19. The Parts

Yet day by day, and year by year, I let my so-called armor of alcohol, of suicidal thoughts, of anything that helped me escape, strip me of my feeling, of knowing myself, of hearing the guidance that’s always there.

“It sounds like you’re still grieving the loss of your grandfather,” Father David says after I finish telling him highlights and lowlights of the past 25 years."

Why are his seemingly comforting words, even the compassion in his eyes, so jarring that it feels like I’ve just hit a brick wall at 75 mph? 

It was the same feeling I had the day everything changed...

close up image of candle flame in a lotus flower candle holder on the right side of the image

I was 15 and with Lucy and her family on our usual summer vacation to Busch Gardens amusement park.

We were at our usual campground preparing our usual breakfast before we spent the day at the park.

There was a knock at the RV door. Lucy’s mom, Barb, opened it.

“Is Colleen Ryan with you?” the camp director asked.

“Yes, she is,” she said.

"She needs to call her mom at home,” the camp director said.

I’m not sure why Barb walked with me to the payphone at the general store on the campground, but she did.

We didn’t say anything to one another as we walked.

There was a knot in my stomach and I couldn't catch my breath.

In all of the years that we’d gone on this exact summer vacation, Mom never called.

I dialed Mom and she answered.

“Mom?” That’s all I said.

“Colleen, Pop-Pop died in his sleep last night.”

My entire body went numb.

I fell to the ground with the phone, gasping for air between sobs, drowning.  

Barb picked up the phone and finished the conversation with Mom.

She reached under my arms and helped me up.

I collapsed onto her chest, unable to stand on my own.

After I managed a few deep breaths, she held onto me as we stumbled back to the RV.

Barb opened the door to the RV and said to Lucy’s dad,

“We need to pack up and go home.”

As soon as she said it, I remembered something like it was just seconds ago:

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Before I left Pop-Pop, after the conversation in the hallway, he said something to me that I’d forgotten until that moment. 

“Whatever happens, you have a great time with Lucy at the park,” Pop-Pop said. 

“Okay, Pop-Pop,” I said, like duh what else would I do? 

Sitting in the RV, folded over myself on the couch, staring into my snotty hands, it became very clear to me that Pop-Pop knew it was the last conversation that we were going to have.

He knew he was dying. I was comforted by that revelation.

“No.” I interrupted their frantic preparation-talk about the immediate trip back home. “We’re staying. Let’s go to the park.” 

And it took some convincing that I was okay with that decision, but it’s exactly what we did.

I felt more alive that day because Pop-Pop wasn’t.

I just had no idea it would be decades before I’d feel that alive again.

close up image of two candle flames in lotus flower candle holders

When I got home from the campground, after we buried Pop-Pop, I turned to alcohol more often than before.

I did it to avoid the feeling of missing him, to avoid accepting that he was gone. Alcohol was perfect for that.

It dulled my senses, making each moment feel like the one before.

Then, it all felt like the same worthless nothing.

I’d put my own spirit in a box. 

Now, Father David is leaning toward me, empathy emitting from every pore. 

I force a deep breath, and let my head fall to the back of my chair.

Could he be right? Have I been stuck in this cycle for 25 years to avoid grieving the loss of Pop-Pop? 

“It’s understandable. Sometimes it’s too painful to face when we lose a shepherd,” Father David says. “It happened to me when I lost my father. It took me decades to truly accept it and it drastically changed my life when I did.”

“After Pop-Pop died, I couldn’t accept it. I was so angry. I roamed farther and farther away from God.”

“He’s always right here,” Father David says, the air around us sparkling white, diamond-light, growing brighter. “You choose to attend to Him, to understand and accept your spiritual gifts in this life, or you don’t.”

He pushes his chair back and stands.

“It’s easy to lock yourself in a box, to avoid the work, but God wants you to put your faith in Him so that you can be free of the pain that burdens you and live a full life in doing His work.”

“In doing His work? What does He want me to do?” I ask Father David. 

“You’ll know,” he says. “You just have to listen.” He walks to his desk, shifting through a stack of papers.

I watch Father David move around in the glitter I know to revel in, and I know I should be calm, but thinking about that day at the RV park pulled me right back to being 15 years old, drunk, zombie-eyed and empty, suicidal because I didn’t want to live without Pop-Pop, and I didn’t want to have to feel the grief if I kept on living.

I catch myself in the spiral of thinking and do everything Lauren taught me. 

I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths.

I look inside, expecting to find the emptiness of my 15-year-old self, but instead I see my parts still gathered, standing in a circle, holding hands, eyes closed, and heads bowed in prayer.

