Defining Family As A Survivor: Through Grief and Contrast

reaching out to the sea

It’s been three and a half months since my partner of seven years passed away. I’ve experienced many cold, dark, lonely days since then. The holidays this year were not a time to celebrate, but to grieve, and somehow survive despite the pain and fresh trauma that life threw at me. As a survivor of abuse, incest, and child sex trafficking, I lost my biological family a long time ago. And today I’ve lost the one I spent years building up; my partner, our dog, and my home have been ripped away from me in rapid succession. It’s left me whiplashed, but also contemplative, and more then ready to examine what is left.

What I’ve come to realize is that there were toxic people in the life I shared with my partner, who had emotionally abused and disregarded me over a long period of time. Including my partner’s adult son, and a close friend of ours. And they didn’t stop being abusive when he died and I became more vulnerable then before. They didn’t suddenly decide to give me respect, validate my personhood or recognize my equal value. I had to demand it, and move forward with the truth regardless of their attempts to retaliate and hurt me in response.

When my partner died, he was in the closet. He admitted the reality of our relationship to almost no one, though people who really knew him could see the obvious truth. Though we weren’t married, he was family to me, he was my family. Yet after he died I found that in many of our discussions, a friend of mine kept making unprovoked statements along the lines of “well, THEY’RE the family, we were just his friends…” and when I shared my sorrow as well as physical exhaustion with her, she would say in a critical tone “oh gosh, well imagine how THEY must feel?” These were silencing statements, that really harmed and confused me in the earlier stages of my grief, despite the fact that I definitely don’t believe in comparing feelings or pain.

It also hurt me because it was like she decided from the beginning that there were sides, that I was on one side and my partner’s relatives/legal heirs were on the other. And she had chosen her side. In truth she had said things like this before, treating me like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong in my partner’s life and was driving a wedge between him and his relatives. As if she didn’t approve of our relationship, though she wouldn’t come out and say it. When I confronted her about how these statements and her withdrawal of friendship made me feel, she responded by saying “I know you THINK you had a relationship with Dew, but I don’t believe that!” She told me that I was just Dew’s employee, while she was his friend (thus in a higher position in his life then myself, and if I was less then her, I must be so much less then his relatives too.)

This level of absurd, arrogant invalidation shocked me; as if she actually thought she knew better then I what happened in private, while I only imagined things like living with him, our physical intimacy, verbal expressions of affection, and the many seasons of our life together. But I also felt empowerment, because I had stood up for myself, and that is something she could never take away or cancel out. It also helped me to realize that it hadn’t just been my own insecurity telling me all these years that people are thinking things like this; some really were. And now that my partner was dead, I wasn’t putting up with them anymore. I’m not letting anyone, not my family of origin or her tell me that my experiences, memories and feelings are not real or valid.

When my partner’s relatives came to the house after he died, we got along well, and it seemed for a time that a new page had been turned in our relationship. But I see now that wasn’t real; the truth is that when they came I was desperate, afraid, and eager to please, because I thought I would be thrown out with nothing. So I over-exerted myself, running on pure adrenaline I sought to make myself invaluable to them. But they just saw me as a source of cheap, efficient and quick labor; which given my physical and mental state, I most certainly am not. And my partner’s son was no more eager to please or even willing to accommodate me then he was in the years past.

From the very day we met, his behavior implied that he didn’t approve of my presence in my partner’s life and his house. Though he used the fact that he owned the house after my partner died to push in on me, the truth is he didn’t bother knocking back when my partner was alive, he would violate my space on his whim. Once he threw my clothes from the washing machine onto the floor and left them there so that he could do his own laundry, another time he insisted despite my objections on washing the carpet in my office with chemical carpet cleaners that made such strong and long-lasting fumes that I wasn’t able to enter my office again for over seven months without getting sick.  There are many such examples, that I never received any apology for.

My partner explained to his son countless times that I have a very real medical condition; multiple chemical sensitivity, a neuro-immune, multi-system illness that causes me to experience acute pain and inflammation when coming into contact with volatile off-gassing chemicals. But he never acknowledged his father’s requests that he simply use the hypoallergenic, environmentally friendly products we provided him with that made our living environment tolerable for me.   On his visits I would become sick, and have to retreat to the small cabin on the property, despite it’s lack of facilities. After my partner died and I was kept on as caretaker of the estate, he began to say things like “I don’t know about your ‘sensitivities,’ but…” when actually he knew very well about them, he just didn’t care.

Over the three months that I spent caretaking my former home, my health deteriorated rapidly, as my safe environment was gone, and I was dealing with grief as well as the stress of my precarious position and being pressured into taking on a project which I was not capable of doing. Despite my chronic fatigue and pain, I began to experience panic attacks, thinking that he would come back to the house and if I didn’t finish single-handedly building an entire business out of my partner’s artwork, I would be thrown out (even though that was not a part of our agreement.) I was right about that.   When I wrote him an email saying that though I had completed a great deal of the work I had reached my limit, he didn’t respond. But when he came back, he tried to bully me into moving forward with it; he grew aggressive, and hostile; he kept making demeaning comments about me, asking insulting questions like ‘do you have fleas?’ and otherwise not listening to anything that I said, confident that he could steamroll me and get his way regardless.

Finally, without warning he decided to light an illegal trash fire 40 feet in front of the cabin where I was struggling to live.  When I saw him light it he shouted that he would be “shooting off guns” as well, so I should stay in the cabin.  As the smoke entered through the cracks in the doors and windows, my lungs constricted, my skin started to burn and my heart-rate increased rapidly. Thankfully I was able to call one of the only true friends that has stood by me during this entire episode, and he came to pick me up.  But as I was still trying to recover at my friends house, he rang me, and started calling me names, asking me if I was ever coming back or not, saying that he had gone through my things in the cabin after I left…

At that moment I stood up for myself, I told him that just because he inherited the house does not give him the right to emotionally abuse, bully, disregard or physically attack me with smoke and chemicals. He probably wanted to provoke me at that point, to give him an excuse to throw me out, and he got what he wanted; telling me to “get the hell out of my house” before I hung up the phone. It was just a few hours before my birthday, which I would spend frantically packing my things.

