Thursday, March 30, 2006

How The Awareness Center got started

How The Awareness Center, Inc. Got Started
© (2003, revised 2006) The Awareness Center, Inc.

One of the most common question asked is “How did The Awareness Center get started?"

The original concept came to Vicki Polin back in the 1980's when she was working for one of the first organizations developed to address incest and other forms of childhood sexual abuse.

The organization would get calls from Survivors of childhood sexual abuse from all over the world. Vicki’s job was to help them find a therapist, therapy or self-help group, dentist or medical doctor, attorneys, etc., who had experience working with sexual victimization issues.

This was no easy task back then. The organization didn't have a computer, let alone a typewriter. The office was the size of six bathtubs lined up together.

Advocacy for sexual violence survivors was still in its infancy, definitely back in the dark ages. Its hard to believe that Vicki could accomplish the goal of finding resources for survivors using a good atlas, a card file, pen and paper.  

There was a serious problem though. Vicki had an extremely difficult time finding resources for survivors who were Jewish. All too often when survivors called, they would disclose that when they went to their rabbis for help, they would be met with disbelief. Needless to say Jewish Survivors often felt shamed for their disclosures.

During the 1980’s most of the original self-help groups had a Christian tint to them. Vicki wasn't religious, had no affiliation, yet she felt extremely uncomfortable referring Jews to these groups.  

She recollects speaking to one of the board members of the organization, and was allowed to create a "Special Interest Group" (SIG) for Survivors who were Jewish. It was basically a pen-pal group via snail mail (this was the days before the Internet). The SIG helped, but it definitely wasn't the solution.

Over the years Vicki kept suggesting to various mental health professionals and rabbis that there needed to be an organization that addressed sexual violence in Jewish communities, but nothing developed. Vicki really expected someone else to create an organization like The Awareness Center.

Late in 1997, due to injuries to both her feet and hands (which were in braces and casts), Vicki found herself using the Internet to communicate with the outside world. This went on for a three-year period. During much of this time period Vicki was unable to hold anything, including a telephone. She was fortunate enough to have enough movement in her fingers, that allowed her to type. Needless to say, she found herself online a lot.

Vicki ended up finding long lost friends and relatives, including a cousin with whom a friendship developed. Her cousin saw her going into a new age chat room and got upset. Vicki’s cousin dealt with her feelings by sending Vicki a link to a Jewish chat room on AOL. Vicki always jokes “I guess you can say that's when my Jewish learning began, and why I often refer to myself as a Cyberian Jew.”

Starting in 1998, Vicki was volunteering time hosting chat discussions on AOL in the Jewish Community on line. One of those chats included a sort of self-help group for Jewish Adult Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and those who work with them. During that time she also started an E-group at Yahoo to keep individuals updated on what was happening in the sexual trauma field that targeted the Jewish Community.

Vicki's Jewish education slowly moved off the Internet and on into reality. In 1999 she spent some time at a women's yeshiva in Israel, coming back to Chicago, then a little over a year later moving back to Jerusalem, and then on to Baltimore, MD.

Upon returning from Vicki's first trip to Jerusalem, she started updating and changing her old web page that focused on her private practice to an organization that addressed sexual violence in Jewish Communities around the world.

After moving to Jerusalem, Vicki started sending out networking e-mail's, telling people about the new organization that was developing and also a call for help. Her efforts paid off, and that was how contact was originally made with several members of original board. 

The original plan was to develop an international conference on sexual abuse/assault in Israel. Due to health issues Vicki was forced to return to the States. The idea of the conference and organization would have to be put on hold. 

As things gradually progressed, The Awareness Center began to develop various e-mail networking and self-help groups for professionals, rabbis, adult survivors and family members (both of survivors and offenders).

Within months of Vicki's move to Baltimore, a journalist from the Baltimore Jewish Times contacted The Awareness Center, and featured us in a story. A few months later we were mentioned in the Washington Post and the New York Jewish Times. Once that happened, we really began to help survivors of sexual violence have a voice.

Today The Awareness Center, Inc. is a nonprofit, tax exempt organization. Our focus is on education and referral. We offer several different on line networking groups for professionals and rabbis, a daily newsletter, and various self-help networking groups for survivors, family members of sex offenders, and parents of sexually abused children. We also offer a speakers bureau, and about to launch our first in person self-help group for Jewish Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault in the Baltimore area. 

