I remember saying to my therapist one day, around a particularly deep piece of work, something akin to, “I have to learn to live with the absence of this because the two people on earth who could give it to me can’t, and it’s not like I can go back in time and change my infancy.” I wasn’t asking a question. I was making a statement because…well, duh. My therapist looked at me patiently, as one might gaze at a tantruming child, and said, “You’re wrong.” I mean, maybe not in those exact words…
My therapist acknowledged that while those two people might someday be able to give me what I needed, they likely wouldn’t. They simply lack the capacity. Also, we couldn’t redo my infancy with them regardless of whether or not they were able and willing. Some things really are impossible without a flux capacitor.
Her contention, however, was we didn’t need to. She believed I could go back through time and give this essential missing piece to myself. She was emphatic doing so could mean not suffering the lack of it for the rest of my life. My therapist was referring to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) work we were engaged in. While those two people might not have the capacity, I did, and it was likely me I most needed anyway. (Even as I write this a part of me rolls its eyes.) We’d been using this model of therapy for a couple years by then—and it had absolutely changed my life—but I was pretty sure this was where the line got drawn. I insisted it would only work if it came from them, those two people over there. She insisted it could come from the person sitting in front of her.
I tried, in part because I wanted to prove her wrong. I met the part of me insisting it had to come from those two people. I witnessed, held and released the enormity of her grief. It was quite possibly the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It devoured worlds. I wept with and for her. I then got to hold a baby and unburden all the other parts that had suffered what was done to her. I created magic. My therapist and I cried. I went home and my husband and I threw my baby girl an impromptu birthday party. Later I would have to admit my therapist was right, but not that day. That day I just got to celebrate being reborn.
This is the power and magic that experiential types of therapies like the kinds I practice, including Gestalt and IFS, can bring to your healing work. They can take you back in time to do the seemingly impossible: heal old wounds, release long-held harmful beliefs, and unburden parts of yourself you probably don’t know are there. It’s a hard thing to be convinced of until you try it for yourself, and in some cases (cough) even after you’ve done it (for yourself and others) and been awed by it many times.
Because I can’t take you through your own experience here, I thought I’d share with you the whole of one of mine. The following started as a letter I was compelled to write to a part of me I know well and who was badly triggered one night. It became a process that unfolded within me and I dictated it as I experienced it.
If this way of working calls to you, consider finding a therapist who works in these modalities and bring all of your doubts with you. It’s to be expected and we won’t judge. Likely, we’ve been there ourselves. You can start by reaching out to me or finding an IFS therapist through The Center for Self Leadership.
Hi sweet girl,
I can see you so clearly sitting cross-legged on the cafeteria floor, a box of candy in your lap. I can’t see what you’re wearing, but I know everything about how you feel.
I ask if I can sit down next to you and when you look up, the pain in your eyes knocks my breath out. My chest constricts, breaking off a piece of my heart for you. You don’t say anything. Just go back to staring at the screen. You’re not eating your candy. I know it’s because you don’t feel like you deserve anything sweet.
I sit with you through the whole movie. I hum the songs softly under my breath. The one Gene Wilder sings in the candy field is our favorite. I can’t tell if your stare is seeing anything in front of you or if the movie you are watching happened somewhere else.
The movie ends. Charlie wins. The kids in the cafeteria create the kind of chaos only kids can as they empty out the room. I don’t know where the teachers go, but you and I are left alone. I think god might have a hand in that. I say to you softly, “Hi.” Your head is lowered, watching the floor like something could happen there. Or like you don’t care about what might happen anywhere. I sit with you longer. I breathe. I imagine you feeling the open tenderness of my heart.
I say, “I came here just for you, you know.” You startle, like maybe this is scary or you just came to. I laugh gently. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t mean you any harm. I just really wanted to be here with you today. In this moment. Here.” You ask me why. I sigh. “Because I know how much you are hurting and I know all the things that happen next. I don’t want you to be alone anymore.” You look at me and recognize me. I smile, “I’m you and you are me.”
