Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Hollow Man or A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

When you hear the term "narcissist," what or who comes to mind?  Chances are that the person you immediately identify in your mind's eye is loud, boisterous and boastful--a true "Donald Trump" kind of individual who monopolizes the conversation and consumes all of the oxygen in whatever room he happens to be in.  And you would be right, for the most part.  However, there is a form of narcissism that looks nothing like the picture you imagined and therein lies the danger.  Many of us who have been in exploitative or abusive relationships have been impacted by this insidious form of narcissism.  By the time we realize something is off in the relationship, we are completely entangled in a web of deceit, manipulation and confusion.

Narcissism is defined as a "Pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition." Source  A narcissist desperately seeks admiration and affirmation and is interpersonally exploitive, manipulative and deceptive.  He lacks the capacity for true empathy for others, though he may have learned how to persuasively pretend to be empathic.  And he sees others as mere extensions of himself; he simply cannot imagine life outside of how he perceives it.  The whole world exists for him.

Narcissists are "highly reactive to criticism" and "can be inordinately self-righteous and defensive."  They "project onto others qualities, traits, and behaviors they can't or won't accept in themselves" and they have very "poor interpersonal boundaries" Source.  Narcissists are like the bunny we received as kids at Easter.  On the outside they look substantial and solid but on the inside they are hollow; their shell is their substance.

While all of us have some narcissistic traits, in order to be diagnosed as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder
(NPD), an individual must meet five or more of the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV).  However, what is not clear from the DSM criteria is the fact that narcissism may present in either an overt or covert manner.  We are all pretty familiar with the overt narcissist.  He "Gains narcissistic supplies through charm and a public persona that allows for the grandiose displays of high status, money, and power" (Payson, p. 32).  The overt narcissist is that consummate powerbroker, politician or diva.

The covert narcissist is a true "wolf in sheep's clothing."  He "Gains narcissistic supplies of admiration, status, and control through his or her role connected to a larger than life cause" (Payson, p. 32).  The covert narcissist is often seen as a humanitarian, "righteous idealogue," and expert professional, according to Eleanor Payson (p. 33).  Additionally, the covert narcissist:
  • Gains admiration, status, and control through more subtle and indirect means;
  • Demeanor is typically more reserved and self-contained, at times aloof;
  • Displays a persona that allows him to cover and disguise his grandiose needs;
  • Assumed persona allows him to gain attention, status and power through what he is doing and what he is connected to, rather than attempt to command a truly solo role in the spotlight.
  • Sees himself as one of the "chosen" people, doing good work for the betterment of humanity.
  • May not possess a strong personality but will exude the illusion of selflessness.
  • It is normally only in personal relationships that the narcissist's lack of empathy and support give evidence to his limitations and impaired functioning.
  • Anger is generally expressed in a passive aggressive manner.
Narcissists are attracted to professions that will give them the narcissistic gains that they must have in order to survive (admiration, affirmation, control, power, recognition--worship).  Many pastors and homeschool/ministry leaders meet the diagnostic criteria for NPD.  Covert narcissists are almost impossible to identify prior to getting involved with them--they are such masters of disguise and pretense.  And all the while they are using and abusing you, they are quite skillfully convincing you that the discomfort you are feeling is your own fault--it is due to some failure or character defect that is in you.  Or worse, it is due to a lack of faith, sin or a spiritual problem.  After all, God is the Ultimate Big Stick and abusers are not hesitant to use Him if it helps them gain power over those within their congregations, homes or families.

I was married for over three decades to a man who was highly esteemed in his professional arena.  He destroyed his career and our family when he was arrested for possession of child pornography.  His subsequent diagnosis as a pedophile was shocking, but I must admit not nearly as difficult as learning that he meets all of the diagnostic criteria for NPD.  Pedophilia stole the future and financial security that I expected to have but narcissism  has stolen my past--the life and marriage I thought I had.  Every memory, both good and bad must now be reframed through the lens of narcissism.  Even with an advanced degree in a helping profession, I could not see his narcissism--that is how confusing and crazy-making covert narcissism is.  Those who know him would probably describe him as a quiet, sensitive man with a quirky sense of humor.  That is how I described him for years.  But, he is a narcissist, pure and simple.

Recovery from involvement with a narcissist takes time, as I am discovering.  It involves letting go of many distortions of truth and blame that were given over the years--a "learning and unlearning," as Jim Cole writes.  Unlearning those truths I believed about myself because the man I loved told me they were true--and learning who I really am--my strengths, weaknesses and true value.  My greatest fear is that I will fail to learn these lessons and find myself involved with another narcissist at some point in the future.  I know how easy it is to fall prey to their skillful manipulation.  The goal is to recognize the narcissism earlier than I have in the past and to get myself to a safe place more quickly than I did in my marriage.  Regardless of whether the narcissist in our life is an overt or covert one, the outcome is always the same--the relationship becomes incredibly painful, one-sided and exploitative.  The choice, though agonizing, is quite simple--we must leave, separate, get away from the exploitative narcissistic person.  They will not change because from their perspective, the whole world may be wrong but they are absolutely right.

**Excellent resource:  The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson, MSW, Julian Day Publications, 2002.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Life's Railroad

When I was younger, I believed that life cycles through good times and bad times.  Sometimes we are on the mountaintop of joy, while at other times, we are in the pit of despair--ups and downs, mountains and valleys--the predictability of life's pattern.  But recently, I have come to believe that at any given moment in our lives, we are experiencing both good and bad, both bitter and sweet, both joy and despair.  It's not an either-or pattern but rather a parallel pattern, like the tracks that trains move upon.

So I find myself walking between the rails of great joy and happiness and those of deep sorrow and despair.  Sometimes I balance on one rail, ignoring the other, but more often than not, I meander through life conscious of both rails.  This is such a time.  Earlier this year, I named the year "Provision" because I sensed that God was going to provide what I could not provide for myself--financial stability, a job, home, etc.  In an act of faith and very weak trust, I dared to believe that He could and would provide for me.  And He has.  I have a job, health insurance and am beginning to climb out of the deep financial crisis that my ex-husband's arrest and subsequent termination from employment imposed upon me.

A little over a month ago, I moved into my very own home!  I cannot express the absolute delight and thrill that I feel each time I put the key in the door and walk into my home.  I have painted, cleaned, and repaired the tub that I broke (crazy idea to put a ladder in a fiberglass tub and try to stand on the ladder, by the way).  I have thoroughly enjoyed home ownership and have tackled tasks that in my previous life I would have asked my spouse to do and I have done them successfully.  Tomorrow, two of my children, their partners and my sweet granddaughter will join me around my small table for our first Thanksgiving in my house.  I can't wait to smell the aromas of our meal and to watch my sweet Gracie walk/run through the house.  I have been provided for in ways that I could not even imagine a mere eleven months ago.

But, while I am quite happy, I also sense a well of deep despair and sorrow.  My ex-husband is facing his criminal sentencing in a few days and I find myself overwhelmed once more with the magnitude of what has happened in my family during the past two years.  A recent letter from him just underscored the depth of his denial and minimization of the crime he has pled guilty to and those that he was able to plea-bargain away.  I feel tremendous compassion for him and what he is potentially facing but also fierce anger for the pain his choices have caused for those that I care deeply about.  Anger and sorrow--two competing emotions on the rail called despair.

