The Courage of the Caterpillar

Earth shattering. A phrase that’s so common, we fail to think about its separate parts. Earth — the largest mass known, the core element of our planet and, if you believe the Bible, even the substance of our own humblest beginnings. To shatter, which is to break apart beyond repair into infinitesimal microscopic parts. To break that foundation which supports our bodies, to rend that which our soul is composed of into something forever beyond repair. That is basically what it feels like the day you realize your father is a monster.

There are other emotions too, of course. Sadness, rage, heartbreak, terror, disbelief. But truly, the largest of these is earth shattering. At least, it was for me, the day I finally remembered the years of abuse at the hands of the person charged with my safe-keeping, my nurturance, my development. And the yearning for it to not be so, for any other answer to the questions that whispered around my heart, for the quick glimpses of memories that toyed with my brain before quickly being shut down by another thing to eat, drink, buy or otherwise consume in the never-ending quest to fill the void that the pain created. Until there was no more energy left to deny that which I knew to be true all along. Until it became easier to succumb to the pain than it was to create reasons to avoid it anymore.

I’ve heard it said the caterpillar, during its journey to break free of the cocoon, believes itself to be dying. That in its fight against death it gains the strength to emerge as the beautiful creature it is destined to be. It was with the hope that the remembering of my own cocoon of lies and betrayal would allow me to break free from it into an instrument of healing for not only myself, but for anyone that read this, that gave me the strength to struggle against the pain. I wished for the courage of the caterpillar.

In hindsight, the answers were all there. It’s amazing what you can condition yourself not to see, not to believe, when you desperately want to love someone. Or when you want them to love you. How this small piece of information, taken alone, out of context, can so easily mean one thing, but once added up to all the other pieces can only point to one truth. The one truth no child, or adult for that matter, ever wants to be true. That the person responsible for protecting you and guiding you through a confusing world is actually the one you need protection from.

It is so easy to believe that because you didn’t get that protection as a child, it somehow indicates your intrinsic value as a person. If you were good, you would be protected. If you are bad, you would not. Very simple. Too simple, but the logic of a child who believes, trusts and loves so easily. Fortunately, it couldn’t be further from the truth, which is that some children are born to broken people, people who should not be trusted with the care of others because they are simply incapable of it. But there is no test to take before becoming a parent that would screen for this, no genetic marker in the blood that rules out possible problems. Ironic, isn’t it, that adults contemplating pregnancy can run diagnostics to determine if the child will have any problems that will cause hardship to the adults’ life, to presumably make the decision to go forth or not. But there are no tests to determine whether a child will be safe with that adult in the first place. But to my story.

The remembering began in a hospital room some 19 years after the abuse ended. I was then a married woman with a family. My only child, a beautiful baby boy, was admitted to the emergency room one afternoon in excruciating pain. We had been eating watermelon for a snack one sunny afternoon, when my dear 22 month old son got up and started playing. Then he screamed and ran toward me, writhing in pain, desperately wanting the comfort of Mommy’s love and yet accepting it was too painful for his searing body to accept. I watched in horror as he immediately blossomed into a hideous, angry bright red, broke out in a sweat so complete it was like he had just bathed and collapsed, limp in my arms, his eyes rolling into the back of his head. I revived him, called 911 and as he came to, he started vomiting all over me and the house, multiple times. Fearing my child was dying, I wouldn’t put him down, instead stripping off my stained clothes and holding him tight until help came. When it did, it found a distraught mother in her undergarments holding a child in trauma. The nice policeman took my son and looked away, suggesting I dress myself for the trip to the ER.

To say it was surreal is too easy a description, and yet, there truly is no other one. Again, earth shattering to think my beloved child was dying. Funny how the words that carry the most power, because of their overuse, have become stripped of their ability to truly convey their meanings anymore. But there we were, my baby and I, locked in a surreal moment out of step with time, racing to the hospital that would, eventually, save his life as I pleaded with him over and over to stay with me and stroked his sweat stained brow. At the time I thought there was no hell worse than looking deep into his beautiful blue eyes racked with pain and know there was no way I could tell him fully that he was going to be OK. I couldn’t tell either one of us that.

