**TRIGGER WARNING** This story contains content related to physical violence, sexual assault, and child abuse.
“Jessica’s Resilience” is an honest story of survival written by author Christine Hassing. Our most heartful of thanks belongs to Jessica for her bravery in sharing her story.
“Nothing in our lives is wasted. Not one thing that happens is without worth somewhere down the road.” – Luci Swindoll
I was Cinderella, well, without an “evil” stepmom and stepsisters who saw me only fit to sweep and clean. And I didn’t have glass slippers to wear to a ball, nor a prince to sweep me off my feet. Yet, though my reality was as far from fairy tale as it could be, faith and determination that it would not always be this was my continual belief.
I have been reflecting on what would resonate best for you as reader as you begin reading my story. Maybe I should start with things like where I was born – you know that traditional story beginning. Or perhaps I should jump immediately to how I experienced domestic violence and survived to share my story. The thing is, for me, these aren’t two different chapters where first there was pure fairy tale innocence and then there was instant loss of believing magic was in everything. I had innocence as a child, and I also had an inner voice nudging this may not be how other families are living.
I think I will start with what I want you to hear most of all about my story. As you read the pain and trauma, may you rise above it – as I have – to be inspired through adversity. I desire to have my story be a tool kit to help others in need. If my story helps you find empowerment with your own story, then you will help give purpose to mine – you will hand me back the very sacred gift of further healing.
Life brings us those teachers whose lesson plans are harsh – harsher than we care to imagine or find at times we can’t even begin to grasp a lesson plan could be designed as it has been. Life also brings us choice in our ability to stand resilient against these lessons we struggle to comprehend. I share my story not for sympathy or to tug at your heart with a oh that poor Jessica, and her horrific journey. My wish is that you “see” my head held high and you find inspiration for whatever struggles you may have had or are experiencing.
As you will learn in my story, I’ve had many angels cross my path to help me begin thriving with life. Yet, ultimately the only person that can help us the most is the one we carry with us inside. The person that looks back at you when you look in the mirror is the one that holds the key. It is that same one within oneself that has the ability to place the glass slippers on one’s own two feet. Translation, no matter the story that feels absent of “happily ever after” and knights in shining armor to the rescue of a princess in distress, on the other side of striving to survive can be found hope, perseverance, thriving with dreams, and forgiveness.
A word that may only slightly catch on the tongue when vocalized. One of the hardest words to take action on in our lives. That dance of grace between opposites to not communicate an acceptance of someone’s else’s actions that caused us harm and long-standing pain. Yet, to let go such that the long-standing pain doesn’t fester within causing a fear of living to reign.
I think this is where I should take a step back and share about my journey. I would like you to first visualize you are walking a hallway of a school with door handles to classrooms at your hand’s reach. Perhaps you are wondering why a metaphor to begin my story? I have learned that it becomes easier for someone else to stay present when listening. There are many topics that we struggle with as a society to hear or read. If we visualize some things in metaphor, we offset the ugliness of life with the promise of breathtaking beauty.
I am going to start with my mother as the teacher of Honesty, Patience, and Unconditional Love. Let me next say I learned these things not because of who she was, and is, but despite her inabilities of these things to give. I have a belief that life is always bringing us to a crossroads in which we get the freedom to choose. Every 86,400 seconds of every day we are given opportunity to decide what we would like to do. By doing, I am referring to how we let life influence our values and our beliefs. And then how we take actions from what we internalize and perceive.
Perhaps it was because of her own experiences that my mom could not love nor protect me. Maybe because in her life prior to giving birth to me, my mother was robbed of her innocence and taught that her worth to men was in how well she could absorb sexual trauma at four years old by family. Or again at eighteen when a gang of men would not listen to No! over the ample supply of alcoholic drinks. Possibly my mother’s experience of her own mother turning her eyes the other way fueled within my mother a generational cycle my mother wasn’t strong enough to break. A “tradition” passed from a grand or great grandmother through the maternal chains. Or maybe my mother was so filled with self-hate, I was merely a representation of her child self she could not tolerate.
I think that may be one of the reasons my mom gravitated to my dad was because my dad was familiar to what my mom had known as her own “normalcy”. Maybe it wasn’t just the generational cycle of my grandmother that my mom wasn’t strong enough to break. Perhaps it was also a comfort zone with sexual traumas that made my mother feel secure at the hands of a man who didn’t keep me safe. I think another possibility is that my mother knew what it was to have understanding and compassion withheld by her own father when he learned of her sexual trauma at the hands of a gang.
