Tells us about our losses, both big and small.
The Grief Process is our built-in ability to both “make sense” of loss, and to move past it to a personal resolution, whatever that might be. It might be a movement from resentment to forgiveness, from weakness to strength, from injury to wholeness. It always leads us to become more than we were.
Grief is an emotional, physical, and spiritual reaction to a major loss. Grief may be triggered by the death of a loved one, or an illness for which there is no cure, or a chronic condition that affects our quality of life. The end of a significant relationship may also cause a grieving process.
Everyone feels grief in their own way. However, there are some commonalities that our personal grief processes share. The process starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss. The Grief Process seems to be made up of of five stages. These stages might not occur in a specific order, and can (at times) occur together. Everyone may not experiences all of these emotions:
- Denial, disbelief, numbness
- Anger, blaming others
- Bargaining (for instance “If I am cured of this cancer, I will never smoke again.”)
- Depressed mood, sadness, and crying
- Acceptance, coming to terms
Since grief is not just one thing, it is important to give “voice” to each facet, but not to allow only one part of it to dominate entirely. We cannot allow feeling to so dominate us that we lose our ability for “doing”. Nor can we allow “doing” to so dominate us that we cannot feel. We are seeking balance, a new balace. A good example is when we are both sad and angry about a particular loss. If we are entirely stuck in only sadness, we do not have the energy necessary for daily tasks, and if we get stuck solely in our anger, we lose our empathy and approachability. I give “permission” to each of my parts to express all that I am feeling, and make conscious decisions to pull out of anything I seem to be getting stuck in. As the hours, days, and weeks go by, I seem to revisit all my feelings many times, until I find at some point, that it has all subsided on its own, and I am better for it.
We seem to have a sort of “schizophrenic” relationship with the Grief Process in our society. On one hand we do acknowledge that we must move through the pain to get to the other side. If a loved one dies, or a relationship ends, advice is given that we should “take time to grieve” so that “old doors can close, and new ones can open”. On the other hand, we look at people grieving as somehow maybe “not spiritual enough”, or we might make judgments about the speed with which they progress through their grief, or the kind of grief (sadness might be OK but anger or rage, oh no!). Or – (and this is probably the most common), we look at a grieving person as needing to be “fixed”. Worse, we might give them pills that interfere with their grief. Granted, they no longer feel the full import of their pain, but they most likely will never properly process the event or events that caused that pain. They are separated from their pain, but become separated from their Truest Selves. People drink to keep their pain at bay. Churches tell us we will be “rewarded” in the next life, that suffering in this life is unimportant! In one way or another, other people often get in the way of our feeling and expressing our grief, and our efforts to find meaning in our suffering, in order to move forward. Perhaps they do this because it reminds them of their own grief, which was never “allowed” – and they may have been avoiding their own at all cost, for a very long time. It’s a shame that we see the Grief Process as an indication of “broken-ness” rather than a pathway to the future. It is our process of “Becoming”. It is our Healing Process. It is a part of us.
Recently I was betrayed by my partner, and our fourteen year relationship ended. I experienced this very real loss differently than I ever did before. I gave myself fully – and I mean fully – to my own grief process. I had time, safety, seclusion when needed, support when needed, and an understanding of my own workings that allowed me mostly to not be afraid of the very powerful forces freely flowing in me. I knew that all feelings come and go. I knew that they are the language of a very deep part of myself, and that they tell a story about my loss that can’t easily be put into words, and when listened to give wisdom that no words could ever really convey as clearly. They bring many things to light that were in the darkness, and often help to not only resolve the present injury, but if we’re open to it, past injuries as well. When we fully give ourselves to our Grief, we are fully connected to ourselves and More, in a way that we often do not experience during everyday life. It is a Sacred time.
I learned many things through my grief, over the years. As I said before, often things about the past come up as well as those losses in the present that we are grieving. I have dealt with my mother’s violence and her inability to connect or have empathy for her own son. I noticed that I felt shame, because a lot of other families didn’t have anything like what I experienced. I could see the looks of shock on their faces, when I told others what I had experienced. I felt shame, instead of “giving” that to my mother. That shame was not mine. Shame is about “defectiveness” rather than about making a mistake. I have also learned that PTSD “symptoms” that came from my mother’s abuse are a number of NORMAL REACTIONS to an abnormal event or events, and I have learned to embrace my “different-ness” (the PTSD “symptoms”) to a degree. But telling someone else about them left me feeling shame, and I had to work through that.
This time, I found myself feeling shame about my partner’s very dysfunctional break from our relationship, when I saw those same looks on other people’s faces, as I told them the story of her leaving. I had to struggle to “give” that shame to her, it was her behavior, not mine . We were two individuals responsible for our own behaviors. Relationship breakups aren’t always “caused” by both partners. It only takes one person to do something wrong or hurtful.
During my most recent period of grief about losing a fourteen year relationship, and all the hopes and dreams about growing old together, (even though most of it was in private), I noticed that nearly everyone could not tolerate my process, judged me for it, judged the process itself, or kept responding to me as if I was broken. I knew I was not “broken”. There were some exceptions but they were few and far between. I refused, this time, to be ashamed of my Process.
I gave myself to my Grief. I allowed it as much as I could, and I allowed it to carry me where it would, as fast or slow as it would, however it would. The thing is, though, it isn’t an IT! When I grieve, I feel sadness, and anger, and fear, right from the center of my being, a part of me that is wild and unrestrained, and absolutely honest. This “kid” part of me feels what he feels. Period. No “ifs” “ands” or “buts”. This is a part of us that we keep a stranglehold on for most of our lives. You can’t act “this way or that”. You can’t think “this way or that”. You can’t FEEL “this way or that”. This part of us is attacked by the world over and over, and we try to “civilize” this part of ourselves, rather than find an outlet for this dynamic creative, enthusiastic, passionate part of ourselves. We don’t even notice that we do this to ourselves, because others did this to us, and taught us to do it to ourselves! Most of the time, we live with only a very small percentage of this passion and energy. We wonder why there is so much depression in our society. I tell you, that it comes from binding this wild part of ourselves, this part of ourselves that exists to help us attain our destiny, if such a thing exists, and our highest happiness!
When we “surrender” to our Grief, we really are surrendering to this part of ourselves that is meant to “lead the charge” in Life! Doors to the Old close. Doors to the New open. This part of us leads us from the old into the new! This part of ourselves finds meaning and strength of character in old wounds, and moves us mysteriously forward into the creative unknown. The process is messy, nonlinear, emotional, intuitive, patient, but also sometimes in some of us, more like a tidal wave, than a gentle current. It is as different in one person as in another because it is not a thing. Our grief process is the power of our soul or spirit moving us out of the past, and into the future. Why would we want to hamper this?
A couple of years ago, I was at my son’s wedding. My son has some wonderful friends. One in particular I watched as she danced. I like her because she is very authentic and honest. Many of my son’s friends have those same qualities. I was watching this lady spin and kick and sway with both incredible precision but also with complete abandon. The look on her face is what I have revisited many times in my memory. Pure unadulterated, uncontained, unbridled breathless Joy. How many of us as adults ever feel that? Or notice it in others? Later, she came over to my table. We talked a little about the wedding. I could feel that we were both very “present”. I especially like that, when two people can sit and talk without any hurry or pretense. Then the “kid in me” knows it is safe, and can come to the forefront in me. I asked her if she had ever been to Mardi Gras, probably because of the festive nature of this occasion. She hadn’t, and I remember saying that I would have loved to have gone, back in “my crazy days” because back then I could still “misbehave”. As I told her this, I felt very child-like, and snapped my fingers in an “aw shucks!” kind of kid-like gesture. She smiled and said “You know, it’s OK to “misbehave here”! I have revisited that statement many times as well. I could feel its import when she said it. It was about “allowing” our “wildness”. It was about letting go.
