I was driving in the car, market-bound with my daughter. She wanted our song to be played, and she wanted it up loud, and since no one has to ask me twice to turn up music, I obliged. As the first beat kicked in, I turned around like I always do, because I knew what I would find. She looked like sunshine, one finger waving in the air, smile spread wide as the moon, an impossibly cute gap between her front teeth, grinning at me like I was everything.
And in that instant, the breath was knocked out of me.
It rarely happens anymore, the flashbacks. But when they come, they’re always sudden and unannounced, nose-diving me back to scenes of the past, ripping my heart from my chest and leaving me completely disoriented. It’s like someone sneaks up behind me and body slams me straight to the ground, where I lie winded, panicking for air, wondering what the fuck just happened. (Sorry. Earmuffs, Jesus.)
It wasn’t so much a memory of what happened to me, but a glimpse of who I must have been. Because as I turned to look at my daughter, I didn’t see her. I saw myself. And it hurt in the worst and the best kind of way.
It’s not like I’d never confronted my inner child before – she was so familiar to me I knew what she looked like, how she behaved, that her smile was shy to begin with, crooked almost, then burst to life. It was a key tool in therapy, this inner child business – especially for us child abuse kids – along with visualization practices, goal setting, and a kind, middle-aged, blue-eyed psychologist giving me the metaphor of my ‘bad thoughts’ as a monster – personifying them – making them easier to detach from, to separate from – that this monster was ‘out there’ not ‘in here’ – not a part of me, not a definition of who I am. As a teenager, Katie Byron and Caroline Myss became household names to me, much like Brad Pitt and Kylie Minogue were for the average kid. I would spend Friday nights doing ‘the work’, while everyone else was out partying, until I became so fucking angry with it all that I finally joined them, ecstasy and speed and alcohol providing me a world I so desperately wanted to be a part of. One where I was whole. Where I was enough. Where I belonged. Except, of course, until that world fell apart, and I had to pick up my grubby veins and my grubbier mind and find a road out of that godawful place before it consumed me entirely. In the end, Write It Out became my greatest therapist. To quote Mary Oliver, “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Because, for me, I could try my best to replace thoughts – to not engage with them – but that only served to make me feel like I was constantly in battle. Constantly on guard. And ultimately, then, constantly failing, because the thoughts would always be there, still, no matter how much I tried to silence them.
The world is unsafe and you are too weak and pathetic to protect yourself.
For that matter, don’t let anyone see how weak and pathetic you actually are.
You are not lovable at all, in fact. It’s best you don’t let anyone see too much of anything, really.
You are far too sensitive to belong here.
You will never be easy.
People only like you because they want something from you.
You are dull and unimportant.
You are dirty. Your insides are filthy.
There is a particular band of trauma, shock and fear which will forever be wrapped around me. Paedophilia is its own kind of monster for victims – shaping a child’s view of themselves and the world long before they have the sense to know any better. I Am A Body First And A Human Second becomes the first belief we have about ourselves, so even if people say they love you, it is clearly your body they love – the package you come in – not the person inside.
But here was my girl, in the backseat of my car, so startling I almost couldn’t stand it, offering me a ticket out. Giving me the first truest glimpse of who I was then – a chance to look my 2 and 3 and 4 and 11-year-old self in the eye and love her.
A tiny child, wide-open and good, rightfully unaware. A little girl who did the best she could with the hand she was dealt. A girl braver and fiercer than she would, for decades, ever give herself credit for.
I turned back around and let them come. Hot and swollen and falling down my face like holy water. And like it always does, the right music found me at the moment I needed to hear it. Mumford and Sons bellowed through the speakers, reverberating with their raw and haunted words which never get old to me.
You were cold as the blood through your bones
And the light which led us from our chosen homes
Well I was lost
Suddenly it was excruciatingly painful to love my daughter, to be unable to fathom all over again how somebody could violate a child.
And I was still
But I was under your spell
When I was told by Jesus all was well
So all must be well
And, like so many times before, I let each wave hit me over and over again, pounding me against each jagged rock, allowing myself get wrung and dragged through it, like a soldier who drops his gun and surrenders himself in order to fight for something greater.
Keep the earth below my feet
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve my hands to learn
And I forgave myself. I re-forgave myself, actually, because what is self-forgiveness but a repeated process of remembering? I forgave myself for the intensity in which I love my children and the way it borders upon control. I forgave myself for my desperate, clingy need for inclusion and approval and how it screws up my self-esteem. I forgave myself for my tendency to keep relationships at a safe distance but then wonder why I don’t have the closeness I long for. I forgave myself for all the millions of ways I fall short.
This is me.
I’m too much and broken open and really fucking vulnerable. And I stand before you with my broken heart in my outstretched hands, not because I need it to be fixed – Lord no – my broken heart is my greatest asset. I stand here because I want it to be seen.
There is a chance, and a large one at that, that someone who fills up her trembling hands with her dirty insides and holds them out to us and says, “Are we sure this is dirt? Might it be gold?”, well, there is a chance she might be onto something. The only thing, really. Because we are only as liberated as the amount we let people peer inside of us. And more than anything – more than power, approval and prestige; the places we automatically turn to for salvation – more than any of those things, what we actually want is to be free.
“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”
― Mary Oliver