Experiencing rejection at a time when one most desires to feel accepted can lead some to run towards the most broken of human beings. Like my rejected mom running towards my father as if heroine to rescue and assure him he was worthy. I have started to choose to see that my worthiness is not for my mother to give to me. Because my mother chose not to fully look into the eyes of my reality, I AM someone who values telling the truth no matter how hard the truth may be.
When I was four my mother taught me to tell the truth no matter how honest that truth may be. I only wish she didn’t regret teaching me to speak truthfully, and not just because I was once unkindly honest about her boss when she introduced her boss to me. That is the only thing I can rationalize is that she regretted teaching me to be truthful, for why else would she turn her eyes the other way choosing my dad over what I was experiencing?
Because my mom could not make wise decisions that protected her daughter which taught me that all in good time, the truth will win out over deceit. I learned patience with what we can’t always control, and that with patience, we find the ability to control what is happening. That control comes by speaking the truth, regardless of the fear or external shouting. From people like our mothers who declare we are vindictive and troublemaking.
I’m still trying to help my heart see that all the words my mother hurled at me in accusation was her own mirror she couldn’t look in to. I’ve started to dole out forgiveness, though I think completely giving this to her will take me a lifetime to do. The adult in me is finding unconditional love for myself but there is a little girl within that still wonders why did my mom stand and watch and not try to intervene? Why was it her priority to protect the men in both of our lives instead of keeping me in safekeep?
My soul knows, though, that I am capable to give kindness, compassion, respect, and dignity to others who struggle to know they are worthy. If they cross my path, I can pay forward to them what was handed to me by unknown names that passed by me. I learned that these aspects to being human are possible from strangers who I passed on the street. I can choose to focus on how I didn’t learn these from my mother, or I can celebrate the choice I made to keep my heart open having faith these existed in humanity.
I will then move down the hallway of the school of life to enter the doorway where sits the next teacher I would like you to meet. Let me introduce you to someone who taught me the greatest sense of Belonging to someone and the greatest knowing of Fear. From this teacher I learned the deepest desire to Protect another, even if it meant harm to me. You know, I never thought of it before, but I guess it was an element of being maternal to my older brother – unconditionally loving. Even though in his eyes he saw me only good for one thing. In my brother’s eyes I was someone to hate vehemently. But before we get to my brother as teacher, I should further introduce you to the head of this classroom we have just entered gently. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to my father, the one who taught me hands on experience to the definitions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and complex traumatic events. In this classroom was more than one student.
Perhaps I will start with the students that were more like visitors from another school for a day. They were the neighbors that hurried away in fear when dad aimed a gun their way. Pity the driver who realized they had just turned onto a dead-end street. Fear for their safety if our driveway was their oops, ah, I’ll pull in here and turnaround, I think. Our driveway off limits – make that our home and all who lived within, too. Dad had no problem communicating the message keep out / keep far away if you know what is good for you.
I learned bravery in many ways, one of which was through how our neighbors diverted their eyes away. I am choosing not to judge those who didn’t want to get involved, respecting those whose motto is to each his own, not our place. After all, I know it’s scary to look into the end of a gun barrel, so how can I blame neighbors who felt the same way? The little girl in me can’t help sometimes feeling that I wish one neighbor had been brave enough not to divert their gaze.
I have also worked on forgiveness of my extended maternal-side family. They were scared, too, of my father’s violent tendencies. My maternal grandmother, who I didn’t think could scare too easily, was fearful of what my dad might do to my her if she tried to intervene. My grandmother’s answer when she learned of what I was experiencing was tell the school what is happening.
Rejected by the same people who rejected my mom, but somewhere within me I was vowing this generational cycle of looking the other way would end with me.
I learned bravery in that toughen up buttercup kind of way. A learning nearly every single day. Dad used a radio playing in our basement to silence my screams when I was receiving one of his beatings. Or one of his sexually abusive actions also part of the near daily routine. Don’t cry, this doesn’t hurt his repeated mantra to me. At some point I was able to keep the tears held down deep. He was wrong, you know. It hurt each and every time he delivered one of his fisted, or belted, or broom stick or face pressed against the wall while he hit my head menacing blows.
A couple of moments ago I mentioned that I learned a deep desire to protect another and that person I so wanted to keep out of harm’s way was my brother. He was approximately four and a half years older than me. I believe we started out in our childhoods looking out for each other, at least that is what I would like to think. Somewhere before my brother would get diagnosed with borderline mental retardation and behavioral challenges. Somewhere before dad’s teachings were more impactful such that my brother became my dad’s A+ student of his class. My brother learned to hurl anger and physical punches real fast.
