Polluted Lessons

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.

When All Roads Lead To Failure

I crossed the finish line, sweat pouring from me, exhausted and depleted. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know how to feel. I knew it in the midst of the race. I knew it deep inside when I was unable or unwilling to tap into the part of me that would allow an effort to dig deeper and go faster in the midst of hurt. I felt defeated. This was not my best race – not by a long shot. Disappointment poured over me, and this moment immediately attached itself to failure. I failed myself with a poor championship race performance. I failed my team and our chances of a top finish. I failed my coach – the one who I thought believed in me – the one whose approval I worked so hard for – the one who used his position of authority to manipulate and abuse me. I crossed the finish line that day and lowered my head in shame. I knew I let everyone down. I failed. 

My mom was a spectator at this race. She approached me afterwards, proud of my effort, proud to be my mom. She didn’t know I fell short of my goal. She had no idea what my goals even were. But she was there cheering for me – no matter what. I hardly even acknowledged her in that moment. His lessons over the years ingrained a message deep within that no one else cared – no one else saw me – no one else paid attention – no one would support me like he could. To keep me close and obedient he taught me that everyone else in my life was failing me. So in that moment I followed his lessons and deliberately brushed past my own mom. I ignored her out of anger – anger towards myself and my own failure that day and anger towards her for failing to see me – failing to really know me – failing to care enough to know what I was aiming for that day. Whatever she wished to say, I didn’t want to hear. So I walked away from her. 

When I reflect upon this moment today, in the midst of a cyclone of feelings around facing a very recent grim prognosis for my mom, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My reaction right now is that I failed as a daughter that day – along with so many other days. 

I don’t know what to do with all that I am facing. Memories of our relationship from throughout my life are replaying in my mind. Each moment leaves me feeling this sense of failure as a daughter. All of the anger I’ve carried about not being seen by her feels trivial. Instead I want to push all of that aside and focus on caring for, supporting, and loving my mom. But my brain can’t seem to do just that. Instead I pull apart each of these memories and find fault and self blame within all of them. Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my default response self judgement, self blame, and self hate? Maybe hating myself somehow feels like an alternative to facing the pain of losing her. Why can’t I just be sad? I’m losing my mom, and while our relationship has been complicated, I love her and don’t want her to die. I feel the helplessness of this situation driving me towards self blame, maybe because it’s something I can control and it’s something I know. I can hate myself for all of my shortcomings. I can be angry with myself because I’ve been doing that my whole life. That comes easy. But it is also hurting all of the parts of me that I am learning to tend to. Directing my anger inward is reminding all of these young parts what they have always believed. It is their fault. They are worthless. They failed again.

Recently we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. She is a teenager now. On the day of this celebration she encountered an issue with one of her gifts and became quickly and increasingly preoccupied with correcting the problem and making it just right. Tears began flowing from her out of frustration. All of this build up and excitement for this special gift that suddenly in the moment was not measuring up to her expectations. Then mixed with her own tears came self judgment. “I don’t want to cry. I don’t even know why I am crying,” she screamed. Of course she didn’t know. She’s 13 years old and her body is coursing with hormones and changes that make it hard to understand any overwhelming feeling. As a mom I know this. But in that moment my own ingrained messages got in the way of meeting my daughter the way she needed me. In that moment her tears felt ungrateful and spoiled to me. All of the energy, thought, and care I put into making her birthday special, and here she is crying that this one thing isn’t absolutely perfect. I could feel my anger rising inside. I just wanted to lash out and tell her to shut up – that she was being ridiculous, spoiled, and incredibly ungrateful. While I could feel myself boiling on the inside, I didn’t lash out at her. I didn’t say a word. I know my silence sent its own message to my daughter, but in that moment silence was the best I could offer. I found some space to quietly remove myself from the situation, and I allowed her dad to proceed with helping to solve the issue with the gift. As I gave myself this space I started to feel a shift. I began to experience anger towards my own anger. How can I not make room for what is very clearly a response in my daughter caused by an overwhelm of emotions and hormones? She was even telling me that in her frustration with her own tears. My anger and the way I wanted to respond to her in that moment felt so strong, so automatic, and so familiar. And the more I sat with it the more I realized that my knee jerk reaction was exactly the opposite reaction I wish to have for my child in this moment. My knee jerk reaction is what I experienced throughout my own childhood. 

Don’t cry. Don’t be dramatic. Don’t be so self involved. Get over yourself. Your tears are weak. Your tears are pathetic. Pull yourself together, and get back in your place.

My reaction in that moment was nothing more than wanting to stuff my daughter’s feelings down and teach her that the tears she didn’t understand were ridiculous and should not be there. My reaction in that moment wanted to make me feel more comfortable by shaming my daughter out of her own expression of feelings. This anger I felt quickly turned to shame. By wishing to stuff her feelings, I am failing to meet her – failing to guide her – failing to see her – failing to show her a healthier way than what I learned. What if I am not equipped to model a better way for her? What if she will struggle in the ways I have struggled and experience the same level of lasting hurt? What if I am hurting my kids? This spiral of thoughts continued and attached to other pieces of evidence in my brain to convince me that I am failing the most important people in my life. And if that’s what I’m doing then what good am I to anyone?

