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.

Message to My Armor

You are my trusted companion. You keep me composed – buttoned up – sealed off from harmful intrusions. Your presence allows me to appear calm and confident. You are my protector – my shield. You contain all of me in a way that makes others unable to notice the turbulence beneath the surface. When other parts of me are screaming for attention in moments where I cannot tend to them, I can feel you quietly shushing, assuring, and nudging them aside.

You were created out of necessity, and I am grateful for your presence.

I ask a lot from you. I place us into settings that demand you to work overtime. I feel the strain this places on you. I feel your exhaustion in the way this leads to physical ailments and urges. I feel your need for relief – your need to come up for air.

How can I offer you a break? What can I do for you now to let you know that it is safe to relax a little?

I am not asking you to leave. Trust that I recognize my need for you. Instead I wish to grant you a healthy release. I need to find a way to let you rest and recover after placing these persistent demands on you. We are safe now. You can rest. We can let the other parts that you have fiercely and effectively protected come forward a bit. It is time to lean into what they need to share with us now. Can you soften a bit and let them step forward? Can you drape yourself around them like a warm blanket, letting them know that you can hold, protect, and support them while also letting them carefully creep forward to whisper their messages? They need your support. They need your protection. They just need you to loosen your grip ever so slightly so they can climb up out of the darkness. You can still be their shield while also allowing them to peek out into the light.

The Rising Tide

As the tide rises
the broken pieces are stirred
and awoken once again.

The earth beneath her begins to shake.
The broken pieces rattle
like shards of glass
clanging, scraping, cutting
into the parts that have been so tenderly cared for
that she has worked so hard to heal.

She tries to shield herself.
Yet the more she tenses in self protection
the more those pieces seem to cut into her
weakening her defenses.

Her confidence and security begin to shudder and shrink
transformation looming against her will.
She struggles in resistance.
Yet there she slips back into that familiar skin
becoming the part of herself that she wishes to forget.

It chases her back into hiding
deep down to a place that should not exist anymore.
There it tries to convince her to stay
small, silent, alone, and broken.

An automatic inevitability each time the tide rushes in.
If only the waves could quiet down
and the tide retreat long enough for her
to catch her breath before
returning once more.

Buttoned Up

There is this buttoned up and composed version of myself that I let the world see. It is the part of me that protectively works to keep my outward self appearing calm, safe, and secure. Underneath this facade lives a multitude of other parts, some healthier than others, that come together to make me who I am today. This buttoned up part of myself that I present to the world could not exist without a self imposed part designed as a pressure release valve. Both parts exist as a means of self protection. Both have been a critically necessary part of my survival. And both are creating a barrier to feeling, creating, and connecting to a whole-hearted approach to healing in my life. I wish to shed these parts through my healing process. Yet the desire to shed these internal parts of myself is perhaps a misguided goal. I cannot circumvent the very parts of me that were put in place to keep me safe. I need to instead somehow connect to these parts and learn to work collaboratively with them.

When I was seven years old my grandfather (Pop-Pop) died. I remember with such clarity several moments of the day of his funeral. I recall standing in line in a room that smelled of flowers. I remember watching his wife, my Mom-Mom, walk into the room quietly crying with two adult family members clutching her arms to keep her steady as she walked. I remember feeling uncomfortable and nervous because I had never before seen Mom-Mom cry, and this room full of quiet sad looking people dressed in dark clothes felt unsettling to me. I understood that my Pop-Pop died – as best as a seven year old can understand death. But I didn’t understand what we were doing there. What was this building we were in? What was this line of people we were standing in?

When the line inched forward I was suddenly scooped up off of the ground and found myself face to face with Pop-Pop’s lifeless body positioned in a casket. I wasn’t held in a comforting closely held manner with caring guidance to help me comprehend what I was experiencing. Instead I was perched up facing outward and away from my dad, who held me extended out in front of himself by my underarms. I dangled there and experienced my first view of death all alone. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand why I was being held up and instructed to look at him in there. It didn’t even look like Pop-Pop. My Pop-Pop’s skin didn’t look like that. My Pop-Pop’s lips never rested tightly together quite like that. My Pop-Pop always had a crease across the bridge of his nose from his glasses. There were no glasses on his face and no crease marking where they normally rested. This didn’t look like my Pop-Pop. I looked directly at his face and immediately turned away. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for being disrespectful so although I wanted to jerk my head, squirm out of my dad’s hands and run away from this room in sadness and fear, I instead simply diverted my eyes away from Pop-Pop’s face. I focused on the edges of the casket and the flowers surrounding it – anywhere I could discretely look to help subside the fear, sadness, and confusion that swirled inside of me until at last my feet were brought back down to the ground.

