A few weeks ago on Monday, in the wake of Mother’s Day, I moderated a panel for “Love Your Body Day,” an event put together by the Center for Community Alternatives to uplift and celebrate the women who benefit from their extensive programs.
CCA is a non-profit alternative to incarceration programs servicing women who often have a history of child abuse, neglect, and/or molestation and who as adults have struggled with substance abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, and have also been the victims of violent crimes. As I watched these survivors sashay across the stage during the fashion show segment of the day, brandishing big, beautiful smiles on their faces, as I listened to the powerful words of the keynote speaker, Rhonda Harris, a woman who has been drug free for 18 years, it struck me how very important a good and loving parent figure is in the life of a child. Rhonda spoke of her personal journey from pain and self-abuse to self love and acceptance, outlining how from the very beginning of her life she received poor examples of what it meant to be a woman, how a woman should be treated in relationships, and how much she should value her own self.
In looking over the biographies of the panelists who were to speak that day, in going over the topics that they would address and explore, I saw a very clear connection. The panelists and I, and in actuality everyone in that room, were in essence re-parenting ourselves, giving ourselves the loving guidance and support that we did not receive as children by our caregivers. I introduced the panelists by speaking to the silent messages we are given as children, the messages we internalize and pass on to our own children, messages that either fuel self love or self hatred.
Our first speaker was Dana Diamond, a woman who has dedicated fourteen years of her life to working in the field of HIV/AIDS and substance abuse at Exponents. She spoke about her experience assisting women who have suffered from trauma and related how they tend to view their own body image negatively. Then we had Jungian psychoanalyst Maria Taveras speak about a process she teaches called Dream Sculpting. She explained how one could release the negative messages we’ve embodied by believing the negative things others have said about us and reclaim and engage with our inner power and self respect. Margaret McEnvoy, a nurse practitioner employed with CCA, spoke about the body-mind connection. She articulated with chilling detail how the body responds to stress and how over time the threshold for it can become unbearable because of constant, consistent exposure to trauma and stressful situations. Mona Fafarman provides recovery treatment for CCA’s clients and is also an acupuncturist. She led us in an on-the-spot breathing exercise to demonstrate the healing properties of correct breathing. Then she explained the benefits of acupuncture and performed a live demonstration of how a few needles could relax the tension in a person’s face and bring forth results that were 10 times better than any Botox injection. Rennee Maggette, the Senior Discharge Planner at BRC, a woman who has been clean and in recovery for 12 years, shared the joy she experienced being honored on Mother’s Day by her children, children who had lost trust in her because of her years struggling with addiction but then found it again by observing the strength and integrity she exhibited in recovery. Then we heard from Kimblee Robinson, CCA’s Housing Specialist; a devoted mother of two daughters, Kimblee is a woman who has domestic violence and incarceration in her past but testified with confidence and years of success behind her that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The clients who CCA services are beautiful examples of women of varying shapes, sizes, lifestyles, and preferences, and each of them have experienced their fair share of trauma. Who would these women have been if their mothers and fathers were healthy and whole and had provided a strong foundation upon which they could explore, capitalize, and develop their innate talents? Ms. Rhonda Harris impressed me as such a prolific public speaker; it was a gift. She was engaging and funny, articulate and connected to her audience. With the right background and education, Ms. Harris would have perhaps paved the way for thousands of young women in any field she chose. I was happy to see her being a role model now. I was moved emotionally on a very deep level but also heartbroken for the many years of pain she had endured beforehand. I saw her clearly as she once was: a young, beautiful little girl, hungry for love and attention, and the horrible truth was impressed upon me that she had not been given the childhood she deserved.
As parents, we have the monumentally important job of raising the next generation. It is a job of such importance that words fail me when I attempt to describe the far-reaching ramifications society becomes burdened with every single time a parent fails. When we broke into break=out groups, I asked the woman in my group if they felt that the lack of a positive parent figure in their life had contributed to how they viewed themselves and the poor choices that they had made in their lives. Strangely enough, I was told they did not. One woman explained to me that it did not affect her at all. She explained that she grew up in a one-parent home with a mother who had multiple abusive partners, so much so that she never knew who would be in the house when she woke up in the morning. She said she was much more concerned with protecting herself from those men than she was with her father. She’d only met him once, she explained, through curiosity, but she quickly lost interest in pursuing a relationship with her father when it became clear how uninterested he was in her. I was struck by the disconnect, how the rationale had become, I’m sure as a coping mechanism, “Since you did not want/love/honor me, I don’t want/need you.” But the yearning to be loved was there, clear as day; that yearning was expressed in pursuit and participation in relationships with partners who abused, demeaned, and abandoned, just as the parent figure did. The women continued to suffer as adults the way they suffered as children, and then they used drugs and alcohol to try to escape from the pain. Poor body image and lack of love was being attributed to poor self-esteem. The group members enthusiastically agreed that they should love, respect, and honor themselves at all times.
But where do children get self-esteem? A child looks to their parents and silently asks, “Who am I? What value do I have? How much am I worth?” The answers they receive are not in the words they are told but in how they are treated by the parent, and how the parent treats him/herself and others. Children don’t so much listen to what a parent says; they watch what a parent does. Actions speak louder than worlds.
I love to collect quotes. An anonymous one in my collection reads: “You must love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and fully being what you are, your simple presence can make others happy.“ Parents who do not love themselves in a healthy way cannot love their children in a healthy way. The children they raise grow up damaged and then spend the rest of their lives trying to repair themselves, trying to learn how to love themselves and others effectively. “Love yourself, for if you don’t, how can you expect anybody else to love you?“ is another anonymous quote that speaks volumes. Who does a child who has been damaged in childhood attract? Other people who cannot love, who are also damaged. These two damaged people get together and have children and more often than not, they continue the cycle.
I was happy to be part of an event that sought to break the cycle. Ms. Angela LaSpisa is the brain behind CCA’s Love Your Body Day. This is the second year she has put together the project, and she hopes to continue, making it bigger and better in the years to come. Of course, social change takes dollars and people in positions of influence, but I fully support and applaud her efforts in this regard. There can be no more worthwhile endeavor than healing the wounds of the hurting around us. Aside from personally raising healthy and whole children, we all as a society can help undo the damage that has been done to those who did not have the childhood that they deserved.
The Center for Community Alternatives is located at 39 West 19th Street, 10th Floor in New York, N.Y. Their telephone number is (212) 691-1911.