Part II – All of My Broken Places

Trigger Warning—Description of child abuse and sexual abuse

Some people are angels on this earth. My Grandmother was one of those angels for me. I have been blessed with many angels, and I know without a doubt that if it were not for them, I would not be here writing these words. That dark April evening in 1998, I remember taking the cordless phone into my closet and dialing my Grandparent’s number. My Grandparents lived on the other side of the country, but we were close. I’d spend summers with them, and they would visit throughout the year. This call is foggy for me, but from my Grandmother’s account, she said, “I called her very scared, because my father had lost it again, smashed our glass sliding doors, thrown something at me, and drove off in our only vehicle.” As an adult, I read this sentence and think, “the reader is going to wonder why I made the call and not my mom.” My Mom was scared, proud, and felt that she had to stay because she was a high school dropout stay-at-home mom who could not provide for her four daughters independently. In addition to that, my Mom was very religious and was concerned about the sin of divorce.

After hanging up the phone, my Grandmother called family friends and had them get my Mom, sisters, and I out of the house. They paid for us to be put up for four days at a nice hotel and allowed us to order room service. CPS had already been called at this time as my Mom had let it slip in therapy that it upset her when my dad would beat me. Finally, with the pending CPS investigation and the support of my Grandparents, my Mother gained the courage to leave my Father.

I never had a relationship with my Father after that weekend in the hotel. I was a child, a child he would hurt in all the ways you could hurt and scare a child. When he was well, he could be fun and would take my sisters and me swimming, on bike rides, and read to us. But I also have memories of him touching me inappropriately, exposing himself to me, him coming towards me exposed, and then nothing. I have memories of being held down against my will, a pillow covering my face, and again nothing. For years I have been confused by these polarized versions of my Father. I would feel guilty for not speaking to him or seeing him when he asked to see me. But, there is a voice louder inside me than the guilt of his sadness; this voice says, “we can’t have a relationship with him; he is not safe.” I have listened to this voice for the last twenty-two years.

We struggled financially before the divorce. After the divorce, we were poor. Our home was foreclosed, the one vehicle went to my Father, and my Mother, Sisters, and I moved into subsidized housing. None of my friends came from families like mine. They had lovely homes and vehicles and parents that worked good jobs. I missed almost all of seventh grade. The bullying from some of my “so-called friends” and my shame were too much for me to bear. I view this as my first actual nervous breakdown. During this time, my Mother fell into a deep depression. She had to get on welfare and enrolled herself in a college GED program. Towards the end of seventh grade, I was enrolled in a new school but still felt the intense shame, insecurity, self-loathing, and anxiety that I could not name.

One of my little Sisters was also victim to a great deal of abuse from my Father. By the time I was in ninth grade, she was experiencing active psychosis. Taking care of my little sister and making sure she had the treatment and care she needed pushing my already depressed Mother into a deeper darkness. Around that time, I began assuming more household duties and the care of my other younger siblings.

This content is hard to write; with that being said, it is also cathartic. I look forward to sharing more of my story with you in the upcoming weeks.

Panic Attacks and Addiction

Today I woke up expecting a lovely day. I would be working from home behind the safety of my laptop with my weighted blanket all around me. Then an email dinged in my work mailbox. A standard email from management to our office staff addressing a menial issue regarding office staff late attendance of 5-10 min not being allowed: being that I am in middle management, this email did not directly affect me; however, being the sensitive soul that I am, I knew how it affected my colleagues. Those colleagues being slightly reprimanded work their butts off and have been doing so without any appreciation for quite some time. The negative feelings towards my work started to bubble, the feelings of being trapped, underappreciated, and the knowledge that the COVID bubble is lifting. In one week, I am expected to return to the office full time. This lovely, safe environment that I’ve come accustomed to and built my sobriety around is coming to an end.

Then I felt my body and mind start to draw inward. My chest became heavy; my throat began to feel as though a large stone was wedged in the middle, my mind racing but not racing anywhere at all. Then to complete the process, I started getting tunnel vision. And then I knew very quickly that I would soon be in the midst of a panic attack. In my mind, I hear my inner voice say, “great, we don’t have time for this.” But my anxiety tells the inner voice to shut up because they are running the show now. I can best describe this experience to what I have seen in movies where terrorists or pirates hijack a plane or boat. So here I am, a hostage in my mind and body taking in this experience, wondering how long this will go on, if I will need to take my PRN, or if I’ll even be able to function today. So I close my eyes and start slowly breathing in and out, then moving into a box breathing technique I’ve learned. I draw in a breath of 5, hold for 6, and exhale for 7. I keep using the box breathing technique and am slowly able to escape the anxiety and come up for air. For the next few minutes, I sit and try to come back to the real world and adjust my senses back to the world around me. While this may sound like a quick process, in all honestly, the entire experience lasted close to three hours. Additionally, the stress of losing time to my anxiety attack causes more anxiety, as then I must rush to get all of my work assignments and meetings completed without letting anyone know that I am not ok!

