When the Body Speaks

She shifts her body back into her seat, puts her seatbelt on, and tries to make sense of what has just happened. She is unsure of what to feel as her system is overwhelmed with emotions around the details that replay in her mind. She needs a guide to help her navigate the confusion that swirls from within. But he is all that she has. So she turns her uncertain glance in his direction. Upon noticing a slight smile on his face she thinks she must have done something right. But she wonders why she doesn’t feel right inside.

Moments ago she was scared. Moments ago she was lost in overwhelm. Moments ago she felt sick inside and wanted to get far away from here. She was touched by a man that she calls her coach, and yet moments ago her body responded with pleasure to his sickening touch.

Her first orgasm was experienced in his car in response to what he does to her. Each time his touch results in this response from her body layer upon layer of evidence that she asked for it – that she wanted it – that she is to blame for it piles upon her. How is a child supposed to process this tangled mess of pleasure and pain of sexual abuse?

I have been told that my young body did exactly what it was biologically designed to do in those moments. I have been told that I should carry no burden of responsibility or blame or shame for how my body reacted to what was done to me. This response from my adolescent body was not an indication that I asked for it, was defective in some way, or was complicit in what was repeatedly done to me. The only thing it indicates is that my body did exactly what it was physically designed to do.

This has been an incredibly difficult concept for my adult brain alone to accept. For the young parts of me that remember what it feels like to sit in his car on the drive home after he touched me it is still so confusing. If he was hurting me, why did it feel good sometimes? If I was so scared and wanted to go home, why did I relax and let his hands access everywhere he wished to touch? And why did I let it feel good? Doesn’t that say something about me? Doesn’t that mean there is something inherently wrong with me?

I sit curled up on the floor in my therapist’s office. Our work together is aimed at releasing the stored physical sensations I experience today as a result of childhood trauma. As she guides me through this session I notice that the calming effect I can achieve from the slow deep breaths I am focusing on only goes as far as my tensed and coiled up body position will allow. She gently invites me to uncoil in front of her, reassuring me that I am safe – that she will not hurt me. Immediately I begin to feel my hands, arms, and shoulders begin to tremble. The mere suggestion of letting my guard down in front of her begins to overwhelm my system. I keep trying to breathe, relax my body, and stop the shaking. But she then asks if I can try to stop resisting it – instead allow the shaking to come if it wishes to come. She gently reassures that it is safe to tremble there. And with that comes a wave of trembling, shaking, and eventually a flood of tears as my body releases the enormous wave of energy around this fear of vulnerably relaxing from my protective curled up position.

I do not have a sense how long I was shaking and crying in there, but after some time it slowly began to fade. First the tears stopped. Then the shaking slowly softened. Afterwards I felt a calm and relaxed state restore throughout my body. My therapist gently encouraged me to notice both the physical calm I felt in my body along with the safe and nurturing care I received from her. It was safe to relax there. It was safe to lower my guard and release the stored pain my body carries.

I noticed every bit of this. I felt my shoulders relax. I felt my breathing slow down. I felt my hands unclench. I felt comforted by her words that I let enter my ears and embrace me from within. It felt freeing and calming. It felt incredible. But I felt something else too. In that moment I chalked it up to being freaked out by what had just occurred. After all, it was an incredibly frightening experience to welcome an overwhelm of uncontrollable shaking and crying that took over my body. But there was another feeling – a feeling that has continued to linger unidentified until right now. As I sat on the floor in front of her after my body trembled violently and tears poured from my eyes, I felt exposed. What just happened? That was terrifying. Did I do something wrong? Did I do something right? What does she think of me? Am I ever going to be able to look her in the eye again? I felt an urge to apologize. I couldn’t understand why I felt that way, and I got the sense I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. But I was far too confused and disoriented to say any of it out loud. So I just tried to focus on the calm I physically felt while the other feelings waited in the background for me to acknowledge later.

