It’s a season of second chances. I walk into a classroom, a courtroom or a conference room and the images form a flashback sharper than any déjà vu instantly knot my stomach, pucker my jaws and send my heart racing. In an instant, I’m emotionally ripped from the premise of safety and I’m forced to readjust my reality. I have to choose, again, to be a new person, with a new reality.
I’ve been here before, staring into the eyes of a woman who shares that she’s a CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate), whose purpose is to speak for the children within the court system whose instability is the byproduct of abuse and neglect. At 16 years old, I drew on the strength of my CASA to face my mother in court, where I broke the silence on the secrets of our family, fervently hoping that this trauma would be a catalyst for our family to become healthy. My CASA later helped me transition to my final foster home and showed me that my choices could be different than what had been modeled for me. Now, I am a CASA to show displaced children that they can arrive safely in a new place, with hope, dignity and a better chance at a healthy life.
I’ve been here before, walking down the stark, industrially-lit, tiled hallway that leads to the County District Attorney’s Office. I’ve been here before, standing in front of a judge, feeling lost in a sea of lawyers, clerks and the people they serve. This time, I’m not filing (and re-filing) for a restraining order to stay safe during the dissolution of a marriage rife with domestic violence. I’m not pleading with a judge to believe me that my partner has promised to hurt me much worse the next time. Now, I’m humbly approaching the District Attorney and Crime Victims Advocacy representatives, asking for avenues to serve the vulnerable people in my county.
I’ve been here before, staring at the well-worn office carpet of the Department of Human Services county extension office, trailing a finger along the velvet line-control rope as I pass the food stamps desk. After graduate school, the humiliation of standing in line to apply for food stamps and state healthcare was stifling. I felt like a failure that, despite two college degrees, my three jobs didn’t provide enough income for me to independently care for my daughter. Now, I’m on a tour of DHS because I’m ready to help families bridge that gap with compassion and by connecting them to resources that will give them a brief respite while they work for independence.
I’ve been here before, rounding the corner of the front desk at DHS, heading to the supervised parenting time rooms. These were the first places I saw my soon-to-be ex-husband after filing for divorce. My heart ached watching my daughter navigate among the borrowed toys and the father she missed. The disappointment that we weren’t safe together and the grief for the childhood that I wanted for my daughter hung in the air like a hot wool blanket on my face. Now, I’m re-familiarizing myself with these rooms so that I can stand on the other side of the one-sided glass as a champion for the child who needs a new sense of normal.
I’ve been here before, on this college campus, in the echoic lecture hall of a building shaded by a canopy of dense trees, sheltering clusters of students who are here just as likely for spiritual formation as they are for academic growth. Now, I’m in front of the podium, recounting for this crowd of strangers the destructive relationship I fell into as a student, where I was raped twice by a man I loved. I’m inviting them into that old space where I felt unloved, unwanted, broken and a shame so unrelenting that I never told anyone what he did to me. I’m safe as I speak, and the audience is compassionate and receptive, but I can smell the fresh carpet in the new dorm where I met him. I can hear his snide laughter in my memories. But now, I’m sharing so that victims can connect with resources to help them and this community will know how to respond with compassion and kindness.
I’ve been here before, sitting in front of the detective who takes notes on a clipboard while I share what a man has done to my body, without my consent. I haven’t had a conversation like this since I was a child. Even though I’m describing a series of past events, the wave of nausea causes me to tremble as my body feels the phantom touches, because my skin remembers the violence of unwanted hands and lips. But now I’m speaking up, so that there won’t be more women telling a story that matches mine.
Advocacy work is a risk socially and emotionally. I’m constantly battling triggers and learning to call painful memories by new names, to make new, positive associations with once-terrifying places. Asking myself to face these memories and demanding of myself to find healing in the process is the largest risk I’ve taken on. But each walk down the dark alleys of painful memories is an opportunity to undo some of my brokenness and shine a light on the pathway forward for victims who feel lost.
On a final note, thank you to the village who stands with me today, holding me accountable to self-care and walking patiently by my side as I reclaim safety and joy.