They say a pediatric hospital’s walls are painted with mothers’ screams, and I know for those two weeks my voice added its color to their patina. The words, the movements, the source of the lighting all blurred together like some multi-sensory mosaic, each piece no longer holding its own meaning and instead forming one larger experience of confusion and disbelief. Emergency surgery, no idea what’s causing it, possible futures of colostomy bags for my baby that just that afternoon took such pride in simple walking. The diagnosis of a ruptured Meckel’s Diverticulum, or, basically, an exploded intestines, and the routine of monitoring stomach pumps, listening for the shrill beep when they failed to work and possible drowning on stomach fluids threatened. And the tubes, tubes forming a lace network over that impossibly tiny body and the delicateness with which I crawled into that damned hospital crib, contorting myself around them all just so I could hold him for hours, until I could no longer feel my own limbs. And the exhaustion, the isolating sense of losing all outside contact with people, time, events, the day measured strictly by the changing of the nursing staff and the anguishly anticipated visit from the surgeon. Two weeks of this to sit by his side and watch a helpless child in trauma. Two weeks of hell that ripped out of me another child’s trauma decades before, trauma that no hospital staff attended to, no doctor healed, no mother lay by my side praying and weeping for my recovery.

And I remembered. Not all of it, not right away. But the scabby band aid my child had used to heal herself with was ripped off, and the shadowy thoughts and fears and memories started making their way to the surface. The fact that I could not remember anything of the homes I lived in for the first 19 years of my life, although I could remember anything outside them from the same time period, down to the smallest details. The names of my friends. My school, where my classroom was and my kindergarten teachers name and face. The boy I had a crush on and tried to kiss on the playground at recess, with his shock of blond hair standing straight up belying the same shock of childish amour coming at him. The flowers I picked for the crossing guard at the corner each morning, and the way he courteously greeted me, feigning surprise each time. But I could not remember a single meal with my family, a single birthday party or even a single Christmas. A wilted bunch of azalea flowers my mind could afford me, but not a single glistening tree laden with presents. It didn’t make sense.

Gratefully, I had a therapist at time, the panic attacks I had been experiencing since my child’s birth causing me to seek help before any of this. He would ask “Panic is the body’s way of sensing danger. What is dangerous?” To which I had no reply, until then. I fled to his office, breaking from my hospital confinement long enough to say the words I had hidden all those years — “I think I was sexually abused as a child.” And with infinite compassion, he answered “I know you were. I’ve always known — you had all the markers of it clearly. But you had to find out for yourself”. And the affirmation and immediate acceptance — someone believed me! It was all I needed to start the journey to recovery.

But what a journey. Again, words fail. How to describe what it feels like at 38 years of age to realize that you have no idea who you truly are, in the deepest sense? That the foundation of memories we all so carefully use as our own bricks and mortar of identity, are in fact, made of paper mache and can be so easily dissolved and washed away? I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, not knowing if left was still truly left, or up was still truly up, or if all those other concepts that defined my world were as insubstantial and wrong as my own identity felt anymore. What could be trusted? Would day still follow night? Would gravity still hold me safely to the earth or would I float away outside my door the next time I stepped outside? And who was safe, because I had no idea just yet who was responsible for this. That knowledge would take another 4 years to come. I fell apart in the deepest sense of the words. I was empty, shattered, alone in the dark and the storm with my pain and no compass with which to guide myself.

