Most experts agree that a child’s most important years for development are the first eight years of a child’s life. Thank God that I was bathed in love during that time in my life, or I may have chosen a much different path than the one I am on now. I was loved, so I know love. And it was forgiveness, my ability to remember how to love, that eventually saved me. Click To Tweet
As a child, I was raised by my paternal grandparents and family. I was spanked when I broke the rules, but I was loved beyond measure, and I wanted for nothing. My grandfather taught me that God was everywhere; in the church, but also in nature, in people, and in places we least expect. I was encouraged to explore everything, and I enjoyed countless escapades with my fearless cousin at my side. I did not worry about the consequences of rolling downhill while tucked into a tractor tire, or following a pack of friendly stray dogs three miles away from home (that’s a whole different story). My favorite memories are the Jeep rides with my grandfather; he would pick a song, and we would joyfully sing it at the top of our lungs until we arrived at our destination. As far as I was concerned, life was perfect.
Then my father sued my grandparents for custody, won, flew me to Colorado to be with him and his new family, and my happy life turned into a barrage of unanswered questions. My new life was anything but perfect, as I was forced to learn new thought processes. I was nine.
In Colorado, I learned the word confusion.
My stepmother claimed that Catholics were evil, and God did not love me. The Pentecostal church was the only true religion. I was spanked for questioning any rule or not “understanding directions.” At school, I was kicked out of choir because my voice was not what the choir teacher desired. I was beaten by classmates for my obvious difference; having too light skin, too many freckles, or looking at someone with my “bitch blue eyes.” (My stepmother spanked me for asking what that meant.) The only correspondence I had with my family back in Massachusetts were letters, and I could only send what my stepmother approved. My mind was a dizzy world. Did God not love me because I was a Catholic, or did God not love me because I was no longer Catholic? Why were freckles or eye color bad, and how did black eyes or bloody lips change that? And seriously, how the hell does a 9-year-old get kicked out of a volunteer public school choir—just how bad did I sound? I was a falling star-shaped kid trying to fit into a square box; the world kept spinning, and I spun right along with it, off my own axis and in an unhealthy orbit.
TEXAS–Yet another set of rules…
Nine months after my introduction into insanity, we moved to Texas so my stepmother could be close to her family. If you think it made her nicer, you would be mistaken. If anything, she became meaner. Spankings changed to slaps across the face, sometimes in front of neighbors. My clothes never fit correctly; they were either too big or too small. When I made friends at church, we left because my stepmother declared me “possessed.” If people liked me, there was something evil inside them, as well.
If Colorado was my place for learning confusion, Texas was my place for learning hatred. I attended a school of only white people, which did not help me in any way because I was still different. My fifth grade year was filled with “gang” beatings, which was really several older girls attacking me. Their cruelty was creative and thorough. One time they threw me in a locker and locked it, and I was not found until later at night when the janitors heard me kicking the door. Another time several girls held me down and cut my hair off in huge uneven chunks. Both times, I was punished at home (the first one for wetting my pants, and the second for not asking permission to change my hair). There was nowhere to hide. There was nowhere to run. There was no one to help me.
Refuse to be a victim
And as you can imagine, something inside me broke as I entered middle school. I refused to be a victim, and I became a villain of sorts. I suppose it was inevitable, simply for survival’s sake. I became a little wild. I looked for bullies, and I attacked them. I defended the weak or different, since it did not appear that others would. I hung around drug dealers and other unsavory people, because they did not criticize me, and they accepted me even though I did not use drugs, drink alcohol, or inhale tobacco. As far as I was concerned, I would be grateful for whatever kindness I could find.
Help from unexpected sources
Before I could enter another world and become someone worse than my tormentors, several things happened. A girl named Julie moved into my neighborhood. Her parents were friends with other parents of my schoolmates, so she was not abused; however, she was still an outsider. We quickly became friends, even though she was two years older than me. Also, a new basketball coach moved in, and he declared two things to me: 1) he did not like smart aleck or disrespectful people; and 2) I needed to play for him as long as I could remember that. Coach and Julie were significant to me for several reasons, but one singular fact forever cemented my love for them. Neither of them were afraid of my stepmother. She had no power over them, and therefore she could not stop them from helping me. My life changed again.
The simplistic beauty of sports.
There was always a clear goal, the rules stayed the same, and there were officials to make sure everyone obeyed the rules. Penalties were consistent, as well. Five fouls in a basketball game, and you participated from the “pine” bench. Try to “jump the gun” in a race, and you were not allowed to run. Simple. I was also a good athlete, which helped immensely. In this world, I found my axis and a friendly orbit. Also, unbeknownst to me, local sportswriters liked me; if I competed that week, I was in the paper. When I went around selling greeting cards to earn money for my shoes, people simply wrote a check for the shoes to help me, telling me to “save the money for food or something else” I might need. I had no idea they knew who I was, but I was grateful for the kindness.
