More than just a photograph

Chris and myself are doing a 30-day challenge that focuses on letting go of material items in effort to free ourselves from clutter, whether it be physical or emotional. Today brought up some emotions for me that I felt were worth expanding on.

One of my items today is very personal. Years ago, I was at a trauma conference and came across a photographer whose work affected me greatly. She took photographs of the female form and cross-processed them with other images. One in particular was of a woman’s naked body covered in flames. I was immediately drawn to it, and purchased it from her. Through conversation, I learned that the woman in the picture was the photographer herself.  Her self-portraits were a way of reclaiming her body after years spent in an abusive relationship. When she was finally able to leave her abuser, she burned the mattress that he’d raped her on and photographed it. The two photos together were a way to express her pain and release it; to literally burn it away. It’s a compelling image with an even more powerful message.

When I met this woman I was very early in my own recovery, traveling around the country and in the thick of trauma work. I would surround myself with visual reminders that I was not alone, that my pain could not be silenced. I felt like I needed people to see it, to talk about it, to acknowledge it’s existence, my existence.

Today, while I was searching for my items to purge, I came across the photograph in a pile of old pictures and commemorative plaques of the past. It made me both sad and grateful. It’s still a beautiful picture, it stills has meaning. I realize now that I no longer need it in my life as a reminder of how far I have come, or my experience passed. I don’t relate to it in the same way, and I feel that by letting it go, I’m taking one more step towards healing.

Maybe by letting it go, someone else will find it and walk a similar path. Which to me, makes gifting it….invaluable.

photo(90)

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Watch Me Burn: Domestic Violence Made Personal

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
Well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
Well that’s all right because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie

Videos have always been a very powerful medium for me. I have read hundreds of books on trauma.  I’ve attended countless conferences and worked in the field of abuse for almost 10 years. But nothing says “this is your life” like seeing an abusive relationship played out on camera. Eminem and Rihanna collaborated in a music video called “Love the Way You Lie.”  It is an amazingly accurate portrayal of the cycle of violence that exists in abusive relationships.  It mirrored so closely to my own past experiences that I needed to walk away from it the first time I watched it.

A paradox is a situation which defies intuition and presents a seeming contradiction. To me, love and domestic violence is one such paradox. I can count the intimate relationships I have been in that have been abusive. Relationships where I fell in love with partners who continually abused me. Growing up in a family that was emotionally, physically and sexually abusive, it’s not surprising that I would find myself living what I learned to be “normal”. Somehow though, contrary to my actions, I always knew that “normal” shouldn’t include suffering.

I fell fast for a man who, from the first day I met him, treated me like I was disposable. He had an extremely violent past with jail time to prove it. Everyone viewed him in his circle as unpredictable and dangerous. One day he was the most loving, funny, charismatic and romantic man I’d ever dated.  Like the flick of a switch he could be a womanizing, drug using, alcoholic, male chauvinist.

I can’t tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like
And right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe
I can’t breathe but I still fight while I can fight
As long as the wrong feels right it’s like I’m in flight
High off her love, drunk from my hate, it’s like I’m huffin’ paint
And I love it the more I suffer, I suffocate
And right before I’m about to drown, she resuscitates me, she f**kin’ hates me
And I love it, “wait, where you goin’?”
“I’m leavin’ you,” “no you ain’t come back”
We’re runnin’ right back, here we go again
So insane, cause when it’s goin’ good it’s goin’ great
I’m superman with the wind in his back, she’s Lois Lane
But when it’s bad it’s awful, I feel so ashamed I snap
Whose that dude? I don’t even know his name
I laid hands on her
I never stoop so low again
I guess I don’t know my own strength

I was attracted to the “bad boy.” The guy who would both protect me but inadvertently would become more and more obsessive over me. The label of “abusive” and “obsessive” did not exist in my reality however, not until later. This is because on some level I believed all the things he said to me about who I was and how I affected the relationship negatively. Each violent outburst was a direct consequence of something that I had done to invoke it. That’s the cycle of domestic violence.  Ever escalating. Manipulative. Demoralizing.

