An Abused Child’s Smile

A child dealing with regular physical abuse often has to deal with it alone.

I wasn’t completely alone. A few people did their best to cheer me up, and reassure me they loved me loved.

But at that age I wasn’t able to even talk about the shocking experiences, much less ask for help. I had no points of reference or way to begin a conversation about what had happened.

And I was afraid that if I did, more bad stuff would happen to me or somebody I cared about.

So I reflected on the confusion and pain when I could–while in bed.

During the day, and at night.

I vividly remember nap times in a great uncle’s enormous Victorian Gothic home. They were in a guest room overlooking a vast front yard, which I could see through windows filled with gentle Atlanta sunshine.

But as soon as the door and curtains were closed and I closed my eyes, all the room’s furniture tried to smother me.

Overstuffed chairs, a brocade sofa, and a large dusty oil painting started to slowly, silently inflate over me like demonic soft balloons.

Soon the light was blocked out, then the air. It felt like I’d dropped into a nest of boa constrictors and they were squeezing my lungs empty.

But by just blinking a few times, I could make everything return to its proper size and position. I couldn’t stop the vision but I could let it go.

Through the closed door, I could focus on my great-grandfather Jimpops talking, or the upstairs maid singing as she worked.

Afraid to close my eyes again, I’d lay quiet until nap time was over.

Nightmares were worse, because the darkness was like a projection screen for lurid visions of my stepfather’s angry red shouting face, or the sofa I’d bounced off of when he’d thrown me across the living room, or the fuse box he’d had to spend a few minutes at after my last scientific experiment had gone wrong, blown the lights, and gotten me a beating.

These images floated into my mind like the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz, until one of them would hover like a deadly threat in the dark air above me.

There was nobody I could talk to about this regular nightmare.

Certainly not my stepfather; and my mother had never even acknowledged I was being beaten. My brother would be as much in the dark as me.

So I had to come up with a nightmare-busting solution on my own.

And I did.

Rather than trying to wish the fearful image out of my sight, I turned it into a kind of daydream, in which what had scared me was magically changed into a brilliant cloud of yellow butterflies.

And almost as soon as they appeared, the butterflies would scatter and fly off in all directions to reflect the unforgettable morning of a new spring day.

This became my regular night ritual. After a while, I was ready for the scary visions.

Creating such a beautiful event, and knowing it would bring new light and color to my imaginary scene, gave me a sense of control over my life and creativity.

I could turn ugly into lovely as easy as (snap) that!

And I’d keep my daydream going until my stepfather and mother arrived, but transformed into the kind of parents I knew they really wanted to be.

So by the end of the daydream, we’d become a happy family. I’d begin living a productive and fulfilling life, doing things I loved to do.

After all my disappointments and trauma, of course I realized that most dreams don’t come true.

But that didn’t really matter either. Not yet a teenager, I had a tactic to help me deal with adversity.

And ever since then, I’ve approached complicated and even threatening problems by seeing them as a cloud of butterflies, ready to dance away through the air and bring new light to whatever situation was confronting me.

No single butterfly was in charge of the cloud either. Each had its own dance to finish and flash of light to contribute.

Over the course of my long adventurous life, on some level I’ve accepted and celebrated every person and turning point as having the potential to add light and beauty to the world.

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