C h a p t e r  O n e

A BAD BEGINNING

I curled up in a ball on my bathtub floor and let the shower of hot water beat down on my summer skin. I went in there to escape the questions in my daughter’s eyes. I didn’t want them to see me break down. I wasn’t fooling anyone. All three of them were crowded around the other side of the bathroom door calling in to me, asking me if I was okay.

No. Mommy is not okay.

I turned off the water and stepped out onto the bathmat.

I was not alone in my hell. People all over the country were bleeding tears along with me. I was not alone, but I was the one who held the blame. I was a Christian for nine years and never did anything like this before. I didn’t think I ever would. I had strong feelings and biting words for people who do what I did and there I sat, being who I hate and still being me, whom I loved. Two separate identities in one small body.

My fall happened quickly. In April of 2005 I was happy, looking forward to an acting career and experiencing intense spiritual growth. By the second week of May I was sleeping with my friend’s husband and three weeks later she knew about it. Three weeks is barely a moment and I did more damage to more innocent people than I ever thought I possibly could.

At night, I like to sit outside and listen to the quiet. I reflect and dream. On that summer evening in August, I went outside and sat staring at my skinny bare legs and painted toes. I let myself be swallowed up by the night. My past was a blur and didn’t feel real, my present was a screaming siren of war and my hope was swallowed in the darkness. I wondered, on that night, if hell was just separation from God. I think that most of my conscious awareness was still curled up on the floor of my bathtub and there was little left to deal with the physical reality.

I guess, before I tell you what happened and what I learned, I should tell you where I came from…

I saw myself as an old doll that lost its shine. I’ve always had an old spirit and I don’t remember owning innocence in its purest form. I think it is common for children of abuse to not remember simple childlike innocence.

I am an extremely flawed human being. I have a lot of scars. Many of them were from damage where I was the victim and I have some deep scars where I was not. There is something to be said of wearing the scars of the victim. You always have a team behind you.

I’ve seen humanity at some painfully low points. My mother was a mentally ill fifteen year old runaway when she gave birth to me. She was beautiful and her simple mind made her an easy target for the evil that insecure men were capable of. She was easily controlled at home, but when she went out nobody could control the way other men looked at her. I remember sitting in between her and her boyfriend in the car and the driver of the car next to us smiled over at her. Her boyfriend busted her lip open with his fist and screamed, “Do you want her now?”

When my mom talked to me, her voice was soft and her eyes saw me all the way to the other side. She had a crooked smile that curved up to the left. Her laugh was the kind that bubbled up and spilled onto me and it made me laugh, too. Sometimes we would laugh at laughing. I remember her lap and how there was always a spot for me and I remember the tops of her arms and how I could bury my face in them and smell her. Sometimes she would put me on her hip and hold my hand straight out in front of us and we would dance. She would sing and whoop and bubbles of her laugh would fill the living room. I thought the music was singing for her. I thought she was where the sunshine came from.

It wasn’t long before everyone knew that the best way to control my mom was to hurt me. My arm has been the ashtray for a cigarette. I have been dangled over a balcony by my ankle and have sat for what felt like hours with a gun held to my temple. I have heard the heavy breath of a child molester in the dark. There were times where I was beaten and tortured in a drunken rage by my mom’s boyfriend. My mother with mascara on her face, a black eye and bloody lip would lie next to my broken body on the floor and plead to me with her eyes, ‘Just live through this for me.’

We moved around a lot, sometimes in a trailer park, sometimes in a battered women’s shelter. Sometimes we lived in our car.

I was about five or six years old when I was placed in foster care. I spent tortured nights worrying about my mother. There are things she didn’t know or understand and she needed me to explain them to her. Years went by and I waited for her to get to a place where she could take care of me. I clung to letters promising that it wouldn’t be much longer and that we could be together soon. Three years and eleven foster homes later, we met at the courthouse and I thought that I would finally be able to go home, but instead I found out that she put me up for adoption.

I was adopted, shortly after, by a family in the Midwest. Every aspect of their lives was completely different than anything I ever knew. They had a painfully old fashioned and traditional way of raising children and I found myself plunged, head first, into the private fishin’ pond of old fashioned religion. All of my clothes were sorted into piles of ‘Acceptable Christian Wear’ and ‘Unacceptable Non- Christian Wear.’ I learned quickly and tearfully what the phrase ‘against our religion’ meant. All of the things that made me who I was and linked me to people that I loved and lost on my journey was thrown out like attic garbage and driven out to the farm dump. All connections to the world beyond their eighty acres filled with cows, a couple of horses and some alfalfa were severed. I ended up feeling un-Christian, un-clean and angry. The list of things ‘against our religion’ was longer than I care to take the time to write, but I’ll name a few to give you an idea. I couldn’t wear shorts, tanks, earrings, fingernail polish, listen to anything but bluegrass gospel or watch current television. I didn’t understand why they thought those things were wrong and the whole thing made me feel like a bad kid when I sized myself up against the list.

When I got a few years older and hit the rebellious adolescent stage, I didn’t have legs to stand on. People behave according to what they believe about themselves. I was told for years that all the things I loved and felt were good expressions of me were bad. Therefore, I believed I was bad. There was no use in trying to be good. All hopes for me were shattered before I was even known. There was no standard of an old self to live up to, no belief that I was anything other than what I wasn’t supposed to be. If I was getting in trouble for humming a secular pop song I heard at school or getting grilled for jumping around on my front porch because it ‘looked an awful lot like dancin’ then I give up. And that’s what I did, I gave up.

The summer before my senior year in high school I decided to move out on my own. It was a month before I turned eighteen and I was in a place where there was nothing I could do to redeem myself. I moved in with an older friend from work. She lived with her boyfriend whom I immediately discovered was an abusive drunk. I watched him drag her across the floor by her hair and put his hands around her neck to choke the screams out of her. I sat in a corner with my knees pulled to my chin wondering how in the world I got there.

I got a job as a waitress in a diner and enrolled myself in school to finish out my senior year. The quarters I earned didn’t go far and my own stamina was hanging by a string that was ready to snap at any moment.

You would think that the snap would come from a comment one of my teachers made on my first day of school. I was in my English class and since that was my favorite subject I planned on him being my favorite teacher. The class introduced themselves by a short interview process lead by the other students. When the teacher found out that I was living on my own he said, ‘You won’t last long.’ and skipped over the rest of my interview.  I wanted to prove him wrong. I wanted one of those movie moments where the student overcomes all obstacles and finishes at the top with big cheers from everybody. However, in those movies, the main character usually has at least one person who believes in them. My teacher missed his opportunity with me.

One night my boyfriend of almost a year broke up with me. He was the last piece of anything good in my life and I was shattered. My friend took me out to the liquor store and bought me a six dollar bottle of champagne. I drank the entire contents by myself. My ninety-five pound frame was not used to such an overload of intoxication but I was still conscious and didn’t want to be. I went to find some weed. That mixed with a bottle of cheap champagne would be the oblivion that I was after. In my hazy inebriation I was the perfect date for a rapist who came in the form of my friends’ abusive boyfriend. Fear kept me from telling her and she was the only one close to me at that point, so I held my secret within as it ate away at my self-worth. Something terrible happened to me and I didn’t have anyone to tell. This, if you haven’t guessed by now, is the point where the string, my lifeline to hope, snapped.

I dropped out of high school and got a crappy studio apartment. I made the local homeless crowd my friends and I got a new boyfriend whom, of course, was a drug dealer. I remember driving down the road and thinking about my life. The thing that bothered me the most was that I had so much of it left.

I decided to go visit one of my old foster mothers. She was one of my favorites. My life is full of things I try to forget, but she is a memory I’ve always held on to. I liked who I was when I was her daughter and I wanted to go back and reconnect. I gathered up a head full of memories on my three hour drive to her house. When I got there the memories weren’t as clear for her. She fostered several other children since me and the stories started running together. This woman was so special to me, but I was just another little foster girl to her.

