The Cycle Stops with Me
October 25, 2021
I didn’t understand how gender-based violence plagued my family until after I joined the movement.
I have seen with my own eyes 5 generations impacted. I know it goes further back. Again, that’s just what I’ve seen in my 32 years of life, from my great-grandmother to my nieces. Women whose bodies are riddled with disease, whose minds have been poisoned by self-limiting beliefs, and whose hearts carry so much trauma they seldom know how to fully connect to themselves, each other, or anyone else. It became the norm. It became our culture. It became “the type of family we are.”
I grew up in extreme poverty by U.S. standards. My mother, sisters and I lived in a trailer on my grandmother’s property. Some form of utility was regularly out – months without a phone, weeks of microwaveable meals because there was no propane for the stove. I was embarrassed then, and often angry with my mother.
It wasn’t until years later that I would come to understand she was a single mother trying to survive a divorce from an abusive alcoholic. Which is why she packed her life up from the Bay Area and relocated to a tiny, rural town hours away. She was lonely and vulnerable when she met my biological father. He wasn’t a winner either.
I was only 10 years old when my sister got married at 18. He was 26. I never particularly liked him. He was boastful and, in my child’s eyes, reminded me of a Disney villain – a long, skinny face with dark circles around his eyes and silly facial hair. Turns out my instincts were correct. My sister is finally free of him after 20 years of verbal and emotional abuse.
We didn’t talk about these things growing up. Especially not about emotions (because then we would have to acknowledge the situations we lived through). And definitely NEVER to others about family business. These heightened defenses were our way of life. A thick skin adapted over the generations — evolutionary biology at work. We survived. We didn’t thrive.
I love these flawed women, but over the years, I realized there was a collective mentality of “Well, it could be worse…” No one ever stopped to think or ask or demand for better. And they never would because this is all they had ever known.
The cycles of violence, poverty, and trauma ran in my family, until they ran into me.
Let me repeat that: It ran in my family, until it ran into me. I’m breaking the cycles.
I can’t control every branch of our family tree, and I can’t heal all the wounds. But I can change the outcome for myself. I can model a different way of living. I can help protect those who come next. I can work to stop violence before it starts.
I joined the movement in November 2016, leaving behind a career in journalism. Perhaps you can read between the lines why I could no longer be a witness and scribe to history, but wanted to take a role in shaping it.
Prior to joining the movement, I believed I was empathetic. I believed I could understand and express my emotions. I cared about violence against women in the form of domestic and sexual violence, knowing there were survivors in my family and community.
I can tell you those beliefs were quickly challenged. My workplace, Center For A Non Violent Community (CNVC) in Sonora, practices non-violent communication and hosts twice-annual trainings for staff and some community members. I came to realize that I could perform empathy, but how authentic could my empathy for others be when I had zero empathy for myself? There was no room for mistakes, for rest, for experimentation, or discovery through error. I had been taught perfectionism as armor, believing it was something to aspire to. I now know these beliefs are the chains of the oppressor and we must break free.
It takes vulnerability and courage to change.
It takes intentionality, accountability, united purpose, and empowerment to create lasting change.
As warriors on the front line of the movement, we combat gender-based violence in a myriad of ways. We listen, believe, and support survivors when many out there would rather pretend their truth doesn’t exist. We harness and consolidate resources to do more with little. We embrace our power and empower others to demand more. To expect better. To create places that are safe and affirming. To draft and implement policies that uplift the vulnerable and hold the Goliaths (or Harvey Weinsteins) of the world accountable.
But we also hold the movement itself accountable. First- and second-wave feminism was co-opted by whiteness. Social work and helping professions are historically grossly underpaid. Employer-employee relationships can easily become enmeshed with toxic cycles of power and control. I have seen CNVC and other organizations challenge white supremacy and traditional workplace power dynamics by looking beyond formal education and typical skill sets to see the whole person and lived experiences underneath. Survivors have the wisdom and empathy to be staunch advocates and dedicated preventionists. I work alongside these folks. I am one.
It is survivor-centered agencies and policies that flip these scripts. One way is to practice rest as resistance. We can support that for survivors through no-barrier survivor assistance. Often the most beautiful moments I witness for survivors in shelter are when they can experience ease and rest. I’ve seen this take the form of yoga, reiki energy healing, a trip to the lake, new tires on the car. To prioritize whatever they say creates ease in their lives, so their energy can be focused on restoring their lives and renewing their futures.
I have heard self-care described as living a life you don’t need to escape from — we can model that. It does not serve survivors, agencies, communities, or the movement at large if we continue to enable the oppressor by practicing self-desertion or abnegation. The movement will benefit from our empathy, our bravery, our brilliance, our hard-earned wisdom, but not our suffering.
If we are suffering to do this work, we are perpetuating the harm. And that transgresses the foundational belief I hold as we do this work: Do no harm. Do no harm unto self and to others.
Caring for ourselves, knowing our worth, and setting standards that honor our whole selves will nourish the movement and benefit survivors. If we are blind to our own suffering, it will eventually blind us to the suffering of others and blunt our responses. Compassion fatigue benefits no one.
It is hard work to embrace the discomfort and vulnerability necessary to work this way. To challenge these norms. But it is essential work. It is the work, as I have come to learn.
If you are a part of this work, I thank you.
If you are a survivor, I honor you.
If you are a bystander, I implore you to join us because violence against women is a virus that impacts us all.
My name is Pamela Orebaugh and the cycle stops with me.