Some labels have such influence and power over us that they often dictate and predict our behavior from places deeply embedded within us. Labels that are donned upon us in our formative years are not easily shed. It takes not only a lot of work to free oneself from them, but it also takes the awareness of just how deeply rooted they have become and how pervasive they are in our thoughts and perceptions. Our thoughts have the ability to change us or to paralyze us with certain behavioral patterns which can further entrap us if we remain in one space for too long.
In scanning my inner spiritual landscape, I noticed that despite the work I had done to heal myself, I had underestimated the potential that words hold. I was taking for granted the power of language, both the spoken word and the inner dialogue running inside my head. I was aware of the critical incidents of my life that caged me in fear and anxiety, but I often times neglected the words surrounding these events that more than likely had an even greater impact in my life. The words had faded partly because the details over time had become less clear leaving only their imprints of how I felt about myself and the world in general . What took hold was how the language surrounding the event made me feel about myself. I carried shame, fear, and self-loathing from various events of my childhood and these feelings played out for years without me truly knowing why.
Perhaps I am just too “overly sensitive”, but as a child I ingested these words, wearing them tightly like a corset, even if they at times were squeezing the life from me. The words surrounding certain events held significance in my life and so I would lace up carefully, always trying to find the meaning behind the tightly tied corset that was denying me my freedom. I honestly was unaware that the words I donned without hesitation were slowly suffocating me. I just kept going, often completely oblivious of how small, in ways, my world had become.
Throughout my life, I have always felt that on some level I was inherently bad and at some point others will “find this out” about me. I was always waiting for “the shoe to drop” whereby I would be abandoned again because others had discovered my secret of being defective in some way. I used to casually joke in my adults years that I had a habit of disclosing too much too quickly as if to reveal my messy life, quickly pushing away people that I felt might leave anyway in time. I was aware of this behavioral pattern and at times even committed to changing it, but it is still something I struggle with to this day. It’s hard for me to let people truly in because I feel my life is too chaotic and it can be too overwhelming. I keep my circle extremely small because the stress and anxiety of navigating relationships is hard for me. Not to mention, I have been burned badly a few times by giving too much and getting little to nothing in return. As I heal from my past, I am developing better boundaries and am eager to rebuild my life around healthy people and hobbies that will help me maintain my peace and integrity.
I had a striking revelation the other day as I was struggling again with severe anxiety and depression. I have desperately wanted to be completely free from the chronic pain caused by being tensed up and hyper-vigilant. I was asking myself in desperation” “What more can I do”? What then came to the surface was this overwhelming fear and sadness that had caged me long ago at the tender age of four when my sister and I were molested by our next door neighbor. It was the fear that I was “bad” because I had messed up by telling which seemed so abominable at the time that it might of jeopardized the safety of my mother. Much of my molestation has been blocked out. What I do know is that while taking a bath with my older sister, I blurted out the unfathomable: “Wally (our next door neighbor) saw my butt today”. Of course, my sister recalls it differently and I guess I used a few swear words as well. We were in the bathtub and my Mom “dropped the soap”. In any case, this lead to my sister quickly shutting me down in fear, saying: “Be quiet, you will get Mom in trouble”. Our neighbor had threatened to harm our mother, who was a single mother at the time and she was also our only safety. This is ultimately, I believe, where my fear and mistrust began. We also had our home broken into around that time where a man entered, fixed a sandwich, and got into bed with my mother. I remember being awakened by a blood curling scream where my mother was shaking, but had called the police. This further reinforced that the world was not safe.
I had underestimated the power of the words surrounding the event which communicated to me that I was “bad” because I had placed our safety in jeopardy. I realize as an adult that the expressions of shock, horror, and rage were not directed towards me, but I couldn’t tell that to my four year old self who doesn’t have the reasoning of an adult. I was only able to see the body language and words from my mother and sister. I believe I must of felt a huge degree of fear and shame for telling and it was after this event that I began to wet the bed. I was often unintentionally made to feel inferior because of wetting the bed. I felt powerless to stop just as I assume I felt powerless when being molested. My innocence was shattered and I was no longer a happy go lucky child of four who played with dolls and fisher price toys, I was now a child who felt they had committed a crime. As an adult, I understand what happened, but as a child I assumed responsibility for what I couldn’t even understand or articulate. I carried the weight of this event in the way I felt about myself and the world. No one is to trusted, perhaps even myself.
