A Deprogramming Story for Alters of Any Age
This story is written for personalities of any age, though the youngest may need help with some of the vocabulary words. There are some depictions of abuse in the section called Shadows, which can be skipped if needed. Instead, child alters can offer their own examples of what mean shadows might do, by talking, writing, drawing, or therapeutic play. (See the updated Resources page to find some resources for inner children and deprogramming. This story has also been posted to the website’s main menu and can be found here.)
We dedicate this story to all survivors of extreme abuse, slavery, and organized torment of children.
We particularly acknowledge those who were never rescued, and who have needed to tirelessly and repeatedly rescue themselves.
We also dedicate this story to our friend in recovery, who has loved us so much that we have been able to write a healing story such as this one, and whose favorite animal is the otter.
The Little Otter
A Deprogramming Story for Alters of Any Age
Once upon a time, there was a little stream that flowed through a grassy meadow. The stream sparkled and made a beautiful sound, as it moved along its curving, winding, yet steady path. There were flowers growing in the meadow too, and their petals had lots of different shapes and colors. The flowers and the grass loved to grow together and be friends. The sunlight helped the grass grow tall and healthy, and it helped the flowers bloom. The wind blew through them all and made them feel alive.
Birds would fly overhead and feel the sun against their wings. Some of the birds would rest on the trees nearby, where they could take long deep breaths, and feel comfort and wisdom coming from the branches of the trees. The trees felt flexible and strong, and they felt deeply connected to life. Their leaves would rustle and shine, waving hello to everyone, everywhere.
At night the sun would leave, to visit other meadows and other places all over the world, before coming back again.
Stars would fill the dark sky to keep the sleeping meadow company, gently shining down toward every creature and every being, gently watching over everyone, everywhere.
One morning, a young bird woke up after a peaceful sleep. She stretched her wings, creating a mural of feathers in seafoam green and periwinkle. The young bird decided to take flight and explore, feeling safe enough to venture a little farther away from her home than she usually did.
Up she flew, into the sky, moving together with the patterns of the wind and her own deep instincts. Her wings beat up and down, to send her higher into the sky, and then they strengthened and stilled so that she could soar through the air.
She gazed down at the flowers, who were beginning to take in the sunny nourishment of the day. She flew over the stream of clear, cool water. She soared over many trees, greeting the leaves and branches, and greeting other birds as they greeted her.
Looking up, she saw three clouds in the sky. Two of the clouds looked soft, round, and bright. To her, one cloud looked like a little bird with a tiny little beak, and the other cloud looked like a baby otter, with a strong little tail.
She smiled and then looked around at the third cloud. It was far away from the other two, and darker. It sort of looked a little like a baby creature too, but also sharp, almost like an arrow pointing down.
The young bird could feel that something was wrong. She knew that she had to follow that lonely cloud. She sensed that there was someone there who needed help. With great care and focus, she began her trip through the sky, knowing that the blowing winds and her own deep instincts would help her fly all the way there.
As she traveled closer, she noticed that the cloud was making the ground below it a little darker than usual. The trees weren’t as green and full of leaves as many of the other trees in the land. However, they were very, very tall, as though they had gained an unusually high amount of wisdom in their lives. Though some of their branches appeared broken or brittle, the wood that formed these trees was clearly very powerful. It glowed with awareness and strength, and with its own determination to stay deeply connected to life.
The young bird peered down below the branches. She saw that the land was cracked, and there was hardly any grass. The water that ran through the cracked ground wasn’t as bright or as free. But the bird could see that the water was really, really trying to flow.
The air was rather still, and the wind in this area was a little more subdued. It would blow in different directions sometimes, confused, as though it didn’t know which direction it wanted to move in, or how it wanted to express itself.
There weren’t any other birds around. The young bird noticed this, but for whatever reason, she wasn’t frightened. She kept exploring the land, trying to understand it. She kept looking for what the pointy cloud had been pointing to.
As her wings beat up and down, and she flew through the branches and the meadows, she heard an unusual sound. It was like a cry, and like a scream, and like nothing at all.
Immediately, she moved toward that sound, keeping her wings as quiet and as calm as possible. The land suddenly grew even darker as she flew right underneath the pointed part of the dark, heavy cloud.
Down below, past the tree branches and in a small clearing, she saw what was happening. At once it broke her heart, but it also sent her soaring even faster toward the clearing.
