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Soul medicine

Updated: Apr 26

A personal story of cruelty, shame, and remembering who I am.


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I have a mean streak.


Image of a person who looks mean
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

This has been a big source of shame for me, and something I’ve been working on my whole adult life.


I’m not mean all the time or anything, but it’s not like I just think mean thoughts, either. It's that when I feel threatened or scared, I go on the attack, and can think of nothing but hurting the other person


I’ve sometimes described these moments to myself as “sociopath mode,” because it feels like being hijacked by a monster. Once the switch gets flipped, all compassion, empathy, and care (that I normally feel for the person in front of me) disappears completely, and my every thought and impulse becomes focused on cruelty. I’m no longer trying to defend myself in those moments, or to just neutralize the threat in front of me. 


Instead it’s like I’m trying to destroy the person who made me feel small, scared, or powerless. 


I’ve done a lot of work to learn how to keep this part of me “under control,” but until last week, I felt like that was all I could do: communicate to people what I need to minimize the odds of the switch getting flipped, and then use all my willpower to wrestle those cruel impulses down and keep them inside me, when the switch inevitably gets flipped sometimes anyway. 


I’ve understood that the cruel version of me who seemed to “take over” in these moments was trying to protect me in some way, and it only ever came out in relationships with men, so there was clearly a link there. But I also knew that letting it out would damage my relationships, and that it was my responsibility to prevent that, so my focus in this area has been on how to not be an asshole, rather than on understanding and healing the part of me who is an asshole. 


I was talking about this with my therapist recently, and more or less making the argument that this is just a part of who I am—a part of who I’ve always been—when I realized for the first time that, actually, that’s not really true. 


I’ve always been combative, I realized, in that I’ve always been quick to push back against anything that felt like an attack on my agency or liberty, even as a kid. But I didn’t become cruel (which is to say, I didn’t start actively wanting to hurt or destroy people whenever I felt threatened) until… oh, shit. 


That didn’t start happening until shortly after I got back from spending six months as a foreign exchange student in Chile at eighteen years old. 


My memories of those six months, which were almost immediately overtaken by a terrifying, coercive, and abusive relationship with the “brother” of the host family whose house I was living in, are incredibly dark. I’m sure Chile as a country is interesting and pretty, but I wouldn’t know; all I remember is feeling confused, trapped, scared, and powerless. 


It didn’t take me long to completely shut down while I was there. I couldn’t escape, so I told myself he could have a version of me— enough that he would think he had all of me— but that I would keep the real me hidden and safe. He couldn’t have the tender, vulnerable, loving part of me, I decided, so I hid that part of me away, deep down inside myself, in a little locked box wrapped in chains and padlocks. 


Photo of a lockbox

I didn’t realize, until sitting in my therapist’s office, that that part of me was still locked in its little box.


When I got home from Chile, I started the process of coping with and recovering from the trauma in a million different ways, and over the years I made a lot of progress. But that was when I started to understand myself not just as combative, but cruel. 


For several years I felt nothing but anger and I wanted to hurt people (hurt men), and that’s exactly what I did. I went out of my way to make men feel small, gleefully discovering their insecurities and using them as weapons. More than once, I made a man who approached me with interest at a bar end up crying in public… and it felt good. 


With a lot of therapy, personal development, and the passing of time, I was able to more or less get this part of me under control. Anger and cruelty went from a day-to-day “default state” to something that only came out when I felt especially scared, trapped, or threatened in the presence of a man. (A fact which, unfortunately, means it’s come out most often over the years toward my partners, who were mostly good men who didn’t deserve it.)


The realization that my cruelty had such a distinct and specific “beginning” blew my mind. For whatever reason, I’ve always thought of it as an innate (and therefore unchangeable) part of me; I believed I must just be a cruel person deep down, so while I could try to master this part of me, I would never be able to actually get rid of it.


“Oh my god,” I said to my therapist, still reeling. “What if it’s not mine?”