What’s unique about today’s anxiety attack experience is that while the negative thoughts and feelings of stress and overwhelm were setting in, I heard the whisper of the creepy little alcoholic gremlin I imagine that lives in my mind. Saying things like, “This is too much for you, this is too much stress, it never ends, let’s take the edge off so we can deal with this without shutting down or having a “panic attack.” He always says panic attacks so mockingly, probably because he knows that with my control issues, it’s something I also judge and at times mock myself for.

Thankfully through sobriety, I now have the tools to shut up voices like that because I know I have to sit through the discomfort even if that discomfort means a full-blown panic attack. So as I reflect on this incident, I would not call the gremlin voice suggesting that we go for drinks to deal with our stress a craving, but rather the whispers of an old coping strategy trying to make their suggestion known.

Today is day 103 of my sobriety journey. I’m almost scared to say that it has been easier than I expected. But perhaps I was expecting sobriety to be a difficulty that mirrored being an alcoholic where everything was hard and filled with darkness, disequilibrium, and shame. Sobriety and the tools developed to maintain sobriety require very active engagement, no more numbing out, no more hiding. If something is stressful, uncomfortable, or even scary, we must recognize that we have the tools needed to sit through our discomfort, anxiety, and fear and let it pass through us. As on day 103 of this process, I am finding that with each moment I sit in the discomfort and deal with my anxiety, pain, and despair, I become a little more whole and a little more me each day.

Shame

Shame is the stab in my stomach that pulses in and out and creeps into my chest making it hard to breathe, the knot in my throat that makes it hard to swallow. Shame is also the tunnel vision, the shutting down of my senses as my mind transitions back to another time. Shame is the unwelcome remembrance of my past; just like all my trauma-based flashbacks, this takes me back to that moment. Then the shame whispers in my ear, “drink something to make this stop.” Then the decision to drink, take a glass of wine, vodka, or whatever I can find to numb the pain.

It’s interesting now in sobriety, knowing that the shame that drew me to drink was not my shame to wear. It’s not my fault my parents struggled financially, that we were below the poverty line, the pitty in the eyes of kind people in the church who wanted to help. It’s not my fault that I have a mentally ill father who had his own substance abuse issues and took his pain out physically on me. It’s not my fault for the abuse I withstood. I should not wear the shame of the first adolescent relationship I had for years that was equally unhealthy and now feels dirty. It’s not my fault that my adult life became so stressful that I needed to numb. I say this with the understanding of PTSD and that all stress I experience feels like that same trauma-based stress described above. I know that my stressful prestigious job and the imposter syndrome I experienced from this toxic, high-paying environment weren’t necessarily my fault. What starts to become my fault is the choice to numb daily. Drinking daily to escape all of the shame and pain that continued to grow in me the better my life became. Then the shame of drinking and the shame from my past meld into one darkness that takes over and leads down a path to alcohol abuse.

Here in sobriety, I have a new shame. It’s a well-meaning conversation that comes from me sharing how happy I am to be sober, an expression of joy and lightness, and the seeking to connect with family on that level. It’s then being met with a person I love telling me how hurt they were because of my drinking. Then the shame I have been working on managing healthily feels heavier than any other shame I’ve experienced because this feels like my fault. Finally, I start to sink into the shame spiral, the physical symptoms, the tunnel vision that feels almost like a panic attack, and the knowing that this experience is not the end.

Introduction – Part I – All of My Broken Places

Due to the level of soul-crushing depression I was living with, I knew I needed to find the answer to the screaming question in my mind of, “how did I get here?” or “how did I get so far from the good parts of me?” I realized that my life had been a series of many “breaks.” I imagine these as breaks in the pattern of my soul. To me these breaks, look like the cracks in the road that have been fixed with crappy asphalt, which accurately describes how I felt about these breaks in who I am. 

The breakdowns have been mental, physical, and crushing soul level. They all have a story and their own unique damaging designs. I’ve often felt that my emotional and sensitive nature indicates these broken parts of me. I assumed that everyone could see them and see how much of an imposter I am. 

