#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.

Top 11 Lessons I’ve Learned While Healing from Child Sex Trafficking

a047c93013e521589785b838eb25a5c5“How in the world did you survive CSEC?” is a question I am commonly asked. The answer is neither short nor simple. So I’ve decided to write this series of posts answering that very question.

I do a lot of public speaking both as an academic and as a CSEC survivor. While I am both of these things simultaneously, the focus of of each presentation is quite different. The first takes a very distanced, sociological approach that subjectively looks at the dynamics of child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Whereas, my talks about surviving and healing from CSEC are intensely intimate and focus on my own journey moving from surviving to thriving. This series of posts aims to address both.

People often tell me I am an inspiration, which I appreciate immensely. I continue to speak publicly about my personal story because so many people have faced similar struggles, and my talks often create a sense of “communal survival.” We are immersed in a victim-blaming, rape culture that simultaneously ignores and vilifies survivors who are willing to tell “truth to power” and who refuse to be silenced.

While being a sexual violence and exploitation survivor grants me “insider” status and provides instant credibility as a CSEC expert, being a survivor can also be a hindrance as a social scientist. I am well aware that I can never be impartial or objective. My intention is to utilize my academic proclivity to end CSEC and sexual violence: that is always my goal. Therefore, I always need to “check” my bias when conducting research and surround myself with collaborators who share my commitment to social justice and to sound social science.

Here is the beginning 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 to this day. My personal experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

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

I placed risk-taking at the bottom of this list of lessons because it is the foundation of my life, not because it is the least important. I am 100% certain I would not be where I am today if I had not taken a ton of risks. I may still be alive, but I doubt I would be living a calm, happy life with a tight circle of family and close friends.

Moving to Boston after my mother died was the biggest risk I have ever taken. This risk did not pay off at all when I first moved here because I was really alone and I didn’t make any good friends until I had lived here for five years. In fact, I considered returning to my hometown in Appalachia (that I had fled) once I realized I was living the life my mother had wanted me to live, not the life I wanted. Yes, I was renting a gorgeous apartment in Cambridge, MA that had once been feature in Architectural Digest and was working at a prestigious university. But I felt empty…like I was in a movie…not building an authentic life of my own.

Ultimately, I ended up staying in Boston after I completely fell on my face in front of my hometown family and friends. Not that many people wanted me to return. My ideation that I had somehow abandoned my roots was a complete fallacy. People who I loved dearly had not only expected me to leave, but also preferred I stay gone. Certainly, this realization stung; however, I brushed myself off after some time and moved on.  Ultimately, I am eternally grateful I hadn’t moved after all. One year later I met my best friend and my husband around the same time.

Such risk-taking is a common theme that runs through so many fellow CSEC survivors’ lives. The need to “leave it all behind” is essential in order to heal from the layers of control, domination, manipulation, and violence that keeps the dynamics of CSEC in place.

I certainly do not advocate people impulsively betting the farm without seriously considering all sides of a situation. In truth, returning to my hometown would not have been physically safe because the majority of my exploiters’ family still lived there, and I had already started my very public CSEC advocacy work. But at the time I felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose, because I had already lost everything after my mother had died. In the end, though, my may leaps of faith have served me incredibly well in that with big risk comes great reward. My life is living proof.

Stay tuned for the next installment…I will post the entirety of the list throughout January.

KP

Also in this series:

#10 Laugh…a lot.

“Take care of each another.”

As you can see, I tend not to write much during the semester. Life is just too crazy. However, I cannot remain silent given the current election results and the acts of violence that have ensued. Racist, misogynist, narcissistic bigots are feeling emboldened to act on their hatred.

I am working on a piece that explains how this same very mindset and vitriol fueled my own exploitation. I will post it soon. In the meantime, I leave you with a foreboding lyric from Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” for some introspection. During a 2010 performance the band encouraged everyone to “take care of one another.” We definitely need that now.

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