#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 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 worked 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 overhauling 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 the 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. 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 artists, academics, and generally cool guys throughout the city. I finally felt 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. I started seeing these images that I would marry this guy and I started 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 felt like a freak.

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 falling on my face a lot in the beginning.

Thankfully, practice made perfect because I met my husband and BFF within three months of one another a few 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 even after I fell on my face.

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.

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#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 “queen bees” 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 one girlfriend who was the matriarch of the group of hometown friends I considered family. However, my relationship with her and 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” had secretly stabbed 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 with me. 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.

Eventually I realized 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 attracted new relationships with people who were not codependent, and did not struggle with addiction, alcoholism, or mental illness. This 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. He even tortured our pets to make them fearful of humans. This tactic took me years to understand. I could not figure out why I was despised, especially by the 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.

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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 (HD 1225) 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 spring for the remainder of 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.

#7 Be Patient and Take A Lot of Naps

tumblr_ml4q9pfq2g1snkdzho1_500(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.

Healing requires a lot of space, time, and rest. The day-in and day-out grind of building a healthy life is tremendously hard and profoundly exhausting. I felt like my entire body had been pulled through a pinhole after attending some of my first Al-Anon meetings. I was finally comprehending how much my family had told me that the sexual abuse and exploitation I had endured was my fault. My brain was, literally, re-wiring itself as I healed from this torment.

Violence and violation felt normal because that is all I knew while growing up. Conversely, peace and support initially felt suspicious and foreign as I immersed myself in recovering from the damage my family had inflicted. But each day I inched away from the dysfunction and chaos, and closer to my “new normal” of stability. This journey was slow, but I am so glad I endured.

Being patient with the practice of becoming is essential, though, while learning a new way to be. Healing is a one-step-forward and two-steps-back process. Making mistakes is unavoidable. We cannot realize who we are in this world without experiencing who we are not. Granted, these lessons can be humiliating; however, they are necessary as we become our authentic selves.

So, sometimes, it’s not only okay, but necessary, to keep the covers over your head and heal up. Sustainable change takes time and courage, as well as quiet and regeneration. One step (and nap) at a time.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of 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.”

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

(armourHere 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 have been procrastinating writing this next section for weeks. Talking about leaving my toxic relationships with family and many lifelong friends is still incredibly painful, even decades later. I felt like I had betrayed my community when I severed ties because the relationships were blindingly unhealthy. I didn’t want to abandon anyone like I had been abandoned (literally and emotionally) by my exploiter, but I ultimately felt like I needed to go. I did not feel safe around my biological family, and my lifelong friends were primarily bound by getting high.

Dr. Rochelle Dalla refers to this exodus as “leaving old playmates and old playgrounds.” Such leaving is common and necessary in order to heal and move on from exploitation. Much like recovering addicts or alcoholics needing to detach from families and peer groups organizing around substance use, finding new healthy communities is essential for CSEC survivors. Dysfunctional patterns of obedience and co-dependence must be interrupted and steadily replaced with healthy relationship skills like setting boundaries and practicing self-care.

While such a choice and transition may illicit praise from new connections and communities focused on healing, “old playmates” may not be so supportive. For instance, I was told by numerous family members and friends immersed in drug culture that I was being “selfish” when I started attending Al-Anon meetings. I was finding my voice and peeling back the layers of my family’s intergenerational cycles of addiction and violence. Their resistance was palpable.

As a result, I was no longer compliant of addiction’s “unwritten rules” of harboring shame and secrecy. I was authentically stating my opinion and making my own choices for the first time. Yes, I was an outspoken feminist and activist to the outside world, but I had never stood my ground with family and friends: those relationships were predicated on my silence and deference.

The hardest part about walking away was that family and lifelong friendships are everything in Appalachia, where I grew up. People don’t have much in terms of economic resources and social capital, so everyone pulls together to share what they do have. Friends fill freezers with casseroles when a family member dies  or neighbors stop by after church on Sunday to mend an elderly woman’s fence.

Such gestures did not happen when I moved to Boston, which was recently dubbed the “Meanest City in America.” I had left an entire way of being, in addition to those I loved. Healing was more important to me, but I paid a high price in sadness, grief, and isolation by choosing to say good-bye.

Over decades, I did find my place among new, supportive friends and adopted New England as my permanent home. I met and married the love of my life whose family has enveloped me as their own. I attempted to repair some of those old, broken friendships over time, but my efforts fell flat. I had left, and was told to stay gone.

My sense is most people were happy I had left. Cycles of addiction and family violence require everyone to collude in the dysfunction and denial. I had refused to play along, and was, therefore, rebuffed. My husband predicts friends may reach out in time, but I am not hopeful. They never wanted all of me in the first place.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of 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.

#9 Health: Top 11 Things I’ve Learned While Healing From CSEC

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.

#9 Prioritize your physical health.

Nurse Comforting PatientFinding trauma-informed primary medical care has been the absolute hardest part of my long-term healing from CSEC. Countless doctors have simply glazed over or bypassed my medical concerns when I tell them that I have an extensive history of sexual, physical, and domestic violence. One OB/GYN even blushed, and simply moved on with her routinized questions.

Mental health is often the primary focus of health care for CSEC victims and survivors. Doctors seem to be comfortable with the fact that violence affects the mind; however, many cannot seem to grasp how the mind and body are connected. Yes, mental health is incredibly important; however, I found I could not truly become whole until I was able to heal my brain and my body.

Unfortunately, that healing took decades, though, because traditional, Western-oriented doctors were quick to blame me for my medical issues rather than understand how trauma had ravaged my body. I had been sent to nutritionist after nutritionist since I was 18 to address my unusually high cholesterol. As a teenager doctors noted I was “lean and otherwise healthy,” but failed to note that high cholesterol is a symptom of trauma. I was only ever asked what I ate. My safety or other external physical factors never came into question.

Similarly, yet another nutritionist gave me a Cheerios-sponsored brochure about how to lower my cholesterol. Ironically, however, I later discovered that wheat and dairy were part a large part of the reason why I had been sick for so long. Naturopathic doctors diagnosed my myriad of food allergies (wheat, dairy, eggs, and soy). Once I omitted these foods, my cholesterol levels lowered, a skin rash I had had since childhood cleared up, and I lost weight. I truly amazing. Naturopaths had considered my physical symptoms, as well as my trauma history to identify the root causes of my health issues.

I recently learned from the essential book Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ that over half of the central nervous system resides in the stomach. This fact left me completely stunned, and also relieved. Answers do exist as to why I and so many of the CSEC victims and survivors that I have met over the years suffer from gastrointestinal issues even decades after our exploitation ends. Trauma can manifest in our guts as often as our brains. The mind and the body are deeply connected.

I am fortunate enough to now be surrounded by trauma-informed health practitioners. I recently because a research assistant with the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Freedom Clinic, a free health clinic for human trafficking victims and survivors. The clinic’s focus is to provide comprehensive physical and mental health care to victims and survivors throughout New England, as well as to conduct research on how victims and survivors can best access the trauma-informed care we need and deserve.

KP

(Stay tuned through the winter for the remainder of the countdown to #1.)

Also in this series:

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

#10 Laugh…a lot.