When I was 14 and 15 years old, I had two experiences which impacted me deeply.
At the time, I was rebelling deeply—hanging out with punkers (my nickname for the punk rock crowd), artists and assorted misfits.
Most of us did things in excess. Some drank (I fell into this category back then), some did drugs, and some just enjoyed general mischief. What we all seemed to have in common was that we were latch-key kids and, although we didn’t know it at the time, many of us had already experienced the trauma of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs.
Two incidents happened back then.
The first: I was at a party and had passed out. A friend kindly put me in a bedroom away from everyone where I should be safe to sleep it off to return later. To my dismay, I woke up feeling like the room was somehow moving, not spinning, but moving. In a moment, I came to realize that a boy that I barely knew was lying on top of me (I was lying on my belly) and that even though we had our clothes on, he was humping me. I panicked and yelled out for him to get off of me and ran out of the room.
Shaken and distressed, I tried to tell a few friends what had happened, but they were caught up in drinking and storytelling and didn’t want to hear about it and said, “You’re okay, don’t worry about it” and just continued what they were doing.
The second: I was at a party and was hoping to get a ride home. One of the guys there, who I knew a little, offered me a ride along with his friend. I thought it was safe to go with them, so I got in the car and told them how to get to my house. I was in the back seat and they were in the front. I had told them to turn right and they didn’t. When I told him he missed the street and to make the next right, they started to laugh. The only thing left straight ahead was a school down a dark road and I knew that I would be in trouble if we got that far. I told them that if they didn’t let me out of the car I would jump, but I guess they didn’t believe me. Fortunately, we were just on side streets and so I jumped out of the car as he drove and then just ran as far and fast as I could.
I have never told anyone about those incidents. I felt that I was naive and stupid—that they were somehow my fault. I shouldn’t have been there. I shouldn’t have been drinking. While those shoulds may be true, they have done little to help or comfort me.
After that, I made sure to keep myself safe, but with an unfortunate consequence: I became more frightened of people. How could I know someone’s intentions? How could I know who they really were, when they seemed okay to begin with?
I responded as many girls and women do. I kept silent about what happened and shamed the victim—in this case, myself. This is how women and girls are commonly taught to deal with violence and sexual misconduct. I had somehow intuited this already.
Occasionally, even after time had passed, the frightened girl in me would resurface in moments where I wasn’t sure if I could keep myself safe. A few days ago, when I was walking through the city downtown, on my way to jury duty, I noticed that the sidewalks were swarming with all sorts of people. Some were quite transparent in their intentions, like the business man or woman who looked the part, and walked swiftly toward their destinations. Others seemed aimless and adrift. But I was struck with the sense that not everyone seemed so transparent in their intentions.
We dismiss the impact and effects of the kinds of near misses or direct hits like the ones I experienced as a teenage girl, both on us and on those we love. I don’t think about them often, but when I feel my safety is somehow threatened, they’re right there. And I was one of the lucky ones.
We do ourselves and others a disservice when we dismiss or diminish the impact of these kinds of personal, yet sadly still common, tragedies.
We also do ourselves a disservice when we don’t speak up or advocate for ourselves and others and what’s needed. But we may not speak up when we aren’t feeling safe. There’s a complexity to this. But perhaps the greatest way we diminish ourselves is by blaming ourselves for the experience. For when we do that, we can’t see it for what it might later become…a lotus moment.
Lotuses are sacred in the East, as they are one of the few flowers that can grow and flourish right there in the mud and muck where very little else may even survive. It took my being able to revisit these experiences with the comfort and safety of a friend to be able to see them as lotus moments. When they resurfaced, I immediately felt in touch with the teenage part of me who was terrified and wondering if she could keep herself safe. It took my dear friend pointing out something that was obvious to her but had escaped me for years to shift my perspective.
She said, “But you pushed him off of you and ran out of the room, and you jumped out of a moving car and ran, not everyone would do that,” and I said, “Really, why do you say that?” And she said, “Because some people would’ve felt immobilized and not realized that they had the choice to do that,” which surprised me. While I felt appreciative of the young part of me that might have felt immobilized but was able to respond, I also felt sad for those who have been fully incapacitated.
And then I realized the gift that came from those experiences. That after that, I was much more careful about the environments that I would let myself be in. I began to look out for myself.
While that may sound trite to someone who had others guiding them and offering directives, that was significant for me as a young person who was largely left to her own devices and therefore uncertain as to which environments would be safe before that. We take our experience for granted, and we tend to project it on others. That’s what happens when we say things like, “why didn’t they just do this?” or “how could that happen to them?” or “why didn’t they think of this or that?” We lose empathy and connection when we do that.
We forget that behavior makes sense. If a young person grows up without a lot of emotional support and guidance, they might not know how to discern the same way another with a lot of support and guidance might.
There were some other gems that came from these lotus moments too. I learned how to better tend to myself. Discernment, clarity, insight and strength…all of these were byproducts from my experiences. They may have come from ones that I would have preferred not to have, but they came nonetheless. I came to know some things about myself: that I do advocate for myself, that I look out for myself, and that I am healing these old wounds that occasionally rise up and call for attention. The healing process for my childhood traumas has been more extensive than I can talk about here, but an important part and universal part of has been about reclaiming myself and organically shifting my perception.
Tony Robbins noticed that people heal when they’re able to see a new story emerge from their experience. As long as they feel like and relate to being a victim, nothing will shift. I suspect that’s why we can be so persecuting of victims and can see shaming as somehow helpful toward a solution. But this doesn’t work. The perceptual shift must come from within us and be supported from without.
Insight comes when we realize something we couldn’t see before because of our stuck emotions, secrecy and shame. We come to know more about ourselves and who we truly are as opposed to who we have believed ourselves to be. I thought of myself as weak in a way—fragile or vulnerable—as my father used to remind me of that by saying that I was “little” and “small.” What I came to see was my ability to respond and take action, even in the midst of a deeply disturbing incident. For this I am grateful.
Sometimes we can’t prevent tragedies from happening and I was really lucky in these circumstances. But what we can do is not let incidents like this define us and, more than that, we can search for the gold in them.
Like archaeologists on a dig, we can persevere to find out the truth about who we are and our potential. To let life circumstances define and limit us because of adverse childhood experiences is like the second arrow that Buddhists talk about. The first arrow, they say, is the unavoidable wound. The second arrow is what we contribute to it, with our own thoughts and conclusions.
Sometimes it seems like one of the more difficult things in life is to befriend parts of us which we had hoped to leave behind. Parts which we had discounted, diminished or undervalued, ironically, a lot like those we may have been mad at because we felt they discounted us.
Sometimes, the bravest thing we can do is to go and recollect those parts of ourselves we’d have preferred to ignore— recognize their strength and courage—and discover the gold within our most undesirable experiences. Discover them as lotus moments along our life’s journey.
Author: Dianne Fanti
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren