She is alone. Desperately alone. He left her there unclothed. All curled up, she tries to cover and protect what is left of her. She faces the blue wall, her back to the door. She fears he will come back. She fears he won’t.
She doesn’t remember when her legs start working again and how she gets up from that bed and into his car to be taken home. But she gets there. She survives this day and all of the days that come to continually test her capabilities. This brave young warrior emerges from the pain she routinely faces and carries on. Again and again and again.
She grows up and begins to make a life for herself far away from the hurtful places. Joy finds its way into her heart again as she creates new memories to layer on top of the painful past ones. She begins to believe that she can bury her past deep down far enough that it can no longer touch her – no longer haunt her – no longer hurt her. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.
A simple sight, sound, or smell takes her right back to those buried places. It awakens everything inside of her, intertwining past and present until she can no longer distinguish the two. Unable to untangle this mess on her own she seeks the help of heroes trained to help her. Over time they help her find words to describe all that she has experienced. For a long time these words feel separate from her, as if she is telling someone else’s story.
Then one day her own shaky voice begins to speak. This young girl simply wishing to impress her coach steps forward and begins to tell her story. Her words feel like aching truth clawing out from within. What she sees – what she feels – all that she begins to express are words she has never both spoken out loud and truly felt before. Her fears, confusion, and shame begin to have a place outside of her own imprisoned mind.
She is not asked to change her story. She is not asked to minimize or omit parts that feel too vile to be spoken. She is not pulled from her experiences and from her truth to fabricate a rescue that never occurred. Instead, as she describes each detail that she can still deeply feel, she is offered the kind of comfort that never existed before. She is offered what she needed in the moments after what she has just described – in those moments where her naked body laid curled up on his bed all alone. Here she is offered a blanket and a protective presence to sit beside her and keep a careful watch on the door.
She feels strangely protected by this new image infused into her own painful reality. What happened to her in those moments before as well as the days, months, and years that follow cannot be changed for her. But in this moment, with a hero’s guidance by her side, a profoundly powerful and transformative breath of safety occurs for this young girl in his bedroom. In this brief moment she no longer feels alone.
I see you standing in line, waiting to board that airplane. Others cannot see the weight that you carry. But I see it. I see you. You need to know something. When you take your seat on that plane and begin to get lost in your thoughts as you gaze through the oval window towards the ground that retreats from your vision, your world is going to turn dark for a while. It is on this plane that you will begin to feel the weight of what happened to you last night. It will suck the air from your lungs and leave you choking through tears. You will start to make connections and assign meaning to all of your experiences. The words, “I did it again,” will ring loud in your ears. You will believe that what he did to you last night was something you asked for. You will believe it’s the same as what happened during all those years far away from here – the place you ran so fast and so far from. You will berate yourself for not doing better – for not knowing better – for not being better – for letting this happen again. You will believe that you are defective inside and unworthy of anything other than the pain you find yourself drowning in. But you must hear this. You did not let this happen. You did not ask for this. You do not deserve this – any of it.
I cannot change what happened and what will continue to happen to you for a while. I can’t make this go away. I can’t skip this part for you as much as I want to. But I do know that there is much more to your story than this. There is life in you after this moment. You won’t feel it for a long while, but you will see light again someday. I promise.
I wish I could tell you that it won’t hurt. I wish I could tell you that it won’t bring you to unspeakable places. But I can’t. The darkness will feel immense. It will get so heavy and so loud that it will begin to creep inside of you. It will try to change you. It will try to convince you that surrender is the only way. But please hear me. Your home is not in the darkness. Your home is far away from here. You just have to trust me a little bit. I am trying to become what others were unable to be for you back then. I mess up often. I think, and say, and do the wrong things sometimes. I turn my back on you when I get scared. But I’m not leaving. I may stumble and fumble my way through this, but I won’t let you carry this weight all alone anymore.
Your home is a place I created for you. It is a place of safety and clarity – a place of color breathing life. It’s a place I painted – a place I dream of – a place to help us heal together. Your home is our wishing tree. Someday when you are ready you can find me there. You can set your heavy backpack down and together we can sit against the giant trunk of the tree, letting the array of soothing colors shower over us as we unpack it all together.