You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe
When you’re with ’em
You meet and neither one of you even knows what hit ’em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling
Yeah, them those chills you used to get ’em
Now you’re getting fucking sick of looking at ’em
You swore you’d never hit ’em; never do nothing to hurt ’em
Now you’re in each other’s face spewing venom in your words when you spit them
You push pull each other’s hair, scratch claw hit ’em
Throw ’em down pin ’em
So lost in the moments when you’re in them
It’s the rage that took over it controls you both
So they say you’re best to go your separate ways
Guess if they don’t know you ’cause today that was yesterday
Yesterday is over, it’s a different day
Sound like broken records playing over but you promised her
Next time you show restraint
You don’t get another chance
Life is no Nintendo game
But you lied again
Now you get to watch her leave out the window
I guess that’s why they call it window pane

There was a moment in the relationship that, to me, was the beginning of the end. We had gone out for a night of drinking and dancing with friends. At the end of the evening, I playfully threw a pretzel at him as he walked away from me. Before I knew what was happening, he turned and lunged at my face with his fist. I knew in that moment that if he would be that violent in front of others, there was no line he wouldn’t cross behind closed doors. The violence had in that moment become unmanageable and I knew I had to get out.

There are people who would ask why I didn’t leave at the first sign of violence. Why it took him becoming violent in public for me to decide I had enough. Pointing out that violence whether in private or public is unacceptable. It’s true.  It seems so black and white, but it’s not. For me, abusive behavior was intertwined with love. The first man in my life, my father, was a violent man. His behaviors laid for me an understanding that love and violence were normal. My mother herself was abused. I saw this day after day in my home. That all was forgiven and forgotten until the next time that it was forgiven and forgotten.

Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, same routine
But your temper’s just as bad as mine is
You’re the same as me
But when it comes to love you’re just as blinded
Baby, please come back
It wasn’t you, baby it was me
Maybe our relationship isn’t as crazy as it seems
Maybe that’s what happens when a tornado meets a volcano
All I know is I love you too much to walk away though
Come inside, pick up your bags off the sidewalk
Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk
I told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the drywall
Next time. There won’t be no next time

I apologize even though I know its lies

I had been in relationships that were non-violent but could never function properly in them. I didn’t love myself, didn’t believe I deserved to be loved and couldn’t receive that which I know now to be real love.  I did everything I could to get out of those relationships, to hurt before getting hurt myself. Though I didn’t know it at the time, it’s these relationships that reminded me that there was something better out there.

Abuse doesn’t just start the first day you meet someone.  It is a gradual, ever changing pattern of events that are rationalized and forgiven until the next time and the next and the next. Until one day, you find yourself so entrenched in the pattern, so emotionally dejected, that by the time you realize you are in a domestic violence situation, you feel powerless to leave. Hopeless.

I wish I could tell you that after that experience,  I never again found myself in another abusive relationship.  Years later, I would find myself in another pattern of emotional abuse. I recognized it, I excused it. It repeated itself. This time though I reached out to friends and when I did, I was able to get the help I needed to start a path to healing myself and open up to healthier relationships.

It saddens me to think that I wasn’t strong enough to see through the piles of teddy bears and chocolate the second time around. That I didn’t love myself enough to demand respect. That I rationalized again and again for behaviors that were completely unacceptable. Despite these feelings, I know now that I was not responsible for their behaviors and that none of what happened was my fault. Because I reached out for help I didn’t stay as long the last time, recognizing more readily what was happening to me. I left and made a promise to myself that I would never again be in a relationship with anyone who would treat me that way.

If you are in an abusive relationship it is important to know that you are not alone and that the abuse is not your fault. There is a better life waiting for you. One free of suffering.

No one deserves to be abused. Get the help you need and deserve. You are not alone.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224

Home Schooling and Child Abuse. Is There A Link?

