Names have been changed due to the sensitivity of this story.
You’ve seen me before. At the store sometimes, after my shift is over. Or at a restaurant with my co-workers grabbing lunch. Maybe I’ve been your teller at the Bank of America. We might have passed each other on campus on my way to class. I usually walk with my eyes down and arms low, fists clenched tight. I’ll flash you a glance and a small smile. You might miss it if your head is in your phone. We might make eye contact, but I usually will break it off first. I don’t like long eye contact. That’s when people can see me. Not the me you see at the store, restaurant, or bank. The me that grew up in terror, pain, and crushing loneliness. That’s the me you’ll see if you look long enough. You might not like that person if you met her. She didn’t grow up like you did, with toys and parents that loved her. There were no Sunday dinners together or recreation league soccer on Saturdays. The simple and mundane parts of your life – like doing laundry or taking your daughter to get a haircut – were luxuries beyond her reach. Hunger and fear were her playmates.
Shutting out those memories is sometimes the only way I can get through a day. It’s what I had to do to get through the nightmares. For a time, my Granny was able to help me. She took me in when no one else would. I don’t remember the first time I met my grandmother, but I’ve been told Granny found me starving in a crack house. Granny’s daughter was my mother, one of her four children. All four were addicts of some kind or another. My mother preferred drugs and selling her body. The money fueled her habit. I never met my dad, but Granny said that he was a customer of my mother.
Granny saved me from that start and gave me a fighting chance to survive. She created a place where I could hide from the drugs and death, but it didn’t last long. She soon took in others who also needed her help; broken people like my mother and uncles. Granny put me to work, helping to care for them. I saw and did things no child should ever have to do. I scrubbed dried and crusty vomit out of the carpet. I washed sweat and urine-soaked sheets and blankets. I walked over the twitching bodies of strung-out strangers sprawled on Granny’s floor. Our house was a revolving door for people in various stages of rehab.
Eventually, when I was ten, my mother became one of our residents. She died very slowly and painfully. She didn’t like the medicines they gave her for her liver, so she didn’t take them and the cirrhosis spread. I wasn’t there when she died. Granny called me during my shift at McDonald’s to tell me she died right there in the living room.
It was right after my mom died that I broke down. The pain, the hurt, and the loneliness were too much. I know Granny tried to be strong for me in her own way. She told me that life wasn’t fair, and that nobody owed me anything at all. “Baby girl,” she’d say, “this is just how it is.” I couldn’t argue with her. She was right. My life had no meaning, I was worthless. My life was just how it was, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
That was what I was thinking when I first found GEM. I didn’t want to get to know my GEM mentor or ever get close to her. I thought if I did, she would just leave me like everyone else. But that didn’t happen. She told me take things one day at a time. To be patient and to let love in. She wouldn’t give up, and I’m sure glad she didn’t. Pretty soon, GEM became a place where I could let go and let my guard down a little. After a while, I realized that I didn’t have to be scared when I was with her or the GEM leaders. I could let them in. In doing that, I was able to fully embrace what they were trying to teach me. It was about love and friendship. The more I gave, the more I received in return.
Not only did I learn about love from my GEM mentor, she taught me to accept what I couldn’t control and to focus on one task at a time. Before GEM, I never knew how to live day to day. GEM showed me that maybe Granny was wrong; there was more to life than endless loss. GEM gave me a mentor who would help me with how to handle things better. She taught me to take each challenge as it came, one day at a time. She gave me attention, an attention that my mother never gave me, and that Granny couldn’t provide. Attention is love. I know that now. My GEM mentor showed me that love just by being there for me. We’d pass hours talking while cooking homemade jam.
Through GEM, I learned how normal adults lived and acted, and I had the chance to interact with them for the first time in my life. I wish the rest of my family had this opportunity. I won’t let drugs take me, like they did my mom. I will remain strong and use the tools GEM gave me. Even new pain will not defeat me. I will focus on the next day and the day after that. GEM taught me I was important. They taught me to take each new struggle one step at a time and not get overwhelmed. That’s what I do.
I’m 22 now. I’m studying to be a nurse, so I can help people like my GEM mentor did for me. If I can help save lives, maybe another young girl won’t lose her family to addiction. I’m also working at Bank of America to help put myself through school. None of this would have happened without GEM. GEM showed me what love is. It showed me how to approach the hardest challenges in front of me. Most importantly, it helped me survive. Without GEM, I wouldn’t be here. I would have died too young, just like my mother. She never had GEM; I do. I owe it to her, and to GEM, to pass on what I’ve learned.
I might still walk with my head down and fists clenched. But I’m learning to pick my head up. I’m making eye contact and smiling. I’m letting people see the real me. Because if they can see the real me, then can maybe learn from me. They can figure out that they have strength down deep inside them that they don’t even know is there. And together, we can show other young girls without hope that it can get better.