“I won’t let my parents steal my future from me.”
Amber – Journey House Resident
On a Saturday morning in July, Amber and I sit across the dining room table. She’s wearing a dark red tank top and jean shorts. I notice her pierced lower lip, sunburned cheeks and dark blond hair twisted in a knot. I know nothing about her. Amber’s gaze appears unfocused while I take her picture. She clutches a pile of Kleenex on her lap. My first impression is that she’s locked up, guarding herself against life. But I soon find out I am wrong…
I grew up with mom and dad separated. They never lived together. Mom was an addict. If she wasn’t around, it was because she was off getting high. She was also verbally and physically abusive. If I wanted attention when she came home, she’d get really mad. My dad was not an addict, but he was very sexually abusive to me. I never knew which parent to be with because both of them were so messed up.
Do you have siblings?
Yes, two brothers and a sister but we all have different dads. My little sister lived with her dad. My brothers and me and my mom lived with my grandpa, her dad. He had heart problems and was sick a lot. He didn’t like me, which escalated the problems between me and my mom. I acted out a lot, got in fights, ran away and had trouble at school.
How did your mom react to this?
Punched me, slapped me, pulled me around by my hair and called me names. Then… she would do sweet things, too, like wake me up in the night to watch movies with her. She would let me stay home from school the next day to be with her. Like maybe sometimes she was making up for her bad feelings about abusing me. She used alcohol and meth and heroin. She was a prostitute and a stripper. That was her income. She would have some guy in her bedroom and have us kids sit outside the door to make sure nothing happened, like her getting robbed or beaten up. We guarded the door.
Was it random guys?
They were like high-up guys. Preachers. Teachers. Rich. Regulars. We could see their faces.
Right in your home?
Our house had a back door connected to her room so the guy wouldn’t see us kids.
What happened to change that situation?
I was ten or eleven and had run away again, so she locked me in my bedroom with nothing in there. She said I could only eat if she fed me, which she did not do. My brother brought me food. She came home one night and started beating me and called the police… on me. That very night she signed away her rights to me to my dad. She told the police she wanted nothing else to do with me. Get me away. I think it might have been her way of dealing with what she knew was going on with my dad and her not doing anything about it. And she also knew what she was doing to me was just as bad. That night the police took me to a children’s shelter. My dad came down with the woman who was his wife to pick me up. I didn’t want to go with him, but I had no choice. My dad didn’t do anything sexual with me for about a year. And then it started again and also with my stepbrothers as well. They were his wife’s sons, eight and ten years old.
He abused his stepsons?
Did his wife know?
Yes. She swore she would never leave us alone with him again. But she did leave us alone with him. I wound up getting pregnant by my dad when I was 15. I was missing periods. My stepmom thought I was being sexually active. Finally, my dad told her the truth about the pregnancy. She took me to get an abortion. But the sexual abuse kept happening. My little sister, Crystal, was getting older and I was afraid it would start up with her. He had started with me when I was only three.
Did you have any defense against him?
No. I would get punished if I fought back. My dad would ground me and the only way I could get out of the grounding was for him to have sex with me. That was his lever. I asked him, “When Crystal gets bigger, are you going to do this to her too?” He said he didn’t know. So finally, I told the people at school.
Where is your dad now?
In prison. (Amber grips her hands on the table.) We testified against him in court.
So, he was in there and you had to stand up and tell the court what he did to you?
Yes. My stepbrothers too. Three of us reporting against my dad.
What are his charges?
Statutory rape. He has served eight years on an eighteen-year sentence. I have no connection to him.
What happened to you and your stepbrothers?
After he went to prison, we were separated in different group homes and foster care. My brothers and sister did really well, but I did not. I dropped out of school in the eighth grade. I cut myself and ran away. I threatened to kill my foster mom. They put me on a psyche ward for nine months. My grandmother, who is my mother’s mother, finally adopted me when I turned sixteen. It was okay for a while. But I was still going through so much that as soon as I met a boy and found alcohol, I was on the street. I loved the numb feeling. I partied a lot. I didn’t feel all the horrible things that had happened.
Alcohol made the world go away. Were there other drugs?
Once, when I visited my mom, she gave me meth for the first time. I went off on it for three days. Even though she was abusive, I still wanted her to want me around. I did whatever it took to be with her. To see her. To do what she was doing. I met this guy who was sixteen--a year younger than me. He had just gotten out of juvenile detention and was on pills because he had burns on his back. Kids had poured gas on him while he was sleeping and set him on fire. We did pills and meth together. We were together for three years. He is the father of my daughter. He’s in prison for burglary now. I have no contact with him.
Were you homeless at this time?
I had a best friend who let me stay at her house, but if it was too late, I slept in the park. Or I stayed at a booth in McDonalds until they closed and then I’d get high and go to a truck stop. It was off and on because I started catching cases for possession of meth. I went to jail for three months. I was in jail over and over. I was on probation, but instead of reporting like I was supposed to, I went on the run or I would drop dirty (have a urine test that was positive for drugs) and miss court dates. A never-ending cycle.
Did you ever think you wouldn’t survive?
I didn’t think. I was numb. Sleepwalking…
Do you have other kids?
