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 because the toilet is old and funky and is overflowing down the hall and into the living room. 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 or him 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, 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, that she will feel painful feelings and remember painful memories, that she will change unhealthy patterns, that 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 or his 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 a football player, but it doesn’t work for a little child who is 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 that all the bones in her body are 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 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 disjointed 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 opening up.
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 or weeks 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. Once the process begins, it’s irreversible. 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; they 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 and beliefs, and the memories they are connected to, 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 talk about it. Practice saying, “How can I help?” Don’t touch her in any way that feels uncomfortable to her. Be willing to take care of yourself in other ways for a while (I’m told there are little “pink elephant” things that work pretty well).
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; 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 is deeply hurtful and is 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. 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.
Instead, do this really radical thing: listen to her. Believe her; don’t minimize her memories. Accept her unconditionally. Ask her how you can support her. Ask her what she needs from you instead of focusing on what you’re not getting from her. Respect whatever she thinks she ought to do. Amazingly enough, deep down, she knows. 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 instead of a Stepford Wife. 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.