Just say One True Thing, my friend once told me. This helps, especially when I’m fearful, troubled, or stuck. I am all three on the morning my second son is nine months old and I say One True Thing to my husband: “I’m not suicidal, exactly. I just can’t think of any good reason to live.”
As soon as I say it I’m horrified. It feels shameful. It is a profound and terrifying failure, not just a failure of some course or project, but a Failure of Being. How did an overachieving, responsible, “good girl” like me end up like this? I have everything I wanted: a degree from Stanford, marriage, two children…and I don’t want to live.
How am I going to do this? How am I going to get through the rest of my life? A quiet little thought comes into my head, just pops there out of the blue: I could drink.
This shocks me, it scares me to death. I don’t even like to drink. My mother drank, and the thought of ending up like her frightens me into calling a counselor and begging to be seen as soon as possible, like today. One part of me wants desperately to just curl up in someone’s lap and be soothed, to be reassured, to be taken care of, to be fixed. But another part of me wants to smash all the old ways of taking the easy way out and needing to be good and right and perfect.
I want to find someone who can really hear me, who can listen to this deep ugliness, who will not freak out or avoid or placate me. My husband can’t do it. He says, “Oh, hon, don’t talk like that,” and walks out the door. My friends will be worried. They will tell me to pull myself together, to look at all the positive things in my life. They will want to pray with me. I don’t need those things. I need someone who has the courage to go down into the dark places with me and help me face the monsters. I need a warrior who isn’t afraid of truth, pain, rage, and death.
I find a warrior. I show her a sculpture I have made. It is the delicate porcelain head of a woman. She looks a little old-fashioned: black hair, white skin, small red berry of a mouth. But black cracks run all over her face and head, and in order to hold her together and keep her from falling apart, she has been wrapped round and round with barbed wire.
The warrior understands, and we begin the journey.
Italy I: Perugia
I’m ready for a new adventure. I ask myself the magical question: What would I really like to do? And what I answer myself is: Go to Italy. So here I am, studying Italian in Perugia, a medieval Umbrian hill town. Old stone buildings, red tile roofs, green shutters, and narrow winding cobblestone streets. The colors are all peachy and gold.
I live in a fourth floor walk-up flat with three other women (one Italian, one Israeli, and one Japanese). This means 70 stairs (I counted). Every time I go to the grocery store I go down 70 stairs, up the block, then up 98 stairs to get to the next street up, before walking three blocks to the store. But being up so high also means a great view. My room looks southwest onto steep ravines and orchards, with the steeples and turrets of the old city strung along the tops of the hills.
My Italian classes are held in an old palazzo built in 1750. One of my classrooms has a fresco on the ceiling of a plump pretty woman with one breast exposed, surrounded by three sweet little cherubs and fluffy pink clouds.
What more could I ask for?
Italy 2: Perugia
I’ve come a long way. I can now say in Italian, “In the morning I usually get up early,” “Does this bus go to the train station?” “What do you have for dessert?” and “I need a laxative.” I prepare myself with this last phrase before I go to the pharmacy, take a number, and stand in line. As I’m standing there it gradually dawns on me that I will have to speak my request (in my excellently prepared Italian) to the gentleman behind the counter while the four people behind me stand by, waiting for their turn. It’s very quiet in the little pharmacy. You can hear everything.
I decide to head for the supermercato and buy some prunes instead.
Italy 3: Assisi
Assisi is all pink and white and foufou like a wedding cake. There are twenty-nine churches, seminaries, and oratories in this tiny little town.
Like everyone else, I go the Basilica. I rent one of those little audio systems that will take me on a guided tour and enlighten me about St. Francis, the history of the cathedral, and its famous art. The young man in the booth quickly explains how it works, zip zip zip. I pay my 6 euro and start off on my tour, then realize that I can’t even figure out how to turn the damn thing on. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. I thank him and head back to the door of the Basilica. Now it’s turned on, but I can hardly hear it. I go back to the booth and ask if there is a volume control. There is, but it is already as high as it will go. Okay. Back to my tour. I get it turned on but now I can’t figure out how to choose a chapter of the tour. I keep poking and tapping, but this little gadget and I are not getting along. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. Very quickly. Zip zip zip. He taps here and flicks there and scrolls through the chapters, and I can feel my temperature rising and the muscles in my shoulders turning to cement, and I finally say, “Just forget the whole thing. Can I have my money back, please?”
So I wander through the Basilica, ignorant, but with my temperature gradually returning to normal. It’s a wonderful old building, soulful, a bit decrepit. It has a dark blue ceiling with golden stars, which reminds me of the illustrations in my favorite children’s books, like Mary Poppins and The Little Prince. It also has a lot of famous frescoes by Giotto that I still know nothing about.
Italy 4: Assisi
I walk all over Assisi with gobs of other pilgrims, and marvel at the variety of souvenirs for sale. There are oodles of holy trinkets and sacred doodahs…little ceramic things with “Pace e Bene” on them, drawings and photos of the town, little figurines of St Francis, crosses, rosaries, wines, cheeses, special breads, everything I can imagine. My favorite is a tiny dancing hula girl shaking her hips in a green grass skirt. I have no idea what her connection is to Assisi, but she is very happy.
Italy 5: Perugia
There are lots and lots of churches here. I love the ceilings, the graceful dance of intersecting arches. One big church has a whole bunch of voluptuous angels painted up there among the arches. What is the word? A flock of angels? A band? How about a crescendo of angels? I like that.
I love the music of the Italian language. Italian is vivace (lively and fast). It’s very different from French, which to my ears sounds adagio (slow, restful, at ease). Italian has a bouncy sort of rhythm to it, a syncopation. My favorite word is cappucho, which is the friendly way of saying cappuccino. It makes me feel happy just to say it. Cappucho! Cappucho! It sounds like dancing poodles.
Italy 6: Florence
I seem to be a different person than I was twenty years ago. I have had several proofs of this lately. The first one is that for many years past I have been drooling on and on about memories of pasta with white truffle sauce, but now that I’ve had a chance to eat it again, it’s not at all what I remembered. It’s actually a bit repulsive. How can that be? And twenty years ago Florence felt, well, oppressive. Not enough green. Too much brick. I couldn’t stand the Duomo. I’m the only person I know who couldn’t stand it…all that green and pink gobbledygook all over it like a birthday cake gone berserk.
