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.
Okay. Now we’re getting into the toughest terrain of my top lessons. Yes, taking risks and laughing has been vital to my healing. But, relearning to think, act, and speak for myself has been the keystone to thriving. My exploiter, literally, beat my sense of agency out of me at a very early age by repeatedly physically abusing me whenever I disobeyed him. He broke me.
I also disassociated from my body as a survival tactic when I was sexually abused or exploited. Therefore, I learned to submit to avoid being physically harmed as often and to get the violence over with quicker when I was hurt. I learned that I would be abused for longer periods of time and with more severity if I fought back. I became a trapped, skittish animal, frozen in fear.
This “lack of humanity” feeling stayed with me even after my exploiter left our home when I was about 13. The daily, immediate physical danger of physical and sexual violence had passed. But I still felt trapped and watched. He still lived nearby, and so the threat of being beaten and sexually violated still loomed large.
I was so used to being controlled that I didn’t know any other way of relating to people – not even friends. I gravitated to dominating “mean girls” who knew I was passive. One “friend” would date any guy I said I liked, knowing full well I would never make a move. Another slept with my first “boyfriend” (who, not surprisingly, constantly cheated on me and did a ton of drugs). A third, the matriarch of my life-long group of friends, was the “queen bee” of the girls in the group, even though she was subservient to her boyfriend (who later became her husband).
Growing up I didn’t care about being a follower because I was just biding my time until I could get away from my family and out of my hometown. Flying under the radar allowed me to focus on my studies and, quite literally, kept me alive. I am certain my exploiter would have killed me if I spoke up against him or fallen in love with the boy I really wanted to date. So, I stayed in line.
But my obedience came with a high price. I felt incredibly alone growing up. I longed for authentic relationships where I could be vulnerable and trusting. But that same “skittish animal” feeling would return whenever I met someone who wasn’t interested in controlling me, and I honestly didn’t know how to have a mutual relationship.
I also used my appearance to push people away so they would not even approach me, especially guys. I wore baggy thrift store clothes (that was all we could afford) and bleached my hair white. I tried black lipstick and shaved the sides of my head. I lived in a constant state of flux: I longed for authentic connection but could not handle intimacy.
All bets were off, though, once my mother died and I moved away from my hometown. I had started therapy to deal with the grief of losing my mom and the overwhelm of moving to a new state. I started feeling stronger and more independent now that I was so geographically far away from my family and friends, especially my exploiter. I started to feel safe in wanting genuine relationships and I started to stand up for myself. This, not surprisingly, went over like a lead brick back home.
I confronted my exploiter and other family members who had also sexually abused me. I actually started dating and making new friends in my new city (and initially failed miserably, as I mentioned in the previous post). I also reached out to make amends with guys I had rebuffed in the past, and most were grateful to hear from me. To me, I was finding my voice. But to the people of my past, I was losing my mind.
I also started doing yoga, going to Al-Anon meetings, taking “human potential” classes such as the Landmark Forum (based on the controversial est program started in the 1970’s), and learning self-defense in a model mugging class. All of these tools re-taught me to think for myself and to re-embody my physical being that had been taken hostage when I was a child.
As I remembered (re-membered) my own humanity, though, I lost more and more relationships with family members and childhood friends. I made so many mistakes as I exercised my new emotional muscles. Simply being allowed to feel feelings was so new to me that I sounded like a freak when I tried to express my emotions. Even more so, I was so excited that I was even expressing emotions, that I was not embarrassed when my words came out all wrong. I was learning a new language.
While my heart was bursting with excitement and possibility, my brain and central nervous system were struggling to keep up. My actions where often impulsive. At one point, I quit a very stable job in academia that I had loved in order to work at a yoga studio, and then to explore the idea of opening my own business. I was, literally, rewiring my brain and heart. These classes gave me opportunities to interact with caring people who were not out to hurt me, and to challenge the stories I had been told by my family and friends. I later realized, I had to lose my mind in order to learn how to think and act for myself.
Eventually, my life did stabilize, and I did return to academia…and I have never left again. I am, in my authentic being, a social scientist and a feminist scholar. But my journey to authenticity has not been not easy. I, literally, lost everything along the way. Regardless, I would do it all over again. I realize now none of those people in my past wanted me, they only wanted control over me. Relationships are mutual commitments that grow over time, not power struggles over who gets to determine what is real and true. Enjoying such authenticity has been completely worth losing it all, even my mind.