I was born in Pontiac, Michigan, but grew up primarily in Detroit where I spent my earliest and happiest days with my Grandma Lois. She was blind and suffered from severe arthritis, which caused her hands to curl inward. She would sit in her rocking chair while I sat in mine and she would tell me stories, lots of them about animals. I didn’t understand what her “Indian stories” meant, but they always made me smile and I always look back on those times very fondly. I remember the neighbors would come over to help arrange things in the house and nuns with whom I would spend time would visit as well. I ate way too much sugar back then. Between the orange slices from the guy with the candy cart and the mounds of sugar I would add to my cheerios, I know it was entirely too much for me. I also remember drawing pictures on the walls and playing with the little boy who lived down the street. These are my happiest memories.
After my adoptive father passed away, all of these pleasant memories fall away to a dark and shadowy time in my life.
At about five years old, my birth father came to take me to live with him and my stepmother. It was then that the abuse cycle started and what followed included every abuse imaginable. The girls I joined the house, my step-sisters, teased me relentlessly. I can still remember them telling me how ugly I was, and them putting their butts in my face. I was sent to the hospital for stitches so many times, I became desensitized. When I wasn’t sent to the hospital, I still endured smaller yet still painful indignities, like cigarette burns.
Then, there was my father. He was gone a lot, and even I knew he was on drugs. But, I didn’t know which was better: Him being at the house, or him being away. When he was away, the girls would abuse me emotionally and physically. When he was there, he would force me to perform oral sex on him in quiet places around the house.
The most memorable thing he did was sitting me on a stool and after some long talk, play a song for me, “Only The Strong Survive.” He later became my savior and the last person in my family I saw until after the adoption. He came home one day and saw how severely I had been burned all over my body from a scalding shower I had been forced to take. The skin that should have covered my left knee hung below where it should have and fresh skin was showing in places on my head from where I had fallen after slipping out of the tub. I remember it felt like days I was suffering in this state. They had put some bandages on some areas of my body. I remember riding in the car and being in the hospital long enough to think it was perhaps my new home. Then, I remember the social worker dropping me off at the house on Hartwell in Detroit. I asked her when she was coming back to pick me up again, and in some ways, I wish she had.
Fast forward to a few years later. The pattern of abuse was still fully present. All of the abuses. I left home at sixteen years old, knowing I would commit suicide otherwise. I’ve attempted it many times since then.
As for my birth parents, I never met my mother, and I never saw my father after the day he took me to the hospital. My case was moved from Oakland County to Wayne County, which I assume was because of the level of abuse. I remember knowing from the way everyone around me spoke about my mother that her permission was required whenever we went on vacation. To my knowledge, she always gave it because we always went.
My grandma Lois found transportation to come and see me a few times after my adoption too before her family moved her back to Texas.
I also know my birth father died at the age of thirty-three. According to the death certificate my co-worker found, he died from a drug overdose. My co-worker took on the task of finding my family as an ongoing genealogy project but she has yet to find anything on my mother. I guess she’s just too good at hiding.
When I was adopted in 1972, I feel like it wasn’t from a place of love but rather of pity. I just wanted a family that loved me the way my Grandma Lois did.
As an adult, I can see that my “good behavior” and proclivity for alone coming from my childhood. When I went on adoption interviews I did all that I possibly could to present myself as a well-behaved child so they might want to adopt me. I was always the kid at home that did the right thing. To this day, I watch people in my life do bad or destructive things and all I can do is watch. My experiences gave me a tremendous ability to eliminate people from my life, emotionally and mentally. It’s strange, but even now I can deal with someone that I’ve known for years as though I’m speaking with a stranger. I can be genuinely cordial and converse just as though I’m dealing with a customer. It’s a coping mechanism resulting from my trauma but it has certainly served me well at the very least.
Other things I remember from my first few years of adopted life include the fact that my family was undereducated, and would tease me for speaking too little or for using proper English when I did. They also maintained the mentality that if a child misbehaved by say, forgetting their chores, they deserved a “whooping.” Using belts, switches, or extension cords, they would whoop me until I cried, or at least until I pretended to cry, because they would only stop when I did.
But, today I’m proud of being a survivor, and of being victorious in my struggle. I even let my adopted mother know I forgave her before she died. I even spoke on behalf of her children at her funeral. I’m proud of my behavior in doing those things.
I’m proud of having raised my daughters to be strong, intelligent women with love in their lives and hearts. I surrounded them with activities, time, and attention. I made sure no one hurt them and that their days would be flooded with joy. I’ve learned how to love ME. And I’ve learned that it’s okay to make myself a priority and pursue my dreams selfishly.
All those things tell me that I am in fact living in victory.
I have since designed a nonprofit that provides a roadmap to victorious living to foster and at-risk children. My goal is to have it ready for relaunch by the end of this year.
I hope to eventually become a traveling speaker and advocate for foster, adopted, and at-risk children through Positive FACE, my nonprofit, so that people will see the good work being done. Within ten years, I want to be a strong voice in getting legislation passed that will strengthen protection for children and support initiatives that promote learning sustainable skills for a successful adulthood.
My barriers are money and energy. It’s a hard thing to stand alone, and even harder to get the right people on board. I have support, but only surface-level support. Many people believe in my vision, but not as many are willing to sacrifice to see it through to fruition.
I’m glad I get to share my story with you now because children need to know that life will not always be as bad as it might seem in the moment. They need to believe that they have a right to joy, success, and love. Additionally, I want to share my story because there needs to be a public dialogue around the gaps within the foster care and adoption systems. Neither of these should be a nightmare for a child. I hope I have encouraged some of you to open your homes and hearts to children in need: Forever homes.
People need to understand that just because a child has lived through trauma, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. They simply need to be loved through their pain.