Here is the final 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.
We’ve reached number one. Thank you for reading along with me and for having patience in between each post. I thought I would be able to write all of these on winter break last year, but I needed more time. Each piece has been exhausting to write, and I needed time in between each to simply breathe.
So. Here it is. The most important thing I have learned while healing from CSEC is that I only need to forgive myself for all of the mistakes and stumbles I have made along the way. I don’t need to forgive my exploiter or any of the sex buyers or abusers. I don’t need to forgive all of the people who looked away even though they knew something was wrong in my family. I don’t need to forgive all of the companies who have exploited the land and the workers in Appalachia. I only need to forgive myself: first, because I was a child, and second, because I did my best.
Yes, I have hurt people along the way. I stuck around too long in my hometown and I was a disaster to a lot of people I met when I first moved to Boston/Cambridge. Granted, most of my faux pas were minor – I was needy and clingy to my friends…old and new. But I had also just lost my mother, who was the only person who had ever fully believed in me. I was adrift, not to mention drowning in grief.
I was also stuck in cycles be transgenerational trauma. I had been “chosen” by my mother to be the one to get away from my family and hometown: I would put an end to our familial madness of poverty, addiction, violence, and mental illness. But I had also been “chosen” by my exploiter to be his property. I did not understand how these two roles had created a push and pull in me to both hate and long for my hometown. I was living the life my mother wanted me to live in Cambridge, but was also homesick for the familiarity of Appalachia, despite the dysfunction.
Eventually, I understood I was trying (and failing) to reconcile these two roles I had been given. I felt in a state of flux and could not settle down. I did not understand how these two conflicting “assignments” prevented me from being present to the new life I was creating for myself. Yes, I did want to get away from my hometown, but I did not want to be the “city girl” my mother had always envisioned me to be.
While I loved Boston/Cambridge, it was loud and crowded and overwhelming. At the same time, I did not want to go back to my hometown, but I wanted to live in a small college town where I could walk everywhere, and feel deep sense of community. I missed running into people I knew in the grocery store and living in a college town (yes, Cambridge is a “college town,” but it’s really a college city).
Fundamentally, I became my own person. I was able to stop worrying about being obedient, or a dutiful daughter, or any other role people had tried to put me in growing up. I realized the abuse was not my fault and I had healed my trauma as best I could (I will always need to manage my PTSD, which is a chronic illness).
These “a-ha” moments were graceful, but urgent. As my brain rewired itself and my central nervous system calmed, I understood it was time for me to stop playing out these dueling roles that simultaneously pulled and repelled me to Appalachia.
I had already cut ties with old friends and my family out of self-preservation, so my reconciliation was really internal. I needed to give myself permission to grieve for all that I had lost – my family, my childhood, my mother, and my sense of place. But I also needed to acknowledge how strong I had become and what I had gained – a new family, new friends, employment as an academic, and a new sense of place.
Most importantly, I realized I needed to forgive myself for not knowing what I could not know while taking this journey. I wish I could have just left my hometown once my mother had died, but I couldn’t. I was stuck in that transgenerational push-pull.
One former hometown friend told I would not be able to move on until I healed “my inner child.” (I simply cannot stand that phrase.) I didn’t have the words to tell her at the time, but, no, I did not need to heal my inner child. I needed to learn how to set boundaries and to state my needs. Ironically (or not), once I learned those things, she and everyone else from my hometown disappeared. My inner being – my authentic self – had always been a warrior. That strength is what had kept me alive.
“But maybe the only way to take the measure of a place’s terror and beauty is to leave it like a bat out of hell only to be drawn back in.” This is a great quote from a movie review of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” This sentence reminds me so much of my experience of being sucked back into my hometown when my mother had gotten sick. I had spent my entire life wanting to get out of there, but I only realized the beauty and mercy once I watched the person I loved the most on this planet die amongst the Appalachian Mountains that she had never been able to escape herself.
I initially resented having to return, but now that I have lived in New England longer than I lived in Appalachia, I understand I needed to return for that time so I could fully and completely leave once she died. When I was 18, I had simply run away. But once I left after her death, I closed that door completely. I needed a few years to truly separate myself, and it was not a pretty process. But for that messy time, I have finally forgiven myself. I am not perfect, but I am finally my own person.
Thank you to all who have read all eleven posts. Writing these has been cathartic. I intend to publish these lessons (and others) sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!
Also in this series: