More Than Words
“I love you.”
“Your baby’s fine.”
“You make me sick.”
“I’m sorry…there was nothing we could do.”
“I don’t believe in you anymore; I quit.”
Words make up my day–I dream about them, I write them and I relive them as often as I can. So, please don’t misunderstand me: I recognize and appreciate the significance of words.I’d wager that I understand the power and significance of words more than just about anyone you’ll ever meet. That sounds much more bold and arrogant than I really mean for it to be but, by the same token, I really do understand the power of words; they are stronger than any weapon that has ever or will ever be designed, more meaningful than any gift I could ever recieve or give. The handful of phrases above are merely a few that can totally transform lives — for better or worse. I try, very hard, to make people understand how critically important it is to watch every word that comes out of our mouths, and I have to make a conscious effort not to ramble about their power.
I was just reminded of another important truth: sometimes words are unnecessary, sometimes silence strikes just as hard as words. One of my favorite shows is called I Survived…. The only reason this is important is because it is one of three shows I will ocassionally indulge in, which means that I find it interesting and thought-provoking enough to watch it at all. Stories like lone adventurers hiking up a snowy mountain only to find white-out conditions or slipping 4,000 feet off said snowy mountain; single mothers being stuffed in the trunk of a car with a crazed lunatic bent on murder; school principals trying to protect a school full of children from a gunman—that sort of stuff. What makes the show unique is that instead of re-enacting the stories, it’s just interviews with the surviors. The survivor sits alone and tells the story. And that’s the show. Rape isn’t that uncommon. People get kidnapped, held hostage by crazed idiots who also sexually assault them. And, most of the time, I watch in a state of, well, almost detachment from the stories of rape and sexual assault. I hear it, I know it, I feel the pain like a brief stabbing in my chest, and that’s about it. It doesn’t stay with me anymore. It doesn’t transport me to places I don’t want to go, anymore.
Until last night.
The show detailed the story of Jessyca who was 8 yrs old when a neighbor (a teacher’s aide at her elementary school) began sexually abusing her. Long story short, it lasted 5 1/2 yrs and culminated in his kidnapping her. Now, like I said, I already know the story of rape. I know it in many different ways. I lived it. I’ve heard about it. I’ve studied it. I write about it. Abuse, and the effects of it, is something I feel every day, even if only behind closed eyelids. I am usually not deeply affected anymore when I see another survivor tell her story on TV. I understand her. I feel sorry for her/him. I know what is often left unspoken: stories of the resulting years of nightmares, insecurity and trauma. But I have become fairly adept at controlling when I open the door to fully feel its emotional impact. And I almost never allow that door to open from a show on TV. But, from the first shot of Jessya’s face (she is now fully grown, I should mention, and is years removed from the abuse), my heart began hammering. It wasn’t her words that pierced me and caused me to weep silently. It wasn’t what she said so much that caused me to want to reach through that television set and hug her, even though I believe, and hope, that she’s gained more support than a mere stranger could offer her. It wasn’t even the fact that she’d been only eight when the abuse began. No, it was her face. Unmasked pain. Her brown eyes were dark and….shuttered, her face long, and her words quietly resolute. She did not want to be there, telling her story. I couldn’t understand why she was doing it, since it was perfectly clear to me that doing so was causing her real pain, until the end, when she said that she works now with missing chjildren and their families, and that she hoped her life served a purpose, one of hope. My heart shattered.
There was a visible, blatant difference between Jessyca and other women and men I’ve seen tell their horrific stories of abuse to a camera. Usually, survivors tell their stories behind a very carefully guarded face. Often, if the pain gets too intense and they end up crying, they apologize for doing so and then come back with a stronger voice. In other words, it’s clear to me that they are trying to be brave. They are trying to be strong, and they are trying to avoid getting hurt. All perfectly rational. They want the healing that sharing their stories can bring them, but they don’t want to relive it. It’s kind of like hiding, and it’s all perfectly normal. I used to hide behind the kids I mentored, and the volunteer work I lost myself in, frankly. It’s at least as effective, and far more long lasting, a painkiller than any narcotic. But Jessyca waasn’t avoiding anything. She sat there, with her thin, long face and allowed the cameras to see the pain. She spoke, but her face and her mannerisms, said ten thousand times more. It was though she had just been rescued. And she unapologetically said things that struck home far too closely than I cared to admit, things like, “he made me say I liked it or it would just keep on, until I said it”, without crying. When she did get teary eyed, she didn’t stop her story, she just kept talking. Words just really seem inadequate right now because nothing I can say will capture what that woman told—-without the use of spooken language. It hurt me, and it hurt me because it was crystal clear that her abuser (who received 45 years in prison for 5 1/2 yrs of sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping), who has been removed from her for years upon years, didn’t just hurt her: he is hurting her still, though she is still fully grown with children of her own.