Her disheartened frame rests on the bleachers, shoulders slumped forward while tracing her fingers across the worn strap of her duffel bag. She tries to hide how upset she is. “They are just safety pins,” she repeats to herself, half reassuring and half berating the disruption she feels stirring within. But she knows they were more than just safety pins – and the others know that too.
As a runner she was accustomed to wearing a number during each race – a bib number – a paper number fastened to the front of a runner’s jersey with safety pins securing each corner in place. Attaching a bib number to your jersey is a routine part of cross country and track & field. During her early teenage years she developed a habit of saving these safety pins after each race. It started after a particularly strong race performance as a small token of remembrance of that sweet feeling of victory, and it evolved into her own special post-race routine. After each meet she would remove the number from her jersey and then carefully connect the safety pins onto the white strap of the duffel bag she brought to each meet. It wasn’t long before she collected a very noticeable display of these pins on her bag.
Other girls on her team knew of this routine. They also knew of other things. They knew their coach spent more time with her than he spent with them. They knew he drove her home from practices, and they watched him treat her differently than how he treated other girls on the team. Whether it came from anger or frustration or whether it was an innocent moment, one day several girls were preparing for their race at a track meet when they realized they didn’t have any safety pins. They approached her on the bleachers and asked if they could use some of hers. She realized in this moment that as meaningful as her display of pins was to her, to others they presented nothing more than a back up resolution for their current problem. Feeling unable to refuse their request she unfastened several pins and handed them over. Her teammates collected the pins and disappeared off to their race. Then, as she sat by herself clutching the strap and looking over the new empty gap created in her carefully lined up display, her coach approached her. In private he spoke to her about trust. He spoke to her about loyalty. He spoke to her about self protection.
When she returned home that evening after the track meet she used a pair of scissors to remove the strap of safety pins from her duffel bag. Then while staring at the empty space along the strap and hearing her coach’s words in her mind, she picked up a black sharpie and wrote the words “the lesson” along that open space on the strap. In that moment the lesson was crystal clear to her. The lesson she learned was that others cannot be trusted. Never reveal to others what is important to you. They will use it against you. They will use it to hurt you. The deeper lesson that was impressed upon her that day was one that reinforced all that her coach had been working hard to sear into her adolescent brain. His words were, “they do not care about you.” He used that moment to impress upon her what he had been training her to believe. He was the only one that she could count on – he was the only one that she could trust – he was the only one looking out for her. Even more, he had her convinced that others were trying to sabotage her – trying to bring her down. Her lasting lesson from him was to stay close by his side and to maintain a distance from others to keep herself and what she cared about protected.
It worked. She hid that strap of safety pins in her bedroom where no one could steal them – where no one could take from her again. And then she returned to school and to practice each day believing that he was helping her – protecting her – caring for her.
This memory jumped into my mind recently after a therapy session, and it led me into a bit of a tailspin. First it caused me to react in a very unnecessary and reflexive way, berating myself for trusting my therapist and believing that she cares. Then later it caused me to step back and pull apart where these feelings originate. Part of my therapy work involves using my writing and art to help me work through and process various emotions and memories that surface. My therapist and I have maintained an agreement from the start that some between session communication and sharing of my writing and art is welcome. After a particularly difficult session I shared some writing that triggered some intense wobbly feelings inside. I reached out through email and shared my concerns as well as the writing that accompanied it. My therapist, away for a long weekend, did not respond. Days passed and I found myself growing increasingly unsettled inside. When I finally heard from her on the morning of my next session, I received an apology for not replying sooner and a brief explanation that she was unfortunately out of reach for a long weekend. My adult self understood and accepted this immediately. I understand what this therapy relationship is and is not. I understand that I am not entitled to unlimited access of my therapist. But the little wounded ones within that we have been working hard to create safety and space for do not know this. They freaked out. They were on fire for days and days without a life line. They thought they’d been tricked. They felt wrong for having let her see the vulnerable parts of them that have been softening in her presence. They went right back to the damn bleachers, holding onto that duffel bag strap. In an instant this young wounded girl within me was swept away to a time when a lesson around trust and self protection became polluted with the calculating messages from a man who used his position of power and authority to deliberately hurt and abuse her.
Some lessons I’ve learned throughout my life are very clear and easy to make sense of. But the things I learned about myself and others throughout the years where regular sexual abuse occurred can at times feel so cloudy, confusing, and nearly impossible to untangle. I don’t fully understand why this particular memory pushed forward so strongly in that moment outside of my therapist’s office. But what I do know is that past and present feelings often feel so thoroughly and painfully intertwined.
