February 9, 2016
I was feeling a bit nostalgic last week when I found an old college ID in a drawer while searching for AAA batteries…It made me think back in time when I was full of dreams and praying for endless opportunities that would help make those dreams come true. I started thinking about how we just don’t know where life is going to take us…We just don’t know….
When I was a sixteen-year-old freshman attending Daemen College in Amherst, New York I had no idea how my life would change because of that experience. You see, I was admitted to college on a “wing and a prayer.” Having barely completed high school because of lack of effort and the negative influence of a home environment I just didn’t have a clue about how my life would turn out. What I did know, however, was that I had a dream that this was my opportunity to make it come true.
My life did not begin as it is now; there was an abundance of hurt and pain. I was twelve the first time I tried to commit suicide. It was right after I had been beaten with belts and broomsticks by my mother and her boyfriend in the back storage room of the liquor store they owned and operated. Why was I beaten? Because I went to the library with my friends and my mother didn’t believe me…she thought I was lying and sneaking around with boys. I didn’t even know how to sneak around at that point! So she beat me and tried to beat me some more in hopes of getting a confession out of me. And then she had her boyfriend come in and beat me. I had lumps on my legs from the broomsticks and jumping over the boxes in the storage room and falling to the floor. This time, it felt like it was “one beating too many.” When they finally released me and allowed me to go home, I just wanted to be “free.” I needed to feel numb because it was one thing to be beaten when you are wrong but quite another to receive such a brutal beating when you have done nothing wrong. I knew that if I could go to live in a “better place” then God would take care of me.
That afternoon I took 13 Tylenol pills along with a couple of drinks from my mom’s vodka bottle that she kept hidden under the cushion of the couch that she slept on. I remember falling asleep on that couch shortly after taking the pills but awakening to the sound of the phone ringing persistently. It was one of those old rotary phones, and it was in the hallway of the apartment so we kept the ringer up loud so we could hear it from all rooms.
Rinnggggg….rinnnggggg…rinnnggggg…. the shrilling sound was pulsating in my ears, and I was awakened…I got up to answer the phone, and it was my mom, and then I realized “Damn, I am still alive.”
During this time in my life, I barely existed. I got up, and I functioned with a smile on my face so no one could see the pain within. I knew it didn’t feel right but these were my own demons, and no one else had to know about them…I just knew I had to find a place in my life where I could follow my dreams and become that person that I knew God planned for me to be.
You see, I grew up in economic poverty in Brooklyn, and it was often assumed that I grew up in intellectual poverty as well. My dad lived in another country so I was basically raised in a single-parent household living below the poverty line with an alcoholic, abusive mother and I shouldn’t have “made it.” The statistical odds were against me, but I refused to let those odds determine my fate. I believed that there were already enough odds stacked up against me from my own family history and background, so I couldn’t let stats determine my next steps.
We were probably the poorest family on the block where we lived. At least, it felt like it because we lived among filth because my grandmother was elderly, physically limited and my mother simply ignored the dirt. So we lived in this two bedroom apartment with the roaches and mice. When you walked into the kitchen at night, you would have to stomp on the kitchen floor to scare the mice and make the roaches scatter. You couldn’t leave any food on the counter because the mice would come out and eat the food. In fact, that’s how I learned that mice loved chocolate! I brought home a box of chocolate bars from school to sell as a part of a fundraiser, and I left the box on the counter. The next morning I discovered the mice had eaten through the box, the paper and the foil that covered the chocolate bars. The entire $30 box was ruined, and I was too embarrassed to explain to my teacher what happened to the chocolate bars so the $30 debt remained on my record until I was scheduled to graduate four years later and my uncle paid the fee so I could receive my high school diploma. That was my life. Those were my odds.
The heat never worked right either, and it was never warm enough in the apartment. I remember my grandmother used to turn the oven on and close the dining room door so we could have heat back there. We would pile up in that back room to stay warm, and we were afraid to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night it was just too cold. You could actually see your breath when you blew outward; it was that cold in the apartment. I used to sit on the radiators throughout the day while in junior high school because I thought that if I saved enough heat in my body from school then somehow I would be warmer at home.
I didn’t have a bed, and I slept on the floor with my grandmother. She made pallets, and we used to snuggle up right next to each other to be warm. I remember her having a tapestry with a picture of Jesus on it that belonged on the wall which she took down because it was sooooo heavy and she knew it would keep us warm. We slept under that tapestry on the floor for many years…just to keep warm and be protected by Jesus. And that’s when I began to just think…and dream some more about how I could overcome my own odds. How could I rise up and fly away to find my own stars amid the pitch black night sky?
What did I need to do to fulfill my own dreams and beat those statistics that had spoken volumes for my so-called silenced future? What could I do to push through the pain and ease the throbbing that I felt inside of me so that I could feel warm, safe and protected? I knew that a change had to be in the forecast for me, and it had to be a positive change so that I could follow my dreams.
