‘I hated my life, hated being different. I’d hit rock bottom, to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore.’: Mom survives sexual assault, toxic marriage to find self-love

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Disclaimer: This story contains mentions of self-harm and sexual assault that may be triggering to some

“’Life is like a rollercoaster: it has its ups and downs, but it’s your choice to scream or enjoy the ride.’

I was born in a small town in Switzerland in a family of five.

baby photo of girl and her mom
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

I was the youngest and the only girl, four years younger than my oldest brother, and a year and a half younger than my closest brother. Growing up around two brothers wasn’t always easy, but I made it work. The little memories I have revolve around playing cowboys and Indians in the woods, building tree houses, and, at times, building Legos with my closest brother.

family photo of mom and 3 kids
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

My best friend, who lived upstairs from us, was a boy named Arnaud, whom I often had playdates with while eating Nutella sandwiches. I was surrounded by boys and grew up a tomboy. My family loved to ski too. My time on the slopes are still some of the best memories I have as a child.

When I was 6 years old, my family moved to Larchmont, NY, for about a year. My dad, who was a banker at the time, was offered an opportunity to join a position at a Manhattan branch. Moving across the country was an adjustment, but luckily we all knew a bit of English already as my mother, who was half British, made sure to speak to us in English from time to time. My brothers became huge fans of the NBA. They often played basketball, and I’d try to keep up with them.

young girl in the woods
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

I don’t remember much of our time there as it was pretty short and I was pretty young, but I do remember moving back to Switzerland and starting over in a new neighborhood. This is when life started to get tough for me. I was a year ahead of my peers at school, I’d just come back from spending a year in NYC, and I spoke English fluently, which according to my mom, seemed to spark feelings of jealousy in some of the kids in my school. I was also quiet and confident, but that changed very quickly. Most of us have experienced kids being cruel. Most days, I remembered being made fun of, laughed at, and bullied. I’d come home crying, my grades started to drop, and I started to question everything and everyone around me. Who I was suddenly wasn’t celebrated anymore, and I remember wanting so desperately to feel loved and to fit in. I became an anxious child. At night, I’d have night terrors and terrible nightmares. I stopped believing in myself and got lost in other people’s opinions of me.

young girl smiling
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

Then, during my teenage years, I turned to cigarettes and alcohol to escape reality. I hated my life, and I hated being different. I wanted normalcy, a sense of safety, but everything I experienced, even at home, was anything but. I’d often walk across the fields by my house and sit under a huge tree to think and escape my reality. It became my favorite spot.

young girl skiing
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

By the time I was 15, I was skipping school to go drink and smoke pot to escape the overwhelming feeling of desperation I felt on a daily basis. I started cutting. I felt so lost. And then, when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

One day, my friend from school I used to hang out with told me she started dating someone. When I found out who it was, I got a little worried. Everyone knew him in town: he was a drug addict pretending to be Jim Morrison from The Doors while walking around town with his guitar and flirting with girls. I knew he lived only a few minutes from my house because I’d often see him get off the bus on my way home. I was afraid of him, and now he was dating the only friend I had. A few months later, as I got on the bus to get home, I saw him sitting in the back. My friend had introduced us once, and that was the only time I had an interaction with him until now. Of course, he was high that day. He saw me, called my name and asked me to sit next to him. I reluctantly did. I was embarrassed, but I feared what he would do if I didn’t, so I politely complied. I remembered thinking I couldn’t wait until he’d get off, and I counted every stop until then.

He looked at me and said: ‘Can you help me carry these grocery bags back to my place?’ Ugh. ‘Nooooo,’ I’m thinking to myself. I didn’t want him to make a scene on the bus, so I said: ‘Sure, that’s fine.’ In my head, I had a plan: help him carry the bags back to his place, and walk home as fast as I could. As we get to this place, he unlocks the door and tells me to leave the bags inside. I step in, he locks the door. ‘Crap, what do I do now?’ I was so scared, I just didn’t know what to do. The fear I felt was paralyzing. He never unlocked that door. He told me to lie on the bed. I said no. I told him I wanted to go home. I told him I was scared and to please let me out. He didn’t. Instead, he forced himself on me, and there was nothing I could do. That day changed my life forever. I was 15 years old. I never expected this would happen. For years, I blamed myself for being so naive and stupid, for trusting myself in a situation I had absolutely no control over. I felt ashamed, angry, scared, alone, and worthless. I quickly hit rock bottom, to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore.

young kids playing
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

I don’t remember exactly when I started to see a counselor. My mom begged me to go to therapy, so I did. He helped me process the trauma I had experienced, and for the first time in a long time, I felt safe enough to talk about what had happened. It was the start of a long healing journey. Still, the relationship with my parents wasn’t good. Between 16 and 18 years old, I spent my time moving from one foster family to the next as my parents couldn’t handle living with me anymore. I didn’t graduate high school, barely completed my apprenticeship at the bank, and by the time I was 18, I had given up on my studies, believing I wasn’t worthy of accomplishing anything, so I found a job at a local bar and started waitressing. I earned enough money to pay for a small studio apartment right above the restaurant I worked at, and life consisted of waiting tables from morning until dark and partying on the weekends.

open field during sunset
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

Then one weekend, as I was starting my shift at the bar, I noticed a tall guy. He definitely stood out from the much shorter crowd. At 6’6” and with a voice that was so loud you could hear him talk and laugh from the patio all the way to the bar’s kitchen, I noticed he spoke English, and right away I thought to myself I’d impress him with my language skills. I mentioned our American beers when he came to the bar to order, but to much of my dismay, he didn’t pay much attention to me at all, and I witnessed him flirting with multiple girls as the night went on. It must’ve been past midnight, as we were cleaning up and closing, when one of his friends walked into the bar and asked me if I wanted to join them for a drink. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘Just let me finish up here, and I’ll meet you down the street.’ His name was Carmen. I thought I’d probably be able to get to know his tall and handsome friend if I agreed to go out for a drink, and just as I thought, we eventually struck up a conversation.

city during the day
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

His name was Steve, and I was impressed just by the mere fact that he paid attention to me. Little did I know that he was a player looking to get any girl he could. Soon enough, we started seeing each other, and it lasted a few months until I found out he was cheating on me and had multiple girlfriends wherever he traveled. I broke up with him, and three weeks later, he was begging me to take him back. I let him back in, making sure he understood that I wanted a serious, honest and monogamous relationship. We dated long-distance for about two years, and he then proposed to me, with the condition that I would move to the US, get married, and start a new life with him overseas. I didn’t know what to do. What I knew was that I didn’t really have anything holding me where I was. My relationship with my family wasn’t great, and although my job at the bar and hanging out with my friends was fun, the thought of wiping the slate clean and starting over was very attractive. Plus, I was in love. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll never forget landing in Newark Airport on a hot summer day in June of 2001. I was both terrified and excited. Terrified to have taken such a huge leap of faith, yet excited to start a new life and wipe that slate clean. Still, I had a million questions swirling around in my head. Was I making the right choice? What if it didn’t work out?

We lived in Ridgewood, NJ, for a few months. He was sharing a house with two roommates, which is where we stayed while looking for an apartment. Living in a small room and sharing a house with two single guys I didn’t know wasn’t exactly what I had expected. I found myself extremely bored with nothing to do during the day while he worked. I wanted to go explore the surroundings, but he was adamant about me not leaving the house on my own. Today, I would see this as a red flag. Back then I thought he was just being protective. ‘This is the USA, it’s not like Switzerland,’ I remember him saying to me, referring to the fact that it wasn’t safe for me to go out and about and that I’d probably get lost. I just thought he was probably worried since I had just moved to a brand new country. I was naive, still lost and desperately trying to build a life that I’d be proud of. Looking back, I see things very differently.

woman sitting at a table
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

We got married in August of 2001. Because I had applied for a K1 fiancee visa, I technically had 90 days to get married in order to legally stay in the US and become a permanent resident. I met his family, and from the very beginning, I got a strange feeling that something wasn’t right. I remember meeting his sister over Christmas. She handed me a letter she had written for me. In a few words, it said: ‘Welcome to the family, but remember that he is my only brother, so don’t hurt him, or else you’ll have to deal with me.’ Wow, what a welcome, I thought. Another red flag. As I got to know his family, I learned that his mother explicitly asked him to marry an American because she didn’t want him to move away from her. Thus, bringing me here sparked a fear in them that I might take him away from them. Talk about co-dependency!