Our web page provides everything you can think of that relates to healing, treating offenders, helping family members (of both survivors and offenders), networking; and most importantly, educating our communities on the ramifications of sexual violence, and ways of making changes.

Once we obtain the needed funding, The Awareness Center will be starting our educational, certification program for rabbis as a way of providing the information they need to better serve their communities. We will be also hosting an international summit/conference to bring rabbinic leaders, medical and mental health professionals, legal and law enforcement officials, parents, and survivors, together so that we can begin discussing the issues and start the healing process our communities desperately need.

The power of the Internet really amazes me. With just the click of a button, a small group of people CAN very easily change the world.

Learning to make a web page, and getting that web page into a search engine can lead to helping individuals, families and a community heal. If it not for the Internet, The Awareness Center would not be what it is today. We would never have met so many truly inspiring individuals.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Surviving Passover: Jewish Survivors of Incest and other forms of child abuse

© (2003, Revised 2006) by Na'ama Yehuda, MSC, SLP, TSHH and Vicki Polin, MA, LCPC
Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter

There are many issues surrounding holidays and childhood sexual abuse that have rarely, if ever been addressed in our communities. One of those issues pertains directly to surviving Jewish holidays.

It's not too surprising that many adult survivors of childhood abuse (emotional, physical and sexual abuse) have difficult times during Passover (Pesach), as this time of the year can bring up painful memories of families get together and that routines are changed. Plus there is the added stress of cleaning your home top to bottom, preparing, and "doing it right." These issues alone can be extremely stress producing; yet in a home where violence occurred, would most likely lead to an increase of abuse.

Parents who are already inclined to use their children as an outlet for emotions and urges, are even more likely to do so when under the pressure of increased anxiety.

Many survivors of childhood abuse report that they were abused more around and over a holiday period then any other time of the year. Remember Passover brings with it--on top of cooking and cleaning--an added financial burden.

This is written as a reminder to all survivors of child abuse -- YOU ARE NOT ALONE. It is not uncommon for symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) to emerge this time of year, even after times of relative remission and/or intensify in those already struggling.

It is not unusual for Survivors to experience an increase in disturbing thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks. Thoughts of self-harm, even suicide, may be an issue. The important thing to remember is these feelings are about the past, the abuse is over, and that it is of utmost importance for you to be kind to and gentle with yourself.

Over the years we have spoken to many adult survivors who find it very painful to even consider going to a seder. This is OK. Someday you may feel different, but if the pain is too intense, it is important that you do things that can be healing. Set healthy boundaries for yourself and do what feels safe for you. If you have a rabbi that is sensitive to child abuse issues, discuss these issues with him or her.

One survivor shared that she felt uncomfortable not doing anything for Pesach, so she'd rent the "Ten Commandments" each year on Seder nights and watch it, forming her own ritual of remembering the events that lead to the Seder night. Another survivor would invite other Jewish Survivors over to her home and they would use "The Survivors Haggadah" for their services. Another person used the time before Pesach for "spring cleaning" her relationships--reconnecting with friends with whom she feels safe, airing out the achievements of the last year and making resolutions for added liberation from her past for the coming year. The survivors above found a way to celebrate a "modified" Pesach, but there are many others for who just try to survive this time of year by pretending that there is no such thing as Pesach.

The goal is for you to do things that are healing and brings about an emotional freedom. Remember you are not alone, not wrong, not bad for having second and third and forth thoughts about how to celebrate and if to celebrate the holiday.

Look into yourself and see what you need, then do what you can to do it. Be kind to yourself for needing to make these adjustments. And remember, when Bney-Israel left Egypt to walk toward a new era--they were walking from a place they knew, but was of pain, to a place unknown, but free. The essence of the Seder night is to remember, and ask why, and be expected to understand and participate only to the extent one can.

Have a gentle, safe holiday!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Truly Missed - Yechezkel Chezi "Scotty" Goldberg

Baltimore Jewish Times - March 17, 2006
Thank you for letting us all know the fate of the No. 19 bus, in which 11 individuals were murdered. 