Dancing doesn’t “make sense”. It just is. Music doesn’t “make sense”. It just is. By giving ourselves over to music or dance or any other creative process, we are both transported and enriched. By giving ourselves to “what is” we find all manner of wonderful things. By giving ourselves over to our Grief Process, when that is “what is”, we become more, not less, and find ourselves better equipped to move forward in our lives, discovering new possibilities, new doors that are open to us, as those old doors close on our past. We charge forward on that unbridled Wild Stallion that we find there, towards the future that awaits us.
© 2011 Ken Scully
All Rights Reserved
He sat leaning against the telephone pole, stroking his dog Happy, while he sobbed. It was a late March afternoon, grey sky, the grass not quite green, the ground still cool and damp on his bottom. His most prized possession, a small blue plastic 9 volt transistor radio, lay discarded beside him. He had been holding it near the grounding cable of the pole, attempting to hear stations usually too faint to hear at all without the added antenna boost of the cable. It was his connection to the outside world. Maybe he hoped to find solutions in those faint, static filled AM stations. Maybe he hoped that magically he could be transported, somehow, to where those faint stations were. Anywhere would be better than where he lived, and the people he lived with. He stroked Happy as he cried; telling his best friend how no one loved him. It wasn’t the kind of crying we might do later as young teenagers. It certainly wasn’t the kind of weak ineffective stifled crying we might give in to as adults, (if we ever do at all). It also wasn’t the childishly dishonest crying declaration that a young child might make when they feel slighted, because his observation about his family was firmly grounded in the truth.
Some folks are not capable of Love, or honesty. Love must contain empathy. They might say they love, but love is never real unless demonstrated consistently. Love confessed must never be polluted by demonstrations that undo that “love”, like cruelty, contempt, dishonesty, narcissism, or violence, (all of which he had experienced during his short 10 years of life).
He felt he could not go on, the despair he carried far too large for a little boy. His chest heaved uncontrollably. His heart and throat burned, as he cried, spasms rising from his belly, into his chest, forcing his cry from his throat, while tears flowed freely down the side of his face. There was no terror now, although it had been his companion earlier. Now, despair and sadness so large that they threatened his tender nature was what his heaving chest and tears confided to the soft heart of his four legged friend, and attempted to expel. His friend and protector never flinched, or turned away, accepting the sobs and tears, all part of the many emotional storms lately. Happy accepted unconditionally, because that was his nature, and in this instance, his purpose. He nudged closer, kissing his charge on the side of the face with his large wet tongue. Then the little boy let loose even greater sobs, unloading the rest of the poison that had just been put into him.
I had a wonderful Christmas holiday. My son, Shawn and his girlfriend Rebecca visited from California, where Shawn goes to Stanford University. Actually they had visited for part of the week before Christmas, and had to leave right before the actual holiday. I couldn’t shut up the whole time they were here! I found myself more enthusiastic and boisterous than usual. I couldn’t seem to contain myself! My son played the guitar and sang one evening, and I was moved by how unbelievably good he was! It had been years since he had last played for me. Rebecca is an opera singer. That same night she brought us all to tears, so beautiful was her rendition of “Oh Holy Night”! I have never heard a voice like that! We all talked about “real” things, you know, those things that we care deeply about, are deeply moved by, etc. We allowed space and safety (lack of any judgment), so each of us could be fully authentic, playful, and open. It was wonderful! Continue reading
I am not always like this, of course. However, in the course of my life, I continue to cycle in and out of my issues to gain mastery over them.
I try so hard to be good. I try so hard, that sometimes, it consumes me. I allow myself no wiggle room, no permission to just be human. Sometimes, I try to anticipate my wife’s bad moods, watching what I say and do, and how I say and do. Maybe I do her thinking for her, so that she doesn’t have those moods, or I might help her do her thinking to get her out of those moods. Sometimes if someone is angry, or going to be angry at me, I do everything in my power to keep that from happening. I am rewarded for this, by others seeing me as “strong” or “together”. I am smart. I am kind. I am respectful. I am attentive. I am empathic, and I am dead tired. Sometimes I am so busy doing all this, and being responsible for everyone else, and everything else, that there is no room for me, inside me. I know why I do this.
In 1955, when I was 4 ½ years old or so, I followed Chuck Hexter and a bunch of neighborhood kids down Circle Drive, in our little town of Trooper. We ended up playing in the open basement of a house that was being built. Now I realize that, but at the time I was too little to understand. After an hour or so, when they decided to leave, Chuck’s older brother told me I had to stay there or he would beat me up. Now, a 4 ½ year old kid takes something like that seriously! Even after they were long gone, I stayed there. I was terrified! I thought I was going to die there, all alone, that no one would ever find me. I distinctly remember that being my fear.
Eventually, my mother came looking for me, and “beat the crap” out of me as soon as she found me. I could make a hundred excuses for her – she was scared because she hadn’t known where I was, or she was scared that she could be in trouble, or be seen as a bad mother, or any number of other excuses. But the fact remains that at that moment she remained focused on herself, and had no empathy for a 4 year old child’s distress! She put responsibility on me, not herself! She should never have allowed me to be in that situation. Her responsibility was to keep an eye on me, not allow me to wander off with older children for hours at a time! That was her responsibility! This is the earliest memory I have of her beating me. There would be hundreds, if not thousands of more times that her beatings would occur, their force, her rage, my fear, her contempt, and her lack of taking responsibility growing each time.
At 4 years old, I was a needy, gentle, naive, deeply feeling, intuitive, impulsive child “ just the way I was meant to be. I looked to others for their definition of me. Let me say that again: I looked to others for their definition of me. I looked to others for their definition of me, their acknowledgement, love, attention, and reasoning. I looked to others to show me how to fit in, how to express my thoughts and my feelings, to learn what was right and what was wrong. I trusted that what my mother told me was true, and that how she acted was right. There was no argument about that in my little 4 year old mind. I would have to try harder to be good.
My mother’s violence towards me, taught me that I was worthless and defective. Her demeaning words of contempt would eventually solidify my view of myself.
A child has no grasp on their own impulsiveness. They are a cauldron of churning, boiling feelings. Their impulses are fueled by those feelings. How ferociously this cauldron boils is dependent upon their experiences. When they are met constantly with craziness and terror; when their caregivers are dishonest, violent, and impulsive themselves, the “cauldron” often boils over. They are seen as “bad”, defective, or worse, by adults who themselves do not understand either their own or a child’s impulsiveness. They do not understand that children operate by impulse, those impulses fueled by feelings that the children have because of how they are treated and seen by these very adults! How is a child to untangle themselves from such a “catch 22″ situation? They cannot. Often they never will, even as they get older. They mature in years, seeing themselves as these adults have seen them, never understanding the nature of their impulsiveness, seeing themselves as “bad”, defective or worse. Escalation is an integral part of this mechanism. As the adults continue to see these children acting on their impulses, their misguided view of the children is solidified. Their reactions and judgment continue in themselves, and reactions in their children continue to escalate. Often other more favored children are brought into this drama, seeing their brother or sister as the parent sees them. The child singled out for this drama, is completely alone, “knows” that they are different from everyone else, because they see every member of their family treating them that way. Isolated from those who see the child this way, the child is left to their own devices in dealing with the violence and craziness, and more importantly, the feelings they are left with because of it.
