At 66, when I look back over my early life, I see the typical manifestations of trauma. I began to “forget” the abuse— dissociate---well before the age of 5. I experienced a first depression at 12. By 14 I had developed an eating disorder, alternating periods of anorexia and bingeing. At 17, I considered suicide. In college, I would walk for hours to calm anxiety attacks that seemed to come from nowhere. In my early 20s, I fell in love with an alcoholic, a relationship that ended after two and a half exhausting years of anger and mistrust.
After graduating with a masters degree in ecology from the University of Minnesota, I floundered. Without the structure of school, I had no idea what to do next. I believed in a future of perpetual happiness, if only I could identify the key to unlock it. For years I agonized about returning to the path I’d abandoned after college--going to medical school. I toyed with becoming an occupational therapist or getting a Ph.D. in English. In the meantime I took a series of part-time, short-term jobs, often interspersed with periods of unemployment. I burned through the money my grandmother had set aside for me.
At 29, I fell apart. I found myself in a therapist’s office, trembling like a child.
“Can you tell me what’s happening?” the therapist asked gently. She waited for a few seconds, then she looked away. “Do you remember the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz? He needed something to give him courage … . Can you wait here a second?”
I nodded. She left and came back with a tiny vial of a clear liquid. “This is a magic potion. Will you try it?”
Somehow, to my smaller self, this made sense. I nodded and took a sip. It worked. I choked out the image I saw in playing out in my mind: my father had thrown me on the bed and was lying on top of me. I could hardly breathe. My eyes locked on the sky-blue of the bedspread. Everything else receded, as if it were happening far away, to someone else.
This was my first flashback. They continued over the next decade, upending my life, teaching me bit by bit what I’d endured.
Most people would look at this chronology and see an unbearable life, likely to end in breakdown, addiction, or suicide. But that’s not the way I experienced it. Paradoxically, my ability to dissociate--to sequester the experiences of horrific abuse outside the reach of my own consciousness--made it possible to live, and thus to find the things that made my life worth living. As a child, for example, I loved school--its predictable routine and clear expectations. I blossomed under the gaze of a beloved teacher who once took me in for a night of popcorn and Godzilla. I loved the thrilling stacks of brand-new Scholastic books that I got to choose from a catalog. I wrote poems and plays, sang in the choir, played piano and organ, taught myself to draw. I loved nature, taking refuge at the creek down the ravine across from our house, and later, in my teens and twenties, hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
And for the most part, while I waited for a bolt of inspiration to reveal the career I was meant to pursue, I enjoyed the jobs I actually did. I waitressed, roofed a few barns, raked blueberries. Interned at an environmental education center, edited a natural history magazine, designed activities for old people in nursing homes, led school-groups at nature centers. My belief in an idyllic future was misplaced, but it kept me alive and moving forward. At length it came to me: I loved the work I was already doing, especially teaching, in any form. If I wasn’t sure what to do next, I realized, I could watch where my feet were taking me. I could trust my inner GPS to take me where I needed to go
At some point in my 30s, I attended a one-day mindfulness retreat at the Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center in Minneapolis. It was a brilliant August day, the deep blue sky vaulting overhead. We’d been meditating for several hours in the sunlit hall: walking, sitting, chanting, more walking, more sitting. Finally, since the day was warm, the instructor asked us to go outside and find a place to sit alone. I walked to a city park just a block away and sat down next to a fountain with a small man-made creek bubbling over rocks. When I dropped my hand into the water, it split into two streams, throwing off white-gold sparks, outlining my wrist in quicksilver. Suddenly I saw the water as I’d never seen it before. It could change shape to occupy any space, reflect the shifting colors of the sky. It could transform from cold ice to free-flowing liquid, and leap, invisible, into the air. I saw it coursing around the planet, probing every possible nook and cranny like a bloodstream, vital to the survival of every living creature on earth.
Back inside, the instructor asked us to report on our experience. As I told the group about the water, I felt the instructor smiling at me—no, he was beaming. It was as if some light poured out of his body toward me, meeting and recognizing the same light in myself. We seemed to be having a silent conversation, sharing what we had both discovered—an interior place overflowing with wonder and joy.
This moment of grace changed me. It didn’t take away the tumultuous road ahead, but it gave me a ground, a realization that I was more than the sum of the trauma I’d experienced. That the deepest part of me was whole, untouched, and always within reach.
In my mid-30s, I ended up at a local community college, tutoring and eventually teaching what I’d always loved most: literature and writing. I met the man who’d become my husband of 30 years. Six years after moving into our small house, we adopted a little boy from Guatemala who would become the greatest joy of my life.
I’d be lying to say that was the end of the story. My love of teaching was tested by the stresses of working as a part-time adjunct: the financial collapse of 2008 that threatened my job; the weight of carrying students’ stories of poverty, homelessness, friends lost to drug overdoses; the constant pressure to do more with less. My marriage was strained by the trauma I brought to it, by the demands of raising a child with ADHD and learning disabilities. At times new memories of abuse would break through—though less and less often. There was no point of arrival at everlasting happiness. But I was doing far more than I had ever thought possible. I found inside myself the strength and commitment to persevere at doing what I loved, with the people I loved, even through the hardest of times. I gradually grew in compassion for myself, for all my lost and broken parts, for the difficult feelings I shared with every other human being.
I wish for you …
I’m not telling you to meditate, to become Buddhist or Christian or any religion, to choose one way of healing over another. I’m not telling you that you’ll never again feel grief or terror or rage or despair. What I want to say is that grace is all around you, right now: in doing the things you love, loving the people who love you back, reveling in the beauty of music, art, and nature. In those quiet nudges that take you where you need to go. You can and will grow into spaces you never thought possible—not perpetual happiness, but a real human life.
I wish for you a hope that keeps you moving. The courage of a lion. The strength to hold tight to what you love. A radical compassion for all that you’ve been and done and gone through. A trust that your inner guide will lead you toward a self more capable and loving and whole than you’ve ever imagined. I wish for you those moments of grace that tell you you’re already there.