shadow work & childhood trauma…

I’ve been talking about shadow work for yyyyyyears now. Like almost a decade? It is not a new concept for me, and I have been doing my own work for about as long too. I have watched quite a few people talk and talk about doing shadow work but then never actually dug deep enough into their own past or psyche to integrate or even acknowledge the things that need to be brought into the light. Approaching trauma/shadow work like this is more common than those of us who actually do the work to dig deep and face the pain and grief hiding in the shadows.

But truth be told, I have slacked a lot in the past year with doing my own work. Okay, maybe slacking isn’t the right word. I have not done focused trauma work in quite some time, and even though I knew I was stepping into an expected situation that would bring up a lot of trauma, I did not prepare well enough. Not only did I not prepare enough, I was thrown very badly off kilter by the things that then spiraled up and have continued to be present for over 3 weeks now. It’s been so bad I have barely been able to do the bare minimum of my required daily functions. This whole situation has reminded me of how unstable my brain can truly be and how vitally important it is to acknowledge and hold gentle compassionate space for the trauma and shadows when they start to bleed.

Because that’s the problem, this is how i have ended up in the position I’m still currently trying to climb out of – I ignored the first signs of the trauma needing to be held, and I kept pushing through. Not only did I keep pushing, I purposefully made choices which, much to my detriment, only made the meltdown [when it happened] that MUCH worse. What’s that phrase? “Hindsight is 20/20.” Well, mine sure as fuck is crystal clear. I know the exact moment I should have chosen to withdraw and take care of myself, and instead chose to continue to distract and dissociate and push myself.

What is shadow work and its connection to childhood trauma?

There are very few resources out there that specifically talk about shadow work and how it relates to childhood trauma. And as childhood trauma is my…speciality(?), I have gone looking for any existing resources. I’m disappointed and frustrated at the lack of resources, but I think that also highlights how needed those kind of things are right now too.

Shadow work is traditionally described as the sides of ourselves that hold the things we usually feel shame or guilt or fear over. The sides of our personalities that we would rather have hidden than exposed to the light of day. However, the more we consciously, or subconsciously, push down and try to hide those shadow sides of ourselves, the more those parts will get louder and clamor to be seen, and push themselves out whether we want it or not.

I believe that shadow is even more than this though. I believe, especially for those of us who have experienced significant abuse in our childhoods, that the shadow also holds the pain and grief and loss of what we were forced through as children. It’s the memories that our brains purposefully hide from us, but we still pay the consequences for. It’s the physical and non-physical marks left by those who were supposed to protect us. It’s the way our brains have permanently changed and re-routed because of neglect, harm, and purposeful abuse when we were in our formative years.

So not only is shadow the “not so nice” parts of our psyche, it is the things our bodies and minds don’t always want to remember. Shadow holds the things we don’t always even feel safe approaching, or can safely hold. And that’s okay. Shadow work is not a requirement. It is something that can really help you feel your full self, but it has to be your choice. It has to be something you are ready and have chosen to proceed with. Integrating and sitting compassionately with your shadow is not easy work, and if you’re not ready, then that’s very much okay.

And if you’re anything like me, having gentle compassion for one’s shadow self can be excruciating and nigh impossible if your brain is still overrun by the voices of those who abused you.

What’s next?

Shadow work is lonely. It is facing the things only you know about or only you can discover. It is matching and piecing together connections that were never visible before, and can also be utterly devastating. I know for myself when I’m deep in shadow work, being around anyone who doesn’t really know about my history is really really uncomfortable. There is only so much of a mask I can hold up when I am so raw from this work. For me, shadow work often feels like I’m having to choose loneliness over company or companionship. Why? Because of what I said above; only I can uncover the things that are hidden in my shadows, and only I can integrate them or release them from my body and mind. I am grateful for a therapist who not only is aware of shadow work, but who also has so many resources for how to take care of myself when I’m diving deep and feeling rattled.

I am a 31 year old survivor of childhood sexual abuse, mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional abuse. I was raised in many christian cult churches, and believe this was my parents’ attempt to keep me quiet and controlled so no one would know about the abuse happening to me and then to my siblings. I was drugged and then raped multiple times between the ages of 1 1/2 and 7 years old. I was unable to retrieve the memories of those situations until beginning about 5 years ago. And then every few months after those first memories broke through, I continued to have more memories unlock for the past 5 years. I will honestly say that healing trauma is never ever linear. I felt this so significantly when my memories choose to come back way out of order. I didn’t figure out that the timeline of the sexual abuse was a lot longer than I originally had thought until 2 years after the first memories had come through. I have both observed myself from an outside perspective and carefully charted what my body did during severe flashbacks and integration periods of this shadow work. I have also had to wait months to a year after a particularly rough memory retrieval before I finally understood what it was that came through and how to release the trauma. And other times, I have understood within 72 hours what happened. This however has only happened because of the years of work I’ve already done, and the intention I have put into purposefully integrating back into my whole body.

Where am I at now?

When I went through spiritually deconstructing from 15 years of the religious cult I was raised in, I chose a pagan path as my next spiritual journey. I have been on this path for 7-9 years now, and the dark Goddesses I have worked with have been integral in my shadow work. This has been my personal choice and the specific things that have helped give me a grounding spot to work from. I have worked with deities like The Morrigan, Persephone, Lilith, and am currently connecting and building a relationship with Hecate. The Morrigan in one of her crone faces was deeply significant to when my childhood sexual abuse memories were coming back. She gave me an anchor to hold on when I was sure I would lose all sense of sanity during some of the hardest flashbacks.

I think it's important to note that shadow work is profoundly whole work. What do I mean by that? I mean that you can't have light without the darkness. You cannot have a whole picture, whole being, without black and white and every other color in between. Shadow work brings a depth and fullness to life that allows heavy grief to be transmuted into the deepest joy and happiness you've ever felt. It's like the earth after a particularly cleansing and intense rainstorm. The growth and expansion that can now happen because of the deluge of rain and pounding of the wind is massive. Or how about what happens after the seeming destruction and devastation of a fire? I can personally attest to the incredible growth and rebirth after the cleansing of a fire. That is exactly what shadow work allows to happen within you and me and whoever chooses this path. 

We have to be willing to face the darkness though. We have to be willing to face the monster under the bed that keeps grabbing our toes at night. We can’t understand our whole selves without feeling and knowing all of ourselves; everything from the darkest pain and anger to the lightest laughter and peace. Shadow work is whole knowing. Shadow work is accepting, honoring, and allowing all of us to simply be.

Writing is one of the most consistent tools I have and use for when shadows come to the surface. I have been writing out my shadows since long before I was conscious of the shadow work I was doing. It’s been about 12 years of purposefully writing out the things I can no longer contain within my skin and bones. I suppose you could say this is my form of journaling. Because I have never been able to traditionally journal. But writing in this kind of form? Oh it’s more often than not as easy as breathing. But I also know when I can’t write, that it isn’t time. There is usually some processing and subconscious work I have to do before the words will flow again.

I have done a helluva lot of processing in the past two years and not as much writing. I tried three times to start the rewriting of my memoir, and only the latest attempt has resulted in a book of over 100,000 words right now. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and yet, I still missed the signs at the end of September that I was starting to bleed trauma and needed to take care of myself.

It is very tempting, and I’m afraid to say I have given in, to feel a lot of shame for how things have gone down over the past few weeks. I have fought tooth and nail to gain the clarity I now have. And I have spent almost every day over the past week writing over 2000 words a day, processing out what happened, the spiraling and overwhelming feelings – fighting to understand myself and the things that were/are trauma and the things that are actually facts.

It’s not time yet to reveal the specific things I have processed during the last two weeks in particular. There are people and situations involved that are not to be shared publicly. But my shadow work? The things I have learned of myself? This public journal format is so helpful in getting my thought ducks in a row.