That incident was followed in time by my Grandmother’s often simple, but often harsh ways of discipling us. Often, we stayed with our grandmother while my Mom worked. She had many foster kids and did a good job of keeping them in line and was loved, but she didn’t take the time when anyone got into trouble to explain the reason for the punishment. It was simply that I was “bad” child and therefore deserved a paddling or to sit in the corner for 15 minutes or so. I remember getting my mouth washed out with soap because I “took the Lord’s name in vain” when I really only said “Gah…”. Her discipline was stern and you were either “good” or “bad”. Years later when my mother remarried, my step-father not only was stern, but unpredictable and often times I did not even know why I got into trouble into much later. I spent my life trying to live in perfection to avoid punishment and I began to develop a lot of fears and phobias. Deep down, I just felt flawed. Not every child would feel as I do, but I absorbed a lot of the unresolved conflict of my caretakers and adults around me.
I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 6, before the disorder was really known about, and would get into trouble often. Because of my poor impulse control, I got into trouble at school often and this reinforced to me that I was flawed in some way, a bad child. Back then there were no resource classes, I was often a target of teachers and they would embarrass me in front of my classmates, telling me “I had ants in my pants”. My cheeks would grow red in embarrassment as the room full of kids looked on. There were a lot of reasons, looking back, why I would develop the perception that I was a “bad” child and this lead to me being overly sensitive and anxious about myself. I still feel awkward to this day in social situations wondering when they will find out that I am flawed. I push people away or self isolate because I feel uncomfortable around others.
Having these revelations regarding my molestation and childhood has allowed me to reframe my feelings and to grieve for the time lost to the individual who stole my innocence at such a young age and colored my world in fear and anxiety as a result. It allows me the distance to separate myself from his actions. Many times, especially as children, we take on the unresolved pain of adults who harm us. It’s nearly impossible to escape pain, yet we can stop suffering when we accept the reality of “what is”, grieve, and reframe as needed. It is hard work and I often times feel like a sculptor chiseling away to reveal truth and integrity in the structure of my life.
I hope my writing is helpful on some level. I’m learning every day and I want to stay awake. I long to leave this branch I am perched on and spread my wings in flight, effortlessly. I want to embrace my struggle and my willingness to search deeply inside for answers. I feel in doing so I will be able to shed the negative self-talk that has reigned for much of my life and replace it with open awareness that is non-judgmental and free of past imprints. It’s possible I have been protecting myself a bit too much and holding on too tightly to the armor that I wore to keep me safe. I realize the tightness of it means it’s time to loosen it’s hold on me and let go more. It served it’s purpose for a time, but those threats are truly no longer there. And so, I will just keep chiseling away until I feel more comfortable in this new reality.
***Below is a poem I wrote probably more than a decade ago. If I had to guess, it was written around 2003 or 4. It’s untitled as most of mine are. I am posting it here because I find it interesting how it conveys the feeling of being stuck, but moving forward in courage and hope despite that reality. Hope you enjoy!
Watching one’s feet
As life circles by
A tiny little universe
A place where you can hide
If I ever left the comfort
A few seconds in my life
I would detract my head in like a turtle
My shell would suffice
Let me go back
I shiver with fear
The rain is upon me now
I have to shift gears
My eyes are opening
The sun, cutting sharply through the trees
The forest is growing
I physically am unable to leave
Toothpicks are prying my weary eyes open
Sunlight makes me squint
Everything has an outline
It’s shiny, the condition, mint
So, my legs drag on
Even in apathy or fear
I will keep the hope and courage
In the body that I wear.