I’ve spent a lot of time in my house this past year. You probably have spent a lot of time in yours, too.
Maybe you have experienced some of what I have felt: cloistered, uncomfortable and, at times, on edge. My house — where I was now working, cooking, resting, cleaning, homeschooling and living every minute of my day — was a box that kept closing in on me.
I knew that staying in was absolutely the right thing to do — for me, my family and our community. But as a survivor of childhood trauma, this “stuckness” reactivated the messages I’d internalized growing up: A house isn’t necessarily safe, comfortable or relaxing. A house isn’t always a home.
For me, the peaks and valleys of the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult and sometimes dark. The discomfort of being so extremely isolated meant I could not turn off my stress responses. It restimulated my childhood, which was defined by feelings of loneliness, tension, emotional disconnect and unexpected chaos.
These very real memories triggered hypervigilance about the threats I knew could exist inside a house, within a family. During the past 15 months, I’ve found little room for self-acceptance, let alone self-care.
I gave everything I could to my daughters and to my work, which was more essential than ever before. I did my absolute best to show up for friends, colleagues and extended family. But I didn’t have much emotional energy left for myself.
As is the case for many trauma survivors, situations that remind us of former experiences can reactivate a trauma response. For me, being stuck in my house was reliving an old, but familiar nightmare. Finding myself waiting for something — anything — to change was a huge trigger. Waiting for the pandemic to ease, friends to reach out or a bit of lightness to find me was like the indelible trauma of waiting for the emptiness and pain of my childhood to end.
At some point early in 2021, I realized that my emotional “passivity” (a learned trauma response) was amplifying the uncertainty I was already feeling. Dissatisfied with this course of inaction, I realized that I could be, or rather I had to be, the agent of my own well-being.
It dawned on me that although I — and too many others — had to wait as children, we don’t necessarily have to wait as adults. I couldn’t wait for the pandemic to lift in order to feel better. I couldn’t wait for someone else to heal my aching heart. Simply put, I just couldn’t wait any longer.
As essayist Brianna Wiest wrote: “Healing is our responsibility because if it isn’t, an unfair circumstance becomes an unlived life. Healing is our responsibility because if we want our lives to be different, sitting and waiting for someone else to make them so will not actually change them. It will only make us dependent and bitter. Healing is our responsibility because we have the power to heal ourselves, even if we have previously been led to believe we don’t.”
Healing is a proactive effort. It takes time, focus and intentional action. Healing is active. And for me, it was intimately connected to the space where I lived.
For the first time in my life, I realized that I needed to create a sanctuary. At a very deep and personal level, I needed to create a safe and calming place, and it needed to be of my own making. This house, which in recent years has watched my family shape-shift, needed to change to help me heal. I needed to transform my house into my very first home.
I shared this desire with a handful of people in my network. And with a bit of luck and good fortune, I was connected to two amazingly strong, creative and loving women who had the know-how to support my journey of transformation. They helped me evolve my backyard into a place of beauty and rejuvenation. And they held my hand while we did it.
In a matter of weeks, I was in the throes of a giant garden overhaul, converting my neglected yard into a retreat. As the project began, piles of overgrown, shaggy plants were hauled out. The shadow of untended old growth was pulled back. The detritus was literally carried away.
I picked out beautiful stone to become the foundation for my new space. Through the hard work of the talented landscaping crew, we created the bedrock for my refuge. My “garden angels” are now filling the space with soft, beautiful, vibrant plants. Together, we are building a place of comfort, of peace and of serenity. A place to saturate with joy.
When this work began, I was overwhelmed by the choices that needed to be made, as well as the enormity of the expense. I realize that having a home, and the resources to update it, is a tremendous privilege. On numerous occasions, I asked myself if this work was overindulgent, and if it would be better to put it off.
But I thought deeply about how I hoped my daughters would move through the world, and what I wanted to teach them. I hoped they would learn to assume personal agency and take ownership for their own self-worth. I thought about how I had waited almost 48 years to create a place for myself and wondered how much longer I would wait if I didn’t do it now.
Just like that, this project became more than a superficial renovation. It became a profound source of healing. It became a way to model for my girls that we each must take responsibility for our well-being. And, most importantly, it was a way to nurture my own growth by creating a space I needed to thrive.
Throughout this past month, I’ve been reminded that healing is deeply personal, powerful and active. As Weist says, “When we heal, we step into the people we have always wanted to be. We are not only able to metabolize the pain, we are able to affect real change in our lives, in our families and in our communities. We are able to pursue our dreams more freely.”
In my refreshed garden, I finally feel a sense of self that I have waited my whole life to feel. It’s truly a remarkable thing. So, whether it is reclaiming a physical space, nurturing a relationship or establishing a ritual, I encourage you to create a sanctuary for yourself, especially during this time of extended trauma and recovery.
Clear out, rebuild, and sprinkle in some goodness. Healing can happen, and it doesn’t have to wait.
— Alana Walczak is CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), a leader in developing programs and services that effectively treat child abuse and promote healing, as well as programs that help prevent abuse through family strengthening and support. Click here for more information, or call 805.965.2376. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.