As I stand in the loft of my best friend’s house, watching as she climbs out onto the decorative ledge to retrieve the Christmas decorations, my heart beats rapidly. It does this every time she climbs out there. She is small and flexible. In very good shape. She does not struggle out on this ledge. She simply crawls over the railing and procures the decorations. I’ve watched her do this many times. And each time, my heart beats fast and then catches. I discover that I am holding my breath. I panic. I know I am over reacting, but I’m not sure why. She’s nowhere near the edge, but I feel anxiety overcoming me. She will fall. It will be my fault. It’s always my fault.
There is a memory deep within me that is being scratched. Each time she crawls out on this ledge, I have the same reaction.
Reliving the past
We’ve gone to the lake for a “spiritual” retreat. A time when we will be tested to see if we truly trust in God. You can’t survive if you don’t trust. The Bible is quoted. It is daytime. The sun shines bright and the air is cold and crisp. The kind of cold that makes your cheeks tingly and feel slightly numb to the touch. We sit in lawn chairs as the Bible is read. We are reminded that it is only through God that we can be saved. It is trust in him that will save you. You cannot trust man. I think that I know this. No man has ever been trustworthy. But I don’t verbalize this. I don’t speak. I know that I will be smacked if I speak. The Lord does not care for the opinions of a female. Females are for the pleasure of men. They are mothers and teachers. They cook and clean. They do not have opinions. Ever. It is a sin in the eyes of the Lord for a woman to have an opinion. She must simply trust in God – who is a man.
I watch as all of the women around me simply nod their heads. Eyes down cast. I notice that the men all sit slightly taller than the women. Their chairs seemingly positioned to make them appear even larger than they are. I wonder if this is an illusion. Or is it simply God?
I try very hard to separate the day-time me from the night-time me. Their worlds are starkly different. During the day the speech is about God and how he is all I need. I must trust in him. Tonight, after the sun has disappeared behind the cliffs, a fire will be started. The talk will become much darker. I will be expected to drink blood from a tiny silver cup. The metallic taste will fill my cheeks as I pledge my allegiance to a dark force known as Satan. I will be forced to participate in dark rituals. It is too confusing to be the day-time me and the night-time me. They contradict each other. So, there are lots of me. We share this impossible task.
As the afternoon passes, the women gather into a circle, sharing recipes and stories of no importance. The men take the children for our “test.” We are taken to the edge of a cliff. We sit as they tell us again that it is our saving grace that we trust in God, not man. We are told how our sins require punishment from God and only he can choose to pardon us. They go on to tell us that the greatest sins in the eyes of God are sexual in nature, like when a woman refuses her husband. Or when women engage in sexual behaviors outside of marriage without the permission of the husband or the father.
Anna and I are called to the front of this small group. We are led to the edge of the cliff. As we look down over the edge I see that it is about 8-10 stories to the ground. My ability to calculate height has been developed by spending much of my life in hotels, looking out the window to the ground, and knowing which floor I was on. It is a long way down. My heart catches, as I am afraid of heights. I know that we, Anna and I, have been to a cliff’s edge before. But the memory is separated from this current me. Just as the current me has not even attempted to look at the irony of the aforementioned speech regarding sexual behaviors. I know I am afraid.
Anna stands slightly behind me, allowing me to block her a bit. It is always this way. I am her protector. I suck at it. But I always take the stance. She is the popular one at school. She is the pretty one. Everyone loves her. But I am her protector. Or at least I try to be. The priest asks us if we love God. We both nod. My hand is behind my back and she has slipped her fingers into my palm. I close my palm around the tips of her fingers. “Do you believe that God will save you?” Again, we both nod. My grip grows tighter and she moves slightly more behind me. “Are you afraid?” I am not sure the right answer to this question. I am contemplating what my response should be when one of the men grabs Anna from behind me and in one swift move, throws her over the cliff. I hear her scream. I scream and run to the edge. I cannot see her below.