All through my childhood, I could never seem to do anything right. Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt growing up with this. I remember feeling listlessness, loneliness, and a tightness in my chest, that seemed to contain something unknown and hungry, something that needed to be filled or satisfied, but never could be. Rather than soft, gentle, warm, fuzzy, happy, content hopeful feelings, I had internalized the TERROR and DESPAIR of being raised by someone who more often than not was out of control. I never knew what to expect from my mother. Sometimes she was childlike and “nice”, while other times, she was like a wild animal, ready to devour me if I said or did the “wrong” thing. It would have been less crazy, if she had been wild all the time.
Over time, I learned to read her moods, in order to avoid her during her worst times, but my own impulsiveness set me up to do things that got me in trouble anyhow. My language skills grew as I tried to talk myself out of trouble. Nothing I said (or did) made any difference with her. I found better more precise ways of saying things so I wouldn’t be in trouble, all to no avail. I tried so hard to be “good”, but my own impulsiveness would get me in trouble. No matter how hard I tried, it was never good enough. I was never good enough. Nothing I did or said was good enough for her, or later, for me! If only I could just get it right! But always the axe would fall, and I would find myself dealing with an enraged, out of control woman, ready to hurt me. The fact that she could so easily rationalize her own behavior, made her exceedingly dangerous. At any time, she might have killed me. Over and over and over, I was terrified of her, and terrified that she would kill me. Unless you experienced this, you cannot know what it is like. But I am asking you to try.
As a society, we have grown enough to recognize that it is wrong for an enraged husband to beat his wife. “Just a little hitting” is not OK. We even understand the mechanisms in him that allow him to do this. We understand how his abuse affects her. We understand that he is teaching her that he “owns” her, that she is powerless, in fact even defective and worthless! A mother who beats her children because of her own out of control rage teaches these same terrible lessons to her children. She fills their hearts with terror, rather than love, despair rather than hope, worthlessness, rather than integrity and value.
As a society, we must stop making excuses for parents who beat their children. I am tired of all the excuses. The Law looks for marks on the outside, but we must learn to see the marks it causes on the inside! We must stop automatically defending the right of a parent to beat their children by calling it child rearing, or shifting responsibility to the child by seeing them as “difficult” and the parents as blameless. “Just a little hitting” is not OK!
As a society, when we have grown enough to value our children enough to truly protect them, then perhaps, we can turn our attention toward helping so many others, child and adult alike, who have already been injured. That is the one right place to “try so hard”!
Everyday, I hear something on the news that “makes me” mad. Notice the quotation marks around “makes me”. That phrase is in quotes, because it’s something we say in polite conversation, but it’s something that’s totally untrue. Nothing can “make us” feel anything. If something happens to us, one time we might be sad, while another time we might feel angry, depending on what is already going on with us at the time. Our reactions are our own responsibility. We are making decisions to react or not react inside ourselves all the time, even though we may not notice that subtle subconscious landscape. A more honest way of saying the same thing would be: “I feel angry when I hear some things on the news”. That way I “own” my own anger, I am responsible for it, not the news. I use this as an example of how pervasive and un-noticed our dishonesty is. Let me start over –
I often feel angry when I hear dishonest things on the news. I feel angry, when people are being dishonest with me. When people are being dishonest, they are usually attempting to manipulate others, and that is what I get angry about. Manipulation is an attempt to force someone to think, feel, or do something, and I don’t like being forced! They may not even know they are doing it! Folks have a terrible time with honesty. They also have a terrible time avoiding the impulse to manipulate others. Worse than either of those two is the fact that folks often have trouble noticing dishonesty and manipulation. When I watch the news, I see people in power trying to manipulate us, and they succeed handily! Government officials, political pundits, various authorities in religion, education, business, foreign affairs, and economics all push their particular views – or more correctly stated, the views of their organizations. They use faulty logic, lies of omission, and various other techniques, and quote others using the same tactics!
The news is a maelstrom of dishonesty. On every side of every issue, people attempt to manipulate how we think and feel about that issue. Whether the War in Iraq, Global Warming, or the latest mistake made by some politician, people on both sides of every issue tug at our minds and heart-strings in order to get us to “see it their way”. Most of us can sometimes see the manipulation that goes on by “the other side”, but do we see the manipulation that goes on in “our own side” as well.
Advertisers know how easy it is to manipulate us. The more one has been manipulated, the easier it is to be manipulated! Governments know this principle, and use it. Those in power within those governments attempt to make us see things with their particular slant. It allows them to consolidate power, and to do what they want, whether their motives are good or evil. It is a terrible danger to us as a society.
Why are we so easily manipulated? Why do we have such an awful time with honesty? It is because of this rule: The more one has been manipulated, the easier it is to be manipulated! Most us of were introduced to manipulation and dishonesty when we were children! I don’t mean to imply that all parents are “bad”, that all families are “bad”. Many parents are unaware, sometimes, of what they feel, think, or sometimes why they do what they do. What I am trying to say, is that to a certain degree, deep, penetrating, internal self honesty has been lacking in most of our families to one degree or another, and it causes us to become accustomed to manipulation and dishonesty long before we are “out in the world” ready to be influenced by the forces there. We all are still operating in the “trance” that was created in our families. We only see what this “trance” allows us to see, and we react in predictable ways, based on the tenets of our family trance.
For quite a while, many family therapists have been aware of this. In Transactional Analysis, also, therapists have been aware of this dynamic, as well as those therapists who treat addictive disease. We have all heard of the term “denial”, and have heard about how dishonest and manipulative active alcoholics and other addicts can be. Perhaps we have heard that addiction is a “family” disease, that all members are affected. The forces that bind members in a good way can also be forces that bind them in ways that are not so good.
There is a teaching tool that has been used to describe the processes that bind us in families and similar groups, and keep us in a state of denial (keep us dishonest, or unable to recognize dishonesty and manipulation). This teaching tool is called “The Drama Triangle”. The powerful processes of “The Drama Triangle” train us to be victims. I won’t get into The Drama Triangle’s dynamics here in this article, but if you are interested, do a search for it online.
In all families, children fall into roles that provide stability or credibility to the family, and that role then overshadows their “True Selves” (who God wants them to become). A good example of this is when an older brother or sister becomes the pseudo parent of their younger sibling because of some lack in that family. They can become more responsible than a child should be, and lose touch with their own true child needs and desires, because the role that they have to play in the family becomes foremost in how they see themselves, and how they “act”. Now, for the family, and perhaps sometimes for the little sibling, this can be a good thing, but for the one who takes on the role, they become actors in their own lives, completely unaware of that happening to them. They become super responsible, always striving, but completely unaware of their true feelings and intuitions. Granted, it is a good thing to be responsible, but it is a very bad thing for them to be forced unconsciously into that responsibility, because they lose touch with their own innermost feelings, intuitions, and desires, their “True Selves” . Living out the scripted responses of a family role in this unconscious way, is dishonest living, even though the child never chose to be this way. Another good example is the “black sheep” of the family. No matter what that child does, parents and siblings see him or her as defective: stupid, bad, dirty, disgusting, irresponsible, etc. The more they are seen that way, the more they act and see themselves that way, and the more the family continues to see them that way. But it is all a lie, a scripted role created for them by the family! They go on to continue to act out that role in adult life.
