Living With Compartments

I sat at a table of mostly strangers. We were engaged in the kind of small talk that induces a moderate level of anxiety within me as an introvert with socially uncomfortable tendencies. But it was a welcoming and lighthearted get-together, and the connection that brought me there was strong enough to make me feel secure in this setting. I approached this gathering prepared to be introduced or identified as a sexual abuse survivor. While this was an unusual setting of disclosure for me, it felt okay as it was thoughtfully discussed beforehand with the close friend and fellow survivor that invited me to the table that day.

As the conversations moved from various topics I recognized a similarity between myself and one of these strangers. We both have children the same age. I offered up this common ground that we share, creating a brief moment of connection before the conversations continued. Then later this common ground resurfaced. It was discovered that not only do we have kids the same age, but they also go to the same school. And not only do they go to the same school, but her child has participated in a sport that I have coached there. In a matter of seconds it was revealed that I was her son’s coach a couple of years ago. Suddenly this person who was supposed to be a complete and total stranger to me became something different.

This revelation would hold little significance to me in most circumstances, but there was something uniquely different about this particular connection that day. I was in unfamiliar territory. I had offered up my title as a sexual abuse survivor in a setting where I didn’t expect to be connected to any other aspect of my life. And there I was facing a collision course of identities as both a youth sports coach and a survivor in one setting. Internal rattling ensued.

It took some time to unpack what this encounter meant to me and why it resulted in an uproar of internal disruption. After all, I rationally know that I am both a coach and a survivor. Those two identities can and do coexist. So what’s the big deal? The big deal for me is that my life is organized into compartments – separate and distinct compartments. Certain parts of my life do not intersect with other parts. This is by design. This is surely a result of a compartment that was painfully thrust upon me as a child. But my maintenance of these separate compartments has kept me alive and safely protected over the years.

I am very actively involved as a survivor in both my own individual and group healing work as well as through a passionate involvement in education and abuse prevention efforts in youth sports across the United States. This is a huge part of who I am. And yet this part exists separately from all other aspects of my life. The work I do and the amazing connections I have made within this community are treasured by me, and yet they are kept almost entirely disjointed from the rest of me.

This compartmentalization, for better or worse, is how I function. When a situation like this arises where two compartments that don’t operate together are suddenly thrust into interweaving light it causes two things to happen inside of me. First, there is panic. An automatic emergency response happens inside indicating danger and a need to fix, or change, or flee the situation. When I can eventually ride that feeling out (hopefully without succumbing to the panic) then a second feeling always follows. Self-judgement. What is wrong with me? Why do I feel the need to hide? The fact that these compartments still strongly exist for me today fills me with uneasiness and uncertainty about myself and my own healing. It makes me question how secure I can feel in my own story if I must keep these parts entirely separate. If I claim to own my story of childhood sexual abuse then why must I keep it separate from some other areas in my life? Doesn’t that mean I am still bound up in the same shame I have been working so hard to break free from? Doesn’t that mean I am much farther away from healing from all of this than I even imagined? Does that make true healing even remotely possible for me?

I think the answers to these questions have many layers. I unfortunately know first hand how much ignorance and cruelty exists in the world around the topic of childhood sexual abuse. I have heard comments with my own ears and have read statements with my own eyes that have placed the blame of what happened to me squarely upon my shoulders. And I know that no matter how strong and secure I can feel in the knowledge that what happened to me was not my fault or the result of some kind of brokenness or defect in me, the words of others still have a way of cutting into me in a deeply damaging way. This reality makes me hold my story close to me. It makes me very selective in who and in what settings I choose to share. I can never be certain that ignorance or cruelty will not interfere with my coaching positions, so I don’t advertise it there. This saddens the advocate in me as I believe I am a better and more equipped coach because of my experiences of abuse in sports. But I can never be certain that ignorance and cruelty wouldn’t find me in this role. And I can’t bear the thought of even one parent wrongfully expressing that my history makes me a potential unsafe person around their child. That kind of ignorance exists. And that kind of ignorance hurts too much. So I choose to keep these compartments separate. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it feels safer for me now.

