Near the end of my pregnancy with my second son, my parents came to visit. On this particular visit, before even greeting me, I opened the door and in they came, carrying the contents of my childhood in about ten cumbersome cardboard boxes. They were preparing to move seven states away from where I grew up and had recently cleaned out their basement and boxed up ALL that remained of my childhood. My husband was at work, so being nearly “ready to pop,” as the general public would say, and unable to help unload, I directed them to line the stairway to the attic with the foreboding boxes.
When I was in my early twenties and finally started the process of working through childhood sexual abuse, I had a recurring dream almost as frequent as every two weeks or so, in which I would discover that I had another house or apartment that I needed to urgently clean out, as if I had lived in this former dwelling and abandoned it without taking any time to pack up my belongings. I would be summoned from the previous landlord, or in some cases, a realtor, to come clean out the contents as soon as possible. Upon entering these “dwellings,” I would find stacks and stacks of items to sift through—stacks of clothing from all stages of my life, dishes crammed haphazardly in the cabinets, and once, a pack of deli-sliced turkey in the cabinets, rancid with age. I had to decide frantically what to keep, and I could not just throw it all away because I had the sense that there were certain items in the mess that were of value—a favorite shirt, a framed photo from a friend who I hadn’t seen in years, furniture that was still in great condition, but too heavy for me to carry out alone. So here we were, my dream (or shall I say nightmare) was coming to fruition, but this time in the form of my past showing up on my current doorstep unexpected, handed to me by my parents.
Often that is how childhood sexual abuse plays out for survivors—a smell, a song on the grocery store airwaves, the brush of a stranger or a loved one on just the wrong place, the alphabet handouts brought home from preschool, nearly anything can send a survivor right back to the moment the abuse occurred and in a moment we are forced to dig through our boxes of childhood, sometimes being knocked out by the weight.
In his early thirties prior to meeting me, my husband discerned joining a religious order and in the process gave away 95% of his earthly possessions and continues to live with this minimalistic tendency, so when he came home from work to find the attic stairway lined with boxes of my childhood, he insisted I go through them as soon as humanly possible. Having “stuff” around makes him almost as crazy as having to go through the “stuff” makes me. He knows me well and knew that if I didn’t go through those boxes soon that they could potentially sit in that messy stack for my entire lifetime. The anxiety about what was in those boxes was too much for me, so it wasn’t until our son was about eight months old that I finally felt ready to do some serious cleaning out of my past. About midway through the unpacking, there it was. A doll given to me by the man who sexually abused me at age four. I stuck it back in the box, closed the doorway to the attic stairs, and I was done.
At my next counseling appointment, I told my counselor about the doll, a detail she already knew about, but here it was now, unexpectedly showing up on my doorstep and having lived dormant in my attic stairwell for months unbeknownst to me. Hours after I left my appointment, my counselor called, “I think you need to do something with the doll.”
She threw out a list of ideas—burn it, bury it somewhere, drive it somewhere and dispose it in another city, throw it in the river, the list went on. I settled on an action plan, told my husband about it, dug the doll back out of the box, wrapped it in a grocery bag and waited.
My counselor arrived at my home that Saturday morning, her trunk filled with supplies that looked like we may be going to commit some sort of bizarre crime—duct tape, rocks, scissors, matches, a shoebox—whatever we might need to properly dispose of this doll however I desired. We drove to the river by my directing and got the doll out of the backseat, unwrapped it from the grocery bag, nausea filling my gut and my arms tingling with tension. I needed to wrap the doll with rocks and duct tape so it wouldn’t float back to the top when I flung it in, but I couldn’t bare to hold it for that long, to hold in my hands the weapon of my abuse. “If you’re a good girl,” he had said to me two decades prior, “you can choose any of these dolls in the morning before you go.” A year or so later, I would watch him give a stuffed bear to my younger cousin and wonder if he had made her “be a good girl” too. I still haven’t mustered the courage to ask.
And so I climbed up on a manmade concrete ledge on the bank of the river, my counselor staying back. I carried that rag doll all covered in gray tape and stones, up to the edge of the water, took a deep breath and threw it as far as my shaky arm could throw. I wish that I could say that I felt immediate relief, but it would take months, maybe even years if I’m honest, before the effects of launching that damn doll into that mighty river actually sunk in fully. My abuser’s power over me drowned that day with that doll sinking into the swiftly moving water, cleansing me in its wake.
I still have yet to unpack all of those boxes.