I was the “black sheep” in my family. The remaining members of that family still see me that way. So be it. That is a betrayal. I am sad, and I am angry about that. The forces of their drama still control them, and even though they describe me in all sorts of negative, contemptuous ways, I see me differently! Those who truly love me, see me the way I truly am! Although sometimes, I have very strong feelings about the poor treatment I received as a child, and how I am seen by estranged family members now, I am blessed. I am blessed not because of the abuse that I suffered as a child – that was most definitely not God’s Will for that to happen to me or any other child, but because He provided everything I needed in order to start unraveling the extraordinary dishonesty that was put inside me, and has allowed me to see how these fascinating and powerful forces work. I have spent many years of my adult life (in my 30’s and 40’s) in therapy, with some of the most genuine, loving, intuitive folks, who have been able to give me what my parents could not, and I will be forever grateful to them, and to God for that! For a period of 15 years I read everything I could get my hands on, in order to find my way out of the prison that was created for me. You would be surprised to find out how common that is, for abuse survivors to become experts in the forces that formerly bound them!
I speak from experience rather than authority. These forces that are in all our families to a small degree in some, an enormous degree in others, are what cause us to be so easily misled by those who want to manipulate us. When we live in a sea of dishonesty, dishonesty doesn’t catch our eye!
So what do we do about this? How can we undo this tendency in us that allows us to be manipulated into believing what is not true, buying what we don’t need, supporting those who would hurt us or others by their policies? We have to rigorously cultivate deep, penetrating, internal self-honesty. We must learn to question everything, to not take anything for granted. Just because we have “always” believed something, doesn’t make it true. Most of what is in us was put there by others. Much of what we find will be untrue. This is an extraordinarily uncomfortable process, and most people are unwilling to even attempt it. We are not very patient, and find anything that takes a long time difficult. Also, we have been taught to protect our deepest beliefs, but if they are true, they need no protecting! When who we are, what we feel, what we do, and what we believe is truly and authentically our own, what is inside us needs no protection. There is no uncertainty, except that which is supposed to be in us – we are not omniscient! We do not know everything, and never will. We are human, and will always have some vulnerability, but we were not made to be manipulated by others. We need community, but need to be uniquely and authentically ourselves inside any community. We need to be aware of any community that promotes the value of community over the value of the individual – both are equally valuable. Any group or community that sacrifices the needs of the individual for the needs of the group cultivates the same forces that have created these injuries, or vulnerabilities in us.
Those of us who are believers (in God) may be frightened that our relationship with God might be affected. I started out my journey, by trusting God to lead me on this journey, and quite frankly, I never expected that journey to take me where it has. If anything, my trust in God has grown exponentially during this journey. I started out having trouble trusting anyone. Now I trust both myself and God more than I thought I ever would.
Finally, like many things we seek to develop inside ourselves here on this Earth, this journey is a journey without a final destination, and on this journey our constant companion (along with God) must be vigilance. We must constantly watch what we say, and think, to start rooting out anything that is less than honest. As we do this, not only do we find much that is untrue, but we will start to notice how much of what we hear out in the world that is untrue as well!
“God-damn-it! So help me Christ, I swear there’s something wrong with you, you rotten son-of-a-bitch”, she screamed. I see her in my mind’s eye, above me, always above me, glaring at me, red-faced, her mouth full of teeth, sharp and somewhat yellow-stained, ready to throw more bony fisted punches if I dared to challenge her omnipotence. She said things like that to me in a voice tinged with hysterical rage. Actually, not tinged, (if the truth be known), but filled with rage, overflowing with rage.
I never knew how far she would go, how much she wanted to hurt me, how much she would allow herself to inflict on me, or how long she would continue. Her rage became my terror.
Her “disgust” of me was convincing, I know she believed her own lies. Unfortunately, my sisters and I learned to believe them too.
I wonder why she started on this crusade to convince not just me, but the whole family, that I was dirty, defective, broken, lazy, bad, stupid, and maybe even crazy. She started when I was 4 or 5. I was a child, and children do “bad” things, especially when they are getting the crap scared out of them by an out of control adult like my mother. I think she needed me to be “wrong”, so she could be “right”. I had to be scared, so she could feel powerful. I had to be “bad” so she could feel “good”. She must’ve done that to me 10,000 times if she did it once. Back in her childhood, she had felt a lack of power, and she was bound and determined as an adult to feel that power that she had missed.
My sisters believe that my mother loved them (and me). They believe that I should believe that too. They tell me that I should focus on the “good times”, and all the “good” things my mother said. I don’t remember her telling me too many “good” things!
I can imagine that after just one terrifying episode with my mother, I was probably immune to the next 100 compliments (if they would have been available.) That’s not a defect in me, that’s just a fact of life!
I learned to not trust adults because she, quite frankly, was untrustworthy. There has to be trust for a compliment to do its job. A compliment is like food for our emotional system. As children we need many each day for us to feel OK, competent, strong, loving, and calm.
Looking back, I believe often she hated me, and barely tolerated me other times. For some reason, she saw all the bad things in herself, when she looked at me. There was no reason for her to do that, other than the fact that I was an innocent, intelligent, sensitive child, with all the self-centered needs that all children have. She taught me to see myself in the awful way she saw me from the start. I didn’t have a chance to see me any other way.
On my daily walk this morning, I noticed nothing new along my route; nothing new, that is, in the physical sense. Usually I will discover a rabbit on the run, an injured turtle, a basketball in a ditch, certain plants or trees that I especially enjoy or that grab my attention, and are symbolic of a theme or idea that I take home to write about. This morning, my whole attention was directed toward my inner “landscape” instead of the outer landscape. Last night I watched the 5th episode of “Into The West” on TNT. It is a powerful historical drama that I have made every effort to follow. Deeply moving and historically accurate, its many stories within a larger story grab one’s attention fully during each 2 hour presentation. Last night’s episode was no exception, and it was my memory of a theme in last night’s episode which had grabbed my attention during this walk.
The scene I see in my mind’s eye is that of a young Lakota warrior at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879. Fierce in spirit, his strength and rebelliousness are apparent. The idea of the school was to “civilize” Native American children, so that as adults, they would have the skills necessary to cope with an ever expanding white society. The idea however was far removed from the reality. The first step was to crush the wills of these young children and take what was most unique and intrinsic out of them, to be replaced by the prevailing European “Christian” values. The logic of this approach seemed apparent at the time to even those among the White settlers who still had some degree of empathy and compassion left, but that logic removed them from their empathy. Logic is not Truth. Native Americans of that era saw the White settlers as having a culture that seemed crazy and out of control. However much their Native American Hearts told them to protect their children, to keep them away from the encroaching settler’s culture, the logic of the idea that their children could do better than themselves by learning the White man’s ways obscured what their Hearts told them. They also fell for the trap. Logic is not Truth!