So during this season of gratitude, I am trying to embrace both the good and the bad and to offer
thanks for both.  For the good things I have received, it is easy to say a heartfelt and exuberant "thank you."  For the difficult things, I am learning to whisper "thank you" through my tears.  Both the good and the bad are part of this beautiful mess called life.  Both rails--the rail of joy and the rail of sorrow--provide the infrastructure for movement through life and for transformation.  Both offer an opportunity for gratitude and growth and both are absolutely essential for fully experiencing the human condition.  I wouldn't trade one tear I have cried for the lessons that sorrow has taught me.  As brutal as it has been, the growth and changes inside of me are far too valuable to wish away.  And I have actually found that the joys of life have become sweeter because of the pain that life has presented.

So rather than resent the sorrow that seems to perpetually intrude upon my joy, I am learning to expect both and to receive both--to keep my hands and my heart open to all that life is offering.  Because both realities are important teachers, if we are open to learning their lessons.  To all of life, I say "yes" and "thank you."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Birthdays, Mirroring and God: Reflections on a Unity Conference

 I attended my second "Unity Conference" yesterday, which is a gathering of sexually addicted individuals (SA) and their impacted family members (S-Anon).  It is a 12-step program based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model and has been around for nearly 25 years in my part of the country.  Last year at this time, I wrote about the "yuck" factor and my reaction to being in a conference with so many "perps."  But this year was different for me, because I have changed.

As a member of the planning committee for this year's conference, my event responsibility was to plan and facilitate the annual "Birthday Party" for S-Anons.  S-Anon birthdays are calculated from the date we entered the program, not from the date we first became sober.  We are not the addict but rather have our lives incredibly impacted by the addiction of another so we celebrate the date when we first washed ashore on the banks of recovery.

Nearly one hundred women, and a few men, were guests of honor for our celebration and in the glow of candlelight and flowers we shared our journeys of recovery.  Newcomers and old-timers alike shared about the most important element of their recovery journey.  And the overwhelming majority indicated that it was the power of the group that had most positively impacted their recovery.  It was in their local group that they found empathy, understanding and unconditional positive regard, often for the first time in their lives.  It was in their S-Anon group that they shared their whole stories and found acceptance and validation.  It was the group that kept them growing as human beings and connected or reconnected them to their Higher Power. 

As I stood and listened to each story, I thought of the parent-child relationship and the impact of mirroring on a child's development.  Mirroring or empathetic responsiveness between the child and her primary caregiver is critical to the infant's development, particularly in the area of emotional self-awareness.  It is the infant's first exposure to human emotional connection and it validates or gives reality to her experience and her existence as a separate human being.  And that is exactly what the group does for the partner of an addict--it validates her reality--normalizes it and offers understanding, empathy and compassion.

Today is Sunday--the day I normally attend church.  But today, I am giving my body, spirit and soul a rest and am staying home.  My shame-based "religious" training kicked in this morning and I heard Paul's admonition to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves," ringing in my ears.  And the thought occurs to me, that yesterday was church in the truest sense.  So much of what I heard--actually almost all of what I heard was about spiritual growth and transformation as a result of the pain of addiction and as a consequence of working the steps.  One after another, individuals shared from the podium, at the lunch table and in our small groups about how recovery has connected or reconnected them to God.  This was not a religious gathering but a truly spiritual one.  These are people who have been betrayed, have behaved in ways they are too ashamed to talk about and yet have found grace and mercy and a new love and connection to the God of their understanding. 

And let's face it, it is generally quite unsafe to go into a church gathering and be vulnerable, transparent and honest about the struggles we face everyday with real problems.  Church folk tend to be too "nice" to talk about the gritty, dirty parts of the human condition on a personal level.  We can talk about sin in a global sense but certainly not in a personal sense.  Church tends to be the place we go to with masks firmly in place.  And as a card-carrying, life-long member of organized religion, I know this to be true.

So as I stood before the group yesterday to share my journey of recovery, I talked about how I am finally able to live loved.  While I have cognitively known that God loves me and delights in me, I have been unable to get that knowledge to move 18 inches from my head to my heart.  Participation in my precious Saturday morning 12-step group with its endless supply of love, compassion, empathy and validation has helped me learn to live in the glow of my Papa's steady, unfailing and overwhelming love for me.  I feel joy, contentedness and security in a way I could only dream of prior to entering recovery.  My spiritual life has been completely transformed in ways I could only imagine before.  My heart beats gratitude for this life I have been given and love for a God who has mirrored love to me since my birth.  I just couldn't see it.  But it was in the rooms of a 12-step program that I saw Him--with eyes of love and acceptance and with tears flowing down His face for the pain I was experiencing.  It was in the faces of other broken and wounded men and women that I saw my own pain and experienced a human connection unlike any others I have known.  Like a mother, holding her infant child, they held me close, soothed my fears and calmed my troubled heart.  They whispered words of encouragement and didn't let go, even when I was inconsolable.  I can live loved because I have been loved by these incredible men and women.  Happy Birthday to us one and all!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Extremism Defined

I am digressing from the normal topics that I cover on this blog--my own personal journey of recovery--to talk about another issue.  In further reflection, I sense that this topic plays a bigger part of my story than I had previously thought so maybe that is why I am drawn to it.   Over at the Spiritual Sounding Board there has been a lively discussion on various posts about religious abuse expressed in a variety of ways.  And in the "church's" view on women, submission, marriage and divorce, there is a lot of abuse and it is certainly an environment that I have marinated in for decades.   Some of organized religion's teachings that are harmful to women (and men) include:
  • The covenant of marriage is eternal
  • Divorce should never occur
  • A woman's duty is to submit to her husband, no matter what.
  • Women should not be in church leadership positions.
  • Women should not teach men; they should be silent in the church.
  • Abuse is not a valid reason for divorce.

But last Sunday I heard Dr. Brene Brown, a well-known shame researcher say that:

Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism.

Her definition resonated so deeply with me.  It seems to me that far too many churches are guilty of extremism and far too many people in organized religion have become religious terrorists.  No wonder we are hurting, no wonder so many are exiting the church and no wonder so much abuse is occurring in homes governed by these extreme teachings..  Extremists of all stripes and colors leave devastation in their wake.  So, let's break this definition down--let's deconstruct it:


The Apostle Paul described faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
"Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty."  (Dr. Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p. 90)
The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty, according to Anne Lamont. ( Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, pp. 256-57)  But faith in "extreme" churches has been redefined as certainty.  Certainty in theology, certainty in interpretations, certainty in the rules and policies of the church.  We have traded faith as mystery to a "faith" defined by certainty and Law--an oxymoron in reality.  And one fallout, among many, is that fear becomes the currency and culture of the church.  We fear the "world," we fear outsiders, we fear evil so we isolate, hunker down and live by the philosophy of "us four and no more."


Vulnerability involves uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. According to Dr. Brown, it is the birthplace of everything we are hungry for.  It is showing up and allowing ourselves to be seen; it is discarding the 20-ton shield of perfectionism.  It is about sharing our feelings and our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them.
"Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings.  To feel is to be vulnerable.  To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness." (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 33)
But in an environment that sees vulnerability as sin or lack of faith or insubordination or being "too emotional," it is impossible and risky to be vulnerable.  We long to be seen for who and what we are and to be accepted and loved as real people with warts and flaws that make us members of the human race.  But in a "church," where image and conformity to a standard that is really impossible to achieve is demanded, vulnerability is scarce and those who dare embrace it find themselves on the wrong end of a bad sermon illustration.  We quickly learn that we do not dare share our real stories and that we must don a mask and pretend that all is right in our world, even though it may be falling apart.


