Monday, March 06, 2006

About Vicki Polin and The Awareness Center, Inc.

This is from an old email from The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter.
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The Vicki Polin Story
© (2004) By Vicki Polin

From time to time reporters from various newspapers call me wanting to know about The Awareness Center, who I am, and why I do what I do. It was for that very reason that I had originally wrote the article “How The Awareness Center got Started.”

Some time ago a reporter came to my home and started asking me some very personal questions. It left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. As a therapist and also the executive director of an international organization I am always weighing the pros and cons of letting the world know who I am and sharing details about my past. This is not out of shame, but from a sense of wanting to keep my private life, private. I also have to consider whether sharing my life experiences will help or hurt The Awareness Center.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the only way you could get or do your job was to tell the world how old you were the first time you had sexual relations (especially if your first experience was from being sexually abused/assaulted)?

Then you are asked to make a list of any and all of the people you had those types of relations with, and asked how many times? I can't even imagine anyone sitting through a job interview being asked such questions. Yet, that is exactly what seems to be happening when many reporters call me or other directors of organizations that address sexual victimization issues for interviews.

As a victims' advocate, one of the things I advocate for the most is giving survivors a choice. Remember, choice was something that was taken away from them during their victimization. Having a choice is vital to their healing process. Needless to say, when I share anything or decide not to share something about my own personal life, it's because I have a right to privacy.

I share what I feel comfortable sharing, and like anyone, I have a right to keep parts of my life private. I'm not keeping “secrets,” I just don't feel like I have to expose myself to the world.

I have never felt uncomfortable saying I am a survivor of childhood sexual victimization. I am also a survivor of a sexual assault as an adult. At this time in my life I do not feel comfortable sharing the details or the identities of those who victimized me. Again, just as I advocate for all the survivors who contact me, this is about choice. It does NOT matter what my reasons are for not disclosing names. It is the choice I made.

I have no problem sharing that I am like a third of all women and a fifth of all men in the world. I was sexually victimized before my 18th birthday. There are specific issues and problems that I will face the rest of my life. And yes, I have been in therapy, which means I have a psychiatric history.

Having a psychiatric history can be looked at in many ways. Does that make me crazy? Should I lose credibility for what I say or do? Or does it mean that there was a time in my life when I needed help sorting out my life experiences, and got the help I needed? To be honest with you, I would trust someone who admitted they needed help and got it, over someone who doesn't admit needing help and hasn't taken the steps to get it.

Over the last few weeks I found myself dealing with some issues that I never thought I would have to deal with. Someone from my past started saying things about me in an attempt to hurt me and The Awareness Center. I will be the first to admit that there is some truth in what was being said, but I must stress that sadly a lot of it was distorted, taken completely out of context. I have nothing to hide, and I feel it is time for me to share some personal things about myself and my life experiences.

My life has not been an easy one. Like many other survivors of abuse, I have things I struggle with, and at times feel ashamed of. In my early twenties I was homeless for a short period of time. I was lucky, I never got into the drug scene like so many other survivors do. There were times in my life that I was suicidal and acted on my impulses. This was because I never learned how to identify or express my thoughts and feelings as a child, and felt as if I had no other choice. However, once I learned to identify and process my thoughts and feelings, and learned healthy ways for expressing myself, my life changed dramatically.

I have been very fortunate that throughout my life I have found some very special people whom I like to call my mentors. Sometimes I wonder, if it weren't for them, if I would have ended up locked up on some back ward of a state psychiatric institution, or wonder if wouldn't be alive today? It’s very scary for me to think about. But the fact of the matter is that I know my story is not that unusual for someone who has had similar experiences as mine.

A few years ago I made some choices that sometimes now I wish I didn't. However, looking at where these choices got me, I can see that they were not so bad after all!

When I turned 40 I'd given up my life in Chicago to follow my quest to learn what it means to be a Jew. I was extremely fortunate that a rabbi I knew offered me a full scholarship which included transportation, housing, and tuition to a women's yeshiva in Israel. To be honest, I really didn't even know the basics of Judaism. Prior to going to Israel I had been living in downtown Chicago in a high-rise located right in the heart of yuppieville. I had always been an unaffiliated Jew. So here I was, going from not knowing who Abraham and Sarah were, to attending a charedi yeshiva (religious school) in Har Nof, Jerusalem, Israel.

