When I was a little girl, my mother took me to a neighbor and asked her to babysit while she went shopping. Hours later when she didn’t return, the neighbor, who had five children of her own and was none too happy about having a sixth kid to feed, started calling around in an attempt to find my mother. No one had heard from her or knew where she was. Social services got involved, my grandmother was located, and the next thing I knew I was living in a filthy, dilapidated, 500-square-foot shack with my alcoholic and drug-addicted grandmother and my mentally unstable grandfather.
Unbeknownst to anyone, my mother had moved out of state. She never returned. I spent most of the first 16 years of my life in that shack. I was beaten for any reason and sometimes for no reason at all. I was disciplined with a skillet of hot oil when I was four years old for “talking too much.” For a time we were homeless as a result of a fire that made the little shack uninhabitable. I could go on for hours, but I’ve told you this much of my story to make my one key point – that I am living proof that it’s possible to succeed in life, not just despite what you’ve been through, but specifically because of it.
The sense of abandonment I experienced every time I thought that my mother or father was going to show up and didn’t, typically on birthdays and Christmas, was emotionally devastating, but eventually it developed in me a sense of self-reliance. I learned (the hard way) that no one was going to show up to rescue me from my abusers. That no one was going to show up with food when we had none. That no one was going to magically reach into my life and “fix” everything. Consequently, when I started my first job at the age of 13, I knew that no one was going to do the work for me. I didn’t expect anyone to help me. If I didn’t know what to do or how to do something, I would ask for instruction or find a book or other resource to help me. When I emancipated at age 16, I didn’t expect anyone to “save” me. When I started my first business at age 27, I knew that success (or failure) was up to me. In short, abandonment taught me self-reliance, which has served me well.
The verbal and physical abuse that I experienced throughout my childhood did significant damage to my self-esteem; however, it taught me invaluable lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom. I learned how to read the slightest micro expressions in the faces of my abusers. I learned when to leave, when to hide, when to stick my face in a book (it didn’t take long for me to figure out that if I was reading, I was usually left alone), and when to try to redirect the conversation to something or someone else that the abusers could turn their anger toward. In short, I learned how to quickly shift from passive fear to active coping.
The ability to read facial expressions, body language, and other clues, and the intuition to respond appropriately has served me well on the occasions when I was in emergency situations, including the time when I was sitting on the bench seat of our car at nine years of age next to my grandfather as he had a heart attack while driving full speed on the freeway. I got the car pulled over and turned off, and I placed the nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue while my grandmother screamed hysterically and wrung her hands. It has also been an invaluable in dealing with customers and negotiating with the companies with which I worked.
The abuse also developed in me the characteristic of courage. When my 6′ 2″ grandfather turned his aggression toward my much smaller grandmother, I would jump in front of her to shield her. I learned through it all that I always came through, which means that I was resilient. Courage and resilience served me well through the myriad trials I faced both personally and professionally. As a result of abuse, I have a keenly-developed “justice meter.” I can sense when people around me are being mistreated, and I typically feel compelled to intervene. It’s this kind of “justice meter” that makes successful survivors of childhood abuse gravitate toward careers that involve justice, including police officers, firefighters, parole and probation officers, attorneys, and judges.
Poverty taught me to be resourceful. When something breaks and you don’t have the money to replace it, you figure out how to repair it. When your only pair of pants rips, you learn how to sew. Poverty also taught me to appreciate every good thing I now have, and it developed in me sensitivity for those who have less than I do.
Being homeless as a result of an uninsured fire led eventually to a sincere appreciation for appropriate insurance coverage. That appreciation, combined with the heartfelt desire to protect and defend the good people and organizations that care for kids and families, resulted in a 40 year career in insurance and multiple millions of dollars saved for child caring organizations.
There are many more examples of mining the lessons out of my pain and applying them as stepping stones to my success. The bottom line is that I have been blessed to go from abandonment, abuse, dysfunction, chaos, and poverty to excellent relationships with quality people, peace, joy, good health, and financial prosperity. I did so, not because I was “lucky,” not because I was at the right place at the right time or knew the right people, not because I married a wealthy man or bought a winning lottery ticket. I have enjoyed personal and professional success specifically because of the the grace of God to help me discover and leverage the character traits, learned abilities, and coping mechanisms that were developed in me as I lived through painful circumstances.
From today until the day I leave this life, I want to help other survivors of painful circumstances to mine the lessons out of all they’ve been through to find and fulfill the purpose for which they were born and have been perfectly matched.