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I still remember the day. November 21, 2016. The day I celebrated 500 days of freedom. The day I planned to celebrate my successes. The day I went to the beach to release the stones I had lost into the ocean. The day I carried with me the stones of all I had gained. Stones I still have to this day, laid out right by my desk, reminding me of my new truths.

It was also the day I let go of the stones it was time to give away. Guilt. Shame. Fault. Blame. They were no longer weighing me down. I was free from them. I was free from my trauma. I was free from my mother.

I remember how I felt that day. Like I accomplished something. Like I had started a new life. Like I had finally realized what it felt like to be free. I felt a sense of happiness amidst the grief. I finally knew what it was like to feel safe, I knew what it was like not to worry. It took 500 days for me to get there, but I got there none the less.

But those feelings were soon ripped away from me, because November 21, 2016 wasn’t just my 500th day of freedom. It was also the day my mother found me.

Just days after I celebrated my new-found freedom and safety, I received her first letter in the mail. A business envelope with no return address. A catalog sheet of gravestones, ready for my choosing. They were the stones my mother believed I deserved. The ultimate punishment for going against her.

I ran away. I escaped prison. And I told my story. Because I knew upon my leaving, that people were still in danger. Telling was the only way to help them. And it did help. Some people were able to see through her manipulation and get out before it was too late. But others are still being hurt by her. And in many ways, I am still being hurt by her.

She took away my freedom. She took away my sense of safety. With each piece of mail she sent, she took it all away from me. That accomplishment I felt, that glimpse of happiness I got to experience, it all faded away.

My life was no longer one of freedom, no longer one of safety. Even in distance, my mother was no longer so far away. She made her presence known. She took away all of the things I worked so hard for since running away, with just a few pages of words, with just a sheet of gravestones.

Why? Why couldn’t she let me experience that freedom just a little bit longer? Why couldn’t she just let me feel safe? Why did she have to take that all away from me?

I haven’t been the same since then. As much as I’ve moved around, I am still afraid of being found. As much as I try to be invisible, I can still be traced. As much as I try to live my life, I am still in fear of her. Is she watching me from afar? Is she behind me? Is she waiting outside my door? Are her words sitting in my mailbox? Is she sitting there, reading my thoughts? Is she planning to hurt me? Will she be picking my gravestone?

I haven’t felt safe since then. I’m not sure I ever will. Because I know as long as she is here on earth, I am in danger. It’s something I cannot change. I chose to be on my own while leaving her to hurt others. I chose to run away instead of putting her in jail. I chose to hide instead of bringing her to justice. I chose this life, and I set myself up for these consequences.

I should have known better, but I was drawn away by the illusion of a free life. A life I now know cannot exist.

I just want to feel safe.

Fired (Up)

I came home Monday afternoon expecting to enjoy the rest of the day — the anniversary of my freedom.

I checked the mail and saw a letter from my employer. I opened it. There was a piece of paper with my name and information on it, with directions for filing for unemployment, with a permanent separation date of June 6th.

I never quit my job. I wanted to go back as soon as I could. I never wanted to be out in the first place. When I passed out at work that day, the manager told me I would not be able to come back until I had medical clearance in writing. I told her it was going to take me awhile to get it, and she said that was okay — that my health was first priority. And I have been trying ever since to get a note, but because of my history of heart issues and fainting, no one wanted to take on the liability and told me I needed to see my cardiologist.

So I planned to wait until my next appointment, which was then cancelled because my cardiologist decided to leave the practice on short notice. I rescheduled with my original cardiologist, but the earliest appointment I could get was July 11th. Fine. I figured everything was okay because my manager told me to take all the time I needed.

When I got that letter, I didn’t understand what happened. No one contacted me before this. No letter, no phone call, no e-mail, nothing. As far as I knew, everything was still okay. I had no idea I was going to be let go. I never lost a job before — not like this.

It was hard enough for me to leave the job I had for nearly two years, the job I got just weeks after running away. But that was a choice I made in order to have a better, safer life — and a place to live. I was in control.

But this was not in my control. This was not a choice to leave. This was being fired. Through the mail. On the day I was supposed to be celebrating my freedom.