The priest comes over to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “You could not save her, could you.” This was a statement. Not a question. Tears sting my eyes but I hold them back. Every hair on my body is standing on end because I know that this is not over. I gently shake my head “no.” “You two have a sinful relationship don’t you?” This was a question. We are 12. I honestly wasn’t sure that any of my life was not sinful. I nodded “yes.” This was the answer he wanted. “Jump,” he says. I look at him. He is serious. “Ask for forgiveness and jump. See if God will pardon you.” He has his hands on my shoulders. I know that I am about to be pushed. As I think this, he pushes me over the edge. I don’t have time to think about forgiveness. I remember a moment of complete hope though. A hope that maybe I would finally die.
I landed heavily on a large foam mattress. It was a long fall and my breath was knocked from me. When I finally opened my eyes, unsure if I was alive or dead, I saw Anna curled up on the ground not too far away. She wasn’t moving. I ran over to her and moved her hair from her tear-stained face. She was white. And silent. Her eyes were wide and she appeared to be in shock. Her hands were in fists and I gently unfolded her fingers and slipped my hand into hers.
A thunderous voice quickly came upon us. “You repented and God has saved you this time. The most precious spirit is a child that has just recently been forgiven by God.” Anna and I are then led over to the foam mattress. “Remove your clothes. Your elders will now reap this benefit of forgiveness.” The sun is dropping in the sky and the air is frigid. Anna and I lay head to head on the foam mattress as we are raped by two different men. As the men thrust into our bodies, our heads bump into each other. We both leave.
As I watch Shanon crawl back over the ledge with the decorations, my heart begins to slow. She has not fallen. She has not left me. She has not gotten hurt. I do not have to try to save her…..and fail at doing so.
The gift of healing
I begin realizing that I am not truly afraid of Shanon falling. I realize that the present situation is triggering the past. I am reacting to an event that is not happening now. I am allowing my present thoughts and emotions to be dictated by my past.
We all do it. Often. Every time you have a strong emotional response to something, take a moment. Look at it. Is it really about what is going on in the present? Or is something from your past being triggered? Is an old wound being opened?
These are beautiful moments in which we can begin to look at how the situations we are creating in our present lives give us the opportunity to heal our old wounds. I was not in a place at age 12 to realize that it was not my responsibility to protect Anna. How could it be? I, myself, was thrown over that cliff. There was no way to stop them from throwing her. Yet I still felt responsible.
I did not want to accept that I could not protect her. I could not protect myself. We were children. But my desperate desire to save both of us put me in that role. For many years. And every time I failed, I blamed myself. I couldn’t save her. I wasn’t good enough. The fear is very old. The fear that I am a horrible protector. That I am not enough. These are old memories with old beliefs. And these old beliefs were painting the landscape of my present life. Seeing Shanon out on the ledge was threatening my very existence. As she was securely perched on the ledge, I was teetering on the cliff of failure. Again. All because of the past.
And now, as my best friend makes her way safely back onto the floor of the loft, I realize that I have created the perfect opportunity to heal this old hurt, this old belief. And I do.
When I am faced with a very deep emotional reaction now, I give myself some time to go looking for the root cause. There is always a memory from long ago pushing the current reaction.
If you find yourself struggling with a large emotional response that seems out of proportion to your current situation, try the following:
First, take a breath and remind yourself that you are in a safe place.
Second, ask yourself when was the first time you ever felt this particular emotion?
Next, take some time to listen to your own stories. Honor them and recognize that you were doing the best that you could at that time.
And finally, realize how your life is different in the present. Allow yourself to see how beliefs that you formed 10, 20, 30 years ago, are not relevant to your life now. Thank yourself for showing you this pattern of emotional disturbance and allowing you to grow from it.
Our lives and our stories are not done to us. They are done for us. We can be defeated and belittled by our experiences, or we can grow from them. My stories are extreme, but I refuse to allow them to suppress me. With each strong emotional reaction I experience today, I am able to uncover a false belief that was formed many years ago. And with each unearthing of these false beliefs, I remove another layer that covers the purest and strongest version of Me.
Next time you experience a strong emotional reaction, I encourage you to go digging for the root cause. The outcome is always beautiful.
Have you ever wished you could break the chains of fear and step fully into love? Shanon and Kim share their journey of healing from trauma, abuse, and programming through acceptance and love. Do you want to step out of fear? Subscribe and follow their journey.