My 6-year-old bounds toward me, smiling so joyously her eyes have disappeared behind a wall of enviable lashes. I scoop her up and she nuzzles into my neck, saying “Mama.”
I love to cuddle my children. I love to snuggle up with them and breathe in their sweetness. I have four kids: a 6 year-old girl, a 4 year-old girl, and boy/girl twins who are almost one. Some six months ago, I noticed that when my 6 year-old jumped on me or wanted to cuddle or tried to kiss me or cling to me, I experienced a surprising amount of agitation and started to push her away, to rebuke her intimacy, and to try to modify her behavior.
I began getting annoyed with her when she would get physical with others. If she wanted to sit on a family member’s lap or was hugging her friend too much, I would intercede and make her stop. I saw the pain this caused her, the rejection she internalized, and sensed her confusion.
My husband agreed that sometimes her affection could be a “bit much” but he thought it was appropriate for her age and didn’t understand why it was stressing me out. He thought the larger issue was that she is long and lean, all elbows, knees and bony bits, and her snuggle approach can feel more like a rugby tackle at times.
I am a psychotherapist and am training to practice EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). During a recent practicum session in Chicago, we worked in groups of three to run through the complete therapy protocols. I am not going to explain EMDR here so google it for more information. Each participant was instructed to choose a trigger for them in their daily lives that caused distress and inhibited functioning. I chose to work on the issue of my daughter initiating physical contact with me as it was repeatedly annoying me and interfering in our relationship.
The first day of training we worked on identifying the trigger, creating safe/calm internal environments for containing strong emotion if necessary, and began the process of floating back. The therapist asked me to picture the image of the trigger (my daughter coming at me for contact) and encouraged me to float back to a time when I experienced similar sensations, thoughts, emotions, etc.
My mind drifted to a memory of my brother kicking me when I was minding my own business watching television. My mind drifted to a childhood friend who was full of energy and sometimes overwhelmed me. The first day was just a warm-up. The belief about myself that emerged was “I can’t maintain physical boundaries.” Made sense.
The second day, we started to use bilateral stimulation (BLS) to desensitize and reprocess the strong memory related to the trigger. The therapist asked me to hold the distressing image in mind, get in touch with the feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc. and just hold that and see what emerged, staying with whatever arose while doing a set of BLS.
I floated back to my brother’s obnoxious face taunting me. I didn’t feel anything though. I floated to my friend. Still nothing. An image of a shed appeared in my mind. I know this shed. I don’t want this to come up. I don’t say anything. My body is on fire. I disclose the sensation but won’t give voice to the images that are starting to appear. I start sweating, my chest is lit up and my limbs are numb. I do not want to do this here. The supervisor comes over to help because I am “blocked.”
She softly asks how I’m doing and what is going on. I tell her my body is definitely reacting and that there is a memory there but it’s not one that I identified previously as wanting to work on. She said I could stop, change my scenario for the training, or I could continue. She encouraged me to do 2 more BLS passes without feeling like I needed to tell anyone anything. I continued.
I see my therapist from 12 years prior, a person who was a lifeline for me when I was drowning in the repercussions of sexual assault and trauma. I see her gently telling me, “If you ever have a daughter, pay attention to how you feel when she is the ages you were when these things happened.” Something clicks. I want to work through whatever this is.
I continue with the EMDR process, my bewildered therapist-in-training working with the instructor to take me through to the other side. I go to the shed. I am 7 years-old. I was at a friend’s house playing but have ended up in this shed with a boy from the class above me and two boys who are in junior high or high school. One of them might be my classmate’s older brother? I don’t know… I can only remember in bits and pieces. I see the sleeve of my shirt. I smell someone else’s saliva. Is it semen? My jaw and mouth hurt and I can’t breathe.
I am in bed. I’ve stayed home from school for a couple days. I see my mom’s confused face. She is bringing me soup but I’m not that kind of sick. I can’t explain it to her. I know that I am different now. I know I am bad and dirty and wrong and that nobody can find out what happened. I am sick with shame. A shame I will carry for many, many years.
I chase my cousin through a field and tackle her. Someone at school called me a “slut.” I’m in first grade. I make her swear she won’t tell my parents. I later learned my mom went to meet with my teacher to try to figure out if something happened at school but nobody knew anything and I didn’t have the language to tell her.
I know I brought it on myself. I was daring, adventurous, bold. I was brave and physical and full of boundless energy. I was dared into going into that shed and I wanted to prove I was tough. There was no dare I would turn down. I thought I consented. I took risks. I was limitless. I was free. Like my daughter is now.
I am overwhelmed with sadness that I had to deal with all of that by myself. I can’t imagine my sweet, brave, energetic child dealing with such intense shame all alone. I feel angry with my parents. I feel sad for my parents. They didn’t know how to help me. They simply didn’t know.
My mind flashes to my 21st birthday. I had a party at my house while my parents were on vacation. I drank and had fun. Some friends spent the night because they didn’t want to drive. I woke up abruptly at 5:00 am facing the closet in my bedroom and was immediately aware of a sensation behind me. My body stiffened. Someone’s fingers were inside my vagina and my body was responding without my permission. I didn’t know who it was. I slid off my bed, ran out of the room, glancing back, confused by who I saw.
