This past June, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser benefiting an amazing organization in Montana that provided services for abused, neglected and at risk children, in the FlatHead Valley. This was the very first time I had ever told me story to a large crowd of people. These were not just regular people. These were very, very successful, wealthy people.
As I began to write the speech below, my insides began to get all tied up with emotions. I started going through the small amount of childhood photos I possess and called my mother to help with me with some timeline recall. As the day got closer, I wanted to back out so badly. I pushed through all the negative and embarrassing feelings to give the speech regardless.
This photo above gave me a gut punch of horrid memories……………………………
“Why does one child move through childhood abuse and flourish, while another is unable to break the cycle of abuse?
The Center for Youth Wellness states, high doses of adversity not only affect the child’s brain structure and function, developing immune systems, developing hormonal systems, but can also affect the way DNA is read and transcribed.
Imagine you’re walking in Glacier National Forest and you see a bear. (BAM!) Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says” Hey, release stress hormones!” Adrenaline! Cortisol! These hormones cause your heart to start to pound, your pulse increases, your pupils dilate and in seconds, your mind and physical body are ready to either fight off the bear or run from the bear. If you are lucky enough to be with Jungle Jack Hanna, let him do the talking.
In all seriousness, those instant fight or flight reactions are wonderful if you’re in front of a bear. What happens though, if we are talking about a child and the bear comes home every day in the form of abuse, neglect, or trauma?
Their brains react the exact same way. When this response system is activated over and over, and over again, it goes from being adaptive or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health damaging. Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are still developing.
What is the extent of damage on a child’s brain who lives through years of repeated trauma?
There are so many factors and variables. The bottom line is Children are unable to resolve their trauma. It is a complex and complicated task even most adults struggle to handle. Repeated trauma, affects the pleasure, reward center of the brain and literally changes the physiology of a child.
What is the likelihood you know an abused child?
* The CDC estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
*93% of the time the child knows their abuser, and it is usually a family member or close friend.
Think of 4 young girls that you know. They may be friends of your children or grandchildren, on a school soccer team. Can you think of 6 boys in your extended family, or local school football team?
This beautiful state of Montana, is no exception to these statistics. In 2016 Montana had 17,311 total referrals for child abuse and neglect, which coincides with the rise in meth use. This has caused an overflow in the current foster care system which among other things, limits the counseling services needed for proper healing and recovery. Which is the reason I was asked to speak to you today.
It took a lifetime of adversity to get to where I am today, a happy and purposeful adult. What most people do not know about me is that I am a “one in four”. The terror, that was my childhood, began when I was 7 years old. On the evening after my 2nd brother was born, as my mom and new brother were in the hospital, my father woke me from my top bunk, carried me into my parent’s room, laid me on their bed, and did unspeakable things to me. That first introduction into child abuse was just one of the scariest encounters I had with my father. My young mind did the saving for me that day. My mind basically did a self, shut-down and I became detached from what was happening to me.
After my parents divorced, when I was 8, the abuse became a nightly ritual, unless my father was at sea with the Navy. This also became a punishment for everyday child behavior or slight infraction, like leaving a toy on the floor. This abuse continued for 5 years, until I was brave enough to run away at age 13. This is a brief recount of my experience.
It was the summer before I turned 9 and I still remember how excited I was. It was a sunny afternoon, as usual in southern California. By this time, I was well versed in caring for my younger siblings. I had recently gained two new step-siblings. While my father was at sea, and my step-mother was out shopping, I was left at home to care for my brothers. Sitting on the floor, with my 2-month-old brother cradled in my crossed legs, my two new brothers sat on either side of me on the floor. My 4th little brother was not where I could care for him.
Watching our favorite kids show, the sound of the house doorbell rang out. I answered and there stood a professionally, well-dressed woman with very beautiful, dark hair. She introduced herself as a social worker, who was making a new home visit to see my two-new step-brothers. Until that moment, I had never spoken to anyone outside of our church congregation. I never felt I had the ability or right to express my feelings to an adult ever! Yet, I questioned the purpose of a social worker. As she spoke to me about how she helps provide children with happy, safe homes, and families, her voice faded into a parental Charlie Brown sound. Her words became garbled as my heart began to beat out of my chest.
Then it happened. My first conscious brave moment. The words came flowing out of my nine-year-old lips. “I need to show you something.” I was shaking with fear, but knew in my heart what was happening to my 4th brother was not right. As I grabbed her warm hand, I walked her to the back, corner bedroom in the house. The room was cramped with three beds and a large dresser. I could see by the look on her face, she was confused at first. Nothing seemed to be wrong. The room was neat and clean.
I pointed to the, out of place, kitchen chair sitting up against the closet doors. “If you stand on the chair you can see my brother, living inside the cabinet.”, I said to her. It was actually, a high crawl space type attic about 8 feet from the floor. My brother was 5 years old and had been forced to live on bread and water for months, sleep on a crib mattress and relieve himself in a bucket, while never leaving the overhead closet of the boy’s bedroom.
