For the First Time In My Life For the First Time In My Life

I was born into Domestic Violence and lived a constant cycle of abuse for 36 yrs. My mother was 16 when she had me in a small Alabama town. I was adopted at the age of 2 by my stepdad. I only have small numbers of memories of my childhood--my mother's loud dominating voice and my father standing 6' 4" and weighing around 350 lbs. I lived in fear of my parents. They were physically abusive and used everything to beat on me, sometimes just for simply spilling something. I remember being called stupid, whore, pathetic, and worthless by them throughout my life. At the tender age of 5, my stepdad sexually abused me. I have no memory of when it began or ended.

I became responsible for my 3 younger siblings early in my youth. My responsibilities consisted of cleaning the home, cooking the meals, taking care of them and working to pay rent. As a child and a teenager I would clean dead bugs out of my ears due to state of the home. I use to go to school with bruises from my neck to my feet. Teachers saw the evidence, but never asked or said anything. It was common practice to hit your children. Children are to be seen and not heard, spare the rod spoil the child were things my parents agreed with.

When my father's nephew began molesting me around the age of 11, I found my place of refuge only when I was allowed to visit my grandmother. She always showed me love and kindness. Some of my happiest memories are with her working in the garden, watching birds and setting out the bird feeders for hummingbirds. I never told her what went on to protect her from the consequences. She was a saving grace in my life as I was not allowed to have friends over or participate in activities outside of the home. My mother has told me many times that she hates me and I ruined her life by being born.

I was allowed to date when I was 16. My first boyfriend raped me during a drunken rage. I graduated high school and escaped my parent's home by moving into an apartment with a boyfriend. I would be awaken in the middle of the night being beaten, raped, sodomized and drug throughout the apartment. I lived with this for 2 years. One night he came home and began hitting me when I found out he was having an affair. He continued to beat me in front of the police. Even as a convicted felon, the police did not arrest him for the violence. After leaving him, a whirlwind cycle of additional abusive relationships followed.

I had given birth to my daughter and was raising her with the help of my grandmother. Still unaware of the abuse I was experiencing. My first husband was an alcoholic and would fight with me over his drinking. After divorcing him I began a relationship with someone. He came home one night and beat me in front of my daughter and his children almost breaking my back. I left that relationship and moved further out of the city limits.

In my new place, my landlord's son became angry with me for getting a dog. He shot at me on several occasions. I called the police and they took a report. The next time he came back he shot at me, tossed me around the yard and held me at gun point. That same night he shot and killed a cow. He faced felony charges for killing the cow and a misdemeanor for holding me at gun point. It was later discovered he had planned to rape me with a fence post.

Shortly after, I had reconnected with a friend from high school. He called me one night upset and discussed suicide. When I arrived at the home to help him he raped, sodomized and choked me till he passed out from being intoxicated.

Three months later I married my second husband. We moved to the west coast. Throughout our marriage my husband drank daily and became abusive. When I left him, my daughter and I escaped to a shelter. I had nothing except my daughter and my clothing. I began learning about domestic violence and abuse. I also learned I had a bipolar diagnosis. The shelter helped me begin services to help recover and begin healing.

Before I could begin making progress I met someone who pushed to have me move in with him after only being in the shelter for 2 months. Throughout the relationship like so many times before I was not allowed to go any where, have friends, was given an allowance, intimidated, sexually abused, verbally, emotionally, and physically abused. On Oct. 8th 2010 I left that relationship. During the relationship I began working with an organization that supports families whose children have special needs. We support families by providing them with direct support, support groups, and parenting classes. They helped support me to find resources to leave the relationship and they listened to me without judgments.

That's how I found Shelter Without Walls, who helped me find housing and a car. They taught me how to get out safely and how to obtain an order of protection. He began to retaliate against me for leaving. During court proceedings and the support of the agencies I was able to stand up to him in court. I gained housing through a transitional living program along with a vehicle to maintain my job. The services and my agency helped me learn what abuse is, gain therapeutic services, budgeting skills and how to stand up to an abuser.

I have gained a family of friends who have supported me and taught me what a family truly means. I developed boundaries, gained my own apartment, and filled it. I have learned to stay safe and recognize the signs of abuse. I've learned to take care of myself and love myself for the first time in my life. I have been Domestic Violence free for over a year. I have taught families about the types of abuse and assisted them to gain support and resources. Without the support of the agencies, friends and coworkers I believe the cycle would have continued. My daughter has been a huge driving force to break free and the spirit of my grandmother.

Artist's Note: The strength of a human spirit is something to behold. Not only did her own parents train her to be a target for predators, but the very culture she lived in was misogynistic and had no regard to abuse against women and children. There were no services available in this small town. When a court cares more about shooting a cow than attempted murder and rape of a human being, where does that leave her? It wasn't until she made her way to a larger city, that her options opened up for support. Now she has independence, peace, and purpose. I was honored to paint this portrait of her and her grandmother represented as the red hummingbird, always watching her back. She is an inspiration on so many levels, whether it's the people she helps with her story of survival or the parents of autistic children that she works with. I have no doubt that if she can make to health and wholeness, than so can you.