TRIGGER WARNING: Some references to Sexual Abuse, Suicide, Physical Abuse, Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
A few years ago, I was going through old pictures from an antique trunk in my mother’s attic. She was a collector of all things, although she would never admit to being a hoarder. She had collected so many items, she was considering renting extra space. So, we convinced her it was time to purge. As my sisters and I separated the pictures among us, I paused on one photograph of me standing in the dessert outside my grandparents’ home in Southern California. Messy hair, barefoot, and smiling through a few missing teeth. Head cocked to one side, hand on my hip, I had on a modest halter top and a pair of faded jeans adorned with about 4” of red fabric at the bottom of each leg flaring out perfectly. The mere glance at this picture generated a feeling of comfort in those old blue jeans and I could almost feel the heat of the noon day sun on my back.
This moment should have passed by with hardly a thought other than a fond memory or two. But the memories were incredibly vivid, and I was unexplainably mesmerized by this picture. I could remember the feeling of wearing them. I could remember when I started to outgrow them. I could remember how thrilled I was when my mother added the extra red fabric, flawlessly showcasing the bell bottom shape so popular at the time. What shocked me most was these appeared to be happy memories. I am sure I had moments of happiness in my childhood. But these moments were so entwined with the unthinkable that my traumatized brain only reserved space for the wounds. So why was I remembering this with such detail? Why was I uncharacteristically comforted in the memories of this moment knowing what I did about this time in my life?
My childhood, like so many others, was riddled with many years of abuse. My father was an alcoholic and prone to fits of anger leading to inevitable violence. He was predictable only in the fact that he was unpredictable. I spent my youth constantly questioning the length of his arm in relation to my proximity. My father and brother were also sexually abusive to me from as early as I could remember. A childhood blurred by quiet tiptoeing through my days after sleepless nights of slight steps entering my room.
I spiraled in and out of depression for most of my early adulthood after breaking free from my childhood home. One day, for no singular reason, I was journaling. Typically reserved for times when I was at my lowest. In this stream of consciousness, I scrawled an alarming entry as I screamed past the familiar, temporary release of my pain. Surrendering too far beyond the well-known, proverbial “rock bottom”. Black ink on a white page glaring back, informing me I did not want to go on. Surprised by what I read and terrified by what this entry would mean for my three children, I tore the page from the book. For days, I carried this page in my purse fearing someone would discover it and find me unfit. Fearing more that I would throw it away and let those words go unaddressed.
I finally confided in a friend. He listened for a very long time as I spoke words I had never said out loud. As my horrific monologue poured out of me, he did not judge, he did not pity. Two things I had feared most, preventing me from sharing my secrets for all these years. When he finally spoke, he said it seemed like I had spent my whole life running down a hallway, shoving the things happening to me into various doorways along the way to subsist. Quickly slamming the doors and then running faster. Based on my journal entry, it appeared I had reached the end of the hallway. I had a decision to make. I could walk through the final doorway and be done, or I could turn around and start opening doors. I doubt either of us understood the profound impact this analogy would have on my life. It was more than a coping strategy or a way to face my past. It was the apex moment when I took domination over my circumstances and gave myself permission to move past them. To recognize and acknowledge them. To take ownership of them. Transcending the ability to cope and then transitioning to eventual healing.
After that day, one by one, I cautiously approached every door and reluctantly peeked inside. If I didn’t have the strength to deal with the contents, I closed it and rationally marked it for a future day. Most importantly, I was in control for the first time in my life. I could decide when I would open the doors, on my own time, in my own way. This was power and it was exhilarating and shattering all at the same time. It took decades, successfully striving to open those doors.
Many years later, as I stare down at this picture, I suddenly orient myself to these feelings. This moment was, without a doubt, an unexpected door. More astonishingly, it was a door that did not conjure an ominous anxiety as I approached. The light hit the interior room in the form of a little girl standing barefoot, with fire in her eyes staring up at me; a girl I had protected for so many years. This little girl that I had always thought as fragile and broken, hidden away as the victim in my story. Frozen in time, she is living a life no child should have to endure at six years old. And yet, here she is, smiling. She has many more years to go, many horrible things to withstand. But she will prevail, and this toothless grin and sassy pose tells me she already knows.
And here, in my moment so many years beyond hers, having gone through it all, I am smiling back at her. Knowing we are ok. Knowing we survived. Knowing the faith she had in us, the former and the present, was not squandered. I invite her to join me in the hallway of our lifetime. Not to relive the pain, but to show her the work that was done on her behalf. I am acutely aware; it was this moment of wholeness we both trusted would arrive. It was this pending moment that kept me breathing every day. I thanked her for patiently waiting all these years for our reunion. And as we took our next steps together, I tell the girl in the red bell bottom jeans that she is the bravest, fiercest person I have ever known.