A while back I had a consultation with life/career coach, Teresa Mossinger, in Susanville, Calif. I had seen Teresa two years earlier when I was transitioning from a full-time job to freelancing. Now I was making some more changes and wanted her advice again.
As an opener, Teresa asked me to do a word association exercise. When she said the word “fear,” I immediately answered “blue.”
She glanced back through her notes. “That’s exactly what you said two years ago. I remember because that’s such an unusual association. What is it about fear that says blue to you?”
It didn’t take a lot of connecting the dots to figure it out. My most terrifying and traumatic memories go back to my early childhood. They involve a shed on an Ohio farm, an alcoholic grandfather and several years of my young life.
Yet, one of my most vivid memories from those years is the startling blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds that I could see through the window, and the dust motes that danced like transparent fairies in the sunlight. More important, though, is the feeling of peace and happiness the memory brings to my mind even while my body reacts with tension.
Children frequently dissociate when they are molested. Many of us spend our lifetime trying to feel whole again. Yet, dissociating is the very thing that helped us survive. Why are some of us able to find something positive in even the most horrific circumstances, while others cannot? Is it simply a matter of pessimist vs. optimist or are neurological patterns to blame?
Lanada Williams, president of the Maryland Association of Multicultural Counseling, said while positive memories of a traumatic incident are not common, they are not unheard of, either. She said, “We go into that fight or flight protective mode. We go on hyperalert.”
In the case of a child too young to flee, Williams said, “If you can’t get away from this person, your body may be saying, ‘since you don’t have any chance to run away, I’m actually going to protect my mind and protect the way I’m handling this so I don’t completely break down. Mentally, I’m going to take one good thing and focus on that.'”
Williams also is host of Washington D.C.’s “The Lanada Williams Show,” a radio show that focuses on love, life and relationships. She said child sexual abuse is amazingly prevalent and often a root cause for the emotional and psychological issues of many of her adult callers.
Sexual abuse crosses all lines of race, religion and economics. Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators. It can happen to anyone, and many men and women are likely walking around struggling with feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem that stems back to this early abuse. Molestation is powerful and life-changing, and the feelings of rage and helplessness scar a child forever.
Yet we can bring our dissociative selves together, and we can begin by honoring what saved us. Wherever we went when we dissociated, it was far better than where we were while being abused. For me, I focused on the quality of light and the color blue. Maybe this is why I’ve long been fascinated with light. As a child I pored through art books, lingering for hours over Rembrandt or Georges de La Tour’s “St. Mary Magdalene with the Smoking Flame.” When I became a photographer it was the composition of light that I tended to focus on. And even today I love to prowl the countryside right after sunrise to capture that golden hour in my photos.
For many survivors of child abuse, these moments of grace may be what help us survive.