Honey; Weaving A Tapestry of Healing Out of the Threads That Connect the Past to the Present

About twenty three years ago, I worked as a horse trainer apprentice and barn manager at a Quarter Horse farm. I had answered a classified ad in the paper after my job as lead singer in a house band aboard a dinner cruise ship had just ended. I went from dressing fancy six nights a week, and getting paid well to live a Diva lifestyle, to five days a week, twelve hour days, dirty and dead tired, for $25 a day. Horses equaled happiness, and I was spiraling into Depression after losing my job, my dog, and all hope for the success of my crumbling marriage at the time. I felt defeated, and it seemed like a miracle that might help revive me.

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On my first day, I was one of fifteen women who came out to vie for this position. We were set to task with the work increasing in difficulty, as if it were a competition to see who was the toughest.  The old man singled me out and tried to break me like he did his horses. He would stand over me and bark belittling criticisms at me, as if I were at Marine bootcamp. His wife found me in a stall, crying and shaking.

I confided about my marriage and Depression. She told me her own similar story. She told me that her husband was only trying to toughen me up, and if I really wanted the job, to hang in there. Dreams come true. He was her  happy ending. At the end of the week, I got the job.

I had walked into a familiar landmine when I dusted myself off that first day, and felt the determination to prove myself to this man who was wickedly abusive to me. I wanted a father figure so badly that I sought his approval, like a monkey swinging to the next vine, convinced that I could re-create the one I never had. It turned out to be both heaven and hell.  But there were horses, and I loved them.

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There was a beautiful, pedigreed chestnut mare there named Honey, who was in foal. I had held the twitch on her lip the day she was force-bred to a well-known, blue-ribbon stallion whose name I can’t remember. There are lots of memories I have tried to block out from my time there. But Honey was special, sweet, and silly.

Fast forward to now. There is a horse named Honey who has returned to Mill Swamp after being away for ten years. She was a special horse to Steve, and her return was a welcome surprise. Honey is a registered Paint mare, all white, with a large chestnut colored spot on her right flank and belly. She has crystal clear blue eyes like large marbles. I had the pleasure of riding her on Sunday.

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That is the back story to a story I have been attempting to tell for two days. It has continued to disappear or fall apart so many times that I’ve lost count! I didn’t  consider sharing it until I saw a friend make a comment to Steve on Facebook, saying that Honey came there for a reason. Suddenly, I recalled my experience earlier in the day and put all the pieces together, knowing that I was part of Honey’s reason for coming back.

I realize that sounds self-agrandizing. Maybe that is why I have struggled to put what I want to say about Honey and what her being there means, into words. Honey present and Honey previous connected in a very cool way to show me something extremely valuable.

I had shown up, thinking I would ride Shunk, but he was in endurance prep mode with another rider, so that is how I met Honey. I had no reservations about riding this new horse, who apparently is not considered to be a comfortable ride, by those who  knew her from her earlier days. When I met her she felt familiar to me. She had a special sweetness about her. As I was riding, a memory and lots of long-buried feelings came flooding back to me as I thought about old Honey. It was a traumatic experience that had been filed away because the cumulative awful things that had happened to me during my time at Clark Quarter Horses had such a negative impact, that this one event had to be forgotten for my sanity’s sake.

Part of me was enjoying the connection to Steve’s Honey as we took a leisurely ride, while my mind replayed a certain day’s unfortunate events.

Flashback to a weekend alone at the Quarter Horse farm, when I was left in charge while they were away at a horse show. It was evening, and the mares had not come in. There was a long rectangular fenced area that lead to 4 different pastures, with a small gate connecting each one. Usually they were all there at feeding time, ready to go back to their stalls. I saddled up and rode out to gently herd them back. I was walking behind them when something spooked my horse, making her leap into a canter, and causing the eight or nine mares to charge through the gate at the same time, in a frenzy. I watched as Honey got impaled by the fence post. I  managed to get her to the barn and put her in cross ties while I called the vet. I was terrified that she may lose her baby or not survive herself, and felt so guilty. When I looked at the huge, gaping hole, bigger than a baseball, and saw the level of distress she was in, I almost lost it. All I wanted to do was comfort and console her, and tell her how sorry I was. If anything happened to her or her foal, I would be in big trouble.

After what seemed like forever, the vet arrived. I can’t remember anything else, except that Honey and foal were going to be alright, but intense daily cleaning was necessary.

My body did not respond to this trigger, although I was feeling all the fear and sadness that would usually cripple me. By the ride’s end, I had watched the footage of that traumatic event play out vividly in my mind, but I forgave myself instead of self-loathing. It was so empowering, taking my demon slaying to a whole new level. I thanked both Honey’s to myself, for their role in bringing this memory out of the shadows and into the light. It was Sunday, and this was my church. I pondered the immense significance of the day’s events the whole way home.

Later, “Honey obviously came back for a reason” became clear to me. Honey’s one chestnut spot is in the exact location where dear old Honey had been wounded by the post.

So, she did come back for a good reason, through time and space, to give me the closure and strength I needed to continue shining a light in all my dark places. She had a perfect, beautiful and healthy foal and lived happily-ever-after. (because they moved away from that horrible man, and his wife was soon to folllow).

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The Horse Who Showed Me The Way

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I love this artist’s simple, gestural drawings and words of inspiration. This particular one has caused me to reflect on the impact that one horse has made in my healing journey.

FB_IMG_1561724275548 It’s no secret that I have a special love for one horse above all others. Ta Sunka Witco came into my life 2 years ago, when I first discovered Mill Swamp Indian Horses, after several months of asking, “Who should I ride today?” I had enjoyed Roxy’s smooth gait, and was clear about not wanting to deal with a challenging horse that could land me another broken limb. Once in a lifetime was good enough. After all, I hadn’t ridden in 20 yrs, never thought I would again, and was learning to do it as if it were a totally new experience. I had worked as a horse trainer apprentice and barn manager at a quarter horse farm when I had my traumatic accident, but it was wonderful to erase the past and begin anew, especially since I was new to Natural Horsemanship.

