Jen Elizabeth shares her harrowing story from childhood trauma to deep addiction on the 24th Episode of The Courage To Change: A Recovery Podcast. She grew up in a home with a mentally ill mother, who had bipolar Munchausen and Munchausen by proxy. Her family moved from Santa Barbara to Mobile, Alabama to join a cult when she was 2.5 years old. At five years old, she was molested by the main leader of the cult as a rite of passage for her family. Jen has since dedicated her life to addiction recovery and healing from childhood trauma. She is 8 years sober, the mother of two beautiful children, and a recognized writer, speaker and recovery activist. You can listen to Jen’s remarkable story in its entirety here.

Childhood

Jen grew up with a mother who was bipolar and also suffered from Munchausen and Munchausen by proxy. According to WebMD, Munchausen syndrome is a mental disorder in which a person repeatedly and deliberately acts as if he or she has a physical or mental illness when he or she is not really sick. Munchausen by proxy is a psychological disorder marked by attention-seeking behavior by a caregiver through those who are in their care. 

As a little girl, Jen remembers her mother repeatedly trying to kill herself. She begged and pleaded, but her mom would not stop, “she always did it when I was home, and I would have to beg her, because at that time, I was little, and I thought every single time was real.” She vividly remembers searching the streets with the police looking for her mother thinking, “why doesn’t she want to live for me?” 

Jen’s mother suffered with depression, opioid addiction and a multitude of illnesses. When Jen’s brother was born, her mother always had him in the doctor’s office, “she swore he had seizures, and I never saw a seizure, she had him on lots of medicine,” recalls Jen. 

Cult Life

When Jen was 2 and a half years old, her family moved from Santa Barbara, California to Mobile, Alabama to join Gold Coast church. At the time, Jen’s parents wanted to raise their family in a wholesome environment, little did they know, this fanatical church was actually a cult. As the years went on the culture shifted, “there was financial abuse, spiritual abuse, and obviously sexual abuse,” explains Jen.

The elders at the church knew Jen came from a broken home filled with chaos. Every family had a folder that held their personal information, “my dad even had to discuss what type of sex he had with my mom with his particular shepherd, so they knew everything.” The elders used this private information to pursue their personal desires and cult behavior. The leader of the cult began molesting Jen at the age of 5. As the years passed, the molesting took on different forms, “I was probably about 7 when the experiences with him became more graphic and more uncomfortable.”

Jen said they were completely isolated from their family and friends and the abuse escalated, “I do remember being called into this little office, and sitting on his lap, he would play with my hair and sing me songs,” says Jen. As a young girl, Jen was starving for love, so much so, she never thought anything of his abusive behavior. He never told her not to say anything, and she never did. Over time, the playing with her hair turned into much more, “he put his mouth on me, I had to put my mouth on him,” Jen describes. The secrets she kept made her sick, but it was so much deeper than that, “it was in the keeping of the secrets that destroyed me over time. I abandoned my body to him for the sake of affection, for the sake of survival.” 

Jen said she never fought him off and she never said anything to anyone, “I think too, you don’t say anything and then it shifts into a feeling of participation.” Jen felt so much confusion in these moments, “there were moments where it is somewhat, I don’t want to say pleasurable, but it’s not horrible,” Jen recalls.

The molestation continued until a man started secretly rescuing families in the cult. Jen’s mother never wanted to leave, but her dad wanted out, so they moved back to California when Jen was 9 years old.

Addiction

Jen started drinking and using Vicodin to numb the pain, “alcohol and drugs did save me, I was so close to possibly trying to kill myself.” Jen felt completely tortured inside, she desperately wanted to be somebody else. When she was 12 years old, she found a bottle of vodka, “I was an alcoholic from that first moment, before that little glass was halfway finished, I was already skimming in my mind how I was going to get more and drink every day.” It was the first peace she had ever experienced.

At 22 years old, Jen was hooked on oxycodone. She found herself out of pills and desperate for a fix. In a moment of weakness, she took heroin for the first time, and from that moment on, she was a heavy heroin user. She started to combine meth and heroin and was addicted to the needle for 15 years. 

 Eating Disorder

Jen’s mother had a serious eating disorder to the point of hospitalization and stomach tubes, “she looked so scary, so skinny,” describes Jen. When Jenn was 8 years old, she began starving herself. She would chew up her food and spit it out before she swallowed. She remembers wanting to be more disciplined like her mother, “I thought maybe she would be more proud of me and give me more attention if I could be smaller.” In trying to get that attention from her mother, Jen developed her own eating disorder. 

Recovery

At 34 years old, Jen went to prison for two years for drug-related charges. She was in a six-month behavioral modification program in California. She started doing therapy.  “It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because even though I did not stay clean, everything I learned about myself in there was huge,” recalls Jen. 

About a year into her sentence she experienced what she believes is divine intervention, “a sensation came over me, and a silence filled the room and it just hit me that this was it for me, if I didn’t do something, this was going to be the sum total of my life until my addiction took my life away.” 

That marked Jen’s sobriety day; May 1st, 2011. After prison, she went back to her parents and right back to an environment of dysfunction and violence. She tried to counter her home life with AA and NA meetings as much as she could. All she knew was survival at this point, “my life was just so suffocated and so much pain, that I did not know how to face it,” says Jen. 

She became pregnant with her son and had to face her women issues head on like a freight train. She had grown up hating women. She had an abusive mother and grew up in a cult where women were silenced. Because of this, she was horrified at what kind of mother she would become, “I was in fear that I would molest my own children, I was in fear I was going to be like my mother.” She internalized all of these fears, but the minute her son was born, “I looked at his face, and I knew what maternal love [was],” she said. She finally for the first time realized she was not too broken to heal, or too broken to be a good mother. 

Jen is now 8 years sober, loving life and continuing to heal and practice inner child work, “none of this is ended. I continue it. I don’t want to be the same woman next year that I am right now. I just want to keep growing.”

Quotes have been edited for clarity.