‘We had a bully, not a dad,’ my son said. It would take literal Superman to stop me from raising my kids alone.’: Family of 4 survive abuse, kids adopted by loving dad

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Disclaimer: This story includes mentions of abuse that may be triggering for some.

“After an abusive 19-year marriage, followed by a two-year abusive engagement, it was going to take a literal Superman to come into our world and change my opinion that I was going to finish raising my trifecta on my own. Little did I know, that’s exactly what the universe had planned for us.

three kids smiling at mom for a picture
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

Six years ago, my three kids and I were struggling to survive an increasingly dangerous existence with my husband, Joe, their biological father. What had started as emotional manipulation and abuse for the first ten years of our marriage had escalated into physical violence. I was a shell of a human. After years of being told I was worthless as a mother and human, the punishments he doled out were justified by my behavior, and that no one else really cared about me, I was literally drowning and couldn’t see a way out.

One fateful night in April of 2016, Joe started a violent tirade that ended with him stabbing himself. Our oldest son heroically called 911 which began the intervention we so desperately needed. With Joe out of the house, I quickly went to work securing our safety and figuring out what new normal I was going to build for my trifecta. It was a struggle. For the first time, I let our reality be known outside of our four walls.

For the kids, it was a brutal discovery that not every household was like ours. That every dad wasn’t punching holes in walls, breaking valuables, and throwing knives when no one else was around. They had always assumed that was normal for everyone. It was my oldest, 16 at the time, that said to one of our therapists, ‘We had a bully, not a dad.’ After years of every decision being under Joe’s control, I found myself more and more empowered by the tiniest decisions like how I was going to style my hair or what color I wanted to paint my nails.

mom with her kids traveling around town
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

Shortly after we started our journey, I reconnected with a friend from my childhood church. This connection was a big deal. While I had known him my whole life, I hadn’t been allowed to have male friends or even have a casual conversation, so we hadn’t spoken in years. I felt like I had healed a lot, and was ready for this step. There were a few red flags that I mistakenly pushed aside. After all, this new relationship was so much better than the last. Our families had been friends for generations and were well respected, so what could go wrong?

We became engaged, and I agreed to move my kids across the country so he wouldn’t have to move away from his. Unfortunately, the day he arrived to help us move from our home in Colorado, it seemed to fall apart. I put it off as nerves, but the moment we arrived in Tennessee I had a deep feeling this was wrong. That first week was the start of a massive setback in our journey. There were cameras placed in the house that I was told to leave on and in place when he was away from the home; my daughter wasn’t allowed near me.

I was awakened many nights being yelled at for the way the blinds were closed, where the mail was placed on the counter, etc. That was just the tip of the iceberg. I was humiliated to have put my kids right back into a situation similar to which we had just freed ourselves from. I called off the wedding and started couples counseling with him, hoping to come to a solution, to no avail. What was once a trusted friendship had revealed itself to be a toxic situation.

selfie of family around a christmas tree smiling
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

In a new state, without much of a local support system, I found myself back at square one. The kids had to go back to therapy to work on healing the added damage done by my ex-fiancé, as well as the damage from their father. I knew one thing was certain: I had become the common denominator. I threw myself into intensive therapy, looking for the whys and hows of my choices and what treatment I had been resigned to accepting. It was time to get it right, and I was pretty sure besides the eventual—and occasional—casual dating (with no involvement of my kids) that life would just be my trifecta and me. It wasn’t daunting or lonely; I found power in it. That could have been a beautiful way to round out our journey, but a huge surprise was around the corner.

Around the same time, I ended my relationship, a work friend of my ex-fiancé, had started a run. Having been introduced by my ex a couple of years prior via social media, I had been seeing bits and pieces of his run and was following along. It wasn’t just any run: Matty Gregg was running from California, zig-zagging the South, and then finishing near his newly acquired childhood home in New Hampshire, a total of 5,425 miles in nine months. His goal in this was twofold; to get to understand the views and stances of our citizens and to raise money and awareness for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. A feat on par with Superman. It seemed almost undoable. However, after seeing some of his wild antics at Tough Mudders, his musical productions, and work at Apple, it was more like par for the course.

man running as girlfriend looks on
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

As months passed by, the kids and I all had major breakthroughs in healing. Life was feeling good. I started a blog to help educate people about domestic abuse and began working with others that needed help. As a part of this new chapter in life, I started messaging people I was seeing online who were making a difference in the world to offer support. On January 2, 2019, one of Matty’s posts came across my feed. He had made it to Arizona and the weather was dreadfully cold.

I knew he didn’t need extra accolades: he had even been named the Obstacle Course Race Humanitarian of the Year, but I just had this urge to reach out and add some encouragement. He responded, and we chatted a bit. Afterward, I started to wonder if I should have reached out. It felt as if there was some rule I had just broken that I shouldn’t be friends with him because I knew him through my ex. I actually took Matty off of my social media. That lasted a whole two days. It was a moment in my recovery where I stood up and decided, ‘I’m the boss of me, I can be friends with whomever I want.’ That re-friending on social media started the most unexpected real-life friendship.

We continued to chat via video messaging, started by him because he said it was easier to communicate while he ran his marathon each day. I began to look forward to those daily chats. Since he was only my friend, I didn’t see any harm in the kids jumping in on the chats. They were dumbfounded by what he was doing and I hoped it might inspire them. When Matty showed romantic interest, I quickly replied, ‘I just need you to be my friend,’ and that is just what he respectfully did. A month later, as he ran through Louisiana, he had a frightfully close call on his life. That was the day it all changed. He, at this point, had become my best friend. This close call, coupled with the kids’ ease and joy in chatting with him, helped push me into the reality that what we were finding together was something special. I couldn’t imagine a day in my life without him.

videos of the man the mom dates after abusive relationship
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

I did still have this nagging hesitation. Could I trust someone to join us? Should I even take the chance? When Matty came into our world, it was seamless. Still, I couldn’t shake this worry of trusting their well-being to anyone else. There was a defining moment when that worry was no more. We joined Matty to assist with his run in Alabama. While walking through the Kelly Ingram Park, I was struggling with how to answer my youngest’s many questions about the cruelty of people with regard to the civil rights movement. Matty walked with her and did the most beautiful job articulating what took place and the actions that still need to be taken in our society. It wasn’t just his gentle nature or how well he explained it all, it was Emma. She was walking away from me and walking with him without even looking back to see where I was. For anyone who’s ever known Emma, she is always right next to me, never trusting enough to stray far from my side. The ease of his becoming a part of our journey has been astonishing.

husband and wife together and smiling
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

Matty proposed in the Spring of 2020, and we married in his beloved childhood home, which is now our home. While we had talked about the nuances of helping me raise the three kids, we hadn’t really discussed him adopting them. Life was just flowing and peaceful. Shortly before the wedding, my middle son, Ethan, approached me and told me he wanted Matty to be his dad, not just his stepdad. On their own, the other two did as well, unbeknownst to each other. One of my most empowering moments, as their fellow survivor, is to let them each own their journey in surviving. The first few weeks after the wedding was filled with each of my trifecta asking Matty in their own special ways if he would be their father. In January of 2021, their wishes were granted.

man adopting his wife's kids
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

Our journey in surviving has become an epic tale of thriving. This life is so far from where we began. There aren’t the right words to explain the depth of my gratitude for Matty, nor the pride I have for my trifecta.”

man and woman married with their kids
Courtesy of Alicia Gregg

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alicia Gregg from Nashua, New Hampshire. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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