According to the dictionary,  mystery is "something that is difficult or impossible to explain" (New Oxford American Dictionary).
  • Mystery is paradox.
  • Mystery is uncertainty.
  • Mystery is holding the tension between light and dark.
Mystery is acknowledging that God is bigger than we can imagine and realizing that all that we know of Him is but a drop in the ocean of who he truly is.   Mystery focuses on looking at the moon (God), "Not at the fingers pointing to the moon, but the moon itself--and now including the dark side of the moon too." (Rohr, Falling Upward, p. 87)  Mystery is comfortable with the paradox of God and with not knowing all that there is to know about Him.  Mystery is relaxing in the Stream that is God, knowing that the flow will take her where she needs to go.

Mystery does not exist in extreme churches.  Mystics are frowned upon or barely tolerated.  The emphasis is on knowing cognitively rather than knowing experientially.  Instead of looking at the dark and light side of God, our eyes are re-focused on the fingers pointing to who God is--i.e. the pastor and church leadership.  Our view of God is limited then to that view painted for us by those with a vested interest in keeping us from truly experiencing God as he is.  Because when we truly embrace the mystery of God, including the paradoxes and uncertainty, and become comfortable with not knowing all there is to know, we deep dive into Love itself.  No longer are we exclusionary, intolerant or unsympathetic to the needs of the world.  No longer are we slaves to bad theology or confined to the "safety" of the four walls of our prison, uh church.  It is easy to recognize a mystic--they are characterized by extreme love rather than extreme religion.


According to Dr. Brown, as Americans living in a post-911 world, we each have a thin film of terror wrapped around us.  As a nation we have moved beyond the red, yellow and green alerts in airports but we live in constant fear.  And fear drives wedges between nations and neighbors, it causes us to stockpile food and weapons and look with wariness at those who dress or believe differently than we do. But I contend that this same fear has been the staple of extreme religions far longer than September 11, 2001. Extremism, whether in politics or religion, thrives on fear.  It is the glue that holds extreme systems together.

But John wrote that "There is no room in Love for fear.  Well-formed love banishes fear." (I John 4:18, The Message)  I sense a counter-revolution going on and it is led by those who are waking up to the vices and abuses of extreme religion.  Maybe they have been wounded--and there are so many of us--or maybe they are just growing deeper in their faith and realize that the old way of doing "church" with rules, regulations and certainty, just doesn't work.  Extremism does not provide the anchor that our soul longs for and it certainly does not provide tools for true spiritual transformation.  But Love does and according to Rob Bell, Love wins.  We win when we truly experience God's transformative love and we definitely win when we express that love to another.  So LOVE is the formula that destroys extremism.  May we become people who love.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Second Year: A Sinkhole

I recall the sense of euphoria I felt when my kids and I had completed the last "first" holiday/birthday celebration in the cycle since our world exploded.  My bubble was abruptly burst, however, by a friend who has decades in recovery.  She predicted that the second year would be harder; I didn't like what she said but I am finding that she was right.  I recently stumbled on yet another blog by a former partner who is also on this journey of discovery and recovery and have been thinking a lot about a recent post she wrote about the second year.  It resonates with me on many levels; the second year is harder because we are forced to deal with:
  • Nostalgia for the life we thought we had.
  • Horror and disbelief that our former partner is a child molester.
  • Our children's pain.
  • Disbelief at the duplicity of our former spouse.
The first year is about crisis; the second year is about magnitude.  The first 12 months after the raid on our house and my ex's arrest for possession of child pornography many tasks demanded my immediate attention.  I was in shock, traumatized and lived on pure adrenaline.  Everything presented as a crisis, because it was.  I am half-way through the second year and the theme continues to be about the magnitude of that crisis.  Absolutely everything in my life has been impacted by my ex's arrest and the fallout of that arrest.  The magnitude of the crisis continues to reveal itself and it is huge.

The first year begins with loss; the second year reveals corollary losses.  Surprisingly, I have found that while the first year's losses involved my future, the second year's losses involve my history.  I am no longer married and do not face the retirement and rosy future that I long anticipated.  My children and grandchildren no longer gather around our table for holidays and our home is no longer home for any of us.  But learning that I was married to a pedophile reframes my history with him.  Every struggle, every argument, every happy family memory, every romantic weekend must now be viewed through the lens of pedophilia.  My past is not what I thought it was and that is a huge corollary loss, among many that have revealed themselves during this second year.

The challenge of the first year is survival; the second year demands that we find a way to go on.  I think I cried buckets of tears during the first year and know that neighbors must have wondered about the wails frequently coming from my apartment.  Surviving the grief, trauma, fear, shame and humiliation that the raid and arrest triggered has been and continues to be priority one.  The  practical ramifications of the arrest of the primary breadwinner of the family created immediate needs that threatened my survival and demanded attention during the first year.  But the second year demands that I find a way to go on--that I do more than survive, that I find a way to thrive.  I never anticipated this ending to our "love story."  I thought that I would eventually be alone because of the probability that I would outlive him but I did not imagine this kind of ending.  So I have to reimagine life as a single woman and find a way to create a different future for myself. 

The first year is like a devastating earthquake; the second year resembles a massive sinkhole. 
ABC News
The "house" of our life together as a family was completely destroyed during the earthquake of our first year, post raid and arrest.  But the second year resembles a massive, growing sinkhole that threatens all that we deemed stable and safe in life.  Sinkholes develop when water deep beneath the surface of the ground erodes the bedrock.  When the rock gives way, the ground above it sinks.  Pedophilia is like the water beneath the bedrock--it slowly but surely erodes and destabilizes the ground that our marriages and families are built upon.  Recovery during this second year has involved trying to find a stable place in which to stand on ground which continues to sink.  With physical sinkholes, when the ground stabilizes, engineers are able to shore up the ground that remains and fill in the hole with rock and dirt.  But they must wait until the sinkhole stops growing before they can do the necessary remediation.  And no one can predict when the sinkhole will stop growing.

So the uncertainty of life in year two is real; the grief is different, the losses seem more profound.  The work of recovery seems to be more about assessment of the damage and figuring out how to rebuild a shattered life on more solid ground.  It involves reframing and reimagining life and self.  A favorite artist/poet says it best:

"the power lie in the seeing.
until she could see herself
with her own eyes,
she could not regain her power."
terri st. cloud 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pedophiles, Partners & Churches: Double Standards & Cheap Grace

I personally know a number of partners of pedophiles who live within my geographical region.  And every single one of them are regular church attenders--some employed by religious organizations and all involved with the activities of their houses of worship.  Only one is still with her pedophile husband--he has been in recovery for decades and his church has strong boundaries in place to protect the children of the congregation--boundaries that he respects.  Churches and religious organizations, it seems, are playgrounds for pedophiles.  They are the perfect place to target, groom and victimize innocent children and adults.  And churches are eager to see a repentant sinner restored to grace.  One blogger, the son of a pastor molester, recently tackled the question How Should Christians Treat Repentant Pedophiles? 

