The other day I was emptying a trash can in a dark room. I thought that surely I could do this simple task without turning the light on. I sat down and pulled the over-filled trash can liner out of the trash can and tied a knot at the top. Easy-peasy. Then it was time to put a new trash can liner into the trash can, so I found the right end of the plastic trash can liner and started fiddling with it, using a variety of techniques. I fiddled for a while. I couldn’t seem to get the two sides of the plastic bag to separate from one another and do what I wanted.
Then I thought This is ridiculous. I decided that the job just might require me to turn the light on. Ta-dah! Guess what. I was fiddling with the wrong edge of the trash can liner. My way was never going to work. Once the light was on, I realized my mistake (including my unwarranted confidence), started fiddling with the correct side of the bag and got that little goodie in place in nothing flat.
While I was sitting in the dark, I was just sure that I was doing things right. I was absolutely sure. Hmmm.
Decisions made in the dark
Have you ever made a decision based on bad, misleading or false “information”? Maybe that decision took you on a short or long trip to Trouble Central or I-Sure-Regret-That Alley. Maybe it even took you to Trauma Town. I get that. I really do.
Light = truth
My trash can liner example is about truth. I was just sure that I was doing things right. Unfortunately, the darkness of the situation hid the truth. I was proceeding based on lies—including the lie that I was right—and it wasn’t going so well. Because the truth was hidden, I was totally mistaken. Once the light was on, I could see that I was wrong. I had to change what I was doing in order to get the job done. The light showed me the truth. Actually, it showed me two truths: (1) I was wrong, even though I’d felt absolutely positive that I was right, and (2) I was fiddling with the wrong edge of the plastic bag.
Light is very helpful when it’s time to gather the trash, and it’s also a beautiful metaphor for truth.
Wrestling for truth
Late one night, after midnight, I wrestled with myself in my mind for a while. I was thinking about the anger letter I wrote to my dad. I asked myself this important question: Was my dad emotionally abusive? I started going round and round about the issue of intent. Was it his intent to be emotionally abusive? Did that matter or not?
And then I remembered the definitions of abuse and neglect from my 10 years working as a social worker for Child Protective Services. The definitions of abuse and neglect don’t consider the intent of the “alleged perpetrator.” It’s all about the impact on the child. Intent is irrelevant.
Admitting and asking
Now that I admitted the obvious—that I had to disregard any perceived intent on my dad’s part—I had to ask myself some pointed questions.
Was I harmed by the things my dad said and/or did? Yes. Was the impact significant? Yes. Was I emotionally abused? (Could I admit the A-word? Abuse?)
Hard to admit
Why was it hard for me to admit this? Brandon wasn’t the only one who had trouble admitting his parents’ abuse.
I don’t know, really. Maybe I wanted to believe that my dad did an okay job. Maybe I wanted to believe that deep down he loved me. Maybe I didn’t want to acknowledge the significance of his impact on my life. I think the impact, in the end, was the biggest issue. I had built pretty high emotional walls around myself and I didn’t want to admit how much my dad’s words had hurt me. But they did. They really did.
I’d spent my adult life calling the family I grew up in The We-Don’t-Talk-About-It Family. Obviously, there was more to it than that.
As I reread my anger letter to my dad, the paragraph that made me cry the most was the one about being five years old and being so well-trained that I could not call out to my parents for help, or to anyone else. I was emotionally on my own—at five years old! That is very disturbing. Very wrong. It was emotional abuse.
Time to unpack
After I asked Brandon to read the anger letter to my dad, I mentioned that I knew I needed to unpack this relationship (i.e., this trauma). He liked the expression unpack. I do too.
I can’t unpack a suitcase while it’s hidden at the back of my closet, high on a shelf where I can barely reach it. I have to take the suitcase down from its long-term storage—its out-of-sight, out-of-mind place. I have to see it in front of me. I have to lean in close, touch it and open it up. I have to look inside it. And I have to reach into it. I have to look at each and every item in my suitcase (i.e., my trauma) and take each item out—each issue, each memory—one at a time, in order to empty the suitcase and put it neatly on the shelf. Then I can walk away without unfinished business.
Taking the time
This may sound tedious, but it really isn’t. I spent one morning writing my anger letter and reflecting on it. One relaxed Saturday morning. And then I was mostly done. After writing an anger letter, you’ll find yourself reading it a few times that day or in the days ahead. Then, after I did just that, I laid it down. It was finished. No more intrusive thoughts. Why? Because I did most of the work of grieving—looking at what happened and getting my feelings out.
Was writing the letter all I needed to do? In this case, no. I still needed to carefully assess the impact my dad had on my life. You’ll read about that in upcoming posts. In about six weeks, a little at a time, the work was done. I feel better. Much better.
From Traumatic Grief, part 3
In order to experience healing, though, we have to step back into those memories to do the necessary work to get them out of our minds and bodies. We have to examine our many, sometimes-conflicting feelings about the person or people involved. We have to write anger and/or good-bye letters. We have to cry. We have to acknowledge the impact that this person or experience has had on us and choose to no longer allow that negative impact/control. We have to say things like No more and Good-bye, and maybe more….
Ending the trauma
We have to end the trauma by looking at it, feeling it, expressing those feelings, doing the work to get the trauma out of us, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries going forward, and experiencing closure on that relationship, chapter, experience.
From Traumatic Grief, part 4
Uncover, Discover and Discard
This is what those actions—uncover, discover and discard—mean to me.
♦ Laying down The Heavy Baggage of Denial
♦ Bringing secrets into the light
♦ Admitting what happened
♦ Remembering the trauma—looking it in the face
♦ Expressing and dealing with the feelings
♦ Acknowledging the impact
♦ Reframing the experience by seeking and finding the truth about who I am
♦ Saying good-bye
♦ Leaving the trauma behind and walking forward, in healing and peace
From Traumatic Grief, part 5
What Was Stolen
Peaceful Readers, why do we need to touch our pain and wallow around in it for a while in order to experience healing?
The trauma—the pain—stole things from us.
We must identify what it stole.
What he stole
What did my dad’s words—his emotional abuse—steal from me?
♦ He stole my ability to have faith in people, to trust people.
♦ He stole my ability to relax and enjoy my childhood.
♦ He stole my ability to love and forgive myself.
♦ He stole my ability to have balance in my life.
♦ He stole my ability to develop wisdom and discernment.
♦ He stole my ability to feel comfortable around good people.
♦ He stole my ability to build positive relationships.
♦ He stole my ability to trust God.
♦ He stole my ability to speak the truth.
♦ He stole my ability to be courageous.
Can I tell you something, Peaceful Readers? That list flew out—at lightning speed. And I hadn’t ever thought about it before. Not in that way. Wow.
Asking and answering an essential question
Part of my work of grieving requires me to really think about these things.
Have I successfully reclaimed all that he stole from me?
I can reclaim all of it except for the ability to relax and enjoy my childhood. My childhood is done.
Strangely enough, after writing that list and the comments after it, I’m sitting here smiling. I have. I’ve reclaimed all that he stole from me. But it was such a long journey. (Now I’m crying.) And I’m sad about that. It took so many years. So many….
Coming next: Next time on Choosing Peace, you’ll learn my 10-point unpacking list. I like lists. I can check things off as I go. I can feel my progress. I hope this list—How to Unpack a Trauma or Loss—will bless you richly as you do the work of grieving and move forward on The Healing Journey, one step at a time.
Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.
Truth from The Word: Isaiah 43:5-7
Song for Healing: What a powerful song. Listen to “Back to the Garden” by Crowder.