I'm alone, no you're not

Dear Liam,

The band Joseph has been a force of inspiration for me over the past few years. With their folk sound, angelic voices, and candid lyrics, these three sisters from Oregon grapple with the most difficult aspects of life. One of their songs I relate to in particular is titled "Honest," and begins with the lyrics:

"I can't say a true thing
It's hard to be that honest
I know you're not asking
But I told you that I promised

There's always two thoughts
One after the other:
I'm alone
No you're not
I'm alone no you're not"

This is my life's work. This is why I write these letters to you. This is why I share my story and work with others to help them earnestly engage with their own stories. As the lyrics say, sometimes it is excruciating to tell the truth, to delve into the pain and be honest about what we've endured. It is so easy to feel utterly alone in our pain. Yet when we share our stories, we help people to not be alone in their pain, to be comforted. When they say "I'm alone," we say "no you're not." With this in mind, I want to share with you some of the darkness of my story. When you find yourself saying "I'm alone," may you always hear your dad's voice, full of compassion, love, and empathy, respond: "No, you're not."

When I was in the third grade, I used to shit my pants. I'm not talking "couldn't make it to the bathroom in time" amounts of poop, either. Years after being potty-trained, I would have full-on bowel evacuations after getting home from school. I had no clue why this was happening, and I desperately wanted it to stop, but I had zero control over it.

Much to my chagrin, my defecation patterns enraged my new stepdad. He was constantly berating me for one thing or another, but when it came to me uncontrollably pooping in my pants, his daily verbal lashings reached new volumes. On one occasion, he shook my 8-year-old body, demanding I tell him why I was doing this to him. "Why are you doing this to me?" he yelled louder and louder, like a trombone playing a crescendo up to fortissississimo. I mustered up the only lie I could think up: "they're not giving me enough time to go to the bathroom at school." The fib was enough to stop the torment, at least temporarily. My stepdad's rage began to subside, his voice beginning a decrescendo as he said: "Well, I'm going to talk to your teacher about this, then."

There could be no more formidable opponent for my angry stepdad than my third grade teacher, Mrs. Lewis. She was a short, black woman in her sixties, and oozed with moxie. She was intimidated by no one. She was a strict teacher who ruled over the kingdom of her classroom, and not only expected the best from her pupils, she demanded it. If she didn't believe you were trying your absolute best, she immediately expressed her disappointment in you, and she did not mince her words. Her belief in each of her students was intimidating at times, but the way she genuinely celebrated with us when we succeeded demonstrated just how much she was for us and for our growth. When one of us correctly read aloud a big word he had previously struggled to pronounce, showed improvement with her math skills, or was able to write a full paragraph in the dreaded cursive script, Mrs. Lewis would begin to smile wide and slowly open her top desk drawer to retrieve the highest of rewards: a Werther's Original candy. When I was fortunate enough to receive one, I would wait until the end of the day to eat it - I wanted it to sit on my desk all afternoon so that I could admire it, with its perfect gold wrapping, like a prepubescent Nobel prize. To this day, I smile and think of Mrs. Lewis any time I see a Werther's Original. 

One day as our class was being released for recess, Mrs. Lewis asked me to stay back so that she could speak with me privately. This could only mean one thing: I was in trouble, big time. As my peers darted for the playground, she came and sat next to me in one of those chairs 8 year olds don't realize are only made for children until they see an adult sit in one and notice the cattywampus proportions. "Your stepfather came to see me" she said. Immediately, my heart sank. I hung my head low, preparing myself for the lashing I knew was coming. I had lied and put the blame squarely on Mrs. Lewis. She in no way had hindered my access to the toilet, and she knew it. I could only imagine how angry she was about to get with me for making her endure the wrath of my stepfather. "He told me you said I wasn't giving you time to go to the bathroom during the day, leading to you soiling your drawers at home" she continued. Every muscle in my little body tensed as it anticipated her pulling out a ruler and beating me with it. Instead, my left arm felt the gentle touch of a warm hand. Mrs. Lewis had placed it there, trying to draw my attention to her eyes. Once I looked at her, she started to speak in the most relaxed, compassionate cadence I had ever heard from her lips. "It's okay. Any time you need to go to the bathroom, you just let me know and I promise I'll let you go right then." She began to smile as she concluded: "Now go play with your friends." That was it. No beating. No yelling. No anger at me for lying. I was so shocked by her response I remained frozen in my chair. She had to tell me again to go play, assuring me it was okay.

Mrs. Lewis was no dummy. She knew the shit in my britches had nothing to do with her classroom bathroom schedule. I don't know what her training in childhood trauma was, but I'm guessing her years as an educator gave her the instincts to know my poop had much more to do with the large man who came to the school to yell at her. She responded to me with love and empathy, and I will forever be thankful for her.

It's been 25 years since I was in Mrs. Lewis's class, and I'm still trying to understand what was happening in my body back then. One resource that's been helpful to me is the work of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, one of the world's preeminent experts on trauma. In his seminal work, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, he explains:

"When something distressing happens, we automatically signal our upset in our facial expressions and tone of voice, changes meant to beckon others to come to our assistance. However, if no one responds to our call for help, the threat increases, and the older limbic brain jumps in. The sympathetic nervous system takes over, mobilizing muscles, heart, and lungs for fight or flight. Our voice becomes faster and more strident and our heart starts pumping faster. If a dog is in the room, she will stir and growl, because she can smell the activation of our sweat glands.

Finally, if there's no way out, and there's nothing we can do to stave off the inevitable, we will activate the ultimate emergency system: the dorsal vagal complex (DVC). This system reaches down below the diaphragm to the stomach, kidneys, and intestines and drastically reduces metabolism throughout the body. Heart rate plunges (we feel our heart "drop"), we can't breathe, and our gut stops working or empties (literally "scaring the shit out of" us). This is the point at which we disengage, collapse, and freeze." (p81)

 For me, my home was a place of terror, and my body responded accordingly.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Lewis once again asked if she could speak with me as the rest of the class went to recess. This time she had a whole different message for me. "I've nominated you for the Gifted and Talented program at our school. You're a special boy." I couldn't believe her words. She thought I was special. She saw me. The pooping issues stopped shortly thereafter. At school, I now had a refuge. A place where I was seen, where my talents were appreciated and celebrated. I had hung my head low, engulfed in shame, and said "I'm alone." Mrs. Lewis looked me in the eye and said: "no, you're not."

Mrs. Lewis set an example for me, and I'd like to continue her legacy with you, Liam. When your behavior doesn't make sense to me, I promise not to rush to judgement and start yelling at you. I'm committed to looking for the deeper reason, to seeing you, to assuring you that you're never alone.

I love you, God loves you, and you've got what it takes.


Mrs. Lewis's third grade class, 1993-1994. I'm in the center of the second row.