It is an important question, to be sure.  But the companion question is often overlooked:  how do they treat the pedophile's partner?  Earlier this year I reluctantly applied for a position at a well-known church in my area.  I was reluctant because I have learned, unfortunately, not to trust religious organizations.  But my need for a job over-rode my hesitations.  When I was called for an interview, I voluntarily disclosed that my ex-husband had been arrested on child pornography charges--I wanted to be upfront, honest and authentic.  I wanted them to know that there was some unwanted baggage attached to my last name.  I was invited to interview anyway and graciously thanked for being honest but was also assured that the question would never have come up in the interview, it was a non-issue.

So I went and interviewed and was offered the job, which I accepted.  However, the senior pastor felt
that it would be in my best interest to have a confidential conversation with the counseling pastor on the church staff.  The session was scheduled the day before I was due to report for work.  The counselor walked into the room, sat down and began our conversation by stating that it was his duty to determine my level of culpability in my ex-husband's crimes.  His rapid-fire questions were intrusive, suspicious and shaming.  At the end of our meeting, he asked if I would change my last name before beginning work the next day (really, this is an impossibility!)  He justified his behavior by a brief history lesson.  The church had experienced three separate molestations of children by volunteers in a 25-year span of time and according to this pastor, the congregation had very strong negative feelings towards the partners of pedophiles.  They would be quite upset if they learned that I was on the church staff.  So, I turned the job down.

When my ex was arrested and his case became a media feeding frenzy, the religious organization he worked at made the correct decision to fire him.  But they also made the decision to distance themselves from me and my children.  I was a former employee and an alum.  I was left in dire financial straits and would have been homeless if family had not intervened.  I have since learned that at least one member of his former department visits him weekly--I guess to encourage him in the faith.  They attend his court dates and offer counsel to him.  I am happy that they are reaching beyond judgment, embarrassment and scandal to "minister" to him.  However, I have yet to receive a phone call on even a quarterly basis from these men or from this organization.  No one inquires how we are doing--or if we are surviving.

The church, it seems, is far more interested in restoring a fallen one than in ministering to the victims of his sin.  In fact, as my prospective employer demonstrated, the partner is often held to a higher standard than the perpetrator!  She is ostracized, blamed and maybe shunned while he is welcomed into the fold and gently and lovingly "restored."  All he has to do is admit guilt--or some level of it--and feign remorse and grace is extended.  She, on the other hand, is held to a higher standard.  Maybe it is a gender thing--the ole "boys will be boys" attitude or maybe the partner simply threatens the sense of safety and security that religious folk seem to enjoy.  Maybe her vulnerability frightens them.  I don't know.

But it sure seems like cheap grace and a double standard to this wounded soul.

As a Partner, what do I need from my religious community or house of worship?  What should churches do with the pedophile's partner?  Here are my thoughts, and this list is certainly not complete:
  • Partners should be welcomed graciously and treated as co-victims.
  • All services and ministries of the church should be made available to her.  She is one of the "widows" that Paul speaks about in I Timothy.
  • She should be offered a supportive and compassionate environment in which to heal.
  • Supporting her healing means allowing her to progress at her own pace and in her own time; avoid advice-giving unless you have walked in her shoes and certainly do not urge a quick forgiveness or reconciliation.
  • Understand that her experience with her pedophile partner is or was mixed; it is rarely all good or all bad.  As such, her children may have had a very different experience than she did in the home and need supportive and compassionate people to help them heal.
  • Recognize that she has been betrayed in a profound way on so very many levels.  Do all that you can to be sure that she is not further betrayed or victimized by the church's treatment of her.
  • Learn all that you can about psychological trauma so you will better understand her when she is triggered.
  • Under no circumstance should she be placed under church discipline or in accountability with a pastor, elder, church staff member or small group leader.  She has been powerless in her marriage for a very long time.  Her level of trust towards men and women in leadership may be nil.  Give her time to heal and be a trustworthy companion for her on the journey.
  • If she is still married to the pedophile, she should not be shamed under any circumstance and must not be told to submit to her husband as a spiritual head.   
Pedophiles:  And what can the church do to prevent a pedophile from making it his playground?
  • Repentant pedophiles should be kept on a very short leash in the church.
  • They should be held to a strict standard of accountability; their behavior should match their words completely and at all times.
  • Church leadership must remember that deception, manipulation and denial are as commonplace as breathing with pedophiles so must verify, verify, verify absolutely everything he tells them.  His partner or former partner is a good place to begin the verification process.
  • Understand that pedophilia is very, very difficult, if not impossible to cure.
  • Do not try to minister outside of your area of training and competency.  Skilled and specialized therapists are still sometimes fooled by these men.  Don't think you can do more than they can to help contain and control their behavior.
  • Do not, under any circumstance, believe everything he tells you about his wife and marriage or about his prior history and behavior.  Remember, he is very prone to incredible deception, distorted thinking and skewed judgment. 
It is time for religious organizations to become places of healing for traumatized and betrayed partners and victims.  It is time for abundant grace, compassion and mercy to be extended to them.  But the church must become inhospitable to further abuse, molestation, grooming or victimization by the pedophile. While he may seek restoration and participation, the church must never cease to monitor him lest he turn it into his playground and begin preying on its children.
Make the church inhospitable to child abuse!    

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Grooming: It's not Just for Pets and Children

My brother and his partner do not have children but they have two rescue dogs who hit the jackpot when they became part of the family.  These dogs have their own masseuse, trainer, sitter and groomer.   Their food is prepared fresh and the nanny cam connects them to their dads 100% of the time.  I do not have a pet but I understand more than I ever wanted to about grooming, and I am not speaking of styling my hair, putting my make-up on or caring for a pet.  I am understanding grooming in a very new and devastating way.

One definition of "groom" is action intended "to prepare or train someone for a particular purpose or activity" (New Oxford American Dictionary).  We understand child grooming as that subtle, gradual but escalating process that a perpetrator uses to exploit a child for sexual purposes.  The process consists of identifiable steps or stages:

Stages of Grooming:
  1. Targeting and befriending the victim; sizing up vulnerabilities and areas to exploit.
  2. Gaining the victim's trust; collecting information about the victim.
  3. Filling a need the victim or her family may have; testing boundaries.
  4. Isolating the victim; lowering the victim's inhibitions.
  5. Sexualizing the relationship.
  6. Maintaining control over victim; includes making the victim feel responsible for the abuse as well as using threats and coercion to maintain the secrecy.
Recognizing that the subtle but powerful process of grooming leads to child sexual abuse, many states are beginning to enact legislation that makes grooming a felony.  Parents are warned to watch for individuals who are showing undue attention to their child, both inside and outside of their family and friend circles.

But the grooming process is not confined to child predators only.  Inmates target, befriend and test correctional officers and staff (termed "ducks" by the prison population). Downing a Duck describes the inmates' grooming process with correctional staff. 
And Dr. Phil describes the process in his Life Code book.  He identifies toxic people who are intent on exploiting us in romantic relationships, friendships and even in the workplace and houses of worship.  His list of the exploiter's playbook, called The Nefarious 15 is amazingly similar to the stages of grooming listed above.  Women who have been in violent romantic relationships may also recognize a pattern in the wooing process they experienced with their violent partner.