I can tell you’re not too impressed by how we turned out and I laugh. I say, “Sorry. I did the best I could. If it helps, we are really, really well loved.” You start to cry. I sit with you. You cry and cry. An ocean’s worth. More than should fit inside the smallness of your body. Both our hearts break open. When you stop, I wrap my arms around you, pull you into my lap, and rest my head gently a top yours. I say, “None of this is your fault. I know all the things you are thinking. Not one of them is true. You didn’t hurt your daddy today. He hurt you. You are not the worst little girl on the planet. You aren’t selfish. You aren’t horrible. You do not have to stop having needs, and it is okay to want things. You are not meant to take care of your parents. Parents are supposed to take care of their kids.”
I rock you for a while in silence. We breathe together and forget we have two bodies. When it feels like time, I gently lift you from my lap and set you on the floor before me. We sit facing each other. I take your tiny hands in mine. With tears flowing down my face I say to you, “You have no idea how precious you are. You have no idea how perfect your heart is. You are strong, brave and mighty my dear. You are unlike any other and that is wonderfully fine. You have fire in you that won’t be put out. You are meant to be here exactly as you are. I am so sorry for all the ways you will suffer in the years between this you and this me. It will hurt like hell. There will be times you know it’s impossible to breathe in and out once more. You will do it anyway. Every. Single. Time. You will feel so totally alone. You will forget what I tell you right now about how you never have been and you never will be alone. But you will go forward like the warrior you are. You will persevere and you will get through. Your life will be extraordinary.”
I kiss your forehead. I cradle your face in my hands. I gaze with purpose into your eyes. I say, “The shame of today is not yours to carry. It is his. Children don’t deserve what has been done to you. You are perfect. That you wanted to be here is perfect. That you asked for what you wanted, even though you were so very scared of him, was perfect and brave. I am so proud of you. It’s okay to let me take your shame for you. It’s okay to give it back. It should never have been yours in the first place. You can trust me, even if you don’t fully believe me. You can put it in my hands.”
You stare at me for what feels like hours. Maybe days. You are so careful. So thoughtful and deliberate. Even then. Even at 7. I can see many wheels turning in the depths of blue that is your eyes. I see the moment you decide. It’s like releasing the wind. You reach into your chest. You untangle the hardened black webbing that wraps around your heart. You place it in the cup of my hands. You look up at me with such innocence and trust, such wonder, that I forget the need for air. I think, this is the face of God. I tell you to close your eyes and you do. I ask what you want wrapped around your heart in its place. You say this moment between us. You say this knowing deeply that we are not the Wrong Ones. You say, faith. It pours into your chest like sunshine and I swear for a second I see a glow in the outline of your heart. Your face has never looked so peaceful. I imagine this is what safe children feel.
You ask if I can stay. I say, “Not really. Not always. But you don’t have to either.” I tell you this moment happened 30 years ago. I tell you that you are free. I ask if you know where you’d rather go and you answer with a picture. You show me the field where all my free children go. Where they camp beneath a night sky clear with billions of stars, sleeping in nests of cotton and hammocks swinging high in the trees. Where my guides surround them, keeping watch, keeping safe.
We clasp hands and in an instant we are there. We look around in wonder as one always does whenever they find themselves here. It is the best place in all the worlds.
I kneel down. I kiss you on your cheek. I thank you for being so strong and brave. I tell you that now you get to choose how to be. I think you will stay strong and brave, but maybe not so much. I think you will be silly and playful too. I twirl with you, arms out, heads back, and when I stop spinning, when I look down for you, you’re gone. I hear your laugh ring out in the distance surrounded by those of my other kids. My heart swells, and for this minute all is right.
Now we are both home.
Stacey Curl, MA, LMHC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lacey, WA, who has committed her life to reclaiming her authentic self, opening to the fullness of who she is (especially the yucky stuff), cultivating mindful awareness of her everyday existence, and helping others do the same. She recognizes how much lovelier all of that sounds than it can sometimes be, and brings buckets of humor into all of the really hard work.