I have an undergraduate degree in women's studies (feminist studies), and all of a sudden I found myself living in an ultra religious community in Israel. Can you imagine the culture shock?...

I'll admit that I never had a positive concept of God or Judaism, especially given my life experiences. It's also important to note that the rabbi who sent me to Israel told me not to tell anyone about my abuse history or I would be shunned by the community... So there I was, going from being a strong victims advocate and someone who had some mastery over their own world, to living on what appeared to be Mars.

Years earlier I had gone backpacking in Europe for several months to escape the pressures of going to court after being stalked by the man who raped me. A friend suggested that it might be a good use for some money I had inherited, to “invest in good memories.” Prior to leaving for Israel, I had again been through a rough spot in my life, and I was hoping that Israel would be somewhat of a repeat of my Europe trip--the reinvesting in the making of good memories.

When I left Chicago for the women's yeshiva in Har Nof, I knew nothing about Israeli politics. I really had no idea who Arafat was. I was a Palestinian sympathizer. All I knew about Israel was what I heard on the news...

During one of my first weeks in Israel I remember hearing the story of a “Palestinian” woman who tied bombs on to her child, put her child on a bus and blew up “Jews.” She was thought of as a hero by her people... If she would have done that in the United States she would have been arrested for murder. All of her other children would have been removed from her custody. She would have gotten the death penalty. This tragedy and others like it, opened my eyes.

Prior to going to Israel I had spent a long period of time rehabilitating from injuries I incurred in an accident: I had been in and out of casts on my legs and braces on my arms for about 3 years. I had gained a lot of weight during that period, hadn't walked much, and knew that I needed to live in a place that was handicapped accessible. I was told Har Nof was. However, it turned out that it was far from that... For those of you who have never been there, I had to literally climb up about 80 stairs just to get to the next block! Har Nof is built into the side of a mountain. Definitely NOT handicapped accessible... This reality added tremendously to my challenges.

While still adjusting to Israel, Jewish life, and the physical challenges of my surroundings, I was also being treated for a medical complication that left me feeling exhausted most of the time. Getting around was extremely difficult, I was overwhelmed emotionally, in culture shock, and physically not feeling well. I got pretty burnt out pretty quickly and found it difficult to attend my classes. I kept calling the rabbi who sent me to Israel, telling him I wanted to come home, but he kept encouraging me to stay, to get to know Jerusalem. I followed his recommendations the best I could and stayed in Israel until after the high holidays that year.

Once back home, I was totally overwhelmed and confused by my experiences in Israel and was trying to integrate them into my life. This trip was far different from backpacking through Europe for several months--it changed me forever. Imagine my upset when on top of that and of my health problems, I had to face the fact that I was the victim of identity theft...

Coming back to Chicago, meant I had to jump start my life again. Due to the identity theft, everything I had was gone. I missed some of the friends I made in Israel. A year and a half later and following many times of going back and forth about it in my mind, I decided to make aliyah. It was February of 2001. I was moving to a new country, and going to learn more about Judaism, yet this time at a pace that would suit me better. I'd have all the time in the world. Still, shortly after arriving in Israel, I began to question my decision. It was harder than I thought.

I didn't know how to read or write Hebrew. I briefly went to Ulpan (a Hebrew class for new Israeli immigrants). My finances were tight. I struggled with all sort of things many people who make aliyah struggle with.

I met so many wonderful people during my time there, and had some very exciting experiences, yet I was homesick. I missed being able to know if my mail was a bill or just junk.

During my first week in Israel I went to a NEFESH conference. NEFESH is an organization for Torah observant therapists. I wasn't observant, yet I was interested in what NEFESH was doing. I started hearing about the way Israel was dealing with sexual victimization and it really concerned me.

