The first week of October, I went to Walt Disney World with my friends Kristen and Rachel. We had been planning this trip for the better part of months. I, much to my own amazement, paid for the trip entirely with cash, no credit cards at all. (Not the point of this post, but I wanted to brag.)
Going into this trip, I knew there were two main things I could not miss: I had to see the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios, and I had to meet some characters, especially Belle, my favorite princess of all time. I knew I was going to have fun, but what I didn’t expect was that I would spend so much of the trip engaged with and even healing my inner child.
“Inner child?” you ask. “Isn’t that just some New Age pop psychology mumbo-jumbo?”
You know, you’d think so. I thought so. I thought so right up until I met my inner child. In the little bit of reading I’ve done on the subject, it sounds like one method of recovering from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is to connect with your inner child and give him or her what is lacking and needed.
I’ve got some ACEs. I think more people do than don’t these days. I spent the bulk of my prime developmental years socially isolated. I did not have real, in-person, face-to-face friends from ages 11 to 19. (I made a single friend starting around age 15, but I met her online and it was another year or two before I had the joy of meeting her in person.) I have always been pretty introverted, but there’s a difference between introversion and isolation, and that difference is not good. I’m pretty sure that that’s part of why I developed depression and got stuck in my own head in emotional spirals. But during this period of my life, to medicate my loneliness, I turned to fiction: writing it, reading it, studying it.
I’ve also always loved Disney movies. I grew up with them, I wore out my VHS tapes of them. Beauty and the Beast was my favorite as a kid, but it remained my favorite as I grew up and began to see myself in Belle: socially isolated, taking solace in books, wanting something else for herself. I adore(d) her. I watched that movie to death. I requested the special edition Blu-ray for my 16th or 17th birthday, and it was the best gift ever.
Fast forward again to this trip. We had decided early on that we were going to Disneybound for our trip, so I picked Belle for Epcot day, since you can find her in France in the World Showcase (obviously). We had also agreed early in the planning stages that we would use the trip to do everything we had ever wanted as kids, including meeting our favorite princesses. Whenever people ask me what I want to do, I get into a mode of “Oh, whatever you want is fine, I don’t want to be a bother.” It’s not humility that drives that. I think it’s fear. I’m working on it. Luckily, when I pulled that (“We don’t have to find Belle if it’s gonna be a problem”), Rachel called me on it and insisted that, no, we would.
On Epcot day, we met up with our friends Ben and Lauren who live in Orlando and are Disney cast members. Late in the afternoon, we realized we were running out of time for character meet-and-greets. Ben held our place in line for Belle while Lauren ran to see if Mary Poppins was available in the UK. She wasn’t, so we all met back up at the Belle line. By that point I was nervous and shy, and my inner child was poking her head out.
Let me pause and say that I can legitimately feel and am aware of Little Steph’s appearance. I noticed myself looking around at the park with wider eyes, more wonder, and a higher-pitched voice. I cannot explain why this happened, but it did. It’s not multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia, because it is literally just a younger version of myself, stuck in my psyche, looking for something.
So standing there in line, I felt it happening. I felt myself moving a little more childlike, swishing my skirt and fidgeting. I looked toward the end of the line where Belle was, eyes big, and I kept softly squeaking “You guys, you guys.”
“We’ve got to get a picture of just you and her,” Rachel said.
“But it’s not a big deal if we don’t,” I said shyly. (I get shy when I meet famous people. Like, zoop, there I go, into my turtle shell, bye.)
Then we got there. Lauren went with us, and the four of us girls met Belle and chatted, and I legitimately could not tell you a thing she told us, except that as we gathered around for our group picture, she said she loved my rose earrings. I was so very shy that all I wanted was to scurry away and hide, because I could feel myself choking up. The experience of meeting my favorite princess was really amazing and overwhelming for Little Steph.
Then, at the end of our meet-and-greet, as we started moving away, Rachel said, so softly and sweetly, the most loving tone, “Wait, can we get a picture of the two Belles together?”
Oh geez, man. I thought I was going to fall apart right there. Belle and the photographer agreed, and I shifted back into place. In those pictures, you can see my face is so, so red, both from sunburn and from blushing profusely–from trying not to cry. We took the picture, I started to move away, and the next thing I knew, Belle had reached out and enveloped me in a massive hug.
I am tearing up just writing this.
In that moment, something deep in the inner child portion of my psyche broke open, and so many unrealized childhood dreams all came rushing out at once. I almost burst into tears on her shoulder. I felt the tears welling–you know, that terrible choking feeling you get where you can’t breathe because if you do, you’ll cry.
I don’t know if I actually finished the hug and moved away before bursting into tears. Good tears, of course, but it was such a rush of emotion that I needed a few moments to collect myself. I stood on the bridge from France to the UK, the wind whipping my hair and my dress, with my friends huddling around and comforting me, and all I really remember was Lauren exclaiming “This is why I love my job!” And I remember crying too hard to speak and then, in a very small voice, saying “You guys, I met Belle, I met Belle.”
Whatever dam broke inside me in that moment needed to break. Five-year-old me needed it. Twenty-seven-year-old me needed it. I couldn’t put words on it until later that night when, alone in the shower, I realized that out of that moment, I felt healed. I might not have felt that way if I had not (cautiously at first) allowed my inner child to emerge, to see and feel and experience the trip for herself. I would not have had this experience if I had not gone with friends who give me the loving space to be emotionally vulnerable. I probably would not have had this experience if I had gone to Disney as a child.
Grownups, take yourselves to Disney. It doesn’t have to be a Disney park specifically, but it does have to be a place or an experience that your childhood self would have died for, something you never got growing up. As an adult, you now have the power to give yourself what you missed out on, and you now (hopefully!) have the maturity to meet those needs responsibly, safely, and healthfully. You are in sole command of your time and your finances; the ability to reach out to your inner child and say “Hey, let me give you this thing you’re missing” is an incredibly beautiful gift.
I recognize that some people might not be comfortable at first with the concept of an inner child. That’s okay. I think a lot of people do have one, though, because there is something unresolved from childhood left lingering in the shadows. I see how immensely healing it is to find that inner child. Whenever Little Steph was “out,” I made sure to take time to stop and provide affirmations: you are safe, you are loved, you have friends who care about you, you matter, doing what you want to do is not a burden, we are all having fun together. What resulted was that I was able to more fully enjoy the magic of the trip–all of me, my whole self–despite the sunburn and the heat and the sore feet. I was able to have a more fulfilling vacation because my whole self was involved.
I also recognize this that I might not have been able to get to such a good place with myself without therapy. I’ve been seeing a counselor probably since March, and that has done wonders for changing how I talk to and about myself. Before therapy, I would never have been able to stop and affirm myself. I would never have been free to embrace my inner child and give her this beautiful experience. If you can, please, please seek out a qualified therapist. There is a dearth of available mental healthcare in this country, but you owe it to yourself to try.
And while you’re at it, find your Disney and go there. Your little you will thank you.