#5 Unraveling Codependence is Really Hard

61f07465911728279d5e91f2cba1662dHere is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

I struggled to understand codependency until I realized in my 20’s and 30’s how much I relied on others to make decisions for me. Classic books like Codependent No More did not resonate with me because codependency is framed as “neediness.” I did not feel like I “needed” anyone because my mother raised me to be an outspoken, resourceful feminist after my exploiter left. As I healed from my exploitation and abuse, I realized how much I depended on others to tell me what to do because my exploiter had, literally, beaten my sense of self and agency out of me. My exploiter controlled my every thought and move through either actual physical harm or the terror of imaging what he would do to me if I disobeyed him.

This way of being did not end when my exploiter moved out of our home when I was in 6th grade. The exploitation, and physical/sexual abuse stopped once he left, but he still maintained his emotional grip over me from afar. (Writing detailed examples about the ways he controlled me is too difficult for me at this time.)

I also started hanging out with two dominant “mean girls” who bossed me around. Being their obedient shadow gave me a sense of identity and belonging. My exploiter had controlled my every move up, so I needed someone to tell me what to do on a daily basis now that he was gone.  Before my exploiter left, I had shared a close, mutual friendship with a girl who had been my first best friend since 3rd grade. But that friendship faded as I needed to find new “boss.” Not surprisingly, I also had codependent dating relationships in my teens and 20’s with boys who were addicts and alcoholics, but my reliance on my female friends to tell me what to do was even stronger. While I liked hanging out with guys, I needed my girlfriends to tell me what to do.

Ironically (or not), a falling out with one of these “queen bees” in my mid-30’s was the impetus of ending my cycles of codependence. I had left my biological family, moved 300+ miles away (commonly referred to as the “geographical cure” in 12-step programs), and started healing through intense therapy and self-help programs like Al-Anon. I did maintain contact with one girlfriend who was the matriarch of the group of hometown friends I considered family. However, my relationship with her and every single of these friends soured as I found my voice and set boundaries.

While I will not go into the exact details of the falling out due to privacy, I eventually realized these “friendships” were predicated on my obedience, not mutual respect. I also learned that most of these “friends” had secretly stabbed one other in the back, but no one acknowledged what was happening. Foolishly, I had hoped these hometown relationships could change and grow, especially as each friend told me privately how much they, too, wanted to heal and grow with me. But, not surprisingly, my relationships with these “friends” eventually fell apart. My heart was eviscerated with each “break-up,” but I eventually felt relief I could not longer tolerate toxic relationships.

Eventually I realized codependency is about power, rather than low-self esteem and neediness. I now see codependency as a two-way street. While one person seeks to maintain an illusion of control by refusing to engage in an authentic, mutual relationship, the other person complies in exchange for an illusion of belonging. Both people benefit from the arrangement because they feel what they desire – control and belonging, respectively – even though the relationship is predicated on dominance and control, rather than a mutual exchange of love and respect.

Please know I never saw myself as a victim in these relationships (except with my exploiter). I fully participated in order to chase the sense of belonging I craved. However, I did not do so because of low self-esteem or a choice to prioritize another person more than myself, as the popular literature reports. I did it to survive because it was the only way I knew how to relate to people after my sense of self had been deliberately and violently taken from me.

Thankfully, like most CSEC survivors, a spark of my authentic being remained deep inside me, and I was eventually able to thrive. As I continued to heal, I attracted new relationships with people who were not codependent, and did not struggle with addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness. This new tribe was certainly not better than my hometown friends, yet they were better suited for living the authentic life I had created. I will forever love and adore that hometown crew, even though I needed to say goodbye.

KP

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#6 Isolation sucks.

Here is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

I was alone a lot growing up. My exploiter purposefully pitted members of our household against one another to keep us separated. He even tortured our pets to make them fearful of humans. This tactic took me years to understand. I could not figure out why I was despised, especially by the other children, because I thought I was a pretty nice kid. Only later did I grasp that these people were jealous of the perverse perfection my exploiter thought only I – and no one else – possessed. Other people blamed me for their abuse and neglect because my exploiter told them they could never be as good as me.

