Connection, Telling My Story

Grandma, “Why Did You Draw Yourself as a Superhero?”

I created this art back in February, and I made a print from it and keep it propped near the table where I write. Because I love it. I love how I made myself look like a superhero character ready to rock and fight and protect. My hair looks wild, like a lion’s mane. I am fierce, and I am giving a very firm boundary. I’m using my voice.

My almost ten-year-old grandson noticed this art the other day, and asked me about it. He has always loved superheroes and action figures, and so – of course – this drew his attention.

He knows a little bit about my trauma. My daughter and I have never kept it a secret from him, though we’ve given him only age-appropriate information over the years. This was particularly important early on. He was just five years old then, and all of a sudden I was “different” than the Grandma he knew before the sexual assault, and that likely was confusing for him. For example, I became more tentative in general, and I didn’t crave or give hugs or loving touch in the way that I used to.

Kids are so impressionable, and I didn’t want him to think my behavior change had anything to do with him. (Kids make up all sorts of things in their heads and can internalize a cause and effect that blames them.) So in the beginning it was, “Grandma got hurt, and Grandma is sad and having a hard time.” Something like that.

My daughter and I always have made great efforts to talk about issues and not keep things hidden from each other, as we attempt to break old family cultural patterns of silence, shame and shoving things under the iron rug of time.

When the predator sexually assaulted me in 2018, he used a knife. Therefore, knives have been somewhat hard for me to deal with since then. Early on, they were really hard. Within a few weeks of the assault, I informed my husband I needed to get rid of our kitchen knife that looked too similar to the knife the attacker used. I didn’t want to look at it, let alone use it. (He took care of that for me.) And to this day, I prefer to use kitchen knives that have rounded ends.

I have worked diligently with my therapist to process this part of my assault, and have made huge progress, but triggers from knives have never fully gone away.

It’s like this: When watching action movies, I can tolerate a woman wielding a knife, but if a male character is using a knife as a weapon, I sometimes need to look away or leave the room for a couple of minutes.

And this: My grandson has always liked superhero/action-figure imaginative play, and loves donning character costumes along with their full accoutrements, including toy swords and the like. And he, of course, through the years has wanted me to play with him and to show me his “cool stuff.” His fierceness. He is such a fabulous kid, and superb at role-playing and acting. And WOW, can he tell a story. A born actor.

Sometimes he has triggered me lightly over the years, coming at me in costume with his “fierce” sword. I’m processed enough that I don’t react outwardly to him, but at times it has made me unsettled, revved up and wanting to withdraw instead of fully engage with my grandson.

About a year ago, just after he turned nine, I asked my daughter if I could talk to him about my knife trigger because I felt like he was old enough to understand, and I felt it would improve my interactions and play with him. She OKed it.

It was just before Halloween, which can be a triggering season for me with its celebration of the scary, and highlighting costumed figures with weapons. And costumed characters that jump out at you “for fun.” (Ugh.)

While we spent time together within a super-cool, decorated Halloween scene in his yard, I asked him if he remembered that someone had hurt me a few years ago, and he said, “Yes.”

And I told him this person who hurt me had a knife, and that it was really scary for me. I explained that even now, when I see knives near me being used for anything other than for chopping food in the kitchen, I can feel scared again. Even toy swords.

I asked him if that made sense and whether he had any questions. And then I gave him a boundary: I asked him not to use his toy weapons with me during play. And I told him I thought it was important that he knew this about my history so that if I do react oddly during play, that it’s not about him. That it’s about me.

I’m glad I told him because it took away the white elephant in the room, and I can talk more freely (if vaguely) about it with him when he forgets. Because he’s a kid, and he forgets.

So when he asked me the other day about the art and my fierce image in it, I used it as the opportunity to share a tiny bit more about my story and as another lesson about boundaries.

I explained that I made that piece of art in response to the man that hurt me, and that I love creating art because it makes me happy. And that with this one, I loved making myself look like a superhero, powerful. And that in the art I am giving a boundary and telling the man, “NO!”

I think it’s important for kids to know age-appropriate things about our stories because it helps them understand us better, and our relationships and reactions to them.

I grew up in a household filled with unspoken trauma, and it really affected me as a child and all through my life. That was during the 1970s and 1980s when it was considered more accepted not to talk about things, and no one really went to therapy. But the effects of the silence and the undercurrent of unprocessed anger passed trauma on to me.

My dad’s unprocessed trauma from the Korean War as well as childhood events had nothing to do with me, but it affected me in ways I didn’t understand when I was a kid.

I thought so much was about me, but it wasn’t.

It was about the trauma.

Sometimes sharing our stories isn’t about writing and talking about it for the greater community and world, as I choose to do.

It simply can mean sharing a bit of our histories and hurts with loved ones and friends to help us get the connection we need as part of healing, and to help them feel closer to us — and closer to understanding who we are and maybe, sometimes, our behaviors, choices and boundaries.

This is part of the micro-healing that starts with our immediate families – including our chosen families – and can spiral outward to further community-based healing.

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Wishing you love, peace and sparks of joy wherever you are on your healing journey. It is my wish with all that I do and all that I write about for you to know that you are not alone.