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From the moment I got on him, he felt unlike any other horse. He had a majestic strength that gave me chills, and I felt an immediate deep connection with him. Not much for fanfare, “Shunk” as we call him for short, was very sure of himself, but not in a cocky way. Perhaps not the most handsome or regal horse on the lot, he possessed a quiet confidence that made me feel safe, and until very recently, he was the only horse I rode.

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Shunk is an older gelding. He is a Choctaw Colonial Spanish Mustang who’s grandsire was a famous Medicine Hat stallion named Choctaw Sun Dance.

A Medicine Hat is a Paint  horse with special markings. As described by Vicki Ives, his beloved owner, “A paint with a particular spot over ears like a cap, spot over the head to protect from enemy behind, shield over chest to protect from enemy in front. Native Americans believed a warrior who rode a Medicine Hat could not be killed in battle due to the special magic of his horse.”

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Magic runs in Shunk’s bloodlines. It wasn’t long before I realized this. Not only is he a descendant of the horses famous for carrying the displaced Indians on The Trail of Tears, and The Pony Express, he has a unicorn spirit. This was something that I felt was very strongly communicated to me. In my life, he is a creature unlike any other, Heaven-sent to carry me and lead me in many ways. He has taught me to trust. He has taught me to believe in myself as a leader, and to find my voice. He has taught me how to walk through fear, and to recognize my worth. He has taught me when to hold on tight and when to let go, and given me the wisdom to discern what is needed in any given situation.

 

 

He is not without a ” bad boy” past. He was once a mighty stallion who could not be contained, but is now a devoted, protective herd boss who is very particular about who he accepts. Unlike me, he is not given over to folly and maintains a fairly formal, “business-like” attitude. He has a job to do and he takes it very seriously. I am animated, adoring, and chatty. We both learn from each other. Sometimes I get a very clear message that I need to stop talking. I can’t begin to tell you what helpful advice this is. That’s not to say that he doesn’t indulge my whimsy. No no. On the contrary, he understands and accepts me as I am, even if I am too huggy and demanding of kisses. He is not showy with his affection, and exhibits no favoritism. He is just there for me, fully present in his role as teacher, healer, faithful unicorn steed. He is a magnificent horse.

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His strength and steadfast endurance make him the most handsome creature to me, but his magical abilities have the power to transform any trepidatious rider and build their confidence too. He has taught me that showing up, unwavering in support, is the greatest form of loving.

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My boyfriend may be a bit jealous of the time and attention that I give to Shunk, but he knows the value of it. Putting my trust in a wild Mustang has paved the way for me to, at long last, trust in his devotion and love for me.

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This past Sunday, my beloved gave me a gift greater than any amount of money.  It was an act so selfless and poignant, that I never again will doubt his commitment to me.

He took my mother to my stepfather’s memorial service in my place. He refused to stand by and watch me be guilted into doing something I had solid resolve to avoid.

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He stood in the gap, and I let him. There is no more waiting for the other shoe to drop, so-to-speak. If I hadn’t had these years of building trust with Shunk and getting to better understand myself through things only a horse with unicorn magic can teach, I would not have this elated, joyful release of knowing I am deeply loved, and SAFE.

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A favorite Bible verse that comes to me often is 1John 4:18 PERFECT LOVE CASTS OUT Fear. There is no fear in Love. Showing up with unconditional love is a gift of divine brilliance no diamond could ever outshine.

 

 

Complex PTSD; Anatomy of a Trigger

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I have wanted to talk about triggers, the anatomy of a panic attack, and what that looks like for me as a person living with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for some time.

Having been feeling very optimistic and experiencing a beautiful reprieve that drastically improved my attitude and strength was so blissful that I began to feel I had truly turned a corner in my healing journey, and though I knew it was still an important thing to share, I was not ready to revisit my suffering just yet. I wanted to give myself time to swim and splash in the healing waters. Sometimes the universe, (God) has different plans.

It is hard not to get angry. I have held onto my faith, even if by a thread at times, and I will continue to do so. Belief takes action. Anger is a default. I am willing to do whatever is necessary to change that. I start by not feeling guilty that I don’t want to communicate with my dysfunctional family who have no understanding of how this illness affects me, by not making excuses for declining social invitations, or answering phone calls. I am putting myself first.

During these past few months I have watched potentially triggering things on TV and been able to point them out, stay in the moment, and watch them pass. I have successfully dealt with a panic attack on the trail while riding by talking about my trigger with someone who would listen and allow that wounded child’s voice to be heard. But sometimes the painful memories, or the feelings of sadness and helplessness that they trigger, rise up from deep in the body in a manner in which they cannot be contained. My adult self disappears, as if suddenly held captive by this trapped energy that only allows me to see, hear, and feel as the child who survived this trauma.  I am blindsided. 

Dealing with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a challenge made bigger by the lack of information and support available. The difference with the Complex label has to do with the age and duration that the abuse took place.

The first thing I want to do when processing my painful, debilitating, triggered episodes, is to find comfort in knowing my symptoms are shared by others. This is so important to me because I feel like a freak in that fugue state following the trigger. Coming up empty in my search, I decided it was critical to explain what I experience, not just for other survivors, but for the people who may witness me in the midst of one of these episodes, as well as loved ones who struggle to understand.

There are two distinct responses to my triggers. One involves cumulative, excessive stress that I strive to overcome. I am determined to power through it, no matter how much it depletes my stores until something, either a situation, or words that hit the “no going back” trigger, causes my body to completely shut itself down. If I am standing, I will immediately slump to the ground and “freeze”. This is called the faint and freeze response which is the opposite of the fight or flight response. This happens in the wild when an animal fears inescapable death. They freeze, or play dead. In this state respiration slows, eyes become fixed, I am unresponsive, having retreated deep within myself where the harrowing enormity of what caused this can cause me no further harm. This usually lands me a visit from paramedics and a trip to the ER where Dr’s  and staff crowd around me, poking and pinching, using painful attempts to get me to “come to” . With each failure to get me to show signs of life, the methods increase in force, as they all stand by, utterly perplexed. One important thing to note is that I can see and hear everything going on around me. I cannot speak, I cannot move or even blink. I am paralyzed, trapped somewhere safely, deep inside, where I can wait until the threat has passed. I can feel the pain, it’s just a matter of enduring it so as not to be forced from that safe place. 