A friend. Someone I had known for years. A person I had never talked on the phone to or had a private moment with. Someone I was never attracted to, never flirted with, never did anything with that would indicate any interest. I went to bed alone. I had been drinking. I probably passed out. But I know I was alone. I let this person sleep at my house so they wouldn’t have to drive and he sexually assaulted me on my 21st birthday in my own house in my own room. This was the paragraph where I felt like I had to justify to the reader that it wasn’t my fault.
I felt numb. I thought I would be safe if I didn’t go out. I purposely had my 21st birthday at my own home rather than a bar so I could drink and feel safe. I told some friends what happened the next day. One friend was extremely angry, but lots of my friends were kind of like, “Oh, that sucks.” I considered calling the police but if my friends didn’t think it was a big deal why would the police. Plus, I had recently had a really bad experience getting support from police.
My mind flashes to 10 months prior. I was at the Mark II Lounge in Rogers Park, IL. Northwestern kids flocked to this disgusting dive bar because you could get in with a fake ID. I drank too much. Way too much. We ran out of money. My boyfriend had been talking to a “townie” and said townie offered to drive us home. We stumbled out of the bar and into his blue two-door car. I climbed in the back and my 6’4” boyfriend into the passenger seat. I can vaguely see the man and his car. I still see the man and his car even when I’m not seeing the man and his car.
We thanked the guy for offering to drive us home. He started going the wrong way. My boyfriend gave him directions. The guy was a little off but I felt pretty safe being with my boyfriend. He said he had to get $5 of gas to get to Evanston. He pulled up at a pump and gave my boyfriend a $5 to go pay while he pumped the gas. As soon as my boyfriend stepped out of the car, he took off. I remember popping up in the backseat and looking out the back window. I saw my boyfriend trying to run after the car. He tripped and rolled forward.
Adrenaline kicks in. I ask him what he’s doing, panicked. I ask him to stop the car. He ignores me. There are no back doors or windows. Fight or flight kicks in and I fight. I climb through the middle of the car into the passenger seat. I’m pleading with him to stop the car. He looks straight ahead, stone-faced. He won’t talk to me. He won’t look at me. He is running stop signs heading South.
I see my parents. I know I will never see them again. I believe I am going to die.
Like an animal, I start screaming. I begin punching him in the side of the face which causes him to slow. He puts one arm up to guard his face. I wonder if he has a gun or a knife. I get the passenger door unlocked and opened but he is driving too fast. I hold the passenger door open with my right foot and I start pummeling him in the head.
At some point, I jump out of the moving car. I know I could die doing this but I am sure I will die if I stay in the car. “Never let them get you to the second location,” is playing in my head. I think jumping from the moving car flooded my hippocampus and I have literally no memory of actually getting out of the car or running back to where I came from. I don’t know how long this took but I’m guessing 3 minutes.
My memories resume with me running in the opposite direction. I know we drove toward the lake a few blocks and then South. I run the other way. I find my way back to the gas station. My pants are ripped. My hand is bruised. My leg is bleeding. I’ve lost one of my leather boots. My boyfriend is running toward me. I remember hearing him screaming my name. “Annika.”
We try to make a call from inside the gas station but the attendant won’t let us in. We borrow the phone of a motorist (this is 2000 and we don’t have cell phones) and he calls 9-1-1. The police arrive. Two guys. I’m shaking and crying. I tell them this guy tried to kidnap me. They ask me if I got in his car willingly. I tell them I did… but that my boyfriend was in the car too. We recount the story. They don’t care. They won’t take us home. I am not sure if they even took a report. We find a cab and promise to pay the driver when we get to our dorm. I feel like what happened didn’t matter. I feel like I don’t matter. I know I’m not safe in this world.
The next 6 months are hell. At one point, it’s so bad that I can’t close my eyes in the shower, I see my body flying into the street and getting hit by a car when I walk to class, I can’t run or exercise because when my heart starts to pound I have full-blown panic attacks. I don’t tell my parents what is going on. I stop going out. I stay in and drink wine. I’m hard to live with. My friends love me anyway.
I call a suicide hotline because the PTSD is so overwhelming (and I don’t know what it is) that I think maybe I don’t want to be alive. They aren’t super helpful. I feel more alone. I lock my dorm room door and start cutting my wrists with scissors. I won’t let anyone in. They call 9-1-1 because they are worried about me.
The ambulance comes. Students line the hall, watching disinterested responders escort me outside. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, one of the EMTs tells me that I cut myself the wrong way. “If you really want to kill yourself, you cut the long way, not across your wrist,” he says with a smirk on his face. I am humiliated.
My roommate comes with me to the hospital. My parents are there within hours. I tell them everything. They start figuring out how to get me help. The resources to help me at my expensive private school are embarrassingly lacking.
I am referred to a psychiatrist who puts me on Paxil. It helps with the panic but has lots of unintended side effects. Northwestern connects me to a therapist on Michigan Ave. I have to travel an hour to see him. I don’t get the help I need.