But this time I find the Duomo delightful. It makes me laugh. It’s just so darn pretty. It’s what the Hallelujah Chorus would look like if it got turned into marble. And Florence doesn’t feel at all oppressive; it’s lovely and lively. The first time around I kept running into the Piazza della Republica (because it’s centrally located) and I hated it. It felt hard and impersonal and exhausting. So this time I avoid it entirely for three days until I accidently come upon a charming piazza, full of people walking, biking, eating, whirling around on the merry-go-round, listening to a jazzy trio playing something from a Woody Allen movie, and I think, what is this lovely place? I check the map, and sure enough, it’s the Piazza della Republica. I’m shocked. Where was I twenty years ago? Who was I?
Italy 7: Venice
I am afraid that Venice will be disappointing, after seeing so many pictures and paintings, and hearing all the hoopla. How can it possibly measure up? But it does. So does the Cathedral. Imagine the most elaborate sand castle possible, with a strange conglomeration of eastern and western domes and arches and columns, and then put pinwheels and whirlygigs and sparklers all over it, and there you have it: St. Mark’s Basilica. When I walk inside, the domed ceilings are all covered with glittery gold mosaics. One part of me thinks I should be offended at all the opulence, but I’m not. It’s stunningly beautiful, in a splooshy, decadent sort of way.
St. Mark’s Plaza is almost knee-deep in cold water. It’s winter, it’s been raining, and it’s high tide. Poor Venice. People slosh around in pink and blue plastic boots, which is an important tourist commodity in Venice. There are long catwalks that enable you to get from the dry surrounding areas across the flooded piazza into the cathedral. The catwalks are made of sturdy platforms about 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 3 feet high. There are long slow lines of people who have been through the security checkpoints and are waiting to get inside the cathedral out of the cold and damp.
And next to one of the platforms there is a little old lady kneeling in the freezing water, holding a large frayed paper cup out to the people slowly shuffling by. Her head is bowed and covered with a black scarf, she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move, just kneels in the water and holds out her cup. She is wearing a thin jacket and a long, faded skirt that is now soaking wet. Once in a while someone drops some money into her cup. Others take photos and walk on. Suddenly there are two handsome young Italian policemen on the catwalk above her, saying, “Theresa, Theresa!” in kind but exasperated voices. They obviously know her well. They lean over, urging her to come up out of the water, and help her up. They escort her out of the piazza. The long line of tourists moves on into the resplendent golden fantasy world of the Basilica.
Italy 8: Venice
I decide that I want to see a very old illuminated manuscript called the Breviario Grimani, which is at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, just across the Piazza from St. Mark’s. I don’t really know what it is, but I know it’s famous, so I want to go look at it. When I walk in and ask to see it in my crude Italian the guard throws up his hands and says, oh no, you can’t see that! But I look forlorn (in Italian) and he phones someone and talks awhile, and then, with a bit of a wink, he says to wait. In a few minutes a sweet older lady comes out and tells me that no one can see it. Golly, I think, this thing must be awfully special. When I ask more questions (in my crude Italian) she says that they have a facsimile copy of the manuscript that I can look it if I really want to. I’m disappointed. A facsimile? You mean like a Xerox? But she says no, it looks just like the real one, so I say yes, I’d like to see it. Then she and the guard say that I have to go somewhere and do something with my passport before I can see it. Okay. The guard shows me where to go.
I walk into a little office where there is a man bent over some project and a woman at a desk with a computer. I don’t know why I’m there or what I’m supposed to be doing, so I just stand there. Finally the woman looks at me and I ask her if she speaks English. No, she says, with a bit of a sneer. So I say that I’d like to see the Breviario Grimani, and she sort of yells at me for a while and says one word over and over, a word I don’t understand. So I nod and keep standing there, and she turns to her computer and ignores me. For quite a long time. Finally I get the message, apologize for bothering her, and start backing out of the office. Then the man kicks into action and tells me in garbled English that I need to register. Okay, I say. How? The sneering woman sighs, asks for my passport, and writes down EVERYTHING on her forms. This takes a while. I’ve never seen anyone take down so much information off my passport. I didn’t know there WAS that much information on my passport. Then she takes a photo of me and disappears into a back room. When she returns she hands me a plastic library card with my photo and my own number. I thank her. Briefly.
Now I go back to the guard and say, whew, I survived. He grins (obviously he’s familiar with the sneering lady) and takes me to a rare books room where there are several people silently studying rare books. The room is pale green and full of delicate molding and painted swirly things. It has a high, coved ceiling. I show my card to the sweet older lady, who gets a younger lady to help her get my book out of a cupboard. It takes two sweet ladies, all bent over and straining, to carry the damn thing over to a table. It’s absolutely enormous. It must be about 8 inches by 10, and about 9 inches thick. It’s encased in a clear plexiglass box. The other people in the room look at all this fuss and this enormous book and frown at me. I can imagine them wondering who the heck I am and what I’m doing with this special book.
Now I’m getting nervous. This is a much bigger deal than I expected and I would gladly sink into the floor and disappear. But I can’t exactly say, please don’t trouble yourselves, it’s okay, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll be going now. So I smile and wait and try to ignore the people who are frowning at me. The two sweet ladies set the book up, very carefully, and open the plexiglass case, very carefully. They go get three little red velvet pillows to stack on one side of the book to support it as it is opened. They step back and smile at me and indicate that I’m supposed to just go ahead and look at the thing. All by myself. I can turn the pages and everything.
This is no Xerox. It looks exactly like a genuine 800-page illuminated manuscript written hundreds of years ago. The paper is thick and creamy. The calligraphy is exquisite. The colored drawings are brilliant and clear; some are full page and some are small, framing the elegant Latin calligraphy. There are beautiful drawings of the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the three wise men, the flight to Egypt, all the way through to the crucifixion and resurrection. But there are other drawings, too, secular drawings depicting everyday life on a feudal estate: sowing and reaping, farmhouses, barns, hunting scenes, countryside, castles, lords, ladies, cobblers, farmers, children, dogs, pigs, horses.