People trying to invalidate my illness or my relationship, pretending that they didn’t exist, and that they hadn’t already been proven and explained to them, was enormously painful after my partners death. I was being attacked while at my lowest point. But I’ve had to ask myself today, am I someone so desperate and vulnerable that I’m willing to put up with any amount of mistreatment and abuse that people throw at me? The answer is no, that is not my state of being today, and anyone who tries to project that onto me is completely mistaken. While I’ve been experiencing a massive identity crisis, as I lost my partner, our home, and our beloved dog, that crisis is not about whether I have and deserve to be treated with equal value. I do.

During my final encounter with my partner’s son, he brought up yet again a patronizing question he had asked me many times; “why don’t you just call your family?” Asking it more then once shows how he hadn’t respected my answer, that we are estranged, and I have no biological family; that I don’t define family that way. But the real answer came to me less then a week later when the good friends I reached out to, who supported me during this whole time took me in and told me that they consider me family, and won’t throw me into the wind, like my partner’s biological family, or my own. They don’t restrict compassion and human decency to just people that are biological relatives, or build relationships out of obligation. And neither do I.

My partner was my family, until he died. And now I have new family members; people who share my definition of family, which doesn’t include invalidation or disrespect, but acceptance and love.  Family that are here for me as I build a new life and find new truths. I hope you will be there with me too.

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Learning To Value My Creativity After Emotional Abuse

proudly sensitiveA photo I took shortly after escaping my abusive family home

Being a visually oriented person, photography has long been a great interest of mine,  though it wasn’t always accessible to me. I remember the first significant time I used my parent’s camera, on a (unhappy) trip to Berkeley when I was 15.  A week after I arrived home, my mother threw the just-developed pictures on the floor in the hallway and banged on my door, screaming “You’re lucky I didn’t pay to have these developed; these are the worst pictures I’ve ever seen in my life!” She provided neither instruction on how to use the camera beforehand, or encouragement for how I might use it better in the future, there was just a put-down before I even got to see the pictures myself.

Instead of paying for the film herself with unconditional love, she had charged it to her workplace account and then became enraged at me because I didn’t make her subterfuge feel worthwhile. My mother communicated to me that I wasn’t worthy of kind gestures or good thoughts even if they cost her nothing at all, and that I should feel ashamed. Permanently ashamed, as once I hadn’t lived up to her expectations the first time trying something, she would never forget, I would always be a ‘bad photographer’ in her eyes after this.

Looking back I had just gone through a hellish year of constant bullying and isolation at school, I was anxious and depressed, and understandably not fully engaged in where I was going or what I was seeing. If my mother had considered not that these were ‘bad photographs’ meaning that I was incompetent, but asked questions instead along the lines of “Why didn’t you have a good time?”, “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?” Then maybe the answer would have been different. Perhaps she would have seen, beyond the first-time camera use, that the photographs reflected what I was feeling at the time, if they seemed like a drab afterthought, that is what they were meant to be.

The truth is that I found spending three days each way on a hot, stressful, sleepless bus ride across the country living off of stale junk food numbing and dismal. Countless people along the way harassed and called me homophobic slurs because of the way I dressed, people threatened to assault me, and I was bored out of my mind. And all of that just to stay with my older sister who was no more interested in my feelings then our mother was. She was principally occupied with her one and a half year old son, and though I couldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, the fact is he triggered feelings about my own abuse when I was his size. It made me really uncomfortable to be around him.

But my sister’s habit of constantly yelling and raging at me was worse; her communication methods were toxic, she took our her bad days at work on me, and threatened to kick me out of her car and leave me stranded in the city I didn’t know. Staying with her was not a vacation, and not a summer activity that I would have chosen for myself had I been given options. But this trip was my mother’s idea; she constantly wanted to travel to California and see her grandchild, a desire I naturally didn’t share at the time, but which she projected onto me.

A year before, I walked into the kitchen and heard her on the phone begging my sister to let me go live with them for the entire summer.  She said that I, at fourteen “needed something to love,” and thus would be a great babysitter for her infant son, that I could take him out in his stroller to the park every day…  As if that wasn’t blind and inappropriate enough, my mother went on to say that I could sleep outside on the balcony of their studio apartment so that my sister and her husband “could still have sex” while I was there.  Though I quickly left the room, I know that my sister declined this bizarre proposal.

The photographs to document my trip included stray shots taken from the bus windows at odd angles, of smoke-stained cities we drove through in five minutes, of the exterior of the building where my sister’s cramped apartment lie in, poorly lit photographs in her rooms, and scenes over the boiling California sidewalks where I wandered up and down aimlessly for no discernible  reason (except for the fact that my sister would yell at me if I didn’t go out and “explore.”) Apparently not what my mother would have preferred. But I wasn’t a bad photographer, I simply had nothing else to photograph, no hope, no good memories, nothing to focus on and little knowledge of what all the buttons on my parents cheap old camera were supposed to do.

I wasn’t responsible for meeting my mother’s strange and not clearly expressed expectations at the time. As my mother, she was responsible for taking care of me and meeting my needs and respecting my feelings, which she did not do, instead she abused me, she ignored me, and tried to over-rule my very personhood with the unsuitable plans she dreamed up for me. Her emotional abuse was never justifiable, it doesn’t matter even if she had paid for a roll of unsuccessful film to be developed. I didn’t keep the photographs from that trip myself, I threw them away after looking at them once, my mother’s words echoing in my mind. It was hard for me to value anything that others didn’t.

Four years later I got my first digital camera, and I was thrilled. I could experiment, and express my point of view without having it screened or put down by anyone before I even saw the results myself, and when I did like what I produced, I shared it with my friends online.  Sometimes when looking at those old photos I took while I was still living at home, they make me uncomfortable, because I can see the shadow of trauma and old memories in the background.   But I don’t feel ashamed of myself, my history or what my art is today or was in the past.

