By definition, love involves affection, compassion, care, and self-sacrifice towards others or oneself. Personally, I cannot recall a time I was loved, even in the most basic sense, by my family, or by anyone – except maybe the women in GEM.
I have no recollection of unconditional love from my parents. I’m told my dad left shortly after I was born, leaving my mother to provide all things for me. But I wasn’t Mom’s first love. For her, drugs came first and her eight children were a distant afterthought. While Mom was on the streets, I was sent to my grandmother’s. With her, I realized where my mom probably learned about drug abuse. My grandmother did her best with her grandchildren, but she loved her drugs more. I have memories of her at the stove and of her smoking a crack cocaine pipe. She did her best to feed us with basics and to keep us safe, but despite grandmother’s good intentions, these early years were dark times for me.
The first time I was sexually abused was by a man my mom brought home. I was five years old. Cousins, and even my own brother, would also abuse me. I recall being taken to the hospital, but nothing came from this—no counseling, no therapy, nothing--including no punishment of any kind for the abusers. I felt unloved and uncared for.
Ultimately, I ended up in foster care when grandmother died. We children were split up and separated from each other. At age nine, I was sent to my aunt in Middle River, Maryland. She had children of her own and I never felt like I belonged there; certainly, I didn’t feel as if my aunt loved me. She did, however, gladly accept money for my foster care while making it clear that I was to be totally responsible for her children, my younger cousins. I was never given any of the money my aunt received on my behalf.
School was always a struggle for me. I failed the third grade and I had a hard time with reading and writing. I didn’t know it then, but I had a severe learning disability. I was put into developmental classes and was labeled a special education student. In time, I made my way to Chesapeake High School. Still a special education student, I worked hard and achieved good grades; my teachers were kind and supportive. I found pleasure in sports--mostly basketball, softball, and volleyball--and I did well. I loved playing and found that I was athletic. I loved the feeling of being part of a team, the feeling of belonging to something.
And then I found GEM. I was so excited to be accepted into the program. GEM really had a positive impact on my life. They worked to have me released from Special Education, to allow me to lose that label and to succeed in regular classes. Their support was a godsend because GEM helped me realize my potential. Eventually, I was accepted into Upward Bound, a focused program for promising first generation college-bound students. GEM also helped me come to terms with the awful things I experienced. I had never told the full story of my past. In GEM we had counseling sessions and for the first time, I shared my experiences with others. I’ve often thought about why I chose to open up about being abused, and then I realized that no one had ever bothered to ask these difficult questions of me before. I felt understood and accepted; I knew I could trust these women and my GEM sisters. Through GEM, my life opened up to different things; I especially loved the escape of retreats where I was challenged by things like zip lining and other experiences new to me. I was encouraged to blossom, to apply to college, to focus on a better future.
Upon graduation from Chesapeake High School, I was accepted into East Tennessee University, a majority white school. I received a scholarship and spent two years there as a minority student. College was a struggle for me, and my grades were not good. I was independent in some ways, but at the end of the day I felt very alone. I left East Tennessee University and had nowhere to go. I returned to my aunt’s house—the aunt that I had lived with from age nine and the same aunt who had not contacted me during my two years in Tennessee. Life with her was not great, but still I did not give up on myself or my dreams. I attended community college and tried my hardest until it was clear that I was not welcome in my aunt’s home.
A move had to be made. I turned to my sister in Oklahoma, who let me live with her. We moved to Texas where I achieved an A.A. degree from the local community college. I knew my limitations and chose to continue my studies at Ashford College, an online institution. Throughout my college years, I stayed in touch with GEM leaders and even participated in some alumnae programming. It was comforting to know that this group of women still cared about me. I persevered, and after ten years I graduated with a B.S. degree in accounting. I am proud that I have accomplished this goal despite my learning difficulties.
My family continues to be fractured. I’ve lost track of some of my siblings. Every once in a while my mother calls me—sometimes clean, sometimes not. After years of working at a Texas WalMart for way too long, I was just hired at the YWCA in the accounting department. My GEM mentors helped by being references and letting the woman from HR know my potential and true worth. I met a guy and had my first boyfriend experience. I moved in with him quickly, but after a year or so things became rocky. He was controlling and more of a father figure than a caring boyfriend. I was financially dependent on him while I was trying to find a job in accounting. I was not happy; I wanted to be more than someone who cleans the house and cuts the grass. I was thinking about moving out and had a conversation with one of my GEM mentors. I told her about my boyfriend and how my childhood and my trauma affected the relationship. When asked if I loved him, I painfully admitted that I didn’t know because I had no idea what love felt like. I naively asked my mentor what it felt like to love someone.
I am proud that I was brave enough to make the break from my boyfriend, and I happily moved to San Antonio with my sister and her children. I have my own room, and I now have a rabbit to love. I still struggle financially and hope my new job will help lead to a job that will increase my income. Through encouragement from GEM, I am finally seeking therapy. I now know that I have to love myself before I can offer love to others. I pray that my future self will know such love.