In the late summer of 1983 I landed in Birmingham England and moved into the home of a British family with six children (4 boys and 2 girls). It was the start of a one year student exchange program, where I would be fully immersed in British culture. This was before cell phones or internet, so "total immersion" was an apt description for my coming year.
My British family was much more traditional than my American family. British family life meant that breakfast was served every morning. This was in stark contrast to my usual morning of scarfing down cold cereal with a head of dripping wet hair before racing off to catch the school bus.
We all gathered around the table while mum, dressed neatly in a June Cleaver-esque dress and apron, prepared and served us breakfast. Sometimes it was warm croissants with butter and jam, other times it was eggs or oatmeal. After breakfast we’d collect our books and bags, and head to the front door. On our way out mum kissed each of us on our foreheads—this was foreign to me and took some time to get used to.
After leaving the house we'd climb into the back of the family’s Peugeot, and my host father drove myself and my two host sisters to our school, located in a posh area of town. This new school could not be more different than the American school from which I had just graduated. I came from a traditional American public high school of about two thousand coed students. The building was new and modern. Basketball, football and baseball were the fulcrum of social life for the student body. I was active in student government and editor of the year book.
In contrast, my British school had less than three hundred all female students. The junior and senior class were permitted to wear regular clothing. Everyone else wore a green and white uniform. As is the norm for catholic school, it was run by nuns. Each morning the student body gathered together for opening prayer assembly in the school's auditorium. There were no sporting events. No state championship tournaments. The big annual event was the school musical, with all of male parts played by female students dressed as men.
The school building itself looked ancient and looming, It was constructed of dark red brick, partially covered in ivy, and tucked behind a fortress of tall neatly trimmed hedges and black cast iron gates. It blended in with the large homes of the neighborhood, constructed of the same ivy covered brick, with tall hedges that hid the circular driveways in the front of each home. The whole neighborhood had a particular smell, like a damp forest floor after the morning rain.
Once all the kids were off to school, and the house left empty for the day, Mum went back to her daily duties which included cleaning the home, ironing the laundry (including everyone’s underwear) and preparing the evening's dinner, including a fresh batch of custard to pour over the evening’s dessert. This was how mum spent each weekday. Mum spent Saturday preparing for Sunday.
Sundays the whole family went to catholic mass in the morning and returned home for a formal Sunday lunch. Sunday lunch was the pinnacle of the week, and while it wasn't quite as formal as the lavish dinners you see on Downton Abbey, to this unrefined American it felt damn close. The good china, sterling silver cutlery and cut crystal glasses were brought out from the dining room hutch and set on the table. Each place setting had several plates stacked on top one another. This stack was surrounded on both sides and the top by about a dozen pieces of cutlery of all shapes and sizes. Several different beverage glasses, including cut crystal glasses for water and wine, flanked the right side. On the left was a bread plate and small butter knife. I had to be taught that you use the cutlery from the outside in, starting with the tiny spoon specifically used to eat the standard appetizer of avocado halves stuffed with tiny shrimp in a tangy, creamy dressing. Until my year in England I had never eaten an avocado! Dinner was always a giant roast beef surrounded by masses of boiled and roast potatoes.
Before dinner we drank sherry. During dinner we drank wine, and afterwards it was port. Dinner was followed by a cheese course and then dessert. I had never in my life heard of a course just for eating cheese! Every single dessert was served with a side of the same warm homemade vanilla custard that accompanied each weeknight's dessert. In case you didn't want that, there was a pitcher of heavy cream. This whole elaborate experience would be repeated again the following week. Always the same pageantry. Always after Sunday mass. Completely unlike anything I had experienced in my life.
I had grown up going to church every Sunday with my mother and siblings. While I don’t think that my mother was what you would call a devout catholic, she felt it important to give us some additional stability in our lives, and I guess she thought that church would provide that. As babies we were christened, had first holy communion at seven years old and confirmation as teenagers. By the time my older sister and I were in high school we figured out that we could lie about going to Saturday evening mass, hang out with our friends instead, and get out of going to church, finally.
Now, after all that I was back at mass every Sunday, but this time things were different. My life in the world was different. I was different. This time, instead of mindlessly going through the motions, I listened— to the mass, the sermon and the prayers. And in that listening I noticed the same message over and over: you were born a sinner and must pray for forgiveness.
Wait, what? Every prayer, every reading, every sermon was the same message.
We are born sinners. We must pray for forgiveness.
Maybe there were other messages in there, like treat your neighbor the way you would be treated and turn the other cheek but I didn’t hear them. I just heard one message:
You are a sinner.
You were born that way.
You must repent.
All my life I had gone to church every Sunday. Week after week I blindly showed up and went through the motions.
Pray in unison.
But this time it was suddenly as if the priest was shouting through a bullhorn from the pulpit right into my ear.
