Two days before the 33rd anniversary of my mother’s unexpected death when I was 3, I started psychotherapy. I was not consciously aware of the time frame’s deeper significance, yet my soul led me unerringly to a very symbolic jumping-off point for a lifesaving journey.
Long before I knew the exact date of my mother’s death, I used to suffer inexplicable sadness and insecurity in the months of May and June. I didn’t realize until at least a year of self-examination and reflection in therapy that my body had always known and expressed in its own peculiar language the information my conscious mind could not recall. Somewhere inside me was a cellular calendar. Somewhere, locked away by years of repression and purposeful forgetting, was a guardian who watched over the feelings I had not been able to process.
On my way home from my first therapy appointment on that day in 1995 I went by the art supply store and bought a sketch book to use as a journal. I came home and created this title page in recognition that there were mental rules I would need to break in order to get well: don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t ask, don’t expect, don’t wish, don’t dream.
Again and again, my wise inner self dropped breadcrumb clues that would lead me home to myself. The journey to which I committed that day was the search for the true self hidden under many social expectations and unspoken rules, griefs and wounds, assumptions and misunderstandings.
I am grateful my Grandma Somerville saved a pair of my pajama bottoms from 1962. I have no idea why. She gave them to me many years later. By then, as a teenager, I could not put them into context. So deeply ingrained was my idea of myself as someone who had always been big and mature for my age, I could not conceive of ever being small enough to have needed those pajama bottoms. Nevertheless, I saved them in a box with other remnants of my extinct early civilization, like fragments of unintelligible text that needed some kind of Rosetta Stone in order to make sense. Therapy helped me locate and decode the buried fragment of my home language.
When I started therapy in 1995, however, I had no ready emotional access to my own vulnerability and grief. My primary coping script was crafted around the twin values my father modeled—competence and control. I was insular, independent, perfectionistic, a caretaker of other wounded souls, and skillful at numbing my feelings through various means, both deceptively constructive and perilously destructive.
The furthest task from my mind was that I might need to make contact with a part of myself that was the opposite of that: dependent, sensitive, vulnerable, heartbroken. Like a bloodhound, I used the pajamas and other creative clues and tools to track down my carefully hidden inner child.
I was my own unsolved mystery—a cold case file—and so I set out to collect and study as many scraps of physical and emotional evidence as I could find. This included everything from photo albums to my childhood rocking horse, and faint tracings of sense memory to inner travel maps made of imagination, words and feelings.
Repeatedly I chose to ignore the instinct to harden and defend against the feelings that arose as I slowly pieced together my version of my trauma narrative. Bracing and controlling would be of no use in processing this material. Instead, against all impulses to the contrary, I stayed with my story and continually softened into ever deeper compassion for the little girl who had once been me, who held in her sweet hands and sad heart the secret to my wholeness.