High school – ugh, right?
When I entered high school, my father and stepmother divorced, and I was homeless for several months. Again, sports kept me spinning in a clear direction. I slept on several couches. I will keep this part short: I survived. I was allowed to return to Massachusetts for a summer, but my dad threatened to take them to court again if I breathed a word of any of the events transpiring in my life. I did not want to break my grandfather’s heart in any way, so it was a nonissue. My basketball coach signed guardianship papers for me, and the rest, as they say, is history. I went to college on a scholarship, went into coaching and teaching, and my life has been registered as a success.
I have one physical scar from that life: a small patch of discolored and raised skin on the inside of my bicep. People cannot see it unless they are up close and my arm is extended, and the cigarette burn looks almost like a freckle or a mole if they do not know what it is. The problem is that I know what it is. And that nagging scar itches every now and then on the inside of my arm. It whispers nasty memories that refuse to go away. You are worthless. You do not deserve to be treated with kindness. You do not deserve love. You will never be accepted.
Learning to forgive
Overcoming adversity was a breeze compared to forgiving the people who harmed me. And it was not just my stepmother or the bullies who I had to forgive. As an adult, I told myself to move on, to “get over” the injustices that I had endured. I forced myself to forgive the woman who wronged me. As an educated adult, I had to let myself grieve over what I had lost, and I had to learn how to allow myself to feel love. When I realized I needed to accept love for myself, it became easier to forgive my stepmother. It also became easier to forgive myself.
The Most Precious Lessons:
There are a billion other things I have learned, but these are my most precious lessons:
1. Not everyone is the same, and we are not all on the same path. No one’s path is better. We do not have the right—no one is entitled–to hurt someone for amusement or personal gain. There are those that may do this in the name of religion or in the name of their country, but this is hatred.
2. I will not judge myself by society’s standards. Think about the fashion industry and its steady lies. We are told that if we do not look like supermodels, if we do not look good in supermodel clothes, or if we are not the “right size,” we are ugly, and it is our fault. We should feel ashamed if we have big breasts, flat chests, broad shoulders, or small hands. This is a lie. We are all beautiful. Great clothes may enhance our gifts, but they do not make us who we are. We should feel ashamed if we have big breasts, flat chests, broad shoulders, or small hands. This is a lie. We are all beautiful. Click To Tweet
3. I am responsible for my thoughts and my actions. I am not responsible for the thoughts or actions of others. Several years after I had graduated from college, I ran into my stepmother. She claimed she could fit into a pair of jeans that I had worn in middle school. She was extremely proud (I would be, too, if I could fit into them now). I realize it must have been hard to raise someone else’s child. She clearly felt competitive with me. I can only imagine her emotions as neighbors saw her in the grocery store and commented on my “fame” from the latest article. However, that was not my fault, and I take no responsibility for her thoughts or actions.
4. There are still strong triggers inside me, and it is up to me to realize this. When my feelings are hurt, I have to decide if this is an echo or reality, and I have the choice of how I react. The more I practice mental awareness, the more I realize ghosts are still present in my head, and the easier it becomes to forgive and move forward.
5. While time heals all wounds, time is relative. My mind and body transformed over several years to protect me, and some defenses remain. My eyes are now green or gray; they are most definitely NOT blue. When I sing, I rarely allow my voice to dwell in the shadows of other voices. Even in my car, I lip sync at the top of my lungs in complete silence.
6. God is everywhere, and so is help. I just need to be aware of my surroundings and blessings to see Him. (For you, “God” may be another entity. That is still wonderful, as it means you have faith.) If I ask and pay attention, there is always help. It may come from the most unlikely of sources, but that only makes it more precious.
7. Scars do not always heal how we expect them to. My stepmother tortured me for 6 ½ years, but she did not destroy me. The love I received from my early childhood, the generosity of others as I moved through high school and into adulthood, and the acceptance my adopted guardians have given me over the years sustained me. The part of me that I learned to hide—the part of me that is innocent and loving and good and kind—is still here, and is a huge part of my life. Before his death, my father told me he loved my laugh. “I can still hear joy and love in your laughter, and it tells me that you’re all right. You are all right, kiddo, and I thank God for that.”
Life is GOOD
I am better than all right. My scar reminds me of my capacity for love, and it also reminds me of the strength that enables me to share my love.
While I may not be perfect, I believe that I am the best “me” possible. I would not be the person I am today had I not learned of other worlds that exist in this one.Do not feel sorry for me. I do not share this story for your sympathy; I share my story so you know that I understand betrayal, pain, anger, and love. Click To Tweet
I had been forced to find my own world, and I had to find my own sense of balance in my very own orbit. I am no longer a star forced to fit into a square box.
I am a pretty cupcake star in a beautiful sky, and I am not alone.
So hey, cupcake, do what you gotta do to remember how to love.
Forgive, and come shine with me.