One of those precious lives lost was that of Yechezkel Chezi "Scotty" Goldberg, a man who had dedicated his life to helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Between being a prolific writer, and his vast knowledge of resources for survivors of abuse, his loss has had an international impact. Chezi was a valued resource of the Baltimore-based international organization, The Awareness Center Inc. (Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse/Assault). He is truly missed.
Vicki Polin
Executive Director
The Awareness Center, Inc.


Monday, March 6, 2006

Nobody's Child: Surviving without a Family

© (2006) By Vicki Polin, Michael J. Salamon and Na'ama Yehuda
Originally published in The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter

One topic rarely discussed by survivors of childhood sexual abuse is the issue of going through adulthood without a family. This very difficult reality is one that many survivors feel ashamed of.

There are many reasons why an adult survivor might not have contact with their family of origin. Some grew up in foster-care or were adopted into other families. Others lived with their families during their childhood, but as adults they felt the need to create a separation in order to heal. In other situations survivors may have been cut off by their families following disclosures and/or confrontations. Regardless of the way in which the separation occurred, many Jewish survivors end up feeling alone and confused. Many may not have anyone close enough to turn to, or are too embarrassed to speak about their feelings. This can be especially trying during times of need.

Adult survivors are often overwhelmed by a sense of shame when discussions of Shabbat, Holidays, or plans for other celebrations come up. Younger adults may feel that everyone but them goes "home" for the holidays, and often struggle with feeling inferior to those who have homes to go to. Going home might not be an option for these survivors, either because of potential risk to their personal, emotional, and physical safety, or because they have been disowned by family members and are no longer welcome in their parents, siblings, or other relatives' homes.

It is important to be aware that sometimes being invited to another family's home for Shabbat and other Simchas (celebrations) can open up a can of worms. The experience can be overwhelming to an adult survivor of any age. Every family has its own set of customs and rules, jokes, rituals, and history, and to an outsider, adjusting can be difficult. When someone comes from a violent family and put in to such a situation it would not be uncommon for memories of abuse to surface. Being with a loving family can also awaken acute feelings of longing and jealousy. The survivor may have to deal with the fact of how different and painful celebrations were for them during their childhood, resulting in an emotional reaction, which results in a deep sense of loss and grief for what they never had nor will have.

All too often adult survivors feel a deep yearning to be invited somewhere but are embarrassed to tell anyone. They do not want to appear as if they are needy or begging, and don't want their friends to feel as if they "have to" be invited. Some survivors might not be able to manage the kaleidoscope of emotions that going to someone else's house for a holiday or Shabbat may bring up. They may feel safer if they spend the holidays alone. Some survivors avoid the topic of holidays completely or make comments such as "I don't 'do' holidays." Others might feel the need to make up a story of where they'd been in an attempt to ward off the feelings of shame that come with admitting that they had no where to go to, that no one invited them, that they are "rejects."

While Holidays are notoriously difficult for survivors, there are other times when survivors are faced with the painful ramifications of their abuse and/or their disclosure of it.

If a survivor does not have a health care proxy, their parents and then their siblings are automatically legally obligated to make life and death decisions for them if they are unable to. This may not be the survivor's choice yet if they do not have a health care proxy signed prior to a medical emergency this is the standard hospital/medical procedure. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse may have no one to write as a health care proxy, no one to care for them when they are ill, to escort them to and from medical tests and appointments. A survivor may have no one to go to when they are in need of money, help, or advice. They may have no one to list as "next of kin" on medical records or on bank notes. Can you imagine how awkward you'd feel in their place? Can you imagine the shame a survivor might experience?

Survivors of abuse who are cut off from their families are orphans, maybe not in the traditional sense of the word, but definitely in the social and emotional sense. While we may never be able to completely take away the feelings of loss and grief that survivors almost without fail--have to deal with, there are ways with which we as a community can help.