Away from her office I realized that this experience connected directly to something for a young part inside of me – the young part that remembers putting her seatbelt on after something felt both horribly painful and terrifying and also somehow good. This part whose body betrayed her by responding with pleasure to his touch sat frozen on the floor in my therapist’s office scared that she did it again. Did she just let her body feel good when something bad was happening? Was this feeling of calm the same as what she knows from long ago?

Adult me understands the difference. Adult me understands what we accomplished in the therapy room that day. Adult me understands the importance of this approach to healing the wounds that linger and impact me today. But this young part is left rattled and wondering, “Did I do something bad again?”

The Impacts of Grooming

She is 14 years old. She sits in her school hallway on the floor with her back against the wall. Her legs are outstretched and crossed in front of her. She wears an oversized hand-me-down t-shirt and athletic shorts. Her feet are laced up in well worn running shoes. She waits for the rest of her teammates to emerge from the locker room ready for practice. Small conversations and laughter spark between the girls as they begin to gather. Her coach enters the hallway and greets the team. As he passes in front of her he slows to a stop, bending down and reaching towards her. He grabs the top of her shoe, giving her toes a gentle squeeze and a subtle shake as he smiles at her and says hello. She looks up at him and smiles back, feeling a momentary glimpse of special because she received slightly more than the simple verbal greeting that he offered to the rest of her teammates. He then takes a seat on the floor among the girls. He doesn’t sit next to her but is instead across the hallway from her between two of her older teammates. As the pre-practice chatter continues he leans in towards one of her teammates, nudging his shoulder into hers as they talk and laugh. Watching this interaction from just a few feet away she laughs along while quietly wishing it was her that he chose to sit next to.

The next day or the next week or the next month it will be her. She’ll feel a jolt of special each time he slides in beside her on the hallway floor – each time he grabs hold of her foot as he walks past her – each time he leans in with a nudge – each time he places his hand on her back after a race – each time he tips his glasses forward on his nose and looks directly into her eyes to talk to her. She’ll feel noticed. She’ll feel seen. She’ll feel important. Until the day arrives that this feeling of being special becomes intertwined with other things.

I sit on the floor in my therapist’s office. She is slowly and carefully teaching me how to feel safe in my own body. She is helping me calm my jittery nerves as I sit across from her wrapped in a blanket. I am learning to trust that her care is real and genuine – that her offer of help does not come with strings attached. I am feeling the internal pull of wanting to lean into the safety that she offers me. I feel parts wanting to soften and accept her office and her presence as a safe place where I can lower my ever present protective guard. Yet I struggle to fully trust this feeling. As she offers to sit closer to me to provide comfort I feel a flurry of confusion swirl inside of me. Some parts want to reach out, hold on tight, and melt in the safety of her care while other parts of me get angry and loud inside. Their anger is not directed at my therapist, although they feel guarded and distrustful of her in these moments. Instead their anger is aimed inward at the parts that want her to move closer – the parts that wish to receive her care. They blame these parts for inviting harm, so they lash out at the feeling of softening into safety. They silence these parts that welcome her help by placing a barrier of resistance between them. These loud parts watch my therapy process unfold, connecting the dots to form immediate protective conclusions. Moving closer leads to warm feelings which leads to a trapdoor to betrayal. Holding hands leads to a comforting and calming reaction which leads to a lowered guard and an opening for attack. Eye contact leads to exposure which leads to longing for connection which welcomes the trap. No warm feelings. No sliding in close. No calming comfort. No connecting eye contact. Stand your ground, and don’t let her see you.

Grooming is the process of building a trusting and connecting relationship in order to manipulate and abuse. My 14 year old self was groomed by the predator that called himself her coach. She couldn’t possibly identify his seemingly innocent interactions over all of those months as anything different. My 14 year old self should not feel responsible for being lured in and falling into his carefully woven trap. What happened to her was the result of calculated grooming designed to fool everyone. And it worked. Yet parts of me were imprinted with a very strong and lasting self impression from that time. They are angry at the parts that welcomed him in and unwilling to allow any signs of manipulation to enter their space again.