And right at the beginning, on the second page of the book, setting the tone for the whole thing, so to speak, is a full-page drawing of a farmhouse and barnyard in the wintertime. There is snow on the ground, and there are chickens and pigs and ducks running around. The farmer and his wife are in the kitchen where there is a fire in the stove, and they are beaming at their little boy, who is standing in the doorway, lifting his shirt and peeing out into the snow.
Italy 9: Rome
Where better to celebrate the miracle of Christmas than in Rome? I imagine lots of lights and decorations, and Christmas music everywhere, and am surprised to find that it’s actually rather subdued compared to the frantic hullaballoo in the US. There are very few lights at all until the first or second week of December, and then the displays are quite simple.
Most of the music in public places is just regular music, not Christmas music. This makes me happy. Every year I dread having to listen to “Feliz Navidad” over and over again, which I have had to listen to every Christmas since 1970 when it first came out. That’s almost 50 years of an extraordinarily obnoxious song. But I’m not hearing it in Italy. The Italians seem to like “Jingle Bells.” They play “Jingle Bells” at every Christmas concert I go to. One concert even does it twice (once for an encore). I’m not fond of “Jingle Bells” either, but it’s better than “Feliz Navidad.”
I go to a special exhibition of Nativity Scenes. There are 100 nativity scenes from all over the world. The scenes are made of everything imaginable: seeds and nuts, terracotta, bread, corn leaves, ostrich eggs, sheep wool and goat skin, lace, wire, palm fibers, stained glass, beeswax, bamboo, straw, porcelain, shells, pinecones, nuts and bolts, wild boar teeth, aluminum foil, pasta, rice… They are serious, elegant, elaborate, and silly. Some are humorous: a terracotta Mary from Campania is totally fagged out and asleep while Joseph holds the baby. Some are sobering, like a scene set in Iraq, with tanks, soldiers, bombed out houses, barbed wire, and several guns lying at the foot of the manger. Another is fanciful, set inside a big mushroom; the slugs and snails are bigger than baby Jesus. It’s absolutely enchanting.
Italy 10: Rome
I take a taxi to the Borghese Gardens. I think that Roman taxi drivers can’t possibly be as scary as they say. No, they aren’t. They’re worse. It’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. This guy is careening through Rome, screeching to stops, zooming off again, driving on the wrong side of the road, yelling at people, honking nonstop, and narrowly missing little old ladies and children who are trying to cross the road. A nightmare. After that, I walk.
I go to a weird and fascinating place called the Capuchin Crypt, where one of the monks, a long time ago, decorated six little underground chapels with all sorts of delicate and pretty designs, arabesques, loop the loops, and arches, all made out of human bones…the jawbones, femurs, pelvises, skulls, and vertebrae of 3700 of his fellow monks. Even the chandeliers are made of bones.
There is a little sign in the middle of all the old bones: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
Italy 11: Rome
Snapshots of Rome: an old lady hobbling down the road with a cane, wearing a purple down jacket and a leopard skin hat; listening to a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the Pantheon; the fountain of Trevi, an exuberance of blue and white, water and horses and men plunging, rearing, and whirling; the anguished expression on the face of Bernini’s Medusa in the Capitoline Museum (what it would be like to watch everyone I looked at turning to stone?); the magnificent statue of Marcus Aurelius in front of the museum, with a pigeon perched on his head and white pigeon poo dribbling down his handsome bronze face; enormous marble wings in the museum on the Palatine Hill that look like real honest-to-god feathers; a pair of custom made Jimmy Choo “Cinderella” shoes in a store window, all covered in Swarovski crystals and costing $3500; people laughing nervously as they stick their hands into the Mouth of Truth, hoping their fingers won’t be bitten off; bags of pasta in the Campo de’ Fiori market in every possible shape, including Stars of David. At dusk there are hundreds and thousands of birds (a murmuration of starlings!) over the Tiber, big black swoopy elastic clouds of them. The sidewalks and cars along the river are covered with a layer of slippery bird poo. Although the weather is perfectly clear, people are using umbrellas to walk home from work.
Italy 12: Rome
I spend a day at the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is larger than I expect. I am mystified why Michelangelo would make God’s bum such a focus of attention in the panel called “Creating the Sun and Moon.” It’s right there. It looks like he’s wearing droopy drawers. I can’t figure it out.
I am struck by a large painting of the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter. It’s idyllic, lush, detailed, filled with colorful animals and birds. He paints it at the moment when Eve is giving Adam the apple. I know that I’m supposed to feel anger and disgust at her for being disobedient and getting us thrown out of paradise, but instead I feel something different. I feel her yearning to know, her hunger for deeper truths and wider experience. She is not satisfied with an easy, superficial life. She wants the kind of strength that has been challenged and tested by fire, has made sacrifices, has faced painful choices, and has overcome temptation. She yearns for the kind of goodness that comes from tested experience and self-knowledge, not just imagining the choices she’d make, but having to face the challenges and make real choices. She wants authentic integrity, honesty, peace, and faith. Some of us are content with easy, comfortable lives, and some of us want to test ourselves, to know who we really are, what we’re made of, and how far we can go. Some of us go looking for apples.
Italy 13: Rome
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica I spend a long time in front of The Pieta, because at first it really irritates me. I can’t imagine a mother looking so peaceful while holding the broken body of her son. I think, Michelangelo obviously knows nothing of what that would feel like. How dare he reduce such a thing to this bittersweet calm? I am revolted by his youth and his arrogance. But I stay with it. Eventually something shifts, and I see something different. I see a mother who has deeply accepted this unacceptable death, who is enduring her unendurable grief, and without denying it has moved through it into a rare and exquisite communion with God. I feel like she has opened her heart and let me in.
How could this be? Michelangelo was only 25 years old.
Someone you care about is in therapy. Your support can make a huge difference in how well it works and how rapidly she heals. Someone who doesn’t have a good support system suffers a double whammy, enduring the pain of her own process and simultaneously trying to deal with the pressure, negativity, or shame that her friends and family may be inflicting on her. So how can you support her without making an already challenging process even more difficult?
People seek therapy for many reasons. Some feel stuck at a crossroads and just need a map to point them in the right direction. Some are like rockets on a launching pad, needing a boost to get off the ground and into orbit. Others are like houses that are basically sound but in desperate need of a new bathroom. And others are like caterpillars spinning a chrysalis, painfully dissolving into mush, hoping they won’t die before they can emerge into something new and beautiful.