I was up late last night trolling the internet for abuse in the news. I noticed a disturbing number of articles in the last few days involving child abuse cases with home schooled children. It peaked my curiosity and so I started looking around for more information on the topic of home schooling and links made previously to reported cases of child trauma. What I came up with was both interesting and thought-provoking. Highlighted were arguments of parental entitlement to regulate their children’s learning as well as a noticeable lack of community concern for the hidden lives of some such children, until after the abuse has already occurred. It made me think about my own education growing up, abuse and parental entitlement of children.

According to Brian D. Ray, Ph.D., author of Facts on Home schooling, there were an estimated 1,700,000 to 2,100,000 children (grades K-12) home educated during 2002-2003 in the United States. Home schooling appears to still be the fastest-growing form of education in this country.

Like many statistics, these numbers are based on those children that are actually reported to the government, which got me thinking about all of those children that go unreported and possible abuse cases that are easily missed.  In reality, it’s hard to know how widespread abuse might be with children who are home schooled because the government doesn’t have a competent system in place to keep track of them.

A Dark Side to Home Schooling
Parents Kept Social Workers Out Until Police Called In

I am not a product of home schooling. Like many, I grew up in a system that was federally regulated. If I didn’t show up to school for the day, you can be sure that our house got a call from the principles office to see what was going on and why I was not there. I was accounted for. This is not the case for children who are home schooled. There are no attendance lists, no phone calls home and no uniform monitoring of their safety. A perfect environment for abuse to flourish undetected.

Now, I can hear the naysayers commenting already. They may argue that home schooling and child abuse are two separate issues. While there are children who are abused by home schooling parents, children are not abused because they are home schooled. Agreed. However, where there are no rules or regulations, there is a greater risk for abuse of children to go undetected.

NJ Dad Accused of Raping 5 Daughters

How do we as a nation protect parents’ rights to raise their own children while the safety of these same children in the home? In reality, home schooling will never be taken off the table and admittedly; there are countless children who are home schooled who flourish in such environments. However, I believe that we need stricter guidelines for home schooling practices.

Children who are schooled outside of the home have a better chance of someone, whether a friend, teacher or community member recognizing signs of abuse and reporting it to the authorities.  A child beaten and abused at home, does not have the same advantage.

Like it or not, child abusers who home school are less likely to be caught than parents who send their children to regular school. Home schooling can be an isolating environment, where violence can go unnoticed from the public eye. A bruise or fearful demeanor seen by a teacher, who are mandated to report, can easily be hidden when a child is kept at home. Access for children to resources that would educate them on abuse, it’s prevalence and assist them in finding help would remain out of reach. Day to day monitoring of children and their overall welfare is put in the sole hands of caregivers who if they so choose to abuse, have full access to children, without ever being questioned. One case I read established that a girl who was home schooled by her parents, was later found murdered a full year after her murder because authorities didn’t even know she’d been missing. If this same child had been missing a year from a regulated system, her disappearance and murder may have been  avoided by early detected. The system is not perfect by any means, but there are advantages to regulated schools that a home schooled environment lacks when it comes to keeping our children safer.

Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz Charged with Murder of Their Daughter

There is no lock tight panacea to this issue, however we as a community should have a greater voice in how our education is regulated. A proposal for regulation could be to mandate and include home schooled children’s physical exams for review and that children be visited by social service representatives throughout the year to evaluate their physical and mental wellness. I also think that parents who are homeschooling should have more stringent guidelines if they choose to be their children’s sole educator.

Home schooling is currently regulated by individual states and many of these have a limited mandate for parent credentials. This in itself is perplexing to me, as I cannot think of another such important profession that would allow students to be taught without the proper training to do so. The question as to why this is acceptable for our nation’s children remains unanswered.

Additionally, I believe that parents choosing to home school their children should have required training in the areas of  child behavior, discipline, safety and development and resources in their community that they may not otherwise know of. Perhaps, a step in the right direction in an effort to protect parental as well as children’s rights. What’s your take on the issue?