She saw a little baby otter, just like the one in the clouds who had such a strong little tail. But this little baby otter was getting hurt. She was trembling and she was frightened. Groups of dark shadows were towering over her, surrounding her in a big circle, and there was no way out. Every shadow was doing terrible things.
The young bird jetted toward the baby otter. As she flew, she witnessed everything that the shadows were doing to her.
One of the shadows was shouting at the baby otter, calling her terrible names, saying mean and humiliating things.
An even darker shadow took the shouting shadow’s hand, and they screamed down at the baby otter together. The darker shadow was yelling with such force, blaming the baby otter for all of the darkness in the whole entire world. It was using its other hand to point down at the baby otter as it yelled. This shadow looked angry and cold; it didn’t care how hurt and terrified the baby otter looked. It didn’t care that the baby otter was shaking and buckling at her knees, taking in all of these painful feelings, taking on all of the blame, all alone, even though she was just a little baby.
The young bird was shocked and horrified. This was too much pain, too much terror, for one little baby otter. Where had all of these shadows come from? Why were they all attacking this baby? The bird kept flying straight toward the little otter, breathing deeply so that she had all of the strength and calm that she would need.
One of the shadows was punching and kicking the baby otter, over and over again. It would pull her fur, slap her face, and step on her tail so she couldn’t get away. It would keep hitting and hitting, making her feel broken and worthless inside.
Another shadow was drowning the little otter in the very same water that she had once loved to play in. It was drowning her over and over again, making her afraid of breathing, and afraid of living.
The young bird began to cry as she flew, and her tears fell down over the trees, onto the leaves and branches, and onto the cracked ground. The young bird so much wanted to hold the baby otter safely within her wings, under all of her seafoam green and periwinkle feathers, nestled in the warmth of her breathing chest and beating heart. The young bird so clearly felt how important it had been for her today, to fly to the dark cloud, and to follow its arrow down to the clearing. On she flew, and as she flew, she noticed that the wind was now helping her. It suddenly knew which direction it needed to blow in.
A tall shadow was standing over the baby otter, touching her in unbearable ways, ways that made her feel like every little cell in her body was going to disconnect, and like her mind was going to break apart. It was touching her private places in so many cruel and painful ways, while telling her that it loved her, and that this was love. The weaker and weaker the little otter felt, the more the shadow would lie to her, and tell her that she liked its touch, and that she liked the feelings.
Then, the shadow would give her away, to be touched by other shadows. Each time the baby otter would be passed around to the next shadow, it felt like a new betrayal. The little otter was feeling like she belonged to more and more shadows, and she was starting to forget who she ever was to begin with, or if she was ever anything at all.
The wind tried to blow gently across the baby otter’s face, to remind her of who she was. She was still being too terrorized to feel it… But, maybe a little tiny part of her did.
Some of the shadows were watching the baby otter’s anguish, and laughing. Other shadows were ignoring her.
Some shadows were there but had turned away. They were choosing to play with and comfort other baby otters instead of rescuing her.
The tormented and desperate baby otter felt so invisible, so unwanted. She had absolutely no idea that the young bird could see her, could see what was happening, and was rushing toward her to rescue her.
The young bird could see how deeply the screaming, the hitting, the bad touches, and the lies were affecting the baby otter. Even from a distance, she could see that the poor baby otter’s eyes were starting to grow very, very dim. They were beginning to look more and more like the dark cloud above them in the sky.
The young bird dove lower and kept her wings pointing toward the little baby otter.
Meanwhile, the shadows kept creating more and more pain, and they never seemed to tire.
Some of the shadows were doing something that they had clearly planned to do, on purpose. They were trapping the little otter, and forcing her to watch horrible things happening to other little creatures.
Even crueler shadows were grabbing her paws, holding them and moving them, and forcing her paws to hurt other little creatures, or even hurt herself.
Some of these shadows would step back and then threaten her, and force her to hurt other creatures by herself, while whispering in her ears, making her believe that she was the one who wanted to do these harmful things.
After the other little creatures were hurt, the little otter would cry. The shadows would stop her, immediately. They would force her never to cry. They would blame her for everything that happened to the other little creatures.
The young bird was crying, though. She had no shadows stopping her, so she could cry freely. And she did. Something about her tears was beginning to slowly change the land. The trees looked a tiny bit brighter, truer. The cracks in the ground were softening.
The young bird was almost there. She was looking for a way in, through all the shadows, to rescue the little otter.