“What do you mean?” she asked.


“What if all this time I’ve thought this cruelty was mine, but actually, it was… his?”


The truth of my statement hung in the air between us as twenty years of holding his cruelty and his shame, and thinking it had been mine, flashed before my (very wet) eyes. 


She asked if I wanted to try “giving it back,” and I said yes, so we closed our eyes and she guided me through a visualization. 


I was back in my house in Chile, holding an externalized form of the shame and cruelty (which incidentally looked like a pile of disgusting, glowing, writhing goo) in my hands. I was in my bedroom, and when I opened the door, he was waiting right outside, as he often had. I stepped toward him, handed him the disgusting gooey pile, and told him “this isn’t mine.”


In my mind, I saw total shock and disbelief on his face. 


He had given me this thing, and told me to carry it because it was mine. He thought he had total control over me, so it never crossed his mind for a second that I might refuse. The look on his face was that of someone who was used to manipulating everyone into doing what he wanted, and realizing he had failed. 


It was delicious


I walked away as he just stood there, holding the pile of writhing shame goo, and noticed a lightness and spaciousness in my body and soul that hadn’t been there before. 


Photo of light shining through a window

Then I noticed something else. From another part of the house there was a warm, attractive, light, and I wanted to get closer to it. I followed it through the kitchen, out the back door, and through the garden. The light was emanating from another house: the house in which the oldest brother of the family lived with his wife and two small daughters. 


This house had been an occasional refuge for me during my time there, and that man had been extremely kind to me. 


Looking back, I wonder if he knew or suspected something nefarious was going on (or what kind of person his younger brother was) because sometimes he would tell my abuser he “needed me to babysit,” but would then just let me hang out quietly in his house with him and his daughters. One time when I got there to “babysit,” he poured me a cup of juice, handed me a coloring book and some colored pencils, and told me he was going to take the girls out for a while.


The light pouring out of that house, I realized in that moment, was the light of… kindness. 


It was the safest place I had, not just because of the absence of cruelty there, but because of the presence of kindness. 


I was suddenly struck by the power of a quote by Mister Rogers that I’d never fully appreciated before:


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”


My abuser taught me that men will strive for power and control over me, and that vulnerability and kindness would be weaponized against me. I learned that in order to protect my freedom and autonomy, I needed to attack them before they attacked me. 


I wish I’d been able to notice and integrate it back then, but I now see that this man’s kindness can teach me something different– that even when I felt like I was completely alone, someone saw me, and cared. 


Even as I was coming to believe I was worthless, this man treated me with kindness and respect. Even as I was learning to think of life as war, he gave me the space to take off my armor and color for a few hours. 


This man was the helper. And while I couldn’t take this in at the time, I’m taking it in now. 


After our visualization was over, I became aware of the presence of this little box inside me, chained and padlocked for twenty years, long forgotten. It was covered in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, and the chains and padlocks had rusted… rusted a lot actually… rusted open.


I wanted to share this powerful experience with you for two reasons. 


First, because I’m committed to writing transparently and from the heart here, and this story was  powerful soul medicine for me. But more importantly, I think there is something deeply human and universal about the experience of inadvertently mistaking someone else’s shame for our own, and of thinking the parts of ourselves we’ve locked away are gone forever. 


At eighteen years old, I had to lock the most vulnerable, compassionate, and tender parts of me away to survive, and I came to believe the best of me no longer existed. But that part, unlike my abuser’s cruelty and shame, was always mine. 


This beautiful, soft part of me is innate, so while it’s spent the last two decades locked away in the box I hid it in, it could never be fully taken away. 


It has just been sitting there, collecting psychic dust all this time, kept safe in the house of a man who is teaching me about kindness twenty years later, and waiting for me to come back and claim it. And now that I understand who I am, and who I’m not, I feel like I finally can.


May we all give back the goo-piles that don’t belong to us, and remember who we are.


So much love,

Jessi

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