When Healing Words Cause Pain

How do we show up for someone in a way that provides genuine support? How do we speak to someone who is hurting to provide reassurance that they are not alone? Our careful attention to the words selected in these moments can often directly impact the efficacy of our desired intervention. If we wish to wrap a blanket of support around another person then it is important to tune into the difference between what feels comforting and what feels distressing to that person. It requires us to listen to the needs of another. It requires us to recognize that what one person may find supportive could be received in an entirely different way by someone else. But what happens when the carefully chosen words themselves carry their own conflicting messages? How is a person supposed to absorb a well intended message that immediately attaches itself to a tangled mess of ambivalent feelings?

Early in my healing journey, with the guidance of my therapist, I was directed to various books to help me understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse. The words in these books allowed my adult brain to make connections and gain an understanding of what really happened when I was young. These lessons helped to rewire the faulty messages that were imposed upon my traumatized adolescent brain. Gaining an understanding of the stages of abuse, the behaviors of pedophiles, and the lasting and numerous impacts of these experiences allowed my brain to slowly begin to erase the message that what happened to me was entirely my fault and my choice and replace it with the acceptance of the term sexual abuse to describe my experiences. This process took quite some time, but making these connections and repairs in my adult brain provided me with the necessary foundation to begin to dig deeper into my healing work.

A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I began to connect with other survivors. The validating support that comes from the collective “me too” of trauma survivors is an immensely helpful component of healing. I first experienced this in a group therapy setting for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There I sat in a room with women who carried vastly different stories and experiences of abuse, and yet a common thread emerged again and again as we shared the impact of our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter how old we were when our abuse took place, the role our abuser held in our lives, or even how many instances of abuse we remembered. The heavy weight of lasting internal impacts and distorted views about ourselves and the world around us became common ground within this room of strangers. The more I allowed myself to share about what I could only describe as my own unique brand of crazy going on inside of me, the more I felt this comforting validation and reciprocation through healing connection. This experience reinforced the message that my adult brain was learning to accept. I am not alone.

Recently I have directed my healing to focus on working to build a connection with my internal wounded parts. I have come to understand that no matter how much my adult brain can rationally understand the dynamics of abuse, my inner child holds memories attached to feelings that impact the way I still function today. I cannot reason my way around these default responses no matter how hard I try. It requires a deeper understanding and connection. Through this work I am beginning to feel how my adult brain can receive and process messages differently from these internal parts. The same messages that have helped my adult self make healing progress are not received the same way by my wounded inner child. When my adult self hears that my fears, feelings, and experiences are common in survivors of abuse and I can lean on the words of survivors or experts printed in books to reinforce the concept that I am not alone, I am filled with the validation and hope that there is a way through and out of my pain. It makes me want to dig in and follow the research to guide me forward towards healing. But a strange thing happens when my inner child hears the same messages. She latches onto words like “common”, “typical”, and “expected” and instead of feeling validated and empowered she feels diminished. It feels like she is being told that her wounds are common and expected. It feels to her that all of the painful and specific details that she relives over and over inside do not matter. Instead she feels that she is being told to go stand in line and follow the provided script with all of the other injured kids who are just like her. Her experiences matter no more than the sea of faces she’s been lumped in with. Those words do not help her. To her those words feel dismissive and minimizing, and they connect directly to the messages that kept her silently suffering in the past. Instead she needs words that scoop her up out of the murky darkness, dust her off, and wrap her in comfort and security while looking deeply into her eyes and showing her that she is seen and heard and that all of her unique experiences matter.

How do I give this wounded child within all that she needs? How can I extract the messages necessary for my adult self to continue healing while also tending to the child parts that seem to require something entirely different? How can I decide which part of me is supposed to absorb each message that I receive to ensure that they provide help instead of harm?

