The Shape of Our Dignity: Where Should We Begin?

Posted inCreative Voices

Snap. A crisp snap. Anger boils over; I’m taken to a place where I feel like I relive a nightmare.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of my Oldsmobile, the one with the broken door that didn’t shut, tied shut, with the shoelaces. Crawling across the passenger seat to sit behind the wheel. Stumped. Disgusted. Shock. My body sitting there, my mind in an outward space looking down; out-of-body experience. What the fuck…just…

Snap. Back to the anger moment. In the moment that I am in, at the given time when my body feels like…


I’m overstimulated. Annoyed. Anxious. I can’t breathe. My chest tight, my heart beating so hard, painfully, against walls of bruised rib… cages. Bruised from years… that I’ve been attempting to overcome and to heal from. Trauma sitting right underneath, in the cartilage, where it’s hard to move. Where it’s stiff. Where it expands and contracts. It hurts; my cage rattled, continuously, rattled by the haunted, distant, un…memories. The missing pieces. The terrible secrets. The unspoken truths. The space to which no one seems to speak or wants to speak.

The moment comes back to me, and I’m back where I belong, in a moment I’ve lost like a blackout.

Important: The person standing in front of me I’m interacting with isn’t at fault for the moment I just went through.

I apologize.

I’m deemed someone who does not listen.

But my mind floats; stares often. Dealing with the space of anxiety, trauma, and triggers.

It’s an overwhelming feeling to navigate things that I can’t quite pin into my head like a post-it on a corkboard. I’m dealing with emotions, the moments, and the things that have just opened because; the door. The door is opened, finally, to a moment where I can feel safe to ask the questions. Things happened in my youth that I don’t know about, in my young, young age of forgotten memories. Maybe they’re trapped, hidden behind the wall of safety. Fake safety; that wall that hangs heavy, that I want to scratch at, rip with excruciating numbness, crumble down, brick by brick. Tear away and expose what is on the other side. I fear that real healing cannot occur if I don’t.

I begin to ask questions of the people who were there, not necessarily the people who did it. They were there as witness to the majority of it; not all of it, but some of it. Who, at their very core, wanted nothing but our safety.

Asking the questions. What happened?

It was provoked; provoked by a simple Saturday afternoon game when cousins get together to reconnect. A second attempt at connecting. The reunion of cousins who…

I remember everything that was happy. All the things that I remember as fun, things that I remember as a family, that…

They’re so memorable because they were so far and few between.

Because…the trauma. Neglect? The fighting. Using us as pawns for one another’s gains. At one point, my parents did love each other. They had to have, right? Could they have? Was it forced? What did they lose? Where did they go wrong?

I do know one thing: it’s not my fault. Thankfully, I’ve carried that, that it is not my fault. How does one child of a family so large, blended…

We take on a lot. Children take on a lot. We carry that burden with us, more often than not.

At almost 43, I understand that it was not my fault. I was even too young to know what was going on. So, maybe my parents didn’t belong together. But could you imagine your life, Sean, without having gone through… without having them?

I can’t think about it. My existence wouldn’t be. Therefore, it’s OK, I guess?

Now, we take the time to learn about what happened, about the things that feel like it is your business to know. A good portion of it is not my business to know, and do I want to know it? I’m not sure.

Someone’s telling the truth; there are always three parts to the story: his, hers, truth.

I’m learning the definition of forgiveness and what it means to forgive. Maybe for myself, I give myself permission to move forward in life. Forgive my trespassers. Do I have to do that physically, or can that be an internal thing where I know that what happened is not between me and my parents, that it was them?

I forgive them? I’m structuring forgiveness into a tool of healing for myself. I can’t carry the guilt and shame any longer; it’s not mine to carry. I should not be ashamed of the things that happened to me. That’s not my business.

What is this feeling? I’m not sure.

The instigation of it started as a game: Where Should We Begin?*

My turn, the cards staring blazingly at me. The very secluded and screaming theme my family wanted to know: What is something you’ve wanted to say or ask out loud? In tears and through courage, I found the confidence to ask finally…

What happened?

I learned a lot that day. A lot that I’m processing. A lot that I’m trying to understand. A lot that is not mine to tell in a story so broadly but mine to hold onto, thinking, OK, there’s some reason. Some reasons that neither one of my parents could understand how life worked. What worked? Is working?

Neither one of them ever reached complete growth and had babies. It’s a lot to hold onto, and I’m not sure where this knowledge that I have now fits into the story that I had in my head—the knowledge of so many things.

I know it’s vague, but it’s not mine to tell.

I hold onto it and use it as a tool to work with, figure it out, understand where I’m supposed to go from here, and still hold anger and pain. Those are the things that project me forward. How do I recover from that? Stop using them? What happens then?

I’m afraid to understand what happens on the other side of that wall. Here I am, seemingly ready to take it on. Ready to explore and understand. Ready to forgive differently? To learn more about them. To learn their stories and why. To understand where, at some point, they forgive, if they ever will. Do I need to hear their apologies? Am I even owed that? That’s the indirect definition of where I’m at.

What is forgiveness?

Now, does it help me move forward in this healing process? I’ll continue to play the cards and circle back to my doors of opportunity.

But…. Where should we begin?

*I’m grateful that my cousin found this wonderful tool….game…that helped us open up in ways we haven’t be able to before. Where Should We Begin? Is a transformative and powerfully wonderful game from Ester Perel, that invokes emotion. I highly recommend it, as conversation and real human connection can be found among the prompts. It became the door of opportunity for me.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.

Banner image: Rage and Cage. Photomontage by Sean.