I was reminded that life isn’t just about what we say, it’s also about what we do, and how we choose to interact with others. I consciously guard my heart. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, and haven’t in a very long time, if ever. I put all my focus into looking forward. I got through my childhood by thinking of the event. I’d tell myself things like, “well, so this happened: how do I fix it?” and I wouldn’t rest until I came up with an answer. For me, usually, that answer involved the creation of a book and characters who could overcome the pain. Through their triumphs, I pretended to conquer my own pain. When that seemed to need help, I began volunteering, which proved addicting to me. I could help others, because I understood them. I could fix something. With time, I convinced myself I was healed, I was fine. I’d survived it. I’d even survived sitting through 3 weeks of the most traumatizing, intensive, eye-opening training for the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center at 18 that I could have ever imagined. I was thoroughly convinced that if I could survive that intact, without walking out once, I was healed.
But, obviously, I wasn’t.
And the truth is…. the truth is, I’m not sure that you ever really heal from traumatizing things like abuse. Jessyca reminded me that certain types of pain never fully go away. Parts of my life will always be difficult, because of what happened when I was a child. I shy away from pain. I tell myself I don’t. I can act strong, when given enough incentive. When given enough incentive, I have even learned how to compartmentalize — stick my past into one corner and pull out only the pieces I need to provide support to someone who needs it without opening the flood gates and having to feel more pain than I want to. I like being an advocate. It gives me purpose. It makes me believe there wasa reason behind it all, and a good one. It motivates me to do hard things, like write The Character. But—the truth is—all it takes is a wrong moment, a line from one of my books flowing through my brain, a short memory—and, even if I smile outwardly, inside I’m right back to being a kid again. One wrong move from the people I love, and I shut down faster than TN schools on a possibly snowy night. No matter how hard I try not to do just that, it’s what happens. And it’s what happens because, the truth is, I’m not completely healed; pain still simmers just below my surface. Jessyca hurt me because, in her pain-filled face, I saw a part of me.
As I write this, tears filling my eyes, one thought comes to mind. In another nine or ten hours, I’ll be sitting on the floor, playing Chutes and Ladders or romping around on the trampoline or laughing as the girls and I attempt to wash our dog, or putting a Tinker Bell costume on one girl while the other ties a blanket around my head because I’m the “bad wolf”. As hard as it is right this second to manuever my facial muscles into a smile, in another nine or ten hours, it will be magically easier. This past week, I saw rainbows, danced in in the ocean while rain poured on my head, stared at dozens of impeccably beautiful mountains and marvelled at the fact that, even though it was God who created all of those things, people call Da Vinci a great artist. I’ll start teaching school again, and spend Wed nights and Sunday mornings teaching church. I’ll be fine. The night will end. I sit here, praying to God, that life for Jessyca is the same: that, even when the nights are long and dark, her days are filled with more smiles than tears. We may not ever fully heal. And that’s sad. But….we’re not children anymore, either. We are safe in the dark now and, even when our hearts doubt it and our memories cringe, our logical brains know it’s true: we are really safe. Even when it feels like it’s the same, even when it feels like we’re eight or nine or five again, the truth is, there is a difference to our pain now: it doesn’t have to be meaningless. It can serve a purpose: help us become attentive parents, motivate us to speak or reach out to pull another from the pain. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction to those events.
I’ve only been to a counselor two times; at our second, and final, session, she told me she did not think I was ready for therapy. I’m not good at wearing real and intense pain on my sleeve. I’d rather convert it to action, so I don’t have to think about iit. I still believe that that’s the best path for me; it keeps me going, it prevents me from feeling helpless and afraid all the time. But—Jessyca reminded me of something else last night. Whether I hide or not, whether I’m healed or not, my heart has bled too, and I lost a part of me that I still miss, just like she did and does. I use words to make others think. I use words to express the things I can’t verbalize. But, sometimes, life is about emotion and emotion isn’t something we say, it’s something we feel, and it’s most clearly recognized when we’re silent and attentive to our emotional welfare. Life is about more than deeds, it’s about more merely acknowledging that our feelings are valid. If I am hurt, then I am hurt, even if no one else in the world thinks I should be; my tears don’t have to make sense. If I think something, but you think it’s a crazy thought, does that make it irrevelant? If I am happy, then it doesn’t matter that no one can understand why. The worst part of abuse is that it dehumanizes and devalues the survivor in a way that you just can’t comprehend, unless you’ve experienced it. The whole world begins to revolve around doing the “right” thing, feeling and saying things the “right” way. You’re not supposed to have thoughts of your own and you’re certainly not allowed to voice them. Over time, that means that nothing you do or say or even feel is valid. It’s almost like you don’t even really exist. You’re not supposed to feel and, like it or not, learned behaviors are very diffcult habits to break. Hiding and suppressing and withdrawing all become part of “doing what’s right.” When I hide, or stomp my feelings down, then I fail to acknowledge them, thereby making healing impossible. Because, you see, while words provide comprehension, emotions are word’s foundations. I shouldn’t fear the pain, I shouldn’t fear the tears, I shouldn’t fear the memories—instead, I should remember that there is power in honestly and unashamedly acknowledging an emotion for what it is, giving yourself permission to have valid and acceptable feelings. Frankly, the bottom life is, healing, emotions, life—-they’re all about more than words. And, sometimes, that’s a good reminder.