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Wounded Healers, Healing Wounds

I have no kind way to say this, and I argue there should never be a kind way to say this:

My name is Lisa. I am an incest survivor .

I was orally raped in early childhood by my paternal grandfather.

There. Said. But not done. Never done.

I am thinking right now of my former writing student, M., who experienced her own emotional, unprecedented, and unexpected self and public disclosure about her childhood sexual abuse, spontaneously responding to the first half page of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I stayed with her after class and after many more classes subsequent to that. I think we both cried though I can't quite remember. What I do remember is that in what was a blessing, I drew from my own painful experience an understanding that can be felt by only two types of people: another who has stewed in the belly of this beast or a therapist trained to work with that person. Of course I am the former.

I signed on to and ordered for her the book The Courage to Heal, the consummate guide for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It wasn't the first time I had to do this for a student. Two years prior, after watching Cider House Rules, I vigorously -- and I mean VIGOROUSLY -- answered questions from skeptical students who questioned how much reality was embedded in the story's incest thread. An hour later, a student from that class entered my office and said, " I need to talk to you about what happened in class," sat down, and cried through her story of repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle, a nightmare she'd kept secret until that moment. I was five. M. was eight. E. was thirteen. I bought her the book,too.

It's a book to hold onto forever after you read it. It's like an airplane floatation device. I kept one in the trunk of my car for fifteen years for the solace of knowing it would be there in case of emotional emergency; it gives the reassurance of community. When I was about to get married, I urged my soon-to-be husband to read the book, explaining that it would clarify and prepare him for the kinds of moods I was thrown into by seemingly innocuous triggers: a smell, a song, a taste, even a temperature or a breeze blowing the wrong way. He refused my offer. When we first lived together, he would sometimes find me sitting alone, suspended in an unidentified dimension where there exists no feeling, no thought. I remember one time he shook me out of it and another he raised his voice in concern: "Where are you? Come back!" Every time I watch The Joy Luck Club, I recognize the fog that devours Auntie Ying Ying, a thick, trauma-borne stupor from which she is released only by her daugher's forceful nudging. I checked in and out of there for many years, and while I rarely visit these days, recent experience reminds me how every new hurt flings me back to that space of original pain and betrayal.

So please, do not ask me why I still feel the bloodletting of a divorce not quite three months old.

What does this have to do with animals? Everything, absolutely everything.

I am talking about a wound with so strong a vibration that those who share it are magnetized toward each other, and those who can heal our grief -- our animal companions -- are brought to us as higher energies by higher energies. People suffering from trauma, whether it's abuse, war, or terror -- escape to planes of consciousness that cause them to develop an insulated inner life. The technical term would be dissociation, quite a protective mechanism. Very few humans can break through that insulation, but animals possess the natural ability to plunge through the fat into the lean heart. Studies have found that autistic children unresponsive to their surroundings do, in fact, come alive in relationship with an animal. More and more incidents are reported documenting a visible physical response to animals from long time comatose patients. Prisoners with rage issues have been learning loving and compassionate action by raising and caring for animals in innovative jail programs. Now veterans returning from Iraq with PTSD (the same diagnosis the abuse survivor usually gets) are being treated with "pet therapy." And Jaycee Dugard, an abductee who who endured 18 years of imprisonment, sexual abuse, and torture, just told Dianne Sawyer that she could mentally escape her situation only when she shared temporary company with kittens.

Animals design their entry into our lives at very particular times on the spiritual calendar. If you think that you picked out your dog or cat from a breeder or a shelter, think again -- you were led to and by that animal for a much higher purpose. A widowed friend of mine began seeing random butterflies after her husband's death, and then realized that they were not random at all but heaven-sent. My friend's German Shepherd supported her through her husband's addiction,violence, disappearance, and ultimate divorce. Three of my dogs literally gave me life at a time when I feared suicide or homicide as my incest memories resurfaced. Angelo the standard poodle brought me to it and died early as his work was completed; Seamus the Irish Water Spaniel led me through it with loving frenzy; and Gracie the Schnauzer lifted me above it with intensity and will. In a telepathic conversation in which she wanted to ascertain her position in our three-dog household, she said firmly, "You must know that I am your angel. I came to you when you thought you would not survive." No human human being has ever loved me like this.

It doesn't upset me when people regard a dog or cat as "just an animal;" it infuriates me. (Yes spiritual people are indeed human and prone to anger and rage, a place too familiar to the wounded healer. ) Who forgives us our anger? Who overlooks our ignorance and blindness? Who embraces us when we feel empty and unloveable? You might say God. I would ask who sends us the animals, from which plane did they embark on their journey to heal us? Who are the instruments of Divine healing and emissaries of Grace? Feathered and furry ones. Think about the significance of our physical placement among the animals: they are not level with us. We need to stretch, to move out of stagnation, bending down or reaching up to touch the dog or bird. It's a metaphoric exercise that raises us from an assumed human chauvinism to heart-centered expansion that promotes healing.

Homework for the day: hold your animal companion and close your eyes. Ask what its purpose is in your life beyond the obvious. Be prepared for the answer.

ADDENDUM: Today, E. is a psychologist and M. is a teacher. This is how the wounded become healers. And yes, they both read the blog, commenting privately, and yes, we're all smiling.

LINK to page 1 of The Color Purple:


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