Addendum:

We have received quite a bit of feedback on this blog, much of which we couldn’t post because it involved inappropriate personal attacks and insults.  This blog was not intended to enter the debate of home schooling vs. standard schooling.  It seems this debate is very polarized and involves some extreme reactions that lead many commenters to ignore the issue of this blog entirely for their own agenda.  We are now aware that there is a big debate in the UK on this very subject, but please understand our blog has absolutely nothing to do with that debate.

We ask that you approach with an open mind and if you are too intimately attached to the issue of home schooling please address your comments to the appropriate forum.

So here’s the take home message.  We are not against home schooling.  It’s quite popular in this country and very successful on a number of counts.  However, with no regulations, no safeguards (however flawed) an abuser can, and will, take their children out of regular school and be under very little scrutiny doing it.  We know because our organization works with the victims every day.  So we applaud those home school parents who take their role seriously and make sure their kids are integrated into society.  But to say that there should be no regulation, no safeguards, no checks what so ever is an environment that those who choose to abuse can thrive in.  Like it or not, we parent our children, but we don’t own them.  A child has every right to be protected by their communities, from their communities, by their parents, and from their parents.

A number of comments questioned why we would want to change the existing system to ‘save a few kids’.  In our organization, every child counts, and we are committed to saving every one.  The statistics tell us that 1 out of every 4 girls, and 1 in every 10 boys,  are sexually abused before the age of 16.  So that’s more than just ‘a few kids’.

Thank you for all the productive comments and lively discussion.

Chris & Ophelia de Serres

WSO

My Sister Maggie

I had a dream last night. It was about my sister, Maggie. It’s been almost 9 years since my sister passed away but every now and then she comes to me in my dreams. Last night, she met up with me in a room filled with people and asked me to sing with her. I am a singer, though sadly, my sister never heard me sing.

In my dream, we sang together, a beautiful melody. She smiled and laughed with me, her face filled with happiness. I could feel her arms embracing me; I could hear her angelic voice harmonizing with mine. A dream so real, I could almost taste it. I was aglow until I awoke and realized she was gone and there would be no more singing.
To awake to the reality left me feeling empty and filled with sadness.

I wrote a song about my sister called “Maggie’s song.” It was my way of coming to terms with the immense loss of losing my sister. A sister I loved so much and knew so little about. Ours was a complicated relationship. Maggie and I shared the same father but different mothers. It was our father who abused both Maggie and myself as children and into adulthood. Though she seldom ever spoke about her experience, she did share it with me before she died. Her disclosure affirmed to me that I was not alone.

She lived a complicated life, filled with complex relationships and a continued cycle of violence. In many ways, she and I were very much alike and in many ways, very different. Those who have seen Chris and myself speak will know Maggie’s story, as I speak about her often. She has become a constant in my advocacy and holds an important place in my message to other survivors of abuse.

For many survivors of abuse there are questions that remain unanswered. Many of us are unable to speak with our abusers because they are out of our lives by design or by circumstance. For those whose abusers are still alive, there is often no conversation to be had, due to a complicated list of reasons. That list can be endless and so we go through life making sense as best we can of what happened to us and why.

When it comes to my sister Maggie, there is no answer good enough. I was tasked with going through Maggie’s things after she died. What I saw was a life of addiction and isolation. The newspaper read that she went to sleep one night and never woke up. That’s what the autopsy says and so that is what people admit. Though, most of you know that the nature of abuse is not as black and white. Far too many victims of abuse, including myself, will find themselves searching for reprieve through addiction. After years of this, Maggie lost the fight and with it her voice.

Many people have asked me why I continue to talk about an experience that brings up such upsetting emotions. My answer is always the same. I tell Maggie’s story because her life had meaning, more than I think she even realized. Through her story, others will know that they are not alone and that there can be life after abuse.

We must fight for each other and ourselves and never stop believing that change is possible. We must do the work and break free of our addictions, tell our stories and allow healing to take place. I believe that this is what Maggie would have wanted. I believe that she is up there looking down on me, joyous in knowing that people will learn from her life and that she will never be forgotten.