Today I do make my own decisions on what I value, independent of what others think.   Reclaiming my true history from the lies told to me by abusers has been a very empowering process.  So, you’ll be seeing allot more of my photographs on Proudly Sensitive in the future.

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Grieving and Healing in A Time of Crisis

As summer wound down this year I found myself going through an extremely volatile and unstable period, constantly triggered and impulsive, unable to calm myself for longer then a few hours or really understand why it was happening. This brought up familiar feelings of being a failure, a lost cause, trapped. For many years I felt like my life was a massive glacier towering above me, slowly melting at the rate of one drop per day. I constantly circled around it, having the same thoughts and coming to the same conclusion, yet not getting anywhere.

As the inches receded in my healing process I’d touch little pieces of new land, but sometimes wonder if I wasn’t imagining that, if in fact it was still the same size if not even bigger then before. Occasionally I’d get worked up, and set unrealistic goals for myself, that this week or next month I’d finally bypass that circle and climb right up to the summit of the glacier and conquer it completely. Yet time would continue to pass, and I’d be left to just daydream about how great it would be if suddenly the whole structure would collapse on it’s own, break into pieces and disappear into the ocean. So then I wouldn’t have to do anything. or so it seemed.

A breakthrough came when I realized that it was those feelings of failure which I should be looking at. On September 18th I celebrated ten years since I left my abusive childhood home, which was a really big event for me and brought with it a lot reflection. But for the previous year I hadn’t really been planning any celebration. Instead I was setting a massive deadline for this anniversary in my quest to change my life and seek justice. But it was a blind deadline, for something I wasn’t emotionally ready for and didn’t really know how I would ultimately accomplish. Actually, I set two deadlines, one of them was more realistic and possible, but not so long as I was frightening my inner child half to death by super gluing it to the second one. No, it was only when I rescinded that demand and those deadlines that my symptoms went away and I could breathe again.

But not for very long. Just two weeks after my anniversary I woke up to the sound of my partner, the person I shared the past seven years of my life with calling for my help. I found him collapsed on the floor, and suffering from a bad stroke. He died four days later in the hospital; despite the great visit I had with him the day before, I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing, but it wasn’t him. He died before the medical tests predicting his future could be completed, despite the plans being weaved for his care and recovery.

It came about suddenly, the day before his stroke is burned into my memory because of it’s utter normalcy; how in the morning he painted a watercolor of the night sky, I wrote and gardened; he became extremely stressed out and we argued; one of our best friends came over and we had a nice visit together before they went off for their weekly cello practice; as the sun set, he and I sat together and stared out at the rose garden, talking quietly about everything. It could stand in for countless other days in our life, except for the fact that it was the last day.

Approaching one month now, the shock is still with me, even as it has crystallized into utter surety that he and our life together are gone. I was financially dependent on him, but his blood-family were the ones who inherited his estate. That means I have to build a new life for myself, yet nothing is completely new; the obstacles and strengths I move forward with were already here with me when he was alive.

I’ve felt abandoned by his passing, I’ve felt despair, extreme sadness, and also anger, at him, at other people, at the situation I’m in today. And I’ve validated all of my feelings, and my right to feel whatever I feel, even if it isn’t in step with anyone else. While I’ve appreciated having support since he died, and have learned a lot about reaching out for it when I need to, I’ve also learned that we can’t always grieve together, and it isn’t about meshing. In the end, it’s me again, just as I’ve stood by my own side in facing childhood trauma, I do so in grieving as well.

At the end of September, 2013 I had a dream that I was at his death bed, and sobbing, but when I got up and left the room, I found I was in my childhood home, amongst all of my family of origin, who characteristically didn’t care about my grief, but were convinced, and pleased that now my life would be on their terms again. I woke up feeling dread, taking this as a literal message that I had to complete certain goals quickly in case of the vague possibility that he would die soon due to his shaky health. But even as this month has been my worst nightmare on one level, it hasn’t been an actualization of my greatest fears.

I keep remembering and reflecting on the years between us, and those without. All that I’ve felt for a long time about what other routes my life might have taken if I didn’t cross an ocean to move in with him; I let go of them long ago, and that’s good, because there is only one possible starting point; the sun can’t rise any other way tomorrow. Though I’ve lost him and our life together, our home and income, that doesn’t mean I lose everything I gained while I’ve been here. My memories, my progress and healing are real and can’t vanish like that, and nor can the ghouls of my childhood reappear and overtake me so easily. They haven’t, and they won’t. I’ve seen many signs of my growth since his passing, my increased self-esteem and confidence, my old anxieties melted away.

Yet I can’t believe how sick I’ve been since he died. It’s made me very afraid, sometimes that I have some new disease, but for the most part it makes me worry for my future. I was able to successfully manage my chronic health conditions for years now and have a good quality of life despite having comorbid conditions such as multiple chemical sensitivities, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and of course post traumatic stress disorder; conditions that are triggered by my personal environment, and my ability to keep allergens and toxic chemicals out of it, which I’ve lost. With all the exposures of the past month I’ve been reacting to many things and situations which I’ve tolerated before, and have alarming new symptoms, my acupuncturist has been equally shocked at how my body is responding and sensitizing.

I face many challenges moving forward, and big decisions which I’ve only tentatively started to make. My priorities have changed, and the plans I had a crisis about in the summer will only come up again if/when they’re really right for me. My task now is about looking for the right opportunities and making plans based on sober reflections of my own reality. I understand now that I can’t set the timeline, not in the way I was trying, with patterns of control I learned in my childhood. What I can set is my own commitment to my processes of healing and positive change. My commitment to celebrating the milestones I encounter with genuine love for myself and my journey, even as my recent anniversary has prompted another big change for my life.