The fact is, no matter how much work I do and no matter how secure I feel in my story, my story is still my own. It still hurts sometimes, and it can still cause hurt when it lands in the wrong hands. My healing progress should never be measured by a willingness to shout my story from the rooftops. It’s much more complex and personal than that. I get to be careful and selective in who I allow to see each compartment I carry. I get to decide, as Brene Brown has so powerfully described, who “has earned the right” to hear my story.

Sometimes I will mess up and share with the wrong people. I will have to learn from those moments, pick up the pieces, and carry on. And I will be okay. Other times, I may sit at a table and share with the right people, and it might make everything inside of me shake a whole lot. That doesn’t mean I messed up. It doesn’t mean it was wrong. It just means it is scary. And that’s okay too.

To The Girl With The Backpack

I see you standing in line, waiting to board that airplane. Others cannot see the weight that you carry. But I see it. I see you. You need to know something. When you take your seat on that plane and begin to get lost in your thoughts as you gaze through the oval window towards the ground that retreats from your vision, your world is going to turn dark for a while. It is on this plane that you will begin to feel the weight of what happened to you last night. It will suck the air from your lungs and leave you choking through tears. You will start to make connections and assign meaning to all of your experiences. The words, “I did it again,” will ring loud in your ears. You will believe that what he did to you last night was something you asked for. You will believe it’s the same as what happened during all those years far away from here – the place you ran so fast and so far from. You will berate yourself for not doing better – for not knowing better – for not being better – for letting this happen again. You will believe that you are defective inside and unworthy of anything other than the pain you find yourself drowning in. But you must hear this. You did not let this happen. You did not ask for this. You do not deserve this – any of it.

I cannot change what happened and what will continue to happen to you for a while. I can’t make this go away. I can’t skip this part for you as much as I want to. But I do know that there is much more to your story than this. There is life in you after this moment. You won’t feel it for a long while, but you will see light again someday. I promise.

I wish I could tell you that it won’t hurt. I wish I could tell you that it won’t bring you to unspeakable places. But I can’t. The darkness will feel immense. It will get so heavy and so loud that it will begin to creep inside of you. It will try to change you. It will try to convince you that surrender is the only way. But please hear me. Your home is not in the darkness. Your home is far away from here. You just have to trust me a little bit. I am trying to become what others were unable to be for you back then. I mess up often. I think, and say, and do the wrong things sometimes. I turn my back on you when I get scared. But I’m not leaving. I may stumble and fumble my way through this, but I won’t let you carry this weight all alone anymore.

Your home is a place I created for you. It is a place of safety and clarity – a place of color breathing life. It’s a place I painted – a place I dream of – a place to help us heal together. Your home is our wishing tree. Someday when you are ready you can find me there. You can set your heavy backpack down and together we can sit against the giant trunk of the tree, letting the array of soothing colors shower over us as we unpack it all together.

watercolor painting – by Sara

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?

Imprisoned

pencil sketch – by Sara

Asking why you are in there
is like questioning a person
for holding their breath
while underwater

This place was a necessity
when no other options existed

Yet in there your safety
is intertwined with
memories from which
this place was born

I will not ask
to lower your guard
or beg for trust
I have not yet earned

My promise to you
is to search for new comfort
free of the tainted feelings
that this posture incites

Hidden Tears

I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.

As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.

I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.

Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?

Water’s Edge

Side by side we stand – our toes at the edge of the creeping shoreline. Her small hand rests inside of mine. She leans in, tugging at my arm and urging me to inch forward. I resist. “Come on! I need to show you,” she pleads. Her bright eyes look up into mine with hopeful longing. I look down into them. I want to be brave enough for her. Yet as I turn and look out into the turbulence that lies before us I feel frozen. “Can’t we just watch the waves from right here?” I ask. Her face tells me that we can’t. She pulls again at my arm, urging, pleading, begging. But I can feel my feet gripping into the soft sinking sand beneath me. “What if we get knocked down? What if I can’t hold us up? What if it takes hold of us and won’t let go? I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in. I don’t know what’s out there. What if I’m not strong enough? What if it breaks me?” Her wide eyes turn and then narrowly focus out towards the horizon, beyond the breaking waves and wild fury that rages right in front of us. Then in a voice so calm and self assured, she softly whispers, “But what if it shows us?”