Remodeling the Bathroom
When someone needs a map, a boost, or even a new bathroom, being supportive is fairly straightforward. You encourage; you listen; you cut her slack for occasional sleepless nights and bad days; you tell her she’s not alone; you be an anchor of kindness and common sense as she loses her old bearings and develops healthier ones; you acknowledge her courage and hard work; you allow her the time she needs to do the work; you tell her she can count on you, and then you actually follow through.
Don’t send mixed messages. Be authentic because she will know the difference. If you say you support her but your actions and words reveal that you are irritated, then you make the whole process more difficult for her. The hard truth is that it takes time and money to do this work, she will feel painful feelings and remember painful memories, she will change unhealthy patterns, she will feel vulnerable and maybe a little crazy before she feels better. When you remodel a bathroom it’s a big mess before it becomes functional and beautiful. The sink and the toilet don’t work for a while. Many partners want the beautiful new bathroom but can’t tolerate the mess.
The most important thing you can do is to let her do what she needs to do and feel what she needs to feel. Let her cry, let her be angry, and let her wrestle with really nasty emotions. She must deal with that funky toilet at some point. You can help with the mopping up, but you can’t fix it for her. If you are the sort of person who is uncomfortable with other people’s sadness or anger, then do your friend a favor and take a long vacation to Madagascar. You will not help her, because she will stifle the feelings she needs to feel so you won’t be uncomfortable.
Building a New Foundation
Other people have a beautiful coat of paint on the outside, i.e., they look okay and function well, and maybe even over-function, but as they begin working it becomes obvious that the entire house is riddled with termites, in danger of collapsing, and needs a whole new foundation. This is major work. This is blood, sweat, and many, many tears. These people have usually had severe trauma in their childhoods. All of the above still applies, but there is another whole level of support that these people need and seldom get. This work challenges not only the survivor, but also her support system. In my experience, very few friends and family members understand how difficult, painful, and incapacitating this sort of process can be. Even though it’s impossible to understand the depth of what she’s going through you can do something extremely important: support her with unconditional acceptance and boundless patience.
Our culture admires those who get hit hard and can shake it off. This works for football players, but it doesn’t work for a little child who has been molested or raped. In a way, these soul wounds are worse because the scars don’t show. People don’t understand why she can’t just get over it and move on. They don’t understand that the trauma (even relatively “minor” trauma) has damaged her mind, body, and spirit, her sense of self, and her trust in the world.
She many look okay but her appearance is an illusion. The unseen “reality” is just as bad as if all the bones in her body have been broken and she’s in a full body cast, in traction, in the hospital. In other words, she’s helpless to do much of anything for herself. This is difficult for many family members to believe. The sad truth in many families is that they’re willing to support her therapeutic process as long as she continues to function normally and take care of them the way she always has. When she feels too vulnerable, anxious, or depressed to take care of them, they get angry and impatient. They want to know why it is taking so long. They may suggest that therapy doesn’t seem to be working and a change is in order. This can devastate her. She is working harder than she’s ever worked at anything in her life, feeling vulnerable, learning to tolerate painful feelings, clawing her way through old muck in order to reach open air and feel free, and instead of getting applauded for her efforts she gets criticized and judged. All of this makes her work much harder.
Why is it taking so long?
So what is going on in her therapy? Often old memories are emerging into her consciousness, some for the first time, some in fragmented pieces. Some of these memories are horrific. She is trying very hard to make sense of terrifying flashbacks, put them in perspective, and not fall apart. What makes it so hard is that she is not remembering these things as an adult looking back on old history. She is feeling overwhelmed by that little girl’s terror and vulnerability, which has been locked away in a split-off part of her brain and is now emerging.
The goal of therapy is to rescue that traumatized little girl. We need to be with her, listen to her story, open our hearts to her, build trust, and bring her out of that terrifying place into a safe place so the adult really can, authentically, move on. Her deepest pains and fears are gently and gradually being witnessed, and the little child is being comforted. Depending on the severity of the trauma, the age at which it occurred, how long it lasted, and the nature of the support system she had at the time, this can be a slow, painful, vulnerable process. There are many levels of the work, many ups and downs. Some days are better than others. It is not easy and not quick, and that’s just the reality of it. Would you hire a contractor who said, “Oh sure, I can rip out the old foundation and slap up a new one over the weekend”? This is not bricks and mortar, this is the human soul.
As this work gently and gradually builds a stronger internal foundation and heals the mind, it shakes everything down to the core. The survivor must slog through a painful process of feeling excruciatingly vulnerable. The old coping strategies (overeating, overworking, alcohol, drugs, perfectionism, pleasing, isolating, gambling, etc.) have been breaking down and are not working anymore. No matter how many medications she takes, no matter how good she is at pleasing others and being perfect and staying in control, the anxiety and depression are leaking out and overwhelming her. She is finally feeling the unfiltered fear, shame, and pain of her childhood.
Others can’t see that internal pain and don’t understand her experience. Even though she wants to live a more normal life, she is stuck in this other painful place. At times she may question what she started and wish she could go back to her old life, but she can’t stuff the memories or the feelings back in the box. The truth is that it often gets worse before it gets better. She is like that caterpillar entering metamorphosis. The old ways of thinking, feeling, and being are all painfully dissolving, and something new and beautiful will eventually emerge, but in the meantime it’s a mess. Therapy is a lonely process, it requires a lot of energy, a powerful dedication to one’s self, and a significant internal focus. It requires a lot of time to think, feel, and process. To others this looks like she is “doing nothing,” but the truth is that she is working extremely hard.
Her subconscious core beliefs are also being revealed. These beliefs connect to extremely vulnerable feelings and keep her stuck in destructive patterns and behaviors. These beliefs include things like, “I can’t trust anyone; I’m worthless; if I’m not perfect no one will love me; life is too painful; I don’t want to live; if I don’t please everyone around me they will abandon me and I will die; if I let anyone get close to me they will hurt me; there’s something wrong with me; if people see who I really am they will be disgusted,” etc. These are not rational adult beliefs; these are the terrors of a child. They are frozen way below the level of rationality, and logical argument has no effect on them (have you ever tried being logical and rational with a terrified two year old?).
