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“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” ~ Brené Brown
I was a little girl, age seven, playing on my grandparent’s farm on a North Dakota summer day.
For my siblings, cousins, and me, the farm was a childhood wonder. From early starts to quiet evenings, from spring beginnings to autumn abundance, there was no limit to our adventures.
One day while out exploring, swinging, and playing in this wilderness, I came across a black cat lying on the sidewalk. It was sleeping, or so I thought. The wild farm cats rarely allowed me to touch them, let alone hold them. And yet, I always tried. There was something intimate and sacred about holding a wild cat up to my heart.
As I crept closer and bent down, I carefully reached to pet the cat. It didn’t move. I nudged the cat a bit more firmly, but rather than yielding to my touch, the cat was stiff and cold.
The cat was dead.
Both in awe and in fear, I snatched my hand away. Looking back, it was a moment of profound possibility.
Just then, I heard the voice of my uncle from above, gruffly asking, “Did you touch that cat?”
I sprang up and stared into a dark, bearded, scowling face. I don’t even remember thinking about it—I lied. “No,” I said.
“Are you sure?” he asked, his brow furrowed.
I could do no more than nod slowly, with my eyes on the ground.
“Well, get inside and wash up for supper,” he said, as he returned to his work day and to his usual self.
I, however, did not return to my usual self.
My usual self remained behind on the sidewalk, next to the cat. In some circles, perhaps this left-behind piece could be called a soul fragment. But whatever we call it, I know that the girl who walked into the house to wash up for supper was a different girl entirely.
The story did not fall away as I fell asleep that night. The story did not leave as we left the farm and returned home the next morning. The story embedded itself inside the tissues and cellular memory of my body as a confusing mix of curiosity, death, lies, authority, and consequences.
The first person I shared this story with was my then live-in boyfriend, now husband. I was 25 years old, and yet telling the story, I still whispered it in the dark, beneath the covers, worried that he would find my story silly or overdone.
I feared he might begin his response with, “Well, your uncle was only…” or something similar. I feared he would tell me that I was overreacting or dramatizing. I steeled myself for him to remind me that all kids get into trouble sometimes, and that every child lies on occasion.
I expected him to dismiss my story as frivolous, not because he wasn’t a good or kind man, but because this is how we are taught in our society to respond to childhood stories like mine.
I was lucky that he did none of these things, but rather said, “That must have been very scary for you.”
You know what happened next—I sobbed like a seven-year-old girl. And yes, it’s partially why I married this man: he honored the truth of my story, and the pain held within it, even before I was able to do so.
I didn’t know it as a child, I didn’t know it when I told the story to my would-be husband either, but that long-ago day my natural, childlike curiosity got tainted with fear. This isolated event invisibly shaped and partially defined me as I grew into adolescence and adulthood. Rather than an adventurous human being willing to explore her surroundings, I became overly cautious, always seeking permission to “touch” things, always looking over my shoulder for “the man with the furrowed brow.”
I needed to heal. But to do that, I had to first believe in the validity of this story as a deep root of many of my ongoing issues. And to do that, I had to overcome two challenges:
- The challenge to the validity of my reaction (Did my reaction make sense given the circumstances?):
I completely agree that if this exact story had happened to someone else, anyone else, it might not have invoked such a strong response or reaction. But I have come to understand that what is one person’s stubbed toe is someone else’s “getting hit by a truck.” It’s not for anyone else to judge the way a particular story affects any individual human being. There’s no such thing as an overreaction—there is just our reaction.
- The challenge to my memory of the facts (What credibility does memory have, anyway?):
I accept that my memory of the details may not be entirely and objectively true. I have probably built them up in my mind over the years. Perhaps my uncle’s brow did not furrow quite like I remember. Perhaps his tone was not anything particularly unusual, and I’d heard him use it before on my brothers or cousins. Perhaps the cat was tabby. But when it comes to healing and learning through this story, these details are not the pieces that truly matter.
What is true about my story, what I will not question, dismiss, or undervalue, is the truth of the way my body felt.
I remember exactly the way heat rose up my body, the way my heart pounded, the way my eyes welled with tears and my throat clenched. I remember the sound of my shuffling feet as I made my way to the house. I remember these feelings and acts of shame, because my body has reproduced them many times over the years, in similar situations, with similar acts of curiosity, and facing similar authority figures.
My memory may fault me, but my body never tells lies. My story is a true story. The emotions are true, the reactions are true, the long-lasting effects are true.
Today, having allowed this story its reality, I can report that I have returned to reclaim the piece of myself that was left behind on the sidewalk that long-ago day, and that that adventurous girl leads me once again to freely explore the wilderness of my surroundings. And, instead of an unconscious-yet-powerful fear, “touching the dead cat” is now a working and much expanded metaphor in my life that both my husband and I refer to, often even playfully, when I’m considering saying, doing, or exploring something that could get me into trouble with some concept of authority, real or imaginary.
I don’t know that I believe we need to “heal our inner child.” Rather, I feel that it is the reclaimed inner child that can heal us as adults.
Because in my experience, each story I authenticate and embrace leads me back to reclaim another lost piece of myself.
On the way to reclaim these lost pieces, I heal old wounds, free trapped patterns, and remove stumbling blocks.
And as I heal, I step back into greater wholeness, a wholeness that I embodied when I was just seven years old.