“Sunflower Walls” by Ashley R. Carbaugh
I can be found in my room with the worn pages of one of my favorite books or in my secret spot, not that anyone would look for me anyhow. I read a lot, all kinds of books, inside books is a place I could be someone else, somewhere else, and anywhere else except here. I wanted to be anyone else but me, because I feel so different. My name is Joan and I am what everyone calls quiet, maybe shy or backwards, sometimes the kids at my old school and my biological mom called me weird. Sometimes inside my chest I can’t breathe, almost like an elephant is sitting on me and that’s when the shakes and dizziness happens like leaves shaking in a bad storm. I feel like I am alone most of the time, things are scary and nothing in the world could help me feel safe. A couple weeks ago, I moved to a new home with my new family and I have my own room, with a door, and I feel safer than ever before. I never had a door before moving here and the walls of my room are pink. Pink is my favorite color; it has different shades: bright pinks and soft pinks, pink like cotton candy or like strawberries in the summertime. I am not sure if my new family knew that pink was my favorite color or it just happened, it doesn’t matter because it made me smile inside. I go to a new school now and it is nice but I don’t have any friends. I hope this changes, I hope to have a real friend.
I am nine years old and in my old home. I didn’t have a room; I slept on the floor in the living room. My mom and I and some guy that she liked lived there. It wasn’t really our home, but his home, and I didn’t like it here, not one bit! I don’t remember much, but when I do remember I get scared and can’t breathe and that elephant sits right back down crushing my insides.
My new family, the Crims, are nice and I kind of like it here. Well, I like it a lot more than my old home. When the Crims adopted me, I overheard the social worker say that I am different, and sometimes hard to deal with, that I has PTSD. I still don’t know what that is. Maybe it is like when my biological mom called me weird and every day I hope it is something that will go away. I didn’t feel like I had a cold or a sore throat so I’m not sure why I have to see a doctor every week but they make me go anyhow.
Dr. Bink is nice but not the kind of doctor that checks if you have a cold. She asks me questions every week about my real family, the stuff when I remember too much I can’t breathe, and she asks questions about my scary dreams. Sometimes, we draw together and she asks to keep my “art,” that is what she calls it. My art. Like it is something that belongs to me. Sometimes I draw my old house and Dr. Bink asks me about every part of what I draw. I like that she wants to keep them, I never told her my real mom threw my drawings away, told me they were bad and I was bad too, so I let Dr. Bink keep my “art.” It makes me happy inside that she likes my drawings, but I don’t tell her that either. I don’t trust her yet, I don’t trust anyone.
She wants me to talk about my happy feelings and my sad feelings, most of the time I just sit and let her talk. What does she want me to say? Feelings, Dr. Bink asks me to share mine when I see her but I don’t know what she means. How do I share feelings?
There is this place I found behind the Crims’ house the first week I moved in with them, my secret place. On my first day with the Crims, I was so tired, and done with meeting all the new people, being hugged, I do not like hugs and I do not like being touched but this was a new home and I liked my pink room, so I ran and explored the woods. I have only been with the Crims for two months now since they said I could play in the woods behind their house and explore. On the first day of my new school, I ran to the woods crying and I don’t like to cry, I don’t let anyone see me cry anymore. Crying is for little girls and I am not one, haven’t been for a long time. Dr. Bink says it is ok for me to cry and I want to but I just can’t. My momma use to yell loud when I would cry. She would say, “Don’t you cry or I will give you something to cry about.” Sometimes I would cry and get in trouble, but most times I just don’t cry cause I make people happy at me if I don’t cry. I just smush those tears and keep them deep inside, my secret is that yeah, I do cry sometimes, but only by myself and I could never talk about that.
The first time I went to the woods, there were flowers so high I couldn’t see the top because I is so small. I saw them from very far away and didn’t know what I was looking at, when I walked closer I saw they were beautiful sunflowers. So yellow and orange, as bright as the sun, taller than I have ever seen and so beautiful that I just stood and looked at how high and how many of them there were. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, then it happened: the magic. Every day, when I came home from school, I would tell the Crims I was going on an adventure in the woods and then I would run as fast as I could to the sunflower fields to feel safe. The sunflowers are my friends, the only friends I have. The sunflowers have this special power to give me a world of colors safe from the nightmares, safe from everything. This is the magic part, all of my shakes, my dizzy stuff it all disappears within the sunflower walls and I can breathe. I feel safe and the sunflowers protect me, they hide me from the outside and they hide me from my past and the bad nightmares.