When these feelings, beliefs, and memories are opened up it can feel very threatening. Facing and feeling these beliefs in order to transform them is a heroic effort, not only for her but also for those who support the process as it unfolds. She needs your ongoing encouragement to stay hopeful as she traverses the dark places and occasionally gets discouraged. To support her you must stay focused on the present and be an anchor of hope and safety.
The Difficult Issue of Sex
Be very sensitive about sex with a partner who has been abused. This is extremely important. While she heals she may find it difficult or even impossible to continue having a normal sex life for a while, even with a partner she loves and trusts, and there’s no way of knowing how long it will take. Sorry, that’s just the reality of it. It’s not your fault, and it’s not her fault either.
For someone who has subconsciously shut out the abuse for many years in order to survive, the difficulty is magnified. When memories begin emerging, she may feel devastated by the feelings associated with the abuse. The pain and fear invade her waking hours, her dreams, and her body. These feelings flood her, feel unbearable for a while, gradually subside, and then intensify again whenever a new memory surfaces. Her adult mind knows logically that she is safe, but she feels like a little girl who is being touched, beaten, humiliated, raped, or choked right now.
If you are a partner it is understandably confusing when she or he suddenly can’t tolerate sexual touch or maybe even any touch at all. You naturally want to comfort her, hold her, and prove to her that you are safe and sex can be good, but the difficult reality is that any sort of touch may trigger terrifying memories for her. The wounds don’t show, and she looks okay, so it’s hard to understand how threatening touch can be for her.
Many partners can support this for a while, but eventually, when it goes on “too long,” they get angry and feel cheated. But if she were in the hospital, in traction, would you be angry at her? If all her bones were broken would you be pressuring her to hurry up and get over it so you could have sex again? If she were being raped right now would you make her feel guilty for not having sex with you? Consider the unspoken messages you send when you pressure her to be intimate even though it feels so threatening. Your disappointment is understandable, but your unspoken messages of disappointment, anger, and judgment damage her self-image and your relationship.
So how do you support her?
Ask her to tell you if something you’re doing is triggering her. Listen if she wants to talk about it. Be compassionate, even if she can’t explain. Practice saying, “How can I help?” Don’t touch her in any way that feels uncomfortable to her.
Remember that she’s “in traction” and is unable to function normally, even though she wants to. Don’t take her revulsion about sexual touch personally; it’s not about you, and you can’t fix it. Let her have the time and space she needs to do the healing she needs to do. Don’t pressure or manipulate her into having sex. Remember this is her journey, not yours. Find a support group or a friend who is willing to listen, to help you put this into perspective, and to support you. Remember she is working hard, and that her goal is to live a more fulfilled, safe, and joyful life. In the end this will benefit you as well.
Don’t make her feel guilty for the time and money it takes to heal. She’s the one suffering here, not you, and she’s working as hard as she can to be well. Her work is to bring the compassion and perspective of her deep heart to her traumatized child, validate her, and rescue her. Getting close to a traumatized child that has been frozen in these memories may take some time. It’s like trying to help an abused puppy that is hiding under the bed and is terrified of people. You can’t just order it to come out of there and you can’t expect it to respond to “rational” arguments. You must have the patience to sit down on the floor by the bed, speak to it gently and quietly, bring it food, and give it time to build trust.
Don’t judge her. Don’t ever imply that she is at fault for any of this; she had no power and no choice. If you believe that she is “damaged goods” then you join the ranks of her abusers. It’s deeply hurtful and it’s not true to anyone who sees with the eyes of love. Her mind and body were wounded, but her heart and her soul are pure.
Beware of feeling angry toward her abusers. This is her battle to win, not yours. Your strong feelings will interfere with the work she needs to do, even if your intentions are good. Showing compassion and open-heartedness towards her and the whole messy process is more helpful than fighting the battle for her.
Don’t tell her how important it is to forgive those who hurt her. Yes, of course it’s important to forgive in order to be free, we all know that, but there are some very important things she must do first (like acceptance and self-forgiveness and changing those core beliefs), or it won’t be authentic and won’t be healing. Encouraging someone to forgive before they’ve done that vital work is like stitching up a dirty and infected wound that hasn’t been cleaned out yet.
Don’t shame her for needing time, money, and support. Don’t tell her she’s selfish just because she doesn’t have the energy to take care of you the way she used to. Don’t shame her for being unable to shake it off and move on. Survivors are hypersensitive to blame and shame, and are often tormented by the feeling that they are burdening and disappointing others. If that gets unbearable they may start to believe that this world is a better place without them.
Don’t tell her what you think she ought to do in order to heal. Believe me, you don’t know. And don’t tell her what God thinks she ought to do. You don’t know that, either. Please be careful with this. I have worked with several clients for whom this kind of spiritual abuse has triggered intense guilt and shame that has been very damaging.
- Listen to her
- Believe her
- Don’t minimize her memories
- Accept her unconditionally
- Ask her how you can support her
- Respect whatever she thinks she ought to do
Amazingly enough, deep down, she knows what she needs to do to be healed. Or she soon will, because she’s working hard to develop her own internal clarity and confidence, and the courage to face her fears and tell the truth. She’s learning to tolerate painful emotions, take care of herself, and set healthy boundaries. When supermom starts taking care of herself her family often gets angry. Don’t shame her for being selfish; she is becoming a strong, healthy human being. She is learning to love and care for her friends and family from an open, loving heart rather than from fears of being criticized, rejected, and abandoned. She is learning to listen to her own authentic voice.
And she will become a strong, healthy human being. It takes time, but she will rescue those traumatized little children that have been locked away in her subconscious mind and help them feel safe, comforted, and playful. She will build an inner strength she never thought possible. She will feel free. She will feel connected to her body, her feelings, herself, and other people. She will feel joyful.
It is a clear warm night in Costa Rica. There is a fire, and drums, and a big moon, and about 15 people watching a young man as he goes through an initiation ceremony. The shaman is tall, muscular, very powerful, a tenth-generation shaman. He goes for the jugular if he thinks you are being stupid or cowardly.
He asks us, “Who are you?”
