I have multiple fond memories from childhood. I remember climbing down into the ravine collecting crabs that scurried through the water. I remember my feet sinking into what I thought was quick sand, but proved to be nothing more than loose dirt in shallow water.
My next happy memory is of racing through my neighborhood in my red and black power wheeled jeep. It only went 3 miles an hour but it was my first real taste of freedom. In between those happy moments filled with laughter there was a really sad kid who lost her place in this world and has yet to make it back, but that’s what happens when your innocence is stolen.
Reflecting on my childhood it should have been obvious that I showed signs most often linked to depression. I wouldn’t have known what that word meant then, but I knew how I felt. I was sad. Unable to explain my feelings, I began to lie. I masked my emotions by wearing a smile my entire life. I pretended to be happy, lying to those around me, simply for the sake of not having to explain myself. I guess I got that from my mother.
I watched her lie for one husband after another. “I thought he was just smoking weed” or “He’s not usually like this, it’s only when he drinks Jim Beam,” she would say, defending them. She would later lie about the black eye her second husband gave her after a late night of drinking, hiding it behind big sunglasses, accepting this life as her normal. She lied to herself in order to defend terrible people. In the end her own children paid the consequences.
I was only 18 months old when my grandparents took “custody” of me. Nothing was legal or in writing as they say, but they became my sole providers after seeing dark bruises on my arms, legs, and back side. My mother told them I had fallen.
My stay with them was short, because my mom picked me up six months later with the notion it was in our best interest to follow her soon-to-be first husband Trey* to Michigan, where he and his family still reside. She packed our belongings, my 4-day-old half-brother, and myself into her tiny car in the winter of 1991 and we began our trip to Michigan. I was not yet 3.
Over the course of the next year the four of us would move from Michigan back to Savannah, Georgia and then to Colorado Springs. I was nearing 4 years old and had yet to live in a single house for longer than six months. Even though I was young I can still vividly picture the snow-capped mountains just out of reach, my crayons scattered through the yard melting in the hot sun, and the smell of summer barbecue. I wonder if I thought this place would be different. I was hoping for a fresh start, but nothing had changed, at least not with Trey.
I vaguely remember one day going to the pool with Trey. My brother was still an infant and unable to swim so he sat in his car seat near the edge of the pool with my great grandma who was visiting for the summer. I carefully buckled my life-preserver with confidence and played in the shallow end, my feet inches away from the bottom of the pool.
Trey encouraged me to swim towards the middle of the pool, just as my great-grandma was leaving the fenced in area. At the time I paid her no mind and began to doggy paddle towards the deep end where Trey was swimming. I’d swam on that side before, but never this far from the edge and quickly realized it wasn’t for me. I remember attempting to make it back to the side of the pool because I was uncomfortable swimming in the middle and next thing I know I am underwater fighting to push toward the surface. I remember being scared, thinking I was going to drown. I kicked and flailed my arms as the oxygen escaped my tiny body. I could see the bubbles floating from my mouth towards the sun, and then suddenly for what seemed like no reason at all he let go.
I popped up for air, my nose and throat burning as I coughed up chlorine water and my eyes welled with tears. As I scrambled to the edge of the pool I could see my great-grandma re-entering the pool area, rushing to help me out and asking what was wrong. Trey told her we were just playing, but I think deep down she thought differently.
He continued hurting me that summer. Once he forced me to eat a heaping pile of macaroni and cheese, I remember choking back the noodles as he watched me, reminding me every so often if I threw up I would still have to clean the plate. Other times he’d lock me in my room for what felt like hours on end so he could watch WWE Wrestling in peace. I could hear my younger brother playing or sometimes crying from the other room as I cried silently from my own.
My mom worked mostly nights so almost all of the abuse went undetected by her, but I eventually broke and told my grandparents that Trey had been hurting me. Before I knew it they were picking me up to bring me home, back to Savannah.
At this point things began to turn around, this is where most of my good memories stem from. We lived in a beautiful brick house right on the marsh. A row of gigantic sunflowers separated my new yard from my best friend’s backyard. I started kindergarten, made friends throughout the neighborhood, and even joined gymnastics. Life was good and I was happy.
Eventually my mom divorced Trey, but instead of moving to Savannah she moved back to Michigan along with my brother (3) and kid sister (2). Over a phone call my mom explained that she had met a man named Neil.* She described him as very nice and she really wanted me to visit so I could meet him. My grandparents thought this would do me some good because I hadn’t seen my mom in over a year, but made it very apparent I was not to be left alone with him at any time.
