So for now I will continue to try to carefully back into it to learn from each experience in the hopes that what I uncover will help me better manage when shame returns the next time.
As Brene Brown writes, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” It is my hope that through sharing my experiences I can help to not only release some of my own deeply felt shame, but also perhaps inspire some self-reflective thoughts in your own heart as you read and soak this in.
Sometimes feelings come to me in images – images that I can draw or paint to express emotions that I cannot yet find words for. Through art I can bring emotions out from the depths inside of me and shine a light on them in whatever I have created. It is often in the midst of the process of drawing that the words slowly reveal themselves to me. It feels like my pencil becomes this tiny release valve that slowly lets my feelings escape with each stroke across the page.
I sketched this piece a few years ago while intensively engaged in therapeutic healing work. I remember what I was expressing. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed with all of the ways that my past abuse was impacting my current life. I remember feeling how painful that part of my healing process was – like trying to rip out the damaged parts of myself in a frantic fury. I remember pushing myself so hard towards healing that the healing process itself felt as though it was hurting me. It felt like the harder I fought to release myself from the tangled web of confusion, pain, and shame of my past, the tighter its growing grip entrapped me.
During this week I have felt a deep struggle rising up inside of me, stirring and awakening the hurt. This struggle has not yet inspired me to draw or to write. Instead it has urged me to dig up this drawing and just sit and look into it. Each day this week I find myself looking at this drawing, connecting more and more to it. It’s a different connection than how it felt several years ago, and yet it feels just as heavy. I feel myself looking into this drawing for direction. Maybe if I stare at it long enough I will find the answers I need to free myself. Maybe looking deeply into this piece will help me to shine a light on the parts of me that still beg for healing.