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Archive for the ‘childhood abuse’ Category

Then my world exploded.  Kristen shared a terrible secret that she’d been baring the weight of alone for far too long.  When she was a child, a family member had sexually and emotionally abused her repeatedly over a period of years.

As a therapist who had witnessed the unfathomable devastation of child abuse far too many times, I’d been determined to keep my child safe.  I’d carefully screened the few people who had access to her when she wasn’t in my presence, we had completed the coloring book that described red light/green light touches when she was four, and had read and discussed a children’s book developed to provide children with tools that would serve to protect them from sexual abuse.  We rehearsed what she should do if someone touched her inappropriately or frightened her, and had talked about the importance of never keeping secrets that made her feel “yucky.”

And now I knew throughout my body and soul what I had only known intellectually – no child is ever truly safe.  I had failed to protect my innocent little girl.  In fact, we had welcomed the devil into our family.  And now I was careening into a terrible darkness, on fire with rage, repeatedly tortured by images of my precious child’s abuse, and brutalized by the utterly overwhelming twins of grief and guilt.

In November of 2012 my mother died at 4:20 on a Sunday morning.  The two days preceding her death had been excruciating, and I am thankful that I was stroking her face and singing her a love song when she finally sighed deeply and slipped away.

My heart was far too full of grief, love and regret to make room for my brain to fully absorb her death at first.  In fact, I’m still in the process of coming to terms with the painful truth that she is never, ever coming back to me.  And although I was no stranger to the heaviness of loss and grief, for days following her death I was struck almost mute by the weight of a heart that was so swollen and bruised, I was absolutely exhausted from carrying it around.

In Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis points out that the word for grief originates from the latin term, “gravis,” which translates as “to bear,” and observes, “To experience grief is not only to bear the heaviness of the condition but, again, to testify to its depth as well.”  The gravity of my grief lead me down into the depths of both my longing and my love.  One moment I was strong.  I was the comforter and the matriarch.  And the next, I was weeping without warning — a motherless child, a guilt stricken mother, a woman underwater clamoring for breath.

Three months after losing my mother, I unexpectedly lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…

I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning lightly against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and sweet pixie face, my eight year old self quickly concluded that here standing right before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!

At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend.  I’m not sure when she became my sister and a vital part of me, but she did.

Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic.  As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the death of his twin. Her only consolation was that she had been with him when he heaved his last breath.  Next, not long after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he perished from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years (and my first love) went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone while battling the fierceness of anxiety and depression.

This past February as the abominable storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had been admitted into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.

The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages was and is completely incomprehensible to me, and the urge to bellow up at the heavens, “why!! why!!!!  Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sat wound tightly in my chest for weeks, threatening to explode and scatter shards of my shattered self everywhere. In fact, the urge rises up even now from the center of my chest as I write these words and something terrible and dense comes to occupy the space around my lungs and heart.

For the last three springs of her life I had  told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and yet had found myself apologizing each autumn when my plans to visit fell through.  I believed that we’d have many more summers, plenty of time.

She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she understood that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting and available to me when I was ready to talk. She emailed me before Christmas and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her, promising that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact.  I ache still with the knowledge that there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, and no more summer adventures to plan.  I have lost my soul sister, and along with her I have lost a piece of myself.  I love and long for her fiercely now.

I’m unspeakably grateful for my years as a therapist, and for the fifteen years that I spent researching trauma and transformation in earnest before my own life spiraled so out of control.  I can’t imagine how I would have possibly moved through the pain, fear, and chaos that has occupied so much of my life during these past few years without having witnessed time and time again the tremendous strength and resilience of my clients, and the stubborn albeit shaky faith that I would be able to emerge deepened and refined by the excruciating yoga of despair that I’d gotten lost in.

And now at 12:01 on Wednesday, January the first, 2014, I am thinking about two questions Dawna Markova posed in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life and that I have asked myself repeatedly during these past three years, “what if the moments of the greatest wounding in your life were also places where the divine crossed your path, and the unquenchable dream of your life was born?…what do you love that is bigger than this wound?”   While my answer to the second question has remained steadfast, it is only recently that I have been able to fully recognize where the divine had indeed penetrated my  darkness.  I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are surrounded by new life even in the midst of death, and that poet, Mark Neppo spoke the truth when he pointed out that “each cocoon must break so the next butterfly can be.  And it is our curse and blessing to die and be born so many times.  So many sheddings.  So many wings.”

When sunlight greets this first day of the New Year, I will welcome it with a heart that now holds as much gratitude as it does pain, and with a life that contains a love that is far greater than its wounds.

 

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The following is a poem by wise and compassionate poet, counselor, and retired Episcopal priest, Alla Renee Bozrath that I first discovered in the book, “Life Prayers: 365 Prayers, Blessings and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey” edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon. If you are a seeker, a griever, or are struggling in any way right now, I encourage you to explore her wonderful work.

“Don’t look back,
battered child,
Time then hurt you,
Let time heal you.
Don’t look back.

Don’t look back,
beaten child.
They knew not what
they did except what
was done unto them.
Don’t look back.

Don’t look back,
abandoned child,
abused, neglected child.
Denial is salt in your wounds.
Dwelling in repeating
the deliberate disappearance
of your soul.
Don’t perpetuate this harm.

Break the cycle,
wait –
stop it here.

