Monday, July 28, 2014

Re-Envisioning the Empty Nest

I can still recall the overwhelming love I felt when each of my children were born and the accompanying grief that one day they would grow up and leave.  At the time, I couldn't imagine that loss.  There were times, however, especially during those difficult teen years that the empty nest didn't seem like such a bad thing.  I looked forward to returning to just the two of us once more and to celebrating the life and family that we had created together.

We purchased an Amish hand-made dining table that extended to accomondate seating for nearly twenty people.  I envisioned our children and their families gathered around that beautiful table for years to come, celebrating holidays, birthdays and the traditions that we had carefully developed over the years.  Our children were grown and soon grandchildren would come but we still had each other.  Our impending empty nest would provide a much-needed opportunity to rediscover each other and to enjoy the fruits of our marriage and labor.

But that didn't happen.

As I continue this journey of recovery, I am realizing that I must now redefine or re-envision the empty nest because the definition I have always used is now outdated.  There is no "us" in my nest, only "me."  And the divorce has redefined the cherished relationships I have enjoyed with my children.  The expectations we had for this time in life have been radically changed.  Loyalties are divided and hurts abound--this is a common side effect of divorce.

I thrive on connecting with others; indeed this has been the focus of my life to this point.  My connections have changed and I am challenged to adjust my expectations of what connections will now look like.  My children are adults now with lives of their own.  While my connection to them continues, albeit in a different way, I must now focus on connections with others outside my family.

I mentioned in a recent post that I have lived life based on plans created by someone else's expectations of me or of their own dreams and aspirations.  Re-envisioning the empty nest offers an opportunity to create an authentically "me" plan for the rest of my life.  As I have contemplated on what I want my life to look like for whatever time remains, it has become quite apparent that it is not so much the container of my life that I am concerned with but rather the contents of that container.

The container or "nest" is typically developed during the first half of life and consists of establishing a home, career, family and identity.  The contents of that container become far more important during the second half of life.  I do not want my life to be defined by my career or house for they are simply the container of my life but rather by the quality of my connections with others, including my connections with self and with God.

  • I want to have friends I can just be silly with--someone who will call me up and say "Let's put on our cowboy boots and go line dancing!"  (I don't own cowboy boots and I don't know how to dance, but I don't want to care about those facts anymore).
  • I want people in my life that I can laugh with--belly laughs without inhibitions.
  • I want my life to be full of meaningful connections--people I can be authentic with and with whom I can cry or shout or simply sit in silence.
  • I want to grow in my capacity to love and in my ability to live loved.
  • I want to embrace paradox--both the light and the darkness, realizing that without both, I cannot fully see.
  • I want to continue to learn how to be fully present in each moment rather than living in the what-ifs of the past or the what-nows of the future.
  • I want to grow and expand and stretch myself in new ventures.  I want to step out of my comfort zone and try new things, maybe create my own "Bucket List."
  • I want to become more comfortable in my own skin and with who I am becoming.
  • Knowing that the second half of life will bring additional challenges and more loss, I want to continue to practice the disciples of acceptance, surrender and courage.
  • I want to live fully until the moment I die--no sitting around waiting for the inevitable but dancing and loving and living until my final breath.
If I can achieve even half of these goals in my new life plan, then my nest will never be empty but fuller than I can imagine.  And though I may be alone in my nest, I am guaranteed to not be lonely.  Hand me that twig, will you?  I'm gonna start building.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Substitute

A gentleman in my neighborhood came calling recently and while I was initially shocked and a bit flattered by his attention, it soon became apparent that he was looking for a substitute.  His wife of many years died within the past year and he is looking for a replacement.  In mulling over the emotions that his attention raised for me, I realized that I have been a substitute for my entire life.  I also realized that I no longer wish to be a substitute anything for anyone.

A substitute is an individual who stands in or acts on behalf of another, in essence, a place holder.  Substitutes typically have no authority or value on their own in their substitute capacity but derive their purpose from another.  They are in that place for that moment in time because of the existence and absence of another.  They are not there because of their unique intrinsic value.

Remember those days when the teacher was absent and a substitute was in the classroom for the day?  Wasn't it just a wee bit fun to see how far we could go in misbehaving since the "real deal" was gone?  Most of us can readily confess to quickly sizing up the substitute to try to determine just how far we could get in our misbehavior.

But for the substitute the experience often was a grueling one.  She was required to try to decipher and implement another individual's plan for the class.  She knew she would be judged not on her own merit or missteps but simply that she was not able to be exactly like the person she was replacing for that moment in time.  She instantly was at a disadvantage because she didn't know the individuals in the class as well as the person for whom she was substituting.  It was rarely a win/win situation for the substitute.  The best she could hope for was to survive the day intact.

