This post is dedicated to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk whose book, The Body Keeps the Score, literally changed my life; to my first best friend, my sister Cheri; and to three amazing teachers who saved my life: Mrs. Wells, Ms. Kirkwood, and Ms. Riley. My apologies if any of it is triggering for you.
Today is the anniversary of my oldest sister’s suicide. My body has been talking to me for the last three weeks. I have struggled to write this post. I couldn’t figure out how to get started or which direction to take it. At this point, the fire in me won’t let me rest until it is written. My apologies if it’s a basket of worms going nowhere.
Forty-three years ago my oldest fully-genetic sibling, Cheri, chose to take her own life. She was just shy of 14 years old and about to start high school. She had never gone to the same school two years in a row. I’m sure she was lonely as I’ve met people from her class and none of them remember her. While I can’t prove it, many of the memories I do have of her lead me to believe she was being sexually abused. My memories of her last summer include constant fighting with my mother, BBQ sandwiches, and one particular song. She had juvenile diabetes and she used that as her exit strategy.
My childhood was very traumatic and I don’t clearly remember much of it. I have spotty memories here and there that really don’t get clear and chronological until my high school years, but my first vivid memories are of my sister Cheri’s last summer. We were living in an 8,000 sq. ft. sheet metal building that used to be a praline factory. My sister’s last summer a produce stand popped up on the property next to the building I grew up in. This stand also sold BBQ sandwiches for $.75. I remember so vividly scrounging around for change, while our parents were at work, to find enough to buy a BBQ sandwich we would share. I also remember she listened incessantly to the Terry Jacks song Seasons in the Sun. My score-keeping body pops that song in my head every August. I have a love/hate relationship with that song today.
My family had just moved to this small town in the middle of nowhere, Texas, during the middle of the previous school year. I was in first grade that year and I had the most hideously mean teacher. Oh how I loathed that woman who told my mother lies about me. My mother would braid my hair in two pigtails every day to keep the knots out. There was a group of girls that would take it down and play in my hair every day. When my mother complained, the teacher told her I told the girls to do it. As if I would knowingly bring on my mothers anger.
I’ve always been a fighter. If I wasn’t so hard-headed and scrappy I probably would have taken my own life as well during my childhood. There seemed to be so much death around me. The year after my sister took her own life, my half-brother killed himself. I only remember meeting him once at Cheri’s funeral. My memory of him is him saying something insulting about Cheri and all seven years and forty-nine weeks of me rose up and pimp slapped him across his face with all my might. Knowing myself as I do, I probably read him the riot act too but that part isn’t clear.
As an adult I learned my half-brother had been caught trying to molest Cheri. This half-brother took his own life on the first anniversary of Cheri’s death. At the risk of getting a heaping pile of judgment, I’m glad he did. I fear if he hadn’t already killed himself when I learned of what he did to Cheri, I might have hunted him down and inflicted serious bodily harm to him.
I struggle so with her loss. We didn’t have the services in 1975 that are available today. There was no ‘tell a teacher or trusted adult’ education. There was no 911 to send an ambulance when my mother was at work with the only car an hour away and Cheri slipped into a diabetic shock, then coma, during the night. While I was just weeks away from eight years old at the time, I still wish I had known more, been able to do more, done something to alter the course of history so that Cheri would still be with us today.
Fortunately the three years after her death I had some amazing teachers. Mrs. Wells was my second grade teacher. We were late starting school that year because my GSD’s (genetic sperm donor’s) cousin drove my mother, other sister and me to visit the grandparents after the funeral. Mrs. Wells took me under her wing like a mother duck does her ducklings. She watched over me, showed me love, and met me where I was at with acceptance. Just thinking about her I can still see her statuesque figure bending down to give me a hug. The next year she handed me over to Ms. Kirkwood who took on the task and did a stellar job at it. Ms. Kirkwood handed me over to Ms. Riley who has to be one of the best fourth grade teachers ever. She read to the class 20 minutes a day, every day. She birthed in me a love of reading and mysteries. Reading allowed me to escape the insanity, anger, rage, violence, and lack of affection of my childhood as long as GSD wasn’t around. When GSD was home there was “no time for reading”. Reading was a waste of time to him and there was ‘work to be done.’ Thanks to Ms. Riley, I still love a good mystery and I finished all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books within the next two years. Harriet the Spy is still my favorite childhood book.
I credit Mrs. Wells., Ms. Kirkwood, and Ms. Riley for my being alive today. I’ve heard that studies show having three good teachers can change the course of a child’s life. It was certainly the case for me and I’m ever so grateful I had them all three in a row. Ironically, after Cheri’s death my GSD lost his wanderlust and I had continuity that allowed me to develop the types of friendships Cheri never experienced.
