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.

blog · Mental Health

Long Lasting Connections

“If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.” – Winnie the Pooh

When COVID-19 struck, I could barely wrap my brain around what was happening in the world before nearly everyone was self-quarantining in their homes with no ending in sight.

Some of the clients I work with chose to wait a few weeks before transitioning to telehealth in the hopes that the pandemic would blow over within a week or two. Other clients refused to do telehealth sessions altogether, either because they are teenagers who do not have privacy in their own homes, or because they do not have the technology at home to support telehealth. Either way, I never really got to have a proper “goodbye/see you soon” with them or a chance to process all the changes that would be happening.

It has been months since I have seen some of my clients who chose not to do virtual counseling at all. I remember the last time I sat with some of these people, I was shivering beneath a blanket in my office chair because it was early March and it was rainy and cold. Since then, winter has turned to spring, and now spring is preparing to turn to summer, and I still have not seen some of my clients.

Last night, I was feeling heartbroken over everything going on in the world. I miss my clients, even the ones I still see virtually because sometimes online therapy just doesn’t cut it. I miss being able to leave the house without wearing a mask. I miss not having to live in fear of a deadly virus. In the middle of ruminating, my phone buzzed. I looked down to see a text from one of my adolescent clients whom I have not seen since early March.

It was a photo of a puppy he had just rescued. Of all the people I’m sure he sent pictures to, this teenager wanted to send a picture to me, his therapist, who he had not seen in months.

It’s not just the photo itself that helped me shift out of my grief and sadness, although, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I enjoy more than puppies! It was the realization that, just because you do not see somebody for a while, does not mean the connection disappears.

Personally, I have a hard time with this concept. I think most of us with histories of abuse and/or abandonment have a difficult time realizing this. We tend to feel lonely when physically alone. We forget that connections survive even without being in regular contact.

This client and I shared a few exchanges back and forth about the puppy, and I was so happy for him. My mood shifted instantly. I remembered the connection that I have with this person and how much I care for him and how happy I am that he is moving forward with his life. He has come so far thanks to all of the hard work he has done with me in therapy.

In the midst of a quarantine, it is easy for us to feel disconnected from the world. This is why is it so important to tell ourselves time and time again that just because we cannot physically see someone, whether it be a friend, a client, or a family member, does not mean that the relationship does not exist. These people carry us with them as they go about their days, and it is important that we do the same.

I am combatting the feelings of isolation and loneliness by holding onto moments like the one with my client, knowing that my clients bring me with them throughout their lives, and I bring them with me as well. I work hard every day to remind myself of my connections with the people I have helped, the people who have helped me, the family and friends that I cannot see right now, and my own therapist. Being physically isolated does not mean our supports have vanished, and I am grateful for a simple puppy photo to spark this realization in me.

What moments or memories will help you to hold on to your connections right now?