Here’s a piece I wrote five years ago that helps inform why Mitchell and I chose to share his story.
My everyday life is immersed in stories. I hear stories from life coaching clients and aspiring authors who share their deepest wounds and the powerful lessons learned from their challenges. Unfortunately, very few people escape childhood and early adulthood without some sort of trauma that alters the course of their life or sense of safety or identity on some level.
In the world of self-actualization and self-development, we put a lot of weight and importance on those earlier stories of struggle. They are the things we are meant to overcome on our hero’s journey, they explain our wounds, and all too often, they can also hold us back from the full freedom of happiness.
The battle between how much to share, how often, who to share it with, and the problem of identifying with and wearing our past stories was obvious to me during a retreat to Kripalu one autumn weekend over a decade ago.
I drove up through the stunning fall colours of the Adirondacks to a retreat I had been planning for and longing to attend for months—a weekend full of yoga and workshops focused on journaling and developing a deeper relationship with myself. This was my idea of heaven on earth at a time in my life when I was a busy single mom trying to find myself again after my divorce.
Our workshop cohort consisted of people from everywhere and all walks of life. And, of course, we all had our own stories, which we were asked to share for a specific writing exercise. Or at least that was the workshop’s intention until Jennifer started to speak.
Jennifer was a rotund lady in her early forties who carried her whole body with the weight of the world resting on her back, on her eyelids, and on her tongue. She moved slowly and spoke slowly, yet for all her lack of energy, she consumed all the energy in the room. She relished attention and if she wasn’t the center of it, she slowly but eventually commanded it.
Her story was an all too familiar one. She didn’t get the love and attention she sought as a child, she’d been bullied in grade school and learned to be invisible in high school for her mere survival. In university, she’d been dating a fellow she adored for about a month when he got drunk one night and forced himself on her and left her half-naked on a park bench in the winter snow. An absolutely gut-wrenching story as she told it, and my heart sank for her. Because of Jennifer’s history of not feeling loved at home and learning to be invisible to survive high school, she decided to pull up her pants and forge through the rest of the semester, keeping, as she called it, her “dirty little secret” to herself. She eventually dropped out of university, never married and worked in a small bookstore back in her hometown. Jennifer’s story stained her life.
Benite, a radiant Rwandan refuge camp survivor, was the next person to share their story. At the age of seven, Benite was forced to watch as her father was murdered right in front of her whole family and spent a year living in a tent community, eating rations and lining up daily for water. When she emigrated with her mother and younger sister to Canada, the whole of their possessions fit into one suitcase. Benite had to learn a new culture and a new language in a new colder climate while dealing with the horrors she had seen in Rwanda replay in her mind at night while she tried to sleep. And yet, she worked hard, studied harder, graduated from law school and today is the director of an esteemed non-profit. Benite’s story served her life.
There were few dry eyes in the room after Benite shared her inspirational story, but Jennifer sat inconsolable in a puddle of tears. The workshop leader spent the rest of the morning focused on Jennifer and her inability to deal with the unfairness of her own traumatic life as they resurfaced again and again while two more people shared their stories.
I decided not to return to the workshop after lunch and instead took a walk in the woods. I found a place to sit down with my journal and wrote out what I would have shared with the group. I sat with my memories, and I cried for the innocent little girl inside of me who was forced to grow up too fast. I wrote and wrote until my hand cramped and brought myself all the way to the present day. The sun peeked through the branches and red and orange leaves at a much lower angle, telling me that I needed to head back to the centre soon. But I had one more question to be answered. How would I use these stories from my life to help me the way Benite’s stories helped her and not have me wear the “victim role” the way Jennifer did?
As I asked myself the question, a chickadee landed on my notebook and just as quickly flew away, causing enough of a breeze to turn the page to a blank one. I took this as a sign from the Universe. I needed to turn the page on my life and write the ending to the story as I wanted it to be and not as a reflection of how the last chapter had been.
I don’t share this to minimize the trauma Jennifer endured. Far from it. There are no small traumas. It’s not that we were slighted or violated that matters – it’s how we feel at that moment that defines the experience for us. There should never be one-upmanship between people who have been hurt in the past as it only extends feelings of victimization. The comparison doesn’t lie in how hurt each person was, but in what they did with the rest of their lives after they were hurt.
People who know of my childhood sexual abuse often tell me how strong I am and ask how I can be so resilient. My strength comes from learning to stand on my story to propel me forward. This is what I’ve learned from processing my own trauma stories and those of the many women I have worked with in my career.
To heal from our stories, we first must Stand In them. We need to face them head-on with our hearts open, sink into their truths, write them out in black and white, cry the cleansing tears, get angry, and laugh aloud. We need to feel safe to stand in our trauma and stay there, and so very often, this is done in therapy or with an individual who is well-trained and implicitly trusted.
Then we need to Stand Beside our stories. Continue to hold on to what the stories mean to us and our life but from a slight distance, creating some space to come between our experiences to allow for an interpretation of what the stories represent. This is a thinking with our head exercise.
And then we need to Stand Above our stories. Become the observer by having a wide-angled meta-view. What did the other players believe and feel? Not excusing, but explaining what could possibly have been going on outside of what happened directly to us. This is where our feelings, thinking, and ego are gone from our stories, and it’s our higher selves or wisest selves that are looking at the situation from afar.
And then we need to Stand On our stories. Use them for the lessons and blessings they have afforded us. How do we see life differently? What will we never do again? What will we always do from this day forward? Let how we behave in the world, as a result of what we’ve learned and lived through, be our calling card and badge of honour more so than having our scars define us.
And finally, we need to Move On from our stories. Don’t let our past be a dark stain on our hearts and a dark cloud hanging over our heads. The best way to do this, as I have learned from all the trauma survivors I have seen thrive in the world, is to take responsibility for our wellbeing and mental health, do the work to heal, and then focus on helping others.
Moving my attention from what’s been done to me to what I can do for others is the secret to freedom from my past. It was the secret to Benite’s success as well. There are thousands of stories of people who have moved on from horrible adversity to lead fulfilling, purpose-driven lives. Look for those stories, and may they be an inspiration for you to do your good work in the world too.
This piece initially appeared in When Women Talk in 2017.