The scene that kept playing and replaying in my mind has this young warrior, (and I call him a warrior because he fought on with such Heart in the face of impossible odds), this 11 or 12 year old warrior struggling to keep some small part of his dignity. He has been forced to take a name that is not his own (George). He has been forced to wear uncomfortable, foreign, clothing that has no meaning or use to him. He has been beaten, screamed at, and has been placed in a world in which none of the rules make sense to him, and where there is not the smallest amount of support, comfort or compassion. It is a world of rules, with no true Love, compassion or empathy, which have been overshadowed and dulled by the logic of the quest to “Civilize” these children. His very psychic emotional and spiritual life is at stake. Each male child is having his hair cut, not with the goal of refinement or presentation, but to “kill the Indian in them”. He watches each child’s tears as their hair is cut from their heads without the slightest bit of care or tenderness. It is a violent act being used to crush each child’s spirit, to break their will. It is a type of rape, although the instrument of that rape is the barber’s shears. It is too much for “George”, and he bolts. After a prolonged chase he is corralled by all the adults at the school, and sits down in defeat and exhaustion on the grass. A few of the adults of the school seek to comfort this child warrior (those who have empathy returning to their Hearts). But the Headmaster makes those few compassionate adults leave. This child warrior sits alone for hour after hour, hurt, angry, afraid. His tribal elders had sent him to the school to protect the other younger children. His grief is not just his own, but for all the children! He realizes that he receives no compassion from any of the adults at the school. He is alone in his misery. Hours go by, and yet he sits, staring at the sky, waiting. Finally it is night. He sings his heartfelt prayer, to God, over and over “God, be compassionate to me, God, be compassionate to me!” Then he cuts his own hair in his grief, the way his own people do. He acquiesces to their demands, but on his terms, without giving up that which was most important to him. (Native American warriors only cut their hair at times of tremendous grief). He acquiesces, in order to survive, but in a way in which he keeps a small bit of his own heritage, power, and dignity. All the other children watch through the windows of the school, and are moved by his strength. The two empathetic teachers watch, and are moved by his strength. The Headmaster watches and is furious. Both my wife and I sobbed during this. I have not been able to shake the need to write about it. I have not been able to shake the feelings that it has brought up in me.
This was a despicable time in our history. Yet it is one story inside a larger story. We never truly consider that our entire present civilization has been built upon the evil that was done in the past. There are not many of us who, in our daily lives, consider and remember that Logic is not Truth. This lack that we have, this “Hole in the Heart” that we collectively have is in every part of our society, it is in our dealings with other countries, and it is in our own child rearing practices that seek to perpetuate this same “Hole in the Heart” on new victims. I wonder how many folks out there who watched this episode, who watched the atrocity of what we did to those young children, and did not weep. Or if they did weep, how soon was their empathy lost and forgotten? I wonder how many of us see that so often we do the same monstrous things to our own children, with this idea of crushing their Wills.
A child’s willfulness, when directed with empathy for their struggle, and their dignity, preserves their will, which becomes their perseverance and strength later on in life. A child’s willfulness when crushed by power and control, or by violence and lack of empathy becomes despair. That despair later becomes depression. Then the anger and rage from that experience goes on to destroy other wills in future children. Yet those in Authority still argue that we must break the wills of our children. They argue this only because their wills were broken when they were children, not because it is true. Logic is not Truth!
I empathized profoundly with that young warrior. A husband and wife at the school found their empathy and helped direct his willfulness. They helped him find compromise. They helped him see that it was important for him to survive, so that he could pass on his people’s history and traditions, and so that he might tell his story. They acknowledged his struggle, and tried to help him “steer” or moderate his will, rather than crush it. They allowed him to be who he was, and to remind him he had a voice, even if it had to remain silent for a time. They did not try to “kill the Indian in him”.
Although separated by a century and a half, his story and the stories of many children today have the same themes. This young warrior’s story is a small story inside a larger story. Every child today, or yesterday, or tomorrow, who has an adult in their lives who believes a child’s will must be crushed or broken is a small story inside the larger story of our society and its “Hole in the Heart” and it’s need for power, and its lack of empathy.
I know that it is especially easy for me to identify with this young warrior, having been abused so violently when I was young. I also know that silencing the victim is especially symbolic of the conquest of a person’s will. You will see this in every type of abuse, even today. Finally, I also know that giving “Voice” to the child I was has been the key to regaining much of what was either broken or taken from me, and that ability in me has allowed me to survive. You see, the stories are the same, only the characters are different. Also, speaking the Truth about what we do, gives us a chance to stop those practices that still hurt others. Doing that is a moral mandate! A mandate from the Heart.
In the last scene of this episode, the young warrior sits at the typewriter, giving “Voice” to his soul, and telling the stories of his people. We sobbed even harder.
My name is Kenny. I am nine years old. I have a dog named “Happy”, (he’s my best friend). He’s my only friend. He smiles, but I don’t, because when I do, I always get in trouble. He has real short white hair, that’s never out of place, and I’ll lean against him, and hug him, sometimes when I’m sad. I’m sad alot. He listens to me, when I need to tell someone how sad I am, and how mean my parents are. They hate me. They tell me that there’s something wrong with me. They tell me that I’m stupid, and that no one could love me. They beat me, and scream at me, and tell me what a worthless piece of crap I am. Alot of times I don’t know whether I can stand it anymore. I know that Happy loves me, but I wish I had someone else too, someone who could hold me, and comfort me, and tell me that I’m smart, and that I’m valuable, and that I’m OK just the way I am. I want someone to tell me that I am lovable, and to protect me so that at least sometimes I could smile. I need to be safe, at least for a little while. I want somebody to tell me that I’m OK, and that I shouldn’t give up, because someday I will be safe. I want somebody to tell me that someday, people will love me. I want somebody to tell me that someday I will know that I’m OK. I want somebody to believe me when I tell them I’m hurting. I want somebody to tell me that I deserve to be treated better, that I don’t deserve to be hit, and screamed at, and shamed. I want somebody to tell me that I don’t deserve to live with so much fear all the time. I want someone to show me that touch doesn’t have to hurt or feel yucky. I want somebody to tell me to have hope, because sometimes there are heroes and happy endings.