The Grip of Betrayal

Acrylic painting – expression of a sexually abused teen – by Sara

They filled your mind with promises
An array of enticing colors
Leading you up a perilous climb
Achieving their desired seclusion

They lined your path with shackles
Disguised as your own choices
Led to a room with no exits, teetering
On a place demanding submission

Close enough to rescue that its light
Shines like a beacon upon you
Yet others cannot see what they do not wish to see
Leaving you doused in invisibility

They handed you poison dressed up as a toy
An undetectable trap
It feels heavy in your arms
Yet you dismiss its discomfort
Just as you were instructed

You were chosen
You were special
You stood out to them in some way

You hold their secrets
Quiet and steady
Not letting them see
How it makes you tremble

You were never meant to understand
The position they put you in
Blind obedience is the
Tower they constructed
In the labyrinth you now reside

This weight placed upon you
Was never your choice
Its ensnaring complexity
Contrived specifically for you
To lure you in and then slowly break
You into scattered pieces

I see your pain tucked in deep beneath your
Outward strength and courage
Far from their grip you stand frozen in time
Afraid to step down and see
The sight of your suffering
Might carry its own weight somehow worse than living in it

How can you know that it is safer below
Than the misery you are wrapped in
How can I ask more from you
Than what you have already given

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?”

Questions

pencil drawing – by Sara

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

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

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

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

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

Lighthouse

Your inviting light draws me in
My companion in the stormy darkness
You offer a passage to dull the ache
That simmers deep inside

I enter your embrace
Dismissive of its cost
Longing for sweet relief
A retreat within
To a place with no name
Draping me in your warm
Cloak of familiarity

Here the noise quiets
If only for a moment
Allowing breath to return
Foolishly refreshed
And unknowingly branded
This place feels like home
A home I must run from

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 Lion’s Den

She enters, inching her way forward into the darkness, unsure of what she will encounter. She is here fueled with purpose and armed with selflessness. Routinely she will remind herself of this in an effort to remain focused on her mission, knowing that any deviation may lead her into the grip of what she fears most.

One small step at a time she creeps, grasping tightly onto the cloak she is draped in. This cloak offers her protection – her armor – her shield. It conceals all of the parts that exist inside of her, providing shelter and safety from the elements that exist here.

She feels these parts shiver as she ventures deeper into this place. Each step awakens a different part, sending small electrical impulses creeping, jolting, and flashing their way through her.

She wishes to peek beneath the cloak to settle all of these disrupted parts. Yet she fears that unbuttoning her shield will expose them to unimaginable harm. They must be protected, and this place is not safe for them to emerge.

Instead she holds tightly onto her cloak, wrapping it fully around herself, hoping that the parts underneath can also feel this firm embrace. Gripping, squeezing, and inching along she continues – one tiny step at a time. This is her responsibility. This is what she needs. All she can do is hold herself tightly together until she exits the lion’s den.

When Cancer Meets the Mother Wound

This feels messy in a way that I’m not certain I can describe. It feels like a tangled ball of barbed wire deep inside my chest. To untangle it from within me will be impossible without indescribable pain, but to leave it there means allowing it to grow and further ensnare me.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer last week. Simply typing that sentence halted my thought process and led me to read it over to myself several times.

My mom has cancer.

The complicated relationship I experience with my mom makes this news carry a polluted burden of feelings. I am scared. I’m scared for the battle that my mom faces. I am scared of the uncertain future that this presents for her. I am scared to lose my mom. I feel powerless. I don’t know what this beast of a disease has planned for her. I am desperately trying to figure out how to help while living far away from her in the midst of a pandemic. I feel a pull to be there to help in any way I can – to be a source of physical and emotional support – to simply be there with her and for her. Yet the obstacles before me are making a difficult situation exponentially more complicated.

The rest of the tangled feelings inside of me represent, among other things, a mix of anger, guilt, hurt, and shame – the complex result of a deep mother wound that exists in my heart. I know those feelings are there because I have felt them with each interaction I’ve had with my mom throughout my life. Yet at this moment I cannot access those feelings. The fear, uncertainty, and concern over this diagnosis and the complex surgery that is fast approaching is all that I can feel. And right now it’s all I want to feel. Untangling the barbed wire will have to wait. Right now I need to help my mom.

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.