So it occurs to me that my days of people-pleasing and approval-seeking were days when I was allowing myself to be used as a substitute.  The real me didn't show up on those days instead a substitute me performed, contorted and aimed to please, thank you very much.  This fake/inauthentic me was substituting for the real me who was curled up in a ball on the closet floor, afraid to show up for my own life.  And to be fair to myself, my fear of being seen was not entirely baseless.

I grew up in a family where it was not safe to allow yourself to be seen; I marinated in a religious environment that placed an extreme emphasis on perfection and I married a man who needed me to cure something that is incurable.  So I learned the fine art of hiding at a tender age.  I didn't show up for myself or for others that I loved.  I was my own substitute for over five decades.

There were rare times when I sent the substitute home and showed up for my own life.  But because I was so rarely present, I did not have a plan for how I wanted to live my own life.  Oh, I had plans, lots of plans because I am a planner by nature.  But they were based on what someone else wanted from me, not on what I wanted for myself.  I made my plans based on the expectations and desires of others; I had no real plan apart from the important people in my life.

And it might have worked out ok but then I'll never know.  What I do know is that I can no longer allow a substitute me to live my life. I can no longer live my life based on the expectations of another, even if they disapprove of decisions or views that I have.  My days of people-pleasing and approval-seeking have ended.  I'm showing up for my life in an authentic, real, embodied way.  I have fired the substitute but then, she was exhausted and ready to retire anyway.

So, I'll gently send the widower seeking a substitute wife on his way--I cannot be what he has lost.  And I'll thoughtfully make a plan for my life and I will show up to implement that plan.  I won't do it perfectly and I'm sure that I will make mistakes.  But is is my life and I am the only one who can truly live it.  What an incredible thing to learn after so many years of living.  I'm just grateful I am learning it while I still have time to be me.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When is Enough, Enough?

For centuries, women have been held to a higher standard than men.  We are to be pure and virtuous while they are expected to "sow their wild oats."  We are told to be kind and submissive, gentle of spirit n order to keep our husbands happy; it they look elsewhere it must be because we let ourselves go, are frigid or just not available enough.  We have been held responsible for the misbehavior of our partners and our children since Adam blamed Eve for offering him the forbidden fruit.  And heaven forbid if we do commit a crime.  Men who murder their spouses with forethought and planning get less time, on average, than women who kill their abusive partners in a valiant attempt to preserve their life and maybe the lives of their children.  It is morally offensive to most of us when women behave in ways we do not expect them to.

And partners of pedophiles?  We are labeled as co-conspirators, co-pedophiles, co-criminals and worse.  "How could you not have known your husband was attracted to children?" he asked.  "Couldn't you tell in your sex life with him?"  No, I couldn't and neither could scores of other women, including highly trained psychologists, social workers and academics.  And yet, we are somehow held responsible for the deviancy of our spouse and for not knowing what they are so skilled at hiding.

The perpetrator has to throw someone under the bus in order to survive and most often, that someone is the partner who has been incredibly betrayed and deceived.  He cannot reenter civil society unless he has a rational explanation for his irrational and incomprehensible behavior.  And that explanation often involves some failure on the part of his partner.  It is rare for a pedophile to take full responsibility for his crimes and his disease without projecting some of the responsibility onto whomever is closest.  He always has a qualifer for any apology or expression of remorse he may make.

And the maddening thing is sophisticated, educated and experienced people believe him!  They take the word of the convicted felon and make a judgment call most often against the spouse.  "She wouldn't allow me to be my true self," he says.  And the response from church leaders, colleagues and friends is to feel sorry for the poor beleaguered man who was tormented by his intolerant wife.  No one thinks to ask the wife for her version of the story!  And we wonder why women who suspect their partner may be sexually attracted to children keep quiet?

As a domestic violence advocate, I get this because I find it eerily similar to what women in abusive relationships experience.  Contrary to public opinion, women who resort to the murder of their tormentor take that action as a measure of last resort.  They have tried repeatedly to break silence and to get help but they are not believed or not helped.  And there is hell to pay when her abuser finds out that she has tried to get help so she learns to suffer in silence until she can suffer no more or until the safety of her children is threatened.

But I echo an abused woman convicted and incarcerated for defending her life when I ask "When is enough, enough?"  When are we going to stop blaming women for the crimes and deviancy of their partners and put the responsibility squarely on the person to whom it belongs?  When are we going to require sex offenders to demonstrate over time that they really do understand how completely they have betrayed others?  When are we going to demand that their words and actions match consistently over the long term before we restore them to our communities or to our churches?  When are we going to insist that the offfender accept full and unconditional responsibility for his crimes and not tolerate blame-shifting, minimization or denial in any form?  When?

