Chapter 14: Unpacking My Mind’s Baggage

Sometimes I’ll be walking my dog or riding an elevator when suddenly I notice I’m humming. There’s no context for the song. I’m not wearing my iPod. There’s no Muzak on the elevator. I haven’t been listening to the radio or talking about music. No, it seems to have popped up out of nowhere.

But it hasn’t. It’s as if some angel has put a quarter in my mind’s jukebox and pushed the right buttons to send me a clue. Sometimes I have to wrestle with my memory to recall the name of the tune or any of the lyrics. Sometimes I rely on the Internet to figure it out. And, almost every time, the song is a gift.

There’s a theme song on the soundtrack of my life that has been accompanying me for years. It’s the Beatles singing “If I Fell,” with John Lennon asking if the girl he loves will promise to be true because he’d been hurt before. For as long as I can remember, that song has been on replay. No wonder. Whenever I feel ready to open my heart to a man again, that song whispers its warning. I have a friend with the theme song, “Put on a Happy Face.” I like my theme song better.

Listening for what seems like a random song, noticing a sensation in the body, or having an out-of-the-ballpark reaction to something minor are ways the unconscious speaks to us. Almost everything we need to untangle our emotional lives is tightly packed in our minds. That’s how I came to know about my sexual abuse.

I didn’t intend to unpack my baggage. Bits and pieces forced their way to the top and began banging on the inside of my mental suitcase. When I was starting out as a therapist, I had a few dreams of having sex with my father. They are written in my early dream journals. My best friend reassured me that I was reading too much Freud. I decided to believe her. I’ve had dreams of rape, or the threat of it, as long as I can remember. Doesn’t everybody? The first time I had sex with my college boyfriend, I commented about his hairy chest, “It’s like having sex with my father.” I freaked out both of us…

Then my memories blasted me wide open.

My unconscious kept guiding me down my healing path by leaving little clues in my mind and body. Body memories are sensations trapped in the body from overwhelming abuse. It might be a pain in the neck from being choked, a twinge in the elbow from being held down, a gagging sensation that begins out of nowhere. These memories leave breadcrumbs for us to follow into the forest of visceral feelings that are trapped and beyond words. They provide more pieces to arrange the narrative of our history.

These memories leave breadcrumbs for us to follow into the forest of visceral feelings.

In the parking lot at work one morning, I sat in my car, scratching. For weeks I had an itch on my upper back that was driving me nuts. I couldn’t find a bug bite or hive. Nothing was on the skin. In desperation, I asked the little girl inside if the itch had anything to do with Daddy. My head started nodding up and down, my throat got tight, and flash! I saw an image of my father’s hairy chest. Then I realized the itch was a body memory of my father behind me. My throat squeezed tighter until a sob burst forth. I wept for a while in my car, then trudged into work. The itch never returned.

My mind kept throwing out clues about my inner life. Sometimes I’d find myself humming the Mary Wells R&B song, “Two Lovers,” where she sings about having two lovers, but she doesn’t feel ashamed. One lover is sweet and kind. The other lover treats her bad, makes her cry, makes her sad, but she loves him, too. Both of them are the same person.

I learned that song when I was 10.