This post contains content displaying a child abuse event and explicit language. Should you feel you need additional support, you can connect with a trained volunteer at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-274-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of child abuse, you can find additional resources at childhelp.org or by calling the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) As always, reach out to local resources and supports at times of need.
I can’t remember how long she left me in the McDonald’s parking lot that day.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. It had been a good day. Good days were the worst because they made you forget. They made you drop your guard. They brought false hope, and having hope was a huge mistake.
We were walking out of McDonald’s. Before I reached the car door, she looked to me and said I needed to go back and wash my hands. I immediately did as I was told. That’s what happens when you are abused. You become compliant. You hope it will save you from unnecessary pain. It didn’t occur to me as I walked back in that she had never cared about me washing my hands before.
When I came out, she was gone. My heart jumped into my throat. I walked around the entire restaurant looking for her. She was nowhere. Our good day had just been another lie. I hated myself a little more for falling for her lie, for having hope.
I hid near the back of the building beside the dumpsters because I didn’t want anyone to know. If anyone saw me, they might ask questions. Questions could get her in trouble. If she were to get in trouble, there’s no telling what she would do. I hid. I cried. And I prayed that she would come back for me. It’s all I could manage.
I don’t know how long I sat waiting. The sun had been out when I realized she was gone, and by the time she came back, it was dark. As time progressed, my silent sobbing had grown alongside my fear. The sobbing sharply stabbed my stomach and had me choking for breath. I used all my energy to muffle my sobs so no one would hear me.
She pulled into the parking lot, and I rushed to the car so she wouldn’t have to wait. It’s ironic looking back. I climbed clumsily into the passenger side still shaken, trembling, and softly sobbing. Her first words to me were “Shut up.” I tried. I desperately tried to calm myself, but I couldn’t. She screamed, “stop fucking crying.” As if that would calm me. I could sense her anger growing as she drove, but by this point, there was nothing I could do to stop. My fear was growing because when she was angry I never knew what she would do.
It’s odd, the things your mind clings to through the years. I remember walking to the car, hiding, and the tree. I can’t recall the car’s color, how long I sat there praying, or so many other details, but the ones I remember will stay with me forever. It was black out by this point. We were on a two-lane road as the car slowly climbed a hill. I saw this enormous tree towering over us through my tears to my left. The branches and limbs reached slowly beyond the edge of the road. Its trunk large enough to withstand any force seemingly. I saw stories in my head about that tree. Imagining happy children playing underneath it. I don’t know why my mind went to that tree like it did. Maybe I was trying to distract myself. Maybe I fell too often into my own imagination when I was afraid. I don’t know. But it has stuck with me all these years.
As the car neared the top of the hill, she suddenly stopped in the middle of the road. She turned to me while we sat underneath those gnarled grasping branches. Her face was bright red, and her eyes full of hate. She shrieked in my face, “get out of the fucking car!” I did as I was told.
Still sobbing, I grabbed the door handle and put one foot on the ground, the other still inside the car as she began to drive again. I screamed out, “Please, please stop.” Frantically I wailed. My hands turning white as I held on with all I had. She kept going. By this time, both my feet were outside the car. This little 8-year-old girl begging, pleading, screaming for mercy but nothing made her stop. My heart was pounding inside my chest and ears. I didn’t know what to do. Should I try to get back inside? Should I just let go and hit the ground? Before I could figure out what to do, she slammed on the breaks and I slumped forcibly against the door. I stood up quickly, confused, and panicked. Blood rushed to my eyes and for a brief second the black night became a blinding light. She said, “get in the car and shut the fuck up.” I did as I was told.
It worked. You can’t deny that. She scared me silent. I didn’t say a word the rest of the ride home. You see, I was taught not to cry. Tears were unacceptable. Had I been quiet when she picked me up, I wouldn’t have been dragged behind the car. It was my fault. Just like it always was. Over the years, this lesson was etched into me over and over in hundreds of different ways. Crying is for the weak. Crying deserves punishment. Crying is never allowed even while being dragged outside a moving vehicle. Tears were not allowed.
I remember the first time I openly shared a fraction of my experiences. I sobbed the entire time. My words and hands shook as my eyes read over the notes that guided me. I shared about my loss. How it changed my life. I shared about the meaning I searched for from pain. Those moments of openness left me feeling humiliatingly vulnerable. Tears fell unwillingly against my cheeks and that little girl screamed inside. Even though I was no longer a child, I was still waiting to be punished. Punished for speaking about the things I was taught not to acknowledge. Punished for crying so openly.
As difficult as this story may have been for you to read, it can be even harder for a person to share something so intimately personal. I have never spoken publicly about this specific incident because to this day the thought of doing so cuts deeply in ways I cannot describe. When I share, I do so intentionally. Not only to help others understand but to never leave myself so vulnerable that I unintentionally hurt my own heart or healing process. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of safe storytelling the hard way. Some stories are powerfully purposeful when shared with the public. Some stories leave us overwhelmed and confused as to what we should do. Some stories would be most beneficial when shared intimately. And some may always need to stay locked within us. Only the storyteller can decide which of these options is right for them.
Our stories are a part of us. They help define pieces of our souls and can set us on a fulfilling path. Sharing takes courage and will. If this is the journey we want to embark on, we owe it to ourselves to be ready, to have safeguards, and to incorporate care for ourselves.
Often after I have spoken to an audience, people who want to share their stories ask how they can begin this journey. I realized long ago that a few minutes is not enough time to teach them anything of value. So I developed a training program from my experiences and lessons learned so others won’t need to struggle through the painful process of coming into their truth on their own. Thinking beyond my program, I crafted a guidebook that could work as a stand-alone tool for those who want to know more but may not be ready to participate in the program.
This book can walk any person through the basic components of safe storytelling creation. The purpose is to make my hard-earned lessons more accessible to everyone.
What happened to you doesn’t determine who you will be. What you do with what happened to you can.