That evening I found myself entering the child protective services system’s front door, for the first time. I still vividly remember my first day in the “system”. In the first 5 hours after arriving at the state group receiving home, I had been separated from all my siblings, had to shower in a bay type facility, was questioned, photographed and had to put on a uniform. After I was provided some food, I was taken to my room. As I sat on my new bed, I quietly cried for a while, but at some point, I began to feel relief. I thought to myself, I did it! I was brave and did the right thing. Sigh! Then the questions and panic began to build up inside me. Was it that easy to get away? Where will I go now? When will I see my brothers? Will I live here forever? Uhhh! Will I have to go back home?
Then suddenly, my room door flung open, as a dozen girls living in the dorm rushed into my room. Before I had time to react they pulled me off my bed, threw me to the ground and beat on me. My right hand stood on, my head pulled back by my hair, and my mouth covered by girl’s hand. Terrified does not even begin to describe how I felt. BAM!! Another traumatic experience, where I walked away feeling unsafe, alone and unable to express my feelings.
The first foster home I was sent to, took 3 of the 5 of us. I was so happy to be living with my blood related brothers again, but it was short lived. A couple of weeks after moving in, I was sent back to the state group home along with my 5-year-old brother. My infant brother stayed. You see the foster couple wanted to adopt a baby, we weren’t babies. I only saw my baby brother one more time after that day.
After some court hearings, my 5-year-old brother and I were sent across the US to live with our mother and her new husband. But this was also short lived, as several months later, at age 10, I was being sexually molested by my step-father. And by age 12, I found myself living back at my father’s home. The sexual abuse continued, as if I had never left. At this point in my life, nobody was aware that I had been abused. I had never told anyone. I really, didn’t even know that I was being abused, until I learned the word molestation from the Phil Donahue show. That was the first time in my life, I felt like killing myself. When I realized, what had been happening to me was not normal, was not what happened to every daughter, I felt embarrassed, disgusted, ashamed, and angry.
At the next evening church service, I confided in a trusted adult. I felt all those same feelings again, as I explained what I had been dealing with for four years. After I told those adults, my father was spoken to by our pastor, and for a couple of months the molesting stopped, the beatings however increased.
There was even a slide lock installed on the inside of my bedroom door. For the first time, I felt safe in my space, until that last night. The last night I ever lived under the same roof as my father, was the night before he went off to sea, for another 6-month ship tour. I will never forget that traumatic night.
Near the end of my father’s 6-months at sea, I snuck into my step-mother’s dresser drawer and read the last letter my father had sent to her. In this letter, I read that my father was very angry that I never responded to any of his letters. His words to her were, he is going to take care of Carrie when he gets home. Fear gripped every cell in my body as flashbacks of him killing our family dog in front of me, rushed through my memory. Several days later, while my step-mother was verbally abusing me, I snapped. I threatened to call the police and tell them about everything going on in the house. As I ran to the phone hanging on the wall, my step-mother pulled the phone right off and ran out of the house with it. Moments later, I was being escorted to a neighbor’s house where I was lectured for hours regarding the consequences of misbehavior and disrespecting adults. After being told to ask for forgiveness, I was ordered to walk back home. I never did. Instead, I kept walking. I kept walking, leaving all my siblings in that home. I decided to be brave that day, to save my life, and hopefully help my siblings. At 13, I walked through the night, along a busy highway for hours alone.
After I ran away, I told authorities about the molestation and abuse I had endured. For a couple years, I bounced from various foster homes and group homes without ever feeling like my issues from abuse were addressed. I didn’t even know what my issues were, I just knew I was different from most kids around me. I was left an introverted, damaged, yet hot tempered, emotionally numb child. I did not feel like a real person. I just felt like an object to be used by others for their own pleasures. I had no direction. No ability to handle my emotions. I had no aspirations, goals or dreams beyond just surviving another day.
Then I met Jo. Jo was brave enough to have been a foster mom for over 40 years and I will never forget her. After living in her home for several weeks, closed inside my emotionally numb safety shell, Jo took me to the San Diego Children’s Repertory Theater. At age 16 I found solace in the thespian world. During that year, through learning acting games, warm ups and being involved in playing other characters, I learned life-long skills that changed my life’s direction. In all my years in the system previously, nobody had made the choice to send me in a direction needed to deal with my very understandable insecurities, violent anger, learning disabilities, promiscuous behavior and phobias. The main concern just seemed to be food and lodging.
Jo made me feel safe in the way she spoke to me and in her expectations of my behavior. Jo showed me a different, more positive way to conduct my life. Jo introduced me to community volunteerism, taught me to set a formal table, took me to the opera and provided me with a window into options for my future. Unfortunately, her own life issues ended up cutting my time in her home short. From there, I ended up in three different foster homes, before I turned 18 and went on to my self-imposed train wreck of young adulthood.