The anxiety, depression, and trauma, the subsequent flawed concept of self, caused a great deal of pain that left me feeling broken. For so many years, I thought I had a handle on these feelings of brokenness. I would try to keep these feelings under control to prevent one of my more severe breakdowns (more on that later). To tackle my flawed concept of self, I would try to collect accolades to prove to myself and the world that I was worthy of existing, being loved, and having a life. I thought if I could build myself into an attractive, high-functioning career mom and wife with a lovely home, I would feel like a whole human. Unfortunately, that was not the case; in fact, it made me feel more broken than ever. How could I have everything I ever wanted and feel like I was breaking even more? I didn’t have the answer to my question or the pain that I was feeling, so I found something to numb the pain. I started using alcohol, wine especially as medicine, to numb the screams of pain from my broken places. 

Where it started

I think my broken parts started at the youngest age possible. My father, a mentally unwell broken person, who medicated with drugs and alcohol, created a dark, tense cloud in our home. He would be in the house, and the energy would become scary and thick with his frustration, anger, and the knowledge from my mother and I that anything could set him off. It was like living with a ticking time bomb. Like many abusive households where substance abuse is an issue, we struggled financially. I often considered myself a “poor kid” and assumed my peers did too. All my friends had nice homes, clothes, and toys. On the other hand, I lived in tiny one-bathroom homes and shared a bedroom with my sisters. 

It’s amazing how other kids can sniff out our brokenness like we give off a scent, and they can tell that our home life probably isn’t great. Then for that reason, they decide that they should make school just as hellish. I don’t know what was worse, home or school? First, I would be made fun of for my wild curly hair that, when brushed, turned into a frizzy mess or hand-me-down clothes I wore daily. Then in fifth grade, when my homelife’s stress manifested on my face in the form of acne, the kids, some of whom I considered my best friends, would use that to torture me. 

By the beginning of seventh grade, things at home and school had become even worse. My father’s outbursts had become a daily occurrence where the severity of the outburst and level of subsequent destruction after the fact were the only changing variables. For example, a loud noise made by one of my little sisters or myself could set him off into what appeared to be an adult temper tantrum. On the other hand, with my apparent disdain towards him, I always received the worst and took the brunt of the abuse. I am happy that most of this landed on my shoulders, and I could protect my sisters. But now, 23 years later, I finally realize the effect this has had on me throughout the years. 

Thankfully, when I was 12-years-old, our mother left my father. She was finally forced to leave with my sisters and I by a terrifying event at our home. Terrified, I called my Grandmother across the country for help while hiding in my closet.

To be continued in next weeks post: Introduction – Part II – All of my broken places

For the Sake of Healing

I am sitting here more whole than I have ever been in my life, and that feels good to acknowledge. But at the same time, I can still feel all the breaks in me. The breaks mean so many different things to me. The breaks are the damaged cracks left on the fabric of my soul by trauma, by hurt, by the ways I’ve let myself and others down. The breaks are also the panic attacks, nervous breakdowns, and knowing that something inside me may allow one of those breaks to happen again in the future.

In this moment, I’m sitting in discomfort because I extended an olive branch to someone that has hurt me, but also someone I have hurt. God led me to extend the olive branch, and I listened to him. Interacting with this person hasn’t been positive, but we will always cross each other’s paths. I’m good at keeping a score of others’ wrongs towards me and then quantifying it to come up with an internal system of validating my non-forgiveness as boundaries. The thing is, I can still have boundaries while forgiving someone and extending kindness. The interaction with this person did not go as planned; they were abrasive and wanted to continue the same old pattern. This process and the work I have done on myself give me the knowledge that engaging with her would not go well. So I did not engage in the back and forth but kept reiterating my intention in sending the message, “I have no ill will towards you, I wish you well. When we cross paths, let’s not have it be like this.” These words still didn’t land, and I have to accept that. I’m not uncomfortable because this person doesn’t like me; it’s my ego that is uncomfortable because someone who I see as beneath me or having wronged me so much more than I have ever wronged her is rejecting my kindness. But that’s not how this works, and my ego needs to shut up because it’s not running the show anymore.

So I will sit in this discomfort without a drink, without ill will, and without spewing unkind words about this person as I would have in the past. I know now that the only way out of this stuff is through it, and I have to remember that growth is painful, but it’s also beautiful.

I see what is occurring as part of a process to reset some of the breaks—then finding a way to align the damaged areas better so that the brokenness can heal. I believe that is the part of this journey where we begin to heal and break free truly. As I’ve said previously, I tend to envision the breaks and damage on my soul as permanent and ugly. The Japanese art practice of “Kintsugi,” where broken pieces of pottery are put back together using Gold, has been compared to the healing and therapeutic work of addressing our broken places by many. This ideology is a beautiful sentiment that works well for many people but does not resonate with how I feel. Parts of this healing process feel abrasive, like a caustic substance burning into me. I don’t feel like I’m being put back together and turned into a pretty piece of art. I feel like I’m being bathed in acid rain and meant to sit through it because I know that this burning pain is a purification process. Maybe those breaks are intended to be eroded away into non-existence.

