Thursday, August 3, 2017

Things Dropped Into Wells Continue to Echo Long After They Have Fallen

I am approaching the start of my 44th year on Earth, and I am just beginning to possess my own story, especially my origin story. But who is a person, if they cannot correctly remember their own history?

About a decade ago, a verbal exchange with someone from my childhood triggered a physical and emotional reaction in my body that I am honestly just now processing with any measure of stability. The disturbing comment sent me to bed bewildered and crying, and a voice from my belly kept repeating that ‘something terrible has happened to me and I have no memory of it.’

I woke up the next morning changed at a fundamental level; I was suddenly a woman consciously split in two, unsure of the truth of my own life, which left me sorely debilitated in my ability to move forward. Prior to this exchange, I had been unconsciously split, which was more comfortable for me personally, but probably not so much for those nearest me; unhealed wounds tend to draw fresh blood as well as continue to bleed.

I sought out therapy and counseling for obvious reasons, and by a stroke of what I consider universal intervention, had already enrolled in massage therapy school, where I was introduced to the worlds of somatic psychology and energy work, two tools that have been invaluable to me through this process of discovery and healing. I learned how to mine my muscles for stored information, to identify areas of tightness and holding and gently coax them into softening, even momentarily, and oftentimes when they did, stories jumbled out, pieces of my puzzling past. We use our muscles emotionally without an awareness of doing so; sometimes those emotions and the traumas they are connected to become frozen in tightened tissues and are released when the muscles themselves release.

Without getting too bogged down in the particulars, I began to remember a sexual relationship with an authority figure in my life that transpired for a relatively short period of my childhood. The relationship ended when it was discovered by a family member who put a stop to it, but there was never any legal action taken, something that made me seriously question if what I was remembering was true. My family was deeply religious, and the adult in my story was a leader in our fundamentalist Christian church. It is my belief that this person’s status was maintained out of a fear that those who had made professions of faith under their tutelage might leave the faith if the story was made public. Also, I’m not sure there is anything fundamentalist traditions bungle as badly as human sexuality. There is a general immaturity in the handling of the topic that becomes increasingly problematic when situations occur outside of accepted norms.

Interestingly, the initial trauma for me wasn’t that the relationship happened, but that it ended abruptly. I was maybe eight years old when I began processing my first broken heart. No one expects desire from a child, but if you expose a child to sex, attachment can arise organically from the acts themselves, especially if the adult is a part of the child’s authority structure. At least, that is what happened to me: I fell in love with my abuser. I did not understand what we were doing, but I interpreted it as love.

An eight-year-old with a broken heart is a dangerous force. When our relationship ended, I remember feeling wrecked and furious. I had no wellspring of self to lean on, I just experienced rejection and despair. I coped by eating meals alone in my room for several months and by displacing my crush onto a cartoon character.

And this is where the story gets real; I have come to realize that most of my forgetting of this whole history hinges on the fact that I myself became a predator, after being taught things for which I lost an outlet and had no frame of reference. I can’t be certain that I have recalled every predatory event perpetrated by my prepubescent self, but I do remember several incidents of things ranging from using sexual language to titillate two boys for what may have been almost a year of recesses, until we all just felt gross, to physical acts with at least three other peers. 

In a cosmic cliché for the ages, this all came to a head at a church camp one summer. I groomed a slightly younger girl who was not comfortable with whatever I was suggesting. I do not know if I touched her at all or just verbally proposed an idea, but she went to the camp nurse, who confronted me about it in front of many of the girls in my cabin. She told me that what I had done was called rape, and that if I were older, I would be going to jail. I was mortified. I had heard about rape routinely on the Christian radio shows that played daily in my home and it had always terrorized me. I still didn’t even fully understand what sex was, even though I had experienced pieces of it, and I obviously was unaware of what constituted rape. I knew it was something awful that happened inordinately often to women, and since I was female, I didn’t realize I could also commit it. The nurse’s public confrontation of me happened because I had been made a counselor for the cabin and looked older than I was, but I was twelve years old, and four years into my crime spree. I was extremely traumatized by my public shaming, and responded by believing I had committed the unpardonable sin, a nebulous act which no one in our denomination could confidently define, although everyone agreed that committing it was a ticket straight to Hell. I made a childish commitment to a life of piety, in an effort to earn a way out of damnation. I wish I had received counseling for my trauma, but my church held a very dim view of psychologists and therapy, the standard reaction to any authorities situated beyond the church confines.

Less than a year after this scarring confrontation, for which I am nonetheless grateful, my family moved to another part of the state, and I apparently just started over by wiping my memory of all of it, both what had happened to me, and how I had behaved in response to it. I just overwrote it and started a new story, one where my childhood was unusually healthy and happy, and where I was most certainly neither victim nor villain.

And my true origin story remained sublimated for twenty years, until that conversation which set off a bomb in my nervous system and started me on a ten-year journey of piecing myself back together intentionally. When I began to recall my own trauma, I was of course livid. Self-righteousness is often the fuel of the wrongfully wounded. At the same time though, I had this just-beneath-the-surface sensation of slime on myself which frightened me and kept me existing in a state of perpetual undermine, by which I mean I still felt damnable, maybe even creepy.

Eventually, I got brave enough to face it, preferring the harsh truth to a lie that kept me blameless but robbed me of my power in the exchange. In owning my part of my childhood tragedy, I have found the beginnings of empathy for my perpetrator. It can be argued that our actions were morally different, in that they were an adult, and I a child; believe me, I have thrown myself on that logic for salvation many times throughout this process. Truthfully though, I have no way of knowing if my childish actions were experienced by my peers as trauma or rape, and I have no idea if they are still affected as adults by whatever I did to them, but I must acknowledge it is possible. Instant devastation, to find myself in the same category as the thing I hate, the thing I judge mercilessly in my righteous indignation.

How I long for a world with a cure for the worst in us; a place where we can fail, perhaps even unforgivably, and still somehow be restored to our place in the pack. I don’t know a lot about the authority that traumatized me, but I did hear them briefly share in some class or something that they had encountered some kind of sexual harassment too. I don’t expect they were given any more help in dealing with that trauma than I was, and they were a representative of the faith as well, with higher expectations of propriety placed on them. Confession for them, in that environment, would mean excommunication and disgrace, full stop. What a heavy burden to carry for a lifetime. I am unwilling to make excuses for unrepented actions, but I am willing to accept that there is no such thing as getting away with it and to consider that this person probably suffers a lot under the weight, and will continue to until it is dealt with, finally.

I am willing to accept that suffering as a form of justice.

And I will also do whatever is mine to do in service of creating a world that gives us interventions and true corrections and ways back to wholeness, most especially when we are at our worst. So much of the tragedy in our world is the direct result of our reactions to our traumas. May we grow to understand that we are all both perpetrated against and are ourselves perpetrators, so that we may learn empathy and unlock new possibilities for the quality of life on our planet.