One of my first memories of my dad harming someone other than me was when my brother cut my hair curls off igniting my dad’s explosive rage instantly. I hope I reach a time when I will no longer hear the sound of a tiny head hitting each stair as my dad dragged my brother by his feet. One, two…six…nine…twelve total before the bottom of the staircase was reached. I was scooting on my butt in a diaper down the stairs, terrified at what was happening. My brother’s nose bleeding. My dad’s oh so loud screams. My mom watching, but not intervening.
Through the dining room, to the kitchen sink. Please don’t drown my brother, PLEASE! I’m not sure I knew the words then, but hindsight has a great way of increasing our understanding. Note to child self what mom has just taught me as she exclaimed to my brother you shouldn’t have made him mad; what were you thinking?! No hug, no consoling. Don’t cry brother, it doesn’t hurt. Repeat. Don’t cry, don’t make him mad, I will protect you, it’s you and me.
My vow to my brother when I was too young to speak. I only wish when he stood at the crossroads of choice, he would have chosen the same in his treatment of me.
Ah, but once again I’m trying to leave this classroom for the one with my brother before I’ve finished sharing my father’s lesson plans that he had for me and our family. My father taught me the power of Silence and that the greatest friendships we can have our those with fur and pawed feet. Motivated by fear that his secret would no longer be safe, isolation from forming friendships was the only choice I was given to make. I would find comfort in purrs and meows, cats my nonjudgmental refuge from the abusive control. To this day, a cat by my side gives me my greatest sense of home.
We don’t always know how an event that takes place paves the way for what we will come to need. When I was in first grade a seed was planted within me. During a school play the message taught was you may lose many things or have many things taken away, but what you know for you and within you will always remain. That resonated within me, that crossroads in which I made a choice to hold on to for life. Not only to be resilient but to always trust what I know inside.
As my dad was teaching me Silence, I was learning Observation and Listening to grow what could never be taken away from me. The more I know, the better off I’ll be. School was my safe haven, my vacation days away from home. School was where I could grow my wealth that could never be stolen – what I know. I would do my homework without parental support, taught by my mom that if I wanted to learn to read it was up to me. It was not my mom’s priority to teach me how to add to my treasure chest that she would not be able to use for her own needs. My wealth being knowledge, her wealth being a weekend of booze and dancing.
We cast ripples into our surroundings based on the currents we find ourselves bobbing in to avoid drowning. The currents and undertows of home cascaded into my behaviors in elementary. Some of you reading this may say it was a cry for help in how I was behaving. Others of you may say I was too young to know there were other ways of communicating.
In first grade I feared my teacher when she commented that she approved of schools that supported corporal punish for children our age. Certain I would be beaten in my safe haven away from home if I stepped out of line in her class in any way. When my raised hand to be excused to use the bathroom was ignored – at least that was my certainty, I peed my pants at my seat. I didn’t know I could use the bathroom without permission to leave.
In second grade I went back into the classroom during recess to take a slap bracelet so that I could be like the other kids in my class. We didn’t always have enough food to eat at home, let along the luxury of something like that! Wanting not to be left out, believing that the person I took it from wouldn’t miss it if I took it home with me, innocent in that I didn’t think of myself as a rotten thief. I never did steal again – anything. My dad, the teacher, ensured I would learn that stealing was never acceptable through the lesson plan of a very good beating. My teacher never knew that my reprimand wasn’t just a conversation about why good girls don’t steal others’ belongings.
It was also in second grade that I began communicating signs that all may not be well in my life. When I didn’t get to complete a math section of a test before the assigned time to complete, I crumpled up my test and tossed it at my teacher out of frustration I couldn’t speak. I was also falling asleep pretty consistently. My teacher pulled me aside and asked me if everything was ok. Sworn to silence coupled with not having a comprehension how to communicate in second grade made for my home life to continue without change.
This is where I would like to encourage anyone reading this who may “just” be a neighbor or someone who serves children as teacher or gets to work with young lives periodically. There may be more questions to ask to help a young voice find words they don’t yet have the knowledge to convey. And please be gentle in your questions as that young voice may also be afraid of what to say. Eyes are great communicators in their sparkle or lack there of in their ability to shine with delight. I know it is a balance act between when to believe there is more than what can be seen and when it may just be a youngster attention-seeking. I guess the best I can say is observe, listen, and also listen to that intuition if it whispers child in need. I’m not sure if this teacher had asked more if it would have benefited me. It might have earned me the look down another .44 with threats to my life for not holding my story tight under my sleeve.
