Growing up, I always had a home. During my time growing up, I never really felt like I had a family. I knew my family was out there, but there was always a piece of me that wasn’t satisfied with only knowing they were out there. I often found myself thinking about the life I could have had if I had been raised by my biological family. There were good things about my childhood, but also bad things that happened to me.
I eventually did spend a part of my life with my biological family, but first was put up for adoption. While I was waiting for a new family, I spent most of my childhood in many foster homes.
Unfortunately, the next home I was placed in was still not a healthy and safe environment for me. My adoptive mother worked as a social worker. When you think of a social worker, you think of someone that is caring and compassionate, who works to create a safe and healthy environment for others. Despite her position, my adoptive mother abused me. I wish I had reached out then, but who would have believed me? Social workers don’t abuse kids, right? I was sexually assaulted for the first time in one of my adoptive home by my new adoptive brother.
I took the situation into my own hands and began searching for my biological family.
After a hard search, I finally got into contact with members of my family in the Twin Cities. I made plans to live with them. Finally, I would have the home I was always missing. Or so I thought. I was 17, I hadn’t finished high school, but I knew this was the next step I needed to take. I let my family members know I was coming and hopped on a Greyhound bus. This journey was the first time that I really was homeless. I ended up in the bus station in the Twin Cities trying to get ahold of family, like, “Here I am. Come get me, come get me.” But they didn’t come right away. It was scary because there were a lot of predators at the bus station and I was very young and very skinny and very naive. It was by the grace of the bus depot person that I was safe. Strange men had kept coming up to me and asking, “Are you lost? Do you need some place to go? Do you need a ride?” In that moment, I knew what it meant to fear human trafficking. I didn’t know who was going to come get me, and I didn’t know where I was going to go from there. I felt like one of those runaways, that just ended up at the depot with no place to go. Thank goodness, one of my relatives did finally come get me. Then I stayed with some relatives, but it was crowded. It wasn’t exactly the home I had imagined. During this time with my biological family I was raped by a neighbor, a man I had trusted. The Twin Cities no longer felt safe to me. But where could I go? I didn’t have any job skills. I was worried about if I was going to be able to keep the roof I already had over my head. The thought was always there: “Am I going to be safe today? Am I going to have a place to go to today?”
My biological father set up a new place for me to live in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The woman meant to take care of me had a drinking problem and once again I found myself in an unsafe environment. We lived a harder life than I was accustomed to. We lived in a trailer on a lot of land in an unfamiliar community. There was no electricity, nothing like that. Survival took a lot more effort than I wanted to give in this strange environment, so I was treated unkindly. Eventually I met my soon-to-be husband. So, I stayed with him and his nearby family, stuck in survival mode. And that’s how I ended up staying in Black River Falls all those years; we started having kids and we got married. But there was still this fear of not knowing if I would have a roof over my head and a new fear of not knowing where else I could go if I didn’t stay. My husband, like many other people in my life, was an abusive alcoholic. He isolated me from everything. He was my only support system. Unfortunately, Black River Falls does not have a homeless shelter or a domestic violence shelter, so I had nowhere to go. I felt so powerless and trapped. I didn’t deserve this. My kids didn’t deserve this. I was always afraid people would tell me I was a bad mom. But I wasn’t a bad mom. I was a good mom. I was just a struggling mom.
His relatives eventually brought me to domestic violence shelter. His father was especially helpful by providing emotional and financial support. My kids and I stayed in a shelter during this time. We just needed somebody to step in and show us how to do things for ourselves, to say, “there’s a better way to be.” Of course, not everybody has that support to help them be better, but I was fortunate in that.
I turned to alcohol to cope after my divorce. It started with having some drinks with co-workers after work, but I became a full-fledged alcoholic within a year. When I went back home, I did a lot of reflecting that put me further into a bad place. I had thoughts like, “Why was I sexually assaulted as a child? Why was I beaten as a child? Why was I raped in the Twin Cities? Why were all these bad things happening to me?” Eventually I did get treatment and now I have 25 years in recovery.
My recovery is one of my greatest strengths. Another one of my strengths is that my life experiences give me the ability to do the work I do now. All the things that happened to me in the past have made me who I am. I consider myself a very strong female, strong mother, and a strong grandmother. My family gives me strength and joy, especially my 13 grandbabies. I currently live here, in La Crosse, and have custody of one of my grandchildren. Living here allows me to work at New Horizons as the Lead Crisis Advocate. This is the very shelter my children and I stayed in 30 years ago. Now I help others like me who struggle and experience homelessness because of domestic violence. Empowering other survivors of domestic violence and homelessness makes me feel as though what I have suffered gave me new purpose as an advocate.