The younger people in the group look blank; they have no idea how to answer this. The shaman is getting impatient.
“Come on, come on. It’s not that hard a question. Who are you?”
I love this question, although it isn’t such a simple question anymore. I’ve outlived the simple answers. I am like a mobile, shifting and whirling, with more and more doodahs bobbling around on it all the time.
I’m an adventurer
an explorer of wild places
(inner and outer)
I’m a really good friend
I love being a woman
and a mother
I love to play and I love to learn
I’m passionate, curious, and sensitive
I treasure honesty and grit
and wisdom rooted in pain
I’m slowly finding my voice
and learning to live from my heart
(I have a long way to go)
I’m an artist
but mostly I know that
I’m a child of the
great mothering heart of the universe.
I tell this to the shaman, and he laughs.
I have no idea how much resentment and bitterness I’ve been carrying around, until one day I realize that I am chewing on old bones, rotten, dirty, maggoty, old bones: thinking about old wounds and injustices, remembering the pain, anger, sadness, humiliation, and betrayal, reliving my sense of outrage and powerlessness. My teeth are clenched, my breath is shallow and tight, and I chew and chew. I feel hurt and angry that these people have never apologized, and I imagine what I would like to say to them.
I’m appalled. How long has this been going on, just under my conscious awareness? Apparently, I’ve been chewing on these old bones for years, sometimes for decades. I’m shocked at how much resentment I’m still carrying and how long I’ve been doing it. I knew I wasn’t doing so well in the forgiveness department, but I didn’t have any idea how bad it really was.
It begins, of course, with my mother. When I first began seeing a therapist, at age 35, I had been choking on my anger towards my mother for my entire life. I knew how important it was to forgive, I wanted to forgive, I tried to forgive, but I couldn’t do it. Whenever I thought about forgiving her a terrible rage came up and hijacked my “good” self, turning me into a lunatic.
I shamed myself about this until I realized that there were other things that I needed to do first: tell the truth, cry, let myself be angry, learn to say no, honor the little girl who was in such pain, and take back my power. So I just gave up and gave myself permission to set the forgiveness piece aside until I felt ready for it.
I’m ready now. It only took me 30 years.
I’m aware, once again, of how much courage and humility it takes to look at what’s really going on in there. Neitzsche said that if we would be wise we must “listen to the wild dogs barking in the cellar.” It sounds like there is an entire pack of them down there.
I feel like I’m being immersed in this process of forgiveness. It develops organically and intuitively, pulling from many sources and teachings. When I feel done with one piece of it, the next piece emerges all on its own and carries me along in its flow. I’m not doing the process; the process is doing me. Things happen that I don’t understand with my rational mind.
I wish I could take more credit for it. The truth is that this readiness isn’t a result of my maturing into a more loving and forgiving person, it’s probably purely selfish. I have this nagging worry that if I don’t forgive my mother before I die that I might have to see her again in my next lifetime in order to have the “opportunity” to resolve it. This terrifies me; I never ever want to go through another lifetime with that woman. So, what do I need to do to make sure it’s done? I figure it’s wiser to just face the damn thing and get it over with now so I’ll never have to see her again.
Ho’o pono pono
I begin by easing into a meditative space and using Ho’o pono pono, which is a beautiful way to begin anything.
Please forgive me.
I love you.
I think about my mother as I begin. “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” I’m getting tighter and tighter, hotter and hotter, and it’s hard to breathe. The words feel like lies. I’m sorry?! For what? Forgive me?! I’m not the one who needs to apologize. This process is already triggering tremendous anger, but I keep going. I feel the pain of that traumatized little girl inside me, so I turn towards her, embracing her, connecting heart to heart, comforting her. She begins to calm down. She is so sad.
How do I say this to my mother? It feels impossible. She was a complicated person, and definitely not a 50’s Leave It To Beaver sort of mom. She was a pilot in WWII (a WASP); she loved to fly and was proud to serve her country in an important way. She was a very good classical pianist and made sure we all had music lessons. All five kids played piano as well as an orchestral instrument. This required some intense logistical planning if everyone was going to have time to practice before going to school, so she put a line of alarm clocks in the hallway. The first alarm would go off at 6am, when one of us would practice on the piano while others too showers, ate breakfast, and practiced other instruments (violin, cello, trumpet, clarinet, and trombone). At 6:30 the next alarm would go off, and we switched around, and again at 7:00, 7:30. and 8:00. She was adventurous and liked to take us to interesting places. She loved to travel, and one summer she took the five of us (ages 10 to 15) on a nine-week camping trip all around the U.S. in a VW bus. She revered education. She gave us a lot of freedom to play, explore, take risks, and to make mistakes and learn from them.
She was also mean and unpredictable and violent. On that camping trip she ordered us out of the car and left us in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, and drove away, saying we could find our own way back to California. She beat me with a metal pipe, with a swim fin, with anything that was handy. It felt like she wanted me dead. I had recurring nightmares until I was 40 in which she was chasing me with a butcher knife and trying to kill me.
So how do I do this? How do I say, “I’m sorry, mom, please forgive me”? At first, I force myself say the words, using all my strength to push them out through layers of resistance. Labor pains of love. I lose my breath, lose my voice, my whole body feels tight and tortured, but I continue, and eventually it gets a little easier and a little lighter. My body gradually stops clenching. I do this for hours, over and over. The words slowly sink down, deeper and deeper, beneath all the layers of hurt and anger, until they settle in a softer place. Little by little they become more heartfelt, and I am surprised to find the place of truth in them. It opens a well of tears.
The armor around my heart cracks open, and the feeling of vulnerability is excruciating. I want to tear myself away and go do something, anything, to distract myself. I don’t want to feel these feelings. She doesn’t deserve this.
But I stay with it, and strangely enough, I find that there are things I’m sorry for, and the longer I stay there the more I find. I let myself see all the ways that I wounded her.
“I am sorry, please forgive me.”
This takes a long time. I let myself soak in this painful muck, let it emerge, open, and deepen. I stay with it and let it wave through me, until it feels clear and true. Until it feels done.