In third grade I learned deep disappointment when I could no longer be a majorette due to our poverty. More than disappointment was the devastation that it meant more time at home to be abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. I also remember third grade was my time to be apologetic for everything. I’m sorry was said as frequently as a cashier might say hello to every customer he or she greets.
I was passive, I was aggressive, I was both at times, too. I was bold, not shy, not bashful, and I could speak with a mouth that would rival the best of sailor slang you might have occasion to listen to. After all, I had two good teachers at home to train me in how to speak. Except to my dad the teacher, with him there was never any sassing.
I mentioned earlier about those events that happen that pave the way for an event upcoming. I observed and I listened when I was six years old taking part in a court proceeding. There had been a property dispute between my parents and a next-door neighbor, which had led the neighbor to throwing rocks at me while I was riding my bike past her home. There I was, a six-year-old little girl, testifying in front of a judge as to what I…know. Note to self, a judge listens to what young girls know.
Fast forward to nine years old and I was nearing a point that I could no longer stay in this classroom my dad had created for my sake, and for what I felt was my brother’s sake, too. I needed to let someone know what I knew. I try not to think too much about what it is like to walk in others’ shoes, for I know from my own story in silence for a long time, there is more than what we can see. Yet, I sometimes wonder why Child Protective Services (CPS) didn’t do more when they first heard my story.
I can still see the CPS worker sitting on the couch watching my dad chase me for sharing what I know. She communicated that my dad needed to leave, and I think she thought all would be well once he did so. She was naïve’. And CPS didn’t come back for me. That I am here to tell you my story I am still grateful for because it most certainly could have been a story with a different ending. Forty-four magnum handguns, balled fists, and thrown objects don’t have room for missing. Thankfully the gun was never shot, only the fist and random objects took a few swings.
I like to think our house fire was a Divine moment of intervention, but maybe it was more because of my courage. I had communicated to my school what was happening. My dad picked me up from school the day our house burned to the ground, the same school in which I had let the secret out. It was while living in our new house that a police officer made a random visit that would set in motion change. Not an overnight change, but the beginning of what I would soon no longer have to face. I would like to be able to tell you that the change was positive from here on out, but that would negate my story. And you know how I value honesty.
I was placed in kinship care at age ten and then a child shelter at age eleven, and then my first foster care, but that first home didn’t work out for me. When you add a care system that has risk some who “care” is only in it for the money with a child who has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder the equation adds up to not a good fit for anybody. I was placed in a second foster home that was promising. But then it was ruled to return home when I was twelve, with another teacher with his own classroom anxiously awaiting me. It would first be my mom’s choice in men that would create a classroom for the substitute of my dad’s beatings. Later, it would become my brother who saw me as the one to blame for everything.
My brother was one of two successors to my dad now that my dad had “retired” his teaching. His place to step into the role my father had vacated was my brother’s certainty. In my brother’s broken mind, I was the reason our father had also abused him repeatedly. He didn’t fill that role immediately; both my brother and I were in kinship care initially. We both stood at a crossroads of choice, both of us choosing differently. I continued to seek hope for first myself and then where I could empower others who might be suffering physical, emotional, or mental trauma to continue to persevere and believe. My brother chose the other road of a self-fulfilling prophecy to continue the cycle of my father’s legacy. A belt, a knife, attempts to steal my identity. My brother had a purpose in this lifetime besides surviving. It was to make me responsible for his trauma he was unable to heal and his shattered worthiness he couldn’t find. My brother passed away a year ago with so many demons still in the lead of his life.
My mom provided the first successor to my father in the form of her boyfriend who could hit really well, too. If I choose to focus on the positive, at least I only had to endure his physical and emotional abuse. At least his sexual focus he saved for my mother’s bedroom. And my mother certainly made sure to keep things as similar to my father as could be. I can still see her standing watch at the bathroom door she had just unlocked for her boyfriend to enter and begin beating me. Observation over any attempt at intervening was my mom’s exceptional ability.
The daily abuse by this man when I was twelve years old led me to seek care in State custody. I had heard that when in state care you can no longer be hit or beat. I was used to being an outcast especially among my own family, so needing a sense of belonging was not what was motivating me. To have a roof over my head, a bed to sleep on, and no one trying to beat, stab, or threaten to kill me sounded like utopia no matter how much unlike a home it might seem.
I would have like to return to my second foster home for I had felt love there. When I tried to take my own life, it was that foster mom who held my mother’s hand while I was fighting to live in emergency care. I wasn’t even living with this foster mom at the time. She had heard on a scanner that I was in trouble and came to be by my side. When I left home to become a ward of the state, the second foster home had no spare beds for me. The following three foster homes never were what I had known for that brief time when a family thought I was worthy.
At age fourteen I went to live at a girl’s group home where I would spend the next four and a half years. It is here I would find the teachers of Stability and Safety. I would come to find a positive meaning of home in the walls of this place that also taught me Worth and would begin to answer a wish upon a star I once made – to know what it was to be Happy. This girl’s group home believed in me, opening my heart to believe in my Dreams.
It was while I was at my new “home” that I took what I knew to another court proceeding. I was fifteen. I testified to all I knew about my father, and I listened in disbelief and relief. My father was sentenced to 45 – 105 years without the possibility of parole for all his “teachings” he had given to my brother, and most of all to me. For it was only my knowing that testified about what my brother experienced, only my voice that broke the silence that had been lying in wait to finally break. My father would not be able to hurt others anymore, though unfortunately it was too late to undo the damage to the person I had most wanted to keep safe.
My brother and I had experienced so many moments at the crossroads of choice to let our father’s beatings beat us or for us to graduate from that class with honors in Resiliency and in Purpose for our stories. I wish I could have helped my brother choose with me. Unfortunately, he wasn’t meant to break the generational cycle; he left that up to me.
There are moments in which I stand at the crossroads of memories striving to understand – you know, to be rich in what can’t be taken from me – the power of knowing. The little girl in me questions why my mom seemed to see my brother as doing no wrong and me doing no right. Then I go back to that crossroads of choice, and I’m grateful for the pathway I’ve taken even if it meant walking it alone most of the time. I think the most broken people gravitate to those who are drowning, perhaps it’s a misery is most comfortable with like company. Though it was painful at times to feel like the black sheep of the family, I’m grateful I chose not to get into the water of my brother and my mother’s drowning.
I should clarify that my mother is still alive, at least in body. I think her heart was locked away long ago, and now it has been double bolted shut with my brother’s departing.
Sometimes I stand at the crossroads of memories, and I grieve. I grieve the little girl in me that was hurting. I grieve a baby brother I never knew who was born not breathing. I couldn’t protect him either from the fist swings. He was in a womb, but he was not fully safe. My father’s abuse could reach in-utero, too. My mother’s stomach the punching bag my father punched into. Perhaps my baby brother was better off not entering this lifetime, anyway. He didn’t have to grow up with memories of experiences he cannot erase. I grieve that my older brother had it worse than me. Truly he did, at least how I choose to see.
I grieve the little girl whose innocence was her protection yet was also her naivety. Sometimes I want to ask her how could you not know that the sexual abuse was not loving? I guess when you are a little girl who longs to be hugged and touched and held close, you don’t know that there are certain ways for that to take place. That is something else I would like to share with you to help you in growing your knowing.
Before I had found compassion in the girl’s group home, before I had found others who accepted me. I was in the CPS / foster system being asked about how it was wrong what that my father had sexually abused me. The thing is, until I was told that I didn’t know it wasn’t normal or healthy. I know. I know it may be hard for you to read those words but imagine being a young child isolated from what is normalcy. In that moment when that was stated to me, with much judgment in the tone conveyed, I became friends for the first time with shame. In that moment I affirmed the truth of what I had come to believe – I was completely unworthy.
What I ask is that when you are listening to another’s story, hold a space of compassion in your eyes and in your voices. It goes along way for those of us not already jury to our choices.
My father passed away in prison last year of COVID and underlying health conditions with a sacred gift I was able to give him before he passed away. My father left this Earth with my forgiveness and love for making me who I am today. Yes, that’s right, I used the word love for my father which I am sure is surprising. Believe me, that has been one of the hardest parts of my journey. I’ve been at a crossroads of hating him and loving him simultaneously. As a little girl he was the one I spent all my time with, the one who I believed cared for me. I didn’t know that some of his care wasn’t positive, but more of me knew his physical care was something to seek refuge from for the sake of all our wellbeing.
My father was a broken man, like my brother and my mother each in their own way. To forgive him was to ensure I didn’t stay broken, that I stopped the generational cycles of pain. Don’t get me wrong, I almost didn’t break the cycles when the pain within me was so great. I’ve known what it is to overdose, to be catatonic, to know great depression and despair, and to know great defeat when I almost couldn’t finish earning my social work degree, only to finish it, and then once again not be able to continue applying it due to personal disabilities.
Yet, in this classroom of life, in this tale that is far from fairy, I find a magic wand that keeps waving one thing repeatedly. I have hope, I have resilience, I have a purpose, and I have something that can never be taken from me. I have a knowing that if one person is touched by one sentence in my story, my story has happened for a reason and that makes my story so very worthy.
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” – Rumi