Perhaps the new lesson I can learn from this recent experience is that voicing the hurt from the young wounded one within is not only important but it’s a very necessary part of my healing work. Providing the opportunity for these silenced parts to have a voice now – to safely express the hurt that shows up today will help to reveal the lasting hurt they have been burdened with. It can help to shine a light on the wounds that need care. Perhaps allowing this young one to voice her pain and all that she carries is precisely how I can begin to untangle the polluted lessons that exist within.
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?
We all have memories tied to different sensory experiences. The sight, sound, or smell of something can take us on a ride back to a memory that left a lasting impression. This is a gift when we are reminded of a loved one or of an experience we wish to treasure in our heart forever. Yet it is a curse when these experiences are attached to memories we wish to forget. In these moments we are swept up from safety and thrown back into the grip of despair – all in response to a simple benign sensory experience that enters our awareness.
In my teen years I was routinely sexually abused by my high school coach. The vast majority of these experiences of abuse occurred in his car. It was through his calculating planning of offering me a ride home from practice that he found opportunities to hurt me. He regularly found new secluded places to park his car away from the eyes of bystanders in order to take what he wanted from me. To this day, the sight of a car parked discretely away from others or with the windows blocked in some way elicits a strong feeling within me. When I first started acknowledging and speaking about my abuse these responses overwhelmed me. I could feel my heart pounding and this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that held this toxic concoction of fear, pain, disgust, and shame. I didn’t know what to do with these feelings so I would quietly hold and stuff the panic deep down inside of me. With the help of therapy I have since then learned to safely process and move through these experiences more effectively. Now when I see a parked car that triggers this nervous or panicky feeling I can both acknowledge the triggered parts of me and keep myself grounded in the safety of the present. Quietly to myself I can say words like, “of course that is scary to see”, followed by words like, “but it is just a car and you are safe now.” I don’t know that I will ever be free of these triggering moments, but by learning to safely move through them I can keep myself from being entirely swept away into the horrors of the past.
Recently, while working with my therapist, I have noticed a desire to physically “get small” when difficult feelings arise inside of me. At first this felt like a very natural, comforting, and self protective response for me – to tuck my legs in close and wrap my arms around them squeezing my body into the smallest space it can occupy. I have been expressing myself this way through art for as long as I can remember. It feels like home.
Yet in my therapist’s office, each time I allow my body to move into this position it desires, I feel an immediate sensation of relief and comfort followed by a barrage of memories of where the need for this position first emerged. These memories contain moments immediately after being abused when I would curl up my naked body and weep. So here I am in the present day trying to provide physical comfort to my body in the safe presence of my therapist, but the position I default to is one attached to trauma. It’s no wonder I can’t seem to stay present once I allow myself to move into this curled up position. I am instead swept away to a time of complete powerlessness.
Much like I learned how to safely respond to the sight of parked cars, I need to learn how to offer my body a new feeling of physical comfort. I need to learn to identify when my body wants to get small and begin to learn from it. What am I feeling inside that signals this need? Why does it feel that need right now? How else can I soothe this ache from within? Perhaps through careful curiosity I will uncover new ways to help my body feel safe today.
How do we show up for someone in a way that provides genuine support? How do we speak to someone who is hurting to provide reassurance that they are not alone? Our careful attention to the words selected in these moments can often directly impact the efficacy of our desired intervention. If we wish to wrap a blanket of support around another person then it is important to tune into the difference between what feels comforting and what feels distressing to that person. It requires us to listen to the needs of another. It requires us to recognize that what one person may find supportive could be received in an entirely different way by someone else. But what happens when the carefully chosen words themselves carry their own conflicting messages? How is a person supposed to absorb a well intended message that immediately attaches itself to a tangled mess of ambivalent feelings?
Early in my healing journey, with the guidance of my therapist, I was directed to various books to help me understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse. The words in these books allowed my adult brain to make connections and gain an understanding of what really happened when I was young. These lessons helped to rewire the faulty messages that were imposed upon my traumatized adolescent brain. Gaining an understanding of the stages of abuse, the behaviors of pedophiles, and the lasting and numerous impacts of these experiences allowed my brain to slowly begin to erase the message that what happened to me was entirely my fault and my choice and replace it with the acceptance of the term sexual abuse to describe my experiences. This process took quite some time, but making these connections and repairs in my adult brain provided me with the necessary foundation to begin to dig deeper into my healing work.
