I allowed a childhood trauma to keep me in fear, even terror at times but I’m rewriting my story to focus on my miraculous survival and God’s constant loving and empowering presence in my life. For most of my life I didn’t even realize I was telling myself a story except the narrative of what happened but I was unaware of the messages within my narrative
I think I felt safe for the first five years of my life or at least protected until 4 months after my 5th birthday. I was watching tv in my room while the rest of the kids watched another show in the den. I looked out of my door to see fire rolling across the ceiling and I just sat there on my bed not reacting at all.
A little later I could see people outside my window trying to break it but they couldn’t. As the fire got closer to me and filled my room I finally climbed up onto my bed and stood in a little spot in the corner of it. It was the only place that wasn’t yet burning. I was just standing there opening my eyes as wide as I could even though they were stinging and I couldn’t really see anything because of all of the smoke. I was sure that I had swallowed some of the fire because I could feel it burning inside my chest.
I remember that day very well – most of it. But I don’t remember getting out of the house. I’m told that the door that previously wouldn’t open and had flames shooting out around it was just then no longer hot. It opened when my 9 year old sister tried it. I don’t remember her screaming for me to come out. Seconds later the roof and the entire section of the house where I had been collapsed and fell to the ground. I don’t know how I got out. I’ve always been convinced it was a miracle from God but I don’t remember. I just remember being outside unable to see and sure that I was dying because the fire inside my chest was burning me from the inside out. I don’t think I cried until someone mentioned the doctor – I didn’t want to go. I just knew that if I let go of whoever was holding me – my mom or my grandmother – I’m not sure. I just knew that if I let them go that would be it. The fire would take me and I would die. I now know it was the smoke I inhaled.
I recovered and I was able to see again in about a week. That smoke also damaged the surface of my eyes – thankfully it was only temporary – no lasting damage. But the fear and the terror – I took that with me. Really until very recently, I carried that fear and distrust of myself – actually I wore it like a big coat that couldn’t fit or comfortably fit into the places I went or experiences I had.
For most of my life I couldn’t figure out why I just sat there when I saw that fire rolling across the ceiling. Why didn’t I get up and get out of the house? Was I crazy? What was wrong with me? It took me 40 something years to realize that No, I wasn’t crazy – I was 5 – I froze – I was afraid. But all those years I thought something was wrong with me because when I was 5 I behaved the way a 5 year old behaves. The message I gave myself – the story I told myself was that I couldn’t trust myself and I was unsafe in the world.
I struggled a little with how I would tell you about the story I had been telling myself and how I’m now changing that story. I questioned whether I really was changing it – whether I still really even knew what it was – whether I believed my new story – whether my behavior was consistent with the old messages I was telling myself or the new realistic ones that I now choose. Well, truth be told I’m still learning to live not as I defined myself for most of my life but as a capable grown up. Do I do that perfectly every day? No way. Most of my life I didn’t even know what I believed about myself or how consistently my behavior and anxiety lined up with that belief.
I first had to face the story I wasn’t even aware that I was telling myself. I talked a lot about what happened to me. I wrote about it. I described it in detail. I talked about how I felt at the time. I talked about the thoughts I was thinking at the time. I could recall the smells and sounds and physical sensations and how I interpreted them but I never even considered what I believed about myself.
Without realizing it I was telling myself — You can’t trust yourself to know that you’re in a dangerous situation. You’ll freeze and you won’t know what to do when you’re threatened. You won’t ever be able to find your way out. It’s not safe for you to be closed in because no one will see you or notice that you’re in danger and you’ll be stuck forever – separated from the rest of the world and the people who are important to you. Those messages terrified me especially when I even thought about taking an elevator, driving through a car wash, or anyplace I didn’t think I could easily walk out of. There are lots of places you can’t easily walk out of. Disney World supposed to be the happiest place on earth was one of the scariest. Even riding in a car was sometimes uncomfortable.
But I wasn’t aware of what I was telling myself. It never occurred to me to examine it. Once I realized what I was telling myself. I could then see that yes when I was 5 I was incapable of protecting myself and I acted like a 5 year old but I grew up and gained knowledge, skills and strength and became very capable of taking care of myself. I didn’t have to face the world with only the skills and experience of a preschooler. It’s interesting that in certain areas of my life I was always courageous and confident IF I could visualize my escape or if I felt I couldn’t be trapped. As long as I could see a way out of a situation or circumstance, I could excel.
The real truth is I do know what to do. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to ask for help if I need it. I know how to act in my best interest even when the action is new or scary.
I’m not doing this perfectly and I’m not wild about elevators but I remind myself If I find myself in a situation and can’t see the way to safety that’s ok because I’m strong and resourceful. I can find a way. I can’t say that I love elevators or anytime I go into the unknown but I choose to focus on the abilities I’m sure of and how God has prepared and empowered me. I choose to remember that He prepared me even then when I was a little girl. A couple of weeks before the fire, I was obsessed with a little blind girl I saw on tv. I would close my eyes to see if I could find my way without looking – just in case I ever needed to. I choose to believe that was God preparing me for what was to come. I choose to trust Him. I choose to trust me too. The fear and distrust I wore for so long is a habit I’m replacing with trust. It gets easier to trust my ability rather than being weighed down and limited by the belief that in certain situations I was no more capable than a 5 year old who wasn’t ready to ride an elevator by herself.
To change the stories we tell ourselves or the beliefs that limit us and maybe even terrify us, we first have to be aware of the stories and messages we’re already telling ourselves. We have to recognize the messages we’re sending ourselves about ourselves. Many falsely believe that we’re not good enough, unlovable, incapable, untrustworthy, unable to find a way out of circumstances, have no creativity, always wrong? When we discover those beliefs we can begin to tell ourselves a new story with a true message.
Tomorrow, We’ll share the incredible story of Monique Moliere Piper, author of Dance in the Sun. She talks about growing up in a very dangerous neighborhood, experiencing tremendous loss, and setbacks but still becoming the first in her family to graduate from high school and college. She talks about the importance of choosing the story she tells herself and she gives us her formula for success. We’ll also continue our week of empowerment and learn more about the stories we choose for ourselves.