Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of freedom, courage, and dignity for all people. It was along a street named for him that mine were so unjustly stolen from me on what was supposed to be my first day of high school 23 years ago this week. Due to a combination of healthy teenage rebellion, bipolar disorder which at the time included hallucinations and delusions (possibly the result of 12+ years of consistent prescribed codeine abuse to treat my allergies), and the circumstances of my life, I ran away from home seven times that summer. I was quickly heading toward either a living or a literal death. At the moment my life was threatened and I was attacked, my soul left my body and did not start to return, albeit in little unrecognizable fragments, until at least five years later.
At a recent Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley training, the speaker lamented about a time when women were revictimized by the police. I lived through that time. The police suggested that I was raped by a friend. They scrutinized my clothing, suggesting that I provoked the attack even though I work a long sleeve shirt and long pants. The chief of police laughed out loud at me when I told him the perpetrator told me he was a cop. The detective told me he had a never-ending mountain of paperwork and that he didn’t have time to work on false reports. The police lost the evidence that could have been used in court. They manipulated my family into believing that I made the story up to get attention. They were skilled oppressors.
About 15 years later, I moved back to my home community after living in Philadelphia for the past six years. I started a job just down the street from the scene of the crime as an advocacy and outreach coordinator at a regional food bank. It was here that I both confronted my past and found my future. I passed by that awful place nearly day on my way to and home from work, a symbolically meaningful everyday act that gained significance over time. I was no longer a desperate teenager destined for death; I was a woman on a mission. I had the tremendous responsibility of advocating for some of the most vulnerable people in my community. People like me. I was excited about my work and felt truly alive. I realized that I lived so that I could be an example of compassion, hope, and love.
The police sent me a letter to tell me that they would put a copy of the emergency food resource guide I created in every patrol car in the city.
When I first thought of sharing this story on this blog, I felt a sense of personal shame. But really, I should feel ashamed that it has taken me over 20 years to share my story in a meaningful and helpful way. I feel ashamed that women and children are still at risk of being unsafe in my community. I am ashamed that people who suffer from mental illness are socially, culturally, and economically marginalized. I have a lot of compassion for people who are chronically homeless, addicted, or otherwise feel stuck in a tumultuous cycle. That was me. That is me. That is us.