I tried to suppress my emotions, I tried to push it in the back of my mind, to try to think about it another day. But that didn’t work out so well, because I ended up in tears. I was angry, frustrated, and upset. What did I do wrong? I didn’t abandon my job. I was good at it. I performed well even in the few weeks that I was there. And I did everything I could to try to get back, and I was still trying. But it wasn’t enough.

I felt like a failure. I can’t keep a job. I can’t even keep myself upright. How am I supposed to get another job? How am I going to pay my bills? No one wants to hire someone who was fired, and surely no one wants to hire someone who passes out frequently. Not disabled enough for disability, but not able enough to work. It’s occupational entrapment.

I managed to stop crying for a little while, but any chance of enjoying the rest of the day was gone. I made it through dinner, but then I felt the same emotions coming back. I went outside. I wanted to badly to run away, to take my cigarettes and smoke my feelings into numbness.

And it took everything in me not to do that, because I knew it wasn’t going to solve anything. I knew it was going to affect other people, and affect me. So I sat with my emotions and a bottle of beer. I let myself cry. I let myself be angry.

Then I looked up at the sky. I watched the fireflies fly. I watched the neighbor’s dog waddle through his yard. I looked around me. Peaceful. Quiet. Freedom. For 29 years, the only way I could watch the sky was through my bedroom window. But that wasn’t my life anymore. This was my life. Full of feelings and losses, but also full of fresh air, fireflies, and the freedom to see life from the outside, instead of inside my window.

I was still upset, still angry, but it no longer overwhelmed me. I came back inside. I sat on the couch and watched TV. I ended up falling asleep there, with one dog sleeping behind my head and another sleeping right at my side. And I couldn’t imagine life any other way. Safety, a family, friends, a home, dogs, and freedom.

I’ll figure out the rest, somehow, some way.

Two Years of Freedom, Part 3: Growing

There are many aspects of growth. It’s really complex when you think about it. Just because something grows, doesn’t mean it’s thriving. There’s growth in surviving, too. But it’s a different kind of growth. It’s not full. It’s not healthy. It’s growth that never reaches its full potential.

I’ve thought a lot about growth. When I think about the first 29 years of my life, I know I grew. Physically, emotionally. But that growth was stunted by the environment I was in. I was in survival mode. I grew in ways I had to in order to stay alive. But that didn’t make me healthy. That didn’t make it all right.

And then I think about where I am now. Two years of freedom; two years of tremendous growth. I wrote a commendable thesis, graduated college, established my support organization, started grad school, became a notable writer, co-wrote a book, and even started work on a second. It’s no longer about surviving. Now it’s about thriving.

But even that tremendous growth could not have occurred without the darkness I experienced before it. The losses I experienced, the grief and the pain, they were part of my growth, too. They were sitting underneath the roots of my existence this whole time. It just took the right environment for the real growth to take place. It took light to overcome the darkness.

When I first thought of burning those cards and letters, my initial plan was to bury the ashes in the yard. But as I thought about it more, I found it to be too dismissive. Even though I let go, those feelings and those experiences were still a part of who I became.

So I saved the ashes, and I spread them across the bottom of a planter. Then I added in some dirt. And then I placed the stones of what I’ve lost on top. They were the stones I have been holding on to for almost a year now: Family, mother, father, self, support, love, purpose, and hope. These were the losses I experienced in childhood, the losses I was still experiencing even after I ran away.


I no longer needed to carry those stones with me. In a way, I was letting go of them. But I was also acknowledging what has come from them. I lost my family, but I’ve been making a new one along the way. I lost my mother, but that loss has pushed me to help others. I lost my father, but that loss has driven me to take better care so I don’t end up like him. I lost my self, but I am working to find myself again. I lost support in more ways than one, but somehow that loss sent me to where I am today, surrounded by supportive people. I lost love in the sense that I never got to experience it before, but now I have — through those people who continue to support me. I lost my purpose because I believed for so long that I had no purpose. But I have found my purpose in using my experiences to help others. I lost hope a very long time ago, as a child who grew up believing that there was no way out of the pain but to die. But I now know what life can be; I know that I don’t have to die. All of these losses created me. They led to my growth.

And now they are supporting a new growth, because above the eight stones, I planted eight peace lilies.

I chose that plant specifically, because in many ways it was symbolic of my life and growth. Peace lilies can survive with very little water and very little light. But darkness slows its growth. It doesn’t grow as fully and beautifully in the darkness as it does in the light. It survives in the darkness, but thrives in the light. Just like me.

The peace lily is also a symbol of grief, of innocence and rebirth. And in many ways, my freedom has been a rebirth. What lies in the dirt below the seeds, my losses, the ashes of my pain, they are what came before me. They are what led me to my new life. Parts now unseen, hidden below, but nonetheless affecting.

I no longer carry those cards, those letters, those gravestones, or those stones with me. They are all part of the base in the growth of beautiful new flowers, just as they are all part of the growth of me.

My peace lilies are growing in the light now, just like me.

Two Years of Freedom, Part 2: Learning to Live

“There’s a lot of things that she should have learned as a child and didn’t, but she’s learning them now.”

It’s so hard for people to understand, and I don’t necessarily blame them. They don’t understand why I have trouble communicating, why I am so scared to go out places, why I freak out when I have to use the phone. I’m an adult. I should be able to do these things. What they don’t understand is how much I missed learning and experiencing for the first 29 years of my life.

Even after I ran away, my experiences of life were skewed. I was in an environment that really wasn’t the best for me. I told myself it was okay because it was better than where I came from, but the truth is that being in that environment held me back. I was no longer a prisoner of my mother’s home, but for multiple reasons, I became a prisoner in my own room. The ways of life I was experiencing were not the ways I thought a normal life would be. But I didn’t know any better at the time. All I had to go by was the word of those close to me, and those were not the best people to learn life from.

I lost hope for a bit when my mother found me, shortly after my 500 days of freedom. I believed that was going to be it for me. Those next few months were the hardest. I questioned whether it was all worth it. No family, dwindling friendships, increasing debt — I was living on leftover scraps and cheap rice from the dollar store, functioning on little to no sleep because the place where I was living was no longer safe for me. But I had no other options. I was too ashamed to ask for help, too ashamed to ask for food, too ashamed to tell people just how bad my life had become. I learned to tolerate life, just like I learned to tolerate the life I had before I ran away.

What I didn’t learn, up until a few months ago, was how to live. All this time, the only thing I was learning was how to tolerate things I shouldn’t have had to tolerate. That was not life. That was not living.

But everything is different now. For the first time in my life, I am in a safe environment. I don’t have to lock and barricade any doors. I don’t have to worry about who is in my home. I no longer sleep with a knife under my pillow. I no longer go to bed with three layers of clothing on, because I no longer live with the fear that my mother is going to come and hurt me in my sleep. She doesn’t know where I am, and if there ever comes a time when she does find out (because I don’t believe for one second that she won’t try to find me again), there’s nothing she can do to hurt me. I am protected — by people, by three big dogs, and by my own (still growing) strength.

I have people who genuinely care about me. They are helping me learn what life really is, what normal is. And I still struggle with things. I don’t always eat like I should, or know what to say in social situations, or how to act when I’m out and about. But I am learning, with their help.

And even in the few months that I’ve been here, I have improved so much. I used to avoid the grocery store because it gave me anxiety. Now I look forward to going every Sunday. I used to have meltdowns whenever I’d end up in loud places. Now I go out to eat in noisy restaurants and manage the anxiety with the help of people who support me. I used to hide food in my room because people would take it from me. Now I don’t have to do that at all, because I know that food will always be available to me.

I’m learning how to make choices, although I admit that I still need to work on that. I try to navigate through healthy and unhealthy relationships. I try to make decisions regarding my medical issues. I even try to pick out foods I like, which is something I never got to experience before. And it’s not always easy. I still have times when I get too overwhelmed, when I need to ask for help. And now there are people there to help me do that.

I go outside so much. Sometimes it’s to play with the dogs. Sometimes to just sit outside to read, or to watch the fireflies, or to look at the flowers. Some nights, I still sit outside and look up the stars; it reminds me that I am free. It’s something I could never do before. And it still amazes me.

I never knew what life really was up until a few months ago. I never imagined things would be this way. From the outside, you would think my life would be in turmoil. I’ve been out of work. I’ve been bombarded with some serious health issues.  I’ve bounced from place to place just trying to stay out of the shelter, losing a decent amount of my possessions along the way. I’ve lost a few thousand dollars I can never get back.

But I’ve learned that life isn’t about having money and things. It isn’t about how long you have to live. It’s about the people you have in your life. It’s about how you choose to spend the time you are alive. I may or may not have a long life ahead of me, and these people may not be my biological family, but that doesn’t matter to me.

I am learning to live the life that was meant for me, not the life my mother chose for me.

Two Years of Freedom, Part 1: Letting Go

I hold on to things. I become attached.

I think it has a lot to do with having nothing. When I ran away, I took whatever clothes and shoes could fit in my bag, my computer, and a few small things, and left everything else behind.

And I lived on very little for those first couple of months. The only furniture I had was the bed my roommate let me borrow. I wore the same pair of shoes. I cycled through the same sets of clothes. I cooked and ate out of the same plastic container. And every night by 9 o’clock, I laid in the darkness, because I didn’t even own a light.

Then slowly, I started to settle in. I started to buy things. One of the first things I bought for myself was a mug from the Disney Store. It was from the movie Inside Out, my favorite movie to this day. And I used that mug every day, because it was the only thing I owned to drink out of. But that was okay. It was mine.

And I held on to that mug. Even as I found myself bouncing from place to place, that mug came with me. It was as important as anything else. I could have easily just brought another mug along the way, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I formed an attachment. To me, that mug was a sign of my freedom. The first thing that was really mine.

Then a few weeks ago, I set my mug on the table as I had every morning. I was preparing my breakfast, and accidentally dropped the spoon. Even though it was only a two foot drop at most, the spoon hit the mug in such a way that it shattered the handle right off. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t repair it. A part of me wanted to. A part of me believed that throwing that mug away somehow meant throwing away so much more.

But I faced reality. It was just a mug. There were dozens more in the cabinet I could use whenever I needed. Why keep something that no longer served its purpose? I had to let go. I reminded myself it’s useless now and I threw it away. And I was okay.

In doing that, I thought about the other things I carry with me, the things that weigh me down, the things that no longer have a purpose.

I carry a folder with me wherever I go. It has my medical documents in there in case of emergency. It also has notes from therapy to help me if I ever needed reminders.

It also had the cards I’ve written to my family. The cards to my mother. The card to my father. The card to my brother. The letter my mother wrote to me. And the gravestone posters she mailed to my address.

I’ve been holding on to these things for so long. Those cards will never be sent. I wrote what was in my heart and let it out into the world, and that was that. My mother’s letter was just four pages of lies and denial. And the gravestones she sent me were not the stones that I deserved. But for some reason I attached a meaning to them. A meaning I didn’t need.

I needed to let them all go. So today, three days away from two years of freedom, I took the cards, the letter, and the gravestones and let them go.

I remembered the things my mother believed. Bad things have to burn. So they will. I burned every card, the letter, and the gravestones, piece by piece.

The card to my father went first. He’s gone now, he will surely never read my words. Then I burned the card to my brother. That one wasn’t as easy. I had to tell myself that I did what I could for him. I hope one day he knows what it’s like to be free, but I can no longer carry that burden on me.

Then came the cards to my mother. A lost cause, because even though she knows my words, she will never hear them for their truth.

Then I burned the letter she wrote to me. I didn’t even read it over. It didn’t matter. As I put each piece in the fire, it burned within seconds. Just like that, it was gone. Everything turned into indiscernible ashes.


I saved the gravestones for last. I debated whether or not I should keep them, but I realized they had no purpose for me. They never did. My mother could wish me dead all she wants. She can send me all the death threats she wants. She could even kill me. But she can never hurt me any more than she already has. The gravestones weren’t burning well, so I tore them up into tiny pieces and mixed them into the ashes.

I no longer carry these things with me. I no longer hope for the day my father becomes a father, because he is dead. I no longer carry the burden of saving my brother, because I know that he is not my responsibility. I no longer hold onto my mother’s words, because her words were never the truth. And I no longer hold onto the stones my mother thinks I deserve, because I no longer believe that I should die just for finding my freedom.

It’s been almost two years now. I had to let go.

500 Days of Freedom, Part 2 (The Stones I’ve Lost)

I had a good family. They didn’t know better. My mother loved me. I can’t live without her. I am bad; I am evil. I am just crazy. I am worthless. I deserved to be hurt. There is no hope for me. It was all my fault.

These were the beliefs I carried with me for so long. These were the beliefs I held on to because I had no other choice. I didn’t know any better. I couldn’t know any better.

And those beliefs weighed on me. They kept me from moving forward. They kept me stuck. Even after I ran away and found my freedom, I still carried those beliefs with me, every day. But as time went on, I realized those beliefs were not the truths I thought them to be. They were just lies my mother wanted me to believe. They were lies I needed to believe so I could survive without breaking.

I realized I had to let those false beliefs go. I didn’t want to carry them anymore. I had enough weight to bear already.

I wrote one belief on each big stone. Each stone was heavy on its own, but as I gathered the stones together, the weight was tremendous. I wasn’t going to carry these stones with me; I needed to send them away.

So on my 500th day of freedom, I took the stones to the beach. I walked out to the ledge of rocks where the waves were breaking. I watched as the tide washed everything away. I wanted it to wash my beliefs away. I picked each stone out one by one. I felt the weight of the stone in my hand. I read each belief to myself, and thought about how each affected me.

I had a good family.

The wish, the belief that my family was good, was one my mother provided for me. It was all an act; they only played a good family in public. It’s why I couldn’t think any differently. Everyone would say what good people my mother and father were, and I took that in and believed that it must be true. It wasn’t true. It was never true.

They didn’t know better.

I’d tell myself maybe they just didn’t know any better. Maybe they were hurt, too. Maybe they think this is normal. How can I be mad at them if they just didn’t know? But how the hell couldn’t they know? Any person in their right mind knows you don’t beat a child bloody. Any person knows you don’t sexually abuse your own children (or any child). It doesn’t matter if that was their normal. It should have never been my normal.

My mother loved me.

Mothers love their children. It’s what society says. It’s what movies and books says. The bond between mother and child is special. Maybe this is just how she shows her love. But love isn’t supposed to hurt like that. You can’t tell someone you love them and then turn around and break them over and over and over again. That is not love.

I can’t live without her.

She told me no one would ever love me. She told me I would never survive without her. I became so enmeshed with her that I lost my self in the process. And that’s exactly what she wanted. She planted the seed of insecurity in me and then she fed off its leaves for decades. I thought I could never get away. I thought I could never live without her. But I have been living for 500 days without her now.

I am bad. I am evil.

It’s why she always had to hurt me. I was a bad child. I had to be punished. I had evil inside me. I had to be cleansed. It’s the only way her hurting me made sense. I believed what she said because no one else was there to say any different. But I am not bad. I am not evil. I am good. I have a kind heart. I have empathy. I was not the bad one. My mother was.

I am just crazy.

It’s what she’s told everyone for the last 15 years. Don’t believe her, she’s crazy. She lies, she’s crazy. She’s bipolar and crazy. Just don’t listen to her, she’s crazy. I was not crazy. I was dealing with things a child should never have to deal with. I was struggling with emotions I wasn’t allowed to have. I wasn’t crazy. I just wasn’t being what my mother wanted me to be.

I am worthless.

I don’t deserve to eat. I don’t deserve nice things. I am a piece of shit. These were things my mother told me, and I believed them. Because mothers don’t lie to their children. She knows everything, so she must know I’m worthless, too. That’s why she treated me that way. If I could just be worthy, maybe she would love me. But I’ve had worth this whole time. She didn’t want to see it. And she didn’t want me to see it, either.

I deserved to be hurt.

