Restoryative blog:

Writing myself whole

Image by Gabriel Crismariu

Pining For Myself

I step into the cool shadows cast by a cluster of towering pine trees, the entrance to Ponderosa State Park and an ancient forest. The smell of wet pine surrounds me, while the chill makes the hair on my arms stand on end. I meander back and forth along the black paved path, listening to the scuff of my shoes, caressing the coarse bark with my fingertips, catching a teardrop of sap, searching for wisdom in the long-lived lives of the wood. The trunks rise skyward one hundred and fifty feet to wispy branched peaks, mighty wings lifting the timber higher. I wander off the path and into the presence of a particularly compelling pine to have a conversation.

Standing on a carpet of her matted pine needles, I wrap my arms around the width of her trunk, my fingers several inches from touching. Her girth indicates she has been here a while, expanding annually. A few smooth white scars stand out against the shades of brown and uneven texture of her exterior. Branches protrude from her abdomen, some long and shaggy and others short and sharp, fractured before reaching their true size. In some places, branches are missing, broken close to her body. Time and weather have fragmented her, yet she still stands. I observe her fullness from grounded roots to lofty cloud-skimming brow.

I take a step towards her gently laying a hand on her rugged skin. Leaning in, smelling her earthy sweat, I whisper, “It’s my birthday.” I rest my forehead against her, and ask, “Every year you add a ring of growth, another layer of yourself, do you know who you are under those layers? Do you remember your rings? Do you know who you are, even when parts of you are missing?” I can almost hear her saying, “You know that I do.”

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When my daughter turns six, she knows exactly what she wants for her birthday: rainbow streamers, dancing and karaoke, dress-up clothes, yellow cake in the shape of a six, chocolate frosting, sprinkles on top. In her wonderful warble, she paints a celebratory picture of who she is and what is important to her. With childlike curiosity, she asks, “Mommy, what did you do on your sixth birthday?” My voice sticks on a syllable, “Uhhhhhhh.” She wants to know me, but I have no answer for her. I can’t remember any of my childhood birthdays. No recollection of cakes and ice cream. No memory of treasured gifts. No sense of growing older. No marking of time. No narrative. Instead of memories, I have unexplainable feelings, an annual dread that begins on the first day of July. As the days pass, this dread gradually contorts into an unbearable shame wrapped in agitation that culminates on my birthday. Obviously, I can’t tell her this, so I distract her, “Tell me again what kind of birthday cake you want.”

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On my thirty-second birthday, my in-laws are visiting. That morning we sit around my kitchen table, finishing off pancakes, planning the day. My brother-in-law smiles at me, “Hey, we’d like to take you to lunch for your birthday. Any place you’d like to go?” I freeze, wide-eyed and speechless. My forkful of pancake halfway to my mouth. He waits expectantly as I try to make words. His smile twists into an awkward grimace, his eyes darting around the room like the answer to my reaction is hidden in one of the corners. A choked sob escapes my throat threatening to unleash itself. Embarrassed, I push my chair back, filling the room with a terrible roar as it grates across the floor tiles. Covering my face, I briskly walk to my bedroom to argue with the voice raging in my head.

I lurch into my master bathroom, my bottled sobs escaping as somber hiccups. Leaning heavily on the counter, I drop my chin to my chest and stare at the formica countertop. For all of my adult life, I have minimized and avoided bringing attention to myself on the day I was born. I recoil from the cards, the gifts, the celebrating, the spotlight. Raising my face to the mirror, I study my own eyes unable to recognize the person who looks back at me. I question myself, “Why can’t you just celebrate yourself?” She meets my gaze, “Why can’t you remember your life?” My expression hardens, I resent my reflection.

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A few years later, I’m seated in my therapist’s office, my legs twitching against the leather armchair, EMDR paddles in each hand vibrating left and then right. Left. Right. Left. Right. He reminds me to keep breathing because I forget to breathe. I am confronted with the image of my inner child. A tattered six-year-old version of myself, stubborn and skittish as hell. Her eyes reddened from years of tormented sleep. In defiance and protection, her arms tightly folded across her trunk. Her teeth gritted against the bark of the overwhelming truth that she carries, but her body told it all. The bruises of invasive abuse, the mangled hair of deafening neglect, the slumped shoulders of perpetual abandonment, and the eternal unseenness of it all. The lack of recognition of the life she has been fighting, year after year. She glares at me unflinching. I fight the urge to look away.

I spend the next couple of years learning to sit with myself, cultivating a relationship with this forgotten child, tending to my missing branches, leafing through pages of my story that I had buried long ago. Together we craft out a rough timeline overwhelmed by years of sexual abuse from a person we loved. Believing we were to blame. Leaving our body and abandoning our memory to survive. I tell her, “I’m sorry that it’s been so long since someone has seen you.” She shifts her weight, loosens her grip on her arms. I carry on, “You have always been here holding it all. What can I do for you?” She furrows her brow, a tear peeking out of the corner of her eye. She whispers through held breath, “Remember me.” I run my hand from the crown of her head, through her thick, brown hair, wiping her tear, to cradle her chin. We regard each other. Every day I remind her that what happened is not her fault. Every day she reminds me of my courage. Not every memory is recovered, but I am recovered.

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