One day when in the sunflowers, I saw a special tree with soft feather-like arms. Arms that wrapped around a small house hidden under its shade. The house, I called it my fort, looked like a special place, kind of like someone else put love in there and left it for me to find. I took some of my favorite things there, I would read and draw pictures of the sunflowers on the newspapers that I would take from the house to have paper to draw on. Each sunflower had their own shapes, their own colors and each were magic. They woke up and talked to me when I was inside their walls. They told me stories of another little girl, a little girl who was just like me and she stayed at the fort when she got scared. There were others like me, I wondered but didn’t ask.
Something in the fort, the good I felt there, I close my eyes and think what she would be like if she was my friend. Was she scared like me in the dark, did she have any friends, what did she look like, would she like me? I drew her pictures and hung them on the wall, hoping somehow she would see the pretty stuff she helped me see, instead of the bad things. I love to color on the old newspapers, blues and pinks, greens and oranges, I wonder if good had a color, what would it be? I will have to ask Dr. Bink someday when I am brave enough, what color is good, does love have a color? Does hate have a color? What color is inside me?
I went to my special hiding place when my new home became a scary place or when my old home came in my mind and I couldn’t get the scary out of my head. Sometimes my thoughts come and they stay in me, I can be anywhere and the thoughts, the scary thoughts that I try to push away come in my head like a bad dream but I am awake, not sleeping. They are so scary and sometimes I shake and I don’t know how to make them stop. Dr. Bink tells me to hold this special rock, to keep it in my pocket and when the scary thoughts come in my head I should hold it in my hand. She tells me that it will keep me here instead of the scary places I see when I shake and will help me breathe better too. She tells me she was given this special rock a long time ago from someone who was special to her and the rock made her feel safe when she got scared. I keep this rock safe in my pocket now, every day, and when I get scared sometimes it helps and other times I just hold it so tight but the scary still comes and I make believe that I am somewhere else, anywhere else. One of my favorite places to calm me is to make believe I am inside my sunflower walls and the other little girl is there too. Will the sunflowers protect me from the dark inside me? Will they make all the bad thoughts go away?
Standing guard, like they were protecting something, the sunflowers woke up each time I go through the “door.” They disguised the field, like a shield from the outside world and only I could see the good that they really were. Instead of colors filled with golds and greens with butterflies and sunlight shining, everyone else saw the field as an overgrown, dark and scary place that no one dared to enter. I only saw the pretty bright colors, this was my favorite place in the world and once it was another little girl’s too. The sunflowers told me, when I am inside the walls they talk about the little girl. She came there for safety too. They tell me about how strong she was, day after day. She had bad dreams like me, she had many things like me, her mom was mean to her and her home wasn’t safe and this was once her secret spot to escape to. I wonder who she is, would I ever meet her. I wonder if she is safe now, and if she still thinks of the sunflowers?
In my magical field, my special rock, well it must like it here too cause it works better. I hold onto Dr. Bink’s rock and I don’t feel scared not one bit and I can breathe. The sunflowers protected me from scary stuff too, it’s like I’m in a happier world. My sunflower fort, it’s the best there and it’s all mine and the other little girl’s. I sometimes make believe she is here and playing with me. The sunflowers tell me stories about this brave little girl named Hope, how she was so strong, so nice, and so loving. She loved laying in the walls of the sunflowers in the grass and watching the dragonflies and butterflies until she fell asleep. When the sunflowers tell me this, I wonder would I be ok to sleep here too. I wonder if I can fall asleep and never have the scary dreams waking me up like they do in my new home. At my new home, I have a great room, pink in color and I feel ok there, but the nightmares are there every night and I don’t sleep very well in my new bed. I wake up so scared, I don’t know where I am and I am breathing so hard that the only thing that helps is wrapping up my new blanket Mrs. Crims gave to me till the sun comes up and my bad dreams go away.
When I first laid down in the field it felt like someone that I needed a long time ago was holding me tight. Something I don’t like but something that I kind of want. I want someone to hold me, I need someone to love me but these are just thoughts that I keep inside. The field was just what I needed and I wasn’t scared of it, of the love I felt when I was there. After the sunflowers told me more stories of Hope, I decide to try and close my eyes. I wake up to a tickle on my nose to see a beautiful green and purple dragonfly floating around me. When I look around, the sun is slowly going away for the night and I know I better get home. On my way home that night, right outside the sunflower walls another magical thing happened, one firefly lit up my way. Guiding me safely home, I found peace in watching it float around me and felt that this firefly knew the way.
