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.
Writing helps me access that which I cannot speak. I write in order to release – to free myself of all that entraps me – to give a voice to all of the parts inside of me that cannot make a sound. Writing teaches me to listen to those muted parts and helps attach words to them. I work hard to uncover the words that best express what is deeply held within me. I sit with those words, formulate them, and then release them onto paper. My deepest wounds, questions, doubts, and fears are then in front of me – staring back at me and demanding attention. Sometimes those words don’t leave my grasp. Other times I send them out into the world.
I am often left unsure what to do with the words that I express. When I share I often wonder where or if they ever land – like sending a message in a bottle. Did my message make it across the ocean or get stuck on a submerged branch just beyond my reach? Why do I choose to share my writing if I struggle with the uncertainty of whether or not my words are ever seen or provide impact in any way? Why do I write if I do not often even speak of what I have written? This leaves me with the ongoing gut wrenching question, “what is the point of all of this?”
I don’t believe in the notion that all things happen for a reason. I don’t believe that my teenaged body was routinely abused by a trusted adult as a part of some master plan. My abuser’s own criminal choices combined with the absence of my family’s support led to a perfect storm of opportunity and misfortune. The moments of my abuse left me without choice. This seemingly simple statement took me a long time to understand and believe as fact. Yet while I was without choices back then I believe in my own lonely healing battle that choices lie before me now each and every day. With each day and each new challenge I have the choice to pick myself up and carry on or to lay down my fight and surrender. Life has tempted me to surrender before – that is a voice inside of me that I know all too well and fear greatly. But there is also a scrappy warrior inside of me that urges me to wrestle my way to find healing, direction, and purpose. I may not have had choices in the way I was treated as a child, but I have choices in how to respond today – even when life tries to convince me otherwise.
I am armed with the choice to use my experiences to create meaningful change in myself, in the confines of my family, or even for a broader community or societal impact. That choice has transformed into an automatic responsibility for me. I carry the weight of protecting my children as a badge of honor – a terrifying and overwhelming weight at times, but an ever present focus of attention that was not afforded to me as a child. I accept the responsibility of devoting my energy and using my voice in order to educate and make meaningful policy changes in sports to better protect children across the world.
My greatest daily struggle is not to find a reason to fight for others. That is an easy source of motivation. My greatest struggle lies in my own personal daily battle with feelings that haunt me – voices that try to convince me that I am not strong enough or capable enough or worthy enough – that my presence on this earth is inconsequential. I push back on those feelings every day to claw my way into some sense of a meaningful existence.
I write in order to better understand my experiences. I write to uncover and tend to the pieces of myself that require healing attention. I write in order to connect with others and feel the validating support of the shared impact of abuse. I write because sexual abuse is not something that a person simply leaves in their past. It changes a person and becomes entangled in how they relate to themselves and the world around them – and the world needs to understand that! I write because the days of swallowing down the aftermath of the hurt that was inflicted upon me are over. I am tired of feeling broken and beaten down and silenced. I am tired of feeling so alone in my daily battles. If my writing lands in the hands of just one person – if I have made an impact on just one soul, then my struggles with uncertainty and purpose in sharing are resolved.
A trusted friend recently shared her own personal experiences of reading the work of a writer when she was young and struggling with her own abuse. She expressed to me that the author of the words she read during that time will never know how impactful and healing they were for her as she sat in solitude and absorbed those meaningful messages long ago. While I may live with the uncertainty that my words have any meaning or impact outside of my own mind, it is my deep purpose fueled hope that drives me to share. It is that hope along with my promise to all of the wounded parts inside of me to never stop fighting for them. However alone and broken I feel, I have to keep fighting every single day. That is my choice today – a day where I want to lay down and quit. Today I choose to fight. Tomorrow I can only hope for the strength to make the same choice again.
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.
Four years. Today marks four years since the man who sexually abused me was arrested based solely on my police report. Today marks the pivotal day where this man learned that he can no longer hurt me.
As a reminder of this day I have the lasting image of his mugshot in my mind. His beady tear-filled eyes – his short trimmed spiky hair – his sun damaged wrinkled skin revealing his aging face – a face that is tangled up with countless memories and experiences that I did not choose. However, the most striking detail of this image for me is not in his face but instead the orange jumpsuit that he was wearing. Seeing him in orange in that mugshot four years ago changed the way I viewed him.
In an instant he transformed from a manipulative, haunting, shame inducing abuser to one single redefining word – criminal.
I have often wondered what must have been going through his mind in that moment. In the moment of his arrest, standing before a camera in a police station in an orange jumpsuit, what was he feeling? Perhaps it was confusion. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps he twisted his pedophile mind into believing that this was injustice – that he was being wrongly accused. I like to think that he felt a taste of what I experienced for over twenty years – a shame so deeply penetrating that you simply want to retreat to a place inside of yourself and never be seen again.
I’ll never know what his thoughts were in that moment, but I will forever remember my own thoughts when I first saw this image. My thoughts were full of empowerment and determination. My thoughts were of healing validating strength. He was in that police station because I found the courage – I found my voice. I found the strength to rise up from the prison of shame he had placed me into two decades prior. My thoughts in that moment were a resounding affirmation that he can no longer hurt me. My thoughts were of strength and protection for the child that no one was able to save back then. My thoughts were of protecting the children who sat in his middle school classroom each day. My thoughts were with my own children who are my daily source of healing motivation.
While the months that followed this day four years ago produced more pain than healing, today I choose to hold onto the feeling of what this single day represents in my healing journey – the day I took my power back.
Imagine your life as a puzzle. Each piece represents a small part of what makes you who you are – physically, biologically, spiritually, relationally. Each piece adds its own color and flavor and is unique to only you and your experiences. While perhaps a single piece of your puzzle may appear insignificant on its own, when put into place it brings your life into focus – connecting to other pieces that ultimately make you complete and whole.
Imagine your puzzle contains a few missing pieces. Perhaps there are enough other pieces surrounding those empty spaces that it does not impact the entire puzzle. You can still see the whole picture even without those small pieces. Those empty spaces may exist, but they don’t make you feel or appear any less whole. Now imagine you are missing some critical pieces of your puzzle that make it nearly impossible to connect the surrounding pieces. You are left with floating gaps and holes that draw attention and confusion and make it difficult for the entire image to come together. This leaves you searching for those missing pieces – searching for completion – searching for wholeness. You seek not to dwell on the emptiness that exists in those gaps, but instead you yearn for the healing victory that comes from finding and carefully placing a single new piece into position.
Your search begins to shape you as you learn just as much about yourself from your failed attempts as you learn from your victories. This journey, while at times feels life consuming, becomes life altering as you discover and connect the various qualities and experiences that have come to shape you and ultimately make you who you are. You wonder if you will ever succeed in completing this complex puzzle. Will you ever come to a place of feeling truly complete, together, and whole? While this question may remained unanswered, you press on, digging and searching with the hope that each new day brings the possibility of adding just one more piece to your puzzle.