After a little time, tears, and along with a heavy dose of caring support these strong feelings have subsided just enough to make it possible to look at these situations with a bit more clarity. I understand how quickly present feelings can get tangled up with old ones and make it nearly impossible for me to see clearly. I know that my daughter entering her teenaged years attaches to fears in my mind about what happened to me in my past. It makes me constantly overwhelmed and fearful that I am falling short of protecting her from the pain I experienced. It blinds me of all of my strengths and magnifies my shortcomings, convincing me that I am failing her. I know that my own mom is facing this prognosis that is ripping her away from life, away from me. I am scared, and I don’t know how to do this. I know that recent shifts and ruptures in the relationships within my own family of origin is making me feel more alone at a time when I need support more than ever. I know it all just feels like too much and makes it hard to say no to the temptations of numbing relief that simply result in an added layer of failure and shame. And I know I want to do better and be better for my kids as well as for the trembling hurting young one that resides inside of me. Sometimes I just don’t know how.

Army of One

She stands in front of a police station – preparing, breathing, second guessing. Four adults surround her – protecting, supporting, embracing. She steps inside and lets her shaky voice tell her story, exposing the evil that was done to her. With her army of four by her side she feels scared yet capable. When she cries, comforting arms are wrapped around her. When she falls fearfully silent, her eyes are met with a supportive gaze to help her carry on. As she releases the unspeakable words from her lips she watches each and every small reaction occurring in the faces around her. She searches for evidence in their expressions to prove whether or not what occurred was her fault. Shame combs through their reactions and claws at her from the inside, searching for any crumb of evidence to sink its teeth into to convince her she is to blame. Her army of four knows this and stands close by, persisting in their efforts to remind her that none of this belongs to her.

When justice fails her in this moment she begins to feel herself sinking into a place of self blame and despair. Yet as she shrinks the voices that surround her get louder and angrier on her behalf. They sweep in around her like a protective cloak, embracing her with the kind of reassurance that helps to chase her shame away.

No one should have to endure the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. But for those who know these experiences, this response from caregivers seems like an ideal model of support for this situation. These four adults cannot undo what has been done to this child, but they can rally around her and constantly reassure her that what happened was not her fault and that she is not alone.

While some of the details feel eerily similar to mine, this is not my story. It is instead a fictional scene I recently stumbled upon on television. I’m not sure how wise it is for me to watch things like this. These scenes are surely very triggering. I typically avoid tv shows and movies involving childhood abuse. It just hits too close to home. But other times I unknowingly stumble into this type of plot twist and then find myself feeling strangely compelled to see how it plays out. This was exactly the case with this particular tv show. A teenaged girl character with no prior history of sexual trauma suddenly in one episode becomes the target of sexual abuse by her teacher. Once it began to unfold before my eyes, no matter how much I could feel the stinging internal impact of the story, I needed to see what happened. So I continued to watch, curled up in my blanket, sometimes feeling comforted by the familiarity of the scenes, sometimes cringing over it, all while regularly swallowing the rising lump in my throat. But over several scenes I began to notice something particularly interesting.

I know what it feels like to share details of sexual abuse to a police officer. I know what it feels like to answer questions about where and how I was touched by my abuser. I know what it’s like to describe the kind of physical details that one would only know if they had the type of close physical interaction and exposure that I experienced. But what I don’t know is what it must be like to be a child with adults to turn to in a situation like this. I don’t know what it’s like to talk about and process the immediate aftermath of sexual abuse surrounded by attentive and caring support. I don’t know what it’s like to hear an army of protective voices countering the onslaught of shame that tries to destroy an abused child from within.

As I watched this girl’s story unfold on my TV screen I realized that while the subject matter hit very close to home and was perhaps not my best choice of shows to watch, the most difficult part for me was watching the girl on the screen receive something I never received. In the midst of all of her confusion and pain this girl is constantly reminded by loved ones that what happened was not her fault, that she is loved, and that she is not alone. And it’s not just their words that hit me. It’s the way they held her. It’s the way they sat down with her, looking into her eyes to speak their compassionate message directly into them. Each and every scene where this girl is tended to with loving, caring, and ever present support began to overwhelm my system with hurt, grief, and longing for these things.

The young girl inside of me that was routinely abused with no one to turn to aches to be seen like this. Her pain went unnoticed. She had to carry on with this unimaginable burden thrust upon her completely alone. I think when I feel an internal reaction to watching scenes like this I am hearing directly from this wounded girl inside of me. The tears I fought back while watching this tv show are her tears. The sadness and longing pushing forward is her trying to tell me how much hurt she faced and how much pain she still carries – not only from what was done to her but also because no one ever saw her. No one noticed what was being done to her. No one paid attention. No one stopped to ask questions or leaned in close and looked into her eyes to tell her that she was not alone. She watches these scenes play out on tv and cries out, “Why didn’t anyone take care of me?”

