When I was three, my stepfather started sexually abusing me. One night at the dinner table my mother and stepfather were discussing a movie kiss and I blurted out, “Daddy kisses me like that.” I was told to stop lying. That’s when I started fighting and being rowdy, and the calls from school and other parents started to come in.
When I was nine my mother divorced one abusive guy and married another, this time a stereotypical biker who looked like Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. He rode with a gang, brought drugs through the house, and was merciless with my brother, mother and me. My rebellion kicked into high gear and I started running away. When my family could neither intimidate nor control me, I was shipped off to live with my father.
My father had a policy about fighting: I could hit back if I didn’t throw the first punch. So when faced with schoolyard or neighborhood conflict, I would taunt to get the other person to square off. Fighting was an outlet. Once again the calls started coming in from school.
At fourteen, I ran away again. I ended up living in a punk squat house just down the street from my dad. At fifteen, I was arrested. For nearly a week neither of my parents would come get me. My mother finally picked me up and I stayed there as long as I could take it. Back to my dad’s house I went.
We frequently vacationed in Mexico, which led to a whole new level of horror when I was raped by two guys I met at the beach. I had gone to their house of my own free will so I blamed myself. I lived with the shame of that for many years.
To hide the memories and cover the shame, drugs became a welcome refuge. By the time I was seventeen, I was a full-blown addict. At twenty-one, I remember standing in a bar in Hollywood, completely strung out, and seeing a woman sitting on a barstool. She was road weary, haggard and looked at least twenty years older than she was. I thought to myself, “I’m not dead and I should be. If I don’t do something radically different, I will be her.” There was a long detox and then I started to put a life together.
That life included a husband and a beautiful son. I had a day job and what was looking like a career. Yet insomnia and nightmares were frequent visitors. Fast-forward several years to a divorce, but I still had a good-paying career in high-tech and my own home. To cope with stress and not sleeping, I turned to the Dharma. The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path made perfect sense. Unfortunately, I wasn’t really healed.
During a vacation to Mexico, I saw a woman being beaten in the street. Something snapped. I started to run towards the assailant, but my friends restrained me from intervening. The whole experience released memories and feelings I’d been holding back all those years. I was fifteen all over again, helpless and unworthy. I began to have nightmares and flashbacks, the typical symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I had always considered myself a drug addict, but now in order to sleep, I turned to alcohol. It didn’t take long for alcohol to become the same refuge that drugs had been. Drinking masked the memories and those horrible feelings of unworthiness and being unlovable.
It wasn’t that the Dharma had failed me but that some deep and traumatic issues hadn’t been taken care of. I tried therapy for a while, and after some time, I dropped it, but luckily I had become very serious about recovery. I had finally taken true refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. I had co-founded a sangha and was training as a meditation teacher.
The Dharma provided so much. Mindfulness helped me to stay present and not be swayed by the memories of the past. A deep understanding of the Second Noble Truth taught me that what counts is not what happens or happened, but how I relate to it. Lovingkindness and compassion helped me meet painful memories with forgiveness for those who had harmed me, and provided mercy for my own difficulties. Patience was a consistent reminder that healing and awakening is a process.
On retreat, I love to walk through the door and to drop my name and personality. One retreat, I focused entirely on metta (lovingkindness). At that retreat I dreamt of the biker stepfather. In that dream he was a third of his size and slumped against a wall looking despondent. As I approached him, I realized that he had felt powerless, and from that place of powerlessness he bullied and abused others to gain his power. With that realization, for the first time I had compassion and forgiveness for him. I awoke that morning with a light heart, finally free of a past that I’d carried with me for more than twenty years.
Yet there was still more work to be done. Being vulnerable in front of others occasionally still didn’t feel safe. Sometimes, that old street-hard edge would come out, a coping mechanism to keep me safe. Also, I couldn’t work with certain students who were, or had the potential for being, sexual offenders.
At Noah Levine’s recommendation, I found a Buddhist cognitive behavioral therapist and enrolled in the Sati Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy program. I spent a year and a half as a volunteer chaplain at a Catholic hospital in San Jose, CA. Learning to be with others’ pain and difficulties also allowed me to be with my own and to soften. It wasn’t always easy, but it was life-changing. It was tragic at times to see someone dying alone, without any family or friends. There is something very humbling about being the only person a patient will see that day. Sometimes the patients’ stories were so heartbreaking that all I could do was cry with them.
Sometimes the process of healing is as radical and swift as a dream or a profound insight when sitting on retreat. Other times, it’s subtle, and I realize in the midst of a situation that I’ve changed. When my grandmother was dying, a family member said some unkind things to me that in the past would have made me feel unworthy and broken. But now it was as if someone had coated me in Teflon, and the hurtful words slid off. Instead, the immediate response was compassion. That person must have been hurting and confused to be so unkind. It was a turning point in my relationship with the family member, a relationship that I thought had been unfixable. Now when we talk, we say, “I love you.”
Then there was the wonderful opportunity on a teen retreat to sit with a girl who had been sexually abused. This wouldn’t have been possible without the relentless commitment to meet myself, my stories, my pain and my healing.
Am I healed? What I can say is that I have a full range of emotions that include joy, love, sorrow, compassion, and ease; the voices that used to tell me I’m not worthy of love, care and affection rarely return. I live a life that is full of gratitude, not anger or sorrow and blame.
If we ever meet, my hand and heart will be extended with lovingkindness. There’s even a tattooed reminder of a lotus growing out of a heart that has broken open to remind me that wisdom is present with an open and compassionate heart. And yes, you can see it.