However, Jo’s actions provided me an opportunity to experience the skills of acting, which helped me to learn and realize that I could put on different hats in different situations. That I could cope with my feelings by reigning in emotions and shifting my energy. This helped me greatly when I became a mother.
Over my life those acting skills have helped me to move through life as a damaged individual who could cope and seem normal amongst society. But I was and never will be “normal”.
I unfortunately, was never provided any of the amazingly powerful counseling and supportive services that Intermountain can provide to the children here in the Flathead Valley. It took 30 years of just making it the best I could to finally decide to be brave enough to get a degree in psychology. To help myself heal. During my education in psychology, I could analyze my pain and suffering. I was able to understand my broken self and eventually was able to let go and forgive. At age 50, I finally earned my degree and found myself.
Carl Jung said: “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” It was through my experiences with Jo, and other giving people in the theater, that I was able to choose to become a mother whose children did not know abuse, an Army veteran of 8 years, a first responder, an American Red Cross instructor, a college graduate, small business owner, community volunteer, and health and wellness coach. I believe though that I never met my full potential. I can stand before you today, not as a victim, but as a passionate advocate for the children who need help in this and in all communities.
I attended this event last year as a guest of the Hanna’s and eventually met some of the children from Intermountain at a barbeque event. Seeing myself in them, and being a member of this community, I want to do what I can to help them. Which is why I am standing in front of you today. I believe in the services that the Intermountain organization provides in helping to save children from horrible situations, but also in the skills they work to instill in the children they come across. Skills that could last a lifetime.
For instance, Providence Home, provides a family like group atmosphere while providing stabilization and in house professional treatment and care. Intermountain provides child and family therapy, co-occurring mental and substance abuse counseling, and emotional distress therapy. The Bigfork and Whitefish Day Treatment Programs offers emotional and behavioral counseling services for K-5th grade children. Collaboratively working with families, schools, and communities to build positive relationships – making a difference to help circumvent more restrictive and expensive care in the future.
It took courage to change my life, heart and spirit. I believe those in this room are courageous, and in fact I believe every single one of us can be a hero to the children in this community and we don’t even need a cape. We just need to be brave enough to have uncomfortable conversations, and to give of our gifts.
What happened to me was terrible. I’ve learned bad things do happen, but that doesn’t mean that they need to define me or destroy me. We all have things that happen to us and yes they shape us, they mold us, but they don’t have to define us, because in the end what defines us is how we react and the decisions we choose to make. Life provides us opportunities to overcome suffering and fear…opportunities to be brave. The abused, neglected and traumatized children in the Flathead community can be provided with not only that one adult that makes a difference, like Jo did for me, but a entire team. More than that, they can be provided guidance and a future young adulthood, not filled with the repercussions of their trauma, with the help of services provided by organizations like Intermountain.
I would like to thank you for your attention. The abused and unloved child in me, thanks you on behalf of all the children and families in the Flathead Valley that have been and will be helped by your generous donations and giving.”
…………………..The photo above was taken by my father the morning after he raped me for the first time. This was his “trophy” photo. Moments after this was taken, he packed me and my little bother in the van and we went on visit my newborn brother and my mother in the hospital.
I can still remember how angry, confused, and shocked I felt at that moment. You can see it on my face. Up until then, I was a happy, smiling child. He took that away from me for way too long!! I was angry at my mother because my father had told me to come sleep in their bed that night. He had told me that he was lonely because mommy was at the hospital. So after the rape, I blamed my mother for being gone. Crazy how a young mind deals with trauma. He kicked my mother out of the home several months later and moved our babysitter in, along with her two sons.
Even after reporting the abuse when I ran away at 13 years old, I received NO justice. The judge ruled that I did not have enough evidence. He wanted something in writing or an audio recording. #METOO
Several years later, my father was arrested and served 1 year in a work camp prison for molesting a 13 year old in his neighborhood. I know there were many others. #METOOVOTE Fighting to change laws/legislation to protect rape and molestation victims, more than the rapist, will make a difference!!!!
There are so many children in America that need loving, healing homes, foster parents and organizations like Intermountain. If you have the means, talents, love and skills to give, please do so!
These are two photos from that night, still make me smile. The moment I finished my speech EVERYONE stood up for a standing ovation. I was so moved to tears. I felt like I had completely laid my soul out to the venue. I felt an amazing sense of release and lightness. The rest of the evening, people came up to me and thanked me for enlightening them. Since most grew up in loving, nurturing homes, they could not fathom what I had been through. Most of the crowd had been longtime supporters of Intermountain’s and had attended the annual event for many years. Many speakers over the years gave amazing speeches, but this year was the first time a speaker spoke of their own child abuse story.
I am still so honored to know that my story helped to raise funds that will help others going through what I did. I hope to continue to share my story to benefit the abused youth in America.
If you would like to give to the Non-profit, Intermountain, here is their information:
500 S. Lamborn
Helena, Montana 59601