One way we can assist, is by inviting the survivor into our family's circle--by making him or her part of our holidays, celebrations, even our sorrows--by giving the survivor a new family to belong to and be accepted by. As described above, this may be difficult for the survivor and yet it is the best way to help them. "Laura," an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse was regularly invited to her closest friend's family functions. "The Cohen's" were aware of Laura's childhood and wanted her to feel at home with them. Time and again they told her that their family was her family, even joked that they should legally adopt her and change her last name to Cohen. At first, Laura felt uncomfortable with this concept. She always thought of herself as a "throw away child," as someone not worthy of having a family and could not figure out what the Cohen's saw in her. She questioned whether she could trust their acceptance of her as real. However, with time she really felt as if she was a "Cohen." Within a year Laura already knew everyone in the family: aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and felt accepted by them all. Then something happened. Maybe if Laura wasn't a survivor and wasn't told over and over that she was part of the Cohen family, it wouldn't have had such an impact on her. The Cohen family had a big get together with all of the cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents, but Laura was NOT invited... She was devastated and felt re-victimized. What the Cohen's did not know was that Laura's estranged family of origin would have family functions and let her know about them but would not invite her. Perhaps if the Cohen's had been aware of this they would have made sure to invite her, too. Laura felt too ashamed to share how her family treated her. She was afraid that if others found out they would believe she was a horrible person. Laura never told the Cohen's how she felt. She didn't tell them how upset she was for not being invited. She just pulled away.

"Scott's" story is another example of a frequent issue that survivors deal with. His family of origin played him--he would get invitations to family functions and events, only to receive a phone call ten minutes before he left the house for the event, with a sibling saying "if you come, then mom and dad won't come, so please don't show up." He faced an excruciating dilemma--if he told anyone about the event (i.e., his sister's wedding, his nephew's birth) he would then have to admit that he never went to the event. He often ended up feeling like he needed to lie and say that he was "too sick with stomach flu" to go. How could he say that he was suddenly asked not to come and not feel ashamed that he was unwanted, and not feel guilty for making his family appear terribly cruel? If "Scott" had an alternate family, a home in the community where he felt he was welcomed and accepted, his family's manipulations would not have been as devastating. Scott would still need to deal with the fact they toyed with him but would not be dependent on them for acceptance and community. He would have other events and celebrations and holidays to participate in as a deserving equal. He might even muster the courage to confront his family and tell them how unacceptable their behavior was and that they need to either include him as part of the family or leave him alone. He might have even been able to make the statement that he no longer depended on them...

One of the many outcomes of the prolonged stress that comes with trauma and abuse is that survivors often have health problems, and issues regarding family also come up during their time of medical need. "Janice" had to have surgery and the doctor's office called her with pre-op directions. They reminded her that she'd need to have "a family member" come to pick her up from the hospital. Janice was panic stricken--she'd been cut off from her relatives for a few years now... She felt terribly embarrassed and didn't want to tell the nurse that she had no family to bring. Janice felt that if she gave voice to her family situation she would admit to being a "reject." Fortunately, Janice had a good friend who was happy to come pick her up. Janice remembered a few years earlier, when she wasn't able to find a friend who was available due to their work schedules. Back then, Janice had no one to come pick her up. She was unable to find anyone to take her to a doctor's appointment, no one to make her a cup of tea and bring some groceries, no one to check on her while she was recovering at home. These are the realities many survivors of child abuse face on a daily basis. How would handle life if you had no one to turn to?

Acknowledging the reality of abuse is upsetting not just for survivors of abuse. Many people who hear about someone who is a survivor feel helpless to make things better. They don't know what they can do to help; do not want to face the reality that even when the abuse is over, not all is well, and survivors still face many challenges, loneliness, and pain. However, the good news is that there IS a way to help and there IS a way to make a significant change for the better in a survivor's life. Survivors are often "orphaned" by their family, but yours can bring them hope and give them a place to call home. This doesn't mean that you need to take responsibility for the survivors--many survivors are more than able to care for themselves (after all, they made it through the abuse part...) but it does mean to offer friendship and support.

If you know of someone in your community who is a survivor of childhood abuse, make it a priority to get to know him or her. Know that it is very likely that he or she is dealing with loneliness and estrangement from their family. Put yourself in their shoes. What would you want to happen if you were lonely? Invite them for a Shabbat meal, to a holiday celebration, to an event. Let the survivor know that they are welcome in your home, that you care, that it is okay to call on you in time of need and that you'd do your best to be there for them.

Abuse causes incredible loneliness, but this loneliness need not continue--it is in your power to become a messenger of healing and hope by opening your heart and home, and teaching others around you to do the same. Together, your community can heal the hidden wound of being Nobody's Child. 

Vicki Polin, Michael J. Salamon and Na'ama Yehuda