It takes a decent span of torture time before I make my way back  at the sharp prodding of a toe so excruciatingly painful that I bolt upright gasping for air and hyperventilating, as if  rising from the dead. It’s as if they have never witnessed any such thing. I must be the only person who has ever displayed such symptoms. I question my own sanity. 

One time a Dr kept applying very painful pressure to my sternum in an attempt to make me tell him my name, telling me they would not help me if I did not comply. Even with tears streaming out the sides of my eyes, there was no empathy for me. At that point they could have cut off a finger and I still wouldn’t have made a peep. 

There was one very kind older Dr during one of these trips. He seemed to understand what was going on. He spoke gently as he held my hand, and reassured me in a most loving way, that everything was going to be alright. I fell into a deep sleep after that, not from any medication being administered, but from the soothing nature of his words, which had been directed at the trapped, wounded child in me.

Western Medicine, particularly as it relates to ER protocol and training, is USELESS in helping people suffering from all forms of PTSD, and mental lillness in general. No wonder the suicide rates are so high. The pain generated from the flashbacks and memories of suffering trapped inside the body feel like unbearable torture. To know that there is absolutely no-one coming to rescue you from that battlefield is like fearing imminent death. In my usual state, I know that this threat holds no power over me.

That brings me to my second trauma stimuli response. They are always brought on by a trigger. These triggers can take the form of sights, sounds, smells, or actions that seem to trip a switch in my mind. It feels like instantly being in a different reality. I am looking out through my adult eyes, but I am seeing a memory from the past through my child eyes that witnessed it, complete with the feelings of terror and desperate need for rescue. Sometimes I am triggered and experiencing a trauma from my adult life, but the child shows up because I have been piggy back triggered; a double whammy that starts off as a traumatic memory from adulthood that then triggers intense fear and sadness from a childhood experience.

One minute I am my happy, witty self, engaged in whatever it is I am doing, the next I am overwhelmed by deep sadness, fear, and helplessness. I cannot shake it off. It comes on like a tsunami and I begin crying uncontrollably, gasping for air, covering my face,  as if doing so makes me disappear. Other times I hide in my closet where I can make myself as small and undetectable as possible, or if in public, I sit and hold myself, rocking back and forth, inconsolable. It is extremely humiliating. I am unable to communicate as my adult self. I am held captive, as an observer, powerless until those emotions subside. It doesn’t end there.  Something happens in my brain, leaving me despondent. It feels as if a wire has been cut. I am deeply depressed and cannot hold back tears. Physically, I am exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon and been tripped at the finish line. This phase of paralyzation varies in length from one day to several weeks.

The longer it takes me to recover, the deeper into Depression I go. I cannot simply “snap out of it” . I am not wallowing. I think it is like being struck by lightening. There has been an electrical surge that has altered my chemistry. I struggle not to loathe my setback, regretting having felt so triumphant and shouting it from the rooftops. I feel raw, skinless, unprotected and vulnerable. And my body feels heavy like lead.

I know that this negative, trapped energy needs to be released. Unfortunately I cannot afford weekly massages, which I believe would be a tremendous help. This is where horses have had the biggest impact on getting me out from underneath all the weight. Whenever I feel my mental illness robbing me of all control, I know that it gets restored whenever I am able to ride. The harder, the better. When I can do something that brings me joy, that I am good at, it gives me hope. 

“At times, it seems as though the depth of suffering and blackness, the downgoing, penetrates the psyche and breaks the barrier between the human and the divine so that the grace of the divine may respond.”

From PREGNANT DARKNESS; ALCHEMY AND THE REBIRTH OF CONSCIOUSNESS by Monika Wikman

Naked In The Grocery Store

Spilling my guts out in near-gritty detail was like going through hard labor and ending up having to get an emergency c-section. I have been recovering ever since.

I had a professor in college whose work I loved, and who I enjoyed, partially because of his laid-back yet engaging way of teaching, (Printmaking and Design) and partially due to the fact that he found my creative brain entertaining. Evidently I was born to evoke strong emotions, delight being the favored one. There is a feeling of accomplishment and confidence that accompanies praise which fuels the passion for one’s pursuits. Being that I was constantly trying to prove my worth, these were the little victories that carried me toward my goal of success. He taught me the value of my ability to think outside of the box and be unabashed in wherever it led me.

For example, one of my early design assignments was to take 36 squares and inside those squares to draw a circle and a rectangle. My best friend and I, whose brains worked in synch, did the assignment together and showed up in class fairly proud of our individual interpretations.

Everyone put their work up for the class critique. When we saw what others had done we looked at each other with sheepish grins, our eyes cocked. What we saw was not at all what we had done. On their poster board were 36 squares placed neatly in rows, and inside each of those squares, a triangle and a circle placed according to their own creative interpretation.

We had taken creative interpretation to a whole new level, one our teacher could not help himself from chuckling at as he leaned back, arms crossed, with a finger to his mouth as if challenged for words. Here is what he saw from my friend and I; on each poster board we had made a circle out of 36 squares and inside that circle of squares we had artfully placed our triangle and circle. We were commended for our work in surprising him with the unique way that our brains had executed the project. This still makes me giggle. Can’t remember our grades, but I definitely remember our momentary shame being turned into a feeling of pride that only helped us to further appreciate our senses of humor and individuality. Not surprisingly, we are still the best of friends.

