#7 Be Patient and Take A Lot of Naps

tumblr_ml4q9pfq2g1snkdzho1_500Here 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 daily 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 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. You just need to take 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.”

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#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 need 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 once I said 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 healthy 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 were never considered.

One nutritionist gave me a Cheerios-sponsored brochure about how to lower my cholesterol. Ironically, 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 was truly amazed. 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. This is just another example of how the mind and body are deeply connected.

I am fortunate enough to now be surrounded by trauma-informed health practitioners. I recently became 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 throughout this year 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.

Top 11 Things I’ve Learned While Healing from CSEC (Cont’d)

 

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.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

“If my life weren’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” – Carrie Fisher

carrie-fisher-gary-fisher-barnes-noble-ba4857c0-d28a-4e37-aba4-54f42002bcb1This is my favorite quote of all time, and it is particularly salient since Carrie Fisher recently passed (pictured right with her dog, Gary). But this is simply the truth. My life has been so immensely tragic due to not only child sex trafficking, but also from growing up poor in Appalachia; being sexually abused by multiple members of both sides of my biological family; losing my mother to cancer six months before I graduated from college (graduating from college was her lifelong dream for me); and needing to build a life for myself in Boston from scratch. Surviving my 46 years on this planet (almost 47) has been no joke.

And yet, humor has endlessly saved the day as I fled that turmoil. Take for instance, the last time I stayed with my maternal grandfather on his farm in Appalachia. I was in the living room reading the New York Times while my step-uncle was sitting outside the door in a cheap lawn chair – shotgun in hand – waiting to blow away a groundhog who had been chewing up the grass. My brain bypassed the obvious Caddyshack reference (“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher.’”) to thinking How in the world did I get here?! This was just one of many family settings where I did not fit in. I must have looked ridiculous lounging over a snobby newspaper while this man waited in the hot sun to decimate a varmint. (His ulterior motive may have also been to skin the critter for supper, but we’ll never know. No shots were ever fired.)

This scene definitely landed at the top of most absurd family moments; however, multiple tragedies were also embedded in this instance. Numerous people in that house had sexually abused either me, my mother, or others (who shall remain nameless due to privacy and security purposes) and everyone had been emotionally abusive toward me and my mother. I had been sexually abused in that basement, and endlessly humiliated at countless holiday dinners and parties. And, yet, I had returned as the dutiful granddaughter because I wanted a relationship with my biological family.  My mother had died a few years before and I did my best to cling to her memory.

Yet, I knew I could never return after that weekend. Soon after that visit I confronted my grandfather about sexually abusing me and my mother. I had started healing from the sexual abuse and exploitation and I could not stay silent any longer. He vehemently denied my assertion and threatened to cut me out of his will if I did not retract my words. I did not care about his money and I would not back down. I knew in every fiber of my being that he had harmed us. I never spoke to him again, and learned years after his death that someone else had gotten my share of the inheritance. I also later learned he told family members that I had falsely accused him of abuse because I had asked for money for college for decades (I had not).

I am grateful that the “groundhog vs. The Times” episode is my final memory of going to that farm and seeing so many of my family members. That scene’s farcicality puts the perfect, hilarious bow on what could have been a heart-breaking final moment. Instead, I will always remember how both the groundhog and I got away that day with our lives intact.

KP

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

Also in this series:

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

Top 11 Lessons I’ve Learned While Healing from Child Sex Trafficking

a047c93013e521589785b838eb25a5c5I am commonly asked how in the world I survived CSEC. The answer is neither short nor simple. So I’ve decided to write this series of posts answering that very question.

I do a lot of public speaking both as an academic and as a CSEC survivor. While I am both of these things simultaneously, the focus of of each presentation is quite different. The first takes a very distanced, sociological approach that subjectively looks at the dynamics of child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Whereas, my talks about surviving and healing from CSEC are intensely intimate and focus on my own journey moving from surviving to thriving. This series of posts aims to address both.

People often tell me I am an inspiration, which I appreciate immensely. I continue to speak publicly about my personal story because so many people have faced similar struggles, and my talks often create a sense of “communal survival.” We are immersed in a victim-blaming, rape culture that simultaneously ignores and vilifies survivors who are willing to tell “truth to power” and who refuse to be silenced.

While being a sexual violence and exploitation survivor grants me “insider” status and provides instant credibility as a CSEC expert, being a survivor can also be a hindrance as a social scientist. I am well aware that I can never be completely impartial or objective. My intention is to utilize my academic proclivity to interrupt the cycles CSEC and sexual violence: that is always my goal. Therefore, I always need to “check” my bias when conducting research and surround myself with collaborators who share my commitment to social justice and to sound social science.

Here is the beginning 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 to this day. My personal experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

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

I placed risk-taking at the bottom of this list of lessons because it is the foundation of my life, not because it is the least important. I am 100% certain I would not be where I am today if I had not taken a ton of risks. I may still be alive, but I doubt I would be living a calm, happy life with a tight circle of family and close friends.

Moving to Boston after my mother died was the biggest risk I have ever taken. This risk did not pay off at all when I first moved here because I was really alone and I didn’t make any good friends until I had lived here for five years. In fact, I considered returning to my hometown in Appalachia (that I had fled) once I realized I was living the life my mother had wanted me to live, not the life I wanted. Yes, I was renting a gorgeous apartment in Cambridge, MA that had once been feature in Architectural Digest and was working at a prestigious university. But I felt empty…like I was in a movie…not building an authentic life of my own.

