Jen Kiaba Photography | Everything All At Once, or: A Short History of Some Very Painful Things

Everything All At Once, or: A Short History of Some Very Painful Things

February 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Things have been out of balance in my world for the last few months and I've been quiet as I process and seek equilibrium.

Photography and writing are part of the way I understand my experiences in the world, but sometimes they need to be put on hold just to feel what's going on in the moment. And there have been a lot of moments lately where I've needed to ground myself in what's been going on.

The problem is that I often run into overload and then shutdown. One of the few ways that I have found to prevent myself from grinding to a complete internal standstill is to share.

Sharing, for me, is difficult and completely unintuitive.

But I've found a lot of healing in it over the years, and I've also found that it helps to foster community. It gives others the opportunity to recognize something in themselves, share their own experiences, and let them begin heal something within.

So, in the hopes that my sharing can help others on their healing journey I give you:

A Short History of Some Very Painful Things

Back in the early '00s my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer right after a particularly difficult (and third) bout of Lyme Disease. I had previously given up my apartment in NYC and moved back home to help, and to give my mom the twice-daily injections she would need to fight off the Lyme; with the cancer diagnosis my sister and I were helping run the home, and take care of our three younger brothers while my mom was going through treatment.

Around this same time I was fighting for a church-granted divorce from an arranged marriage that I had been pressured into a year prior. As I pressed my case, my parents often threatened to kick me out of the house.

Logical? No. Let's just say that things were often ugly at home, and as soon as my mom was through her treatment I moved back out and put most of my family on a strict no-contact diet.

Once I was feeling healthy enough to be in a new romantic relationship, and one of my own choosing, it took me two years before I even told my parents about it. That was how much I felt that I needed to protect my relationship from my family. For years afterwards I had reoccurring nightmares that my parents would break into my home at night to pull me out of bed, screaming at me.

(I share this not to shock or appall, but to connect with those of you who have had trauma-based experiences with family members and to say "I understand. It's ok. You can find what you need to heal.")

After several years I began to try and keep the lines of communication open. And to their credit, my parents also tried the same. It was often strained, and sometimes combative. But my parents never excommunicated me out of their lives like so many other parents did with children who chose to leave their faith.

In 2012 Rev. Moon passed away, the Unification Church began to fall apart and I fell apart - not from sadness but from relief. I finally felt like an era of fear and repression had passed and could no longer hurt me. But that fear had kept me contained. Without it I felt as though my pieces were drifting apart from each other at a rapidly accelerating rate. 

(For those of you who have asked: yes I sought out a therapist right around this time and highly recommend that anyone who is recovering from trauma, abuse, cults, or all of the above, seek out help as well. The International Cultic Studies Association is a good place to start

It was because of this internal tectonic shifting that I felt an urgent need to write out my stories, one of which was published on The Hairpin. A burst of creativity in my photography came shortly thereafter, and soon I was writing essays to accompany many of my photos.

As you may well imagine, my work did not go over well in the church community that I grew up in. I had begun in naivety, underestimating the power of the internet, never thinking that it would be shared amongst church members or with my parents. Of course, I was wrong, and this didn't do much to ease my relations with my parents and we began to slip back into that place of no contact.

Then just as Christmas 2012 rolled around I got a call from my mom, asking me to come over right away. I dropped everything and rushed to my parents' house.

My heart felt weighed down with fear as I drove, hoping that the worst case scenarios that my mind was playing out were just the over-active nature of my imagination.

I let myself into my parents' house, and tip toed into their bedroom. My mom, sitting cross-legged on her bed, reached out both of her hands to beckon me over. I held her hands, sat down across from her and readied myself.

"They found cancer again," she said. Then my head began to swim and the words got fuzzy. I heard "metastasized", "bones" and "incurable" before I collapsed in my mother's lap and we cried.

Fast forward to September 2014. Despite the return of her cancer, my mom hadn't had to do chemo for nearly 18 months. Things had been kept at bay with a hormone treatment. But, as the doctor warned us it might, her body stopped responding to the treatment after a little over a year and a half. The only other option for her, they said, was chemo.

Perhaps time softens our memories of suffering, but I didn't remember things being this bad seven years ago. Her decline was almost immediate. I wasn't sure that she would make it to see my 30th birthday in October. But she powered through.

Then right before Christmas we had to rush her to the hospital due to an infection. The eldest of my younger brothers, who hadn't spoken to me in years, helped me practically carry my mom into the car.

Then right before I jumped into the car to head down to the hospital, he and I hugged. (Cue sobbing.)

We weren't sure if she would make it home for Christmas, or at all.

But she did. And she made it through to see her 60th birthday last month. Yesterday, as a family, we discussed transitioning her into hospice.

A woman in a white dress, with her head covered by a red cloth, is pulled off balance."Torn" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click to purchase a Limited Edition Print.

The above image, "Torn" I created as a demo for students that I taught last semester. I think it speaks pretty well to the dynamics we can be faced with in difficult situations, in crises of the spirit as well as crises of the body.

Sometimes you're off balance, sometimes you cannot see. But you have to keep going, seeking balance and breathing.

Right now that's what I'm doing. Trying to find the quiet space within to recharge, to find balance and keep going. I am still chin-deep, not necessarily trying to make sense of things but letting myself feel and experience it as it happens.

Dealing with family through illness is never easy. Life isn't like a movie where everyone always pulls together and old grievances are set aside to support each other through crisis. 

Sometimes crisis can bring out the worst in us. I, myself, am not exempt. Throw in family that has been abusive in the past (and, pardon the expression, but let's just say that old habits can die hard), stir in fundamentalist-type adherence to faith, and you've got yourself a very messy stew.

With everything going on, I am trying to be very careful not to sacrifice myself at the altar of Family.  Despite our huge differences, and despite what I am finally learning to admit was abuse on the part of my parents, I love my family fiercely; my old wiring tells me that I should give up everything in my life again, move back in, and cook and clean for my parents and three adult brothers who live at home (yup).

As a recovering co-dependent caretaker, it would be very easy for me to go there. But it's not sustainable, nor is it healthy.

So I say this to anyone who is dealing with any kind of similar difficulty: be kind to yourself. Breathe. And excuse my French, but set some fucking boundaries. Even if that means the no-contact diet.

Believe me, there have been times I have wanted to go back to that place of not interacting. Even though it triggers guilt in me, I've had to take breaks from my family. Especially when the nightmares come back, as they always do when I deal with my family on a long-term basis.

Also: talk it out. Thank all of the gods, ever, for all of the people who have let me cry, verbally vomit and fall apart in front of them. Once I finally began sharing, they let me take up as much space as I needed and made lots and lots of tea. (Thank you to any of them that might be reading. You're amazing!)

Friends and surrogate family can make the world go round, especially when the world looks like its falling apart.

And to you, wonderful readers, thanks so much for sticking it out here while things have been quiet. Hopefully I won't drop off the radar again. But if I do, you know why and that I am still thinking of you all!

Much love,



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