Speak out the paralyzing secret
and begin to come back to yourself.
Cry it out to compassionate ears
and be held in the hearts of your witnesses.

The truth shall make you free
but first it will shatter you.
What was broken can be mended,
what was lost, restored.
Find yourself, then,
pure and whole, a child of God.
Look back long enough to let go.”
Alla Renee Bozarth

Look Back
Long Enough
and then
Let Go…..

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Recently I was appreciating the photographs of a woman whom I admire tremendously – pictures of her garden, the ocean, a number of stunning landscapes, an osprey nest, and an eagle in flight. As a child she was the victim of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, tortured by the kind of cruelty and ugliness that can break hearts and shatter souls. And yet, as an adult she has spent a great deal of time both capturing and creating beauty. I was reminded as she shared her photography with me of psychologist, Rollo May, one of the founders of the humanistic psychology movement.

As a young man May fell victim to a debilitating depression. Many years later, when asked by writer and film maker, Phil Cousineau, what had saved him during that dark and painful time, Rollo replied, “beauty.”

In his book, “My Quest for Beauty” May wrote of wandering aimlessly in the hills of Greece where one day he stumbled into a field of wild poppies and had the following epiphany, “It seemed that I had not listened to my inner voice, which had tried to talk to me about beauty. I had been too hard-working, too ‘principled’ to spend time merely looking at flowers . . . it had taken a collapse of my whole former way of life for this voice to make itself heard. . . What is beauty? . . . Beauty is the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one’s sense of being alive.”

I am thinking about my remarkable photographer friend and about Rollo May when I visit the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. After a long and difficult week, I lie down beside the waterfall in the rhododendron garden among the ferns, hostas, bees, and beautiful blossoms. I welcome the beauty, allow myself to become intoxicated by it, lost in it. George Washington Carver wrote, “If you love it enough, anything will talk with you.” And so I send my love out into the garden. I listen. It begins to speak…

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In “M is for Magic” Neil Gaiman wrote, “Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.”

The only book other than “Dick and Jane” that I recall was used to teach my seven year old self how to read was a book that I remember as, “The Paradise Lost” book. It was a Jehovah Witness text written for children as an introduction to the religion. It contained Bible stories and pictures along with Jehovah Witness teachings. I learned a great deal from that book.

There was one particular story between its pretty orange cover that has lived inside of me for a life time. It was the story of Armageddon, the story of how my fragile little world would end – of how my mom dad, sister, and probably all of my toys would be destroyed in the terrible chaos of an angry God. The God who I was told to love, and taught to fear. I learned my lesson well. I feared him every single day and night of my painful childhood. Each and every one of them.

There was a picture in that book depicting Armageddon. I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye. I used to dream regularly about the woman in that picture. Surrounded by children in Mrs. Nichol’s second grade classroom, I barely paid attention. I was too busy thinking about the dream I’d had the night before about the beautiful lady with long curly hair who looked up with wide terrified eyes, her arms raised defensively over her head, and her mouth open wide in a frozen scream as the debris of a collapsing building headed straight for her. That picture fueled a little girl’s nightmares, causing her to lie awake at night clinging desperately to her big brown teddy bear, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and trying with all of her might to not go to sleep.

The night the twin towers fell in New York city, approximately forty years after that first bad dream, I woke up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, and throat aching. The little girl’s helplessness and terror sprang immediately back to life inside of me. Only now, the little girl was lost, and I was the woman with the long curly hair quaking in fear.

We need to pay close attention to the stories our children are being told. Are they stories of hope and love and kindness and beauty? When you’re watching the news, are your children watching too? Are they being bombarded with images of war, and death and destruction? Are they hearing stories of mother’s murdering their own children? Or of a world hurling head long towards ecological disaster and financial collapse? Are they being seduced into believing that their happiness and self worth depends upon the newest toys, technology, and designer clothes? Pay attention now, because they will carry the stories they learn today forward forty years from now, and those stories will either strengthen and sustain them or haunt them….

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“Some things that happen to you never stop happening to you…”
Author Unknown

Each of us who has endured prolonged childhood suffering leaves behind our own unique trail of tears. Some of us still have nightmares. Others no longer remember; we simply experience a sense of emptiness and a vague and disturbing suspicion that something was, and perhaps still is, terribly wrong. Although our symptoms and behaviors vary, we are each aware at some level that we have been deeply wounded. For most of us, there’s a secret shame imbedded in this knowledge. In spite of the fact that we intellectually understand that we were innocent and vulnerable children when the deepest wounds were inflicted, there remains a part of us that perceives ourselves as failing. All too often it becomes ourselves whom we cannot trust.

The child who blamed him or herself for the abuse becomes the self-condemning adult. The losses and betrayals he or she endured become promises that more hurt will be forthcoming. The child who was powerless grows into a frightened and defensive adult. The little girl whose body was abused remains disconnected from her grown up body. The anger of the small boy lives on in the man who lets no-one close enough to harm (or heal) him. Another compensates for his or her shame by devoting a life time to achievement, but the struggle never ends. There are no victories great enough to annihalate the inadequacy and self-doubt. The child who acts out his or her pain in destructive ways might continue the pattern into adulthood, unconsciously creating situations that inspire the very misery he or she so desperatley sought to escape. These sad cycles can go on and on. And they can be broken.

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