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The Pretense of “Both Sides” When You’re The One Being Abused

When I was 9 years old I broke down crying and confessed to my sister how much my older brother had been abusing me on a daily basis since she went away, she said to me “C’mon Caden, I’ve seen you punch Jake before, I know you can do it…” So her solution was to shame, tell me that it was my fault when all along I could just punch him and he would stop. I wonder today, would she also suggest that if I just punched my parents or the members of their pedophile ring, the rest of the abuse would have ended too? But those rare times when I would try to really retaliate against my brother (though not with fists because I couldn’t hurt him that way), there was no support from her or anyone else, and there was no one there to protect me when inevitably it only made the physical, sexual, and emotional torture even worse. But I see today that the illusion of my childhood power was very valuable to them in making me feel powerless and blaming it all on me, using whatever real or imaginary revenge actions I had carried out as ‘evidence’ for how my bigger, stronger and malicious older brother was actually not really at fault, but ‘both sides’ were.

When my mother was leaving me alone with my brother yet again she would always make throwaway comments to both of us like ‘no fighting,’ drilling into me the idea that the abuse was also my fault. Simply by being abused I could be accused of ‘fighting’ and disobeying her orders. How I could not ‘fight’ was to hide on the bathroom floor or out in the woods all day in the summer, on weekends or days after school, and if I was lucky, he wouldn’t come find me anyway. When my parents left us alone to go on their private vacations my mother would say I could call them if there was any trouble. Yet when I dialed the number to tell them about what he was doing to me, they ignored my messages. My brother invited kids who bullied me at school to his big, raucous parties, and allowed his friends to play sadistic sexual games with my body and rape me. I was never left at peace in my own home, but to the very bitter end all I heard from my parents was the same tired phrases and lies, ‘no fighting’ ‘stay out of his room and he’ll stay out of yours,’ ‘he wouldn’t do that!’ ‘you’re always making up stories,’ ‘you’re just too sensitive…’

My childhood was one long series of abandonments. some I was able to numb myself to, while others such as this one blared in my face and made it impossible not to recognize what the whole truth of our family was. It makes me sick to see that lines like “as a parent you can’t protect him forever…” are so often used as an excuse for parents of young boys to neglect their responsibility to protect during the crucial but short years of childhood, which doesn’t even come close to “forever.” Being protected and nurtured in early life does make for healthier, more resilient and well-adjusted adults in the long run, while abandonment does not. I know that my childhood home should not have been ruled over by some ‘law of the jungle’ where I had to win my right to exist via violence, and nor should my elementary school have been that way either. If as is so often the case, a boy is bullied and beaten at school but the only solution offered is not to call the police, the school principal, or start anti-bullying programs but to “teach the boy how to fight!” then the cycle of violence is being perpetuated, not broken.

It is not anyone’s place to make the extremely insulting claim that I didn’t resist the abuse to my full capacity as a child, because I most certainly did. I was never empowered by ridiculous stereotypes about what my physical strength should be, which is of course completely irrelevant when it comes to abuse and the legacy of disempowerment that it brings. I know that boys are not at a lower risk for physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but that our vulnerability is systematically denied and we are subject to sick stereotypes about “needing” more physical punishment and most often left on our own. I know that ultimately I wasn’t interested in fighting with my brother or punching people, I just wanted and fully deserved a safe and comfortable home environment ruled by mutual respect. But my abusive parents destroyed any chance for that, and they were able to do it because as a child I was not capable of fixing the entire situation on my own.

The facade of impartiality they adopted in response to my brother abusing me was of course very shallow in the end. They took his stories (about how yes, he assaulted me and though I was the only one bruised or with my bedroom door torn down, it was really my fault because I made him do it) as the final word without even asking me, and always viewed me as a burden for having complaints. The truth is there are two sides between the abuser and the abused, but the ‘side’ of the abuser is so petty and repulsive that it doesn’t bear sympathy. My brother’s side was that he hated me for just existing, and supposedly ‘being’ the long list of insults he regularly threw at me. But the victimization and abuse only went one way. While he may still hate the ground I walk on and everything that I say/think, that is really irrelevant. He still doesn’t have a valid side when it comes to our relationship.

Listening to the advice of my family, that the abuse was normal and I should just ‘let it go’ would have left me eternally at the whim of my abusers. Giving them permission to wake up every day and decide whether they will continue abusing me or not, while I would have to wake up every day wondering if I will be abused again, and not able to voice that concern, that question because it could be seen as provocative. That is not a life I want to live, it is not a life at all. Sadly too many family therapists act like it is their job to enter into families with histories of abuse and level everything in order to be fair to both parties. But there is nothing fair about being abused, and you can never make it fair by edict long after the fact.

When does a relationship with a history of severe abuse driven by power and age differentials from childhood become a situation where both sides are equally at fault and equally responsible? Never, I would say. Survivors do not have an obligation to put aside our need for validation and our genuine feelings in favor of maintaining a sick status quo. There is no comparison between an adult rightfully not liking or trusting another adult as a result of past events, and the agony of a child being abused and crushed by someone bigger and stronger then themselves. Both sides is B.S. when people want to sit on the sidelines and apportion equal blame to victims.

Despite what abuse implies, the victim of violence is not less then their attacker, and violence is still a crime no matter what; it is not “fair” because the victim was unable to “win a fight” or said something that the other person didn’t like. I don’t wish there was someone around to teach me how to fight as a child, I wish we had a community that really took care of and protected children from violence. I wish that when my older sister went away to college, she reported our parents to the police instead of making these insensitive comments to me. I know that, sadly, children who desperately fight back against their abusive parents or older siblings and kill them in the process are rarely spared from lengthy, if not life-long prison sentences here in the United States. Child abuse is not about what the child should have done, it’s about what other people should do to protect children, but all to often don’t.