But as the former partner of a pedophile, I am realizing that my groom groomed me before I said "I do."  As I look at these lists and think back to the days just prior and just after we started dating, I see the pattern and it is startling.  Questions I am asking myself include:
  • What vulnerability did he see in me?
  • How did he use that vulnerability to gain my trust?
  • What information did he learn about me and then use to make himself more attractive to me?
  • What boundaries did he push?  
  • How did he test my willingness to tolerate boundary violation or rule-breaking?
  • What tools did he use to lower my inhibitions?
  • How was it that I bought into his "truth" and believed his lies?
And, the most important question:
  • How can I change, grow and heal so that my vulnerabilities are decreased? 
Socrates believed that "An unexamined life is not worth living."  His bold statement challenges the Pollyanna encouragement I have so often received in recent months--to forget the past and forge ahead.  But if I want to learn from the past, then I must examine it--I must boldly look at the choices and mistakes I have made, the times I have been targeted, deceived, manipulated and betrayed.  I must learn how to spot a groomer both for myself and for those I love.  Because one thing I have learned for sure and for certain:  grooming is not just for pets and children.  It happens to adults as well.  It happened to me.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Power of Forgiveness

When the police broke down my door, armed with a search warrant, I sat at my dining room table for hours. I sat and listened--in my nightgown and robe, with morning breath and bed head--as they lectured me on the fact that child pornography is not a victimless crime.  They were preaching to the choir but I didn't tell them that.  As an advocate for victims of abuse and exploitation, I had witnessed the lingering and overwhelming devastation of one single victimization on an adult woman; unfortunately few of the women I worked with had experienced just one single victimization.

In countless conversations when my ex tried to paint the pictures he loved as "artistic" or create a story about the "happy" children depicted, my pleas to see them as victims were ignored or discounted.  While he professed to love children in a healthy fashion, he could not or would not see that the images he enjoyed were taken on the worst day of that child's life--that they memorialized a horrendous action against the innocence and sanctity of another human being.  Of course, as I have since learned, the pictures he showed me were the G-rated ones; I had no idea how far he had progressed down the slippery slope of child pornography.

But as the former partner of a pedophile, I have felt my own share of grief and shame over the actions of my spouse.  I have grieved for the children impacted by his sin.  The detectives told me that they have been able to identify some of the child victims in the photos circulating on the web and each time an individual downloads their picture, the victim is notified.  This was horrifying to me to think of the thousands of times victims are once more reminded of the worst day of their life, knowing that yet another individual is gaining pleasure at their expense.

Recently I stumbled upon a blog that documents abuse and child sexual exploitation within religious organizations.  One post dealt with partners of pedophiles so needless to say, I was intrigued.  I have linked the particular post above so you can read the post and comments for yourself but one just took my breath away.  It was a response to a comment by a former partner of a man convicted of child pornography who was haunted by the images she happened to see in her ex-husband's collection.  The response was written by a child used in pornography:
Used by permission
Falene's grace, compassion and mercy amaze and inspire me.  Her words give me hope that maybe we can do something about the victims and co-victims of pedophiles and abusers.  If she can offer forgiveness as a victim, maybe there is hope--even and especially for women like Sarah and like me--the silent co-victims.  We hide, isolate and cower in fear because we know how much hatred there is for men like our spouses; we know that often we are judged guilty by association--by the public, those in law enforcement and often within the therapeutic and religious communities.  But Jesus said "A little child shall lead them," and though Falene is no longer a child, she is leading the way and I am eternally grateful for her example.

So Falene, I do not know you but I honor you.  Thank you for demonstrating grace and for offering the only thing that can possibly set dear Sarah free--forgiveness.  My hope is that you have found healing, that you are happy and that your days of victimization and exploitation are behind you.  Please know that there are many more Sarahs out there--women who grieve and lament over the actions of the men they fell in love with. Your powerful words are a balm to our wounded and fearful spirits--a promise that we can be free because of the power of your forgiveness.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Am I Really a Co-pedophile??

Someone recently quoted the childhood rhyme that most of us learned "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt them."  She wanted to encourage me but I reminded her that the rhyme is false--words have tremendous power to hurt and wound our soul and so does labels.

Here are some of the labels I have found for partners of pedophiles:

  • One organization has labeled a woman who finds out her partner is a pedophile and stays as a co-pedophile.
  •  S-Anon labels women in a relationship with an individual with sexual compulsions as a co-addict.  None of the other family groups in the 12-step groups label a family member as a "co-alcoholic" or "co-gambler."
  • A psychologist wrote recently in a major psych magazine that the wife always knows and should be considered a criminal. 
  • One prevention site calls the wife a predator-in--the-making.
  • Treatment professionals often believe that the partner of any addict is a co-dependent.
But none of these labels acknowledges what we know to be true about pedophiles:
  • They are excellent at grooming another to accept unacceptable behavior.
  • They are very often respected, up-standing professional men of the community.
  • They are master manipulators and deceivers.
  • Undifferentiated pedophiles are attracted both to adults and children.
  • The main person they target to deceive is their spouse because they need the spouse as a cover.
  • They are great at gas-lighting.
And none of these sources seem to truly know what the partner of a pedophile experiences:
  • Though she may suspect something is off, she often has nothing to hang her gut instinct on.
  •  When she does discover that her spouse is acting out in some fashion, she is incredibly traumatized and reacts accordingly.
  • Not all of life with a pedophile is confusing or difficult--there is good as well, which according to Patrick Carnes, creates a powerful betrayal bond.
  • She may have children of her own to consider.  If he has not been arrested and she leaves, she knows that he may obtain sole or unsupervised visits with the children and she fears for their safety.
  • Without proof that will stand up in a court of law, she knows that she will lose in any legal battle because she is going up against a system that still favors the man, even a pedophile.
I am not a co-pedophile; I am a woman who unknowingly fell in love with a pedophile.

I am not a co-addict--addicted to him.  I thought we were creating a life together; I thought I was in a loving relationship.

I am not a criminal but I may be married to one without knowing a thing about it.

I am not a predator-in-the-making but rather a mother, wife, daughter, sister and aunt, who has been kept in the dark about my spouse's criminal activity.

I am not codependent, though my behavior may look like I am; I am a trauma survivor.

If I have any inkling that my husband's interest in children may be sexual, I may have formed a powerful betrayal bond (think Stockholm Syndrome) that makes it very difficult to leave him. I am a victim of his grooming as well.

But skeptics ask "How is it that a wife may not know of her husband's predilections or criminal activity?"
  • According to Dr. Patrick Carnes "Addicts withhold a major portion of themselves--a pain deeply felt, but never expressed or witnessed.  They do not trust nor do they become intimate with others, especially their families." (Carnes, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, p. 6).
  • "But even when partners suspect something is amiss, ask questions, check computers, phone bills, credit card and bank statements--basically do everything they can short of hiring a private investigator--their mates simply lie.  This leaves them with continued suspicions, but with no concrete evidence and thus no way to prove what they only fear." (Steffens & Means, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope and Heal, p. 61).
What do these labels do for women still married to a pedophile?  They guarantee her silence, cause her to cower in fear and stay as deeply hidden as she possibly can.  She has been horrendously betrayed, lied to and manipulated for years.  While she is horrified at the possibility that her husband may be sexually molesting children, she also probably has children of her own to consider.  And the media coverage of high-profile cases with the vitriolic push-back against women like her who had the misfortune of marrying a predator, gives her nightmares at night.