A divine white light moves from a point at the floor between them and out of the tree house into the sky like a massive lighthouse to the heavens. 

“The spiritual life is hard work. It is never done,” Father David says, escorting me to the door. “You have to keep your lamp filled with oil so He can light the way.” He hands me a pamphlet. “Focus on Psalm 51,” he says. 

“Thank you, Father,” I say as I leave the church.

close up of lit candle in lotus flower candle holder agains a dark background

Now, imagine a knight running in full armor.

This is how I feel as I walk to my car.

Like, one by one, the rivets holding the steel shell together buckle and ping off in every direction, leaving me light, free, weightless, almost flying in the diamond light that blankets me.

Yet day by day, and year by year, I let my so-called armor of alcohol, of my secret suicidal thoughts, of anything that helped me avoid real life, strip me of feeling, of knowing myself, of hearing the guidance that’s always there.

close up image of lotus flower candle holder with lit tea light candle on a dark background

In my 20’s I’d joke about the ‘devil in Irish whiskey.’

It was a part of my language that should have given me pause, but my drinking habits were endorsed by the Navy, and by the movies and shiny ads that sold intoxication as an elegant ritual, all of which contributed to my justifications for making heavy alcohol consumption a normal part of my day.

And so my armor was the devil, and it led me someplace I wouldn’t have been without it. 

In the end, it was my drinking that led to the rape.

And it was my depression that swirled around on either side of it, the darkness motivating me to anesthetize with the drink, and the drink pulling me further into the darkness.  

But what if I’d grown up in a world that recognizes the freedom and the healing that comes with looking inside?

What if that kind of thing were not only accepted but praised?

What if I’d learned from science, not billboards, what alcohol is?

What if I’d known how much control I had over my experience?

What if I’d grown up knowing my wise, confident voice inside?

What if I’d grown up with someone like Lauren?

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It’s time for my weekly session with Lauren.

This is my weekly routine: I pick up a coffee on my way to her office, park in my usual spot, excited like it’s Christmas morning and I’m four years old imagining the wonder ahead.

She greets me in the waiting room and walks me to her office.

I kick off my shoes and cozy up with my favorite blanket on my favorite couch, pulling out my journal to tell Lauren what I uncovered the past week in connecting to my parts. 

“Ornery Teen,” I say. “She was active a lot this week. Like she was trying to tell me something. Like she was frustrated. I had a hard time connecting with her, but when I did, she told me she was ready to heal. That she was ready to make peace. So, I asked her what she needed me to do.” 

“What did she say?” Lauren asks.

“She wants me to… I started the paperwork to report the rape to the Navy.” 

Everything feels more real when I tell Lauren. 

More freedom fills my lungs.

“You look relieved,” Lauren says through a smile. 

“Relieved? I’m full-on excited. I am free for the first time in my life.

The weird thing is that I thought I’d be mad at them, but I don’t care about them at all.

I care about me.

I care about my peace with it.

I didn’t even know this kind of peace was possible.

I care about the other people out there who’ve gone through the same thing.

Maybe they’re stuck in their own cycle.

Maybe they were raped, but they don’t see it that way. They need to see it so they can heal."

close up of lotus candle holder with lit candle on black screen

I sit back on the couch, pulling my legs up and into one another, crossing them in my lap. 

“Let me tell you what’s happening inside. My parts are in a prayer circle. They’ve been there for days. There’s a light moving through the tree house and my parts and straight up to the sky,” I say. “Can you lead me through some guided parts work today? I want to learn more about the light.”

“Sure,” Lauren says in that calm voice that she uses to lead me into that place where I connect. “Are you comfortable?”


“Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out, focusing on the movement of air into your nose and out of your mouth.”

I hear Lauren talking, but her words get farther and farther away until I can only hear her tone blanketing me.

Then, I hear the bamboo out to the east and the waves in front of me.

The smell of fresh bread fills me.

Fresh fruits and vegetables cover the dining room table.

I see them there, my parts, they’re sitting now, cross-legged in a circle all together, holding hands.

I move toward them, and they open a space for me to walk to the center.

Everyone is smiling.

I see the light coming from below my feet, surrounding us, filling all of the space that we’re not.

It’s not just a light, it’s alive like diamonds in the sun.

Tingling starts in my arms and moves into my legs until I’m weightless, almost beingless.

More alive than alive all at the same time.

Nothing else exists in the entire world in this moment, suspended in time, just us and the glitter.

The light is all the armor that we will ever need.