Riding bikes with my sisters. Rainy day, indoor tricycle marathon. Around and around, how fast can we go? Through the kitchen. Multicolored dots on a blue-gray background, the linoleum gives the illusion of speed. Around the corner, often nicking the white trim of the doorway, and into the small utility room. Past washer, dryer, and gray double utility tubs. Through the doorway, and into the long skinny hallway. Black tiles, twelve inches square form the road surface. Soft green latex paint on porous particle board paneling is our landscape. Past the bathroom on the left, the door is always open. past the door that we don’t use to the basement, always shut. Nailed shut. White, even the hinges are painted white. There is no doorknob, and I always wanted to open it, just because we weren’t allowed. Nearing the end of the hallway, the highway widens, as the stairway over the basement door empties into the hallway. Forbidden territory on the left, THE DINING ROOM. Access to the living room on the right. Dead end ahead if the door to the front porch is closed. We called it the front porch, event though it was on the back of the house. That would have confused alot of people, but we did alot of things like that. A hard turn to the right, brakes, and tires, and vocal cords squealing, then another hard turn to the right, just inside the 24 by 16 living room, the kitchen just in sight. Slower going, off road carpet driving. Past the alcove on the left, where we kept all the books that no one read, past the fireplace that we did all like to use when the fighting wasn’t going on. Past the other alcove with the built in desk. Through the eight or ten foot wide access to the kitchen, back onto the speckled linoleum. Breathless! Excited! Forgetting, especially, any fear or sadness, (and there was enough of both!) Wanting more and more of this drug called fun! Breathless abandon, giddy, don’t have to make sense feeling. Laughing, pretending. Anything possible. Temporarily powerful! YOU KIDS STOP THAT BEFORE SOMEONE GETS HURT! ROTTEN SONS OF BITCHES! I’LL BE DAMNED IF YOU KIDS RUIN TODAY LIKE ALL THE OTHER DAYS! BUNCH OF SCREAMING FILTHY ROTTEN BRATS! STOP ALL THAT DAMN NOISE! YOU MAKE MY LIFE MISERABLE! SONS A BITCHES! ALL YOU DO IS WANT WANT WANT! STOP THAT NOISE! IF I HAVE TO COME IN THERE SOMEONE IS GOING TO HAVE TO PAY! SO HELP ME GOD, I’LL TAKE ALL THOSE DAMN TRICYCLES AND BURN THEM IF YOU DON’T BEHAVE!
KA knocks her head on the doorway, and starts to cry. I’m right behind her. I’m the one who is gonna pay. All Hell breaks out.
I am being propelled backwards. My throat hurts, and I want to choke, where my shirt is pulled tight against the front of my spine. My feet get tangled in the tricycle, and it falls off to the right, knocking over the trash can. Kathy is forgotten, the sound of her crying, mixes with my own, and I am in a land of terror very different from the utility room, I just was in. Pain in my shoulder as she twists me around. Terror squeezes me out of my own experience. I am dimly aware of the excruciating burning on my rear end, but I am very aware of my fear that this time she will kill me. I live with that fear, for an eternity.
YOU GET UPSTAIRS TO YOUR ROOM! GET OUT OF MY SIGHT! GOD-DAMN YOU!
THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOU! GET UPSTAIRS BEFORE I REALLY GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!
Up in my room, I am alone, outcast because of my defectiveness. I despair, because I know that this will never stop happening. Nothing will ever change. There is no one to comfort me. I am scared of everyone, and everything. I believed her, when she said that I deserved to be hit. She is right, and I am wrong. She is good, and I am bad. If I am lucky, I quietly cry myself to sleep.
“You can never know what it was truly like”, at least that is what I used to tell myself. There is some truth in that, but also, I have used it as an excuse (and you have too,) to protect you, or to protect myself, from feelings that are beyond our everyday experiences. I am telling myself the story, that by saying “you can never know”, I do not have to go into the details or feelings, and I also lie to myself, that in some way you will “get” how much I suffered. When I adhere to the notion that “You can never know what it was truly like”, and forgo the telling, I am making an unconscious agreement to protect people from the past who are guilty of horrors, and to silence a part of myself that is never quite satisfied with being alone with knowledge and feelings that no one should ever experience. When I believe “You can never know what it was truly like”, and act on that, I am acting out the despair that I felt during years of isolation as a child, when my only connection was with other victims (my sisters) and the perpetrators of atrocity.
Here are my list of “you can never know”s:
You can never know what it is like to be terrified everytime you walk into a room that your parents are in. You can never know the despair and terror of knowing that at any moment, they could storm up the stairs to your bedroom, not with goodnight wishes and kisses, but with wretching, searing, all powerful, wrathful-god-like violence.
You can never know the burning, dagger-like scrutiny that I experienced with my parents, and the crippling self-consciousness that came from that. You can never know the ache that comes and threatens to never leave, that tries to tell you that you are unloved and unlovable.
You can never know the lake of ache that comes from years of holding back the tears of imprisoned pain.
But you can never truly know ME if you can’t know what it was truly like for me.
Lately I have been dealing with a number of health issues that have been adding more stress (fear and uncertainty) to my life. Actually, if the truth be known, I seem to have more of these at one time than ever before in my life, and they are serious as well as numerous. Individually, I have been handling them head-on, with both courage and perseverance, and by asking for God’s help, and relying on Him to guide me through the morass of decisions and behavior changes that I’ve had to make. My health issues are a bad thing, but God is using them for good, and is helping me to rely on Him more. He doesn’t want me sick, and He never did. He loves me, and in that love, he allows me to lead my life, to make decisions, even bad ones sometimes. And no matter what, He keeps on loving me. He doesn’t do bad things to me. He doesn’t cause my health problems. He lets me live my life, and waits for me to ask for His help, or His guidance. He doesn’t just push me aside, and take over, because He is so much bigger and more powerful than me. Sometimes, He might put something in my way to keep me safe, just as a shepherd might have a fence near a steep ravine, to keep his sheep from falling, and hurting themselves. But His Power and Love are gentle, and quiet, and he waits for me to ask. You might say His love is polite, and respectful, and I believe firmly that he delights in our abilities to overcome the obstacles that we face. He is a good parent.
Friday night, just before dinner, my wife and I were working on our computers. I had barbeque chicken on the grill outside, homemade “baked” beans in the crock pot, and fresh garden string beans boiling on the stove. I had written to my son a few days ago, telling him about all my recent activities, as well as my health issues, and had just checked my email to see if he had replied, and he hadn’t. I had also written to another relative a few days before, trying to bring her up to date on what was going on in my life – both good and bad, because I am trying to develop an honest full relationship with her, not just the shallow, “how’s the weather?” type of relationship that we’ve had in the past. In other words, I am letting her get to know the “real” me. I told her about our gardening, and all the fresh veggies we were getting, the changes that we had made to become healthier, and also some of my fears and struggles that had to do with my health issues. She did email me back, but it was a reply that did not acknowledge even one thing I had told her in my letter to her. It was like she hadn’t heard a thing I said. Her letter was nothing but a litany of all the bad things happening to her in her life. Her letter reminded me of my attempts to develop even a rudimentary honest relationship with my mother. I felt disappointed by my sister’s response, and my son’s lack of response. Between you and me, my son will write back. I love him, and I am proud of him, and he almost always does the “right” thing. He has no problem “taking the high road”. But at that moment, I did feel disappointed, and a little more of the emotional “wind” got knocked out of me.I swung my chair around in our little office, to check the messages on our answering machine. Our office is in our home, and is about eight feet by twelve, so almost everything is within reach, whether it is the answering machine, the printer, the filing cabinet, or our dog Goldie, who is usually right in the middle of the floor. She has no problem being in the middle of things, or being part of our family. She knows we love her, and she loves us, and her “job” is just being herself. One of the messages on our machine was from Beaufort Hospital, asking me to please call them. I wondered (aloud, to my wife Susan) if it was their billing department wanting to ask me how I was going to pay the latest emergency room visit, or whether it had something to do with the MRI that I was scheduled to have on the following Monday. I was scared that it had to do with billing. I have no health insurance, like many folks in our community. It was 6pm, and the message was from earlier that afternoon. Susan handed me the phone and said “call them”. My fear rose (about it being about money for the emergency room visit), and I said something like “I’ll call tomorrow”. Susan continued to hand me the phone, and said much more insistently “Call them!” My response was intense anger. I said, “Why do you always make me do things that I don’t think are the best things to do?” I called the number that had been left on our machine, and, of course, got an answering machine, not a live person. My anger grew. I noticed that I was much angrier than the situation warranted, but my anger was so big, that I didn’t know much more than that, and left the room. I was feeling rage.
