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.