A while back, I read a piece in New York Magazine that chronicled the stories of thirty-five of Bill Cosby’s victims. They are pictured on the cover, all sitting on chairs.
I’d known about the article for a bit, because, for better or for worse, when something to do with sexual abuse or sexual assault is in the news people now seek out my opinion. They are curious about my reaction to whatever the event is, and how it is being handled legally and in the media.
I thought the article was very well done. The magazine did a beautiful job of laying out the facts and honoring the women’s stories. The photos were compelling, the stories behind the photos were graphic and deeply disturbing.
In the bottom right-hand corner of the magazine cover is an empty chair. It reminded me of the empty golden frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, and how powerfully they affected me. The chair is meant to signify the 11 women who made allegations but are not part of the article for one reason or another, and the many women who cannot come forward. At least, not yet.
The article was entitled, “Cosby: The Women. An unwelcome sisterhood.”
The first time I heard the expression “holding space” was on Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog, Momastery. She said, during a difficult time:
My therapist suggested that when someone is in deep grief, at first, all a friend can do is “hold space” for them… We can create and hold space for each other. You can listen to my pain without trying to fuel it or fix it. You can avoid offering me advice, for now….You can just love us simply, without judgment.
Right now, I just need a safe place to be me.
You are my safe
I think about her words, and I think about that empty chair. Every day, I think about them. The notion of held space, and the physical embodiment of it.
Mary and I have been having so many conversations about how best to serve our sisters and brothers in the survivor community. How to ‘hold space’ for those who are not ready to claim their stories, who are still mired in shame and fear. We talk about how to create actual and virtual spaces where people can come together to heal and share- to be in community with one another.
It is such a blessing to have a growing community of people with whom I can speak a sort of emotional shorthand. If you’ve not experienced severe trauma, you might sympathize with its lingering effects, but never truly understand. I’ve heard from people with experiences as seemingly disparate as being victims of domestic abuse and serving tours of duty in some of the most dangerous corners of the world. I might not have been beaten by my spouse, or lost a brother in arms in combat- but when you speak to me of your dreams and your triggers, I get it. When you tell me that something as innocuous as a child’s whistle makes you sweat, that it transports you back to the sand and the terror, my heart understands. When you tell me why you can’t wear a turtleneck without feeling like the walls are closing in on you, it makes perfect sense to me.
In the aftermath of He Wrote it Down, I heard from hundreds and hundreds of survivors. I read every story. I heard from women and men of every ethnic background, religion, and income bracket. I heard from a 73 year old woman and a 14 year old girl. I received stories from the deep south, sunny California, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. Men and women. It’s why the lie we get sold as victims- that we are alone in what happened to us- is so utterly galling. Regrettably, we are an enormous community. We are a community of people who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. That community is growing. Every single day. Think about that. Our community will be bigger tomorrow than it is today. Another child, then another.
It’s hard to breathe when I think about it that way.
There is another community, though. It’s not the same community, exactly, although there is considerable overlap, thank God. There is a community of people who have decided to survive. The love and support we feel from other people in this burgeoning network is real. We lift one another up. I have interactions frequently with women and men who are survivors of sexual abuse, and who are committed to awareness, prevention and advocacy. They are stepping into the sunlight, and they are telling their stories.
We talk a lot about how there is no one path to healing. We all need to find our way on our own terms and in our own time. Healing, like grief, isn’t linear. It isn’t efficient. It takes the time it takes.
Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we all stood squarely inside our stories and rejected shame? If we wielded the power of our sheer numbers, 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men, to effect real change? We would be unstoppable. There are days when I feel like we’re on the precipice of being able to accomplish great things, and days when I wonder what our purpose should be- where should we focus? What can we really do? It seems so big. It is. It is so big.
When I wrote The Fault in my Scars, I referred to my grandfather’s other victims I was sure existed. I called them “My nameless, faceless, shattered sisters.” When I first wrote that, I didn’t know any names outside my family. Now I do. Now I know her name. I think about her all the time. I pray for her. I wish her well. We are sisters, in a sense. She likely understands things about me that some of my lifelong friends do not, and we have never met. Sitting across from her mother, knowing that her abuse did not need to happen, that it could have been prevented, is a constant dull ache I carry. I don’t know if it will ever go away.
We have brothers and sisters all over the world now, our life stories pieced together like a quilt, connected by a thread that none of us asked for, none of us welcomed. We’re a patchwork of patched up people. Scars and wounds, some stitched closed, some still gaping. It reminds me of a type of quilt called a charm quilt- they are made of many small pieces of fabric where each piece is a different pattern or material. The idea is to have a scrap-pieced top with no two pieces alike. Close up it might be a little hard for some to appreciate the beauty, but taken in as a whole it’s astounding.
It is said that during the Civil War the Underground Railroad used quilts to help slaves escape to freedom. Quilts would be hung outside safe houses with warnings and directions in the form of patterns and squares. Gather your tools, danger, kind woman, and my favorite, the North Star. Historians bicker about whether or not this is factual, or a romantic tale spun to tell a larger truth. I honestly don’t much care. I want it to be true.
