Whenever I tell someone my story, the response is always,"Wow, I had no idea." For a long time, I wanted to keep it that way. Hiding was what I did best and I had a lot of history I thought needed to be hidden. I grew up in poverty. We were without electricity more than we had it, we boiled water on the stove to take baths, there were holes in our walls, we could never afford the trash bill and all eight kids slept together in the dining room to stay warm on cold nights. But honestly, I don't think that affected me much. If anything, the ability to make a meal from almost nothing and create resources out of thin air has been a blessing in my adult life.
The hardest part about growing up was living with my dad. When he was nice, he was the best dad in the world. But as we got older, those times became fewer and fewer. One of my earliest memories of my dad is me, pinned to the floor while he tried to cut my tongue out for talking back to him... and the mean just got worse from there. Obviously, our home was incredibly dysfunctional. My dad used and abused his "God-given authority" to intimidate us. If we didn't do what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted, we were beaten and verbally abused. The worst part was never knowing what he wanted or when he wanted it. One of my dad's favorite sayings was "You aren't even worth the powder it'd take to blast you to hell." I didn't understand until I was older, but it was ingrained in my mind by then. He expected the house to be clean and dinner hot and on the table when he got home. Many nights, if the house wasn't up to his standards, he would come wake us up by pounding a rod across us as we slept. Even after I left home, for years, I would dream that I heard him coming at night. Mom was too weak and frightened to stand up to Dad, and eventually her exhaustion (and most likely depression) had her in bed every day for long stretches. I can't imagine what she went through watching her husband turn into a monster. My older sister and I tried the best we could to make sure the younger kids were safe and cared for. Some days that meant hiding them upstairs when he came home. Some days it meant taking them out to the "fort" I had built in the lilac bushes and staying there overnight.
We got used to living in constant fear. If you smiled, laughed or made noise, you got beat. If you cried or whined, you got beat. If the house was a mess, you got beat. If the house was clean, he would probably still find a reason to beat you. We tried to stay out of his way, but as with eight kids in a three-bedroom, one-bath home, it was a challenge. I think it was too much for my mom. She was worn out and worn down. She slept a lot. Dad came home less frequently, but his moods grew more volatile. His outbursts started changing from once a month to once a week and eventually, there would only be an occasional day where one of us wasn't getting knocked around. We didn't realize it wasn't a normal way to grow up. I think a person's gut instinctively tells them that their parent shouldn't be doing this, but you learn to process it the best you can and you move forward.... or you think you do.
I have realized as an adult, that growing up in a violent home is actually one of the most traumatic things a person can encounter. It affects the way you relate to people, to the world, the way you perceive things. It’s the dark shadows that flit through all the recesses of your mind, daring you to bring them into the light. It's learning that fear is the ruling voice, that love means pain, that there is no such thing as being protected. It is humiliation and embarrassment, wondering what you did to deserve this and why you were born so bad. It is wanting to tell someone, but also wanting to protect the only life you know. It's believing you are worthless and spending years making choice after choice to prove it. It is rage that you can't direct at your abuser, so you turn it inward and learn just how much you can hate someone. It's a legacy of pain.
I escaped when I was fourteen, couch surfing, and making the best I could of my shattered life. Since we had been homeschooled, I chose to attend public school for the first time as a junior in high school. I moved from place to place, ensuring I never stayed anywhere long enough to "wear out my welcome". Even in that phase of life, I knew I wanted better, so I worked full-time and made sure I finished school. Having the experience of being homeless made me realize that I wanted to help people like me. I headed to California to work on Skid Row. While I was there, I decided to dedicate my life to Christ and began looking for a college to attend. My goals had changed a bit. I wanted to provide a better life than I had growing up, but I also knew I wanted to help people. I chose social work as my major and decided that Evangel University was my school of choice.
