Integration at the Movies

The journey of restoration is full of new and unexpected twists. We might be in a season of relative peace, maybe even coming to believe that the hard work is behind us, when suddenly a new memory erupts in our minds and we must recommit ourselves to the ever-ongoing process of integration and restoration. Here, Laura Wade Shirley, a Core Facilitator with The Allender Center, writes about one such moment in her own journey, a moment that started with a trip to the movies.

Recently I found myself sitting in a movie theater with my three boys. They had seen the preview for this movie months prior and had begged to go see it. So, during its opening week, there we were, seated and ready to watch Peter Rabbit. In the first few minutes of the film, I noticed a sinking feeling somewhere inside of myself, and I murmured to myself, “Oh, this might not be good.”

I uttered these words under my breath because my story holds childhood trauma connected to the story of Peter Rabbit. These were not the stories I was thinking about as I headed to the theater with my boys that day. I was just a mom taking her kids to the movies and sharing a childhood story that I had enjoyed at their age. Unbeknownst to me, God was extending a deeper invitation. Somewhere in the midst of those 95 cinematic minutes, in the darkness of a room that smelled like buttered popcorn, two memories I had previously held separately began to come together. The details of those memories are too personal to share in this context, but here I was sitting in a movie yet being prompted to link that which had previously been held apart. I believe holding these memories apart was a kindness and only when I was ready for the merging of these memories did God brought the invitation.

In the work of healing and recovery, we know that when we honor memory more memory will come. This is what happened for me as I sat in that loud, dark, kid-filled movie theater. God allowed memories that had been kept from each other to come together and to give me a deeper, clearer, more painfully connected picture of my childhood abuse. Daniel Siegel, the father of interpersonal neurobiology, says that the integration of our brain and memories leads to new linkages stemming from the articulation of differentiation. Saying that two memories came to me and helped me have a more integrated picture of my trauma history sounds a bit too clean and put-together: the honest reality was that this realization tore me open and catapulted me into deeper places of pain and anger that had long gone untouched.

Left to themselves, children will most commonly interpret any pain, problems, or trauma they experience as somehow being their fault. This is the simplest solution for the concrete operations of a childhood brain. There are very few options for a child brain to interpret a hard thing that has happened to them or to someone they care about. This is why so many kids believe they are responsible for the pain in their lives and families. A child doesn’t have the reasoning capability to differentiate themselves from what is happening. So the work of healing and recovery is to help the child, or the adult with that child living within them, to make a different sort of sense of what has happened: to bring an adult brain to the aid or even rescue of the child brain held captive by guilt and shame.

As my adult brain processed the connections between my two childhood memories, the reality of what I then faced made space for a lot more hopelessness and rage to open up within me. The pain was sharp, and the rage was more jagged than I had known before. Truly, it felt as if a wound had just opened up, and its oozing contents seemed rancid. However, in the days that have followed, as I have tended to what I now see God was opening up in me, I began to experience the sweetness of increased freedom and access to more of who I am.

Not coincidentally, what I’ve described above was taking place during the season of Easter. As my own proverbial stones were being rolled away, Easter weekend now held a more deeply felt and rooted sense of truth: It was a holy experience for me. I was now even more intimately aware of the suffering in this world, both in others and in myself. I became increasingly aware of the truth that Jesus has known more suffering than I will ever know or experience, and that life comes more freely and fully when I am connected to the suffering and death, the loss and disorientation, the resurrection and hope of Easter.

My viewing of Peter Rabbit found me in the chasm of Holy Saturday. I was feeling all of the emotions that darkness brings: pain, hopelessness, anger, rage, and the like. But I’m writing this blog post to testify to the reality that death never wins. DEATH NEVER WINS! On Easter Sunday my family and I worshipped alongside a 30-person gospel choir. Man, did they know how to worship! One of the choruses they sang offered the following promise: “The resurrected King is resurrecting me.” Yes, God was resurrecting me from that deep chasm of disconnection between my memories: resurrecting the parts of me that had fallen to their dissociative death there. Resurrection and ascension now held the promise of more freedom, more understanding, and more healing.

Redemption often starts with an unexpected, if not unwanted, invitation. The work of integration is often painful and full of the unknown. But as we allow ourselves to move and to be moved into all areas of our past, present, and future, we can accept the invitation to know more love, more linkage and connection to ourselves, to God, and to life.