Maybe the jacked up, patchwork masterpiece that is our communal story is meant to serve as a North Star to those who’ve not yet begun down the long, daunting path toward healing. Maybe that is the gift that bringing our stories out into the sunshine and using that dark thread to stitch them together can bring about. We can look at them as seams or scars. Either way, they bind us to one another.
Gather your tools. This is a safe house. Rest a while. Keep going. Hang on. Both hands.
Freedom lies that way.
Shelley Stoehr says
beautiful piece… but I’d expect nothing less from you! xoxo Shelley
Solid Chocolate Bunny says
Thank you so much for continuing to bravely write your truth, from your heart. You share these dark and painful places with such poetry and eloquence. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep going. <3
“This is a safe house” – so beautiful what you have created and are creating Laura. (and Mary)
I get what you mean about shorthand.
It’s not just shorthand. It’s understanding, period.
I had all that horrible yearly exam stuff done last week, and since I’m over forty, it’s a two-fer now. Two-fer of torment, of being crazy for days, of sensations that won’t quit. I can say that, and you and your readers will GET it. Who else could? How does it make sense that touch can burn…. for days. Not leave your head, your mind, the imprint on your skin (on your soul?)
I had therapy last night. Actually I had therapy a week ago, also, and it was the same evening as the first appointment (that was bad planning) and I told him last night I remember talking, seems like a lot, but it’s all very dream like, and I have NO idea what I said.
That’s a pretty horrible feeling, also.
He said we most distracted. Yes, we’d touched on why I was in the shape I was (I’d gotten lost on the way to his office, how ridiculous is that?) — but mostly talked about other things.
How crazy is it, that I don’t remember what other things?
And yet, it did help. I told him I knew that — because normally I would have spun out worse than I did. And by the time Friday came along, when step two took place — I did. I was like a rat in a trap, wanting to chew off my hind leg. I got through the work day, walked in the house, didn’t say two words to anyone, hid in the bathroom. Drew a bath as a nice excuse.
What my family thought, who knows? I have stomach issues, so maybe that’s what they chalked it up to.
Saturday I got up early and left. Drove around. Aimlessly. Ended up at a nature center and took a hike in the rain. That’s the only way I managed to get sane enough to be back home, around people.
Well… until a certain person called. Because, yes, he’s still in my life. And the holidays are coming, so holiday plans have to happen, and it was my birthday weekend, so of course he called. How could I have forgotten he was going to call?
So came a second round of crazy, and I can’t be here, and I’ve got to GO. (Grocery shopping was my excuse — a long, long, long grocery shopping trip.)
The therapist last night said the previous Monday helped because I had someone to listen, be safe, not judge. He asked if I’d told anyone in my family or friends what I was doing that day, and I said no — and even if I had, how do I explain my reaction? It’s not normal. Who would understand, who would get it?
And that’s just it, right?
It does always feel so terribly alone.
That’s why I love when a new post notification from you shows up in my inbox, because you always remind me that even though it feels so terribly alone, there are pinpricks of light in the dark, too.
People who I can say “mammogram” to and they instantly understand all that entails. That it’s more, SO MUCH MORE, than just being squished in a machine and handled impersonally like a slab of meat.
It’s hands. It’s touch. And unlike the other where it’s easier to “check out” you really can’t, because it’s totally in your face, and you’re an active participant.
And it lasts for days.
So what is the answer to the question: what can we really do?
I can’t even survive some days. Other days I can be busy, and it’s just sometimes the space between heartbeats.
I’m so tired, though. So, so tired, and the holidays and family stuff is coming, and I’m going into it worn out.
In Others' Words says
I am holding space. I am carrying you in my heart. Why don’t you rest here a while? xo
Meredith W. says
I can’t “like” this, except for hoping that maybe talking/writing helps drain some of the poison. And I can’t speak as someone who has gone through what you have, but your response to an annual exam/mammogram makes perfectly horrible sense. I tense up for you reading about it. I’m so sorry.
I hope you will keep coming back to this community that Laura has formed and and that you can feel less alone.
That’s about the sweetest thing you could say, and your understanding offered, whether or not from personal experience (and I am glad it is not, in your case), is a tremendous gift. So thank you.
Yes, I have settled back, come off the ledge, since those particular events. Wish I could say I will stay off the ledge, but something will come along and throw me.
But you’re right, and Laura is right — forming a community where understanding is offered does help, even when I’m not in the right place to realize it in that moment — I usually do at some point.
I picked my wordpress name because of Laura, and when I first started reading her blog how desperately far from the light I felt — no, how desperately afraid of the light I felt. Because it was so far from the all consuming darkness churning in my soul. And I kept taking that darkness and hurling it at her, waiting for it to blot out her light (not because I’m a mean person who despised her light but because I wanted it so much for me, and so certain it wasn’t real. Couldn’t be for the likes of me.)