In the living room, I sat in a chair with a big bowl of string beans from our garden, a pot, and a pair of scissors. These beans were for the freezer. Later they’d become things from the past, to feed us in the present. My rage slowly subsided. Sadness grew along with a different feeling, more a state of being than a feeling. Something I hadn’t consciously felt for a long, long time. I felt despair. As I snipped the ends off, and cut the beans into smaller, more manageable pieces, the thought of suicide crossed my mind. I didn’t consider doing it. I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t planning to do it. But nevertheless, here is this stray thought that passes across the screen of my awareness. I realized it was something from the past, thawing in the present, allowing me a window into what I had felt as a child. My reaction to my wife telling me what to do, triggered this reaction from the past. My anger at “being controlled” provided the fuel to “thaw” this part of my history. I had wanted to kill myself when I was a child.
As a child, my parents controlled every part of my life, and they did it out of their own fears, and insecurities. They didn’t trust the future. They didn’t trust me to become who I needed to become. They didn’t trust God, to guide me or them, or to complete his creation in me to become me. I was not allowed to be a child, to be less than perfect, and to make the numerous mistakes that we all make as children. This control was unrelenting, and it was severe. It was absolute. Even at age 18, I was told what I was going to do in my later life. What school I would go to. What I would study. There was no area in my life, where I could make my own decisions, so that I could start to learn how to live my life. That unrelenting control for so many years, filled me with despair, because my spirit wanted me to become the person I was meant to become, and to be the person I was at that moment wherever I was along that path of “becoming”. Their control taught me to never listen to my spirit, to only look outside myself, never inside. Their control tore my ability to know what I truly felt about anything out of me. A person who loses his ability to connect to his feelings, to connect to who he truly is, has only despair, a despair that is enormous, all consuming, and so lonely, that I just don’t have words to describe it. That despair had made me want to kill myself for much of my childhood. Later, even though their control was gone, the despair remained, and fueled the addictions I used to quell the despair that was left in place of the connection I should have had to everything that makes me who I am, and guides me to become who I will be. By paying attention to what I am feeling in the present, I can connect with how I was in the past. By re-experiencing the past, I have learned empathy for the kid I was, and judge myself less harshly in the present. Self acceptance brings more peace into my life. I learn to trust that my feelings will lead me into deeper and deeper healing.
I am so fortunate. Against all odds I am connected to myself and my feelings. I know who I am, and I listen for directions within myself that help me become who I will be. Sometimes they tell me stories about where I have been, and release frozen pieces of my past, in small manageable pieces, so that I can heal. God made us this way, so that no matter what people do to us when we are children, we have the ability to heal, and to get back on the path of becoming who he wants us to be. We are partners in this, and as I said before, I can imagine that he delights in our becoming who he wants us to be, and the roadmap is inside ourselves. By the way, my son did call today, and acknowledged everything I had written to him. I am so proud of him.
Why are some of your writings so angry (or sad)?
Isn’t that much anger (or sadness) bad for you?
Isn’t it unhealthy to focus on such negativity?
Can’t you just “move on”, and remember the “good times”?
Can’t you just forgive them, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?
But that’s your mother (or father) aren’t you supposed to love them?
Why do you believe you should air your family’s dirty laundry in public?
I’ve been on a path towards Healing since 1986. I never thought so much would be involved, and to be truthful, I really didn’t have much hope of success in the beginning! But I have come to a point where many things are now self-evident. I don’t think that someone could have explained it all to me in the beginning, so that I could have had a clear path ahead of me. The reason for this is in the nature of our childhood injuries. Emotional injuries during childhood rob us of some of our awareness! They give us a sort of emotional tunnel vision that does not allow us to see others being hurt in the same manner as we were hurt. We minimize the pain that we suffered in the Past, so we minimize the pain that others are experiencing in the Present! And those “Others” are usually children! So we may witness life-changing events right in front of us, and never know them for what they are!
So how do we regain the awareness that we lost? Watch a child who falls and scrapes his or her knee. First they cry, and if they got hurt through the action of another, they rage. Their feelings flow immediately and un-fettered. Rage leaves first. A caring adult attends to their needs, both physical, and emotional. Kind words, bandage, and antiseptic are applied. A “fully aware” adult never tells the child that their injury doesn’t or shouldn’t hurt! A “fully aware” adult will never interrupt the child’s tears. Tears may come again if the child bumps the injury. Gradually over time the tears subside. That is how the grief process works, when it is allowed to work. Grief is our built-in process for getting past emotional injuries without permanent damage. It works at the time of an injury, and still works years later, as we ?uncover? childhood injuries that were ?buried? where the grief process was never allowed to complete.
Child abuse causes some of the worst injuries that exist. What is worse than loss of awareness? What is worse than being betrayed by those we love? What is worse than being taught by adults who hit, or sexually abuse us that we really don’t own our own bodies, so that others may do as they please with us? How much crying is justified when we have been raped or beaten, or brainwashed as children? How angry should we get?
The grief process is uncomfortable. We avoid it like the Plague. Society tells us things like “Men don?t cry”. We are pressured to “forgive”. We are told anger is a sin. But the bottom line is that those things that Society tells us about grief are either not true or, at best, half-truths. Society is not made up of a majority of “fully aware” adults, but mostly of “the walking wounded”! Their lack of awareness does not allow a fully flowing grief process in others, because to allow it in others would bring it up in themselves! And like I said before, we avoid it like the Plague.
Why do we avoid it so? Why do we avoid something as natural as our own breathing, a natural process that we were born with? Because we were taught to! By abusers, and by caregivers who couldn’t stand to witness our grief because it reminded them of their own!
There is an important ingredient to this grief process that I haven’t mentioned. A caring, empathetic witness is needed, especially when it is a child who needs to grieve. When the child has no witness, it is not safe enough to allow their grief, because their grief feels much bigger than they are! That experience becomes their own way of looking at their own grief. Every un-grieved childhood injury adds to their avoidance. They become adults who cannot allow their own grief process to flow, nor can they stand to witness the grief of children who need them to be a caring, empathetic witness.
You may ask at this point, “How do I grieve now, for each and every time I needed to grieve in the past?” The answer isn’t black and white. I spent years in therapy, where my biggest injuries “came up”. I grieved, and each time I seemed to be grieving for more than just the one injury I was focused on. I re-experienced the same pain that I felt as a child, and gradually learned that I would always survive my grief. I learned to allow my grief when I felt safe, and to “put it away” when it was not safe enough. My witnesses were my therapists, safe friends, other survivors, my wife, and countless sheets of paper where I have recorded my feelings from being abused as a child. My website allows many witnesses, and my writings are as angry or as sad, or as frightened as I really was as a child. They are an act of defiance in the face of those who would tell me to bury the past. To bury the past is to lose myself forever. To express my grief is to find myself, and to move towards a place where what happened to me no longer pains or angers me. In that place where I have fully found myself, I find forgiveness both for many of those who hurt me, and for myself, having taken so long to arrive.
