I know it feels messy, scary, and loud. I know it feels as though you are tainted – that you will stain everything within your reach. But no amount of running, hiding, or hand scrubbing will take this feeling away. What if you could reach out and intentionally glide those saturated hands across a canvas. What would we see? What could we learn? Maybe freedom comes from releasing the story that exists within. What might our world look like if we let our colors be seen?
You may feel ready
But I’m afraid to let go
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.
“I couldn’t whisper when you needed it shouted
Ah, but I’m singing like a bird ‘bout it now” – Shrike by Hozier
These song lyrics are a reminder of why I venture into the painful work of healing from childhood trauma. They are my reminder that my own voice can help connect to and heal the wounded child within me from the prison of silence, pain, and shame she was left trapped in. They are my reminder that while her voice was taken from her, my voice can help set her free.
One day at school, he pulled me out of math class. He was angry with me about something – I don’t remember what. He was often angry with me – for talking to kids he didn’t approve of – for not being focused enough, dedicated enough, or just not being enough of whatever he wanted me to be for him. He was my coach, and he was my abuser. I remember that day clearly, standing in the empty inner hallway of my high school and taking his quiet verbal beating while the rest of the kids that weren’t secretly raped by their coach sat at desks in classrooms throughout the building. After several minutes passed my math teacher, Mr. B, opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. He asked if everything was okay, but when he asked it felt as though he was looking with genuine concern directly at me. He wasn’t asking if we were okay. He was asking if I was okay. It felt as if I was nearly seen for the very first time. A lifeline was standing right in front of me in the form of my math teacher. I stood there and looked back at him, hoping my eyes could tell him what my voice could not say. I stood there screaming on the inside for help, but I was so full of confusion, pain, and shame that I didn’t even know what I needed help for. My abuser stepped in so quickly with a lighthearted comment and a pat on my back, sending me back into the classroom. He spoke for me that day – just like every other day. He taught me that I didn’t have a voice. The words that needed to be spoken could not come out of my mouth. Trapped in silence, my body followed the commands they were given. I walked back into my classroom, sat down at my desk, and resumed my best attempts at performing as a normal student – a normal kid, even though there was nothing normal about what was happening to me. Although Mr. B could not save me that day, he was the closest thing I ever felt to being rescued.
I think this young part of me is still longing for a Mr. B to truly see her – to rescue her. If she is able to make her shaky voice heard will help step towards her, or will it turn its back on her? She may not yet trust that I wish to help her – that’s fair as I don’t always trust myself with this task. Yet the one thing I am certain of at this point in my life is that I won’t let her feel silenced anymore. While she still feels trapped and unable to whisper, I will keep trying like hell to sing like a bird until I can set her free.
You cross your legs and clear your throat. It’s time to show yourself. You shift in your seat. You swallow the trembles and carefully breathe in your surroundings. You sift and sort and try to decide which voice that you should share – internally fumbling around your rickety rolodex of parts and struggles that is busting at the seams. You try to summon the nerve to invite the quietest parts forward – the ones that beg most for your attention. You reach inside with careful intention and cautiously send out your invitation. You hear their reply and offer your hand to the young one that hides beneath a hood, afraid of the sound of her own voice. You tell her it is safe here – a word she does not fully understand. Then you ask her to creep forward and make herself carefully and comfortably seen, shifting and curling her body into the seat. You calmly urge her to find a position that feels comforting and safe for her, patiently reassuring her need for self protection. You feel her slowly calming inside of your jittery body, finding safety in the room – the voice that tends to her – the atmosphere that invites her – the soft chair that holds her. She removes her boots and tucks her legs carefully underneath her jacket that she drapes over herself, adjusting it as a shield and holding it closely up against her face. In this position you can feel her breathe slightly deeper than before. She feels as present as she knows how. Then you proceed to attempt to learn from her. She cautiously shares from behind the safety of her shield, offering as much as she can bravely reveal in that moment.
When the time comes for you to exit you look down at the floor beneath you at the sight of the boots you earlier removed from your feet, and you find yourself suddenly stuck. Instantly you feel drenched in a feeling so painfully familiar. Pushing that feeling aside, you place one foot at a time back into your boots, focusing on the simple task of tying your laces. You push down the heavy noise that is screaming at you and just follow the movements you have performed every day since you were a small child – looping, swooping, and pulling your laces into place. You don’t know what this wave of weight is that is trying to overtake you in this moment. You don’t want to know. You don’t want to recognize that it is shame. You don’t want to open your eyes to the disgust you suddenly feel. You don’t want to acknowledge that this weight is so powerful that it carries this hooded girl right back to its place of origin. In that moment as she looked down at those boots she was instantly swept away – to a place where shame was her companion as she gathered up her clothes and pulled them back onto her battered body after being abused. After softening into the safety of her surroundings in that chair and slowly allowing her quiet shaky voice to be heard, the simple sight of her boots on the floor was all it took to abruptly steal that safe moment away. In that instant danger swept in and the safe confines of her therapy room linked itself together with a place of terror, pain, confusion, and betrayal. In that instant she felt tricked. She felt dirty. She felt used. Shame envelopes her like a heavy blanket that she carries away from this place. Later in solitude she unknowingly coils up and sinks deeper. This is the place she feels that she belongs. A place so dark and lonely that it claws at her soul to forever stay.
When you finally begin to identify that this internal struggle is occurring, you feel powerless to change it. After all, shame has been your loyal companion for all these years. What makes you think you can change it now? Don’t you deserve all that it lays upon you? With each passing moment more of you gets swallowed by its messages, making it harder and harder for you to identify where it ends and you begin. Then in a quiet moment you make a choice. You begin to wrap words around your experiences, shining a light on this darkness inside of you. Your words link together, gaining strength as you find them. You begin to realize that your own voice may be the answer to set this young girl free from the prison of shame that she is trapped in. Perhaps if you can name this moment – speak it out loud – send your words out into the world – you can free this young one from its grip.
She enters, inching her way forward into the darkness, unsure of what she will encounter. She is here fueled with purpose and armed with selflessness. Routinely she will remind herself of this in an effort to remain focused on her mission, knowing that any deviation may lead her into the grip of what she fears most.
One small step at a time she creeps, grasping tightly onto the cloak she is draped in. This cloak offers her protection – her armor – her shield. It conceals all of the parts that exist inside of her, providing shelter and safety from the elements that exist here.
She feels these parts shiver as she ventures deeper into this place. Each step awakens a different part, sending small electrical impulses creeping, jolting, and flashing their way through her.
She wishes to peek beneath the cloak to settle all of these disrupted parts. Yet she fears that unbuttoning her shield will expose them to unimaginable harm. They must be protected, and this place is not safe for them to emerge.
Instead she holds tightly onto her cloak, wrapping it fully around herself, hoping that the parts underneath can also feel this firm embrace. Gripping, squeezing, and inching along she continues – one tiny step at a time. This is her responsibility. This is what she needs. All she can do is hold herself tightly together until she exits the lion’s den.
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.
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.
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.