I learned that day not to look directly into a casket. I learned in that moment that I needed to pretend to look. This would prove to become a lasting strategy, as my last living grandmother died nearly twenty years later. When faced with her funeral as an adult, I respectfully moved my way towards her body during the viewing, but I chose not to look directly at her face. Part of me didn’t want my last memory of her face to include a distorted image of what she looked like among all of my countless memories with her. But the stronger feeling inside of me was a need for self protection from the feelings rising inside of me. I didn’t feel confident to test the limits of my self composure in that moment. Instead, much like I did when I was seven years old, I looked at the edges of the casket and the pattern on the dress she wore and breathed slowly and deliberately, continuously swallowing down my feelings of grief until an acceptable amount of time passed and I could turn in a calmly composed manner and walk away.

I remember sitting with my family in our church during Pop-Pop’s funeral service. The same church that was typically full of people during our regular Sunday visits was eerily quiet and empty with just the front several pews filled with family and loved ones. Various people walked up to the alter and read words that I didn’t understand. A priest well known by my family spoke about heaven. All while that same box I saw Pop-Pop laying in earlier was positioned in front of the alter. I saw more tears that day than I had ever seen – from cousins, from aunts and uncles, and even strangers. But not one tear was spotted on my siblings or my parents faces.

At one point during the church service I went to the restroom with my mom. The restroom was near the front of the church behind several doors off to the side of the alter. I don’t remember the walk to the restroom, but what occurred both in the restroom as well as the walk back to our church pew left a lasting mark in my mind. While in the restroom I asked my mom why people have to die. I don’t remember how she answered, but I remember something about that brief conversation led to an overflowing of tears, sadness, and confusion pouring out of me. I missed my Pop-Pop, and I wept in that restroom over the loss of him. I’m sure my mom hugged me and comforted me. I don’t remember that part. Instead the lasting memory in my mind was standing before a mirror and desperately washing my face. With all of the emotions coursing through my young body at Pop-Pop’s funeral, my greatest concern in that moment was to wash away any evidence of my tears. I didn’t leave that restroom until I felt that I could walk back out into the church, facing all of the people in the church pews in front of me, feeling completely composed. At seven years old I had very carefully displayed an unspoken family rule that I must have learned long before that day. At seven years old I already knew that it was not okay to cry.

This buttoned up version of myself is exhausted from containing all that I experience. It needs healthy healing relief. It became a strong part of me at such a young age that simple expressions of feelings are often lost or muted by this ever present part. In my entire upbringing I never learned how to express my feelings. Instead I was taught that feelings were not welcome. I don’t want that for myself anymore, and I certainly don’t want that for my children. But I am scared and unsure of how to attempt to change something that is so deeply and fiercely a part of me. I feel myself often wishing and even envisioning a moment of releasing everything that feels bottled up inside of me – wishing to just let go and crumble in the comforting arms and safety of a loved one – wishing to fully release and express the depth of my feelings – to stop holding myself so desperately clenched together in my therapist’s office and just let go – to cry and unravel and release the overwhelming weight that I feel trapped in. But this buttoned up part is so strong and automatic inside of me that it prevents me from getting there. I don’t know how to turn it down. When I experience moments of being asked a question by my therapist that even remotely invokes a feeling of rising tears, this part reacts so quickly to either jump in with distracting sarcasm or worse, it creates an internal anger at my therapist for what feels like an attempt to make me cry. In an instant the flood of rising feelings subsides and composure remains in control.

The recent self realization and connection between this buttoned up part of myself and a release valve part that also exists within me is what draws my focus in very clearly on how important it is for me to carefully tend to and address these intertwined parts. Self harm is my release valve. These tendencies and urges have been a part of me since I was in the midst of abuse as a teenager. I am just realizing now how much my buttoned up self relies on self harm to maintain composure. Self harming for me is a means to release some of the overwhelm that exists within me. I can’t maintain a composed buttoned up facade without a place for my overwhelm to escape. The self harming part was created to help maintain the buttoned up part.

If I can learn to tend to and release the weight of responsibility that the buttoned up part feels, then perhaps my self harming urges will no longer feel necessary. But what does that look like and how do I even begin to try? This is where my mind resides at the moment – sensing an important need and struggling to determine just how to reach it.

Edge of Darkness

She speaks to me in dreams. She comes to me in waves of panic. She visits me without warning. I struggle to openly receive her messages without feeling flooded and retreating away from her. I wonder how I can learn from her without getting lost and overwhelmed by all she needs to share with me. How can I choose to carefully and safely venture into her pain? I begin to think that perhaps I need to stop bracing and shielding myself from her sudden incoming messages and instead find a way to compassionately build a bridge towards her. Perhaps if I could be curious and brave enough to approach her – to visit where she lives – that we could learn to soften our approach with one another.

Where does this child inside of me live? What does she experience? What can I learn from spending time with her where she resides?