I had a vague sense of uneasiness when I took my dog, Goldie for a walk this morning. I get this feeling quite often. I wanted to take a deep breath and make this feeling go away, but it never does by just doing that. If I pay attention, there is a burning heaviness in my chest, a sadness, just below the surface. To make this feeling go away, I might want to eat, or have a cup of coffee, or some other such activity to distract myself, but if I did, this vague uneasiness would not go away. Sometimes I might want to drink alcohol to make this uneasiness go away, especially if it has grown more pronounced, but that would only provide temporary respite. The longer I have this feeling but do not pay attention to its meaning, the more it grows. It grows into a hunger that cannot be fulfilled, and I can go through the day with a sense of futility, because no matter what I do the “hunger” will not be satisfied.There were signs that I would be feeling this way just the other day. I attended a neighbor’s birthday party, and felt unusually self conscious during my attendance. I hadn’t met most of the folks at the party before, and those I did know, I only knew in passing. It was a “chore” to be there, even though any other time, I would have enjoyed being there. I realized that “something” with me wasn’t quite right, and I remember thinking that the way I felt, right then and there, was how I used to feel all the time. I remember thinking, that I had “regressed” to a lesser version of myself, that I had lost ground in my struggle to grow and heal from my past. My usual self confidence in social situations was suddenly gone. I absolutely hated that it was gone. I felt “broken”, “defective”, “less than”. My self consciousness, and “brokenness” felt larger than me. I grew up in an extraordinarily violent family environment. Screaming, beatings, put-downs, and near constant terror were the norm in our family, and woe to anyone who would dare speak of such things outside the family! Not only did we not speak of the violence and trauma in our family, but we were not allowed to have or share feelings about it. We were beat if we dared show anger. We were beat if we cried too much. We were beat if we got too loud when we were actually having a little fun. “Don’t tell.” “Don’t feel.” “You are not important.” “You have no value.” “Don”t challenge.” “Never say no.” “You are wrong, bad, ugly, less than.” “Feelings are worthless and weak.” “You are worthless and weak.” – Those are the lessons that my sisters and I learned. Our family was a war zone, and my sisters and I came out of it “shell shocked”, and completely ill-equipped, socially. I came out of my family “marked”, and I believed this “mark” was visible.
I am 54 years old. Since 35, I have been on a journey of healing. I have learned on this journey, to pay attention to what I feel in the present, because oftentimes, by doing so I can learn about my past. Through this discovery, I find needs inside myself which should have been met when I was a child. (needs which were created because of my injuries as a child) A child who is hurt needs to express the injury through emotion. A child who is hurt by an adult needs to tell, to break the rule of silence. These needs and others do not just go away because we gradually become adults. They will remain for the rest of our lives, if they are not met!
Child abuse survivors are often uncomfortable in their own skin. Unacknowledged injuries from the past scream for their attention. Unacknowledged stories of their injuries scream to be told. Survivors yearn to tell on their abusers, while at the same time they are terrified of doing so. They yearn for justice. They yearn for understanding, acknowledgment and validation from others, even though they should have received that from their caregivers decades earlier. More than anything else, they yearn to be “OK”, to be just like everyone else, and not to be the “outsiders” that they consider themselves to be. “If only they could have the peace inside themselves now, that they so desperately needed in their families when they were growing up!”
Therapists who have success in helping survivors fully heal from childhood trauma agree that healing comes in increments, over a long period of time. Healing or “recovery” is a process, not a destination. It comes from allowing the frozen feelings of the past to thaw in the safety of the present, and to percolate to the surface of our awareness. As they reach the surface of our awareness, we learn about the full impact of what happened to us emotionally as children. We learn to appreciate the strength that allowed us to survive the abuse of the past, and start to see ourselves differently in the present. We mourn our losses, rage at the injustice, and exercise newly found muscles of courage to face the fear of breaking the family rules that bind us to our injuries, and keep us from becoming the persons that God created us to be.
As I am walking Goldie down our dirt road shortly after morning prayers, I decide to allow this uncomfortable feeling. I remember that feelings allowed let me learn about my past, and feelings not allowed turn into depression, and later into a hunger that cannot be satisfied. I relax and let the feelings rise up. I am sobbing, and allow the feelings to keep rising, not knowing where they lead. At the same time, it comes to me, how futile my attempts to gain the love of my mother were; that I could never get it right. My mother was my worst abuser, a rageaholic who beat her children severely on an almost daily basis. No matter how perfect I did something, no matter how “good” I was, she refused to love me. I was aware again, how fearful I was every moment of my childhood, that I would do something that would cause her to withdraw her love. But that love was never there to begin with. She was sadly incapable, so full of rage and her need to convince me that I was unloving and unlovable. No wonder I couldn’t succeed. How amazingly long I tried!
Once upon a time, there was a puppy with long floppy ears, a tail much longer than his body, and legs so long that he constantly slipped and stumbled. He spent most of his time in the corner of the room, staring at the one wall of long metal bars, shaking in terror. He didn’t know his name, and remembered no existence prior to his life at the pound. He really didn’t know much other than sadness and terror, and hunger, (even though he didn’t feel very much like eating). He felt utterly alone, and without hope, even though the pound was “home” to nearly twenty other dogs. None of the other dogs seemed as terrified as he, although once in a while, he could smell their fear, as one of their number was taken from them, never to return.
As time went on, he did leave his corner sometimes, but usually the larger, angrier dogs would send him scurrying back. He was so distracted by these angry, vicious ones, that he rarely noticed the metal bars anymore, or anything else, for that matter. He could never let his guard down. One would nip at his long floppy ears, now in tatters. Another would knock him off his feet, as a third would grab and yank his tail. There seemed to be more vicious ones each day, and these vicious ones would often lead the other dogs to attack him too. Somewhere, deep down inside him, he knew that he couldn’t stand it much longer, that he would go crazy from such sadness, terror, and despair. Finally, one day, all the dogs were after him! He was yowling, and howling, and yiping in terror and misery, stumbling and running in circles. His mind had finally reeled at all the violence, a blank, except for the certainty that they would kill him. In thoughtless terror, he leaped toward something shiny on the wall.
A tremendous crashing sound stopped some of the dogs, and brought them to their senses. Glass shards fell to the floor; some of the dogs already yelping in pain from stepping on the slivers in their frenzy.
Although completely unaware of it, he had landed on something soft and green, after knocking over the metal trash can, its contents spilling out onto the lawn. And then he ran. He ran and ran, and then he ran some more. He ran until he had to give up, exhaustion finally overcoming his terror. He lay, and he slept. He whimpered in his sleep, his sadness coming to the surface in spite of his exhaustion.
Two gentle hands picked him up and stroked him, as they would stroke him ever so gently many times during the next few days…..
He woke on something soft and warm. Someone stroked his ears and forehead, and smoothed the fur on his back. He sniffed and could smell no fear, nor sense any danger. He felt something new and warm in his chest, which seemed to come from his master. He didn’t know the word “master”, of course, or any other words, for that matter, but he knew this one always fed him, kept him warm and safe, and had rescued him on that fateful day. He had grown quite a bit since his escape from the pound. He loved running in circles on the green grass, happy for the grass, the sky, and his new home. His ears had healed, and he liked the way that they would flap and fly as he ran circles around his master. His master smiled at him all the time, and that warm feeling inside kept growing. He was glad that he had such a long tail now, it made bigger ripples of gratitude in the air than other dogs could!