Mrs. Crim told me that I was allowed to go into the woods but that the dark field was as far as I was allowed to go. After I secretly visited the sunflower fields, I began asking her questions about the field like what the field looked like and she said “There were twisted oak trees with scary moss covering their limbs with thorn bushes everywhere, the old trees made a wall and, Joan, do not go past those trees, you don’t know what is in there.” But I did know what was in there and I felt so confused, we must not have been talking about the same field I had thought. Each night I asked more and more questions about the field that I knew, and every question was answered with the complete opposite. This “field,” only I could see its magic. This sunflower field with walls so high, it was my spot in this world that was only mine, my safe spot.
Inside the walls, I began to explore different areas each day. Somedays when I ran in after school, I would be crying and just want to be quiet and listen to the wind blowing through the leaves and look at the clouds dance across the sky. One day, school was so horrible. I was cornered by a group of kids from my school and I felt my shakes and dizzy stuff starting. When I shake I try not to let anyone see me but sometimes people see it. I always got picked on when someone saw me shake.
“What is wrong with you weirdo?”
“Oh are you scared, Joan?”
Some of the teasing was at school, other times it was at home. I wanted to hide as the kids wanted to pick on me and make me cry. I ran to my field as soon as I got home, it is the only place that the shakes seem to go away. When I can’t get to the sunflowers, I close my eyes and believe they are all around me keeping me safe. When the kids at school pick on me, it hurts but I don’t let them see me cry. I dream of getting inside the walls, and try to think of who the other little girl could have been and if she would hold my hand on days like this, and tell me everything is ok. When I finally got home from school on that day, I ran till my tears soaked my shirt and I was so tired I didn’t even know that I ran farther than ever before inside the walls. A new kind of tree, I saw a little tree like it around my fort but nothing as beautiful as this one. The branches were long and reached to the ground, I feel the leaves could wrap around me forever. I lay in the grass below the feather-like leaves and stare at them. The wind makes them move slow and calm like a dance to pretty music. I want to be just like this tree, big and strong instead of small and weak. I don’t want to break, I don’t want to be small and I don’t want people to be mean to me. The sunflowers tell me that Hope was small but strong and that this tree was her favorite place to be, they tell me how this tree bends with the wind and how it survives the strongest storms. My sunflowers called the tree a Willow, I have never heard a more beautiful name for a tree.
The Crims get me a gift after my teacher sent home a good report that I was a good student and adjusting well. I overhear them say they have to talk to her about my PTSD and it may be difficult for me. I don’t want my teacher to know I’m different and I don’t want her to treat me different. I hope they don’t tell my teacher about my old home or about my scary dreams. I don’t care right now that I got a gift, all mine, I got a box of colors and my own drawing book with lots of empty pages for me to fill. I don’t know what to say, I’m so happy but I can’t hug the Crims. I can’t touch them yet, but give them a smile and say thank you and I run to my room. I sit and look hard at the white pages, the colors in my hand, and I just look at the pages all blank all waiting for me to fill. The first thing I know I want to draw: my Willow (and Hope’s) with sunflowers everywhere and I wanted to give it to Dr. Bink. I think I am starting to think of her as safe, like when I am behind my sunflower walls. So I draw and draw and the colors fill the page. The tree grows as I draw the branches, bigger and stronger, the more colors I use, the better my inside feels. Green fills the page, leaves blowing in the wind, I can see them dancing in my mind with the sunflowers all around. The soft blue skies above hold the Willow into the ground, tall and strong. I draw each sunflower, each one different, some taller, some have faces soft and true, some have faces gentle and warm. The sunshine glows onto each pedal, glowing with orange, yellow and red. I want to put these pictures in my head and make all the others, the bad pictures go away. I wonder what Dr. Bink will think of my sunflowers and I wonder if I tell her of their magic will she believe me?