On the trip to visit my grandparents, My GSD’s cousins’ adult son propositioned me. Sadly at 7 years old I knew exactly what he was trying to do when he asked me if I wanted to “fool around”. I borrowed words from my mother and told him in no uncertain terms, “I will kill you and tell G*d you died.” He still tried to pressure me until he caught on I wasn’t some uninformed child he could pull that mess on. How sad that even at such a tender age I knew what was really being said.
As a child I was an emotional eater. I stuffed my face to stifle my feelings because emotions were taboo. Anytime I started crying that got me in more trouble. “What are you crying about, you want to cry, I’ll give you something to cry about.” Over the course of my childhood my family had two restaurants and a donut shop. During those years, there was plenty to stuff my face with.
It took me many years to ‘break’ the emotional eating cycle and to learn what it meant to feel hungry. My mother used to say, she’d rather feed us when we were hungry than when we weren’t. When we were hungry we’d eat until we were full. When we weren’t hungry we’d eat for the sake of eating.
Three weekends ago I was sitting in my recliner and I had this overwhelming drive to eat something. I wasn’t hungry. I hadn’t missed any meals. Yet I still found myself in the kitchen looking for something to ‘feed the need’. I grabbed something and started eating mindlessly. It hit me again the following weekend, as I’m apparently too busy during the week to notice it or give it space. It wasn’t until the second weekend this happened that I was able to put the pieces together and put a stop to it. The physiological memory is a powerful force.
I realized my body was acting out the stored memories of Cheri’s last few weeks alive. Once I made the connection, I was able to tame the beast. Had I not read Dr. van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, I probably would have never made the connection.
As I used food during my childhood to self-medicate, my weight continued to rise. Then I was on the receiving end of verbal abuse from GSD “You’re fat and lazy and no man will ever want you.” Well given the role model of “manhood” I had that was just fine with me, I didn’t want a man. I wanted to be independent and alone, or so I thought at the time.
I’m a baby of the 60’s and remember in school doing the math to see how old we would be when 1999 became 2000. I honestly never expected to live that long. I fully expected to die before I graduated high school. I’m exceedingly grateful that I was wrong. I met my husband in 1999 and got married in 2000. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d meet a man with such compassion, integrity, and gentleness. G*d was faithful and knew just what I needed. I was also very picky and not about to settle for anything less than a partner who was supportive, encouraging, and in it for the long haul.
The experiences of my youth are what drive me to do the work I do today. For decades I lacked confidence in my ability and my intelligence, because I was criticized for bringing home a 98 on my report card instead of 100. I’ve learned I can trust my knowledge, just not my memory, that’s the epileptic in me. That leads me to triple check everything just to be safe.
I’m still a voracious reader, but these days I mostly read published research studies on trauma, neuroscience, and aromatherapy. I read books written by neuroscientists (Dr. Candace B. Pert is my favorite), trauma researchers (Dr. van der Kolk is my favorite), and clinical aromatherapists (Jane Buckle PhD, RN is my favorite). At my core I am an anal retentive nerd.
I now know my purpose in life and thankfully it’s also my passion. My purpose and my passion is to support children and adults who’ve experienced trauma. My purpose is to give them aromatic support for the limbic system that helps them feel safe and reduces their general ‘resting’ stress level. A child or adult who has experienced trauma tends to operate in a hyper-vigilant state. An aromatherapy protocol can help calm the limbic system allowing the neuroplasticity of the brain to lay down new mirror neurons from a place of felt safety.
When we feel safe, we’re free. We’re unshackled by the anxiousness, hyper-vigilance, sleep challenges, and fear that have held us back. We’re more self-confident. We’re able to see a brighter future and we’re able to work towards that future with hopefulness.
We’re living in very challenging times right now. As an adult survivor of childhood trauma, I have been triggered more times than I can count by the current political power players’ blatant disregard for child safety and family unity. Things are being said and done that send me back to that seven-year-old child inside of me. Children are still at the bottom of the priority list in American culture and this perpetuates the cycle of trauma and abuse.
Thankfully, some children are able to make it out of the dark traumatic families they were born to and find hope, love, support, and acceptance in foster or adoptive placements. The transition is rarely an easy one to make. The educated and appropriate use of aromatherapy, herbal supplements, mindfulness practices, yoga, chiropractic care, and/or other complementary alternative medicine practices can support the trauma survivor as they transition to their new home. It can give them the support they need to be open to counseling or therapy. I have been in and out of therapy of all sorts for decades. After reading Dr. van der Kolk’s book I found a therapist that practices EMDR and that has been very helpful.
I’m a pragmatist. Sadly, I realize not every foster or adoptive placement is the haven of rest and security it should be. However there are so many more resources today than 43 years ago. As a certified clinical aromatherapist I am but one cog in the wheel of change and one brick in the foundation of hope. That said, with every last breath in my body I will continue to follow my passion of supporting survivors. Survivors are my people, I relate to them. If you or a loved one are struggling with a score-keeping body, I would love to join your support team. I will meet you where you’re at and walk the journey with you without judgment.
©2018 Cynthia Tamlyn-CCA
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