I can share this though, and will share what I have personally been learning about myself. This latest trauma spiral snuck up on me, and I forgot how to keep an eye out for the things that catch me off guard. Mainly because I haven’t had to deal with “new” triggers in the past year-ish. So when a trigger came up that I didn’t even know was a trigger, it all hit me faster than I knew what was happening. And I am ashamed to say that I have almost lost this fight several times over the past 15 days. As I wrote in my “journal” a few days ago, I cannot mother my children and mother myself through this. And my children come first. I’ve felt like that swimmer who’s trying desperately to swim to the shore and the shoreline is not getting closer regardless of how hard I try. It’s felt easier, simpler, to just slip under the waves and stop fighting. Multiple things became almost dangerously overwhelming to me, and only two people know just how close I came to giving up completely.

The crushing weight is starting to ease now I think, I am safe, and I have people who I trust and who have my back right now and are tossing me life buoys as needed. But this is my fight. This is my job to work through, and even though it’s been hellish to say in the least, I understand. I see what happened, I know where things fell off track, and I can and will and am owning responsibility for the things I need to. This is the reality of shadow work and I’ve been under quite deep lately. And I’m not out of the danger zone yet, that deep comforting darkness is still pulling at me, and I haven’t willingly disconnected the strings reeling me in yet.

Another part of being completely overrun with shadow work is that I’ve been horribly dissociated. It dawned on me that that was happening when I really looked at my legs a few days ago and counted at least 5 new bruises that I have zero recollection of receiving. That only happens when I’m unable to inhabit my body. I started trying to take stock of my body later that same day and realized I could feel the top of my shoulders, parts of my neck, and then the entirety of my body between my clavicles and ankles felt like nothing else existed.

My nesting partner still doesn’t feel “safe” right now. I’m starting to feel a little more present, and a little bit of perspective has started coming through again. My kids are sick and while I’m already struggling to stay present for them with the basic cares, it’s almost too much trying to take care of them sick too. My youngest keeps asking me why I’m so sad, he’s watched me cry so much lately. I’m doing my best, and it doesn’t feel like it’s enough at all.

Again though, this is the reality of when the shadows break through and are forcing me to pay attention. My shadows know I value their presence and I need them to maintain balance within myself. But I didn’t acknowledge them soon enough, so they made sure I knew they were there and in need of attention. They forced me to my knees so I would withdraw and take care of myself. It’s the same concept of take care of your body or it will force you to take care of it. Take care of your trauma and shadows, or they will overrun everything until you deal with them. I’m still in the being overrun phase because I didn’t listen soon enough.

So what’s the moral of this story? I don’t know. Pay attention to the things that want to come through? Or they will get loud enough you can’t see or hear anything but them.

I have no doubt this fight is worth it. Can I see that at right now? Fuck no. I can barely believe that I’m going to make it to the end of the year right now, much less make it out of this. But I also know that I have been here before. I have felt this utter desolation of feeling dirty and worthless and way too broken for anyone to want me around so so many times before. And while my logic brain is still mostly locked away, I have remembered proof that that is the trauma talking, and hopefully I can quiet down that voice sooner rather than later. I suppose this is my way of trying to reassure my broken self – it is possible to make it. I have not died yet from all of this trauma, nor from the abuse that caused it in the first place. This isn’t going to be the thing that takes me yet. Life looks grim for the time being, but I’m still fighting, that has to count right?

I am grateful for those who have sobbed with me recently and who are willingly holding this hard space with me too. I’m working to feel proud of myself for taking are of myself the best I can right now. I’m trying to eat, I’m trying to stay hydrated, and trying to make sure I get sleep. A lot easier said than done, but some of those coping mechanisms are starting to filter back through now.

I think I’ll leave this post with this. I know this fight is worth it. There’s a teeny tiny light within me that’s refused to get blown out, and that alone is proof that I can make it through this. Shadow work is fucking hard, and it wrecks you in way you least expect. If you can make it to the other side of the valley, it’s ten times better than you can expect. You may lose people along the way, but those who have stayed on the other side waiting to engulf you in their arms are the ones who are freaking amazing people. Keep fighting, I’m still here, and I think we can make it.

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