‘My bully was 6’3 and 300 pounds. Only he wasn’t on the playground, but in my home. He ran it like a military boot camp from hell. When he freed me, I wasn’t allowed to say a word.’

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“I wish I could say my childhood was whimsical and wonderful, or even that I miss those carefree days of youthful, blissful, ignorance. While other girls my age chased butterflies and dreams, I hid in closets from my living nightmares. To say that I barely made it out of adolescence alive wouldn’t be an understatement.

I was bullied and terrorized nearly every single day during such a crucial and formative period of life. My bully wasn’t a kid on the playground, wasn’t a boy pulling my pig tails on the school bus, not even a teacher that just didn’t like me. The bully was in my home. My bully was a person who was supposed to love me unconditionally, to provide my sense of safety and security from the world. Instead, they shaped my world into one of fear and disillusionment.

We hear stories of child abuse almost daily and we close our eyes. We look away because it’s too painful for us to hear about. We meet broken adults throughout our lives who couldn’t close their lives and look away because they lived the stories. We wonder why they haven’t moved on and made better lives for themselves. I can tell you from firsthand experience it’s because healing and moving forward from trauma that most people struggle to process even secondhand is one of the most difficult tasks a person can undertake.

The inability to relate to other people who had fairly ‘normal’ lives is incredibly difficult. We barely survived at home, we definitely were not taught appropriate social behavior or important life skills that we would need in order to function well in society. We learned survival tactics and we hid in shame for so long that we don’t always know how to move forward, or where to even start the process of healing.

My bully was my stepfather who came into my life when I was a toddler and stayed until my mother finally found the power to leave him. By this time, I was already grown and out of the home. He was a cruel, violent, power hungry person who ran our home like a military boot camp from hell. He was a pretty big guy, 6’3 and nearly 300 pounds. He worked out obsessively and he could literally lift the front end of cars. This man was a force to be reckoned with and he was feared by most people. I am still shocked sometimes that his sheer size and strength did not kill me as a child.

I was a small girl, built like my mother with a tiny frame, but he beat every shred of fragility out of me. This enormous monster would charge through our home in a fit of rage pretty often. Any and everything in his path incurred his wrath. Unfortunately, it was usually me.

I remember violent episodes of being thrown downstairs and carried down those same stairs by my hair and my feet, never touching the floor. I remember waking up to cold water being thrown on me in my bed and then being hit in the face for whatever it was I had done or hadn’t done well enough this time. I remember being hit, slapped, and kicked in front of other children while I cried from pain and humiliation. Why didn’t anyone help?

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

My mother worked long hours most of my life and wasn’t home for most of the abuse. I believe she felt trapped in her marriage because she was not able to make it on her own financially with two girls to care for. She also struggled with a mental illness and I really believe she just simply did the best she could with the circumstances she had. As for everyone else, they tried. Social services were called several times by neighbors. I remember one instance where they had been called because I was forced to sleep in our car in the parking lot during freezing temperatures because I had made too much noise. But no matter how many times they came, nothing ever changed.

I believe the very worst of it happened one afternoon when I was about 12 or 13. The broken little butterfly had begun her metamorphosis. What more could he do that he hadn’t already? A rage had started to burn within me, and those flames stoked courage. Instead of just taking yet another beating, I talked back after being hit repeatedly. He responded by binding my hands and feet with duct tape, stuffing a sock into my mouth, and putting duct tape over it too. Then, he threw me into the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. It felt like I was there for hours before he finally came in to free me. When he freed me, he told me that I better not say a word about what happened, and I needed to go eat before my mother got home. I sat down to eat a bowl of cereal and I remember it burning so badly because my mouth was bleeding from the force of the sock being shoved in. I ate every bite. I was once again truly terrified of what he may be capable of.

This was my life every single day. Between the beatings and the black eyes, I still had to go to school, be a big sister, and pretend to live a normal life while all this was going on in secret. I had to do my homework and turn in projects that I sometimes finished on the floor of my closet after being violently beaten. I had a black eye in one of my elementary school photos. My mother burned that photo before she died. I’m not sure if it’s because she was ashamed that it happened or because she wanted to forget. I certainly never forgot.

I never forgot that I missed an entire week of 6th grade because my face was too bruised to go to school. I never forgot that I spent several of my early teenage years in the foster care system because of my home life. I carried all this with me for a very long time. Looking back, it’s safe to say that if it were not for my little sister, I honestly don’t believe I would have survived. I think I found my strength to fight by trying to protect her. I tried to shield her from most of the abuse, even if it meant stepping in front of her to take the blow rather than watching it land on her.