Another critique took place in my painting class. The teacher was out sick that day and so the same aforementioned teacher was filling in. The assignment was to create a painting with a minimum size requirement depicting something personal. I had been really challenged by it. My painting style is not classic or traditional but more illustrative and whimsical, which was a stark contrast to what I was feeling at that time. I wanted it to be fantastic and pleasing but with two days left before it was due, I could not for the life of me figure out where to begin. All I had was a quite large blank canvas and supplies.

During this time, in my early 20’s, I was living with my sister and dating the man I would later marry. Our relationship was intense, codependent, abusive, and toxic to the point where I did not know where he ended and I began. It was blindingly painful. He was an obsessively possessive alcoholic I was determined to “fix” because I believed that love had that power. He would get verbally abusive toward me for any man who could not keep himself from looking at me, and call me a whore, as if I was to blame. I had to dull myself, watch what I wore, how I walked, who I talked to, how I talked etc.

I can’t remember the specific trigger, but out of deep anguish I was motivated to pick up my paint brush, and though it was a frenzied couple of days with little sleep, my pain manifested itself on that canvas, to my satisfaction.

On the right side was a large depiction of my face in black and white acrylic paint, screaming and crying in agony with my hands at my temples as if my head might explode. Below me was what looked like an audience, each person the same gestural image of a guy tilting his head back, guzzling from a bottle. In the midst of this audience rose a giant bottle of beer with the same guy being pulled out of  it by cherubs. He was besotted and his body, limp with the weight of it, proved too heavy a task to lift, but they were trying so hard. 

The background to my left and above me was like a sunrise of colors going from darkness to warm golden light. To my left was an image in solid black of a female form, arms and legs spread into an “X”, inside a cage, grasping onto the bars, desperate to be released. 

The rest of the piece was done in collage. Above the cage, a cut-out image of giant hands outstretched  with doves carrying a banner that said, Loving God brings peace. To the top right was a torn piece of sheet music for the song, “Tomorrow”, from the musical Annie. It read, The sun’ll come out TOMORROW, so I gotta hang on til…

Here is my teacher’s response to it-

He took a step back, once again with his hand to his upper lip and his other arm folded as he took it all in, and chuckled before telling me I had hit a home-run in creating a very personal image. He said it was like walking naked, in a grocery store, under fluorescent  lights. He said it was uncomfortable in that way, but powerful. He liked it.

I won 2nd place in my student art show for it. I wish I had a picture to share, but sadly my greatest breakthrough work of art was most unfortunately destroyed. I had it resting on my easel and one day I came home to find it had been stabbed in the eyeball and my face torn beyond repair. Not a good time. Well, it was never a painting that begged for display anyway. 

But I digress. That process of creating was also like a long painful labor ending in a C-section. I had no choice but to go through it. I knew it was going to be raw and hard to look at. I did with paint what I am now doing with pen in telling my story.

There is nothing on earth more cathartic than having the ability to express yourself without limitation, pushing beyond  the fear of judgement and criticism. I’m not here to offer some Hallmark story about overcoming my adversity that makes people feel warm and fuzzy so as to distract from the true ugly and insidious nature of emotional trauma and mental illness. I’m shining a light on the darkness.

My authenticity does sometimes make me feel like I am completely exposed, but it is  expressed with purpose and conviction. I’m not here expecting not to be gawked at, shamed, ridiculed, applauded, my sanity questioned. I know exactly how uncomfortable and insane it is to be standing naked in the grocery store, but I am here nonetheless, despite my discomfort.

I am the lobster. I refuse not to molt. It is only when life becomes unbearable that we feel motivated to find solutions. As long as there is fight in me I am surviving. I want other victims to know that about themselves. There is no right or wrong way, only productive and destructive ways.

At long last, I have this survival part down, but my soul craves so much more than that. I want to thrive and I want to show others that they can too.

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The Wheel of Misfortune

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I remember the TV commercial jingle that said “You will learn about life when you play the Game of LIFE.” Is irony the word I’m looking for here? I’m 52 and still trying to figure out life. Playing the board game, filling up my little car with tiny pink plastic pegs, did nothing to help me navigate the real thing. NOBODY would ever want to play that game.

The song playing in my head as I’m writing is, Is That All There Is? by Peggy Lee. Talk about a song that hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t think, when I first heard it, that I was ready to move beyond the infallible folly of my youth and therefore I immediately felt the sting of beckoning adulthood and the looming existential crisis that I was not yet ready take on.

Not so coincidentally, it was around this time, when I was nineteen, that I experienced my first Major Depressive episode. I believe it was also when I discovered the word “lugubria”. My human mind subconsciously built a little nest around it, never before having experienced a “living word”, that is to say, a word that felt like the very embodiment of my existence. This, of course, was before I found Jesus and the Living Word as it is known to Christians. PTL! (I come from the time when LOL meant “lots of love” and I have the yearbooks to prove it. And for anyone reading this under the age of 40, PTL means Praise The Lord.)

Here is the origin and history of the word LUGUBRIA as described by WordSense.eu:

“From lūgeō (“mourn, lament”), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *leug- (“to break, to injure”). Cognates include Ancient Greek λυγρός (lugros, “mournful, sad”), Sanskrit रुजति (rujati, “torments, breaks”) and Latvian lauzit (“to break the heart”).”

Prior to my discovering this word, all the other words that I could attach to my pervasive feelings up to that point in my life never fully encompassed how I experienced them. All I knew was the sum of life’s cruel injustices, in fragments, like spokes on a bicycle wheel, and the manner in which I had learned to hold on as it spun continuously, out of my control. It was just my life.

I was born with a heart that seeks harmony and loves deeply. I am so grateful that, despite the dizzying lamentations that underscored everything in my childhood, I could experience joy and be transfixed by the beauty of things. I had a constant longing for the father who died, mourning that void forever, through the eyes of a two-year old. That same two-year old does not know how to make sense of my fifty two-year old self. I was never properly parented, and here I am trying my best to parent a teenage daughter, while figuring out how to comfort and care for this inconsolable toddler who is still very much alive in me. And, she’s not alone. There are many others.