Granted, I now know other people did not recognize I was also being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, as well as being commercially sexually exploited by this person. They thought I was free from harm, and cast endless aspersions my way in the form of ceaseless emotional and physical abuse, as well as occasional sexual abuse. I was, therefore, tormented, terrorized, and abandoned by three generations of my family.

But, through it all, I had faith that I would one day have a healthy family, and also be surrounded by supportive friends. My long-time therapist has commended me for visualizing the life I wanted and having faith that I would one day I would be loved: those daydreams, literally, saved my life. Imagining what my life would be one day made withstanding excruciating isolation for nearly 20 years manageable. Yes, I was always surrounded by fun-loving friends growing up, but except for 1 or 2 lifelong soulmates, books and music were always my closest companions.

I am happy to share my dreams came true, and I now have an abundance of generous people in my life. I am only close with one member of my family of origin now, and even that came after decades of healing and therapy. I do not take one relationship in my life for granted. I know the pain of isolation, and I am beyond grateful I had the grit and patience to withstand the excruciating, unrelenting void of feeling utterly alone. Not one second of that solitude was easy: I will never go back. My heart is full.

Here are a few photos of the friends and colleagues I am grateful to have in my life now. I have been traveling with friends and family a lot this winter and early spring. I am beyond thankful to have found them all.

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January 21, 2017 Washington, DC. Women’s March w/ fellow UMass students.

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February 24, 2017 Williamsburg, VA. College of William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law Human Trafficking Symposium, with fellow UMass Boston student Julianne Siegfriedt and our Prof. Keith Gunnar Bentele. Our presentations represented UMass Boston well!

Me and Rep. Khan

February 28, 2017 Boston, MA. Honored to be a part of a group that helped MA State Rep. Kay Khan at the MA State House to draft new legislation to fully decriminalize both child and adult commercial sex trafficking victims in MA. The bill (HD 1225) was filed yesterday.

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March 22, 2017 Stockton, CA. Women’s Center – Youth and Family Services Director of Administration Kim Miller and I became fast friends during their annual luncheon. I was honored to be the keynote for their 37th annual event that raised $20K!!

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I also became fast friends with my fellow presenter, Suzanne Schultz, the Family Justice Center Project Director from the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office. I was already formulating a new study about prosecutors and CSEC legislation as we were saying “good-bye” for now.

Love does conquer all!!

KP

(Stay tuned through the spring for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#7 Be Patient and Take A Lot of Naps

tumblr_ml4q9pfq2g1snkdzho1_500(Here is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

Healing requires a lot of space, time, and rest. The day-in and day-out grind of building a healthy life is tremendously hard and profoundly exhausting. I felt like my entire body had been pulled through a pinhole after attending some of my first Al-Anon meetings. I was finally comprehending how much my family had told me that the sexual abuse and exploitation I had endured was my fault. My brain was, literally, re-wiring itself as I healed from this torment.

Violence and violation felt normal because that is all I knew while growing up. Conversely, peace and support initially felt suspicious and foreign as I immersed myself in recovering from the damage my family had inflicted. But each day I inched away from the dysfunction and chaos, and closer to my “new normal” of stability. This journey was slow, but I am so glad I endured.

Being patient with the practice of becoming is essential, though, while learning a new way to be. Healing is a one-step-forward and two-steps-back process. Making mistakes is unavoidable. We cannot realize who we are in this world without experiencing who we are not. Granted, these lessons can be humiliating; however, they are necessary as we become our authentic selves.

