My Journey of Growth from Abuse to Achievement

Posted on: November 19, 2012
No comments yet

By Lainey O’Brien

“Now what?” “What am I going to do?” I have no college degree, no money, and a broken down car with a recall involving “The car could possibly catch on fire when the key is turned in the ignition!”
I was definitely in a situation that I had never expected, and I had no idea how I was going to survive. A few days before, I had packed up as much as my small car could hold including my yellow Labrador and left my abusive husband. When my husband and I had married nearly five years ago, we had the perfect wedding with the perfect southern reception site—an antebellum mansion, and all the right family members. He was my first love and my first major disappointment. Now, I was facing the prospect of being homeless, except for my parents’ home, jobless, carless, insurance-less, and certainly feeling like less of a person.
I cried for days and mourned the loss of everything from my stereo to my antique bedroom set, but I also had moments of excitement as I realized I would never go to bed again praying, “God, if he kills me, please let my Mamma know it was him.” Rather macabre, but I honestly thought I might go missing, and my parents would spend their lives posting my picture on the Wal-mart bulletin board or on milk cartons, if they allow that for adults.
I decided to move to the mountains, where my Mamma’s family roots go back to the 1800s. I felt secure in the hills; perhaps, the depth of my roots there would help me reach more fertile soil for my own personal growth. I moved in with my grandmother, and she became my therapist, as she was the only one I could afford. I still had little direction, and I felt like the biggest loser in my azalea-covered hometown.
My mamma must have gotten tired of my moping because one day she drove me out to a small satellite college of a larger college in our state. The building was small, Works Progress Administration brick from the 1930s, and it did not look like much from the outside. As the gravel crunched under our tires, she told me in her “no-questions asked” Mamma voice to get out of the car and go ask about starting school in the fall.
I refused. She said, “Get out and go in there!” I felt paralyzed as if my bottom was glued to the upholstery. I finally gave in and walked up the steps through the brick arch and began my journey of healing.
I decided to major in Education as it had always been my dream to become a teacher. I began school in the fall, taking night classes Monday through Thursday after working at a local clothing store from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm. I would race out of the store and drive as quickly as possible carefully avoiding the local police, so I wouldn’t get pulled over. I’d get to school, grab my book bag, wipe the sweat off my face (my car was fixed, but I didn’t have air conditioning), and try to switch gears from explaining merchandise return policies to discussing the impact of western civilization on the rest of the world.
Because my soon-to-be ex-husband had always told me I was “not very smart,” and unfortunately over the course of our marriage, I had started to believe him, I decided I was going to make all “As,” Dean’s List, and graduate with honors. Neither of my parents had graduated from college, nor had my maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, I was going to do this for all of them and rebuild my self-esteem through education. My paternal grandmother had been a nurse before becoming a mom to eight children. She was very supportive, and I knew she and other family members believed in me. It was not going to be easy, but I was determined to prove my former abuser wrong and to prove to myself that I  
 had value, and that I had survived for a greater purpose.
Every day of my new life presented an unexpected challenge, particularly the math class. I hadn’t taken math in years, and I couldn’t remember the steps to most of the algebra, much less the formula for graphing a parabola! I sat at the front table and asked so many questions I drove the professor crazy. I remember her losing patience with me one day, walking over to my table and beating on it with her open palm as she yelled, “You’re thinking about it too much!” I remember swallowing my frustration down as I reminded myself not to give into discouragement because I was there to overcome adversity. I knew the professor had no idea how much loud noises startled me after living in an abusive environment.
Each day I grew a little more, both on the outside and on the inside. I went to the salon and got my hair cut short and high-lighted. I bought new clothes and costume jewelry with my store employee discount. All the things I had missed because of my overly-controlling ex-husband were now available. For the first time in years, I could walk into a room and feel confident and pretty.
I used my Psychology class as therapy by writing most of my major assignments on Domestic Violence; thus, I learned about the patterns of abuse and the recovery process. I faced my demons daily and fought the urge to give up when people said, “Eww, why do you want to be a teacher?” I read The Awakening by Kate Chopin in my Literature class, and I understood the tragic ending all too well. I would not give into despair like Chopin’s main character; I would overcome.
