I began to realize that my relationship with my mother was as toxic as my relationship with the three men who abused me. I have never told my mother about the abuse, even to this day; I always assumed that she would blame me. My therapist and I began to evaluate the reasons why this was the case, and what I found was two things.
First, that I always heard language from my mother that was blaming me for things. Throughout my life I commonly heard the phrases, “He was always abusive,” and, “I only stayed with him because of you,” when she talked about her relationship with my biological father. These narratives gave me the belief that my mother suffered at his hands because of me. When she met my step-father, she was so happy. How could I, once again, be to blame for her being miserable? Second, my mother had a lot of control over my life. By not telling her about the abuse I was maintaining some sort of control over my own life.
As I was able to deconstruct each relationship I was able to pull together a list of the people that were a part of my support team. That support team has become essential for my health and well-being.
With the inspiration to find the complete Emmy, I decided to keep looking deep within myself. I wanted to make sure that I implemented these new ideas I was introduced to. One of the things I realized was that when I was trapped in triggering moments, a common thing I did was buy things. I almost felt as though I should be able to walk into an addiction meeting and say the following soliloquy:
“Hello, my name is Emmy and I am a recovering shopper. I was never told that my addiction was bad for me. In fact, I was told time and again that my addiction was good. Good for the economy, good for my family, and good as an example of my personal achievements. I was given this advice by countless advertisements, television shows, movies, songs, and really in almost every aspect of my life in our society.”
Some people may laugh at this, thinking that I am joking or maybe that I am insane. I have certainly felt on occasion that I was running some marathon of insanity. For most of my life I felt as though having more material objects would make me happy. I was positive that having more things than my friends would make me the envy of those around me. I believed that my life would be better if I had a bigger house, or if I could wear a different outfit every day for a month.
That was definitely not the case. Having more things only created more problems in my life. If I didn’t have the newest video game for my children, on the day of its release, I felt like a bad mom. If I didn’t have a new dress for every event I attended, I felt as though every person in my life knew it and would think I had bad fashion sense. If my home didn’t have expensive things I thought that everyone around me would think I was poor. I should have listened to The Notorious B.I.G. when he said, “Mo money, Mo problems.”
And then there’s the “high.” Buying things created within me a feeling of euphoria. For instance, when I got a four hundred dollar purse for only $75 I felt like the queen of bargain hunting. It became a cycle, and a very vicious one at that. If I felt bad, I would go shopping, which would give me a small sense of fulfillment. I would bring home bags of things that I would never use, items that I would spend thousands of dollars on. I still have a dress hanging in my closet that I have never taken the tags off. It is a beautiful dress, but I have never found the time to wear it. That dress is eight years old.
In many ways, this same cycle is running through the lives of people in our society. Advertising has an intense hold on our lives that many people do not even begin to understand. It affects our psyche in treacherous ways, and I believe, wholeheartedly, that it creates a cycle of addiction that people do not acknowledge. Meanwhile, companies are making billions of dollars on the addiction that has been created; hidden under the guise of “The American Dream.”
These things would fill up my house and life with complications, which would in turn make me unhappy. This was because there was one thing that those bags never held; happiness.
So, I set about on the decision to stop hiding my pain within the act of buying.
This addiction became a coping mechanism for me. I used buying to get me through the times when I wanted to escape from the realities that were my life; the reality that I was a terrified woman living with the pain of years of abuse and concealing. The cruelty that I experienced threatened to creep out of my every pore some days, and those were the days when I would go to the mall and spend hundreds of dollars on things that I never needed.
The action of change was difficult. I certainly went through feelings that could be termed as withdrawals. I had to stop going to stores for no reason; forcing myself to make lists when I went to stores to pick up things. These lists would be scrutinized, making sure that each item on it was a need. Then it required me to go by those lists; I didn’t allow myself to be distracted or deviate from them. In some ways, this approach was just like giving up cigarettes or crack; most days I just wanted to go to the mall and buy anything!
After I felt good about my shopping habits I began making decisions that felt good! I had extra money (now that I wasn’t spending it all), extra time (now that I wasn’t at the mall every day), and I wanted to make more positive successes in my life. I started college, originally to achieve a two-year Associate in Arts degree, but it quickly turned into a double Bachelor’s, followed by the decision to achieve a Master’s and Doctorate degrees.
During my first semester, I attended an Analytical Writing course, and this one class ignited the passions that became my majors a year later. I created papers that I was proud and passionate about. I loved every minute. After that first semester, I was already saying to myself, “I can’t just be here for two years. I need more.”
The more turned into the decision to quit my full-time job and become a tutor at the writing center of the college I attended; it became a double major in English Rhetoric and Women’s Studies; it became something that I have been proud of every single day. Of course, I have to think about the fact that I have exchanged one addiction for another. But addiction is not something that can just be pushed aside for most people. A smoker will turn to chewing gum when they try giving up cigarettes, because they need some sort of sensory feeling that reminds them of smoking. For myself, replacing the dangerous habit of spending money with the habit of education is something that I do happily. However, being aware of it means that I still find myself needing to realize when I am going too far.
