When I first woke up in a Psychiatric Ward, many years ago, I was given a sheet of paper by the resident therapist with yellow round faces on it: smiley faces, sad faces, angry faces, indifferent faces and so on. I was then asked what I was feeling. It confused me as since I had just tried to commit suicide what did they think I was feeling? Jubilant? Funny? Distracted? Angry? I couldn’t answer as I had no idea what I was feeling. Probably confused more than anything. What had happened? Why was I here? What was happening in my life? Over the next several decades as I wound my way through the minefield my life had become that sheet of paper was shown to me many times always with the same question. Is this how far mental health had progressed?
No one asked me about my childhood. No one asked if I’d ever been abused. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway as I wasn’t sure what abused meant. No one asked me about my relationship with my parents, with my siblings. Over the years I began telling people that I grew up in the Midwest in a happy Catholic family. After awhile when friends asked why I had run away from home at the age of 18 if it was such a happy Catholic family. I began telling people I was an orphan. What was I feeling? All I knew was I didn’t want people asking me that question. What if I told them I was filled with rage but that I didn’t know why? What if I told them that apathy was the best I could come up with? Would that matter? If I said I was happy it was probably a result of the anti-depressants they finally put me on, that I had someone in my life that made me feel I had something of value (usually sex – guess where that came from? No idea, no one ever asked me that). Alcohol made me flirty, friendly, the life of the party, full of love, usually for men but for my friends also. The next day I didn’t feel quite that way.
Feeling? Why would I need to know what I was feeling? I went from therapist to therapist. Their first question was usually, how are you feeling? Already I felt trapped. This one wasn’t going to help either. One therapist asked me that and as I started talking, babbling probably since I had no clue what I was feeling, his phone rang, he told me to keep talking and answered his phone, speaking into it as I continued babbling. Once I rode an elevator with him and he didn’t know who I was. Finding out what I was feeling obviously was a waste of time.
Finally, thirty-two years after my father had first raped me, my doctor sent me to a child sexual abuse specialist. He said he was tired of asking me if my father had ever molested me and hearing me say no. He no longer believed me. This new therapist didn’t ask me what I was feeling. She asked me about my childhood, about my parents, my siblings. Then she sent me home with an assignment. I was to draw (stick figures was my best talent) pictures of myself from the earliest year I could remember moving forward every couple years. I was to use crayons to depict different emotions I was feeling. What a boring job. But I dutifully sat at the kitchen table and drew one stick figure picture after another. When I got to the age of 13 I drew a picture of a young girl sleeping in a lower bunkbed with a rosary dangling from under a pillow, a door half opening and a man with graying hair entering the darkened room. I grabbed a red crayon and frantically wrote across the page, “HELP ME! HELP ME! Then I burst into tears.
Now I knew what I was feeling. Fear. I had been feeling fear for 32 years and didn’t even know it. Your emotional growth is locked in time at the moment of your abuse. Once my therapist saw the drawings she engaged a hypno-therapist and in conjunction with her and my family doctor this team of three took me back in time to the original rape, brought me forward little by little until I experienced and remembered every incident that occurred during those five years until I ran away from home at the age of 18 after the last beating almost killed me. It took me five years to complete recovery but once I did, I was the happiest person I knew. I know how to identify that feeling.
Why was it so important to know what I was feeling? Because it took me back to the source of my troubled life. One can say that they attempted suicide several times because they were depressed but does that knowledge help? No. Why were you depressed? If you don’t know that’s where the journey begins. One must travel back in time to find out where it all began. As a general rule, humans are not born suicidal. Life hands us experiences that create a path in our brain. That path may be filled with joy as the result of being born into a happy, healthy, loving family. Or it may traverse through child abuse, sexual assault, mental health issues caused by a number of different reasons. It doesn’t always happen overnight. It is usually a slow progression where the happy child we were born slowly becomes someone who has no self-worth, who is joyless, fearful, confused.
It is important to identify our feelings as that shows us what direction to go in life. Our young son comes home from school and tells us about a teacher that was physically abusive to them. We experience anger. That anger prompts us to go to the principal and file a complaint. Without that anger our son may feel defenseless. Now he has a champion. We are dating someone who asks us to marry them. We feel sad, depressed. We explore why and realize we don’t love this person and do not want to spend our life with them. We are able to deal with this honestly. We are walking home and hear someone behind us that is moving swiftly towards us in a threatening way. We experience fear, call 911 and are able to save our lives.
Positive feelings, joy, exhilaration, enjoyment, self-satisfaction all show us that life is worth living. They can also show us what direction to head in. Negative feelings, sadness, fear, feeling of abandonment, lack of self-worth, confusion, anxiety all help us to survive, to problem solve.
Never negate your feelings. Instead identify them, explore them, follow them to see where they lead for the right paths can lead us to wisdom and without that few people have a happy and fulfilling life.
(If you were sexually abused as a child and want to get into recovery please go to thelamplightermovement.org and read about the REPAIR program and the REPAIR Your Life book. That program, which I developed during my own recovery took me from being married to my third abuser, suicidal and living part time in a women’s shelter to being the happiest person I know.)