I listened to empowering music in a wide variety of genres and cried my way through the first church service I attended alone as a single woman. I listened to the stories of my co-workers and customers, and I offered them love and support for their own life’s journeys. My terrible wound was starting to scab over.
I made straight “A’s” and Dean’s List my first semester, and my name was listed in the local newspaper. Both of my grandmothers were so proud! I was soon promoted to Customer Service Manager at the clothing store where I worked, and I was in charge of the store every Saturday night. I began to oversee my store’s fundraising efforts for the Children’s Miracle Network and various breast cancer charities. I was in the local newspaper several times as our store raised large amounts of money in partnership with other local businesses. My grandmother would buy extra copies of the paper, and I would come into her living room to find her on the phone gossiping to friends about my latest newspaper photo.
The satellite school I attended was a two-year school, so I made plans to attend the main campus, knowing I would have to move, yet again. I transferred to the main campus having made Dean’s List all four semesters with straight “A’s.” I was no longer feeling defined by someone else’s definition of me. I never bragged about my growth and accomplishments, but I did have a core group of family who knew and celebrated each moment.
The main campus of the college was vastly different than the small student body I had become accustomed to at the satellite school, and there were even fewer adult students, yet I was excited to be on my own, and I liked my new apartment. The classes were harder as I was now a junior, and I was working as an after-school tutor for the Boys and Girls Club and as a cashier at a local clothing store. I signed up for an online dating service and began dating a man who was a single father with two sons. I fell in love, and I felt my faith grow as my fear of opening my heart to another lessened.
Frequently, I felt exhaustion overtake my body as I worked two jobs, studied late into the night, and maintained a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend. When I felt overwhelmed, I would visualize the stage and auditorium where graduations where held. I made Dean’s List for the next four semesters, but I was very frustrated when I found out I received a “B” in an English class and a “B” in a History class. My perfect record was over, but I reminded myself that I made “C’s” in Math in high school, and I made “A’s” in Math in college; so, I needed to allow myself to be less than perfect because the performance trap would only pull me down.
I became engaged to my boyfriend the summer before graduation and began planning the wedding that my fiancée and I wanted, not my family, my friends, or anyone else. My senior year of college proved difficult because my beloved paternal grandmother died unexpectedly five months before graduation. I couldn’t believe she was going to miss my graduation and wedding. I missed her dearly, and I recalled that she was one of the first people I called when I passed my state teacher certification test. I knew she would want me to go on and finish strong.
I student taught at a local middle school and encountered the challenges of dealing with differing work personalities and helping adolescents sort through the intricacies of writing papers for English class and figuring out how to fit in with one’s peers. Graduation day finally arrived in May. It was surreal. I wore a gold honor cord, and “Magna cum Laude” was read after my name when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. It was one of the greatest days of my life. My parents and fiancée cried. We hugged and took pictures outside the auditorium, where I had visualized myself graduating. It was real. I’d made it!
I married my precious husband less than three weeks later in a small ceremony. We honeymooned in Italy; thus, I fulfilled several dreams and goals in one year: graduation, getting a passport, and traveling outside of the United States. I become a stepmom and began to learn that parenting is a daily class in realizing that one does not have all the answers.
I am now working on a Master’s degree, and I am working as a Substitute Teacher until the economy settles and more teaching jobs are available. Being a Substitute Teacher is not my first choice but I have learned that when I wait for life to start, I am actually missing out on all the great lessons and positive moments around me.
My journey toward thriving has been painful and beautiful. I have encountered so many people over the last eight years who were hurt and/or are hurting. I have been able to encourage them to keep growing and to realize that the negative things they have believed about themselves are lies. I have much more compassion as a teacher because of my experiences. I see my students encounter hurt as they go through bullying at school or at home, and I reach out to them in love and understanding.
I would never change my past because it has been the most positive experience of my life as it changed my preconceived ideas and made me realize that negative circumstances do not define someone, but they do refine a person into a better and stronger human being. I guess you could say I have two degrees a Bachelor of Science in Education and a Bachelorette of Growth and Change in the Human Experience. I graduated with honors in Education. My goal is to graduate with honors in Growth and Change, and I will spend the rest of my life working on that degree.


Leave a Reply