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I am telling my story now because it was a secret I was forced to keep for half my life. I somehow knew from a young age that one day, my voice would come out, loud and strong, unlike the nightmares I still have where I am being attacked by demons and trying desperately to scream for help, but my tongue doesn’t work and I cannot form words or make a sound. There is much to understand about the dynamics and rippling effects of a dysfunctional family. This is not me “dwelling on the past” as some like to say. Instead, it’s a map to be studied, to chart my path to healing, to mark the dead ends and fallen bridges in bold Sharpie in hopes of saving others from getting lost, or plunging to their deaths.

My story is but one out of millions, many far more devastating than mine. Victim’s stories are very uncomfortable to hear and often hard to comprehend. I think that is why we have been afraid to tell them. The very thought of exposing the unsavory truth (they call them “dirty” secrets for a reason) only to face ridicule and judgement, is practically unbearable. It is like the story of how the lobster sheds it’s shell. The stimulus for the Lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Some of us have found ways to numb ourselves, while others are driven to continue molting until they no longer feel uncomfortable. I have done both on my journey here. This is why I have overflowing unconditional love for addicts and misfits. (Though at times, for safety purposes, from a distance!) I am an empath and my calling is to bring healing. Wherever my story leads me, if it helps even just one single person, it will have been worth facing the ugly stigma that has labeled me as mentally ill. I am not ashamed to say I live with mental illness. What choice do I have? This is the only life I have, and I want it to make a positive impact on this world. I WANT TO TURN MY MOTHER*-#*!!$ LEMONS INTO LEMONADE, OK?

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This is your chance to stop reading if you don’t want to know the reality of so many innocent children who were forced to mature into bodies that store every memory of every physical violation perpetrated upon them. It is hard to read, and even harder to write. I’ve been trying to do this for months. I began writing in in July. The amount of courage and strength required to overcome my fears renders me completely spent. It is something that I have to do, with the most earnest hope that my voice will finally matter. I’m holding space and speaking out for those who continue living in fear and keeping secrets.

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In the beginning

My stepfather, Ed, who latched onto my mother’s vulnerability and naivete’ at a Parent’s Without Partners meeting, won the child molestor lottery when he hitched his Deadbeat Dad-wagon to my mother’s bright and shining star, just before my third birthday. I wasn’t broken until he set out to define fatherhood for me, my two sisters and brother.

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Being the baby, I was very close to my mom. I remember being so happy to see her happy, because I was there for her devastation after my father left her widowed with four children out of the blue, and it scarred me.

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Three year-old Valerie thought getting a new Daddy and having her mother so filled with joy meant no more tears. As all toddlers do, I just wanted to feel safe and secure and never have to fear the loss of a loved one or think my dear momma could die from sorrow. That’s a real thing you know, people dying from grief. I’m still here, which is a testament to my strength.

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The most important time in a child’s development takes place within the first three years of life. My stepfather did not waste any time before he perverted what love meant and shaped my world into the embodiment of lugubria. Fifty years later, and I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of myself and fashion them together into something that doesn’t make me want to cut myself every time I look in a mirror. You see, I was made to believe that my silence was what protected my mother and held my world together. It’s the same script used by predators to control their victim through intimidation and fear. It goes like this; stepfather makes child think that she is special and that his molestation is an act of love. Innocent child thinks that a parent’s love is pure and her survival depends on trusting that they exist to protect and nurture her. She has only ever known pure love, so she doesn’t know that what he is doing is wrong. Child’s body responds to feelings it doesn’t understand, and since she is not experiencing physical pain, she trusts him. He tells her that the molestation is a secret she can never tell because people don’t understand how special his love for her is, and he would go to jail, and her mother would die from a broken heart leaving her alone and helpless in the world with no one to take care of her. Child is four and her parents ARE her world. Knowing that losing her mother is her biggest fear, she guards this secret with her life, and in so doing becomes her mother’s protector.

That is some very seriously fucked up shit. I was plagued by nightmares, and spent long periods of time contemplating the terror of being left alone, and thinking about what I would do to survive. I was sad, very lonely, confused, and terrified. This was a burden that no child should have to bear. A small child should never feel responsible for protecting her mother, but instead be the one protected and nurtured. I was also very angry. My mother would tell me to “go cuddle your father”. I would go downstairs to their bedroom where he would be lying in bed with no clothes on, and then the door would be shut. I don’t know why my mother did that. My shame comes from going to sit at the top of the stairs in my pajamas and desiring to be told to go do this cuddling thing, because it felt good, and my Momma was encouraging it, so it couldn’t be wrong. Children have a natural desire to please their parents. This was not natural. A five-year old does not understand that. Somewhere along the way I tried to understand how, if he could go to jail for what he was doing, and it would break my mother, how did she not know what was happening to me when she would order me to go to him? The thought that she could be willingly sacrificing me was unbearable. I was keeping this secret to protect her, so there was no way that she would not be doing the same for me, her baby. These are the things that swirled in my head, creating more feelings I was incapable of understanding, feelings that made me pull smaller wandering children into the clothing racks at the discount department store and shake them until they started to cry before pushing them out, screaming, to their frantic mothers. I became a pathological liar when questioned. I am pained by this, although now it seems to amuse those I tell, in some pathetic darkly comic way. I think they just love and understand me and think, “Of course little Val would do that.” This passive aggressive behavior became a coping skill I have perfected to an art. Again, not proud.

By the time I was six I had learned to fear my stepfather. He had an explosively raging temper that made me think he could kill me or anyone else he was angry enough with. Every trip alone with him was an opportunity for him to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere and force me to do as he told me. If I cried or protested I would get hit. This did not feel good anymore and I began to hate my body for the feelings that conflicted with my fear. My abuse always took place in broad daylight.

I was constantly told how beautiful I was, so I would make a very unbecoming face whenever he took a picture, thinking that if I were not seen as pretty then he would not want to molest me. But I desperately wanted his love, as he was the only father I really knew. I didn’t know that he only really loved my flesh and the way it satisfied the beast in him. Still, I loved him. I was terrified of him, but I loved him. I thought the only way to feel loved was attached to sex.

