Written by a survivor of human trafficking participating in the As You Are Program

“Have you ever heard that a leopard doesn’t change its spots? Well, I’m not a cat and I don’t have spots. However, I have been told that people don’t change, and also that I’ll never be any different from how I’ve always been. Throughout most of my adult life I’ve agreed with those beliefs. As a child, I was told many untruths that became my core beliefs. Carrying those into adulthood had a negative impact on my life. By refusing to accept other’s narratives of who I am or who I’ll always be, I’ve opened pathways that will change the direction and outcome of my story.

As a child, my mother often told me that I had such a pretty face; I just needed to lose weight. Appearance was very important to her. She competed in pageants as a teenager and I wasn’t exactly pageant material. My younger sister was my physical opposite and I spent my childhood watching her win beauty pageants and softball games. Although the only words spoken were about how I would be so beautiful if I would just lose some weight, what I heard was that I wasn’t good enough.

A few weeks before I was to be married, my husband-to-be called me a derogatory name about my weight. I went to my mother and expressed serious reservations about going through with the wedding because I could see this being repeated throughout my marriage. She convinced me that it didn’t matter and he didn’t mean it. That reinforced that I wasn’t good enough to be treated any better. In fact, I ended up with a marriage that affirmed what I had envisioned.

Author, Chimamanda Adichie states that the power of someone’s story depends, in part, on who tells it and when it’s told. My mother held the power to define my story for decades. I heard repeatedly throughout my childhood about my inadequacy and it became my story. I’m now deeply into middle age and just beginning to dispute long held beliefs.

An unhappy marriage and years of carrying those core beliefs led me into an addiction that profoundly impacted my life and choices. I committed crimes to pay for my addiction and ended up in prison. I took the classes I was ordered to take while I was in prison, but I didn’t apply what I heard to my life. Once I was released I quickly fell back into addiction and criminal behaviors. Thus, I was returned to prison.

Soon after returning, I received a letter from my mother telling me that her belief was that I must enjoy living this way because I came back. Therefore, she wasn’t going to visit, write, accept phone calls, or be a part of my life and neither were my children. My family had given up on me, certain I wasn’t going to change. Indeed, I was released and returned to prison several times over many years.

It has only been in my current incarceration that I’ve had some transformative experiences that have filled me with a deep sense of loss. However, I’ve also gained a sense of self-awareness that has filled me with awe and wonder. I am able to look at myself and others with grace and acceptance. I no longer hold the belief that no one can change. Change is possible for anyone who wants it and is willing to do the work.

I participated in one class that is designed for trauma and PTSD. I can be honest with myself now and see that my past wasn’t the great childhood I’ve always claimed it to be. I’m aware that adults in my life made mistakes that shaped me and that I no longer have to be defined by their mistakes.

Similarly, my deep faith and close relationship with God has taken me on a journey of discovery. Honestly acknowledging my past has opened my heart and allowed me to feel the pain of the years and the life that I’ve lost. But, with God’s help I have freely, and with love, given forgiveness for the beliefs that held me in bondage.

Furthermore, having recently felt all I’ve truly lost, I am aware that I have the ability to change. I have a desire for life that I’ve never felt before. I miss the life I didn’t have. I may be late, but I’m in school and I’m hungry for the education I should have pursued thirty years ago. It’s not easy. It feels like I’m flexing a cognitive muscle that’s lain dormant for decades while under heavy medication. However, I’m excited and I feel capable.

Lastly, my kids are excited. I’m present in their lives in a way I’ve never been. There is love and hope flowing freely in both directions. They have been witnesses to my struggles all their lives. Now there is a new sound in their voices. It is the sound of invitation.

Finally, when she was dying, my mother told me she had regrets. With grace, I told her it was okay and that I loved her. I told her that I also had regrets. Regret doesn’t always have to be a damaging thing. Regret can be a catalyst for change. I no longer accept anyone else’s opinion of me as definitive. I have discovered a new vision of myself. You might could say I’m changing my spots. Today, the reflection in the mirror is of a sober child of God, a loving mother and grandmother that is loved in return. Most powerful of all, I’m a woman whose story has just begun.”