So, sometimes, it’s not only okay, but necessary, to keep the covers over your head and heal up. Sustainable change takes time and courage, as well as quiet and regeneration. One step (and nap) at a time.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#8: Say good-bye to “old playmates and old playgrounds”

(armourHere is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

I have been procrastinating writing this next section for weeks. Talking about leaving my toxic relationships with family and many lifelong friends is still incredibly painful, even decades later. I felt like I had betrayed my community when I severed ties because the relationships were blindingly unhealthy. I didn’t want to abandon anyone like I had been abandoned (literally and emotionally) by my exploiter, but I ultimately felt like I needed to go. I did not feel safe around my biological family, and my lifelong friends were primarily bound by getting high.

Dr. Rochelle Dalla refers to this exodus as “leaving old playmates and old playgrounds.” Such leaving is common and necessary in order to heal and move on from exploitation. Much like recovering addicts or alcoholics needing to detach from families and peer groups organizing around substance use, finding new healthy communities is essential for CSEC survivors. Dysfunctional patterns of obedience and co-dependence must be interrupted and steadily replaced with healthy relationship skills like setting boundaries and practicing self-care.

While such a choice and transition may illicit praise from new connections and communities focused on healing, “old playmates” may not be so supportive. For instance, I was told by numerous family members and friends immersed in drug culture that I was being “selfish” when I started attending Al-Anon meetings. I was finding my voice and peeling back the layers of my family’s intergenerational cycles of addiction and violence. Their resistance was palpable.

As a result, I was no longer compliant of addiction’s “unwritten rules” of harboring shame and secrecy. I was authentically stating my opinion and making my own choices for the first time. Yes, I was an outspoken feminist and activist to the outside world, but I had never stood my ground with family and friends: those relationships were predicated on my silence and deference.

The hardest part about walking away was that family and lifelong friendships are everything in Appalachia, where I grew up. People don’t have much in terms of economic resources and social capital, so everyone pulls together to share what they do have. Friends fill freezers with casseroles when a family member dies  or neighbors stop by after church on Sunday to mend an elderly woman’s fence.

Such gestures did not happen when I moved to Boston, which was recently dubbed the “Meanest City in America.” I had left an entire way of being, in addition to those I loved. Healing was more important to me, but I paid a high price in sadness, grief, and isolation by choosing to say good-bye.

Over decades, I did find my place among new, supportive friends and adopted New England as my permanent home. I met and married the love of my life whose family has enveloped me as their own. I attempted to repair some of those old, broken friendships over time, but my efforts fell flat. I had left, and was told to stay gone.

My sense is most people were happy I had left. Cycles of addiction and family violence require everyone to collude in the dysfunction and denial. I had refused to play along, and was, therefore, rebuffed. My husband predicts friends may reach out in time, but I am not hopeful. They never wanted all of me in the first place.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

#9 Health: Top 11 Things I’ve Learned While Healing From CSEC

Here is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

#9 Prioritize your physical health.

Nurse Comforting PatientFinding trauma-informed primary medical care has been the absolute hardest part of my long-term healing from CSEC. Countless doctors have simply glazed over or bypassed my medical concerns when I tell them that I have an extensive history of sexual, physical, and domestic violence. One OB/GYN even blushed, and simply moved on with her routinized questions.

Mental health is often the primary focus of health care for CSEC victims and survivors. Doctors seem to be comfortable with the fact that violence affects the mind; however, many cannot seem to grasp how the mind and body are connected. Yes, mental health is incredibly important; however, I found I could not truly become whole until I was able to heal my brain and my body.

Unfortunately, that healing took decades, though, because traditional, Western-oriented doctors were quick to blame me for my medical issues rather than understand how trauma had ravaged my body. I had been sent to nutritionist after nutritionist since I was 18 to address my unusually high cholesterol. As a teenager doctors noted I was “lean and otherwise healthy,” but failed to note that high cholesterol is a symptom of trauma. I was only ever asked what I ate. My safety or other external physical factors never came into question.