I sit with these questions and begin to search within myself and ask her if she might invite me in. I ask her to help me understand – to help me see all that she needs to show me. My initial requests are met with nothing – silence. I keep trying. With each failed attempt I begin to ask more questions.

Why does she feel so far away from me?
Will she not let me find her or is it that I am too scared and unwilling to see her?

I take breaks from my asking and searching with the hope that a fresh mind will bring clarity another day. Then I try again and again and again – each day coming up empty. Then one night while lying in bed, without conscious thought or awareness, I receive her answer. She tells me that she lives where she’s always been – in the place I created long ago.

Immediately an image appears in my mind. I know exactly where she is. When I was in high school I was assigned a self portrait project in my art class. Of all of the countless ways to best represent oneself, my wounded 17 year old self related most accurately to this self representation – desperate, terrified, and gripping helplessly onto the edge of darkness – looking up for light, life, any sign of hope. The fear in her eyes shows that help is not coming.

The child inside of me lives exactly where I painted her years ago in the midst of her suffering. She’s still there. She’s still hanging onto that ledge desperate for help.

I have shamefully hidden from this place that she resides for so long – denying its existence – denying her truth. I have lacked the understanding, strength, and courage to face her. I have felt too scared to look over the edge into her desperate eyes. In my bravest moments I have tried to reach for her and attempt to help her. But she cannot be convinced to let go of the ledge and reach for my hand. She doesn’t trust my hand to save her. I don’t blame her for that. My hand is the same one that has tried to pry her fingers from that ledge many times before to make her disappear – to make it all disappear. How can she know that it is safe to trust me now? And how do I know if I can be trusted? What if I try to reach for her and fail? What if I’m not strong enough to carry the weight of her hurt? What if my efforts to save her lead us both to a life ending fall?

Maybe my challenge is not to pull her out. Maybe instead of trying to lean over her and help her out of her darkness I need to climb down there with her – to listen to her – to really see her. Maybe we’re supposed to find our way out together.

I want to be strong for her. I want to courageously enter that endless shaft and join in close beside her feeling confident in our ability to navigate our way out. But the truth is that I’m scared. I’m afraid of failing her. I’m afraid of failing us – again.

When Dreams Speak

I wake up in a puddle of your 

unacknowledged tears.

I hear your desperate calling

reaching out from inside my dreams.

Your screams feel so familiar

a song of sadness that lives in my soul.

It places a weight upon my chest, fighting 

mightily against my need for breath.

Slowly I bring my dripping self down

from this sudden impending doom.

Then I look inside for answers

coming up empty and confused.

What prompted this sudden terror?

What is it I should know?

I can sense that this alarm is coming

straight from inside of you.

I feel its unbearable weight.

I sense its unfinished work.

Yet as I try to slow down and listen

your silence is all that I can hear.

What are you needing from me?

What do you wish to say?

Why do you wake me in terror

just to leave me rattled and unglued?

You were left alone and shattered

by those who took from you.

Left to gather scattered pieces 

of your stolen innocence. 

With no reprieve or guiding hand

in your suffering you constructed 

loyal soldiers for your defense.

They shielded you from your torment

offering numbing detachment and rage.

We lean onto these protective guards

years after they were required.

We fear asking them to step aside

might overwhelm our injured system.

Our guards provided safety, shelter

from your indescribable truth.

We learned to wield our broken pieces 

into weapons of self defense

lashing out in terror, keeping danger far away.

Yet those same jagged pieces

so difficult to handle

we turn them towards ourselves at times

harming even with our most careful intentions.

Can we try to stand together

without their self protective plan?

Can we sit with one another

and let our collective truth guide the way?

Can’t you see we are together broken 

shattered pieces from the same soul?

Our healing can only build from 

how each damaged portion is handled.

Together we can work

to safely gather and regroup

those broken pieces when shared between us 

won’t hurt the way they once did.

We can gather them together

in their fragmented disarray.

We can learn to lift them out of darkness

washing shame and self blame away.

We can strive to shine healing light through them

make those shattered pieces glow.

A kaleidoscope of healing color

can bring re-birth to our battered soul.

Don’t you see that I am with you?

Can’t you feel that I’m hurting too?

We can’t continue on wounding each other. 

Healing only comes when 

you see me and I see you.

Tangled in Hurt

Sometimes feelings come to me in images – images that I can draw or paint to express emotions that I cannot yet find words for. Through art I can bring emotions out from the depths inside of me and shine a light on them in whatever I have created. It is often in the midst of the process of drawing that the words slowly reveal themselves to me. It feels like my pencil becomes this tiny release valve that slowly lets my feelings escape with each stroke across the page.