When I’m able, I move into the next part of the process and force myself to say, “Thank you.” At first this one is just as difficult as the first one. Thank her?! I can feel that little girl rising up in rage again. I don’t minimize it or reason her out of it. I don’t shame her into “bucking up and moving on.” Instead, I give her all the space and time she needs to tell her truth. I let her cry. I listen to her pain. And eventually, gradually, I can sink down into that place underneath the pain.
Surprisingly, I find things about her that I am thankful for. Strengths, courage, values, inspiration. I take my time and find them all. I realize that I have wisdom and resilience that I wouldn’t have if she hadn’t been my mother. I discover that I can thank her from my heart. This, too, takes hours and hours.
The last piece, “I love you,” is the hardest of all. It feels impossible. I give myself time to ease my way into it. I feel hot, sad, angry, and vulnerable. Inner voices rise up, reminding me of all the ways that she hurt me. I honor each one until it calms down and allows me to continue. At first, I growl and snarl the words, but eventually it changes. The words soak in and thaw out all the deep, cold, frozen places. I allow the feeling of loving her to slowly germinate and grow and fill up my body. For hours I sit with the “full catastrophe” of my mother, all her volatile and violent and creative complexity, and force myself to say, “I love you.” Eventually, miraculously, it connects to some hidden place inside of me, a chord of authenticity, and becomes true. How is this possible?
The strange kaleidoscope of identity
Meditative processes often take on a life of their own and take us to places we could not have anticipated. As the emotional charge softens, something strange happens. Without any conscious intention, my inner awareness moves into my mother, and I see the world through her eyes. This is not part of the Ho’o pono pono process, as far as I know, and is not something I’ve ever heard of. It happens all on its own, from “somewhere else” other than my conscious mind. Yes, of course we are taught that it’s important to be able to see things from other peoples’ points of view, to walk a mile in their shoes, etc., but this is different, deeper. It doesn’t feel philosophical, it feels real. I am not simply trying to understand things from her point of view, I am in her. I have merged with her identity. It feels weird, but I let it flow, and I allow myself to look through her eyes and feel what she is feeling. “I” look at my daughter and see how much pain “I” have caused her. “I” can feel all that pain, and am overwhelmed with the reality of what “I” have done. “I” allow myself to see the truth without minimizing or avoiding. “I” have done this to my own daughter, and “I” cannot blame anyone else. “I” am overcome with shame and remorse.
I’m sorry…please forgive me…thank you…I love you… Now my mother asks me for forgiveness. She acknowledges what she could never acknowledge in life, and I can feel her genuine remorse. It hits me like a huge wave that feels painful and healing at the same time. I am shocked; I never imagined that she would ever understand. I never imagined hearing these words. My whole body is lit up and it’s hard to breathe. I feel her apology and her love soaking down into my bones.
As the two of us connect heart to heart I find myself lifted out of this plane, out of both bodies, and up into another level of awareness where I am watching both my normal self and my mother. I wonder what this is, and the only thing that comes to mind is that I have moved into my Higher Self, my God-Self, or whatever it is. I don’t have a clear idea of what that is, but it is definitely a different “place” than my normal consciousness, or even than the relaxed, centered state I reach while I’m meditating. It feels big, calm, and wise. It feels way “up” and way “out.”
From this place, I watch these two beings, my normal self and my mother, as the love and forgiveness flow back and forth between them, melting all the anger, pain, and shame. Then I stretch out my arms and embrace both of them with understanding, forgiveness, and love. All separateness evaporates, and there is only oneness. There is no loss of identity, only enlargement.
In the midst of this exquisite integration I become aware of other voices, the very young parts of me that carry the deepest mother-wounds and yearn to be healed. The first one is the baby in the womb. I let her come up stronger. This womb feels dangerous. I give myself time to feel the depth of this baby’s dread and helplessness, as well as her yearning to love and be loved. Eventually she is able to turn towards her mother and apologize for her anger and judgment. I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you… When that is done, my perspective shifts and I am again looking through my mother’s eyes, and feeling her feelings. “I” feel this baby’s pain and vulnerability, and apologize from “my” heart. I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you… When that feels complete, I move out into that bigger mind and embrace this baby and her mother with love and forgiveness. Again, we all melt into oneness.
The next part to emerge is the newborn. Her vulnerability and grief take my breath away. She is cold and alone; she has no mother to hold her, comfort her, rock her, sing to her, smile at her, look into her eyes, and keep her warm. She is trembling at being alone and unloved, and is angry at being abandoned. I connect with her and feel this in my bones. Eventually it shifts; she feels seen and understood, and begins to relax. As the intensity subsides, something else emerges…a pure thread of yearning for her mother, a yearning to be held and nursed. My mother is uncomfortable, but willing. This tiny baby nestles into her breast and nurses. She sinks into it and stays there a long time, feeling loved and safe. I’m sorry, please forgive me… It flows back and forth between them, each one feeling the other’s pain, each one feeling remorse, each one asking for forgiveness, each one reaching out in love, heart to heart, until the baby feels satiated. Again I find myself embracing both of them from this other place of forgiveness beyond forgiveness and love beyond love. Once again, we melt into oneness.
Piles and piles of bones
I am relieved and exhausted. I feel wrung out. I feel different. I’m so glad it’s over, but, unbidden, another face comes up. Another person who hurt, humiliated, and bullied me. Another person I haven’t been able to forgive. Without any conscious intention, I find myself doing it all over again. I’m sorry…please forgive me…thank you…I love you. Again, it takes hours and hours of feeling the pain, moving into his body as he expresses his own remorse, and then stepping out into that other mind and embracing both of us with love and forgiveness.
The process continues, with one person after another. Over the next several days I face my resentment and unforgiveness for every single person who has ever hurt me…family, friends, partners, strangers, everyone I can think of, everyone who has slighted, betrayed, disrespected, squashed, condescended, molested, abused, sabotaged, injured, bullied, robbed, harmed, taunted, slandered, deceived, or insulted me. There are dozens and dozens. All the old bones. I am saddened and dismayed by the number. I had no idea there were so many, no idea that there was so much bitterness and resentment stuffed down in there. Some take a lot longer than others.
It goes on and on as I express remorse, ask for forgiveness, express gratitude and love, from both sides. I feel completely drained. I can’t think of one more person who has hurt me. I can’t find any more resentment or bitterness. It feels done, but I can’t help wondering if there’s more. As the days pass I wait and listen, but there is only space and silence. The wild dogs are curled up, snuggled together, peacefully sleeping. For now.