When he flew into a rage and came after me my mother would scream and cry, trying to hold him back, often getting pushed to the floor and called heinous curse words that would then transfer to me when he raised his arm up high, with demon eyes and brought it down on me with such great force that I would have the handprint etched into my thigh for days.

One of the most traumatic memories of his physical abuse took place one snowy night as he was screaming and fighting with my dear brother, who was 13 yrs older than me, who I adored. He was such a good big brother and I would get up early every morning just to eat cereal with him before he went off to school. I was in my pajamas and had gone to get a Poptart from the kitchen, when I heard my brother getting beaten with a wrench, crying out, with my mother’s blood-curdling screams and my stepfather yelling and cursing so loudly that it was like a scene out of a horror movie. I wet my pants as I began to cry and my sisters took me back in my room where we were watching TV, and locked us in, trying hard to console me. I thought my brother was dead. After a while, when things died down, they got me in my snowsuit and took me outside in the night to make a snow dinasaur. This is when I learned to pretend that things were not really as bad as they seemed, because “Look! Everything is fine! We just made a dinosaur out of snow!” It was a marvelous coping skill that enabled me to create happiness out of fear, beauty out of ugliness.

We had a neighbor who lived across the street from us who I just loved, because he was so nice to me. He worked for a candy company and always had a special treat for me. His wife and two sons, older than I, always welcomed me when I would come over to visit. (at 6, I was an avid “visitor” to our close neighbors, all adults. I loved talking to them, and I think they got a kick out of me, which gave me the attention I so desperately craved.) One day I was walking along the brick wall in front of our house and waved to Mr. Colella who was feeding his hunting dogs outside at their kennel. I told him to come talk to me. When he came over I told him that I loved him very much. As a dear, fatherly man, he returned my sentiment and told me I was such a sweet girl. I told him that he could kiss me. He looked very confused laughed it off and told me I’d better go inside because it was dinner time. I said I love you! Don’t you love me? And he gently tried to explain why it was inappropriate. I started to cry and I begged him to kiss me, telling him that if he really loved me he would. It escalated into sobs and asking him why he wouldn’t. I was just 6 years old.

I don’t remember what happened after that, but I remember feeling incredible shame. That must have been a clear indication that something was very wrong in my home. Did he ever confront my parents? Did they blow it off? Did he just keep his distance and never bring it up? I don’t know. I do remember getting a beating, after which I carved the words I HATE ED into the wooden head of my antique sleigh bed.

Having become hypersexualized at such a young age, my girlfriend who lived down the street, and I would play a game we called “boyfriend/girlfriend”. I was always the girlfriend. We would hide in her closet and kiss each other, or touch each other under my bed covers when we were just 7 yrs old. By this time I knew we were doing something wrong, but I felt compelled. When my mother would walk in on us and briskly ask what we were doing, I quickly made up a lie about playing a game to see who could reach the end of the bed first. Did she not think that was strange? I felt immediate shame. One time my friend’s brother caught us in her closet and said he was going to tell on us. I’m sure that he did. Did they ever tell my parents, or did they blow it off because her step-dad was doing the same thing to her? I don’t know.

I cried in school a lot. I cried alone in the woods a lot. I regularly made a big production out of packing my little white plastic bag with gold stars and dots that had hinges which creaked when you opened it. I would open and close it several times while tearfully announcing that I was packing to run away, then, after what felt like endless attempts to get a response and coming up empty, I would shout I”M LEAVING as the door slammed behind me. I would do this at least 3 times, desperately wanting my mother to scoop me in her arms and tell me everything was going to be okay, and beg me not to go. I have no idea what led up to this. I only remember running down the hill on the side of our house, crying, stumbling, and half rolling before making my way into the woods to my special place where I would sob and feel so alone and afraid. Hours went by before I would hear my name being called. Part of me wanted to not return and see what it was like to be raised by wolves. Real ones.

That’s just a brief synopsis of my childhood. I read somewhere that victims of child abuse seem to stay vulnerable as prey, almost as if they wear a sign inviting predators to take advantage of them. (this includes bullies too)

We moved to Virginia when I was 8. When I was 9 or 10 my sister’s boyfriend came into my room one night while I was sleeping, covered my mouth with one hand, and put his other in my underwear. I was terrified and all other kinds of disgusted, sad, confused, and ashamed. I froze until he went away after telling me it was “our little secret”. He was 18, maybe. I racked my brain trying to think what I could have done to provoke it. I was still very much a child and at a very awkward stage. It made me feel like I now had to protect my sister too.

My step-brother, Johnny, the oldest of his father’s 5 abandoned kids, joined the navy when he was 19 and moved in with us. We played chess all the time and went out for pizza. He was THE BEST big brother to me and spoiled me rotten, just like my own brother would if he weren’t living in Massachusetts. He won my complete trust and I loved him, until one night he started asking me if I knew what the words “felatio” and “cunnilingus” meant and made me watch Caligula, an x-rated, shocking video that belonged to his father. He then began molesting me. He would rationalize his sick behavior later by saying that I was compliant, a willing participant. I was anything but. His betrayal crushed me. I refused to believe that it was happening. I shut myself down as the inevitable ensued, and would continue to do so every time thereafter. There are no words to describe this kind of mind fuckery. I had perfected another very valuable coping skill in compartmentalizing. One day when nobody was home, I refused his advances and he told me that I had no idea what Ed was planning to do to me when I turned 12. He chased me all over the house taunting me, blocking my way, and bullying me into a complete state of hysteria. I managed to lock myself in my parent’s bathroom and when my Mom got home I would not come out and was threatening to kill myself. I was terrified and in so much emotional torment that I really wanted to die. I had my first anxiety attack that year, where I was convinced I was actually dying. Every bit of it was brushed under the carpet.

