#1 I am the only person I need to forgive

DothebestyoucanHere 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!

KP

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#5 Unraveling codependency is really hard.

#4 It was not my fault.

#3 Healing can be humiliating.

#2 Unlearning obedience is essential. 

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#2 Unlearning Obedience is Essential

c48db0e364e65cd68889387981576cdeHere 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.

KP

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#5 Unraveling codependency is really hard.

#4 It was not my fault.

#3 Healing can be humiliating.

International Centers for Research on Women Chamberlain Dissertation Award Luncheon

I am finally posting pictures from the ICRW Award Luncheon in NYC this September.

Thank you, again, to ICRW for the Mariam K. Chamberlain Dissertation Award! This was one of the most amazing days of my life! I got to meet so many amazing people, including  Violeta Ross Quiroga, Cherie Blair, Barbara Pierce Bush, Rajiv Shah, Scott Jackson, and Ashley Judd. I am still walking on air.

#3 Healing Can be Humiliating

687018a2e8acad7692a7052b1e88f04cHere 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.

KP

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#5 Unraveling codependency is really hard

#4 It was not my fault.

#5 Unraveling Codependence is Really Hard

61f07465911728279d5e91f2cba1662dHere 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.

KP

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#6 Isolation sucks

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 was alone a lot growing up. My exploiter purposefully pitted members of our household against one another to keep us separated. This tactic took me years to understand. I could not figure out why I was despised, especially by other children, because I thought I was a pretty nice kid. Only later did I grasp that these people were jealous of the perverse perfection my exploiter thought only I – and no one else – possessed. Other people blamed me for their abuse and neglect because my exploiter told them they could never be as good as me.

Granted, I now know other people did not recognize I was also being physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, as well as being commercially sexually exploited by this person. They thought I was free from harm, and cast endless aspersions my way in the form of ceaseless emotional and physical abuse, as well as occasional sexual abuse. I was, therefore, tormented, terrorized, and abandoned by three generations of my family.

But, through it all, I had faith that I would one day have a healthy family, and also be surrounded by supportive friends. My long-time therapist has commended me for visualizing the life I wanted and having faith that I would one day I would be loved: those daydreams, literally, saved my life. Imagining what my life would be one day made withstanding excruciating isolation for nearly 20 years manageable. Yes, I was always surrounded by fun-loving friends growing up, but except for 1 or 2 lifelong soulmates, books and music were always my closest companions.

I am happy to share my dreams came true, and I now have an abundance of generous people in my life. I am only close with one member of my family of origin now, and even that came after decades of healing and therapy. I do not take one relationship in my life for granted. I know the pain of isolation, and I am beyond grateful I had the grit and patience to withstand the excruciating, unrelenting void of feeling utterly alone. Not one second of that solitude was easy: I will never go back. My heart is full.

Here are a few photos of the friends and colleagues I am grateful to have in my life now. I have been traveling with friends and family a lot this winter and early spring. I am beyond thankful to have found them all.

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January 21, 2017 Washington, DC. Women’s March w/ fellow UMass students.

JOWL

February 24, 2017 Williamsburg, VA. College of William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law Human Trafficking Symposium, with fellow UMass Boston student Julianne Siegfriedt and our Prof. Keith Gunnar Bentele. Our presentations represented UMass Boston well!

Me and Rep. Khan

February 28, 2017 Boston, MA. Honored to be a part of a group that helped MA State Rep. Kay Khan at the MA State House to draft new legislation to fully decriminalize both child and adult commercial sex trafficking victims in MA. The bill (H.3499) was filed yesterday.

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March 22, 2017 Stockton, CA. Women’s Center – Youth and Family Services Director of Administration Kim Miller and I became fast friends during their annual luncheon. I was honored to be the keynote for their 37th annual event that raised $20K!!

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I also became fast friends with my fellow presenter, Suzanne Schultz, the Family Justice Center Project Director from the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office. I was already formulating a new study about prosecutors and CSEC legislation as we were saying “good-bye” for now.

Love does conquer all!!

KP

(Stay tuned through the year for the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.