‘I’m too scared to go back,’ I told my mom. His voice paralyzed me. I lived in fear he’d kill my mother.’: 23-year-old adopted by stepfather who ‘never ceased to fight’ for her during childhood trauma with biological dad

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“My name is Savannah and I was recently adopted at the age of 23 by my stepdad, Eric. I just call him Dad, though.

For the first 11 years of my life I lived in two different worlds. For five days of the week I was in a picture-perfect home made up of a beautiful, creative stay-at-home mom, siblings, a hard-working, loving father figure (my stepdad), and a house with a yard big enough to spend my days playing. I had friends, I was athletic, involved in church, and made excellent grades.

For a greater portion of the remaining two days of the week, I entered survival mode. On those two days I was picked up by my biological dad. I can still remember watching the clock tick by on those days, counting down how much time I had left in my safe haven before I would have to get into the car and enter my second world. My body would tense, my persona would change, and my spirit would retreat down into a protective shell in preparation for the court-ordered, designate time I had to spend in that house.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker
Courtesy of Savannah Decker

I was good at living two lives; I could switch identities with ease. At one house I was loved and safe and at the other I was scared, constantly walking on eggshells, afraid to upset the delicate balance within those walls.

My biological dad was and still is an alcoholic and also dabbles in and out of using an array of drugs. Most of the time he was tolerable, good even, which I later in life figured out was due to his immaculate skills in manipulating those in his environment. The tolerable would fade though, in the blink of an eye, unleashing all the anger and darkness built up inside of him. I was verbally and emotionally abused often. He would call me fat. Scream at me for hours when I reminded him it was time to take me and my sister home (I had our custody schedule memorized). He would tell me horrible lies about my mom, telling me she didn’t love me and wanted me to be kept away from him. He criticized most moves I made and utterances I spoke. Even though I didn’t have a phone, I would be in trouble upon every initial arrival at his house for not calling him throughout the week (though he never once tried to call my mom to speak to me).

Courtesy of Savannah Decker
Courtesy of Savannah Decker

He continuously made promises that were never kept. Every recital, sporting event, school meeting, and life event remained unattended with an excuse to follow as to why he last-minute could not make it. If I wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party on one of his allotted days, I got yelled at and lectured about how I didn’t love him or that he ‘knew my mom was making me go.’ I eventually just stopped asking permission to go to those events. My sister and I had to be picked up by police on multiple occasions when he refused to send us back to my mom and we occasionally got kicked out of public places due to his drunken rages.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

He would get arrested throughout my childhood and called me from jail each time to explain ‘I am on a work trip and won’t be able to pick you up for awhile.’ He verbally and physically abused his girlfriends in front of me and my sister, which I think was the scariest part of all. You see, my dad never hit me or my sister, but an unexplainable level of anxiety comes with not knowing when it could be your turn. Not knowing when you might just say or do the wrong thing that would result in receiving the consequences of his physical violence and anger. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes I would wish for him to hit me because physical bruises are easier to explain and reach out for help for than a battered spirit and emotional trauma are.

I was never brave enough to independently reach out to anyone, but I thought that maybe if I just had one visible bruise that someone would ask and then it wouldn’t be ‘my fault’ for telling. I think he might have known that though. He knew that if I was sent home with physical evidence of what happened in that house, that the show would come to an end. He would get rough with me on accident sometimes; slamming me too hard on the ground during a ‘play wrestling’ match or flipping me off of chairs in attempt to be funny. On one of his attempts to be ‘funny,’ he hurt my ankle pretty bad, enough to cause a limp. He reminded me for the rest of the night that I could not tell my mom and that I would just need to walk normal because she would try to do something bad to him if I told.

Over the years he had trained my brain well. I witnessed and knew what happened to the people (especially girls) who didn’t do as they were told, so I listened and I kept his secrets. I had escape routes planned from every room in the house. I memorized the routes to family members and friend’s houses that were close by just in case it ever came to that. There were so many days I would stare at the window in my bedroom, hands on the frame, trying to build enough courage to slip out of it and run. I knew the odds of getting my little sister and myself out of the window and running down the road fast enough were too low to chance though, so the window always stayed closed.

When I was 11, on the night before my very first day of sixth grade, my sister accidently said too much to my mom about a physical fight my dad and his girlfriend had in front of us. I was enraged that she had tattled, terrified of what was going to happen to me if he found out. My mom confronted me about it and I finally broke. The only thing I could muster to say between sobs was that ‘I was too scared to ever go back,’ and we didn’t. My dad called for about two months screaming and cussing out my mom saying he ‘knew she was lying,’ ‘this is what you’ve always wanted,’ ‘my girls would never say they don’t want to come to my house.’ My mom tried multiple times to get me to get on the phone to tell him myself, just to try to make him understand that it wasn’t her, but the thought of even hearing his voice paralyzed me. He stopped calling after those two months, but I lived in fear that he would show up and kill my mom for years.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

When my mom divorced my biological dad when I was young, she was faced with the most difficult choice imaginable: to terminate all rights and never allow my dad to see me again, or to allow a very limited amount of time with him. I can’t imagine the deliberation that went into that choice. Had she terminated his rights, me and my sister would have grown up always wondering if we had a loving father that my mom took us away from, always curious about what life ‘could have been.’ While allowing him some visitation rights allowed for us to be subjected to all the he was capable of, I’ve never once regretted or felt anger towards my mom for the choice she made; I’m thankful actually. For I would not be who I am today, strong, insightful, and passionate had the choice been different. She had no idea what happened in that house, his girlfriend was a police officer for goodness sakes. She felt that we were safe and that he would never extend any of his darkness to us.

In the midst of all of negative experiences throughout my childhood, she gave me the greatest gifts of all. She dedicated herself to loving me with an indescribable love and remarried a man who I consider one of the greatest people to walk the earth. Eric Richey is my mom’s husband and the man I call my father. He so humbly and delicately loved me and my sister through some of the hardest years of our lives. My biological dad made me feel unworthy of deep love. He broke my heart, dampened my soul, and made me push away anyone who exhibited any type of real love to me. Eric never gave up on me, though. He took me to my first day of kindergarten, attended every event, accompanied me to father-daughter dances and breakfasts, told me I was beautiful every single day, taught me to play instruments, instilled a love for nature and animals within me, encouraged every crazy dream and idea I ever had, and was continuously my biggest fan.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

He chipped away for years at my hardened, broken, and scared heart and redefined what a father, husband, and man are supposed to be. There were periods of time that I heavily rejected him, treated him unkindly and unfairly, and worked really hard to prove him wrong, because I knew there was no way he could actually love me. Yet he proved me wrong, time and time again, never ceasing to fight for me. He loved and continues to love my mom in a way that I’ve never seen a human love someone else.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

Biological parents and children have a promised bond that is established when a pregnancy test reads positive, a bond that is so unexplainable and beautiful. But me and Eric (dad) did not have this promise. Our love and bond had to be earned, which makes it even more beautiful and unique to me.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker
Courtesy of Savannah Decker

My sister and I surprised Eric with adoption papers this past Father’s Day; and it was the most joyous day I’ve ever experienced. Nothing will ever top him looking at me with tear-filled eyes, and saying, ‘You’ve always been my girls and you don’t know how long I’ve wanted this to happen.’

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

I was given, by the grace of God, a second chance at love and family that most people in my situation are never given. I statistically should be a fourth generation addict, I should have never made it far enough to receive a college scholarship playing softball, should have never gotten a degree (let alone at the masters level), and I should be in the cycle of entering an abusive relationship. But that is what happens when God appoints people in your life to break the chains and cycles of what should ‘statistically’ happen. I am what happens when Christ instills courage like a lion into people like my mom who escape a life filled with darkness and seek a life filled with peace and love. I am what happens when someone decides to take a chance and refuses to accept the damage that has been done. I am loved. I am worthy. I am strong. I have a voice. I am brave. I am adopted; not only on earth, but also into the greatest, heavenly family to ever exist in this universe.

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

Addiction did not steal the love that I was born to find. I hope that anyone who reads this, who feels that they are too far gone, too broken, or unworthy of love knows that those words are lies straight from hell. Hurt people hurt other people, and you are not what the world makes you out to be. Rise up friends. Take hold to any of the goodness you can find in the world. Accept the love that genuine people extend to you. Despite the fear, pain, and ‘what ifs’ love is always worth the risk. Love is always worth the fight. Love is always waiting in the most unexpected places, for you to welcome it in. I am officially and forever home. I will be walked down the isle by the dad of my dreams, and we will swing dance like nobody is watching at my reception. My children will have the most amazing grandfather to look up to. I will cry tears of thankfulness for the rest of my life for the gift that Eric has been and is to me; my Daddy. I’m so anxiously awaiting the day that I get to go to heaven and give Jesus the biggest hug for choosing me to be loved by him despite what evil tried to destroy.”

Courtesy of Savannah Decker

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Savannah Marie Decker of Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more inspiring stories of adult adoption:

‘No one has ever wanted you here. If you find a family that will actually love you, go be with them.’: 26-year-old adopted after years of childhood trauma, abuse, says you’re ‘never too old to need parents’

‘Call the attorney. Tell her you changed your mind,’ he said with gun-in-hand. I was breathless.’: Husband adopts formerly abused wife’s adult sons after their biological father dies from addiction

‘Why do my kids not want to talk to me?’ My mom replied, ‘You don’t have anything to do with them, why would they?’ 18-year-old adopted by uncle’s best friend, the ‘most selfless’ man she knows

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