blog · Mental Health

The Power In Owning Your Pain

The day that I met my new patient, Stella, will be etched in my memory forever. Stella was 15 at the time that I met her. She had lost her mother very suddenly and unexpectedly. To make matters worse, it also appeared that the day her mother left this earth, her father, too, had left, not physically, but emotionally. All that was left of her father in the aftermath of her mother’s death was a bitter, angry man, feeling overwhelmed and slighted over having to raise his daughter on his own. He did not want much to do with her treatment and eventually stopped taking her altogether, causing her to have to find alternative ways to get to my office. Stella was left to try to make sense over the loss of her mother and the drastic change in her father, all while trying to navigate high school. She lacked support, she lacked healthy friendships, she lacked adults in her life that she could trust. 

Her first few months of treatment were turbulent as we were trying to get to know each other. She would self-medicate with marijuana, stay out of her home as much as possible, and found herself attracted to friends and romantic partners that were very toxic. Her grades were slipping, her motivation was dwindling, and she began to feel like she was drowning in her feelings of abandonment and grief. 

It still breaks my heart to think back to the day I received a phone call from her father, telling me that Stella had tried to commit suicide and was in the hospital. It would be a few months before I would meet with Stella for outpatient therapy again, as she had spent time receiving treatment in a higher level of care. Needless to say I was thrilled when she came back into my office, looking healthier and in less agony. Stella was determined to keep showing up for therapy to continue to feel better and reclaim a life full of happiness, despite how much pain she was in.

This girl, this woman, this brave warrior fought like hell over the next few years in high school. She ultimately parted ways with her toxic friend group, ditched her emotionally abusive boyfriend, and started to surround herself with friends who lifted her up, made her feel loved, and gave her some of what was missing from her home life. Stella began turning to trusted adults in school, allowing them to help her bring her grades up so she could graduate. Not to mention, she worked as many as 25-30 hours a week on top of everything else she had going on. There were setbacks, absolutely, especially when COVID-19 took out her ability to go to the prom and walk in graduation, forcing her to stay home with a father who only continued to trigger her depression and anxiety.  But Stella pushed through. She found outlets in art, in poetry, in fighting for minority groups. She found her voice and used it to help others, and allowed herself to receive love and care in return. 

During our therapy sessions, she began to really let herself feel the loss in her life and find meaning in it. She realized that she needed to grieve not just for the loss of her mother, but also for the loss of her father, and the loss of her childhood, which was swept out from under her the moment her mother passed away. After spending so much time trying to avoid her pain by diving into toxic relationships and self-medicating, Stella finally began to own her pain.

This year, not only did she graduate, but she won multiple scholarships for her continuing education, where she will undoubtedly go on to change the world.

Stella is the perfect example of what can happen when we own our pain instead of running from it. Her new-found appreciation of life was born out of her ability to acknowledge her loss and let herself feel the grief. This will never bring her mother back; and she may never have a close relationship with her father. But she has chosen to move forward with her life and create space for hope, happiness, and love. I will always feel proud and inspired by watching her grow into an adult and choose a life full of meaning in which she is always giving back to others. The life she lives today is an incredible representation of what lies on the other side of owning your pain.

child abuse · Mental Health · trauma

When Children Cannot Speak

After being cooped up in quarantine for months, last weekend I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with my cousin and join a friendly, low-key horseback riding competition. I am a novice rider at best, but my cousin has been riding basically her entire life. I have always enjoyed spending time with her, being on the farm, and gazing around at all of the gentle giants. This competition was by no means cut-throat, and I operated at turtle-speed, weaving in and out of poles and around barrels. The obstacle courses were timed, but truthfully, I didn’t care if it took me 10 seconds or 10 minutes to go through the course. I was just happy to have some sense of normalcy in my life in the midst of this global pandemic.

Given that I have not been on a horse in a year, the first time I tried to mount my cousin’s horse, Duncan, I swung my leg over him with too much force. I was lopsided on him and he was uncomfortable. He started neighing and spinning around to try to get me off of him. I flew off and hit the ground (ALWAYS WEAR YOUR HELMET). Yes, I was hurt, a little bruised, a little banged up, but I was alright. I understood that Duncan was just trying to tell me I was making him uncomfortable because I was sitting on him lopsided. I took a moment to collect myself, got back on Duncan, and had a blast riding him for the rest of the day.

The following day, as I was speaking to my therapist about falling off the horse, she asked “Weren’t you angry at that horse for trying to get you off of him?” 

Truth be told, the thought of getting angry at Duncan (who is a total sweetheart, by the way) for trying to throw me off of him did not even cross my mind. Why would I be angry? That was his only way of communicating with me that something did not feel right, that he was uncomfortable and possibly even in pain. It seemed odd to me that my therapist would even ask me that sort of question.

And then it hit me. In that moment I realized why I have such a deep-seated connection with animals, big and small, mean and kind. Animals do not have voices to let you know when something is wrong; and throughout many parts of my life, neither did I.

You see, animals simply do not have the language to tell you when something is wrong with them. Therefore, they communicate with us in other ways. Sometimes this looks like a dog who bites and growls viciously at humans when he feels threatened. Other times, this looks like a horse trying to get you off of him because he isn’t comfortable with the way you are sitting on him. The only way animals can let you know that something is wrong is by acting out. 

Sadly, child abuse can cause us to behave in similar ways. 

When something is being done to us as children, our brains have not developed the language to speak about what is happening to us. We do not know how to tell others that something is wrong because we don’t even understand it for ourselves.

So what do children do when they can’t speak up about being abused?

They try to communicate through their actions. Sometimes those actions involve self destruction, such as self harm, refusal to eat, binge eating, sneaking alcohol, etc. Other times, those actions involve hurting others, like getting into fights with peers , bullying others, or stealing. Some kids become the dog who feels backed into a corner who will growl and bite anyone in order to protect themselves. Other kids may become the horse who hurts its rider because he had no other way of communicating that something didn’t feel right. Silenced children often hurt themselves or others in the hopes that someone will realize that they, too, are being hurt. Abused children can relate so much to animals because both have learned to speak without using their voices. 

In my practice, my patients with histories of child abuse tend to connect with my therapy dog, Noel, much more than my patients without an abuse history. Again, I believe that this is because child abuse survivors relate to animals on a different level. They bond so well with animals because they have learned, from childhood, to communicate without using words. 

One of the biggest parts of healing from childhood abuse is learning to find your voice and use it as a way to remind yourself that you are no longer that scared, silent child. As we heal from our abuse, we become different than animals because we develop the ability to speak up when things do not feel right. As survivors of childhood abuse, however, I do believe there is a part of us that will always have a special connection with animals, because we will always know what it is like to be vulnerable, scared, and silent.