My mother’s cold grip yanks me from my makeshift schoolhouse. She places me on my twin canopy bed, where I stand arms at my side, unsure of what is happening next. Her hands vibrate with rage. She is wearing a white slip and slippers, her hair an unusual mess. Her hands smell like cilantro. I notice the black belt around my mother’s neck as she undresses me. The soft sound of each article of clothing leaving my body brings me closer and closer to it. I am mesmerized by its shine. Keeping my eyes on it, I slowly take a step backward pressing my tiny back against the wall, hoping to diminish its reach. Running is not an option, begging is not even a part of my consciousness. Terror seizes my brain completely, wrapping itself around and around, paralyzing all thought.
She glides the belt from her neck. The buckle JIGGLES, the strap ZIPS, their sounds echoing as she begins to strike at my bare body.
Each landing with a long CRACK, followed by an endless STING.
I block with my hands but it is of no use. My hands are too small and slow, ineffective shields to a mother’s quick and furious blows.
The lashes are unbearable. I feel as if I am drifting away into some unknown place in my mind. It is a dark place. I do not want to go there but I can’t stay here in this moment of raw, burning pain.
Suddenly she ends this maddening ritual by flicking her body in an about face, leaving me to cradle my wounds. I try to give attention to each one, but there are too many.
I am on FIRE.
The bright red lines on my arms and legs swell as I stifle the blend of hiccups and cries.
I pray for her not to come back.
I pray for her to come back and help me.
She terrifies me and yet I love her.
Suppress and survive
“Anger is bad.”
“Rage is dangerous.”
“You can never get mad or something bad will happen.”
These are all messages I received that day and through the years of daily encounters with my mother’s anger.
My own anger also became coupled with punishment and violence. There was never a safe space for my outrage as a child and I learned to keep it under wraps as best I could.
As I became older, I had brief moments in which I let my anger slip; sucking my teeth, rolling my eyes, daring to use a tone less than submissive. Each time, those moments of owning my body and my emotions were met with more violence and suppression at the hands of my mother. It was not uncommon to be pinned against the front door and slapped before going off to school in the mornings.
And so it began, a dance of dominance and suppression with periodic uprisings on my part.
By the time I was an adult, my anger was this slippery slope I navigated awkwardly, often opting for passive aggressiveness or aggressiveness followed by me backing down out of fear of reprisal. I learned to suppress my anger in order to survive and while the threat of my mother was no longer there once I finally left her home, the pattern, the abuser inside had formed.
I had no idea I had a right to my anger, or that I could in any way express it in a healthy way—until I found that my life and sanity would one day depend greatly on learning that expression.
A body rebels
After years of floundering and feeling lost, I started therapy at the age of thirty. I talked about the things that happened to me, the marriage that was failing, the hurt. I was beginning to find my voice of truth.
I also began to learn that my psychotherapy sessions were leaving something behind. Often, as I recalled traumatic memories, I suddenly would feel pain in my neck or feel ill. And yet, I would recall the events without emotion, as if I were recalling the weather. I’d ask my therapist if this was normal, or why I was having neck pain but she didn’t know how to address it.
At that time, I didn’t know my body was speaking to me. I didn’t yet know that the rage I held in for so long was trying to surface, trying to find space to express itself. My feelings of anger and grief were buried, so deeply, but my body knew. My body felt physical pain to replace the emotional pain I could not access. I didn’t know that I might need to feel and tune into my body more, to perhaps move some energy.
So instead I sat in the therapist’s office, either recalling events robotically, or accessing some of the sadness of my grief; the rage remained at bay. And while the grief was necessary too, there didn’t seem to be a place for my anger. It was something I greatly struggled with.
Depression and collapsing into sadness felt much easier and safer, and so I cried for many years.
I learned to keep my anger underground until it started to rock my body loose.
I grew very sick and depressed. Thyroid cancer was first and then years of chronic dis-ease and depression.
I was barely surviving.
One day, on an online radio station, I heard a woman named Christine Sandor talk about her experience at a Shalom Retreat, a center for personal growth, transformation and healing in Upstate New York. A survivor of sexual abuse, she talked about Shalom as a “loving community.” She talked of being welcomed just as she was, and as part of the Shalom process, of being held and touched in a safe way. Her description of having hands laid on her was beautiful. I had such a hard time with touch as a result of the repeated violations against my body but I longed for what she was speaking of. I craved loving touch, I wanted to be able to hug my own child without the discomfort of a hug that went on too long and made me cringe inside. She deserved better, I deserved better and it is what drove me to inquire and make my way over to the Catskills on a five-hour bus ride just a few weeks later.
My anger would be the key to my power and would eventually bring me out of survival mode and into LIVING.
Out of survival and into living
I attend my first retreat at Shalom Mountain in the fall of 2007. I am met by a tall friendly man, from the Mountain, at the bus station. He greets me with a hug. I’ve heard this place is like this, affectionate and warm and so I am prepared to greet him in the exact same way, like a child who copycats the adults around them. It is not my normal way of greeting people, but I’ll bite. My sense of self is so very shaky at this point in my life.
A big part of the process here involves Core Energetics—a practice that calls your full self to the process. A therapy modality that often involves hitting a large foam cube with a bat or racket, or exerting one’s body on a floor mat in other safe and physical ways, the goal is to clear blocked energy, and achieve balance through body, emotions, mind, will and spirit.
I am shown to my room and settle in. I’m told to make myself at home. In the cozy living room, I browse through the bookshelf and find the perfect book, “How to Love Yourself When You Don’t Know How” by Jacqui Bishop.
I start taking notes right away, making note of the list of characteristics about people who love themselves. I’ve always wondered what that looked like.
This is my way of distracting myself. I am used to relying on it for my sanity.
The fact that I am here in this place with these people I don’t know, who I am about to let into my internal world is all too big at this point for me to absorb.
Images by Stephanie Gagos