When my mom died of alcoholism at the age of 37, and I was only 14, I figured that there wasn’t anything worse that could happen to me from that point on. I convinced myself that the “hole” in my heart was so deep that no one else in the world would be allowed to hurt me that way. I knew that if I could “get over” my mom’s death, then there wouldn’t be any other hurt that I couldn’t get over for the rest of my life, so I used that pain as the armored truck to combat future suffrage.
I was failing in school at the time of her death, but I also knew that I had to get over myself and overcome my own odds to become a future success. I used my own life experience as my motivation and inspiration because I knew the emotional and psychological state of mind that I was left in after my mom died. Yes, I was a victim of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse under her watch but she was still my mother, and I loved her. I had to become that foot soldier emerging from those trenches of disparity to defy these odds, and it didn’t matter what statistics noted because those numbers didn’t live with me daily. Feelings of heartache, loneliness, emptiness, sorrow and shame had taken residence in my life, and it didn’t feel good. But when I went away to Daemen College, that made the difference in my life.
I arrived at this small, quaint, former Catholic college and I immediately felt safe and supported. It was an atmosphere that cultivated and encouraged my dreams so that I could “be somebody.” I inhaled all the positivity during that time and exhaled anything that was an obstacle to my opportunity. I was living in my purpose, persevering in my passion and preparing for my prosperity…and I was only sixteen years old when it all began.
You see, it doesn’t begin with age. It doesn’t begin with race, class, gender and socioeconomic status. It begins with you. It begins with the mindset that you learn to master. It begins with recognizing and knowing that you should never allow your disabilities to disable your abilities or limit your possibilities. Don’t make excuses, make adjustments. And when you do this, you just never know what will happen.
I made the decision to wrap my arms all things positive and purposeful in my life; this included social, emotional, academic and spiritual things and people. I found all of this on the campus, and I worked hard. I mapped out the course I needed to follow to complete my degree and with support, I did that within 3 ½ years. Imagine that? The kid who arrived on campus with lackluster high school grades was now graduating a semester early and moving on to graduate school. Now, that is an example of overcoming your odds, working your dream to live your dream and trusting and believing in the path that God had created just for you. Traveling along that road that he paved for your unique steps. If I didn’t have Faith that “every lil’ thing would be alright,” I wouldn’t have made it because the odds were stacked so high against me.
But let me tell you, I didn’t know that my story could make a difference in the lives of others. I didn’t know that my struggles could be significant for someone else. And I didn’t know that the power of my perseverance could prepare others for the journey that they were about to take. But Daemen College knew, and they invested in my story.
On September 10, 2015, the skinny lil’ kid from Brooklyn delivered the keynote speech to over 500 people at the Convocation ceremony at Daemen College. The very college where she stepped onto the campus 30+ years earlier as a scared, confused, lonely but determined young girl. Her life had been drastically changed because of her collegiate experience, and she was there to motivate, empower and inspire the freshman class, faculty, staff and her former professor. She delivered a message that focused on the question “What If?” because she wanted to remind them of life’s infinite possibilities and what you could do if you just trust and believe.
The pictures that I included in this blog show two sides of me….The photo on the left was taken as an 18 year old college junior and the one on the right was taken just before I delivered the Convocation speech. As that young college girl, I just didn’t know. I didn’t know what my life would eventually look like, feel like and just “be.” All that I did know was that I had dreams and despite and in spite of anything that I had previously been through in my life, I was determined to make those dreams come true. I say to you that you must be that foot soldier trudging through the trenches to embrace your dreams. When someone gives you an opportunity, take it and make it a reality. Don’t walk away from challenges, face them because you are already equipped and empowered to persevere through pain. You just have to want it. You have to feel it. You have to need it. And you cannot be afraid of it. Let your Faith be stronger than your fear. Knowing this can help you create your action plans to move toward positive changes. You just never know what tomorrow will bring but always understand that tomorrow is just a day away, so just allow yourself to become prepared. Allow yourself to learn. Allow yourself to know. And allow yourself to continue to dream. And when one dreams is fulfilled, start working on the next one because dreams are not just made for sleeping. That’s what it is all about…Living and dreaming.
Today, I sleep in my own bed. I don’t have roaches or mice in my home. I am no longer beaten, abused and failing in school. I earned a Ph.D. years ago. I’ve written and published 7 books with 6 of them becoming national bestsellers. I am happy, and I still dream. Take my story as a lesson that “you just never know.” Don’t give up. Don’t give in and don’t give away your gifts. Use them to empower you to make the positive difference in your life and in turn, it will make a difference in the lives of others. I did.
You just never know.
You just never know.
You just never know.
Tell me, what is it that you didn’t know “then,” but you know “now,” that you can teach others?
(Some of this blog contains an excerpt from my bestselling book available on Amazon Get Over It! How to Bounce Back After Hitting Rock Bottom”)