A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I began to connect with other survivors. The validating support that comes from the collective “me too” of trauma survivors is an immensely helpful component of healing. I first experienced this in a group therapy setting for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There I sat in a room with women who carried vastly different stories and experiences of abuse, and yet a common thread emerged again and again as we shared the impact of our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter how old we were when our abuse took place, the role our abuser held in our lives, or even how many instances of abuse we remembered. The heavy weight of lasting internal impacts and distorted views about ourselves and the world around us became common ground within this room of strangers. The more I allowed myself to share about what I could only describe as my own unique brand of crazy going on inside of me, the more I felt this comforting validation and reciprocation through healing connection. This experience reinforced the message that my adult brain was learning to accept. I am not alone.
Recently I have directed my healing to focus on working to build a connection with my internal wounded parts. I have come to understand that no matter how much my adult brain can rationally understand the dynamics of abuse, my inner child holds memories attached to feelings that impact the way I still function today. I cannot reason my way around these default responses no matter how hard I try. It requires a deeper understanding and connection. Through this work I am beginning to feel how my adult brain can receive and process messages differently from these internal parts. The same messages that have helped my adult self make healing progress are not received the same way by my wounded inner child. When my adult self hears that my fears, feelings, and experiences are common in survivors of abuse and I can lean on the words of survivors or experts printed in books to reinforce the concept that I am not alone, I am filled with the validation and hope that there is a way through and out of my pain. It makes me want to dig in and follow the research to guide me forward towards healing. But a strange thing happens when my inner child hears the same messages. She latches onto words like “common”, “typical”, and “expected” and instead of feeling validated and empowered she feels diminished. It feels like she is being told that her wounds are common and expected. It feels to her that all of the painful and specific details that she relives over and over inside do not matter. Instead she feels that she is being told to go stand in line and follow the provided script with all of the other injured kids who are just like her. Her experiences matter no more than the sea of faces she’s been lumped in with. Those words do not help her. To her those words feel dismissive and minimizing, and they connect directly to the messages that kept her silently suffering in the past. Instead she needs words that scoop her up out of the murky darkness, dust her off, and wrap her in comfort and security while looking deeply into her eyes and showing her that she is seen and heard and that all of her unique experiences matter.
How do I give this wounded child within all that she needs? How can I extract the messages necessary for my adult self to continue healing while also tending to the child parts that seem to require something entirely different? How can I decide which part of me is supposed to absorb each message that I receive to ensure that they provide help instead of harm?
Side by side we stand – our toes at the edge of the creeping shoreline. Her small hand rests inside of mine. She leans in, tugging at my arm and urging me to inch forward. I resist. “Come on! I need to show you,” she pleads. Her bright eyes look up into mine with hopeful longing. I look down into them. I want to be brave enough for her. Yet as I turn and look out into the turbulence that lies before us I feel frozen. “Can’t we just watch the waves from right here?” I ask. Her face tells me that we can’t. She pulls again at my arm, urging, pleading, begging. But I can feel my feet gripping into the soft sinking sand beneath me. “What if we get knocked down? What if I can’t hold us up? What if it takes hold of us and won’t let go? I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in. I don’t know what’s out there. What if I’m not strong enough? What if it breaks me?” Her wide eyes turn and then narrowly focus out towards the horizon, beyond the breaking waves and wild fury that rages right in front of us. Then in a voice so calm and self assured, she softly whispers, “But what if it shows us?”
A crying child seeks the comforting arms of her caregiver. Without judgement or minimizing, she needs to be safely held to calmly restore her activated nervous system. When this need is routinely and adequately met she can carry on, secure in the belief that each emotion she feels can be safely experienced. But what happens if the child’s emotions are not met with the safe protecting embrace that they require? What happens to her fear? What happens to her sadness or anger or hurt when there isn’t a safe place for it to land? Where do these feelings go when they are not welcomed?