And she did nothing but keep meeting me with gentleness and light, no matter how much dark bile I upchucked from the depths of my soul.
Can’t promise I won’t be there again, because I move into despair way too easily, and when I’m there, when I’m in it, it’s my only reality.
But what she’s built here, where she shines light in dark, hidden corners, and people like you say, not me too, but I resonate and hear your pain, and don’t see a disfigured, shriveled, worthless soul —
I dunno. But I do know it has value. Yes.
And thank you.
Meredith W. says
moth2flame, you are more than welcome to whatever support I can give. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for decades, so I do have more than a little familiarity with fighting to hold off the darkness.
Sorry if I don’t get to back to see comments right away. Summer was mostly upheaval (husband had surgery; he’s okay), and I am not only way behind on blogs, I’m not getting to them in order or in a timely manner. (I blame Laura for my overflowing inbox of comments and replies.) 😉
You don’t have to apologize, it is hard to keep up with everything. I have the same problem!
I’m just tired of the struggle, really. Friday evening I tried to call a national crisis hotline — first time I’ve ever done anything like that, and I was on hold so long I eventually gave up and disconnected.
I know, there’s no point wishing for easy answers. There aren’t any.
But I can wish anyway, right?
In Others' Words says
what crisis hotline did you try? I might be able to provide you with some other resources. No one should be left to languish on hold when they need help.
Meredith W. says
moth2flame, while I haven’t been through the wringer the same way that you and Laura and others here have, I have battled depression for decades. I know what it is like to fight to find the light, to wonder if there IS a light any more. I have felt the blackness so deep that it is physically painful.
When I read about what you have had to endure recently, especially the medical exams — I ache for you. I can’t see someone appear to be teetering on the edge as you seem to be and not reach out my hand. I care about you. I care what happens to you. Please don’t do anything that can’t be undone.
If you can use another shoulder, Laura can get you to my FB page or give you my e-mail address. Please don’t give up. Please don’t let go. <3
Meredith W. says
I called the local stress center once and was put on hold, too. At the time my head was just enough above water to almost laugh rather than cry at the irony of it. I hope Laura can help you find other resources you need; I’ll be praying. Please keep checking in with us, okay?
It was this one:
Which their website said anyone in crisis could call, you didn’t have to be actively suicidal.
I just needed —
My doctor thinks there’s something wrong and he’s doing a full court press on tests, and the first one was an ultrasound —
No big deal, right?
Only, turns out a pelvic ultrasound is more, and even worse the technician was a young guy and —
I wasn’t prepared. I need to be prepared for something like that —
well, heck, even if I had been it still would have been horrible.
I see my doctor tomorrow and I’m going to tell him no more tests — I can’t. Not this time of year. I don’t care, I am done. I need to be done.
So there I was in my car — and I’ve never done anything like that, reached out like that, but I thought maybe a human voice —
I don’t know. But didn’t matter, I survived anyway.
In Others' Words says
sending you an email.
One thing I can be confident of saying is even when I’m teetering on the edge – and yeah, I do get there, especially this time of year — I have some really strong anchors because my husband would be so lost without me, and even if my kids are grown, it would hurt them as well, so how could I ever do that.
I won’t say I don’t get desperate and want to so badly but it’s never going to happen because it can’t anyway. It’s just a siren song inside, but I always, always fight off the lure one way or another.
Even last friday — I didn’t try calling that number because I was actively anything other than just wanting to hear a voice, latch onto something other than what was going on in my body and my head, and the website said that was okay.
My doctor appointment is this afternoon. Wish me luck. He’s going to be upset already because I haven’t scheduled an appointment with a specialist that he wanted me to already. But I don’t care.
And that’s maybe the bigger risk, that I don’t care right now if something is wrong. I just don’t. I’m not willing to do it. I can’t.
I would love if Laura facilitates our connection — facebook and/or email, either is fine with me. Although I will say, my facebook tends to be very surface — so yesterday I posted my first “thing” in days — if I’m struggling, I mostly just go dark on facebook, don’t post at all. Or I get super snarky/humorous and fling a bunch of funny posts at the world.
Then again, the fact that I re-engaged with the facebook world is a positive sign, so there’s always that, right?
Thank you for your concern and offer to connect.
La Quemada says
Sometimes all I want is to have someone who can hold some space for me. This is lovely, thank you.
Inspirational. Brilliant. Holding space. I have never heard of this but I love it.
“We all need to find our way on our own terms and in our own time. Healing, like grief, isn’t linear. It isn’t efficient. It takes the time it takes.”
Yes. And thank God we all have each other.
Becky Maggio says
Holding place!! Such a beautiful thing. That is SO Glennon and I can now find this peacefulness in your postings, too. Love you guys!! All of YOU!!
I love this. It resonated so deeply with me. Having people hold space for me is one of the most comforting things there is.
Beautiful Daughter says
I am part of the second community… finally sharing my story so others can heal. I can hold space for you.