For years I toyed with the idea of creating a Jewish organization, yet I kept telling other people to do that. I really never felt a connection to a Jewish community, so I didn't feel I was qualified. I had heard about the Lanner case and also about the case of the Kosher Butcher back in Chicago prior to making Aliyah. A friend at the time kept hinting to me to do something and get involved, but once again I didn't feel I was the right person for the job. But something changed while I was living in Jerusalem. I remember being on Ben Yehudah and a friend explaining to me the number of runaways that hung out there. I started to look and see what that friend was talking about. I started to get to know some of the kids there, and heard their stories and struggles. I was told about several so called “outreach workers,” who were nothing more then “alleged” pedophiles. What great pickings they had to do their form of “outreach.” So many “throw away kids” there for them to choose from.

There were so many kids hanging out on Ben Yehudah, from the totally unaffiliated to the ultra-religious. It saddened me a great deal to see the number of teens from charedi families that would change their clothes as soon as they got to town, and finding it a relief to act as most teenagers act. The hardest part was hearing the same percentage of kids from religious homes as non-religious homes talk about abuse. For many of the teens, this was the common thread. They felt they had no where to turn, so they would go to the local bars, get drunk and or use drugs to escape from their pain. That is when I realized that if I didn't do something, no one was going to.

Prior to making aliyah I created and ran an organization called “CNN-WATCH.” It was really a fluke how it got started, and that aspect of my life could be a book in its self. Basically after working in the sexual trauma field for about eighteen years, I thought that it was time for me to take a break. For some strange reason I thought running this media watch group was the way to do it. Needless to say it didn't take me long to realize that dealing with biases in the media was very similar to working with sexual trauma. During the seven months I lived in Israel, I ran the organization. I also began to transform my private practice web page into The Awareness Center’s site.

There is something about my personal life I always struggle with saying publicly, yet at this time in my life I feel the need to share it. I was born with several congenital heart defects. When I was a child I had corrective open heart surgery. I was always told that I was perfectly fine after that, but in 1997 I learned that that wasn't the case. I still had a very rare heart defect, that would someday require more corrective surgery.

Unfortunately, my heart defect has been causing me some health problems. I haven’t made this public before because I find this information to be quite personal. But the truth of the matter is that if it wasn't for my health problems I wouldn't have been able to do the work I'm currently doing. I never know from day to day how much energy I'll have, so needless to say I live on a disability check. Since the creation of The Awareness Center, my disability check has been our primary funding source of our organization. Yes from time to time we get donations, but basically because of my health, and the fact I do have an extremely limited income, I have been able to volunteer my time -- work for nothing. Our organization is so vitally needed, that I can't seem to keep up with the demands. Like many other nonprofit organizations, we need to start hiring staff. We can only do this with your financial support.

I want to stress that The Awareness Center is far more then just me (Vicki Polin). Our organization would not be able to function without the hundreds or even thousands volunteer hours donated by our volunteers. None of which have been compensated for their time, and or expenses.

How and Why did The Awareness Center get started?

The reason is simple. I took my life experiences, and what I saw happening in Israel and knew things had to change. I did not want one more child to have to go through what I did. I did not want one more survivor to have the experiences of seeking treatment from an inexperienced therapist who really didn't understand the ramifications of sexual violence. I did not want one more family to be turned away by their community after allegations were made that their child was molested by a rabbi (of any affiliation). It kills me each and every time I hear about such things happening. It's not in my nature to sit back and do nothing. No one else seemed to be doing anything, so I had to. I also needed to make sense of my life, and my experiences. Developing The Awareness Center, Inc. gives my victimization a reason for happening. I know what it's like to be sexually assaulted by someone you trusted; I know what it's like to have your world fall apart; I know what it's like to have to start all over again, and how you have to force yourself to trust again.

So when a news reporter contacts me and asks me personal questions, I really want to ask them; Does it really matter who sexually violated me as a child or as adult? Does it matter how old I was or how many times it happened? To me what matters is what I do with all of these experiences, and how I can use them to make the world a better place.

To make a tax deductible donation to The Awareness Center, Inc. Just write a check to:

The Awareness Center, Inc.
P.O. Box 65273
Baltimore, MD 21209


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