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 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 “friends” 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 girlfriends who I considered family. However, my relationship with 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” were secretly stabbing 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, too. 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.
I strongly believe 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 built new relationships with people who were not codependent, and did not struggle with addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness. My 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.