(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 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 need 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 once I said 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.
(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)
Also in this series: