Past and Present Meet
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, acknowledgement 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!