My adult self understands the process we are working towards in the therapy room. My adult self understands I am paying a professional trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy to help me process and heal the trauma related physical sensations that are a present barrier in my life today. I keep thinking I need to bypass these voices that scream out from within. I keep thinking that healing comes from my adult self overriding whatever it is they are trying to communicate. It sounds and feels crazy inside. I don’t understand what they are feeling. It’s constantly conflicting and it doesn’t make any sense, so I get stuck trying to find words and can’t say anything at all. But what these parts feel and what they need to express is exactly where my healing resides. I need to learn how to release the confusion and ambivalence that I feel. I need to learn to express that parts of me want my therapist to sit close, and parts of me feel like they are sitting in the hallway at my school about to be tricked. I need to allow all parts to have a voice and a choice about how we heal. I may be the adult in the room, but it is the kids inside of me that hold the answers and direction for my healing.

Object Permanence

Each morning I park my car in my son’s school parking lot. I exit the car, put my mask on my face, and open the door to help him gather his belongings as he climbs out. I walk him to the edge of the parking lot, give him a hug and a kiss on the head, and wish him a good day at school. I stand at the edge of the lot as he continues along the crosswalk. Then I walk back to my car. I stand next to my car and watch him as he walks up the pathway to the side entrance where he enters the building. At some point along his path towards the school he always turns around to look for me. I wave my arm in the air, and he waves back. He then continues walking, sometimes turning around again and looking for another wave. I smile even though it is hidden under my mask and he is far enough from me to no longer see the details of my face, and I wave again. I repeat this process as many times as he wishes to turn around on his walk up that path in the morning.

I look forward to this small moment each day. It’s sweet, and it feels bigger than just watching him walk to school. It feels like he is routinely checking to make sure I’m still there for him – to make sure I don’t leave before he is ready – to make sure I don’t turn my back on him. To me these moments are priceless. I know a day will come when he won’t turn around to look for me anymore. Yet regardless of whether he turns around or not I choose to stay and wait while he is in my sight. I never want to be too busy or too preoccupied to remain fully present and connected in these small moments.

Kids are constantly engaged in a dance of stretching their independence and then turning to make sure that their stable base of support is still there. Just as a child grows to achieve the developmental understanding that an object continues to exist even if they cannot see or hear it, in a nurturing sense they also begin to learn that their own safety and care continues to exist beyond the immediate presence of their caregiver. A secure attachment between a child and caregiver enables that child to thrive and spread their wings facing new challenges while feeling seen, supported, and cared for in the process. As a parent that is what you work for – that is what you wish for. I can only hope that is how my son feels.

When a child is sexually abused their stable base of support is dismantled. Instead of turning towards others for safety and security, they learn how to provide those needs for themselves through a variety of coping mechanisms. They learn that trust is a dangerous weapon that can be wielded against them. This can teach them to become guarded, distant, and distrustful of others and of themselves. These are the lessons I learned as a child, and these are the lessons I strive to unlearn through healthier healing connections as an adult.

As I work to connect with and find healing for my inner child I feel much like my son on his walk to school. I feel this regular need from within to check and make sure my support is still there. Yet when I turn around I am unsure of who or what to look for.

One of the many challenges of being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is learning to become the protective and nurturing caregiver that the internal wounded parts were lacking at the time of the abuse. It’s learning to pay attention and tend to the unmet needs that still exist and cry out from within. Yet here lies the tricky part. As I learned to cope with routine abuse on my own as a child, over the years I adopted a variety of coping mechanisms to keep me going – to keep me alive. Some of these choices like running, art, and music were and continue to be healthy and serve me well. But there are other less favorable choices I have made and at times still make as a result of the pain that was thrust upon me. These choices have created a different type of harm. These choices have constructed a barbed wire barrier where internal connection and trust is required. The aftermath of these choices leaves my entire system incredibly unsteady and unable to fully trust itself. So when my therapist calls upon the nurturing mom in me to tend to and care for these young wounded internal parts, it doesn’t yet feel right. It feels to the young parts that they are being tricked and will just be hurt, ignored, and left alone again.