It was supposed to be a three-week vacation during the summer with my great-grandmother, visiting my mom and siblings in Michigan. Somehow that vacation has turned into 18 years and counting. During the trip I was surrounded by my mom’s new friends, Neil’s large family, and my two younger siblings, which was great. It seemed as if I were the center of attention. Everyone wanted to know who my mom’s “new” daughter was.
As the vacation neared the end my mom asked if I wanted to stay and of course I thought I would love to. I really wanted to be a part of my brother and sister’s lives. I knew if I went back to Georgia the most I would see them would be once a year in the summer and our relationship would be non-existent. Also, I really loved and missed my mom so the choice seemed clear. My mom and I called my grandmother the next day to let her know I wanted to stay in Michigan, ultimately she said the choice was completely up to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I told her I would be staying with my mom that was the first, but not the last, time I would break someone’s heart.
When my mom and I went to the airport to drop my great-grandmother off to go back to Savannah, I watched our plane take off and I immediately knew I had made the wrong decision.
The beginning wasn’t terrible. It took some getting used to living with other children. I was no longer new and had to pull my weight around the house. Neil worked in construction so his schedule was fairly flexible and my mom was a medical assistant, so she worked during the day.
The abuse with Neil started slow and then quickly gained speed. As I got older I knew the abuse wasn’t just happening to me, but to my sister as well. It started after about a year, but it went on for many more after that. I finally decided to tell my mom in the winter of 2001. I was 12.
My mom and Neil were upstairs lounging in bed as my siblings played Nintendo in the basement. By this time my mom had married Neil and he had fathered two of her five children. I paced back and forth, back and forth, attempting to work up the courage to tell her what he was doing. I remember telling myself to not be scared of him, the worst that can happen is he kills me, but then he’d be caught for sure. I heard the stairs creaking in our old house, there were 17 stairs plus the landing. I could hear light footsteps, it was definitely my mom. My heart was racing, pounding hard against my chest. She was almost to the very last step and my throat swelled shut. She saw me pacing the living room floor. I knew if I didn’t say anything it would take me months to rework the courage to tell her. That moment would be one of the longest seconds in my life. I stood there looking at her looking at me. I opened my mouth and the words just fell out.
“Neil is doing the same thing to me as Trey did.”
Of course this wasn’t exactly true, Neil wasn’t hitting me, but I knew the word “molested” was so disgusting, I couldn’t even bring myself to say it out loud.
I can still see her face engrained in my mind as I revealed that Neil was touching me and my sister. She looked stunned, but it didn’t seem to register as she stared blankly into my eyes. I was crying. She asked me to repeat myself, so I did, this time in a whispering voice, “Neil is doing the same thing as Trey did to me.” The tears came quickly after that. I couldn’t believe I finally had the courage to tell her. A feeling of relief rushed over my body, but then I could hear him moving upstairs, the floorboards creaking beneath him with each step. It completely slipped my mind he was still in the house. The courage I felt moments before had dissipated and turned to fear.
My mom quietly asked me to go play with the younger kids in the basement, so I did. The thoughts running through my head were all over the place. Would I be in trouble? Would he hurt my mom if she were to confront him? Was he going to kill me? I sat in the basement for what seemed like hours. My siblings, continuing their gaming streak, asked what was wrong, but I said nothing. Only a few minutes had actually gone by when Neil called me upstairs. My heart was pounding so hard against my chest, I could see my shirt moving with each heartbeat. Next thing I knew I was getting dressed to go outside. Snow boots, gloves, a white and grey scarf I had just gotten for Christmas. Neil somehow persuaded my mom he should talk to me alone.
Fully dressed for winter, the two of us stepped out into the cold so we could talk in private. He asked if I wanted to build a snowman. Confused, I told him no, but it was clear I didn’t have much of a choice. Under my scarf that was wrapped around my face I was crying. I didn’t want anyone to be upset with me, but I also did not want to continue lying. He told me that if I were to tell my mom anything else that I would ruin my family’s lives. He convinced me that my siblings and I would all be broken apart and that I could get in really big trouble. By now my tears had become two frozen streams on either side of my face, burning each time the wind blew. Neil made me promise to keep our secret. Although he didn’t threaten me, I was scared and felt trapped so I agreed to keep the promise in hopes the abuse would end.