Spiderwebs

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.

pencil drawing – by Sara

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.

pencil drawing – by Sara

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.

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.

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.

Unpacking

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.

The Journey of Seven Rocks

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.

The Butterfly Effect

Perhaps you have heard of the term or have seen the movie. The butterfly effect is the idea that even the smallest of incidents can have a dramatic impact on a future event. More specifically the name comes from the analogy that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could cause a tornado in another part of the world. Aside from watching the movie years ago this is not a concept I have ever given any thought to, but the name came to my mind when reflecting about a small moment that occurred in my kitchen just the other day.

I had just gathered our mail from the mailbox and was sorting through it on my kitchen counter when I came across a letter addressed to my eleven year old daughter. It was a letter from her 6th grade social studies teacher. I paused when I read his name on the return address label. I felt a very uncomfortable feeling start to rise inside of me simply holding this letter in my hand. I attempted to dismiss those feelings by rationalizing why this letter would exist. It is the end of the school year and my daughter had given this teacher a small gift and handwritten card. This was undoubtedly a thank you note. I swallowed my discomfort and called to my daughter to let her know that she received a letter in the mail. When she yelled back, asking who it was from, I answered. My answer prompted a sudden jolt up from whatever she was doing in our family room into an excited trot to meet me in the kitchen. I noticed her excitement and again felt the uncomfortable feeling rise. I tried to dismiss it again and handed the letter to her, paying close attention to every detail in this moment. She quickly tore open the letter and with a very upright and eager posture she read each word to herself, wide eyed and with a slight smile. When she finished reading I took a breath and asked her if I could read it too. Her hesitation followed by an uncomfortable no sent alarms blazing inside of me. Still trying to discretely silence those alarms and press her slightly, I continued. When she answered that she didn’t want to share the letter because it felt too personal, I struggled to contain myself. However, my everyday attempts to not burden my kids with the aftermath of my own past trauma kept me outwardly composed. With a curious tone I explained that a thank you note from her teacher for an end of year gift that I purchased shouldn’t be anything to keep from me. She indicated that it felt more personal than a regular thank you and continued to hold the note close to her.

How can I respond in this moment? What am I supposed to say? My insides were screaming, “That’s how it started! That’s how it started!”
What am I supposed to do?

I was 14 years old when my abuser entered my life. He was my high school coach. I developed a growing connection and looked up to him throughout my first year on the team. I was unaware of all of his subtle grooming tactics designed to gain my trust and slowly entrap me. The summer after my freshman year on the team, just a few months before he sexually abused me for the first time, I received a letter from him. I remember my nervous excitement when I received that first letter. This man that I admired and whose approval and attention I craved, was opening a line of communication that transcended our coach/athlete relationship. It made my adolescent heart feel special. The letters continued back and forth that summer, progressing from strictly sharing training details, to then more playful, personal, and connecting dialogue. By the time summer ended and our team reconnected for our first fall practice, I could sense a difference in the way he looked at me. Looking back now I understand what that difference was. He knew his grooming of me over the previous year had been successful and now he could move onto the stage that he had been carefully preparing and waiting for. That point in time marked the beginning of over three years of very regular and intensely traumatizing sexual abuse.

Standing in my kitchen with my daughter clutching this note from a male teacher against her chest was all I needed to be taken on this violent ride of terror. In the seconds it took me to respond I felt every emotion from the nervous excitement of receiving the first letters from my coach to the visceral fears and aversion to touch that my body still carries twenty five years after all that he did to me. I had to somehow swallow all of that down and respond to my innocent daughter standing before me. Without an ounce of calm inside of me, I conjured up calm and responded with a polite request for her to share this note with me. After a brief hesitation she complied and handed it over. I read through it, outwardly projecting a composed caring presence, while inwardly frantically teasing apart everything from the stationary he selected, the length of the note, the handwriting, down to every single word and punctuation choice.

I hated this note and everything about it. I hated this man for violating our safe space and reaching into our home to connect with my daughter. I hated every male teacher she has had and will ever have for bringing on this unbearable worry. I hated the man who abused me for causing all of these extreme reactions I feel every day as a mom. I hated that the hurt he caused decades ago still has the power to hurt me now.

I feel no greater responsibility in my life than to protect the little ones I’ve brought onto this earth from the horrors that were inflicted upon me. I feel this weight with every breath I take. It is exhausting to be on high alert at every moment. It is crushing to feel pulled into the violent ride of terror that this small moment caused.

This little envelope that arrived in the mail and contained no more than a thoughtful and well articulated message of gratitude was the butterfly, and all of this unrelenting torment unleashed inside of me as a result. This is not a new experience for me. This is just one day – just one example of how the smallest moments can trigger the greatest storms inside my wounded soul.