No, I am not a co-pedophile, co-addict, criminal, predator-in-the-making or a codependent.  I am a co-victim. The vast majority of non-exclusive pedophiles (attracted to both children and adults) are married and have children.  Their partners and children are secondary and silent victims.

If we as a country really want to protect children from sexual predators, we have to stop blaming their co-victims and find a way to reach out to her in compassion and kindness and with information.
Name-calling, labeling and blame will just keep her isolated behind a wall of self-protective silence.  And since pedophiles are usually only identified after they have molested a child or been arrested on child pornography charges, it is imperative that we find a way to engage the partner in our fight to safeguard the children in our world.  She is on the front lines of the battle and may not even know hat she is in a battle.  We need to arm her with truth about pedophilia but also about the sinister web of deception and manipulation that she is probably caught up in.  Only then will we be able to begin to create a safer world for our children.  Labels just don't work.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Serenity, Courage and Wisdom

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer, attributed to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has become a beloved part of every 12-step recovery group meeting.  My own group recites it at the beginning and end of our weekly gathering and many of us use it on a regular basis to remind ourselves of the lessons we have learned in recovery.  When I was decorating my first apartment as a single woman, I found this picture and it has a place of honor in my new home. It reminds me daily of three words that have been key to my recovery process:  serenity, courage and wisdom.

Serenity is defined as the state of being serene, that is "calm, composed, tranquil, peaceful, untroubled, relaxed, at ease, unperturbed, unruffled, unworried." (New Oxford American Dictionary)  This word certainly did not describe me in the immediate aftermath of my world crashing down!  And let's be honest, it does not describe most of us on any given day or in any given situation.  We are bombarded daily by the latest crisis or tragedy in the world--news that used to take weeks to get to us is now broadcast as it is happening.  It is difficult to maintain serenity on the best of days and when trouble comes, most of us do not meet it as peaceful, tranquil or untroubled individuals.

And yet recovery promises that we can get to a state of serenity about or in spite of the circumstances in our lives.  Serenity may not be our first reaction to bad news or difficult circumstances but we can get there and the key is "accepting the things I cannot change."  "When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation--some fact of my life--unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment." (Alcoholics Anonymous 4th ed., p. 417).

"Accepting the things I cannot change" involves letting go of the past I thought I wanted or giving up the hope that the past could be any different than it was.  Read that again--it is letting go of the past I thought I wanted, deserved, was promised . . . . period.  Is this easy?  No, a thousand times no.  I have struggled so much in recent weeks with accepting that my marriage was not what I thought I had.  I struggle with accepting that I spent over three decades trying to connect emotionally with someone who was unavailable for connection, trying to build a relationship with someone protecting a deadly secret.  Serenity comes when I can accept that what was, was.  The past wasn't what I thought it was, it wasn't what I wanted or believed I had.  It wasn't what I deserved or worked for. I can fight against that cold, hard fact or I can accept it.

But "accepting the things I cannot change" also means accepting the unacceptable challenges of today. I have found the first three steps of the 12-step program helps tremendously with accepting what often seems unacceptable both in the past and in my present.  A short summary of the first three steps is, I can't; God can; I'm going to let him.

Courage is defined as "the ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief" (New Oxford American Dictionary).  But the original meaning of the word was "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." (Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 12).  I exhibit courage when I tell my story from my heart--the unvarnished story, the one without the rose-colored glasses.  A vital prerequisite of the second stanza of this prayer--"Courage to change the things I can"--is to tell myself the truth about my life.  It means putting aside the fairy-tale version and looking at the reality.

And it takes courage to do this work but "courage does not mean the absence of fear.  Courage is the ability to walk through changes that would have overwhelmed me previously" (Reflections of Hope, p. 158).  I quickly completed steps 1-3 of my 12-step program but step 4 was very frightening to me--a thorough and complete moral inventory???  But I have found that it is insightful and affirming to speak the truth to myself about myself.  And steps 4-10 will give me an opportunity to admit my shortcomings to God, myself and another person, become ready to have God remove my defects of character, and ask him to remove them.  Then I will make a list of all persons I have harmed and work on becoming willing to make amends; I will make amends and then do the inventory all over again.  Wow--sounds intense and it is.  Does it demand courage, yes!

But, "As I enlist God's help, my shortcomings have changed into more positive ways of acting.  I consciously think of the way I want to act, and then implement new behaviors.  It hasn't been easy, but the results have been worth it." (Reflections of Hope, p. 158).

Wisdom is defined as "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment" (New Oxford American Dictionary).  It is by drawing on our cumulative experiences, knowledge and judgment that we determine what we can change and what we cannot change.  Wisdom is learning what I can and cannot do; it is respecting the boundary that separates me from another; it is staying on my side of the street and not assuming responsibility for or taking ownership of problems that do not belong to me.  It is quite simple and yet quite profound.

Wisdom reminds me that powerlessness is not the same as helplessness; teaches me that if I didn't cause it, I can't control it or cure it; urges me to detach with love and compassion; nudges me away from people-pleasing; and shows me how to be gentle to myself and to trust my Higher Power and the process.  Wisdom values the experience, strength and hope of others in recovery; it causes me to reach out when I need a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on or a pat on the back.  Steps 11-12 indicate that by improving my conscious contact with the God of my understanding, I will have wisdom and experience a true spiritual awakening.  I can then be a beacon of hope to others struggling in the storms of life.

Three words:  serenity, courage and wisdom--much more than a beautiful wall hanging--a prescription for doing life differently, a road map for recovery.  There are far more eloquent prayers one can pray but none with more power to change lives than this one.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Who is My Neighbor?"

The tone of this post is very different from that of more recent ones; the nature of grief is that one's emotional climate can and does change rapidly.  Sometimes it is hard to keep up but it is the reality of recovery from loss, betrayal or trauma.

I called my old pharmacy recently--the one I used in my former life.  I spoke with Tom, the owner of the pharmacy and as soon as I identified myself he said, "Oh, Brenda, how are you?  We've been thinking about you."  I was moved to tears by the compassion and genuine concern in his voice.  Here's what I know about Tom:  he is old and has a slight tremor in his hand, he is the owner of a mom and pop pharmacy and he still uses glass beakers in the compounding part of his store.  That's it.  But he knows me and my story because of the publicity surrounding it and he used my call about prescriptions to reach out in kindness to me.  I was overwhelmed.

Road referenced in the story
That phone call reminded me of a question a young lawyer asked of a great teacher:  "Who is my neighbor?" The teacher used a parable or story to answer the question.  (You can read the story here.)  The cast of characters in the story include a victim, a band of villains, two professional men and a man considered to be "from the other side of the tracks," in that region.  The setting for the story was a treacherous road connecting the religious center of the country to a popular village on the other side of the mountain.  The route was considered dangerous because bands of thieves often ambushed solitary travelers, robbing and beating them.

Which is exactly what happened to the victim in the story.  He was robbed, beaten and left for dead along the side of the road.  But wait, there are more characters in the story--help is on the way, isn't it?  The first and then the second potential helper approaches, looks at the victim, crosses to the other side of the road and passes him by.  But the teacher points to the third potential helper as the hero in the story.  He stopped, rendered aid, transported the victim to a place of healing and paid for the injured man's care out of his personal funds.  He got involved and stayed involved until the victim recovered.  The teacher pointed to this man as a true neighbor, in answer to the lawyer's question.