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

This environment not only stole my childhood from me, it almost stole my life and my future. I was unable to maintain high school and the trauma at home, so I dropped out. I searched for the love I wasn’t getting at home in all the wrong places and found myself a teen mother just like my mom. While no one could fill the holes he had punched into me, getting pregnant was a turning point in my life.

The universe started to place people in my path who saw my potential. They looked past my brokenness and my circumstances, and they did something no one had ever done before. Instead of beating me down, they reached out a hand and helped me up. They helped me find a school program that allowed me to bring my baby. Not only did I graduate, I was the graduate speaker at our ceremony with my 10-month-old son in the audience. I took parenting classes to help me learn how to be a better parent than mine were. My grandmother gave my son and myself a safe place to live and helped me get a good job. These angels I came across helped me to realize everything that monster tried to steal, but that I had the power to reclaim it!

I went on to have two more children and my sister and I became the first generation in our family to break the cycle of domestic violence. I was also the first generation in my family to graduate from college. I earned a degree in Psychology. Despite my degree, I’ve had a therapist for most of my adult life. I still have mental health struggles because of the abuse I’ve suffered. However, I knew I wanted to give my children better lives than the one I had, and I will do whatever it takes to make that happen! All three of my children know they are safe, loved, and cherished more than anything.

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn
Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn
Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

I decided that not only would I be better for my children, I would be better for myself despite what I had been through. I could not have done it without help from so many different people. Especially kind people who had pasts similar to mine and were brave enough to tell their stories. They inspired me and they helped me. One of them was a foster parent, one a teacher, another a bus driver. There was even a dentist who reached out and helped me when I was without health insurance and I had a medical/dental emergency. I realized these people were helping me because, at some point in their lives, they had suffered too. They had been victims of someone else’s lack of love and decency. Their past, their stories, and their kindness helped transform my future.

It wasn’t until recently I realized I was still holding onto so much hatred and pain from all these things. I thought I had moved past them. I had cut all ties with him as an adult after he continued to reach out to my sister and I for help, gaslighting us into helping and then never repaying us. We both realized this man is simply a toxic human being. After some intense personal development work, I have come to understand that even though I am a victim of abuse, I absolutely need to let go of not only the person who caused the pain, but the hatred I continued to harbor. That hate wasn’t harming him, but it was destroying me. I had been a victim, but only I could stop being a victim now.

I learned to send that energy he poured into my life back out into the universe to him. It was never mine! It was always his and he can have it back. I understand that he is not well because healthy people do not treat other people, especially children, that way. I even found the power within myself to not only send it back, but to send it back with love. That wasn’t easy and it took time, but my life is completely transformed now.

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

I have been able to not only start healing but also to grow through this experience, to be the person I was meant to be. I am a passionate, empathetic woman. I love fiercely with all my heart. I have healthy relationships and friendships. I have all the things that he never had and most likely never will. I refuse to hold onto hate or to hide away in shame and silence anymore!

This is my story and I hope sharing it helps someone else who is struggling to overcome fear or hate. I hope it inspires someone to take back their life and to reclaim their power! It took me a long time to finally sit down and write this because I feared what some of my remaining family might think of it. I worried that I may offend them. I have come to realize that if the price of my power and my freedom requires them being offended, it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I did not do this damage; I am simply undoing it. You are allowed to undo it too.

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

I am so blessed to have had people placed throughout my life who believed in me and wanted to help me overcome where I have been and what I have been through. The things that don’t kill us, don’t always make us stronger, at least not for a very long time. I believe the universe has big plans for my life. I have always believed this even as a child who was suffering. I do not believe that we suffer trauma and pain for no reason. Words have power, and just as his were used to harm, I hope mine help someone start on their journey to healing.

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

There is power in outing our abusers rather than living with hidden shame. The power we reclaim when we tell our stories gives us the energy and the light we need to thrive!”

Courtesy of Jennifer Vaughn

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer Vaughn of Alabama. You can follow her journey on her website here, Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more from Jennifer:

‘My husband told me he wasn’t upset, and suggested a ‘different’ kind of marriage. She ignited a fire within me. My mind was closed to the idea I could love more than one person. I worried I’d upset my children.’

‘In the blink of an eye, we traded our passion for the typical American dream. The house, the yard, the white picket fence. We fell in step with everyone around us. Then, something changed.’

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