Rape Victims Are To Blame For The Continuance Of Rape

When someone goes out of their way to make a public service announcement about rape and reporting, we would assume that they would have a basic understanding of the mentality of a rape victim. Sadly though, this is not always the case and information then becomes available that can further damage and silence victims.

Recently on youtube, a user posted a video called Rape Scot-Free depicting a short monologue by a young man, blaming rape victims for the continuance of rape in their communities. His argument being that victims who do not come forward and report their rape are selfish and in turn aiding the perpetrator, enabling him/her to continue their acts of violence.

As a survivor of rape, I have to say that I was extremely disturbed by the video. The lack of basic insight into the mind of a survivor is appalling and in my opinion, highly ineffective. What this video has done however is further strengthen victim blaming in a society that already holds such fascist opinions.

I am one of the survivors that he is addressing in his video. Like many, I was raped and did not report the incident to the police. If I were to believe this video, I would be the victim who should be ashamed of not doing anything to stop the acts of violence from continuing. I would believe that I am the “good girl who keeps her mouth shut” and helped the man that raped me. I would believe that it is my fault that society doubts my rape because someone who is really raped would report it. I would believe that speaking out about my rape is simply “complaining” and not preventing. I would believe that I have no voice, that I have no right to talk about a faulty system because I am the fault in the system. I would believe that I am to blame for any acts of rape after me, because I am the only one who can change anything.

Create a video in black and white; speak sarcastically and angrily towards me. Tell me what I have done wrong and question my rape. Make me doubt myself and introduce more shame to the act of violence; blame me, again. If the motive of this video was merely shock response, then congratulations because I am shocked. However, if the hope of this video was to get victims like me to report, you failed miserably. As shame and fear are the primary tools of rapists to keep their victims silenced, I would ask how someone using shame against me now is any better?

As a survivor of rape, I can say that this video did not make me want to report, but rather strengthened my belief that we still have so much work left to do in educating people about the act and aftermath of rape. What happened to me is not my fault. I am not to blame. It’s time to put the blame where it belongs; the rapist not the raped.

Understanding Patterns Of Abuse

Often, we hear of men who molest young girls and women and receive too little jail time or often, no penalty at all for their crimes. Tonight, on television was a story of a mother who was the co-abuser to her daughter of seven years old. The reason for her decision, she wanted to “prove her love” to her husband. The ultimate sacrifice, in her mind would surely win over his commitment and perhaps allow some sense of normalcy to their lives. Normalcy stemmed from incest, an interesting and obviously distorted reasoning, an excuse to commitment the ultimate betrayal.

These stories are not new to me, having read hundreds of thousands of emails over the years depicting torturous and unbelievable acts of abuse. However, it always takes a moment longer for me to come to terms with mothers who turn on their own children, in order to gain the “love” of a man in their life. They themselves, abuse victims in the hell that is intimate partner violence. Part of me feels torn by the understanding that they face their own fear and pain and yet, I cannot condone the line that is crossed from victim to abuser. There were so many levels to this particular case, but what I was struck by was an issue that screams true for so many women; needing a man in order to feel validated, worthy, loved. Often, women (and men) who are survivors of abuse will do find themselves doing things and allowing things to be done without questioning the impact of their decision. There is a laundry list of reason why such things happen, but one very important factor is conditioning.

If you are told that you are useless and unworthy each and every day of your life, parts of you, if not all of you will begin to believe it. There is truth behind the saying “thoughts are things” in that what you believe you become. If you are a vulnerable child your choice and sense of reality outside of your caregivers is drastically reduced and the name and expectations placed upon you will be your burden until you are old enough or fortunate enough to learn otherwise. For all of us, I believe this means being our own teachers.

A few years ago, I found myself in a relationship with a man twenty years my elder. I didn’t realize at that time, that a large part of my connection to him was based on my relationship with my father. An odd and somewhat disconcerting realization. However, one that looking back and being a survivor of incest, makes a lot of sense to me now. To make a long story short, I allowed myself to stay in this relationship and undergo behavior that I now see as abusive on many levels.