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Confronting The Double Standards In Emotionally Abusive Family Relationships

One early evening when I was 18 years old, I was trying to take a shower.  But my mother kept knocking on the bathroom door, calling out my name and saying something in a muffled voice. There were two bathrooms in the house and I was halfway through my fifteen minute shower, I didn’t know what she could possibly want. I kept asking “what?” while continuing my shower and she kept knocking on the door, saying “Caden?, Jake? [my brother’s name,] and then coming back again. Eventually something rose up from inside of me, and I was screaming louder then I ever had in my life, asking over and over again, “What??” and eventually she went away. Many times when I was a child there was someone on the other side of that bathroom door banging and shouting at me as they gradually broke it down or picked the lock to attack me; I was sexually assaulted in that shower multiple times, making it difficult enough to be in there without one of my abusers interfering. But at the time I didn’t know where that outburst had come from, I was confused, and when I dressed and opened the door, I was going to apologize to my parents and explain that I was just stressed out and tired.

Yet the moment I emerged my mother and father started screaming at me in unison, “Who do you think you’re talking to, how dare you, if you ever speak to me in that tone again…” So I just went back to my room, and forgot about apologizing to those miserable, hateful people. It was like trying to talk to a barking machine that would just start making automatic, repetitive noises whenever it detected a speaking voice. There was nothing I could say to them, I wasn’t allowed to have feelings, or bad days, or even just casually talk to them. My parents created a deeply abusive relationship with me, where I always felt at fault, but there was no supplication available. My apologies were never accepted, acknowledged, or deemed relevant to the issue at hand–they could never stop the rejection, the silence, the turning away and the judgments they used my behavior to reaffirm until the next round of raging and shaming would begin. My mother later claimed “I just wasn’t sure if you or Jake was in the shower” which is not a very compelling reason to make a scene and blame it on me when she could have waited.

Yet in my family, my older siblings and parents always acted like they could emotionally abuse me one second and then impose themselves upon me the next; like the moment we left each others eyesight, whatever they had done or said to me vanished, and they expected me to be nice, civil, to never ask for an apology or for problems to actually be brought up and worked out. They freely took out their bad days, moods, and hangovers on me. I never received an apology from my parents, but it was made very clear that what I did and said in our family would not evaporate, I experienced many sudden silent treatments and creeping emotional punishments that taught me I was on the losing side of the double standard in our relationship. If I didn’t aggressively self-censor myself and let everything that they did slide, it seemed like the world would come to an end.

But today I don’t believe in letting significant hurtful remarks and actions ‘slide,’ because I know at the end of the slide is a dark pit of indifference and the same old thing. It’s very common for people to describe “not blaming” our families as being “the bigger person,” but I don’t agree. When someone has hurt you, or more widely destroyed your life via abuse or neglect while others were abusing you, holding them responsible for their actions is a good thing, and it doesn’t make us small or somehow less then others. Not holding family members responsible for how they’ve treated you, and thus accepting that abusive, neglectful treatment without ever demanding accountability, apologies and substantive change doesn’t make you a bigger or better person. I don’t give my sensitivity, kindness, and energy away to people who abuse me anymore, I recognize that the world is not black and white, and I don’t have to treat everyone the same exact way in order to define myself as a good person.

Of course as the youngest in my family, my parents and siblings were the ‘bigger’ people in the relationship, but bigness did not mean they were right, correct, or kind. My parents and older siblings towered over a child and reacted in the most petty, cruel, and hateful way to millions of minor things. Once when I brought up to my sister during our final months of relationship how something demeaning that she had just said to me was part of a pattern for how she responded my whole life, she gave me this patronizing look and said “geez, you’re holding all this anger inside you about the past!” What that means is that she felt entitled to complete absolution and had no obligation to apologize for what she had done to me and make a complete break with that treatment. Everything that she had done was now supposed to be “the past” a vague, murky area that so many agree needs to be shunned and deleted. But every moment of a relationship is suffused by it’s entire history, and what bad times there were, and whether they were ultimately resolved, or in this case, not.

I recall how my family never forgot a story about me that they could mock, scorn, and ridicule; my mother would tell her twisted versions of the same humiliating, insulting, lie-filled stories of my life over and over again. But of course they “didn’t remember” any of the sexual or physical abuse, and if I brought up the emotional abuse, even what they just said five minutes previous, the wall of denial put up was insurmountable. My sister had a very good memory for ridiculing me too, but times and events where she had greatly hurt me always conveniently drew a blank. But we aren’t wrong for being bothered by horrible things that were said and done to us, no matter when they happened, and it isn’t unreasonable to bring these things up and ask for them to be justly worked through. It isn’t wrong to bring things forward, to confront the architects of our childhood and demand a response.

There are many people we meet in life who when we try to set a boundary–to assert ourselves, say no, or that something they said or did made us uncomfortable and we don’t want it to happen again–will immediately walk away. They often portray us as being so volatile, difficult, and unpredictable that we aren’t worth coming around anymore because we could just blow up at them at any time. My older sister acted like this, to her our relationship could only be one where she could say or do whatever she liked without worrying about my feelings or how it affected me, and if I didn’t like it then I shouldn’t talk to her. In her view, I was responsible for her emotional abuse because I spoke to her at all. She also felt that because she thought she was correct about a topic of discussion (she often wasn’t) that that gave her a right to insult me as much as she wanted or could. But that isn’t true at all, and this sick, unequal relationship where I was treated like dirt was a model that she invented, and was constantly trying to reinforce despite my resistance.

Of course, I was once one of those people that instantly walked away myself. I’ve read that brains which were not damaged by abuse in early childhood development will release serotonin in response to social rejection, while damaged ones do not. I can see why it would wind up that way for me, because not only did I experience multiple traumas and decades of emotional abuse, when I was rejected at home, it was total-person rejection. Thus I was in no place to accept constructive criticism or rejection. Whenever someone had a problem with me, I instantly took it as a ‘piling on’ to all the trauma I had faced and that it was more evidence that my family was right about me. If I made a mistake, it wasn’t because the world is made up of many different people with individual perspectives, needs and boundaries in their relationships, it was because I was ‘always wrong’ and shouldn’t be around other people at all.