That legacy of pain followed me though. Broken people tend to find broken people. I got married shortly after college, believing I had found the most incredible, Godly man on the planet. He was attractive, funny, and going places with his life. It turned out he was also manipulative and abusive and incapable of true love. My dreams of a healthy family quickly turned to real-life nightmares as we had two children and attempted to build a life together. His hateful words poured salt in the still-open wounds from my childhood. Eventually, the verbal abuse became physical. I left several times, always returning because I truly believed we could figure it out and create that white picket fence life with our kids. One day, I left in an ambulance and he left in the back of a squad car. I never went back after that. When I got out of the hospital, my four-year old son, infant daughter and I moved into a battered women's shelter. We went from 4000 square feet to a tiny room with one bed. We went from walk-in closets full of clothes to the pajamas we had left in. We went from looking like the typical upper-middle class family, to a homeless, broke single mom with two babies to care for. That was the moment that I decided to change my legacy.
With a brain injury, a black and blue face, and a broken arm, it was difficult to find a job, so I stayed in that shelter, feeling safe for the first time, learning that people could truly care about me, learning that I was not the reason for my abuse - not from my father and not from my husband. Eventually, I found a job. It wasn't an amazing job. It was entry level, and it was exactly what I needed to allow my brain to start putting things together again. Eighteen months of rehabilitation, thirteen months in that shelter. That was my true beginning. I started over from ground zero. I began to realize and redefine my ideas of normal behavior. I realigned my expectations. To this day, I have to consistently remind myself that acts of violence are never acts of love. It took me a long time to see life reflected in other people's eyes. I began to dig in to books and teachings on healthy relationships, abuse, and recovery. I found people who could lead by example. I chose to change my children's future by changing my present. I still struggle with many of the thoughts that were forcibly shoved into my brain on a repeated basis. But I no longer believe that my past determines my future. I no longer think of myself as crazy or overly sensitive or unworthy of having a good life. I never could reconcile the love and the abuse in my mind. Both existed. I had to accept that.
I also took the time to realize how much more I wanted for my beautiful children. I get to shape their experiences. I get to create the legacy that they pass on... and I knew that it would not be a legacy of pain. I want my kids to know about life. Not the "hard-knocks" life. Not the side of life where there is no getting back up because it's beaten you so badly. Not even the mediocre life where you just go through the motions doing what's expected of you. I want them to see the world. The light, the darkness, the contrast. The joy, the pain, the hope, the fear. I want them to experience it all from a place of safety and peace. I want to teach them about strength, real strength. I want to teach them courage, integrity, grit, character. I wanted to show them what it meant to live life with passion. That is the legacy I will leave - A legacy of passion.
There are still hard days. There are still days when I don't feel like I deserve this beautiful life I have been given. There are days that chasing my passion and creativity is exhausting. But I know that leaving that legacy, imprinting hope and inspiring creativity, it is so worth it! I refuse to remain with the ghosts. I refuse to let the shadows dancing in the corners determine the direction of my life. I refuse to live my life on anyone else's terms. I am done being convinced that I have no talent. I am okay with my mishaps and mistakes. I am working to overcome the desire to live my life behind shadows of potential rejection, ridicule and criticism. I have been told that I didn't have what it took, I wasn't disciplined enough, I was incapable. This legacy of pain has tried time and time again to steal away with my dreams, my hope, my relationships, and yes, even my life. A full life is a gift only given to the brave. So I am choosing to be brave in the face of fear. I am deciding that rather than cowering in a corner, hiding who I was, hoping no one can see me, I will become bigger than my past, bigger than the legacy left by my father. I choose daily to trust that everything is exactly as it should be. And I pray for one more night, one more moment to be here, to share.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” - Nelson Mandela
This is my story. This is my brave. This is me, choosing a legacy of passion and vulnerability. And I can only pray that as I write these words, they will find the person they are meant for, that they will embrace you in the knowledge that you are not alone. I pray they equip you with strength and love and give you wings to rise from the depths of your own darkness and live in your passion. I pray that you will choose your legacy. Because you can.
This story was prepared, written and submitted solely by Shannon in her personal capacity. The content and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7 Billion Ones, Randy Bacon Photography and/or any members or associates of these organizations.