Until then, our children are not safe--not in church, at school or at home.  They simply are not safe.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Well Traveled Road

A grad school friend visited recently.  Our life journeys have been similar and yet very different, but during her visit, we discovered that we have much more in common than either of us knew.  We both have been victims of a perpetrator intent on grooming us to accept unacceptable behavior.

I wrote about the grooming process a while back.  A consequence of grooming not addressed in the article, is the toxic shame and guilt that victims of grooming carry.  Even as adults, we carry the shame, though we cognitively acknowledge that it is not ours to carry.  We still struggle under its burden.  So my friend shared her grooming experience with me; she broke silence for the first time and courageously told me what had happened to her.

As a group facilitator for domestic violence survivors, I have frequently observed a phenomenon that I believe may be the key reason for the incredible efficacy of groups and narrative therapy.  While a member may not identify her own experience as abusive because she continues to assume responsibility for the abuser's exploitative behavior, she is often able to identify abusive behavior in another's story.  She may become angry and protective of a group member after hearing their story but still insist that her story is somehow different--that she caused the abuse or could have controlled it.  Gradually, over time, the power of the group experience and the personal narratives begins to erode the rock she has built around her own story.  She is able to see the abuse and violence in her own narrative.  It is an amazing process to observe.
So while praying for my friend this morning, I realized that I was also praying for myself.  I was asking that we both can begin to lay down the burdens we carry on behalf of our perpetrators, that we both can forgive ourselves for being vulnerable, that we both can clearly see that we did not have a chance--the perpetrator was skilled, manipulative and targeted us.  They exploited our vulnerabilitis through the knowledge they had accumulated about us.  I prayed that we both can heal from our shame, that we can courageously hand it back to the person to whom it belongs.

I can so easily see her shame and pain.  I can feel tremendous empathy and compassion for her but anger at the culpability of her abuser.  I want to hunt him down and call him to accountability.  I see her innocence and the horrific betrayal of trust her grooming and abuse created.  I want so much to do something, anything, to relieve her suffering and to convince her that this was not her fault.  I can clearly see her lack of culpability but it is with great difficulty that I see my own.

My friend and I have journeyed separately on two well-traveled roads.  But now, as we join in prayer and support for one another, we journey together on this road called "Recovery."  I'm often reminded that shame happens between people (i.e. perpetrator and victim) and it heals between people (i.e. survivors sharing their secrets).  It is in partnership with another that we begin to heal.  I am grateful for my companions on this part of my journey.


Friday, July 4, 2014

My Personal Declaration of Freedom

I have published this blog for almost two years under a pseudonymn.  I needed to write as an outlet of healing and recovery but I was very concerned with my privacy and that of my children.  We were fragile and needed time to recover from the devastation of my ex-husband's arrest.  

I am an activist and an advocate so always knew that the day would come when I would need to step out of the shadows of my safe hiding place, particularly if I wanted to work authentically for change.  In light of so many scandals and arrests of predators, both inside and outside of organized religion, I feel the time has come and I want to use whatever influence I have to effect change.

So on this day when we celebrate our nation's independence and freedom, I am waving my flag of personal identity and self-disclosure.  Hi, my name is Brenda Ratcliff.  I was married to a professor who was arrested for possession of child pornography.

One of the ways we can make meaning of tragedy is to channel our grief into working for change.  Most great initiatives in our country came from stunning loss--The Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving--are two that immediately come to mind.  I'm not happy that the man I married and who fathered my children turned out to be a pedophile--no one would willingly embrace that story.  But it is my story and I cannot change that.  

I have believed for a very long time that the partner of a pedophile is our first line of defense in our efforts to protect children from predators.  But that partner probably does not know that her spouse is a predator--I certainly didn't.  If by authentically and transparently sharing my story, even the parts that are still very painful, I can turn a light bulb on for a woman who is puzzled by things she is seeing in her spouse, then it is worth it.  

I still feel great compassion for that young 21-year-old that was me.  She was confronted with a set of circumstances that nothing in life had prepared her for.  She lived in an era when there was not much public awareness of pedophilia and child sexual abuse.  She was isolated, confused and devastated.  Even with all of the public awareness and outrage that we currently see, there are still women just as isolated, confused and devastated.  That must change.

There is much work to be done but I sense that change is in the air.  Today we celebrate our nation's fight for freedom from tyranny.  So today in making my personal declaration of freedom, I am reporting for duty in a more upfront way.  Let's do all we can to insure freedom from predators for all the victims in our land including our children and the spouses of pedophiles.