But as I’ve been healing and gaining more of a sense of myself, I see that it really isn’t too much to deal with other people’s boundaries, and nor is it for them to deal with mine. Despite what I was told in childhood, I’m not impossibly difficult, I’m not unreasonable; I’m not someone who can only expect tolerance at best. I’m someone who was traumatized for a long time, but I do have a right to expect mutual and healthy relationships with others and myself too. And just as importantly, I’m capable of maintaining them as well.   My first relationships in life are long since over and they are not the model I seek to replicate today nor do they predict what my future relationships will be like. 

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I Don’t Need Time Travel To Establish My Worth

The past several months have been very intense and painful for me due to the healing work that my process has provoked all throughout the holidays, my birthday and then hitting the one year anniversary of confronting my abusive ex-family. It’s brought a lot of changes for my life that I’m still exploring today, and a lot of newly uncovered memories that if they weren’t true wouldn’t be changing my life for the better. Up until just recently, my mind still strayed back to critical points in my young life–particularly when I was 16-19 years old, and imagining scenarios in which I could drastically change things and break free from my abusive family much earlier. This imagination-fueled yearning was something I experienced not because I had never heard the statement “you can’t change the past” that is pasted over a thousand different facebook memes. Pat phrases like that rarely have the ability to touch deeply into complex trauma even when we all nod our heads in agreement.

I’m very glad I wrote those letters confronting my family of origin last year and every specific thing I wrote in them at the time was such an important part of my process, and I regret nothing about them. But there are many things I couldn’t say at the time, things I wasn’t ready to face. Particularly to my older brother, who took the skills for grooming and manipulation that he learned from our mother and added in his own monstrous sociopathic talent. He left me second guessing myself for the longest time, hurtling back and forth between different emotions–while he was still in my life it was whether I liked or hated him. But in more recent years I’ve felt some internal push to see him as more of a fellow victim when in fact no, he was one of my main abusers. I know that regardless of the fact that we were abused by the same people, he targeted me in a malicious, personal way for a very long time and all I need putting him into context is to listen to my own emotions, not imagine what the outside world might think.

A few weeks ago I had a dream where I was back at college. I dreaded going home, because I knew that when I did my older brother would rape me again. I wanted badly to tell a friend of mine who worked as a waitress at a restaurant downtown. While I ate my lunch she kept hovering around my table, sometimes sitting down for a minute; I so badly wanted to tell her what was bothering me, but it was difficult to say and as I tried she just rolled her eyes, handed me my bill and walked away. I went to the counseling center on campus, and they told me I would be seen, but then just left me in the waiting room for hours until I knocked on the door and found that no one was there. I woke up in a flashback, almost hyperventilating and thinking up all these schemes as to how I could escape, all on my own of course because there was no help and I was gagged.

Of course I never went back home after going away to college, I never saw my parents again and only had one encounter with my brother that lasted a few seconds. But I still lived with that entirely unconscious fear and with the consequences of what he did to me. Because even when I was 18 or 19 and living at home, my brother still sexually abused me whenever he wanted to. I remember him coming into my bedroom, and turning the vacuum on to muffle the noise while he forced me. He had trained me over many years to go along with whatever he did to me, and of course I made myself forget immediately afterwards. He couldn’t care less just how much he was taking from me or how long the consequences would last.

I realized a few weeks ago that in my fantasies about changing the past my focus has always been on my own actions, and what I did. But as a teenager living at home in the clutches of my abusive family, was I really in control of my life and it’s circumstances? I see now that if my mind strays into that territory, why don’t I think of what they could have done differently? What if they didn’t yell at and mock me, what if they didn’t sexually abuse me, even at that age? If I’m focusing entirely on my reaction to that abuse, and wishing it to be different in ultimately impossible ways, then I’m not holding them responsible for their actions, but still seeing it all as my fault. What I see is at the time people had power over me which they freely exerted while I had none over them. Whether it is the power of my brother’s violence, my parents financial sway or my older sister’s hypercritical mind-control, the differential was absolutely still there, and while I couldn’t change the way I reacted all by myself, I see that it would have been much easier for them to stop doing abusive things to me.

I remember telling my older sister that I had been trying so hard to leave home, while she screeched back “You didn’t try hard enough!!” Her condescending attack was not cognizant of reality, or my reality. In one of our conversations that same year I mentioned how my brother was drinking beer at home all the time, just like our mother. “I’m sure his life is really hard! I think he’s doing everything he can, but I don’t think you are…” she said to me, using my comment as a jumping point to launch into a long hypercritical diatribe. Of course in our sick little family, helmed by alcoholics, there was nothing wrong with drinking and traumatizing other people while drunk, but my sister was sure that I deserved to be personally attacked for speaking scornfully about it. She tried the same thing when I correctly labeled our grandmother as an alcoholic. But it was without a doubt to her that my brother working in construction, getting drunk and raping me all the time was great, while my going to college full time, not drinking or abusing anyone was not. It reminds me of my mother exclaiming to me years later “how dare you judge your brother!” These words were toxic and they hit me hard. They told me that my abuser was worth defending, while I was not.

But I couldn’t care less about how “hard” his life was, and I deserve to feel the way I do and did about him. When he continuously moved in and out of our parents house, he resumed abusing me and harming my psychological health in a profound way. It didn’t depend on what job he was working at the time or what controlled substances he was binging on, though he liked to take out his anger for his own life circumstances on me. As the youngest in the family and the scapegoat, it was always made clear to me that I was responsible for their life outcomes and their emotions, while they were never responsible for mine; when the reality of course was the opposite. My brother’s sexual abuse didn’t end when we were children, it didn’t end when he got a girlfriend, it didn’t end when I turned 18. Like with my mother, it only really ended when I left home and he could no longer treat my body as a quick way to get off.