The biggest and darkest shadow of all was very tall, and very wide, and encircled all of the other shadows. This shadow made the baby otter feel all alone, an orphan. No family, no friends, no safety, no relief.
She was trapped within all of these painful shadows, with no one to rescue her, and no one to care. She couldn’t understand why all of the shadows seemed to hate her so much, or ignore her so deeply. She couldn’t understand why the biggest and darkest shadow wanted to wrap her up in this darkness and never ever let her out.
The little otter began to sink to the floor. The shadows began to laugh. Some of them kicked her. Some of them forced her back onto her feet, although she sank down again.
The little baby otter felt something inside of her own chest. It felt like it was the only thing left. It felt like it was the energy that was keeping her eyes open. In her exhaustion, and in her fear that this would go on forever and ever, she noticed a part of herself that was still bright.
The young bird noticed it too. It was like a light. As soon as the young bird saw this light, it was as though a tiny path was forming, one between her and the baby otter. This was a path that no shadow could enter, because its light would make the shadow disappear.
Shadows did not like to disappear, because they were afraid that if they disappeared, they wouldn’t exist.
The young bird was careful. She knew not to hurt anyone. Down she flew, along the baby otter’s path of light. This small path took just the same curving, winding, yet steady path that the stream in the meadow followed. It was almost as though deep inside, this baby otter knew where she truly belonged.
The baby otter had been looking down at her own belly, watching it struggle to take tiny breaths, while trying to endure the neverending attacks from the shadows. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a wing. It was seafoam green and periwinkle. Then there were two wings, and they were landing right beside her. The young bird had found the little otter.
Their eyes connected. The baby otter tried to take in the sight of this wonderful, kind bird, who had flown through all of the shadows to get to her. The baby otter thought that she ought to wonder whether this bird was real or not, and not just another trick played by the shadows. But then she realized that for the first time, she could actually feel how real this other creature was, and how true her presence was, here in this lonely clearing.
The bird looked around, shadows surrounding them, sensing what the baby otter had been going through. She looked at the baby otter again, with deepened understanding in her eyes. Extending her wing out and to the side, she offered the little otter a warm embrace. The otter turned her head toward the extended wing and stared, in stillness, because she never before had been offered real kindness.
She was not sure what to do. The extended wing was blocking her view of some of the shadows. The two of them turned their heads to the other side, where some of the shadows were still visible. The little otter looked scared.
The young bird extended her other wing, just a little, and then a little more. The little otter looked at her again. The connection between the two of them was growing stronger. The light between them was going from chest to chest, pulsing, connecting their heartbeats, and even harmonizing the rhythm of their breathing.
Looking around at the shadows that were still visible, and still causing harm, the little otter suddenly saw them for what they were.
It was hard to explain, especially for such a young otter. She had always thought that those were her own shadows, that the shadows were parts of her—parts that the sunlight would never reach. But now, now it felt like the shadows were not her, and that they never had been. They were the shadows of other creatures, creatures who had really hurt her for a very long time in the same ways that she had felt the shadows hurting her, but who were not there anymore. The creatures who had hurt her were gone now. Only their shadows remained.
Even though the baby otter couldn’t quite remember how she had gotten trapped inside of all of these shadows, and even though she couldn’t remember the exact moment that she had forgotten who she was, and what the shadows really were, the young bird’s wings were blocking enough of the shadows now, so that she could finally begin to understand. The little otter breathed a small sigh of relief.
It felt like two big pieces of her heart were finally coming together. She looked up at the young bird and suddenly burst into tears. She reached her paws out, wanting to be embraced, to be lifted from this place where the shadows had tormented her. She wanted to live somewhere where love grew.
The bird embraced the baby otter, holding her closely. Their hearts beat next to each other, and they breathed in a slow, deep rhythm, together with the trees and the land below them. The baby otter cried and cried. She clung to the young bird, surprising herself with her own needs and desires. Slowly, as she quieted, her eyes closed, and she began to gently rest for the very first time in her life. In the embrace of the young bird, she didn’t even see as the shadows melted away, all around her.
The dark cloud felt so much love for the two young creatures. It knew it could continue to travel through the sky, shedding its own tears of relief over parts of the land who were in need of it.
The sun shone more brightly above them, warming both of them, warming everyone around the clearing, warming everyone, everywhere.
As the tiny otter rested, the young bird gently placed her onto her back, and they began their journey to the meadow.
The moving wings and the rush of air awakened the little otter, bringing out her care and curiosity.
“But if we leave here, who will take care of the land?” she asked the young bird.