A nice story with the moral being the importance of looking out for one's neighbor, right?  Yes, but there is more, so much more.  Because the victim and the uncaring professionals were from the same "neighborhood," so to speak.  The hero helper was not from their neighborhood but rather was from the despised one on the other side of town.  The injured man was ignored by his "neighbors" but helped by someone he may have avoided had he been in a condition to do so.  The great teacher turned the definition of the word "neighbor" upside down when he answered this important question.  His answer reframed the question from "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" to "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

I've thought a lot about who my neighbors are during the past months of recovery. The individuals who I thought were neighbors turned out not to be so, which is a source of deep pain to me.  Former colleagues, professors, pastors and friends seemingly passed by in horror at the damage I had suffered.  I was messy and the situation I found myself in was messy--not a topic for polite conversation at a dinner party.  The kind of mess that creates a stench and makes neighbors feel ill at ease--that threatening kind of mess that we all tend to move away from.  It is costly to really be a good neighbor to someone suffering--it is a risk and you will get dirty.

To be fair, a few did immediately reach out, but this many months later, their numbers are quickly dwindling.  I find myself yearning for a "Good Samaritan" these days.  Yes the crisis has passed but the grief has not.  It comes in waves--phantom pains that remind me grimly of what has been lost.  It is exhausting.  The challenge of beginning life again after a devastating loss is overwhelming; the details that must be attended to are without end.  Have I mentioned that it is exhausting? And it is lonely, and frightening.

It is tempting to become cynical, particularly of members of my faith tradition and of those within the helping and legal professions.  It is very tempting.  And yet, I know it is a lot to ask--I know that living up to the standard of neighborliness that the great teacher set is time consuming and scarey.  It means sacrifice and it means moving out of one's comfort zone and tolerating inconvenience.  It means giving of one's resources, time and maybe even reputation. True neighborliness demands much from us and most of us just are not willing to pay the cost.

So, today I know that true neighbors are hard to come by.  Today I renew my commitment to be a Good Samaritan to those I meet or know who have been beaten up by life, robbed by opportunists and abandoned by those they trusted.  Today I recommit myself to following the great Teacher's standard for neighborliness.  To ask not "What will this cost me?" but rather "What will happen to this person if I fail to act?"Today I choose to embrace compassion, empathy and forgiveness rather than anger, resentment and cynicism.  These are my gifts in the wounds of the past months.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Victim? Survivor? Or Something More?

Over four decades ago, my uncle walked out of his marriage and my aunt has never recovered.  Even though he has been dead for a number of years, she sees herself as his rejected, cast-off spouse.  For some reason she never moved on and today though her mind is foggy with dementia, she still carries the shame, rejection and resentment birthed on that terrible, no-good day.  She is frozen in time, a victim still defined by the devastating actions of another.

Advocates who work with individuals impacted by abuse and domestic violence feel that the terms used to refer to their clients are important.  They prefer the term "survivor" to "victim" feeling that the former is more empowering than the latter.  And terminology is important for the impacted individual in terms of their recovery--a name or label has incredible power over how we view our self in relationship to others and the world.

Researchers have established that past victimization is a risk factor for future victimization, which is a compelling reason to help victims move forward in the healing process--to move from being a victim to becoming a survivor.  But is surviving enough or is there something more?  I contend there is.

A victim says, "Something bad happened to me through no fault of my own."
A survivor says, Though something bad happened to me through no fault of my own, I did not succumb."
But a thriver says, "I've found many gifts in the wounds as a consequence of something bad that happened to me through no fault of my own."

A person who is a thriver has moved beyond defining herself by the bad thing that happened to her.  She says, "I've learned much about myself in relationship to others and to the world because something bad happened to me through no fault of my own.  I realize I am stronger than I thought I was; I have a greater awareness of people.  I've learned to not give anyone the benefit of the doubt but to withhold judgement until I have enough evidence to believe they are a trustworthy person.  I've learned to forgive the person or persons through whom something bad happened to me.  More importantly, I've learned to forgive myself.  I look forward to life; I embrace the future with eagerness and happiness.  I'm no longer a victim paralyzed by the bad that happened to me; nor am I a survivor  defined by the bad that happened to me but I am a thriver in spite of and because of the bad that happened to me.  I am flourishing; I am growing; I am alive.  I have a future, I have a hope."

The victim and the survivor see themselves through the narrow lens of that bad thing that happened; they are still defined by it--it is the major key in the music of their life.  The thriver does not deny the bad thing that happened but sees it as one movement of life's symphony--there is so much more music waiting to be expressed.

A victim says "This is my story."
A survivor says "This is not the end of my story."
But a thriver says "I am now writing the rest of my story."

So, something bad happened to me through no fault of my own.  I was a victim.  I survived that bad thing that happened to me but I am now thriving.  Unlike my embittered and resentful aunt, I am writing the rest of my story--making music with the life I have been given.  And it is glorious!  Can you hear it?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cast Away at a Crossroads

Words from an old song have reverberated through my brain in recent weeks--so much so that I finally tracked down the lyrics:

Cast Away
You've come walking with a scar on your soul
Taking too much too lightly.
And it is no wonder that you're feeling so cold
Shivering so politely.

Cast away, cast away
You can find your way.
Cast away, cast away
It will be okay.

You stand a looking with a hurt in your eye,
Gray in the sky above you.
You'll feel much better if you go on and cry
You've found Somebody who will love you.
(c) 1979 Mark Heard, Autumn Balm Music, BMI

A simple song with a profound message--one that completely expresses the grief of betrayal, abandonment and loss as well as the hope of recovery.  No wonder it is on a continuous loop in my mind these days!

The word "cast away" has three potential meanings:
  1. An individual who is discarded, thrown away or rejected;
  2. An individual cast adrift or ashore as a survivor of a shipwreck;
  3. An individual who is thrown out or left without friends or resources.
For those of us recovering from or living within a toxic, abusive or addictive relationship, all three meanings apply.  We feel discarded and rejected by our significant other and certainly know that our life or relationship feels like a shipwreck.  And if we choose to leave or are abruptly thrown out of the relationship, we often are left without friends or resources.  We live as cast aways with scars on our souls and hurt in our eyes.  And we often are guilty of "taking too much too lightly" and "shivering so politely."  We abhor being a burden to another even in our pain and devastation.

And of course, the term "cast away" calls to mind the movie by that name featuring Tom Hanks.  Tom's character, Chuck, is a time-consumed executive who is marooned on a deserted island after the plane he is flying in goes down in a storm.  Because humans are created for connection, Chuck forms an emotional tie to his only companion, a soccer ball that washes ashore from the downed plane,  who he appropriately  names "Wilson."  After four years on the island where time has little meaning, Chuck attempts an escape but in the process loses "Wilson."  Chuck is rescued and returns home only to discover that his life has also been shipwrecked and he has some choices to make. 

Several themes from the movie resonate with me as I contemplate my own shipwrecked life.  First, when Chuck loses "Wilson," his grief is palpable.  "Wilson" was his only companion--the person he talked to endlessly.  This scene in the movie reflects the character's pivotal decision to let go of personal illusions in exchange for real life.  Had he held on to the illusion of "Wilson," he may have missed the cargo ship waiting to rescue him.