The Paxil and alcohol numb the feelings but the trauma comes out sideways. I am afraid that my apartment is going to burn down. I feel like my pupils are different sizes and that I have a brain tumor. I get drunk and run away from my friends and fight with my boyfriend. I grit my teeth and get through school with good grades, never taking time off. Drinking is my only true coping skill.
I am in pain. I have crippling PTSD. I have an escalating drinking problem. I can’t tell anyone. I don’t know how to get support. I don’t know how to speak my trauma. This goes on in big ways and small for years.
I start seeing a therapist while doing my Masters at Washington University in St. Louis. I am drinking too much and when I drink, I go dark. I am out of control and it’s affecting my marriage. She helps me. She listens to me. She lets me speak my pain. We revisit my trauma. She provides corrective supportive experiences. She provides EMDR on me and I heal. I stop drinking. I start living. I’m most of the way there.
I have worked for years on resolving my trauma. I have had to spend time and money and lost moments of joy and peace trying to heal the wounds that others inflicted. Even when I think I’m past something, it will pop up in a strange way. I still have fears about dying or about people I love dying suddenly. I quit drinking because I can’t control the amount I ingest once I start and I need to be fully conscious to feel safe. I can be very controlling with my kids in terms of safety issues and trusting others. Sometimes this looks like second guessing my husband – freaking out when I’m out of town and he sends me a picture of my little boy playing with a balloon with a long string attached. I see him choking on the balloon and being strangled by the string. My husband is kind and tells me, “Don’t freak out. I’m right next to him. I will watch him and won’t leave him alone.” He sends me a video to show me how much fun my baby is having and I relax a bit.
The overwhelming negative belief about myself that emerged during the EMDR was that I am not safe. It was also that my daughter is not safe. I can see how this has shaped decisions and my relationship to my body. I took a picture of a Facebook meme the other day that said, “You are harder to kidnap if you eat cake. Eat more cake.”
I don’t like people looking at my body. I don’t like to be touched by people I don’t know. I’ve had male co-workers rub my shoulders and put their hands on my waist. In one of my first jobs, I had a male supervisor who insisted I hold his hand while roller-skating with a foster kid to model good adult interactions. I could tell he was attracted to me. I had a boss tell me I had “thighs like a work horse” when I was a lifeguard. A boy put his hand up my skirt while I was walking up the stairs in high school. When I turned around and snapped at him, he called me an “uptight bitch.” I could really go on and on.
My body became dangerous. It was this thing that attracted attention and pain without my permission. I equated being “sexy” or just being in shape and wearing the tighter clothes of my early 20’s to walking around with a neon sign over my head that said, “please violate me.” I think I came up with this from my lived experience but also from years of hearing that women are asking for it and from the brutal responses I got from the people who were supposed to recognize my human worth and protect me. I stopped moving my body. I stopped taking care of my body. I tried to dull my body. This was how I sought safety. I could feel myself doing the same thing to my 6-year-old.
The most beautiful part of the EMDR training experience was I feel like I resolved more of what was still lingering. With continued BLS sets, I opened up to this place of “I may not always be safe, but I am strong.” I felt more power to keep myself safe. I had a deep understanding of the fact that there is a place in me that has NEVER been touched or abused or assaulted. There is a divine place in me that is whole and I can reclaim my body and my safety. After the day was done, I ran at top speed on the hotel treadmill. It was freeing and exhilarating and felt so right. I wanted to run. I had to run. Usually I bring my running shoes on work trips and they stay neatly tucked away in my bag. I have to talk myself into going for a brisk walk.
I had a deep understanding that it wasn’t so much the events that hurt me as it was the shame. It was the residual feelings I had about myself in the world that caused the despair. I had a realization that I don’t have to control my daughter’s body or expression because she is divine and she is whole. I may not be able to keep her safe from sexual assault and harassment… odds are I won’t be able to protect her from these experiences.
But I can be there for her. To listen. To support. To share my story so she doesn’t have to carry someone else’s garbage her whole life. To let her know there is nothing that happens to her that she has to hide. We don’t have to keep secrets. We don’t have to have it together all the time. We can be vulnerable and we can get through anything because we are strong.
I can help her understand her divine nature. A nature that transcends the physical. To empower her to use her entire body as she wishes when she wants. She can hug when she wants to and she never has to touch or hug anyone she doesn’t want to. She can wrestle and jump and climb and karate kick and cartwheel to her heart’s content. I will teach her that she has to have consent from others to touch them and that she has to respect other people’s boundaries. And I can set physical boundaries with her when I need to for my own comfort.
She is strong. She is vibrant. She is brilliant. She will likely attract all kinds of creepy and unwanted attention but I refuse to make her dim her light to keep her safe. I will be there for her, with a growing community of brave women, to teach her how to give voice to her pain, to teach her how to reclaim her space, and to teach her how to fully heal.
I love you, my ferocious child. Your essence is untouchable. I will be here of you as long as I can and will hopefully leave you with an undying sense of your own strength, goodness, and lovability.
A note: I know that the tenses shift in this essay. I purposefully left them alternating because I wrote this very organically and believe that the unconscious switching of tenses reveals the re-experiencing that can occur with trauma.