When I was 19, I met a Russian firecracker of a woman named Sasha, in my college English class.
She was bold, witty and had a lion’s ability to roar at the world when times were tough. I was struggling in many ways and could rarely summon wit. My roars looked more like a beaten kitten’s appeals for mercy.
We sat at the diner in our small college town and drank bitter coffee paired with sticky cinnamon rolls. I was struggling in the same ways every 19-year-old struggles. But I was also struggling in other more complicated ways—ways that were mostly hidden from the world.
I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and had recently been raped. The world did not feel like a safe place to me.
I was struggling to unwind the complicated feelings of shame and anger inside myself. Sasha leaned across the table and looked at me furiously, as if she were trying to brand me with her own confidence. “You are a hero,” she said. “F*ck those men. You are the hero of your own life.”
I thought about what a hero does. How does a hero—a strong and resilient person who stands up for others and leads the way or solves very difficult problems that others cannot seem to solve—act in the face of terrible things like childhood abuse and rape?
I felt pretty beaten and close to giving up. But Sasha’s words hit a nerve. She was right!
And if I was the hero of my own life, this meant that I had to act in ways that protected myself, protected others and took action, walking forward with strength. If I was a hero, I was not allowed to give up. This perspective gave me a path—a way through the mess.
It also helped me learn a very valuable mental trick.
Now, over 20 years later, when I feel discouraged, angry or unsure how to proceed, I pretend that I am the protagonist and the hero in a movie.
In much the same way that I imagine an astronaut feeling when they are floating in space, looking out at our beautiful blue planet far away. The perspective I gain, from the mental trick of looking at my life as a movie, lends itself to serenity and peace in ways that very few other efforts to calm myself do.
I give myself the luxury of observing my own story from this distance, and right on cue, I find a compassionate sweet spot that helps me be gentle with both myself and others. It provides some insight into the best steps to take next.
Finding serenity, after enormous trauma, does not happen overnight. It happens in stages. Many people call them baby steps. And I needed a lot of help in therapy, and sometimes medicine, to find my way.
The process of healing from something like rape is long and takes dedication and determination. First we breathe. Then we look up at something other than our own pain. We learn to whisper at the pain and then to talk.
Imagining my life as a movie also compels me to begin understanding other people in my lives with more depth and perspective. It fosters compassion.
Recovery from childhood sexual abuse, and from rape, does not require compassion for the abusers or rapists.
In the case of finding my balance after these terrible things, seeing my life as a film and myself as the protagonist and even the hero, the supporting characters were my therapists, my family and my friends.
Currently, I am engaged in a custody dispute with my ex-husband. It is extraordinarily difficult to ask myself to have compassion for a person who is spending large sums of money to keep my children from living with me one-half of the time. But I know that in order to maintain my equilibrium and do a good job as a pro se party, I need to manage my emotions and rise to the best possible place inside myself. I need to be the hero.
If I am a character in a film, so is my ex. And when I look at his character, I see a deep and crushing need to control things. This need to control things seems to dominate his world. I feel sad when I see this, instead of angry. I feel compassion.
If the story of our divorce, and the five years subsequent to it, is a movie, then suddenly I see how my ex might feel angry at having been ordered to pay spousal support and how he might feel determination to never owe child support.
And with this simple mental trick, my response to his continued efforts to paint me as a lunatic who is not safe to parent or an ex-wife bent on tapping into his bank account, is calmed.
I become aware that what is required of me in this situation is perseverance, humor and stamina. I notice the humanity of a man who I might otherwise feel intense anger toward. It is an odd and interesting perspective and it helps me see my best steps forward.
The most fruitful stance to take is always one that places emphasis on the greatest good for the children. When I step back, and feel sad and gentle with my ex, instead of leading with the anger and resentment, I maintain my balance and composure with ease. With that tiny little maneuver inside myself, I feel the weight of all the anger lift off inside and float away.
This, I suddenly realize with an internal sigh, is what my children need more than anything.
In a storyline being played out on a big screen, each of the characters in a narrative puts their pants on one leg at a time, brushes their teeth at night and worries (at least occasionally) about doing the best they can with the life they have. Each of them surely has things that keep them up at night, every once in a while. Each of them has their own private storyline that feeds their actions.
They are not demons. They are not enemies of mine. They are human—filled with all of the foibles and blind spots that any human being has.
Imagining my life as a film helps draw myself away from the action and out of the ring where battles might happen, and instead, learn to keep my focus on the most important things. It helps me better understand my past and have compassion for others.
When I am aware of other people’s stories and how they are possibly intersecting with mine rather than opposing mine, when I am cognizant of the leading role I play in my own life and when I accept the challenge of rising to the occasion of my own life at a hero’s level, I am a better person.
I set a better example for my children. I am happier, more serene and better suited for the long run that is life.
When we are watching a movie, we know exactly what we want our characters to do. We want them to see the big picture, do the right thing and stop being an a** to others. We want our protagonists to find new love after heart-break, to be wonderful mamas and papas to their children, to live without regret, to be gentle with themselves, to learn their lessons, to do amazing things against great odds and to make us say “wow” with their resiliency.
We want our heroes to dance when the credits roll.
We can use this trick to bolster our efforts each time we encounter hardship in our lives. We can see our struggles as plot twists, our own demons as hurdles to overcome. One of the joys of this technique is choosing a theme song. I hear the theme song from Chariots of Fire. I hear it in the background of my ruminations—building strength and determination as I start the next round of my story.
My own life is a dramatic story of survival, determination and the necessity to stand up to bullies over and over again. These are the plot twists that make the story of my life juicy. Cue the music, watch the credits roll by (there’s my wonderful therapist, and there’s Sasha and oh—don’t forget my children).
And now—I get to dance!
Author: Emilie Mitcham
Apprentice Editor: Melissa Scavetta/ Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock
Photo: Bre LaRow via Flickr