I recently sat in my therapist’s office, fumbling through my effort to express a hurt that I had experienced. My therapist offered supportive and encouraging words and then asked if I could accept and feel the compassion she was providing in that moment. I told her I couldn’t. I could hear her words, but I could not absorb them in front of her. I told her I needed to take them with me – to pack them up into an imaginary backpack to be unloaded and experienced afterwards in private. And that is exactly what I did. Packing up my feelings is what I’ve done for as long as I can remember. It’s the intentional unpacking that has become a newer practice for me.
When a child isn’t offered the opportunity to feel, express, and regulate her emotions in a safe and supportive environment, those emotions never have the opportunity to be processed and released. Instead they are stuffed down and stored within the child. The meaning the child learns to assign to this experience is that those feelings are bad and must be repressed and ignored. One of the many problems with this is that, much like an overloaded backpack, the child grows up and becomes an adult with an overloaded and dysregulated emotional response system, overflowing with current struggles that attach themselves to stored unmet emotional needs from long ago. When situations arise that ignite these parts, the emotions that result do not feel like adult feelings. For me it feels as though a child has hijacked my nervous system and is on the brink of a full blown tantrum.
Recently my daughter was watching the movie, Matilda. This movie was created from Roald Dahl’s magical book where the main character, Matilda, finds clever and humorous ways to defend herself from her cruel parents and an evil school principal through her newly discovered power of telekinesis. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the movie and giggled at Matilda’s inventive pranks. As I watched I was not as entertained. The cruel behavior of her parents and principal made it hard for me to appreciate the humor. Yet although these scenes agitated me, what I found myself most rattled by was something entirely different. As the story develops, a caregiving figure and soft place to land finds her way into Matilda’s life in the form of her teacher. While the viewer is intended to feel warm and comforted by Matilda receiving this kind of loving and attentive care, I was overcome with internal agitation in response to these scenes. I couldn’t assess what I was feeling in that moment as I sat in my parent’s family room alongside not only my children but my mother as well. Without awareness or planning, everything I was feeling in that moment got quickly stuffed into my backpack.
Hours later, when I created a moment to sit with my thoughts in solitude, I noticed that the discomfort and agitation that I felt earlier was still there. Something inside of me was screaming out for attention – something inside needed to be unpacked. This intentional act of creating space for whatever needed to surface revealed the source of my internal disturbances. What I experienced during that movie was the awakening of some deeply stored internal parts – very young and helpless parts. These parts felt shaken by the movie because they are desperately longing for the same attentive and nurturing care that Matilda received from her teacher. These young internal child parts were crying out. It felt incredibly unsettling to feel these parts internally squirm and reach for a need from long ago. And I don’t know if I am equipped to hold and help these parts – I don’t know how to give them what they need.
These feelings I resisted and stuffed away during Matilda are not new for me. The more I reflect upon it the more connections I am making from past experiences that have ignited the same flurry of feelings. When I witness someone attentively caring for and truly seeing the inner pain of another, the part of me that longs for that type of caring protector gets stirred up. This vulnerable exposure of feeling a need that can only be satisfied by someone else feels like the important need of a young child from their caregiver. Deep parts of me feel this need and long for this type of care. Yet attached to this need is a judgment that was imposed upon this feeling long ago, intertwining this need with shame. Shame tells me that my reaction to this movie is a stupid needy thought and wants me to retreat inward. But it isn’t a stupid needy thought. While my guarded adult self may have a hard time accepting these feelings, it is perfectly reasonable for a child to need the caring and protective attention of a trusted adult. I can’t even begin to imagine denying that need from my own children.
It feels rattling and crazy making when these feelings unexpectedly surface. But unless I can learn to safely and effectively unpack my emotional backpack, the same dysfunctional cycle of repression and overwhelm that was impressed upon me as a child will continue on, but not just within the confines of my own mind. My kids are watching and learning from me each and every day. If I wish for them to grow up possessing the ability to adequately identify and express their emotions, then I owe it to them to address my own deficiencies instead of carelessly passing them down to them. After all, how can I effectively tend to the needs of others if I am failing to address my own deeply felt needs?
If the process of repressing feelings was learned when I was a child then perhaps with a lot of focused effort it can be unlearned as an adult. I may not be able to physically hold the hurting child within me, but maybe allowing her the safety to express whatever she has been burdened with will be enough to comfort and calm her. Parts of me worry and fear that it will not be enough – that I am not equipped to tend to these internal wounded parts. But I have to hold onto hope as I search for a way to continue to safely unpack my heavy backpack.