“Nature will,” the young bird replied.
Feeling comforted, the little otter rested her head a little more deeply on the young bird’s back, and smiled her first smile.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“To the meadow where I live.”
Then the little otter’s smile fell a little. “What if it’s scary? What if it’s new and it’s scary? I’m scared. I’m scared,” she said.
“I sense that that you have been there, somehow. And that we have even played there together,” the bird said, glancing back at the otter as she flew. This made the little otter’s smile brighten once more.
The young bird told her about the two clouds she had seen that morning, that had looked just like a baby bird and a baby otter, just like the two of them.
Together, they flew with ease, as the young bird showed the otter different parts of the land below. There were mountains, off in the distance, and even a waterfall they could visit. There was a place with a sandy shore, and an ocean so deep and so big that it looked like it went all the way past the horizon. They could visit this shore too, where the water greeted everyone with its salty waves.
The closer they flew toward the meadow, the more other birds they saw. The young bird would greet the others and introduce the baby otter to them. So many kind and smiling creatures, so many green leafy trees. The little otter was awestruck.
Up in the sky, the clouds were still moving. There was one up ahead shaped like a smile. Another one looked like a frown. One sort of looked like an angry face. Another one looked very silly. The little otter was realizing that the sky could show so many shapes, pictures, and feelings, and it didn’t have to hold them in, at all. It would show them all, no matter what they were. And then, after a while, they would change. And it was all okay.
The little otter said, “The sky has lots of feelings.”
“Yes it does,” smiled the bird.
“I wonder if I am allowed to show my feelings now, too. The shadows didn’t let me.”
The bird took a deep breath to let in and feel what the little otter had shared with her.
Then, she replied, “The sky can show its shapes, its pictures, and its feelings, because it is free. Now, you are free too, Little Otter. You are free too.”
Together they traveled to the lovely meadow. The baby otter was a little afraid to land on the ground. She had just gotten used to flying. The young bird sensed this, and she flew down very slowly, reassuring the little otter that nothing sudden would happen as they landed.
Once they were safely on the ground, the otter hid. The only familiar part of this place was the young bird, so she hid behind her wing. The young bird did not mind one bit, and they walked together this way, exploring the land, making their way steadily toward the stream.
Along the way, at first the otter could only see her own feet, because she was hiding in the young bird’s wing. Soon, she started wanting to see more. She would move her paws out to make a little space under the wing, so she could see more of the grass. Soon she even spotted a little flower, and it made her want to stop and peek out to see more.
The two of them stopped together. Trembling, the little otter glanced out from behind the young bird’s wing. She took a look around, seeing short and tall blades of grass, seeing different kinds of flowers, and seeing some trees a little farther away.
The little otter paused to smell the air. Then, she suddenly got up the courage to smell a flower, and she slowly emerged from behind the young bird’s wing and took a few steps toward the flower. It smelled wonderful. The baby otter was sure that this was going to be her favorite smelling flower, because it was the first one she had ever smelled all by herself.
Instead of hiding back inside of the young bird’s wing, the otter held the tip of the bird’s wing with her paw, and the two of them walked together.
Sometimes the little otter would notice that her head was down, and that she was still barely breathing. She would remind herself to look up again, to look all around her, to feel the bird’s wing in her paw, to hear the sounds of the trees and grass in the wind, and to smell the air.
As the two of them walked closer to the stream, the ground started to feel moist under their toes. The sound of the stream was beautiful. The little otter sensed her own excitement, even though she did not know where it was coming from. She had forgotten that otters, like the birds and the wind and the clouds, have instincts too.
By the stream, the little otter started to feel a new feeling, which was making her spring up and down on her toes, and chatter a lot. She felt happy. She felt like an otter.
The young bird walked with her to the edge of the stream. “This stream looks just like the path you sent to me as I flew to your rescue, Little Otter. I am so happy that I found you.” The little otter gazed up at the bird in wonder. She had never heard anyone say such a thing to her.
The little otter cried once more, leaning into the young bird, then looking out at the stream, then leaning into the young bird again. Together, they sat and listened to its movements.
The little otter began to feel more okay. Something inside of her was changing. It was hard to explain, especially for such a young otter. It felt like her body felt safer, more peaceful. And this was making her mind feel safer, too.
