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Trigger warning: We discuss physical and sexual abuse, trauma, mental health, and suicide in this episode.
This week I interviewed my friend Stephanie Coren, who is one of the most resilient people I know. It’s interesting how you can know someone for more than 20 years but still learn things about them when you sit down and talk about things that matter. Stephanie opened herself up to this conversation completely, as is her way, even though she has endured more heartbreak and loss than most people and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.
Her life began in Portland, and she recalls some wonderful things about her childhood such as her close relationship with her grandparents. But her parents were raging alcoholics and physically abused her.
“Hitting and rage were very frightening to me. There were a couple of times when I thought I was going to die. When I was younger, I felt immense fear.”
She experienced rage and violence when she didn’t clean her room right, do things correctly, or obey in time. The outright abuse ended around eighth grade, but her mom threw stuff in anger through her teens. Steph and her siblings would actually joke about it, saying her mom had an Irish temper and she couldn’t hit them when she threw stuff because she had such bad aim.
Steph talked about the trauma-induced memory erasure in her family.
“I went to Australia when I was 18 or 19, and that family was so normal, calm, and loving...it was a real trip for me.”
In addition to the physical abuse from her parents, Steph was sexually abused at the tender age of four by a priest and nuns at her Catholic preschool. She doesn’t remember a lot about it or how often it happened. Her experience of terror is so acute that her memories come back in triggering moments.
“No one in the adult world seemed to notice there was a problem. My sister was a few years older, and she remembers the change in me after that happened. She could see I was literally falling apart.”
In the late 1960s, no one knew what was happening underground in the Catholic church.
Stephanie had no safe adults in her life. She suppressed much of her childhood trauma until she fell in love with a woman during her first year in college and came out as a lesbian. Her memories came flooding back when her parents reacted badly, kicking her out of the house and forcing her to become independent at a fragile time in her life.
Not long after the rejection from her parents, Stephanie started heavily using drugs and alcohol to cope. And then her girlfriend started hitting her, repeating the pattern of abuse and trauma. Therapy saved her life, as did the hospitalization and recovery that came soon afterward after she felt suicidal.
“I craved being seen and being in contact with someone...my abandonment issues are massive.”
Later in life when she tried to broach the topic of the abuse, her mom responded, “I just think it’s important that we all remember the good times.”
Soon after she began her recovery from drugs and alcohol, she started dating her ex-wife Rebecca, beginning a relationship that would last for 29 to 30 years. Rebecca introduced her to theater and liberal arts and helped her believe she was smart and capable.
Even though Stephanie never thought she’d have children after her childhood trauma, when Rebecca told her she wanted to create a family, she was so in love that she thought she’d figure it out. “Of course, having children was a hugely wonderful experience.”
Even though doctors advised Rebecca against having children because of her chronic fatigue syndrome, Stephanie encouraged her to try anyway. After their kids were born, Rebecca stayed home while Steph was the breadwinner. We met Stephanie and Rebecca when our oldest sons attended Multnomah Playschool together and Rebecca was pregnant with their twins.
When Steph was around 40, everything changed when she developed Stage 4 endometriosis. Her health took a huge nosedive. She had so much intense pain in her reproductive area that she’d groan when the car went over a bump. Endometriosis glued her lower organs together, and then she developed an extremely painful bladder condition. She started going to a pain clinic and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and IBS...which Stephanie says often are diagnoses for “we don’t know why you have so much pain.”
“It was very traumatic to have all of those surgeries, all of that attention in that area...extremely difficult for me.”
Fast-forward to age 49, and she was hit with Stage 3 breast cancer. In the beginning, she was a very passive patient until she consciously decided to transform her experience.
“I decided I was going to be a bright spot in the nurse’s day, because this is going to be the only person I see outside of my family. I’m going to be positive. So I learned how to be a patient, a collaborator with my health care people.”
After her breast cancer treatment, she had a few scares that prompted a brain scan, bone scan, and PET scan. While waiting for the test results, Rebecca told her she wanted a divorce. I remember the phone call when she gave us the good news: she didn’t have cancer, but also the bad news: she was getting a divorce.
Steph knew something was off and had been asking if Rebecca was in love with someone else, but she was blindsided to lose the love of her life. After all the illness and trauma, she thinks Rebecca perceived her as permanently broken.
“I lost the family I had created...it had everything to do with being rejected by my parents. I had these incredible kids, who were my life...I had such close relationships with them.”
A few days later, she landed in the psychiatric hospital because she was so devastated and once again suicidal. Over the following year, she would be hospitalized twice, start dating again, and experience her first relapse in decades.
“In a way, I was so intent on creating this new family...the realities of the way human beings need to be escaped me. I had high expectations of the way people needed to be, and I would get concerned and insecure about whether I’d get what I needed from people.”
She knows that she needs to go to the hospital if she’s in a bad space.
“I might need a medical adjustment. I need to be in a place to feel safe so I can bounce back.”
Although those first few years post-divorce were brutal, Steph kept doing the work. She graduated from the pain clinic and came off Social Security disability to re-enter the workforce. I asked her how she was able to do that. The pain clinic helped her strategize on how to deal with the pain. She also used pain meditation podcasts by Jon Kabat Zinn.
“Prayer and meditation became huge for me. Also, really living life in connections with people. Love is such a healing force. All my interactions became really important.”
She still experiences PTSD on a regular basis, when her vision and sense of her physical space become altered. She calls it acute despair.
“Contact and connection with other people is super important to me. When I’m in PTSD mode, I forget that my friends love me so much, so I feel very alone. Being alone is connected with fear to me. When I’m alone, I could be hurt.”
After her divorce, Stephanie joined our Lutheran-Catholic church, Spirit of Grace. I asked her if it was hard to come back to the Catholic church. By then, she’d done so much work on herself that this was not an issue.
After doing so much work on healing from her childhood trauma inflicted by the Catholic church, she felt the need to be part of a congregation. Both of us used to attend large New Thought churches, where they failed us when we were in crisis. Steph knew she needed a church community that would be there for her.
“I needed to get back into the gospel and see what I thought about all of that. Spirit of Grace has been a wonderful place to hear those stories again.”
We talked about following the radical inclusive Jesus.
“The teachings of Jesus challenge me at a level I can’t live up to, and I like that about Christianity. If I can take some of the guilt out of it, and appreciate the striving, it becomes a powerful force.”
I asked Stephanie how she became such a rock star mom after not experiencing loving parenting herself. She credits Rebecca as a great parenting partner.
Her kids were proud of the fact they had two moms. It felt natural to them. We are both grateful for the wisdom and inclusive atmospheres of Multnomah Playschool, which has an anti-bias curriculum, and the incredible Teacher Marty Peterson. Steph and Rebecca were not the only same-sex parents there. Then our kids went on to the same grade school, Maplewood, which also had many families with two moms and a highly supportive and inclusive atmosphere.
I asked Steph what would she tell her 18-year-old self. Her response:
“You’re going to have all the love you need. You will build a real life.”
In spite of her great losses, especially the loss of her family, Steph is actually a happier, healthier person now than when she was married...once again demonstrating her resilience.
“I was so afraid of losing what I had, but I’ve learned it’s okay to have lost what I have lost, and there’s so much I didn’t actually lose.”
Next week I interview nature and forest therapy guide Katrina Nilsson-Gorman, who runs The Nature in You: Soul Medicine. Katrina also experienced trauma and health problems as a result of being raped while traveling in India. She didn’t share the positive experience Steph had in being hospitalized for mental health. Instead she found her healing in the forest. She too has found a way to survive and thrive in spite of her trauma.
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