It would continue for another three and a half years. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that my mom would have to face reality. I was in my Spanish class when the office called. My teacher said something may have happened to my grandmother and I needed to report to the office immediately where my mom would pick me up. I saw her standing alone in the office, it was clear she had been crying. I remember repeatedly asking her if great-grandma had died, she said nothing and pointed to the door and we exited the school. As we neared the parking lot I could see the green Chrysler minivan parked, but still running.
Once we reached the van, I saw Neil in the front seat and all four of my siblings packed tightly in the back seats. My mom stopped me by grabbing my arms, I turned to face her as we stood directly behind the van. I could see Neil staring through the rear view mirror directly into my eyes. I knew right then and there she was finally going to ask me and this time believe me. She asked if Neil had ever touched me, I didn’t hesitate for a second. I said “yes” before she could even finish her sentence. I looked back into the mirror. Neil’s head had dropped. He knew I finally broke the promise we made three years before.
My mom opened the side door, and I quietly climbed in. The seven of us drove home in silence, only to be broken by my little sister crying. Neil parked the car in front of our two-story mint green house, apologizing over and over again. I said nothing. We got out of the van and my mom handed me my youngest brother, Jake. She told us to go inside and that they were going to the police station. I never saw Neil again.
With Neil in prison and my mom working full-time to support five kids, I became the homemaker so to speak. At 15 I gained the responsibility of babysitting, making dinner, doing laundry, helping the kids with homework and keeping the house clean on top of all the strains from being a new student in high school. I was no longer able to participate in sports or after school activities and my grades slipped tremendously. I began working as a hostess at a local restaurant in order to help out and found myself drinking as often I could. I even went to the extreme of pouring vodka in orange juice bottles at school and often drank throughout the school day.
Once I turned 18 I moved into a small apartment in Byron Center with my best friend at the time. Here I was able to find myself without having the constraints that came with living at home. I ended up taking a job at a hole in the wall bar where I found multiple other girls like myself, broken yet strong.
By the time I was 20, I had already experimented with alcohol and an assortment of pills. At the time, I didn’t understand the toll the drugs would take on my body, and if I did I didn’t care. They seemed to help me forget the pain I was hiding. Unfortunately, I was slipping farther and farther into a depression.
In 2008, my boyfriend and I decided it was time we move out-of-state. I was hoping for yet another “fresh start.” The plan was to travel the westward and end in California, but our Jeep broke down just south of Oklahoma City. We weighed our options and finally decided that staying in Oklahoma could work for us. We lived there for a year while we saved money to fund our trip West. During this time in my life, I used various prescription pills to pass the time and cope with the ever-growing depression I was experiencing. For the first six months, everything was great. I had tons of new friends, I loved my job, and my boyfriend, Grayson, and I were doing great. We even got engaged that Christmas, but as my depression worsened I began to think I didn’t deserve to be with him and broke off our engagement.
Grayson moved to Arizona shortly after I moved home to Michigan in the summer of 2012 with the hope of being able to finish my associate’s degree and solely focus on myself. Initially, moving back to Grand Rapids only heightened my addictions as I no longer had anyone to hold me accountable. I would stay up for two to three days at a time to party and then sleep for two days straight. I quickly lost all confidence in myself and began spending much of my free time with all the people your parents warned you about as a child.
I have always been a family oriented person so it really hit home when I slept through my family’s entire Christmas vacation. My siblings were all on winter break from school and it was my first time home for the holidays in over four years. Instead of spending time with my family, I slept in my brother’s old room for days on end. Everyone thought I had the flu, but my mom knew I was going through withdrawals from the drugs that I was no longer using. I would only leave the house once or twice a week and then retreat back to my new bedroom. My depression had taken a tight hold over my body and mind. Without any drugs or alcohol in my system I had no choice, but to face the underlying issues from my childhood.
With the help of my mom and siblings I eventually pulled through and am able to tell this story today. Although the abuse from my childhood has affected my adult life in many ways I am finally able to share my story with others. I am one class away from graduating at GRCC, I have a job that I enjoy, my support group, although small, is extremely strong and I am finally remembering what it means to be happy. I know that everything I went through as a child has made me the person I am today and I refuse to continuously be angry. I am hoping to channel much of my energy into working with young girls who have gone through similar situations.