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.
Creating a healthy, authentic life was not linear process for me, especially after growing up surrounded by chaos and violence. I had to take one step forward, but then two (or twenty) steps back to get to where I am today. I stumbled the most in my late 20’s when I was making new friends and attempting to date “healthy” men for the first time. I finally felt comfortable simply being around people who were not addicts, but I still did not know how to fully engage in these relationships.
For instance, I became friends with a co-worker at the bookstore where I worked when I first moved to Cambridge, but I wanted her to spend every waking moment with me. Yes, I was starving for company, but I also still did not understand how to set, let alone respect, boundaries. I was clingy and awkward, to say the least. Needless to say, we didn’t stay friends for very long.
The lowest point came when she and one of my roommates who also worked at the bookstore decided to get an apartment together—without me. Yet, I invited myself to tag along when they met for coffee to scour apartment listings in the Sunday paper (yes, this was pre-internet), which was awkward. I even helped them move. Sure, being excluded was humiliating, but I also understood at a gut level why they did not want me around. I was so desperate for connection that I devoured any scrap of kindness like I hadn’t eaten in a month. I was pathetic.
I was in the process of, quite literally, losing my mind. Even though I was not having a nervous breakdown, I did have to completely overhaul my mind, body, and spirit in order to heal and reinvent myself. I needed to learn how to simply be a person after decades of, literally, being told I was my exploiter’s property. I didn’t know how to be in any relationship, let alone enjoy the friendship of a group of smart, fun twentysomething girlfriends who were navigating their own transitions into adulthood.
But that humiliation was only beginning. Attempting to date in Cambridge brought a whole other mountain of mortification. Growing up, I was never allowed to date boys I really liked. My exploiter, literally, beat that reality into me when I was 6 after he discovered I had a crush on my neighbor. My exploiter battered me within an inch of my life and cut an “X” into my forearm with a pocket knife to mark me as “his” after he realized I had put on my favorite dress and sandals before going outside to play with this boy. From that moment on, I shoved my attraction to boys deep into my heart, and felt pure terror whenever any boy I liked paid attention to me. For instance, having a boy I liked ask me to “go with him” in 5th grade was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I initially felt excited and said yes, but then I was too scared to talk to him for fear my exploiter would find out. Much to my relief, the boy broke up with me after a few days, and I could only feel relief.
I did date a bit in my teens after my exploiter moved to another state while I was in my teens, but I was never serious about these guys. Sharing my feelings about the boy I really liked felt too dangerous. Instead, I hung out with guys whose lives either revolved around drugs and alcohol or who also had had rough childhoods (often both). Not surprisingly, these unstable combinations never lead to anything more than sparks of attraction and brief romantic encounters, followed by months (or years) of angst. This was emotional torture, not dating.
Once I began to heal, I became curious about learning to date. I was meeting so many interesting artists, academics, and generally cool guys throughout the city. I finally felt physically safe in my life, and was cautiously optimistic that I could finally start engaging in, rather than avoiding, relationships. Unfortunately, my central nervous system had not fully caught up to my heart. I still felt sheer terror if a “normal” guy feigned any interest in me, and I would push him away and run!
My most humiliating “dating” moment happened after a guy I had just met in a cooking class practically sprinted away from me while we were riding the subway home together. I did not take the class to meet men—I simply love to cook. However, I suspect this guy took the class to meet women because plopped himself right down in the seat next to the only young woman in the class – me. After chatting during the class, we realized we were taking the same train home.
All was going well until my brain freaked out once we got to the subway. These images of me marrying this guy that I had known for about two hours started popping up in my brain and I began talking a mile a minute. I honestly don’t even remember what I said, but I must have sounded insane. His face turned pure white and he made some sort of excuse that he needed to get off the train one stop earlier than he initially planned and because he needed to go see his “girlfriend.” Now, I had zero experience dating, but I was also not stupid. This guy practically left skid marks, and I really didn’t blame him. I was beyond mortified.
I still feel deep shame about these humiliating moments when people could not get away from me fast enough. But I am simultaneously proud of putting myself out there. Taking a chance at getting to know people was the only way I was going to learn how to be in relationship, even if that meant humiliating myself a lot in the beginning.
Thankfully, practice made perfect because I met my husband and BFF within three months of one another a couple years after these embarrassing gaffs. They, along with my son and cat, have been the center of my universe ever since, and I am forever grateful. Not to say I became a relationship expert over night, but I did take a quantum leap in finding the very people who understand how my history can make me seem awkward in relationships from time to time. In fact, they not only understand, but are eternally grateful I kept trying.