Ultimately, I ended up staying in Boston after I completely fell on my face in front of my hometown family and friends. Not that many people wanted me to return. My ideation that I had somehow abandoned my roots was a complete fallacy. People who I loved dearly had not only expected me to leave, but also preferred I stay gone. Certainly, this realization stung; however, I brushed myself off after some time and moved on.  Ultimately, I am eternally grateful I hadn’t moved after all. One year later I met my best friend and my husband around the same time.

Such risk-taking is a common theme that runs through so many fellow CSEC survivors’ lives. The need to “leave it all behind” is essential in order to heal from the layers of control, domination, manipulation, and violence that keeps the dynamics of CSEC in place.

I certainly do not advocate people impulsively betting the farm without seriously considering all sides of a situation. In truth, returning to my hometown would not have been physically safe because the majority of my exploiter’s family still lived there, and I had already started my very public CSEC advocacy work. But at the time I felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose, because I had already lost everything after my mother had died. In the end, though, my may leaps of faith have served me incredibly well in that with big risk comes great reward. My life is living proof.

Stay tuned for the next installment…I will post the entirety of the list throughout the year.

KP

Also in this series:

#10 Laugh…a lot.

“Take care of each another.”

As you can see, I tend not to write much during the semester. Life is just too crazy. However, I cannot remain silent given the current election results and the acts of violence that have ensued. Racist, misogynist, narcissistic bigots are feeling emboldened to act on their hatred.

I am working on a piece that explains how this same very mindset and vitriol fueled my own exploitation. I will post it soon. In the meantime, I leave you with a foreboding lyric from Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” for some introspection. During a 2010 performance the band encouraged everyone to “take care of one another.” We definitely need that now.

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WBUR’s Cognoscenti

I am honored to share I was recently published in Cognoscenti, a “thoughts and ideas” website from WBUR, an NPR radio station based at Boston University. The editors have also asked me to contribute additional stories, so stay tuned for future posts! My recent piece is below.

‘No One Intervened’: A Sex Trafficking Survivor Says U.S. Must Do Better For Its Children

I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence. My abuse and exploitation supported his drug addiction. He used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. Extended family, friends and teachers suspected something was wrong, but no one intervened. Instead, most wrote me off. That’s just what those people do to one another.” We were white trash; I was disposable.

Even though I had straight A’s and graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class, I felt worthless. In my community, I was seen as someone who would never amount to anything. But my mother had higher hopes for me. She knew my academic aspirations where my way out. She had wanted to go to college, but her violent father had convinced her that she could learn as much at the textile factory where she worked as she could in college. Even though she was trapped and could not protect me from my exploiter, she helped me survive by allowing me to have my nose in a book as often as I could and by supporting my dream of becoming a scholar.

Extended family, friends and teachers suspected something was wrong, but no one intervened.

When I was 10, I visited a friend whose mother was a professor at the local college. Their house was filled with books, and the radio was tuned to NPR. In that moment, I knew I wanted my life to look like theirs. My family was ensnared in generational cycles of violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, poverty and shame. That one visit gave me a vision of what I knew my life could look like beyond those cycles, and I held on to that inspiration for dear life as I fought my way out. Six months before I graduated from a college far from my hometown, my mother died. Heartbroken but resolute, I moved to Boston to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming an academic.

I am now pursuing my Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I am researching how organizational and legislative discrimination toward commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC, can re-traumatize child sex victims and survivors instead of providing necessary services and protection. For instance, 40 states, including Massachusetts, retain the right to arrest a child (anyone under the age of 18) for prostitution, often citing the need to detain “non-compliant” youth or insisting that jail is the only way to keep victims safe from traffickers and buyers.

This approach degrades and harms trafficked children in three ways. First, arresting children for CSEC implies that they are complicit in their exploitation, not victims of a violent crime. Second, labeling sexually exploited children as “non-compliant” ignores the likelihood they have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest as victims appearing “uncooperative” under extreme duress. Third, police who aim to “protect” victims of commercial sexual exploitation by locking them up ignore the long-term implications of having a criminal record, such as impeding future employment or educational opportunities. Instead of detention, more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs are needed so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” victims.

We must also address child sexual abuse and poverty — two primary CSEC risk factors — if we truly want to prevent their harm. The United States is ranked first among economically advanced countries for children dying from abuse or neglect and second for children living in poverty. In addition, we are the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international children’s human rights treaty. Yet, we imagine ourselves as a country dedicated to the health and well-being of our nation’s children.

…we are the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Decades have passed since I left my hometown, but I would still be seen as less than were I to return. I choose to shake off their prejudice. I have grown stronger as my advocacy has become more public. I recently appeared on BBC World Service to raise awareness about the scourge of child sex trafficking. My research recently changed child sex trafficking legislation in Florida to ensure that its victims will not be involuntarily detained without receiving protective services that extricate them from their abusers.

My mother dreamed that good things can happen to anybody, even people who have been violated. She didn’t live long enough to see that good things have happened for me. I am happy and proud to honor her memory, however, by standing up for children who, through no fault of their own, are victimized as I was. My hope is that our nation will do better for our most vulnerable children, too.