When I was 11, hormones raging, I began to enjoy the attention I was getting from boys and became a natural flirt. There was this lifeguard at the pool we went to every summer whose name was Chad. (Of course it was.) Chad was 16 and was the Zac Efron of his day. My friends and I swooned over him daily. He clearly loved the attention. We would compete to see who could flirt with him the hardest and giggle while fantasizing about him being our boyfriend. Chad was dreamy. He seemed to single me out as his favorite. I was so proud of myself. Boys were a new thing and I was swimming with the big fishes, I thought. One day I had gone to the pool with a neighbor when Chad asked me if I wanted to go for a ride on his moped to go pick up a part for something at the hardware store. I assured the neighbor that I was safe to go with him because I was his little helper and she reluctantly agreed. I was beyond thrilled and my stomach was doing flips but I was disappointed that my friends were not there to see it happen and thought they would never believe me if I told them. It was a magical feeling that had me intoxicated with self-esteem. As I clung to him, not even noticing we had passed the hardware store, I imagined what it would be like to kiss him. I was 11 years old feeling like Bo Derek running down the beach in the movie, “10”. When I saw that he was taking me pretty far away and began turning into a deserted old park, I asked where we were going. He said he just had to stop there for a minute and pulled over, telling me to get off the moped. He stood behind me and began to grope my barely-there breasts beneath my swimsuit top. My stomach dropped to my toes as I froze, uncomfortably, and muttered that I’d never been kissed. I felt sick and dizzy and stupid. I was crushed. He never said a word after, just took me back to the pool. I didn’t think he was cute at all after that. I felt dirty. I thought it was my fault and never told anyone. I wonder if the neighbor had second thoughts about letting me go.

At 12, I was becoming popular after a very difficult year in the 7th grade. I was switched to another unit for being a chatterbox and stirring the ire of a group of bad girls, which had gotten me kicked out of chorus, my favorite thing. My new homeroom teacher targeted me and made my life a living hell. I was instructed to sit outside his room as he prepared the class for my arrival. I couldn’t really hear what he was talking about, but he popped his head out the door and said “You sure are ugly! ” then closed it just as quickly, making the students erupt in laughter. I could not believe it. I am telling the truth. He invited me in moments later and told me where to sit. I was miserable. It was pouring rain that day and evidently I did not have the right paper (college-ruled) which he harshly reprimanded me for, saying “How dare you come into my class unprepared!” then humiliated and embarrassed me by taking my entire pack of loose leaf paper and dumping it out the window, in the rain. I tried to hold back my tears. He was evil to me, and I could not understand what I did to deserve it.

The other big event that crushed me was when I was forbidden to go to our unit skating party. I had already paid for it and was so excited. My friends and I started picking out what we were going to wear as soon as we heard about the event. It was springtime and one very hot day that I wore a pair of shorts to school. Several other girls did too, some shorter and tighter than mine. I was in my English class when Mr. Taylor called me out into the hall. He told me my shorts were completely inappropriate and publically shamed me in front of everyone before taking me in the hall and telling me I was not allowed to attend the skating party. I don’t remember how I got through that day. The other girls all agreed it was crazy and unfair because I had been singled out like some little tramp, when they were all wearing similar shorts. Again, I tried to figure out what I had done wrong. My ass cheeks were not even close to hanging out. Yes, they were tight, but the only pair I had. I was skinny with long legs. Did that make my shorts seem shorter and me more of a distraction? I remember going to my guidance counselor in tears. One of my sisters called to complain to the principal. At the end of that year there was a show with a handful of students being directed to dance in couples. When Mr Taylor saw that I could dance, and could make him look good, I was put in the lead couple spotlight. Overnight I became his pet, his superstar. I went from fearing and loathing this giant man with his cheesy polyester, nature print button-down shirts, to eating up his attention and basking in a sense of accomplishment in the blink of an eye. It was utterly insane.

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Earlier that day

I was textbook ADHD (but undiagnosed) and struggled in school, always hearing that I was not applying myself from teachers, and being labeled as lazy at home. Any type of praise brought me to life. I also felt a desperate need to be loved by everyone, and I was genuinely confounded when girls hated my guts for no reason. I wanted to be everyone’s friend, kinda like a puppy. You could beat me, but if you then showed me any kind of affection, I was belly up.

My Mom was a teacher and working daily. I was going through puberty while she was dealing with menopause. Things could get pretty ugly and I could be very cruel. Whenever I would make her cry she would say, “You wait! One day you are going to have a daughter who will treat you this way!” Seeing her that upset always made me cry and feel remorseful. I was also afraid because I knew what she said was true. My mother also said things to me like, “Oh deAH, if you ever need anything, just bat your eyelashes and you will get whatever you want.” (she has a most amusing northern/intercontinental accent that always has people wondering where she is from.) Just what I needed, verbal re-enforcement that sex equals power. My mother seemed what could only be described as “out to lunch” for quite a few of my formative years. I would have friends sleepover, only twice who were never allowed back by their parents. Both times I remember them crying to me that Ed had tried to touch them or expose himself. My mother HAD to know. I froze and pretended I had no idea what was going on. I had learned to dissociate. One of my friends from the neighborhood was never given permission to sleepover at all, and it made me so very sad. If those parents were not allowing their daughters at my house, surely they had been told what happened. Did they ever call to confront my parents, or did they just never speak of it again?

As I was gaining popularity and enjoying being a majorette, I was spending more and more time at school activities and weekends with my friends, which made my step-brother jealous and angry. I had been dodging his molestation attempts, so he kept buying me anything I asked for which never got him what he wanted, so evidently he was burning with rage, like a jealous boyfriend when I got asked to the 9th grade prom. My Mom took me out shopping for a dress. I was having the best time bonding with her and trying on so many pretty dresses. I finally settled on a baby blue Gunne Sax prairie dress with fluttery cap sleeves and white lace. It was as if the heavens opened, angels sang, and Jesus Himself appeared when I first saw it. A pinnacle shopping experience, I brought it home and stared at it, counting down the days to my first big school dance.