I fell in love with this man, and allowed him to control me in order to gain his affection and approval, much like I did with my father. The difference here is that I was no longer the abused child of four years old, instead a grown woman making adult choices. The catch? On many levels, in the decisions that I made in that relationship (and others like it), my inner child, the one who learned what love was from her father, was still seeking love in the same way from men who could not give her what she needed. Self-worth, validation, self-respect, a true sense of self are all things that we must find in ourselves and that cannot be resolved by others.

I see myself as fortunate to have gotten out of that relationship before marriage or children. I can only imagine how much more complicated life would have been had my life changed even slightly to the left of where it is today. I see my mother and sister in my own experience, yet they were not as fortunate. My sister passed away several years ago and my mother spent thirty years with an abusive husband. I see the choices that they made. I try not to judge them and yet, sometimes I do, still.

I wish for all women and men to see their worth and never make choices that will endanger themselves or their children. We must break the cycle now before it is too late.

Sexual Harassment or Child’s Play?

by *clairity*

In the 6th grade there was this boy who took it upon himself to test my boundaries. Nearly every afternoon, as the bell rung, I would find myself running for the divider doors in a sprint for home. Not being that fastest of runners, I would never fail to miss the ass slap and catcalling from him and many of my classmates. What could be argued as something as simple as boy-likes-girl or boy-teases-girl was nothing of the sort to me. In contrast, the daily barrage of bullying made me feel disempowered and embarrassed.

Eventually, I told my mother who in turn spoke with the school principal. His reply was simply “boys will be boys” with little else but a reminder of adolescent patterns.  Nothing was said or done. Luckily for me my mother was never one to keep her mouth shut.  She decided to speak directly with the boy’s mother and have a few words about what she deemed appropriate. I can’t tell you what his mother said or didn’t say to him, only that when I got to school on Monday everyone called me a snitch and I became the current target for ridicule. The girls were especially harsh, annoyed at the ‘attention’ I was receiving from the boys.

I’ve spoken with people over the years that argue that we, as advocates, take the issue of sexual harassment and bullying too far. They cite that such zero tolerance rules and behavioral guidelines will encourage children to act out more outside of the classroom.  Or that it creates little room for experimentation with the opposite sex.  But how often do we, as a community, communicate with our children and young adults to discuss issues of gender and personal boundaries?

I think that by setting rules and examples for respect, we allow these same youth to live more freely without fear of harm from their peers. I believe that a girl should be able to go to school without worrying about whether or not she will have to defend her body against unsolicited contact or that boys can walk down a hall without being thrown up against a locker simply because they don’t fit into some ridiculous social standard. If a behavior is unwanted or unwelcome, it is unacceptable in my book.

Admittedly, children have a natural curiosity toward the opposite sex. Hugging, fondling and kissing are examples of exploratory contact that, when paired with an unwanted recipient, can create problems. Simply because such acts of exploration are deemed “normal” doesn’t constitue a right to cross personal boundaries. Acts once seen as innocent rights of passage can very easily grow into more aggressive acts of violence if they are not resolved in early stages of development. For those of you who still view acts by children as child’s play I have 6 words for you: Kids grow up and become adults.

But don’t just take it from me: A survey conducted by the AAUW (2002) on 2064 students in 8th through 11th grade indicated that 83% of girls and 79% of boys have been sexually harassed. Not surprisingly, in the same survey 42% of school employees admitted to being harassed by each other.

In education, many seasoned professionals have met the issue of sexual harassment with a resistance to change.  My elementary school principal being a perfect example. Talk to your kids. Talk to your school administrators. Learn more about the policies and follow-through for sexual harassment and bullying in your communities.  You can be the impetus to get your school system to wake up and begin to take harrassment and bullying seriously.  In the process, maybe boys will be boys and girls will be girls by showing respect for the humanity in each other.

For more information on sexual harassment in schools, check out this link: http://tinyurl.com/mqr7sd