Similarly, yet another nutritionist gave me a Cheerios-sponsored brochure about how to lower my cholesterol. Ironically, however, I later discovered that wheat and dairy were part a large part of the reason why I had been sick for so long. Naturopathic doctors diagnosed my myriad of food allergies (wheat, dairy, eggs, and soy). Once I omitted these foods, my cholesterol levels lowered, a skin rash I had had since childhood cleared up, and I lost weight. I truly amazing. Naturopaths had considered my physical symptoms, as well as my trauma history to identify the root causes of my health issues.

I recently learned from the essential book Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ that over half of the central nervous system resides in the stomach. This fact left me completely stunned, and also relieved. Answers do exist as to why I and so many of the CSEC victims and survivors that I have met over the years suffer from gastrointestinal issues even decades after our exploitation ends. Trauma can manifest in our guts as often as our brains. The mind and the body are deeply connected.

I am fortunate enough to now be surrounded by trauma-informed health practitioners. I recently because a research assistant with the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Freedom Clinic, a free health clinic for human trafficking victims and survivors. The clinic’s focus is to provide comprehensive physical and mental health care to victims and survivors throughout New England, as well as to conduct research on how victims and survivors can best access the trauma-informed care we need and deserve.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

Top 11 Things I’ve Learned While Healing from CSEC (Cont’d)

 

Here is the next installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

“If my life weren’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” – Carrie Fisher

carrie-fisher-gary-fisher-barnes-noble-ba4857c0-d28a-4e37-aba4-54f42002bcb1This is my favorite quote of all time, and it is particularly salient since Carrie Fisher recently passed (pictured right with her dog, Gary). But this is simply the truth. My life has been so immensely tragic due to not only child sex trafficking, but also from growing up poor in Appalachia; being sexually abused by multiple members of both sides of my biological family; losing my mother to cancer six months before I graduated from college (graduating from college was her lifelong dream for me); and needing to build a life for myself in Boston from scratch. Surviving my 46 years on this planet (almost 47) has been no joke.

And yet, humor has endlessly saved the day as I fled that turmoil. Take for instance, the last time I stayed with my maternal grandfather on his farm in Appalachia. I was in the living room reading the New York Times while my step-uncle was sitting outside the door in a cheap lawn chair – shotgun in hand – waiting to blow away a groundhog who had been chewing up the grass. My brain bypassed the obvious Caddyshack reference (“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher.’”) to thinking How in the world did I get here?! This was just one of many family settings where I did not fit in. I must have looked ridiculous lounging over a snobby newspaper while this man waited in the hot sun to decimate a varmint. (His ulterior motive may have also been to skin the critter for supper, but we’ll never know. No shots were ever fired.)

This scene definitely landed at the top of most absurd family moments; however, multiple tragedies were also embedded in this instance. Numerous people in that house had sexually abused either me, my mother, or others (who shall remain nameless due to privacy and security purposes) and everyone had been emotionally abusive toward me and my mother. I had been sexually abused in that basement, and endlessly humiliated at countless holiday dinners and parties. And, yet, I had returned as the dutiful granddaughter because I wanted a relationship with my biological family.  My mother had died a few years before and I did my best to cling to her memory.

Yet, I knew I could never return after that weekend. Soon after that visit I confronted my grandfather about sexually abusing me and my mother. I had started healing from the sexual abuse and exploitation and I could not stay silent any longer. He vehemently denied my assertion and threatened to cut me out of his will if I did not retract my words. I did not care about his money and I would not back down. I knew in every fiber of my being that he had harmed us. I never spoke to him again, and learned years after his death that someone else had gotten my share. I also later learned he told family members that I had falsely accused him of abuse because I had asked for money for college for decades (I had not).

I am grateful that the “groundhog vs. The Times” episode is my final memory of going to that farm and seeing so many of my family members. That scene’s farcicality puts the perfect, hilarious bow on what could have been a heart-breaking final moment. Instead, I will always remember how both the groundhog and I got away that day with our lives intact.

KP

(Stay tuned through January for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.