Don’t get me wrong; there are parts of breaking free from trauma, addiction, and pain that feel beautiful. I have moments where I feel so much peace, connection to God, and who I am that it’s almost like I’m floating in euphoria. I feel so much love and peace inside me, where there was once darkness and crushing anxiety. There are moments that don’t feel like acid rain on my raw and hurting skin. However; to me these moments of peace have nothing that could be described as being put back together with a lovely gold binding solution.

The Shadow Comes To Call

I feel you before I know you are here. I know you all too well. You’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. You don’t change; you’re still just as loud and persistent as you’ve always been. You start with a whisper, then try to talk. If I don’t respond, you’ll yell, and eventually, you win; you always win.

I finally know who you are. You have many names, shame, self-loathing, and imposter syndrome, to name a few. You are my shadow. I thought you had left for good. I thought I had fought the good fight and found sobriety, so how are you here? When you showed up today, we fell quickly into our usual routine. I helped you unpack your bags, looking for a clue or find the reason for this visit. You did not disappoint. What shocked me the most was I realized I invited you to visit. I paid for your ticket and asked you in, allowing you free reign over me. I’m shocked; I don’t understand how I could invite you here again, especially when I’ve been working so hard, and I feel so much better. I thought I loved myself more than this. Then I realize I don’t love myself at all, and you’re here to make sure I never forget that I’m a complete piece of shit, a fake, and most of all, a waste of a life. You are here to kill the light.

I think I know what solidified our bond years ago. It was the first drink from the cup of shame. It was bullying 4th through 7th grade; it was struggling in school and not feeling safe at school or home. It was abuse, it was poverty, and it was the knowing that I’m ugly. I knew I was ugly; you made sure of it. I had frizzy hair, pimples, and hand-me-down clothes, and the stench of low self-esteem. Then it was the teasing about my appearance from my peers to make sure that I not only saw how awful I was but heard it as well, like a one-two punch knockout combo. You managed to make sure I knew and would never forget what a piece of shit I genuinely am – your mantra for my life.

I thought you would pack up and leave once I forced my way out of my “ugly phase,” earned a good living, and made a family of my own in a new place. But you still visit and come to stay. You visit when I’m at my best; my most attractive, most accomplished, and most together. You call just the same as when I’m at my worst.

Today when you came to see me, I was surprised. I’ve been better than I’ve been in years. I now know God loves me, and I love him. I have peace. I have love; I have so many blessings; I even have 22 lbs of weight loss. So when we started talking today, and you told me that I brought you here, I was shocked. I let it sink in and tried to figure out how I conjured up your arrival, and then I knew. I had been on social media comparing myself to my peers. A pass time that is like roulette sometimes paying out, allowing me to feel a bit better, but most often, I lose it all, and the shadow comes to call. Today the comparison reminded me that my looks have faded, that I’m still overweight, that I haven’t finished my Masters, that I’m lazy, that I don’t have cool hobbies or even a cute butt. As we talked, you reminded me that I am ugly, disgusting even at times, and will never change. You made sure I understood that all the makeup and acceptance in the world wouldn’t fix my grotesque nose or hide my cavernous pores, oh and you managed to find some new faults like my aging teeth.

I thought I had done the work and was at least on a path far away from you, living in the light. I thought I had self-esteem, self-love, and peace; at times, I know I do. But, unfortunately, I have you. You are a cancer of the soul. Just when I think I’m in remission, you remind me that I’ll never be. You hold the heart of my 12-year-old self, the most broken and hurting me. You own the recordings of cruel words spoken to me throughout my life that you are all so happy to play on repeat. You’ve got the delta chart ready for analysis. You’ve weighed the pros and cons and remind me that cons will always win because everything good about me is a facade. You have all the data and supporting arguments to prove that I’m an imposter. And there it’s, my core belief, the reason you can come to call whenever you want, I don’t believe in myself. I know all the bad parts of me are the truth.

Thankfully you have not killed the light, and she brings logic and reason with her as her companions. We discuss the trauma I’ve experienced, my distorted thought process and watch a beautiful slide show of all the great, decent, unique, and beautiful things about me. I appreciate their visit. I appreciate logic and reason, as they can quite the shadow and get me to hear their arguments. We agree that I need to find a way to love myself truly. They tell me that I’m not alone in this, and the path forward is to love God and feel His love, then love others and keep moving forward each day. Logic and reason talk to my soul and decide that a tonic is needed to banish the shadow for good. I must find a way to love myself.