Hope. I think of her during school, before bed, when I wake up and walking to the sunflowers. I can hear her laughing and I wish she was here to hold my hand. I sit under the Willow one day and it begins to rain, the drops feel so nice and I just sit and play in the dirt. As I play with a stick in the dry dirt, it becomes mud. The brownest, wettest, mushy feeling between my fingers I would get in trouble for playing like boys do. My real mother would say that girls don’t do that. I don’t want to be no girl if it means to grow up like her. I know my clothes are a mess now and I hope Mrs. Crim doesn’t get too mad, I never done this before and I feel like a real little kid. The sunflowers laugh at me, they tell me Hope loved making mud pies during the summer rain when the clouds got gray she didn’t get sad like some people do. The rain drops ran down her face and her love helped the sunflowers grow to be even more beautiful. I know when Hope left, her life was like mine was before the Crims, I wish I knew her now I wish she could see me and we could play in the mud together.
It’s Thursday. Dr. Bink day and I do like her but sometimes I am scared of what we talk about. She asks me to draw what I see and what home was like before I lived with the Crims. I wonder why she asks me to do this and all I want to do is hide under the blanket that is on the other chair. I look around and everything gets fuzzy, not sure why but this happens to me sometimes. I look in Dr. Bink’s eyes and everything else is fuzzy, it scares me and I want to tell her what is happening but I do not want her to not like me. I can hear her talking to me but I get so confused. She says stuff to me like, Joan you are safe now, Joan you are good girl, but I am just very confused when things get fuzzy around me. I don’t want her to think I’m weird like what my mom called me and the other kids at school call me. She is very nice and I think she is a good person. I want to tell her everything and something inside me feels like I know her. Dr. Bink has me play in sand some days and she has me draw more stuff for her and she gives me Playdoh to play with while we talk. Talking to Dr. Bink makes me think that maybe I’m not alone and that there are other girls like me and Hope.
The one day I got very scared when talking to Dr. Bink everything went fuzzy. I couldn’t talk. I tried but nothing was clear, no words could come out and I felt my eyes change. Dr. Bink handed me a paper and said to draw what I was seeing. I drew the scary places, my old home, the guy my mom liked and things that happened with my real mom on the paper stuff that I never told anyone. All the scary stuff came out in my drawing, the stuff that usually stays in my head and in my bad nightmares. Dr. Bink didn’t ask any questions she just watched as I drew and then asked if she could hug me. I don’t like people to touch me, haven’t for a long time, but I shake my head yes. She held me and it felt like when I was in the sunflowers, something felt so familiar about her hug. My scary shakes and bad thoughts went away just like when I was in the sunflowers and I could breathe as she just held me tight but gently.
Dr. Bink’s hug felt like it lasted for hours, but I finally pulled away remembering I brought her the picture I drew for her. Folded up and hidden in my pocket, safe with my rock, the sunflowers that I drew stayed a secret. I held in my hand for a while wondering if she would like the drawing or if I should tell her the truth about the sunflowers. But I drew this picture for her and after she was so nice to me during my scary moments, I decided I was going to give it to her. I wondered what color love was and thought about colors a lot and if every color meant a different feeling. When Dr. Bink opened up my drawing at first I thought she was mad or sad because she started to cry. She sat for a very long time just looking at the picture I drew of the sunflowers, tracing her fingers over each one as tears fell. I didn’t know if I was in trouble or if I should leave the room, I shouldn’t have given her the drawing.
Dr. Bink wiped away her tears and said “Joan, where did you see this?”
I wondered, should I tell her the truth about my secret spot in the sunflower walls? She has always been so nice to me, so I took a deep breath and told her all about the sunflower walls. I told her about the tall sunflowers that told me stories of the Willow and how the short ones told me about the butterflies. I told her about the one firefly that led me home when the dark came too quick and about the fort. I saw Dr. Bink smile and close her eyes and that is when I saw what color love was, it was pink and blue, orange and green, red and yellow, and every other color I could think of, all the colors I used in my picture of the sunflowers. As I told Dr. Bink more and more of my secret place she just smiled as tears fell. Then I told her of the stories that the sunflowers shared with me about another little girl who was just like me. The little girl called Hope, the little girl that I had hoped would one day hold my hand, who shared my fort and played with mud pies in the rain. Just then Dr. Bink reached for my hand, I was so confused but she was sad, so I gave her my hand.
“Joan, the stories that the sunflowers told you about Hope are real, very real. There was another little girl named Hope, she was just like you, small and got scared just like you sometimes do. Hope found comfort in the sunflower walls, all of her scary things disappeared too while she was in there. She isn’t little anymore, but would love if you held her hand too because she always wants to be there for you. Joan, my name is Hope and I was the little girl many years ago whose secret place was inside the sunflower walls.”