A tiny space with old carpet, filled with clothes and shoes and stuff I can’t remember. I put a hole through a shoe box and locked it with a padlock. All my thoughts went in there. Various things to write with and a skinny white memo pad, with another hole punched through and a lock to secure the pages from prying eyes filled the shoe box. I had a blanket, my favorite stuffed animal: a pink and white bunny, a reading lamp, some books. Sometimes special toys made their way into the secret space or a pillow, or bed sheet to create a tent. I went there whenever I felt strong emotions. I went there to hide. I went to play. I went there to cry. I went to pray. It was my safe space.
When I was questioned, it was my “secret hideout to play spy.” Which made perfect sense since I loved reading Harriet the Spy, Boxcar Children, Amelia’s Notebook, and Matilda; stories of escaping and trying to find ways to feel understood. I couldn’t stop reading when I was little. I read the most books (and did the most book reports) in 1st grade. I was able to get so lost inside a book I think it served as a way to cope until I suddenly had too much anxiety for it to work anymore.
I remember when that started happening around 6th grade. I felt frustrated when I’d go to read a book I’d enthusiastically picked out from the library or purchased from those Scholastic Fair flyers and couldn’t focus. I remember feeling something was wrong deep within my soul as I returned half-read chapter books, mourning the lose of connection to those pages I thought I’d have. I remember fearing something was wrong with my brain. When the book-escape stopped working, the eating disorder started.
That closet was filled with every single one of my coping mechanisms. Read, write, hug/touch/squeeze blankets and stuffed animals as if they would come alive to provide concrete protection from everything that felt unsafe.
But when my body and my brain realized much of my coping utilized my imagination, and I became an age that it was harder to allow my imagination to run wild, chaos ensued.
The closet was where I went when roaring voices echoed off the southwestern tile filling the hallway. When the decibel level boomed off the walls. When I was old enough to work a tape player, I added that to my space to drown out the yelling. Headphones followed. Never loud enough for anyone else to hear and quiet enough that if I were called I could slam my notebook shut, lock my shoe box up and obey the orders of the caller, pretending like I was never scared.
Today we did therapy in the closet. It had enough of the items and space to feel like I was in my childhood closet. At first I felt a little embarrassed. But little-me was eager to squeeze in under my blanket, inches away from my therapist. I immediately felt comfortable and less anxious. I felt cautiously curious.
I felt ready to push away my protective parts–but it was much harder than I was prepared for. Every time I thought I was good to continue, my anxiety crept back in sometimes so stealthily I wasn’t truly aware until it was brought to my attention. Eventually, little-me took over. Somehow enough anxiety came down for me to feel exactly like I did sometimes in my childhood closet. Fearful, frightened, worried–and needing my mom to provide safety, comfort, love, care, words of affirmation, prayer, anything…something…
My therapist came. She pulled me in, and did all of those things and I can’t help but get teary recalling right now because it felt like little pieces of my soul were coming back together. Broken pieces I never thought could find their way back. It felt overwhelmingly loving. It felt brave. That little girl got to feel what she needed 25 years ago.
I know it’s not a one-and-done experience. I have to keep being brave. I have to keep seeking compassion for the protective parts of me that want badly to shut all of this down and at the same time I have to keep sending them on their way. They are not needed anymore. I have an incredibly loving yet ferocious wolf pack to protect me.