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Sadly, I would never go to that dance and my dream dress had to be returned. The night before as I was talking on the phone with my date, giggling in blissful anticipation, as I played with the long spiral phone cord, I was caught off guard by a sucker punch to my mouth that knocked the phone from my hand and sent it flying across the kitchen. Johnny had busted my lip wide open and blood was dripping from my mouth as I trembled and cried out in horror. I had to get 4 stitches. I spent the next day curled up on our porch swing in utter devastation and disbelief. What did I tell my date when I sobbed that I could not go to the prom? How did I explain it to everyone who would see me in school? Was this something I brought on myself?

My mother was under Ed’s control which is, I guess, why Johnny did not suffer any consequences other than being forced to move out. I suffered in silence and felt like I was told to get over it. There was no one who came to my rescue. I’m sure my Mom comforted me as best she could, but likely was overwhelmed and wanted to keep the peace with Ed, who at that time was doing some carpentry work for a family just across the Virginia border, and having an affair with the mother as her kids and I were out riding bikes down dusty country roads. Something tells me one of her daughters was also involved, but I’ve probably blocked that out. Her son shot me at close range with a bebe gun. Dear God.

I actually had a brief reprieve through high school. I went full on punk rock, party girl rebel and practically lived at my best friend’s house, whose Mom felt sorry for me because I was skinny and always hungry, making her think that I was being raised by wolves. I never said I wasn’t. My relationship with my Mom grew closer then. When I look back, I am grateful to be alive. I remember being 16 and thinking that I knew everything, and that I had already seen and done it all. (even though I was still a virgin, which I took seriously.) Somehow my mother had instilled in me that sex was sacred and should be reserved for marriage. I was getting high off of being a teaze, which was the next step after refining my flirtation skills.

My grandfather, who was Ed’s father, came to live with us from England. I had been very close to these grandparents as they accepted me as their own. My grandmother passed when I was 10, and I adored her. He missed her terribly and would talk out loud to her every night. My heart hurt for him. I called him Grandad. To my great dismay, he too crushed my world the day he grabbed my breasts in the kitchen and said, “These are so lovely.” Yes, it was then confirmed that I must have worn the “ultimate prey’ sign on my back. There was not enough drugs or alcohol to numb the pain anymore.

And this brings us back to 19. I had kept all of my secrets until then. One day, being verbally abused and threatened by Ed, I shouted out to my mother who was standing there, trying to defend me, ED MOLESTED ME! ED MOLESTED ME! ED MOLESTED ME! to which she replied, “Be quiet. I know.”

That is all I have for now.

The Day I Rested My Boots By The Fire

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It was a cold day that had started out sunny. I knew there was a 100% chance of rain later, but nothing could take away my joyful anticipation. A group of riders were meeting at the farm to grab our horses, get tacked up by 10am, and have an off-site excursion to a friend’s place, Timberline Ranch, several miles away.

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She and her husband had just finished clearing trails in their woods, and we were all happy to christen them, especially since it was hunting season and our usual acreage was off limits.

Riding my favorite horse along the quiet country road, seeing all the farms and fields, had me feeling a sense of nostalgia that was tied to a childhood dream. The entire ride became a prayer of gratitude for experiencing these moments and the joyful contentment I felt.

We were greeted at our destination by a cozy fire and hot coffee. We all dismounted and took a break before hitting the trails, then settling in for lunch. I got some coffee and went to sit by the fire, putting my boots up, and taking in the sights and sounds; cattle mooing next door, the crackling fire, horses and people talking. I was transported back to a golden memory of a day, so simple yet profound.

My daughter was 2 months old and I was getting ready for my first job since giving birth, my first day away from her after eight long and painful weeks of trying to get her to latch on. Despite the overwhelming challenge, I was committed to successful nursing. I have never endured more physical and emotional pain in such a short, yet endless-seeming concentration of time. By the time I took this job, however, we had triumphed and I was well into the breastfeeding zone, mastering pumping and storage in preparation for this day. I felt like I deserved some kind of pioneer-woman, mothering, hardship medal!

It was on this grey, rainy November morning that I got that reward. We were cozily nestled in the glider for her morning feeding. The house was still but for the sound of rain as I watched it fall. It was like a symphony to my ears along the with the precious, sated coos of my baby, finally being nourished by the body that had carried the hope of her arrival since I was a child nurturing my first doll. Her tiny little hands were opening and closing on my chest like a kitten making dough, occasionally resting to play with a button on my blouse. High on a mother’s love and the rush of Oxytocin as my milk let down, I felt a sense of bliss as time stopped and the only existence was the two of us, in this moment. It felt like heaven and I never wanted it to end.

I’m reminded of another day when Bella was about seven and we had gone for a long walk. We stopped to rest on the sidewalk a bit and she climbed in my lap, gave me a big kiss, and said, “Mommy, this is the BEST DAY ever!” I was able to capture that treasured moment with my phone.

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As I sat by the fire drinking my coffee with my feet up, looking around at this group of people whose friendship I treasure, I felt a wave of that same bliss wash over me. Mentally, I fell to my knees in gratitude, holding back tears of joy, tears that are now freely flowing as I write. I wanted to remain frozen in this moment, in this entire day. What makes these memories/feelings so sublime is the way that God is able to turn off my body’s score card that 98% of the time has me “waiting for the other shoe to drop” so to speak. That’s the voice of fear that comes from the child who is trapped behind the door at the bottom of the well, for in her experience there is no ability to see beyond what she has known; the inevitability of lasting peace.

This day in all of it’s simplicity was a turning point within me, for I invited that sad little girl who was peeking out from behind my horse, gazing longingly at me, wanting so much to come out of that shadow, to come and join me. All she had ever wanted in life was now before her and I am finally able to make her know that she is safe. Now that once broken child in me will live forever in this moment of bliss and if there is any shoe dropping, it will be because I am kicking them off after another full day of living in gratitude that I am able to experience riches that no amount of money can buy.

Truly, greater is the reward of contentment when repetitive discord has one falsely believe that they are not entitled to it. It’s been a long, hard road, but I am finally there.

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