Unfortunately, it would get worse before it got better. The memories came, with no warning, battering me down again and again, just as I thought I was climbing back up out of the hole. Every time I thought to myself “OK, I got it now, I was abused, it was awful, let’s move on” they would come. The snippet here of remembering baths taken to clean me up afterward and the shame and fear I felt sitting in that water. The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs to our apartment, which was right outside my bedroom window, and the sense of terror and dread that would grip me when I heard it. How difficult certain aspects of parenting my son were for me, like brushing his teeth. I would feel bile rise in me each time I guided that toothbrush, nauseous with the thought of inserting something in a child’s mouth. How I avoided potty training him for so long that I feared he actually would go to college without learning it, because the emotions around that time in his development, and subsequently my own, were too hard for me to face. And the full-on flash blacks, remembering being on all fours in a basement, while a large man, raging with anger and hatred, drunk with both alcohol and evil, blaming me for making him do this, assaulted my tender 7 year old body. Remembering, reliving the feeling, the certainty that I may not live to get out of that basement and that I should leave my body, just leave it there, so I wouldn’t have to feel the full assault that was coming. And waking the morning after the flash backs, physically sore in places I shouldn’t be sore, as my body remembered with me and released the pain it had held for so long.

The rape of a child does far more than hurt her body. It kills her soul, her dreams, her identity and her innocence. It rips her future out of her in one quick motion, one brutal thrust. It deadens her spirit. And it consumes enormous energy, as the surviving adult tries to fill that round hole with a sickening certainty that all pegs will, in fact, be square, and nothing will piece her back together again. Energy that could be used in so many more productive ways. I know, I tried. I filled that hole with food, but it just made my body into a size and shaped I despised, giving me one more reason to hate it and feel it betrayed me. I filled it with things that just cluttered my home, emptied my bank account and increased my feeling that there was no security in the world. I tried to fill it with God, but how could I when I hated Him, railed against Him and felt He had abandoned me? Then I stopped trying to fill it or squash it down and decided to just be with it. And that’s when healing came.

It came in speaking my truth out loud. In the knocking of my knees together as I shared the words to people and instead of being disbelieved or pitied, I heard the quiet “me too” of my listeners. And I wept to realize that it wasn’t just me, although I wished fervently that it was, that no one else had to know this feeling. It came again, when in a quiet guided mediation, I heard God’s voice say in my head “I was in the room.” Nothing more, but I understood what that meant completely, and I sobbed. And I learned that to expect God to stop it was asking too much — the best He could do was to not make me suffer alone. And in that moment, I realized He had not left me but in fact was there feeling my pain and crying with me. It came as I looked to alternative methods of healing, using Reiki to heal and while on the table coming face to face with my inner child, and promising her that she would survive and that I would heal her. And I sobbed. And it came finally in knowledge, in a spirituality workshop that ultimately set me free as I opened myself up through chanting to feel the rage I had buried for so many decades, to find myself once again in that basement. Only this time my child was chanting in rage at her abuser, dancing around him, her tiny feet stomping the ground and her hair whipping around her face as I heard myself say “you bastard, I will not protect you anymore, I deserve to see your face.” And there he was. My father.

And finally, again the clichéd words say it best, but the truth did set me free. I was not crazy, I was not selfish, too needy, or whatever other words I was told to hide this throughout my childhood. I was a beautiful, precious child that was wronged in the worst way any person can ever be wronged. But my emancipation did not stop there, as I was able to peer back into the past, past my pain, into my father’s childhood and see what I hadn’t wanted to realize about my extended family. That this pain I carry is a family legacy, that no person could do to me what was done if it hadn’t been done to them as well. That pieces of the puzzle beyond myself that didn’t make sense now did. This wasn’t just the actions of one depraved person, this was my family inheritance, and that there were decades of pain behind it that pushed it into the moment when it hit my life, my future. And that while I didn’t want the responsibility of being the one to stop the tide of all those generations, I am the one with the strength to do it so that the cycle does not continue to my child. And I am finding that I am the one with the strength to heal not just myself, but my family’s past as well, and maybe, by speaking my truth hopefully be the one to hold the door open for the millions of other women like me to walk through.

Talks about the stuff other people won’t. Warrior Mom, loving wife, passionate photographer. www.annepiombino.com

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