She’s hurting me because I am bad, and evil, and worthless. That’s why I deserve all of this. I was put on this earth to be hurt. This is God’s way. She is trying to help me. But she wasn’t helping. And I never deserved to be hurt. There is nothing a child can do that would ever warrant the abuse that she unleashed on me. I deserved to be nurtured and nourished and loved, not hurt and abused.

There is no hope for me.

I need to just die. I can’t live in pain like this. It’s never going to end. She is never going to stop. I just want to get out of here. Please, just end my pain. I believed I was never going to get out. I believed my mother was going to abuse me until the day I finally succeeded at killing myself. But I got away, and now she can no longer hurt me. I don’t need to die anymore. There is hope for me.

It was all my fault.

It’s what my mother wanted me to believe. I ruined the family. We couldn’t do anything because of me. She couldn’t pay bills because of me. She got in trouble because of me. She was hurting me because of me. She got angry because of me. Her life was ruined because me. Her life was my fault. My pain was my fault. Everything was my fault. But none of it was. It never was. It was her fault. I was just a child.

One by one, I threw each stone out to sea. I cried, not because I was sad about losing them. Rather, I cried because I was sad for the little girl, the teenager, and the young adult me that had to carry these beliefs for so long in order to survive.

These stones are no longer weighing me down. They no longer belonged to me. They are lying at the bottom of the Atlantic now. They belong to the sea.

They are the stones I’ve lost.

500 Days of Freedom, Part 1

I still count the number of days since I ran away.

I started counting the day I left. I didn’t really know how far I’d get, but I still kept counting. Every morning was another day of freedom gained, every seven days was another week I made it through.

And now I have made it 500 days.

I realized I was getting close to 500 days a few weeks ago. I noticed it was also very close to the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a difficult one for me. I knew I needed to do something to celebrate. It would not only be good for me to acknowledge how far I’ve come, but also to be able to celebrate something meaningful for me while other people celebrate something meaningful to them.

I wanted to do something different. I brainstormed for a few days. Then one night, I was sitting at my desk and saw the stones of what I (thought I) lost. They have been sitting on my bookshelf since July, when I made them at the workshop I attended. As much as I wanted to do something special with them, I realized that they were made in a moment of hopelessness. I was plagued by a horrible memory, and it cast a dark cloud on my mind. I believed in that moment that I had lost hope, love, support, and purpose. But they weren’t really my losses. I had those things. I still do.

So I decided I was going to have a do-over. I was going to make new stones. I went to the craft store and found the biggest, heaviest, stones and put them in my basket. Then I saw a bag of small, smooth stones. I thought, I can do something with these, too. And then I grabbed another bag of stones as well. They were small, but not smooth; they were disfigured and heavy. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do just yet, but I know I would come up with something.

And I did. I separated the three groups of stones. The big, heavy stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve lost. The small, smooth stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve gained. The heavy, oddly shaped stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve given away.

These stones were my progress; five-hundred days summed up on 72 stones. I felt something with every word I wrote on each stone. I cried. I got angry. I grieved. But I kept going. Just like I’ve kept going for 500 days.

I know there are many people who don’t understand why I still count the days, who don’t understand what I ran away from, and who don’t understand why I celebrate seemingly meaningless things like 500 days of freedom. But I know. I understand. And that’s what matters.

I spent the day with my stones. Some are gone forever now. Some are still with me. And some have found a different home. I grieved today. I cried. A lot. But I also smiled. I sensed relief. I felt the burden of what I’ve been carrying for so long lifted away.

There is a song by Thousand Foot Krutch, called Give Up the Ghost. I listen to it every day. The words speak to me in ways a song rarely does. It reminds me of my struggle. It reminds me of all of the things my parents kept hidden from me, the things they took away from me. But it also reminds me of the freedom I found. I am no longer caged. I am no longer the enemy. I am me, and I am free.

They never told me that I could be

free from the hate that’s inside of me.

They took my place, took my dignity.

They kept me caged like an enemy.

But I know now, I can be

free from the pain that’s inside of me.

You took my place, gave me air to breathe.

Opened the cage, and you set me free.