She had always been afraid that if she tried to escape, or tried to rest, or tried to get away from the fear and pain of all the shadows, that she would find herself in even more danger. She was afraid that her own eyes and ears wouldn’t always be able to sense what was happening and keep her safe. But it somehow wasn’t true. She was still aware of her surroundings, because her whole entire body could feel where she was and what all of the nature around her was doing. Now that she wasn’t so scared, she could feel what it truly felt like to sit in the meadow, and she could sense everything. She could sense how safe she felt here. The deepest part of her could sense some sort of old familiarity, something in the stream that felt like home.
Her own little toes surprised her, by suddenly inching toward the water. She looked up at the young bird, who smiled at her. Into the water she went, first just with her paws, but then with her whole body. She felt so joyful. She felt very cool, yet warm as well. She felt excited yet clear, calm, and peaceful. She felt as though she were swimming in water that loved her as much as she loved it. She had never felt this way before.
Every night, the young bird helped the little otter fall asleep. All little creatures need sleep. The shadows had kept the little otter’s life dark, yet sleepless, for so very long.
The young bird’s presence and the trickling stream brought soothing comfort, even while most of the meadow still felt new and scary.
The little otter looked up, watching the stars appear after the sun had gone away.
“Little Otter, we see you,” said the stars. The little otter was surprised, but continued to look up at them. “We witnessed what happened to you, little one. You were never fully alone.”
The little otter nodded, watching the stars. Something about them had seemed familiar, too.
“We will always remember what happened, to you and to everyone, everywhere. We will remember for you, and we will always watch over you. We wish you to never feel invisible again.”
Soothed, comforted, the otter watched the stars some more, feeling unsure about why they would ever shine for her.
She looked over at the young bird, sleeping under the faint glow of the starlight. The little otter realized that the stars are a part of nature. They watch and they give light to everyone.
The shadows had tried to block the baby otter from seeing the stars, but that did not mean that they hadn’t been there. She had noticed them twinkling, just a little bit.
Now she could watch the stars every single night, just as they had always been able to see her. And they had lovingly reassured the baby otter that she had been witnessed, and that they will remember everything for her, even though the shadows would have lied and pretended that they had never hurt her.
The little otter closed her eyes, waited, and then opened them again, to see if the stars were still there.
Indeed, they were. They were watching over her, just as they always had, just as they always would.
The young bird and the little otter lived side by side, in the loving meadow. They made other friends, too. They had adventure days, and peaceful days. They had thunderstorm days, and very hot days. They had days when the little otter remembered living in the shadows and cried again. The others in the meadow comforted her, and they all felt so sad that she had been so hurt when she was so young and innocent.
When the little otter got a little older, she began to really feel like this meadow was home. She could go on adventures herself now, when she wanted to. The young bird was so proud of her.
The creatures in the loving meadow would wonder how and why these shadows had attacked such a precious baby otter. Together, they realized there there might be other tiny creatures who are also being attacked by shadows, and who are all alone. Many of the birds and some of quickest land creatures spread the news as wide as they could. A team of loving beings formed, which included some of the animals, the grasses and flowers, the trees, the clouds, and the wind. They would search all across the land, looking for any other lost and tormented beings. No one deserved to be abused. No one deserved to be left behind.
The group of loving beings decided to follow the sun. That way, they knew they would make it all across the world, and then find their way back.
In the night, the stars continued to watch over all of them, everyone everywhere. The stars never looked away. They witnessed both the love and the pain, in honor of all of the living beings. They made sure that no one was lost forever. They made sure that the light never went out completely.
The light shone on the place where the baby otter had been attacked by shadows. Its trees were now the very tallest in the land. Their bark was a deep dark brown, and strong, carrying many branches full of fluttering green leaves. The ground had softened, and grasses grew. A flower was beginning to bloom. Many creatures would pass by this place, sensing its wisdom, and resting there.
One day, the little otter would travel back to that place as well. She would get to see its true nature for the very first time, and it would get to see hers. There would be freedom. There would be sunlight. At night, the young otter and the trees could sit together and listen to the stars tell them all about what had happened to the baby otter, what had created the shadows, and how they had surrounded her, trapped her, and tortured her.
Then the stars would tell of her bravery, of the way that she called out, to the wind, to the clouds above, and to a bird, a strong and daring bird who could make the flight all the way to this clearing. A bird who could sense the place where love was being attacked.
The young otter would breathe in deep peace and relief, sensing her own connection to her mind, her body, and her heart. Sleeping there, the stars would watch over her, until the sun found its way into the morning, and her paws carried her off to new places.
Young Otter’s Self-Portrait
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