Yes. My daughter is five now and my son is two. They have different dads. Me and my daughter’s relationship has been bad. She didn’t want anything to do with me… but now she does.
Where are you kids?
My cousin in Texas got guardianship when I went to prison. Actually, my mom and I were in the same prison!
Why was she in prison?
A ton of DUI’s.
Had she hurt anybody with the drunk driving?
No. We lived in the same housing block. She was on work release, but we still saw each other every single day.
What’s your relationship with her?
It is being worked on. (Amber looks off, speaks slowly.) She’d make a comment to me in there like — “If you were twelve years old again, I would knock the shit out of you.” Or she’d brag to people about the way she treated us. It made it extremely hard to connect to her. She tried to treat me like a child. But I am an adult. I said, “You will never put your hands on me ever again. I will never let you terrorize me again.”
Did you have counseling to work on your relationship, in prison?
We did. But I am still working on it. I was in for thirteen months this last time. I hated being there away from children but in a way, prison was a huge relief. I desperately needed out of my life situation. There’s not that much stress in prison. I stopped contact with both of my kids’ dads. My son’s father is not interested in his son. Neither of them knows where I am and I will not have contact with them. In prison I got on meds for my night terrors and horrible anxiety.
Describe a night terror.
Living the abuse all over and over again.
How’s your health?
I have hepatitis C. It kills your liver. I am going to be getting treatment.
So, now you are on the threshold of the future. Who supports you now?
My brother. He comes to see me. We talk on the phone.
How’d you get to Journey House?
This girl in prison told me about Journey House. Very positive. I got accepted here and I believe in my higher power and I believe God wanted me to come here. I did a phone interview.
What did Georgia ask you about?
About my kids and why I wanted to come here. I told her I wanted to start my life over. She was happy to hear that. I actually felt good!
What do you mean about a higher power? How did you come to that?
I call my higher power God. I got connected with Him in prison. They have a regular service there called Broken and Beautiful. It was the most inspiring thing I had ever been to. Eventually my mom and I both got saved. I pray night and morning.
What was inspiring about Broken and Beautiful?
The priest was an ex-addict. He could relate to our lives, understand us. That is a huge deal. I trusted him. It really brought me in.
What about the presence of your higher power here?
I haven’t really explored that topic here.
What is your daily routine now?
Alt care (ReDiscover ALT Care – Addiction treatment) three times a week. Long days. I really enjoy treatment. The counseling is amazing. Topics I can relate to like domestic violence. I am around other people coming from prison with similar things to deal with.
What is your contact with your kids?
We video chat. My daughter would not talk to me for a year, but now she is. Now she wants to see me and be with me.
What do you imagine is next?
(Amber’s voice picks up) I don’t want an apartment. I want a trailer or a little house that is big enough for my children to come home to here in Kansas City. I am never going back to where I came from. I like it here. I want to finish my GED. I will finish the last part in two weeks and eventually go to college. I want a job and transportation and to address my health.
What’s it like living here?
The Sisters do everything for you. I am not used to having anybody care the way they care. Not only do I have my room, I have food. I can see my family and get a job. If I need money, they let me do chores to earn it. They are like everybody’s favorite grandma. That’s how I look at them.
How do you know they really care?
Every morning when I come down, they offer a hug. They don’t judge me. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Care and respect. They love all of us. Steady. No favorites. They do it for all of us - a ride or anything. No hesitation. They pay you to do jobs. Right after this talk, I am going to mow the yard.
How was it sharing all this about your life today?
I am okay. The sexual abuse thing is especially hard to talk about. If I am alone and I get it mixed in my head it can become an issue. Night terrors. I tried to kill myself when I was ten. I’ve never told all this to anyone in quite in this way. But I do talk to the Sisters about it, especially Gabe. She is my favorite. I will keep talking and getting better.
It seems you want to recreate this honest feeling in your own family.
You have so much of a good life ahead of you. You are a strong person. Now, your life story includes your future!
Yes. It would be worse than selfish to do to my kids what was done to me. Thank you for listening.
And now I gotta go mow!
The Drive Home:
Amber’s story touches the limits of human understanding. Ravaged by her father and mother, she directed her rage onto others and herself. I couldn’t help imagining the scenes as she described them. When she paused, when she was slow to answer, I had to curb my impulse to protect her from going back, from sharing her trauma. But my inclination toward silence was the very thing she didn’t need. Amber knew better. Speaking up is a first and vital step in healing. It was reassuring that in addition to living at Journey House for three months, Amber would receive a year or more of case management through Journey to New Life. She would always be welcome at Journey House for hugs, help, and a listening ear.
Amber’s mother and step-mother were awful role models. During our talk my own mothering instincts surfaced. Her plan to live alone in a trailer with her kids bothered me. I wanted her to have a house - a warm safe little house - like a miniature Journey or Peace House - in a secure neighborhood. I wanted her to be hugged and forever sheltered internally and externally. Perhaps her newfound faith and strength will make that a reality.
Amber knows how to face the truth and speak it. She is the one who did the right thing, who protected her younger sister and step-brothers from her father. Love lives in her now. As she puts it,
“I won’t let my parents steal my future from me.”