For a long time, I did not think of what the people who actually made the deciding moves in my life back then could have done differently. And I know certainly that my family didn’t think that way about themselves either; by putting it all on myself, I was agreeing with them that I “should have” made changes which frankly would have to have been supernatural even without my conceiving of time travel to achieve them today. If anything, my parents thought that if they had been more abusive then they would have achieved their aims, i.e. goals and end-points which were not what I wanted or who I am.  I know my mother was fond of beginning sentences with “IF ONLY you had….” But of course she didn’t apply these to herself, she didn’t think “If only I hadn’t sexually abused my sons,” my brother didn’t think “If only I hadn’t pinned Caden’s arm behind his back and fucked him…”

Understanding that I was still being abused, that I still had to dissociate and repress things that were happening in my day-to-day life has destroyed any idealizations I was harboring for my life and it’s possibilities in those times-gone.   Yet with that my feeling of loss has actually managed to lessen.  Even as I’m horrified that my brother abused me at a later age, this truth has also opened up new space for me to breathe. My self-blame has been chiseled further away.  I know that I never really understood what terms like self-love and self-validation meant until I experienced them, and that’s o.k. That fact is one of the many reasons why I don’t believe in moralizing or putting certain words on a pedestal as if they can heal all on their own. In my life I did the only thing I could have done to protect myself, which was leave, and I did it as soon as I could. So even if time travel existed, I would still have been as powerless and powerful as I was and am, then and today.

But I’m good enough even if I didn’t succeed or realize my social, romantic or professional goals as a teenager or twenty-something; I’m good enough if all I did was survive those painful years and get away with as much of myself as possible.  I’m good enough even if my ex-family doesn’t agree. Despite my mother’s admonitions, today I am proud to be a daring person, I do dare to speak out, to confront and put the blame where it truly belongs. I dare to change, to enter new territory inside myself and become even more unlike the people I’ve left behind.

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I Was A Trafficked Boy

I remember a day when I was seven years old, where I sat in my bedroom chair in front of my parents; my mother was grabbing my shoulders and shaking me hard as she shouted in my face.  I had “dared” to talk back to one of their clients, told him to go away, and though I obviously couldn’t stop him, he made a point of telling my parents.  They had taught me to be respectful, “coy” “seductive” (it makes me sick to say that, the word they used) to the people who paid them to sexually abuse me, and they beat and raped me themselves to pound this lesson back in that day.  I was often shocked by the depths of their self-righteous cruelty, their indifference to my suffering in later years, but now I see just how far it really went.  This particular client, an old obese pedophile did come back, showing up in my bedroom often at random–my parents didn’t bother scheduling with me beforehand.   He liked to perform many cruel, sadistic acts such as squeezing my chest so hard while he was raping me that I passed out–perhaps also due to the drugs I was frequently given.

After I remembered this last month I was plagued by nightmares, where he would show up randomly, naked in the rooms of a house I was running through; he would have knives in hand to attack me with, while I would try to fend him off with something like a spatula.  I had no real defenses in the dream, just like when I was a child, and these rooms I ran through were filled with other people who also did nothing.  Somewhere between the nightmares and the flashbacks that day, the full reality of it dawned upon me quicker and deeper then ever before: that this was my life.

On many days the kitchen of our house would be full of strange people, and I would have to go out there and sit on their laps while they chose between me or my brother.  I remember many  times creepy women came over to our house for dinner, wearing heavy perfume and makeup.  After the meal was over, they would follow me back into my bedroom and rape me.  I was trafficked as a child, and it wasn’t really that big of a secret.  In fact when I was 12 years old, towards the end of my desirability to  my parent’s pedophile ring, my abusive boyfriend found out what was going on.  But he didn’t help me, instead he tried acting as a pimp himself.    I remember us hanging around the bathrooms of dodgy pizzerias or bowling alleys where he tried to find potential clients to make him some money.  Though I fought hard to rebel against the life my parents made for me in the coming years, thankfully he left my life on his own and I was never sold as a teenager.

I know that my story isn’t really that uncommon.  A recent study showed that 50% of the children being trafficked here in the United States are boys.  And women were not only very well-represented in my parent’s pedophile ring, I know that they also make up a very large percentage of those exploiting street boys and raping boys caught up in the juvenile justice system.  It is unfortunate that we don’t see this reality reflected often or at all, but instead a narrative where trafficking is a “women’s issue” where all the victims are female and the perpetrators male.  That is not the case in this country or otherwise, and having survived these things and being male, it is very alienating and invalidating to see these issues presented that way, primarily by advocates who are not even survivors themselves.  And so are the double standards, the people who blame male victims and accuse us of wanting it, of being able to leave, saying we were “deviants,” “perverts,” “delinquents,”  apparently worse then the pedophiles exploiting us.  And when a standard is put forth where horrific stories of abuse are told giving unconditional amnesty to every woman involved no matter what role she played or crimes she committed, it creates environments where female abusers will be more welcome then male survivors.

Shortly after my grandmother died, I overheard my mother talking in a hushed voice  about how she had been trafficked as a child by grandmother: “it was nothing like what we do to the boys!” she insisted in an angry, derisive tone.  I heard this theme from her over and over again throughout my life; where my emotions were belittled or brushed aside because of my gender.   My mother was a deeply sexist, child-hating hypocrite who felt entitled to put her own pain and her own worth above the innocent, vulnerable young boys that she was abusing.   But her criminal abuse has no justification; the fact that she chose to turn her hatred upon her own children while worshipping the image of her abusive single mother is despicable.  There is no comparing pain or measuring trauma objectively, so my mother did not have it ‘worse’ then I did, and nor did she give me a ‘better’ childhood.   I don’t split hairs; better would have meant no trafficking at all, no sexual abuse, no physical or emotional abuse, and no alcoholism.  If there is still abuse, then the parenting is still abusive; it’s that simple.  Abusive parents should not expect their children to (impossibly) live in the context of the parent’s lives.