And so it is with recovery from a toxic relationship.  We must let go of the illusions, accept the truth and cold realities of our relationship or life before we can enter into true life and begin the process of recovery.  We discard the rose-colored glasses and look at our life or relationship through the lens of truth and reality.  It is painful for sure but essential if we are to recover.

(c) Dreamworks
The second scene from the movie that resonates deeply with me is the final scene.  Chuck has
returned home, discovered that his significant other has declared him dead and remarried and he is faced with a crossroads in life.  This scene was filmed in a remote area of Texas and while the landscape appears barren and incompatible with life, each road offers the potential for adventure, connection and the possibility of happiness.  The movie ends without us knowing which road Chuck chooses--a poignant reminder that his story does not end just because the movie is over.

The crossroads are a metaphor for life after loss.  And like the song, they remind me that I can find my way.  I can focus on the barrenness of the landscape, the magnitude of my loss or I can focus on the possibilities and potential available to me.  I do have choices.  While I did not choose to be a cast away--who would, right?  I do have choices about my future.  So yet again, I must remind myself that this is not the end of my story--it is just a crossroads.  I am no longer a cast away but rather an adventurer, a pioneer charting a new course for my life.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Life in a House of Mirrors

There are three things I remember about my one and only visit to a world's fair:  the revolving restaurant at the top of a tower, bumper cars and the fun house.  After tiring of the long lines at the first two attractions and in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat of a South Texas summer day, I wandered into the fun house.  It was full of mirrors that reflected my image in a distorted way--in one I was short and fat, in another tall and lean; one reflected a nose that dominated my face, in another I had no nose at all; in one mirror I was far away, in another I was up close and personal.  And many years later, it occurs to me that much of life is often spent in front of funny mirrors; our internal world is often a house of mirrors and we do not realize that the reflections they are providing are distorted and manipulated and do not reflect reality at all.

Fun mirrors make small things larger, large things smaller, distort and contort and make the grotesque appear normal. According to Dr. Patrick Carnes, "Betrayal and exploitation are like being in the fun house.  It makes the abnormal and the grotesque appear normal.  Trauma distorts our perceptions just as sure as the mirrors in the fun house." (Betrayal Bonds, p. 199)  But it seems to me that the vulnerabilities that make it difficult to resist those internal fun house mirrors are created quite early in life.  Even in healthy, fully functional families, shame thrives and children are inevitably wounded.  A child is always less than their parent developmentally so shame is birthed quite innocently, amplified culturally and fully operational before a child enters pre-school.

Our internal house of mirrors has shiny surfaces that distort our view of self in relationship to others and the world.  They may include:
  • Mirrors that reflect abusive treatment as normal.
  • Mirrors that scream "not enough!"
  • Mirrors that assure us we are the center of the universe (narcissism)
  • Mirrors that convince us that our worth is found in what we do for others (codependency)
  • Mirrors that distort trauma, betrayal and exploitation so that they appear to be our fault.
  • Mirrors that persuade us that _______ isn't so bad (abuse, betrayal, exploitation, maltreatment, toxic relationships) by employing denial and minimization.
  • Mirrors that convince us that we are bad and somehow responsible for whatever is happening that is painful but absolutely not responsible for whatever is good.  These "mirrors" rely on shame, blame, internalization and magnification to distort our inner reality.
My almost 8-month-old granddaughter has discovered mirrors and absolutely loves to stand in front
of one and play with the baby she sees.  She laughs as she pats the mirror because the baby in the glass pats back. She has learned to talk to my image in the mirror but then to turn her head and look at me directly as she pats my shoulder.  I would love to know how her fertile and imaginative brain is processing the mystery of mirrors and the images that she is seeing.  My hope for her is that her internal mirrors will not become too distorted as she grows and matures.  My promise to her is to be a mirror that reflects back love, acceptance and value to her, especially when she grows critical of the image she sees in her mirror.  Mirrors that reflect distorted and manipulated images belong in a fun house, not in our internal home.

But, if I am to be a positive influence on my sweet Gracie--if I am to be a true mirror for her--I must continue to dismantle and destroy the distorted mirrors in my own internal home.  My favorite shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, recently stated that for her, God is a divine reminder of her inherent worthiness.  I love that idea!  My worthiness has never gone missing; I am loved unconditionally and lavishly and I am learning to live loved.  As I continue to learn this important life lesson, I will communicate it to my children and grandchildren by my attitude and actions--by my example more than by my words. So,  I've packed my bags and am moving out of the fun house.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Healing Communities in Unlikely Places

Several days ago, I took a chance on a novel by an author I was not familiar with and the story she has woven has captured my heart and my imagination.  Don't Let Me Go by Catherine Ryan Hyde, is a masterful piece that perfectly illustrates the value of community in personal healing.  The story is set in a rough neighborhood apartment complex in the greater LA metropolitan area.  Grace, the main character of the story is a nine-year-old child of a relapsed addict. The motley tenants include an agoraphobic, an abuse victim, an elderly lady an angry pedophile and a marginalized Latino. They band together in an effort to help Grace and in the process become a community of healing.

At the beginning of the story, each character is isolated from the others, hostile and fearful.  The world they live in is not safe and they are not trusting.  They know nothing about each other but because Grace is their unifying concern, they slowly lower their personal defenses and allow themselves to be seen by the others.  Grace sets the frame for their interactions; her unconditional acceptance of each adult becomes the norm for the way they interact with each other and with her.  And in doing so, they step out of isolation and into community.  And healing flows through the rooms of the apartments.

According to Dr. Brene Brown, "Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives:  secrecy, silence, and judgment." (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 40).  She goes on to state that "Shame happens between people, and it heals between people." (p. 40).  When we isolate and keep our shame a secret, it thrives but it loses its power when we speak of it.  Billy, the agoraphobic, hides in his apartment though he once danced on Broadway.  Rayleen, the abused manicurist, won't allow anyone to get close emotionally because of the shame she carries over her childhood sexual abuse.  And Mr. Lafferty, the angry man struggling with pedophilia, keeps everyone at bay by his explosive anger.  While they live in close proximity, they are separated by a universe called SHAME.

But not all communities are able to be healing communities.  In fact, many communities become toxic by their demand that everyone look perfect, act perfect or maintain a lifestyle that is congruent with the community's standards.  These communities are extremely judgmental so in order to survive, each member must remain in hiding and isolation.  They may look good on the outside but are rotten to the core on the inside.  Healing communities often are found in the most unlikely places--like a seedy apartment complex on the wrong side of town or in the rooms of a 12-Step program.

But grace--kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness, approval, favor, mercy, esteem, respect--is a prerequisite for any community to become a healing community.  It is the life force that transforms a group of wounded neighbors into change agents in the life of a little girl and unleashes healing in their own lives.  It is grace that enables genuine connection between individuals and it is that connection that provides healing for shame.  And once we have experienced grace and healthy connections, our heart cry, much like Grace's, will be "Don't ever let me go!"  I need you in order to heal and survive and you need me.  We need each other, we need a community.  Get the book!  Read the book!  Be grace-filled individuals reaching out to another so that together we can heal from the shame that is destroying us.