It’s Sunday morning at the fellowship I attend. They sing, light candles, and meditate. They explicitly welcome all ages, races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. They even welcome all religious beliefs. You can be an atheist, and you will be welcomed. This is a great relief for someone like me who believes that the Divine is way way too big for any of our little boxes.
A little girl about seven is coming up the aisle with the other kids to the front of the church for “Children’s Time.” She’s skinny and knobby and wears thick glasses. Her scraggly hair is dishwater blond. She wears a psychedelic t-shirt that says I Love Cats, a pink tutu skirt, black and white leggings in a jaggedy pattern, and bright blue wooly mittens. She clomps up the aisle in big black combat boots. She fidgets and hops and rolls around on the floor while the other children are sitting quietly on their special rug with the big green frogs and listening to the pastor tell them a story.
She pops up in the middle of the story and stands smack in front of the pastor, raising her arms so that her belly is showing, wiggling both hands in his face. “I have a question, I have a question, I have a question!”
The pastor blinks, then asks what her question is. She says, “I was here last week.”
“Oh, really? That’s nice.”
“And I was excited to be here.”
“Oh good. I’m glad.”
“But today I’m not.”
The pastor raises his eyebrows. “No? Not excited? And…is there a question?”
The little girl says, “Oh yeah. Well, my question is, why do I have to be here every Sunday?”
Everyone laughs, of course. One part of me is amused, another part is annoyed at her fidgeting and interrupting, and another part is pitying her parents, because this is obviously a non-stop, full-time, 24/7 circus.
But there is another part of me that envies this annoying little girl, because she has no doubt whatsoever that she is worthy and lovable, that people care about her and about her questions, that the world is a safe and welcoming place where she is free to move, speak, question, and explore. She has a voice; she has no idea how lucky she is. She is unconscious of the great gift she has been given by her undoubtedly exhausted parents.
I begin imagining the rest of her life, how boldly she will explore her world and ask her questions. When people frown at her for being rude and loud and pushy she will shrug it off. When men try to abuse or harass her, she will say no, and she will say it as loudly as she needs to in order to take care of herself.
I think about all the women who are speaking out now about the harassment and abuse that they’ve experienced. This is incredible to me. I am so thrilled I can barely contain myself. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. Over the years there have been books, rallies, and marches, but not like this. Most of us have spent our lives knowing that we just had to shut up and take it, all that groping, grabbing, molesting, and raping. All the sly jokes and remarks about our bodies. All the digs about being frigid if we didn’t want to have sex, for whatever reason. All the shaming and blaming if someone assaulted us. All the rolled eyes if we wanted to be treated with respect. All the barbs about just wanting attention or money, and the assumptions that we must be lying if we dared to report anything.
And now, for the first time in the history of the world, women (and men, too) are speaking up and saying, “This is enough. This must stop. You can’t do that to us anymore.” This is perhaps the biggest, most important cultural change I have witnessed in my lifetime. It’s a watershed moment, a cultural tipping point. People are losing their jobs for harassing those who work for them. This is huge.
This annoying little girl has a voice, and she is growing up in a world where people may actually listen to her. She will ask uncomfortable questions, express unpopular opinions, make inconvenient demands, tell painful truths, challenge, disrupt, inspire. She will feel free to become whoever she wants to become, free to try new things, free to achieve, free to fail, free to speak, sing, growl, yell, lament, wail, weep, shout…
She has a voice. I have one now, but I certainly didn’t at 7, or even at 27. She’s way ahead of me, and an effing inspiration. I may just get myself some combat boots.
I’ve had several therapists over the years. One was tough as nails and wouldn’t let me get away with anything. She helped me grow up. One had a huge, kind, heart. He helped me grow in. One asked if I’d forgiven the man who molested me, and when I said I’d like to rip that guy’s cojones off he sadly shook his head and chided me about being stiff when he put his arm around me. I didn’t go back. Good therapists are worth their weight in gold. Bad therapists, like bad doctors or priests, can be dangerous and destructive. So how do you find a good one? You should be able to tell fairly quickly, within a couple of sessions, whether this person is a good fit for you or not. In addition to the simple matter of personality, there are some very important perceptions that can guide your choice:
- You should feel deeply seen and heard. You should feel felt.
- You should feel you can trust her with your deepest, most painful and shameful secrets.
- You should feel like you’re getting somewhere.
- You should feel like you’re learning how to be stronger, healthier, and more independent.
- You should feel like you’re learning the skills you need to cope, to self-soothe, to resolve personal issues and conflicts with others, to put things into a healthy perspective, to feel more in control of your life, and to have healthier relationships.
- You should feel better and better about yourself and who you really are.
- You should like yourself more and criticize yourself less.
- You should feel more and more hopeful.You should feel more connected to your body, your Self, and the people you love.
- You should feel like she accepts all parts of you.
- You should feel that there is no judgment about you or any part of you.
- You should feel like she sees the real you underneath all the mess.
- You should feel more and more compassionate toward yourself and others.
- She should help you discover and express your own deep longings and hopes.
- She should teach you how to listen to your own inner wisdom about what you need and want, what will work for you and support your life, and what is your own “right path.”
- She doesn’t force the process of forgiveness, or shame you into it. She understands that it is an organic and multi-layered process that develops in its own perfect timing.
- She doesn’t shame or blame you or anyone else.
- You should feel more and more able to deal with problems.
- She doesn’t tell you what you should do or not do.
- She doesn’t take advantage of you (in ANY way).
- She never uses sexual touch to “comfort” you.
- Her goal is to strengthen your ability to hear and honor your own internal wisdom, not to make you more compliant to any outside authority, including her.
- She helps you be more aware and conscious of whatever limits you and keeps you from being as big as you really are.
- She helps you be as kind, loving, and peaceful as you can be.
- She helps you feel more free, strong, empowered, joyful, flexible, hopeful, optimistic, playful, and balanced.
- You should feel like you have space…to tell your story, to be with the pain, to connect with the most fragile and painful layers of suffering, to feel your way toward your truth, to find your own words for your own experience, in your own voice, your own way.