Seemingly just because they could, my parents sold my body to pedophiles and child pornographers for money; money that they also kept for themselves, money that I never saw, was not thanked for and which did not mean I had adequate clothing, school supplies or was allowed to ask for things I needed without being verbally abused and shamed in response.   My mother self-righteously believed that as a child I was less then nothing; that I was a greedy, irresponsible ‘thing’ that needed to be beaten, yelled at, worked and “kept in line,” that I deserved nothing.  And this view of me never changed; as I became a young adult and went to college, nothing I did was ever enough, and she vented her endless jealousy and resentment upon me for supposedly having a ‘better life’ then she did.

My mother, the master manipulator, was fond of hatefully spitting out the words “he never worked a day in his life!” when talking about me while I was in my late teens.  But yes, actually I did work; child pornography and child sex slavery are work; in fact they are such taxing and difficult forms of work that they have left me with life-long consequences and absolutely no control and no rights for how the pictures/videos taken of me are used today.  But beyond this being a sick lie, there is the fact that I don’t agree with what she said on a much deeper level.  I don’t believe in child labor, and I don’t believe that children are less valuable then working adults, I don’t believe they deserve less respect, value, or worth.  I don’t want other people to live through what I did, and when I hear of children having significantly better childhoods then I (for instance involving no violence or emotional abuse, but respect, love, and autonomy) then I think that’s great, and I want everyone to have that.  That’s what makes me different, and indeed better then my mother.

Of course, studying itself is work, is an investment and also deserving of respect, not derision.  I did not deserve to be emotionally abused or have my decisions disrespected when I said that; “I’m attending college full time right now, and that is what I’m doing.”   It happens to be the case that having post-traumatic stress disorder and a whole host of other conditions as a result of my childhood left me so disabled that I desperately needed my time outside of class to heal.  And even when I was in such a crisis that I needed to take time off from school, that still didn’t make me less valuable of a person then my parents, people who should have been in jail and who used children as slaves for their own profit.  Today I know that it was insane for my “family” to act like they were the victims of a “deadbeat son.”  This pathetic reversal of reality of course was meant to make sure that I would always feel like a failure even when I hadn’t failed at all.   But I feel no shame today for having been a disabled young adult, since after all I ended up like that through no choice of my own, but through the actions of people like my mother.  I’m now proud of having resisted her insane demands and for doing what I needed and most of all what I personally was capable of doing at the time.  My value and worth as a person is not defined by what work I can do or money I can make.

But much of the language that my mother used against me during that time of my life is in fact completely in line with negative societal stereotypes and forms of emotional abuse that are often targeted at young males.  During this time other people also felt entitled to insult me when they heard barely a fraction of my story.  Society is uninterested in the emotional lives of young men, in the fact that we frequently are survivors of all sorts of traumatic child abuse and also need validation and space to heal.  Homeless male children and young adults are most often given labels such as “aggressive” or “lazy” (despite the endless, 24/7 work that being homeless necessitates) to imply their state is all the fault of their “attitude,” and thus that their parents and the society that threw them onto the streets is not to blame; but the people walking on the sidewalks to and from their comfy homes are the real victims because they have to see the destitute living exposed out there.  People act like it’s legitimate to pour endless amounts of shame and derision on young men for not being 100% independent, regardless of the economic conditions and their personal history.  This emotional abuse as well as the hidden histories behind it are undoubtedly an enormous contributing factor to the epidemic of suicide amongst young men.

The truth is it was very hard for me to escape from my mother’s house, life, and most of all the legacy of having been a “child prostitute.” All of the things I was groomed to do as a child, all of the messages I received were twisted and of no practical value as I moved into adulthood.   Yet shedding them and an incestuous parent who alternately wanted you as a dependant possession and to sell you for her enjoyment is anything but easy.  My former pimp wanted to continue to control, judge, intrude upon me and put me down every chance she got, and I probably would have died if I didn’t do whatever I could to find a life outside of her.   I don’t tolerate in my present life anyone who thinks they have a right to judge me and what I had to do to escape that life, least of all any of my old family who still might see her as a victim when she is anything but.  I don’t feel bad for taking time to heal today either, I’m not comparing myself with anyone else anymore, let alone the person I might have been right now if I had a childhood filled with real love.  Loving myself today means putting aside those comparisons and learning to live openly within my own context and story.

It seems very plain to me that helping males see themselves as survivors, validating and including their experiences as being abuse, and not somehow less or less worthy of being mentioned and talked about and dealt with then the abuse that females experience can only have a positive effect on the world.   That means putting aside all of the shaming labels and recognizing the reality of the trauma that makes us what we are.  You’re not going to stop abuse by ignoring 50% of the abuse that’s going on (it’s the same thing with military rape, where half the victims are male but many so-called advocates pretend it’s only something women go through) or by perpetuating myths and stereotypes about gender.   Nor are male victims served by being hidden away in phrases like “women and children,” as if women are never the abusers, the exploiters of said children, and as if males, having been abused/exploited their entire childhood gain some magical invulnerability to the cycle once they come of age and gain a different label that apparently makes it ok to kill, ignore, and write us off wholesale.   But no, we are the same people throughout our lives, and coming of age shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to no longer offer services or allow societal stereotypes to kick in.

Healing from an abusive childhood is often a lifelong process, and when people aren’t given any space to heal, any validation that what they went through is wrong, they will often repeat the cycle rather then break it.   Males are not less deserving of the human right to housing then females, we are not less exploited by trafficking or pornography, we are not less effected by rape, incest, or other kinds of abuse then females are.  And while vocal male survivors are not as plentiful, actual male survivors are not a minority.  There are many aspects to my personal story, and trafficking is just one of them, but I know that whenever I come across a description that purports to talk about the whole problem while ignoring experiences like mine, that I’m reading something wrong.   Personally, I was abused by both men and women, underage boys and girls, and I don’t stereotype on that basis.  I prefer a mixed community of survivors that includes people of all different sexes and genders, I’m drawn to people with similar healing paths and journeys, that may intersect on different levels.   At my heart I am a human being and I care about that more then polemics, but I do exist.

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