For instance, I recently had a rather busy week. It was Women’s History Month, and the Women’s Center had a great number of activities going on, most of which I have been involved with in some way. We also had thirteen visiting students from South Africa, and I was volunteering some time to spend with the ladies during their stay. There came a point when I knew that I wouldn’t be able to continue the frantic pace, and so I stepped back and allowed someone else to take my place.
I began listening to myself more too! The idea to quit my job was probably one of the hardest decisions I have made. I was making a lot of money at my full-time job, and deciding to quit was definitely a decision that could not be made lightly.
One day I was having lunch with a key member of my support circle, Dawn. At the time, I was working full-time and completing a 12-credit course load in my first semester of college. We were talking about the fact that we were unable to spend a lot of time together.
Dawn said, “You know, I hate that I am unable to spend time with people that I love because of work.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said, “I see the people at work a lot more than I see my friends and family. It’s such a pity.”
“And these aren’t even people that I would spend time with if I had the choice.” She said.
I laughed. “I know exactly what you mean.”
We commiserated for an hour over the various functions that we were required to attend for our workplaces: dinners, meetings, holiday parties, and even out of town conferences. We talked about the people that we worked with, and how we wouldn’t spend time with them at all, if given the choice.
I went home that night and really started thinking about it. By that time I was living in a different apartment which was much cheaper than the one I lived at in Monticello. Because I had drastically given up my shopping addiction, my bills equated to under four hundred dollars a month. I made some pretty elaborate lists and charts of my finances, and I found that I could easily make enough money in a month to become a full-time student and still pay my bills.
The last thing that happened during this time was that after realizing that I could live alone happily, I came to the hard knowledge that my divorce, years before, really happened because I was scared that my relationship was good. The fear that was a part of my life had affected how I looked at my marriage. I divorced Gerard (my ex-husband) because I was too afraid to look inside of our relationship and find what was worth saving. There was a problem and I ran from it; simply because that is all that I knew how to do at the time.
Of course, shame and guilt came upon me next, but for the first time I looked at it head on and challenged it; I didn’t run and hide from it. I had to give myself a break. No one ever taught me about how healthy relationships happen. There were no classes in school teaching us about healthy boundaries.
I started thinking about Gerard, a lot. Our divorce was never really about not loving him, as much as it was about not loving myself. Once I was no longer running from myself, I could give up the emotions that were my life. I could give up the control that I used to need so desperately.
But again, I was left with quite a dilemma. I left him, driving out of Minnesota years before, like a bat out of hell. How could I suddenly come back and say, “Oops, my bad.”? I called my big sister to ask for her advice.
“Melinda, I don’t know what to do.” I said.
“Okay, what’s the problem?” My sister is very practical. I often say that I am like a balloon flying through the world wanting to be free, and my sister is the person holding me so that I do not fly too high and pop.
“I’ve been thinking about Gerard a lot lately.” It sounded pointless to even say the words.
“Thinking about him in what way?” I could hear something in her voice, but I really couldn’t tell what it was.
“Well,” I said, “in a romantic way.”
“Oh.” She replied, I don’t think she really expected it. “Where did this come from?”
I knew what she meant. “Remember when we sat talking about the divorce,” I started, “and I said that I knew I couldn’t be with him anymore. What I really meant was that I couldn’t be with myself.”
“Wow,” she said. “Really?”
“Yeah. But I don’t know what to do.” I answered.
“What do you want to do about it?” She asked.
“I want to call him, and I guess ask him out. Is that weird?” I asked back.
“No,” she responded, “I don’t think it’s weird.”
“I can’t do it though” I said.
“Why not?” She asked me.
“Because he obviously hates me” I answered. “Look at what I did to him! I left him; I abandoned our lives and our family.”
“Okay,” she said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
I had to take a few minutes to think about that one. I said, “I guess the worst thing that could happen is that he’ll say no.”
“And will that destroy you?” she asked. “Will you not be able to go on if that happens?”
“No,” I said, “I suppose I’ll just move on again from it. It’ll hurt of course, but I am living by myself okay right now. I suppose I can keep doing that.”
“Then just ask.” She said. My sister has this matter of fact way about her. Even in matters of the heart, she is all business.
I couldn’t find the courage to call Gerard after that, but I did message him on Facebook asking if he would like to have dinner with me. Doubt tried worming into my thoughts while I looked in the mirror that night; I pushed it aside, even though I thought about cancelling almost a dozen times.
It wasn’t an easy thing, bringing our lives back together, but that was the night that started the conversation and work of becoming a couple once again. It would take an entire book to share how we came back together, but I will say that because we were honest with each other, we have been able to reach out and accept the love that we have for each other.
My time is now spent doing the things that mean the most to me.
I spend time with the people that I love the most: my partner, our children, and friends and family.
Gerard and I have found a passion in traveling together; filling our lives with amazing places and experiences that we never thought we would have.
I don’t work as hard, trying to find ways to buy things that don’t matter to my life.
I’m living more, with less.
Emmy Phillips is a senior at SCSU in the English Rhetoric program. She was sexually abused for twelve years of her childhood, starting at the age of five. It has taken a lot of work to be where she is today, and she is proud to say that she is a survivor. Some days are really easy, but some are really hard. Her dedication to helping survivors has culminated in the completion of sexual assault advocacy training, and is now ready to volunteer to help others through painful times. Wherever you are in your journey; never be ashamed of your story, because it will inspire others.