This time I was hearing—and questioning the authority of these words for the very first time.
And I thought, “No.”
No. I wasn’t born a sinner. I was pretty sure that no one was born a sinner. I felt a twisting inside my chest that said, "this is not your truth." This is not who you are. This is not what you need to do. You do not need to beg for forgiveness for something that you are not.
Maybe I needed to travel all the way to England in order to hear these messages in a way that I hadn't previously. I needed this new reference point, providing me with a different vantage point. And from this new reference point I made a vow to end my career as a practicing roman catholic. I made a vow that I would never let anyone tell me who I was or what I needed to do. And I kept to that promise.
Until I met Mitch.
Mitch exuded the same authoritarian vibe as other men that held positions of power through my life. Priests, doctors and bosses. All of whose counsel I listened to over my own. Most of whom had molested me in moments of vulnerability. When I met Mitch, he seemed too good to be true—tall and handsome, crazy in love with me, and an extremely good person (so it seemed), who knew right from wrong, and was willing to share that knowledge with me. There was something about Mitch’s special cocktail of love and praise mixed with lessons on how to better myself that I found alluring.
This allure delivered me into seventeen years of emotional and psychological abuse. Like all the other abusers in my life, Mitch could see I was the perfect prey.
Mix a girl with low self-esteem and a desire to be a better person in a petri dish and you'll grow a woman who is grateful to find a man who can "teach her the way."
Mitch could see that I was this girl, and he used his position of power—a position I helped him maintain—to manipulate, hurt and control. All under the auspice of helping me become a good person. I met Mitch when I was twenty-five, but it wasn’t until I was forty three that I recognized that Mitch’s continuous message to me was eerily similar to that of the catholic church, and ultimately much more damaging.
You are a bad person.
You need to repent.
God (or in this case Mitch) loves you.
And just like back when I was eighteen I became clear to the fact that just because it was being said, didn’t mean that it was the truth. But why had it taken so many years to arrive at the same clarity I had when I was eighteen?
Just like when I went to England, it required new reference point.
This is the very thing that abusers work to remove from their victims' lives. Abusers quickly get to work separating us from our families, our friends and even our jobs. They use their position of power and authority to become our everything. And we go along with this because we are already convinced (well before we met them) that we come up short! Once Mitch started pointing out all the ways I was still coming up short, I felt lucky I had found him.
The Achilles heal of many survivors is that we are constantly striving to be a better person. The trap we find ourselves in is that our abusers consistently tell us that we are not good enough. Once we are isolated and depend on them for everything, we attach our worthiness to our abuser's approval—which we will never get.
This dynamic plays out in relationships, in religious communities, in industries and government systems such as military and in cults. It is perpetuated not only by the abusers, but unwittingly by the victims who place these persons in a position of power and moral authority.
As long as abusers can keep their victims isolated from any experiences that challenge their messaging, they remain in control. Abuse can last for years. The damage is exponential.
I think back to that moment of clarity during that one particular Sunday mass in England and wonder why then? Was it that kiss on the forehead every morning—a daily message that I was loved and cared for? Was it that the whole experienced immersed me an a new life that was completely unattached to the life and people I had left behind in America? In hindsight I believe it was probably all of those things. I recognize that it took seventeen years before I could experience a similar external reference point. Instead of it feeling like an eighteen year old's exciting gap year adventure, it felt like breaking out of prison.
Moving to a city, meeting new friends and becoming connected to a thriving yoga community was the grown up version of my year in England. And just like when I traveled to England, that new reference point helped me arrive at the very same moment of reckoning. It gave me the strength to and challenge the words of authority. It empowered me to say, "no."
No one can define your worth for you.
No one can tell you who you are.
You are the authority of yourself.
I do not think that I am a perfect person. I still strive to learn about myself, to better myself and to love others fiercely and without judgment. But I now know that in order to do that, I must first love myself fiercely and without judgment—perceived shortcomings and all.
Loving and respecting yourself does not mean you think you are perfect. What it means is that you give yourself the authority to recognize, examine and consider how you might want to exist in the world.
You do not take the criticisms of those around you as gospel truth. You do not diminish your own worth in response to someone else's toxic messaging.
You know your truth.
External reference points are crucial for seeing the forest outside of the trees. We don't have to travel across the world and live an immersive experience to connect with them. What we need to do is recognize our autonomy and our self-authority. In that recognition we can seek connections outside of our bubble, whether that bubble is a family, a relationship, a religion, a system or a cult. And in the end, the only way to escape the cages in which we find ourselves is to recognize how our internal belief system may be giving another person the power to tell us who we are. We must recognize how this person's condemnation of us might become our barometer for worth. And we must be brave enough to say to ourselves and the world around us, "I am the authority of myself."
You, and you alone know your truth.