Trails in the Forest

I remember how at the age of 12 my Dutch grandfather paid me 10 florins to clear the fallen leaves of the trails of a small forest, of almost one hectare, from his property. The purpose was to instill a culture of effort and work in his grandson. If several months had gone by without cleaning, it was almost impossible to see with the naked eye where the trails were going. A blanket of leaves covered them entirely. But just because they didn't see each other didn't mean they weren't there. I remember when I decided to create a new trail with a shovel. It took me days of work. Sometimes my little brothers, 7 and 5 years old, would help me. I had to uproot weeds, cut some bush, prune tree branches that got in the way, and remove a lot, a lot of dirt. It was much easier to use a ready-made trail than to create a new one. The new one required work, concentration, intention and a firm purpose.

Our mind already has created paths, neural connections through which our ways of thinking and reacting walk. Always the same paths. The more you walk through them, the less leaves accumulate, the less herbs grow and the easier it is to walk. When something happens to us, thoughts are created that walk along those paths and lead us to a certain behavior, which very likely will be repeated again. For example, you have just started a new job, your boss corrects you for something you have done wrong, and you immediately feel like a disaster and sink into discouragement. Convinced that you will never get to do that job well, you consider leaving it. You tell your friends who tell you that you are very exaggerated. That path through which your thoughts have gone is a path perhaps created in your childhood in which you received zero approval and zero reinforcement at home and for the abuses suffered. Every time you receive a criticism, or argue with someone who tries to make you see something that you have to change, you react with a disproportionate dejection. You may explode inward, be silent and hide, or you may explode outward and ride a huge chicken. Pathways of low self-esteem have formed in your past. If paths of healthy identity had been created in your forest as a child, your behavior would not be destructive, you would react in a more balanced way and without feeling under threat.

Now I know that when I detect that my thoughts are walking down that damaging path, I must stop, step back, grab the pick and shovel, and start a new narrative. As you walk the new trails I have built, the old trails will not disappear, but they will fill with weeds and piled leaves, making it increasingly difficult for you to walk on them. New trails will become increasingly clear, with the ground flattened and well leveled, wider and easier to navigate. Do I ever go back to an old trail? Can be. It is a process in which I have to be more compassionate with myself and try again with the help of those who love me.

María, a survivor of sexual abuse, suffers a lot from accumulated tension in the nape and shoulders. Occasionally he cannot bear it and visits the physical therapist. They always tell him that he has to learn to relax. Without realizing it, he lives in constant alert. He lives the emotions with great intensity and finds it difficult to relax. Last year he started with Mindfulness exercises and they came in handy. It is a long way that has gone to get to this point of starting to lower the level of alert: breaking the silence, establishing responsibility for the abuse, feeling the emotions, understanding the consequences, finding professional support, from other survivors, from relatives and friends, confront the aggressor, forgive, learn new healthy behaviors, etc.

With her mistakes and successes, she has been able to be a good mother to her children, a good companion on the way to her husband, a good friend to her friends and someone who now helps many survivors to get ahead. But the issue of staying alert and in constant tension is still a workhorse that, some months goes better and others a little less.

Those of us who live with ASI survivors must remind them of how much they have already overcome, that we continue to believe in them, that we are proud of how strong they are, how far they have come and that nothing happens if they have some not-so-good days.

Joel de Bruine