I was broken when I was five years old. I remember looking down at my bare feet hanging off the edge of my brother’s bed. It still feels like it was yesterday. My shell was different - cracked, filthy, and in pain. That was the start of the torture and heartbreak that I suffered for years. How do you recover from a hard childhood? I am not sure you fully do but it is possible to heal and live a life that does not include abuse and neglect.
I was born into an Irish Roman Catholic family near the edge of the Bronx, New York. Six boys were born before me. I was the seventh child and only girl. I was not encouraged to have dreams or goals. I was just supposed to be pretty, which I failed at. Both sets of my grandparents died of complications from alcoholism before I was old enough to get to know them. Alcoholism was rampant in my family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and my parents were afflicted by alcoholism and drug addiction. With all of the alcoholism in my family I suffered every form of abuse and neglect.
When I was eight years old and sitting at the top of a tree that overlooked the house, I realized that what was happening in my house was wrong. My parents and brothers were all older and I didn’t know why they were unaware of how wrong things were. I ached because I had no one to talk to. There was no one that I felt safe enough with to share my feelings of sadness, confusion and shame. They were grown-ups and I was a kid. Who would believe me? For most of my life these feelings were imprinted on my brain. The feelings I carried around like a huge sack were that I am damaged, I am dirty, and I am less than. These were ingrained and scored onto me.
I was always haunted with the thought that I was not good enough, talented in any way, or deserving of opportunity. My mother and father would leave us for long periods of time, not knowing when one of them would be back. Even when they were both home, my parents were not interested in taking care of their children. By some grace a woman “visiting” from Barbados arrived at our house and the care of my brothers and me was left to her. Muriel was her name and she saved my life. She could not comprehend the shameful behavior, neglect and abuse I received from my mother, father, and brothers. Muriel could not protect me from the screaming and the beatings my mother doled out. But she would come to soothe after. She would be the “mother” that cared, loved, and was strong for me. She was the great force in my life. She gave me a glimmer of hope that I was lovable. I have since benefitted from other critical influences that gave me the ability to feel worthy, worthwhile, whole, and eventually repair myself from a tragic childhood.
At fourteen years old, after my freshman year of high school, I knew it was better for me to leave home. I went to live with another family and worked taking care of their children. After that summer, I went to a school where I lived with the Sisters of The Sacred Heart. I started school with two suitcases that contained all of my belongings and I felt like I could hardly hold on. I had, and still have, a number of learning disabilities, and when I was young, barely attended school or participated in outside activities. A counselor and one of my teachers knew I was in trouble. They took the time and effort to help build me up. This was a time when people did not talk about abuse, incest, or neglect but these women taught me that I had the power to make decisions in my life, good decisions. Three years later I graduated with awards for my indomitable spirit.
Resiliency of spirit is how I overcame a terrible childhood. Throughout my life I was taught by Muriel, counselors, and teachers to always give back because there is always someone that needs something or is hurting more than you. I was able to stop listening to the messages about my insignificance, lack of intelligence, and worthlessness that I was exposed to early on. My childhood feelings of unworthiness took a long time to leave, however, and to be honest, some days these feelings are still lurking.
My eight-year old self knew that no one should feel like I did. No kid should feel alone. I knew what pain and isolation feel like, and I began to understand what would make me feel better, what would help me feel understood, and that it was possible that one day I would feel safe again. As I grew and worked through these personal experiences, I began to put a name on the conviction that took root on that warm summer day sitting atop my backyard tree. That conviction was that I wanted a better life. Something in me knew life could be different. It was not easy, it was a long road, and there were setbacks along the way, but the daylight is warmer and the night time is shorter as I travel.
My life's purpose now is to use my own life experiences to help others understand their own value and power. There were many counselors along the way that led me to choose a healthy life. The counselors in today’s schools are far better equipped to help students address difficult mental health struggles than they were when I was a student, feeling alone and misunderstood, but there is always room for more resources. Glow media films are one such resource that can help reduce stigma, correct misconceptions, and reinforce the reality that mental health affects everyone.
I believe that to overcome tragedy and trauma, one must remember that life can change at any time towards the good. The power of resilience is the key. Ask for help if you need it. Reach out to people that are suffering, and even though you may not believe it, try to remember you are a gift.