I sketched this piece a few years ago while intensively engaged in therapeutic healing work. I remember what I was expressing. I remember feeling incredibly overwhelmed with all of the ways that my past abuse was impacting my current life. I remember feeling how painful that part of my healing process was – like trying to rip out the damaged parts of myself in a frantic fury. I remember pushing myself so hard towards healing that the healing process itself felt as though it was hurting me. It felt like the harder I fought to release myself from the tangled web of confusion, pain, and shame of my past, the tighter its growing grip entrapped me.

During this week I have felt a deep struggle rising up inside of me, stirring and awakening the hurt. This struggle has not yet inspired me to draw or to write. Instead it has urged me to dig up this drawing and just sit and look into it. Each day this week I find myself looking at this drawing, connecting more and more to it. It’s a different connection than how it felt several years ago, and yet it feels just as heavy. I feel myself looking into this drawing for direction. Maybe if I stare at it long enough I will find the answers I need to free myself. Maybe looking deeply into this piece will help me to shine a light on the parts of me that still beg for healing.

Simple Precious Moments

The concept of resourcing is very familiar to trauma survivors engaged in therapy. Resourcing is the means of finding and creating a state of relaxation in a hyper aroused nervous system. It is a calming communication with the brain. Resourcing draws one’s mind and body away from past dangers and into the safety of a memory, place, or person that elicits a calming response in the nervous system. As trauma survivors our brains were trained to be on guard in a hypervigilant state of self protection. To a survivor, relaxation itself can feel threatening. Resourcing becomes a challenging skill that requires attention and practice.

For me, resourcing has always involved my children. Holding and cuddling with them in the corner of our sectional couch is where I currently feel my most calm, relaxed, peaceful state. It is where my nervous system can take a necessary break – like coming up for fresh air after holding my breath under water.

I find myself looking towards and leaning on my children for healing comfort quite often. It is amazing to think about how much these two precious beings that depend and rely on me for comfort, safety, and care can also satisfy those exact needs in me.

I find myself, in the midst of the tumultuous feelings of uncertainty and worry that this pandemic has thrown into our daily lives, focusing and resourcing more on the simple moments of joy that my children offer. They have recently been enjoying our new tree swing that my husband built for them. As I sit and watch them play from our kitchen window I notice my breathing slow down and a sense of calm wash over me, allowing me to soak in these simple precious moments with each breath I take in.

Finding Answers Within

I wish to be able to speak the unspeakable words that exist inside of me while also feeling and navigating my way through them. I wish to stop getting stuck in the parts of me that feel too vile for daylight – that parts that make me feel broken – the parts that when even partially spoken make it hard to look you in the eye. I wish that current struggles wouldn’t connect themselves to old hurts, attaching new experiences to past suffering and creating a tangled web of confusion and pain. It makes me feel everything all at once, and it is too much for me to sift and sort through and speak through at the same time. It is too heavy for me to do anything except to curl up in a ball inside myself and protect what is left of me.

I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to feel broken. I want to rip all of these parts out of me and shine light on them. I want to heal the wounds that exist deep inside of me, but I don’t even know what it is that is so broken. Where are the wounded pieces that need my attention? What do they need from me? Is it possible to reach a place where my past and present experiences can become fused together in a healthy way to allow me to move forward without this anchor of hurt that has been a part of me?

It seems the child inside of me may hold the key to finding these answers. At times, I can feel her creep out of hiding to speak to me – sometimes in whispers and other times in screams. She guides me with signals that beg my attention – a deep sinking feeling in my stomach around the safety of my children – an entire fired up nervous system response to a gentle touch on my back from my husband. It is in these moments that she speaks to me, offering me clues for where I need healing attention. So I get curious. I try to seek her out to better understand her messages. I wish to learn from her so that she and I can heal together. Yet, often times when I try to reach out and connect with her I feel her recoil and disappear back into hiding where she cannot be reached. I often wonder where she goes when I can’t find answers. Where does she hide when my connection to her feels lost? I need to somehow convince her that I cannot do this work without her. I need her to trust that I am here with her and for her. I need her help so we both can heal.

Shelter In Place

“Shelter In Place” – pastel drawing

Art Reflection

We are all too familiar with the term “shelter in place” as we have separated from our communities to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I have found another connection to this term as I continue to navigate my personal healing through this time.

I have moments of true connection to my inner child where I can feel her messages and am learning to understand her more fully in order for us both to heal. I have also noticed moments of complete disconnection, where I cannot reach or access her at all. This frustrates me, as it leaves me searching with questions unanswered. It feels like she is running away, avoiding and hiding from me. Yet as I sit with this idea I can’t help but wonder that maybe there is more to it.

Perhaps my inner child’s retreat is less about pushing me away and more about holding herself safely together. Just as we all are currently learning, perhaps instead of resisting her need to shelter in place I need to find a way to safely support her from afar.