There is a hollow place that finds me. It knows me by name. Its reach can cover any distance I travel. Its strength can multiply, creeping and surrounding me as it wishes.
There is a hollow place that hunts me. It lurks and stalks and waits for the prime moment to pounce. Its jagged grip pierces and swallows upon contact, making it hard to distinguish where my body ends and its darkness begins.
There is a hollow place that seeks my surrender. Its isolating presence, although ominous and layered with pain, is familiar to me. Its constant company tries to convince me that my efforts to evade its grip are insufficient.
There is a hollow place that believes it has already won. It feels rooted inside of me. Can I possibly convince it that there is still fight left in me? Can I convince myself?
The messages she carries try to convince her that her home is in the darkness that surrounds her and seems to know how to steadily lurk just one step ahead of her. It makes it hard for her to maintain traction on where or even who she is. Yet something inside urges her to focus beyond the darkness – beyond the pain and strain of what pulls at her – and fight like hell to somehow reach the light.
You know the feeling. You’re walking along and suddenly and unknowingly enter into the nearly invisible presence of a spiderweb. You’re startled. You did not see it ahead of you and even now can’t see it on you, but you can feel its stretchy fibers reaching across your skin. First you feel it on the side of your upper arm. You swipe your hand down the length of your arm only to find your other arm now involved. As you turn and twist to free yourself from it you then feel it on your neck and face, making you work more frantically to get it off of you. It seems the more quickly you wipe, pull, grab, and brush it away the more it continues to wrap and tangle itself around you. Pulling one part of it seems to attach it to other places, making your efforts to remove it feel futile for a little while. Then even after you finally free yourself from it you still continue to brush and wipe your hands across your body a bit longer because you’re convinced it is still there.
I walk through life constantly getting tangled in spiderwebs. I enter what feels like a simple and lighthearted moment and am fully present and engaged only to find myself quickly and unexpectedly neck deep in a thick tangled mess of spiderwebs. The simplest of things manages to attach itself to the darkest of places within me – linking, connecting, and attaching a very benign moment with something quite the opposite.
Recently I was involved in a conversation with some friends. They were talking about sibling dynamics and those influences in shaping their choices and direction through adolescence and early adulthood. I was actively engaged in this discussion, soaking in the similarities that existed between the stories shared from the three separate people I was with who each grew up with only one other sibling. After they shared their experiences attention was turned to me, and with genuine curiosity they wished to hear my perspective and experiences of growing up in a large family. I looked inside for answers to express authentically. Yet as I quickly sorted through how to respond I kept getting stuck. The genuine answer to the questions they were asking me could not be told without the inclusion of other things. All I could hear in my head were young voices inside screaming answers that did not belong in this setting and in the presence of these people. I couldn’t connect to an honest response without sharing more than what this lighthearted conversation was equipped to handle – and more than I was willing to divulge.
This is the complex aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. This example is just a snapshot of what I experience inside of me in one way or another nearly every single day. If healing from childhood trauma was simply a matter of acknowledging the past and moving forward in life I would have this handled by now. The problem is that nearly every day I encounter something that attaches itself to my past. It doesn’t have to be an obvious connection. Those are the ones I have learned to sometimes expect and more comfortably move through. It’s the little moments that seem so distant and detached from any linear connection to my experiences that seem to trip me up the most. I don’t expect them. I don’t recognize them in the moment. And yet I am immediately thrown into a gauntlet of internal reactions when they emerge. A simple conversation with friends about siblings…waiting for the results of my mom’s medical tests…noticing an area of thinning fabric on my cycling shorts…listening to my in laws share stories about my husband’s childhood friends…watching a movie that I thought was about music…sorting my daughter’s clothes in our laundry room…sitting in my therapist’s office before a long therapy break. These are just a few of the tiny moments that have grabbed hold of me in just the past couple of weeks. These are the moments that feel so incredibly innocent and separate when I enter them and yet somehow manage to get interwoven with the poisons from my past.
It’s like I’m playing a disturbing game of chutes and ladders. I’m trying to make my way through the ladders of healing without slipping down the chutes. I step carefully. I plan each move with intention. The unique catch with childhood sexual abuse is that the ladders I climb are linked by spiderwebs that keep me tethered to experiences and messages from my past. With each step I risk disturbing and awakening the web, which seems to be constantly shifting and adapting around me. And it’s always ready and waiting to catch me. Falling into the web brings the past and present together. It means the current moment and what was awakened from the past become indistinguishable, and my ability to reach for the ladder is diminished as I feel increasingly bound by the messages and connections that ensnare me.
How do I stop getting caught in the spiderwebs? How do I take steps forward without awakening and igniting the past? Is it realistic to think I can ever achieve freedom from these moments – freedom from this web? If I can someday learn to make new connections and weave new fibers into this web then perhaps my footing would feel more stable and secure. Perhaps for now the best way to help myself is not to frantically avoid, brush, and swipe the spiderwebs away. Maybe in these moments I can try to slow down and simply acknowledge that they are there for a reason. Maybe I can aim to become less afraid of the spiderwebs and instead begin to learn from them.
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?
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 can hear her – the child inside of me. She cries out for me to pay attention. She speaks to me in dreams, reminding me of moments of helpless desperation. She feels my nervous uncertainty of the world around me – a world in struggle and pain. This familiar feeling causes her to scream out for self protection.
Powerlessness is a futile fight against an impenetrable force. It is a feeling of being engulfed and swallowed whole – a feeling that only worsens when I attempt to resist it. It is a desperate lonely battle where time for rescue is quickly fading away.
Powerlessness is the ever present feeling that no matter how hard I try, I cannot guarantee my safety or the safety of my children. It is the nagging feeling from the child within, telling me that I am not safe.
Feelings of powerlessness and fears around this have been incredibly difficult to overcome in my healing journey. These fears show up in the way I approach relationships – with a heightened sense of guarded skepticism and mistrust. It is only through a growing connection between myself and this child within that a sense of peace, safety, and trust can slowly replace the constant sound of alarms and danger that she sends my way.