She did have an interesting memory for me, though. It is something that I’ve revisited over and over since. She asked me if I remembered telling her about the church van that would stop by my trailer park when I lived with my mom. I did remember. I was about five years old and deep in the darkest part of my life. I would get locked in a scorching bedroom with a box of cereal to feed me through the day, or locked outside to fend for myself all day. If you can picture me, I was a tiny, malnourished little thing with blue eyes and blonde hair. My clothes hung off of my bony shoulders and my head was full of lice. Every once in a while the church van would come through and about half the time I jumped on and went to Sunday school. My former foster mother asked me if I remembered what I told her about when we would sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’. The hair stood up on the back of my neck because I did remember. The feeling, when I sang that song, was so intense. The only way I, as a little girl, could describe the sensation is ‘it felt like I was sitting on Jesus’ lap.’

A few months after I visited my old foster mom, I found my biological mother and I got on a Greyhound bus and took off to Georgia to meet her. She lived in a little shack in a swampy area. It was the sort of house that you drive by and wonder if people actually live there and then you thank God that you don’t.

She was married to an old biker and the first time I saw her I didn’t quite know how to process what I was seeing. She wore her blonde hair long and frizzy.  A black Harley Davidson tank top revealed her tan shoulders and her Levis were tucked into homemade black leather moccasins. She didn’t wear any makeup and every finger on both hands wore at least one ring. She’s a self-proclaimed gypsy.

I shuffled behind her listening to the soft padding sound that her moccasins made on the tiled depot floor. From the moment she and I got in the car until the moment I left to go home she got me high and fed me Pepsi and ‘nerve pills’. I don’t remember most of the trip but, to an eighteen year old, having your mom buy your cigarettes for a week was pretty cool.

When I would ask her to tell me some of her memories about our lives together she would say that there were a lot of drugs and a lot of time since then. Then she would convert into a little girl voice and act like she was talking to a little girl. Then she would come back, get nervous and overwhelmed, start to cry and tell me that the memories are too hard.

When I got home I felt more detached and isolated than ever. I always kept a little fantasy about who my mom became and how she was probably a smart business woman and made a decent life for herself. The actuality was that she was the same and her reality existed in places where I never wanted to return.

In August 1995 I found out that I was pregnant. This was the first time I realized I was alive. For the most part, my life left no mark, but being responsible for bringing a new life into the world changed my entire awareness. That realization was promptly joined by panic and a deep sadness. I imagined all of the pregnant women out there and how they were preparing nurseries and diapers and washing brand new little clothes and folding them away into armoires that smelled like baby powder. Family members were hugging bulging bellies and soon to be daddies were reading stories to belly buttons. My baby didn’t know that she had no future with a mother like me. I felt her grow and kick inside me and my heart sunk because she was full of hope and, to her, there was no telling what kind of wonderful awaited her. I knew the truth and my heart broke with every kick.  What made things worse is that I now had more in common with my mother than I did before. I was an unmarried, homeless high school dropout getting ready to raise a baby on nothing.

I worked as a cashier in a grocery store and one day a woman came through my line and asked me how far along I was. I was so tiny, normally, that most people didn’t know that I was pregnant. Her question shocked me out of my robotic and monotonous scanning. She told me that I was so lucky because children are a gift from God.

If that’s true, then why in the world would God give me, a worthless teenager, a gift, much less the gift of a child? The possible answers revealed so many implications. My head spun for days going over them. If all children were gifts, then there are no accidents, only specific purpose. What of my own stupidity and irresponsibility being the cause of the pregnancy? What does that say about the child? Did God want this child here and so used my decisions and failures to bring her here? Or, are there a lot of unintentional people out there who were not part of God’s original plan? What do you say to these overwhelming numbers of accidents and how do you know who was supposed to be here and who wasn’t? How do you fairly measure the worth and purpose of a life? Nothing else made sense, so I believed that children were not accidents. They are a gift from God. The biggest implication of all was that God must have seen something in me that nobody else did.

It was strange because I never gave God much of a thought before. I never wanted to live like my adopted parents. It was a stifled and caged-in feeling to me. But, the whole business of God singling me out and giving me this gift that danced in my belly had my attention. This God, whom I never considered, apparently believed in me, and He believed in me right then and there. That kind of unsolicited and unassuming love was a bit overwhelming. I found a sense of worth and hope. I felt like this big guy had my back and I didn’t have to worry about it. That was my moment of coming alive, my moment of salvation. Love saved me. Without question, I was transformed by Love.