June 1, 1990, Columbus, Ohio.
This was the day I was born, miraculously, to a drug-addicted mother who couldn’t take care of me. I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, diagnosed with bilateral cleft palates which made it hard for me to breathe, mild cerebral palsy, significant hearing impairment, and legal blindness. I came out tiny and nearly impossible to feed properly. Immediately, I was placed in the foster care system for a chance at a better life, though, my foster dad and siblings treated me like I was a disease that didn’t belong in their family.
Still, I had clothes on my back and food in my belly, and thankfully, I had a foster mom who raised me like her own daughter. She made me feel wanted. Although she was often sick, going in and out of the hospital, my foster mom ran like a well-oiled machine when she got well again. I remember that I would always help her clean the house and help her with the holiday decorations. She used to love to bake and cook, and would always let me help her by putting the ingredients in the bowl. She listened to my questions, my ideas, and my dreams. I adored her because she never made me feel like I was different.
I know what you’re thinking. “Well, at least she had her mom to count on.” Yes, there were lots of things I shared with my mom, but I harbored a dark secret.
My adopted sister, Tonya, was a young mother who brought her nine-year-old son John over to our house almost every day. One night when I was just seven, my door was wide open. While everyone was asleep, John crept into my bedroom, stripped off his clothes, got on top of me, and forced himself inside me. I tried to push him away and scream for help, but he shut me up by forcing me to perform oral sex on him. When he was finished, he whispered, “Don’t tell anyone, okay? This is our little secret.”
I was just a child. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I knew it was wrong.
In the years to come, nearly every day and night, John would assault me. I shudder when I think of the times he’d pull me into the bathroom late at night, force himself on me in my bedroom or behind the shed, wherever and whenever he wanted. Purple bruises littered my arms like sick tattoos from the punching game he liked to play. Still, I kept quiet. I was terrified I would get taken from my foster family and away from my mom if I told. The only person to ever find out what was happening was my adopted sister Tonya, John’s mother. She once caught him naked and on top of me, and just…walked out of the room, never saying a word about it.
In 2001, my foster parents sat me down and asked if I wanted to be adopted into the family. Young and desperate for acceptance, I said yes. They didn’t know what was still happening behind their backs, but I decided I wouldn’t risk ruining my chance at having a real family. They seemed so happy, insisting that I fit in so well, and it made me hopeful. Things would get better after getting adopted, I was sure. They couldn’t get much worse.
As life continued and my adopted mom got older, her health problems became more pressing and frequent. The hospital became her home away from home. The more she was admitted, the more we doubted her survival. Her health was hanging on by a thread.
One day when I was 15, I came home from school to find my adopted dad in his usual spot at the table, perusing the newspaper. He motioned me over to him. My first thought was, oh no, something’s wrong. “Is Mom okay?” I asked him, and he nodded impatiently and motioned me closer. When I got close enough, he grabbed my hand and placed it on his genitals. I froze in shock. This can’t be happening to me. Not again. Why me? Why was I the chosen one? Several times after that, he would force me to sit on his lap so he could put his hand down my pants. And just like before, I was told that this was “our little secret.”
At this point, I just accepted that I would always live my life behind a dozen secrets.
The abuse had cracked my heart, but later that same year my soul shattered. My mom passed away, taking with her the only love I’d had. The only ear that listened. So, I stopped talking, stopped socializing at school. I shut down. I held tight to the secrets I would never be able to share. Not only was I a partially blind and deaf girl with cerebral palsy and a broken past, but now, I was also alone.
After her death, I went to live with my adopted sister Donna to get away from my dad. I was safer with my sister, but by this point, I was so broken that I couldn’t live happily. After graduating high school, I thought about getting my own place, but my sister convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to function alone. After years of being forced to do things you don’t want to, you eventually go on auto pilot.
I continued to live in a haze until 2010, when I went to The Ohio State University. Being on campus, learning more about the outside world, I realized that I could come clean about what had happened to me in my childhood. I was no longer ashamed, instead, I wanted to solve my problems. Maybe if I told my adoptive family the truth, they’d understand why I was so quiet, and would help me. Maybe they’d show me love if they knew my pain inside.
And so, in 2012, after two years of gathering courage, I broke my silence. Though, it did not go as I’d hoped. They didn’t understand me better. Hell, they didn’t even believe me. When I told them that John had abused me for years, and that my foster sister Tonya knew, they called me a liar. They insisted that Tonya would have told everyone. Unfortunately, Tonya couldn’t attest to this because she had died of breast cancer earlier that year.
It only got worse when I told them about our dad and that I wanted to report the assaults to the police. They were convinced that I was making it all up. Donna screamed at me saying, “What are you trying to do, ruin our family, get my kids sent away?! Why can’t you just leave it and move on with your life?!”
Needless to say, they blindly took my adoptive dad and nephew’s side. They wouldn’t let me go to counseling and “indict our dad” so I couldn’t do anything to recover. I couldn’t go to the cops or else I wouldn’t have a place to live. To stay with them was to stay imprisoned while my nephew and father lived normal lives despite what they did to me. Even while I remained quiet, I’d get dirty looks and blank stares from my family. There was no other option, I knew I had to start saving to get out.
In 2014, I learned that because of my disabilities, I could be given proper help to get out on my own. Through a service coordinator given to me by the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, I was directed to Upreach, an agency that offers supportive living for people with developmental disabilities. Through them, I was given assistance with getting necessities and aid in finding a job.
The people at Upreach accepted me with loving arms and gave me support I’d never known before. They didn’t judge me for what I’d been through. In fact, because of them, I finally got the counseling I desperately needed to heal.
It was a long process full of tears and breakdowns, but as I opened up to my counselor, a sense of trust formed. Counseling opened new doors with answers of what had happened to me. Some were hard to swallow, but they had to be faced. I realized that I didn’t have the capability to understand what happened to me, and my adoptive family had taken advantage of that. Moving forward with this knowledge, I decided to let my shame and disappointment fall to the wayside, it no longer belonged with me or my future. I decided to start fresh.
Letting it all go and being validated didn’t get rid of the pain, but it did alleviate some of it. Now, for the first time in my life, I have the power to stand up for myself and make something of myself. I may have been a victim most of my life, but not anymore. My yesterdays were full of misery and fear that I did nothing to deserve. I realize that now. And today, I am a survivor.