Can it be okay that these young parts trust the comforting words of my therapist more than my own words right now? Can I stop asking and expecting more than what my own internal system can handle at the moment and just lean into the support and safety that comes from her? Can I help these young parts continue to build trust with her while she works to help and prepare me to take on that task when my system feels more capable of doing so? While the ultimate goal in healing may look different, can it be okay that it is her wave that I turn around and look for right now?

Lessons From The Body

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.

When Healing Words Cause Pain

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?

Releasing Shame

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.

Questions

pencil drawing – by Sara

My questions have sharp edges
They swirl around me
Gripping, stabbing, and bleeding from me
Swarming through my mind
Like a dense fog
Engulfing me in blind confusion

They tempt me to doubt hope
Draping me in loneliness
They live deep here
Layer upon layer
Creating an armor that
Keeps me from you

Whispers beg to give voice
To my questions
To reach for your hand
Accepting what you offer

Alarms warn that your
Hand is just an illusion
Another trick leading
To a dark place I know too well

Tightly I hold my questions
A line in the sand between me and you
A false sense of power
Providing no more than
Self destructive ammunition
For a battle I wish to surrender to

Ambivalence

It is confusing to feel drawn to and simultaneously repulsed by something. It is distressing to experience feelings that don’t belong together – pleasure and pain, assurance and fear, comfort and betrayal. This is the tangled web of ambivalence. It is a concept and a part of the human experience that is often confusing enough in everyday situations. I can feel genuinely happy and proud of a friend when she receives a promotion at work, while also feeling jealous and under appreciated with my own work performance and lack of recognition. Both sets of feelings are entirely reasonable and should be given space for deeper self reflection and understanding. Ambivalence as it relates to childhood trauma, however, is an infinitely more complicated mess.

Ambivalence by definition is a complex feeling involving conflicting and competing emotions. When I learned about ambivalence in the context of childhood sexual abuse, I realized that for me it is tied into some of my most difficult and lasting ordeals with shame. I was both physically injured and experienced my first instances of sexual pleasure at the hands of my abusers. The wake of that statement alone has left me with ongoing therapeutic unpacking over the years. To this day, feelings of warmth, trust, and safety ignite the contradictory feelings that were imposed upon me from long ago. These may be faulty connections formed decades ago, but the wounded parts within me know no other way.

I am currently in the early stages of building trust with a new therapist. Every message that I am receiving from her feels safe and comforting. Yet the slightest softening response I experience within myself immediately feels dangerous and leads to an internal recoil. Each time I hear her speak words that light up certain parts of me that desperately need to hear those words, I feel a tug of war happen inside of me. Those parts lean in for comfort, safety, warmth, and care – and then they immediately scatter and retreat in fear, suspicion, and distrust. Young parts within me want to reach out for her help and yet these other parts scream that it is not safe, that her help should be avoided, and they try to shut me down with judgment and self loathing. Being stuck in a virtual setting makes this work feel even harder. How can the smallest and most vulnerable parts within me feel safe when there is so much space between those parts and the lifeline being tossed to them?

I am quite certain that the path towards building a connection with my therapist is simply a matter of time and patient work together – slowing tip toeing towards feelings of safety while acknowledging, naming, and making space for each ambivalent feeling that arises. The parts of me that struggle to feel safe with my therapist were created out of necessity. I cannot simply bypass them however inconvenient they may be. I need to instead make space for all of these conflicting feelings. I need to feel her comforting support and also question and doubt it. I need to give a voice to all of the parts that both need her and wish to reject her help. It’s not about choosing the right voice. It’s about learning to listen to all of them.