The next four years of my life consisted of miles of red tape and endless trips to the USCIS, going back to college to get a two-year degree in Applied Science, starting a job at a hospital and quitting three weeks later, picking up a new job at a swanky Italian restaurant only to quit a few weeks later after finding out I was pregnant with hyperemesis gravidarum, a rare condition that causes persistent vomiting leading to dehydration. It got so bad that I couldn’t do much for the first trimester. I lost 10 pounds and was told I’d have to be on a special medication should I ever get pregnant again.

We welcomed our first baby in March of 2005.

mom and her son
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

When my son Adrien came into the world, something in me shifted. I was a mom, I had a responsibility to show up and be the best mom I could be. This little baby woke up a dormant side of me I had been too afraid to show to the world. I knew then that I couldn’t let my fears rule my world anymore. For so long, I was afraid to show my true self. I feared people’s opinions of me. It was time for me to learn to live authentically. How could I possibly be the best mom to my child by living in fear and scarcity?

My marriage lasted nine years, and then one day, I left. The risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. I’d spent nine years trying to make it work, going to multiple counselors, relationship retreats, and all along, I just knew this relationship wasn’t healthy. The thought of leaving was so painful that I had avoided it for years, trying to mend what was broken. Mostly, I adored being a mother to my two children. My daughter Jasmine came to the world in March of 2007.

Once again, I was blessed with a child and to me, there was no greater feeling. My children gave me purpose, they lit a fire inside of me that had been tamed for so many years. I found joy in being their mother and raising them.

mom holding her baby
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

My decision to leave my marriage was most likely the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make. I couldn’t imagine seeing my kids only half of the time, missing so many special moments, and just not being able to see their sweet faces every morning and kiss them goodnight. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t stay. My kids deserved a safe place to live, a healthy, loving and nurturing environment. I deserved that too, and I had made a promise to myself to not let my fears hold me back anymore. So I left. I lived in a crappy apartment a friend rented to me for three months, and then, I went back. I couldn’t deal with the guilt and hearing him say that I was destroying our kids and our family. It was too painful, and I just felt horrible.

So I went back, and for three years, I tried again. Unfortunately, it was really just more of the same, except the emotional abuse turned physical, and this was the last straw. My exit was rushed, I didn’t really have ducks and I didn’t have a row. I wasn’t interested in money or anything material. All I wanted was to start over and give my kids a better life.

2014 was a defining year for me. I started a new life as a single mom and moved into a townhome and learned to become financially independent. I also made the decision to become the best version of myself, even though I was terrified and knew full well that it would take me years to get to where I wanted to be. I had so much trauma to overcome, so many beliefs to abandon, and I knew it was going to be hard. Leaving a narcissistic partner is like opening a can of worms, and they’re not the good kind either. My divorce became a litigation nightmare. I started to rack up debt from attorneys and court costs, and juggled multiple jobs at a time. More often than not I just felt like giving up. I was exhausted, run down by stress. And yet as hard as it was, I never looked back. I knew I had to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep working on myself, fight for my kids, and just do my best.

I don’t believe anyone gets married thinking that they will get divorced. We all want and crave loving relationships, and when they don’t work, we often have to deal with the feelings of failure and regret. For me, the hardest part was the pain and struggle of co-parenting that lasted way beyond what I had hoped or expected to be. I wanted to create a friendly relationship with my kid’s father for their own sake. I’m not one to hold grudges or want revenge. I just don’t believe in it. I believe in putting kids first, regardless of history. I believe in forgiveness.

woman smiling
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

To this day, and nearly eight years later, co-parenting has been a challenge, and I’ve learned many lessons. Mostly, I have learned so much about myself, and my ability to heal myself has been life-changing. Here are some of the lessons that have helped me grow in this sometimes exhausting journey:

In any situation, you have the choice to either respond or react. Instead of reacting, pause, take three deep breaths and take the time to let go of emotions that don’t serve you or the situation at hand. Believe that difficult relationships can take time to mend, and you don’t need to do all the work. Just do your share.

You cannot control what other people do or say, you can only control what you do and say. Just because people are fueled by anger, drama, and resentment, doesn’t mean you have to participate in their performance.

Train your mind to control your emotions. Make the time. Your children are listening and watching you constantly. They pick up on everything you do and say in front of them. Do your best to stay relaxed, use a calm voice even when tensions arise, and if you cannot do that, go to an area or place that allows you to do it without them witnessing it. Our kids need a strong foundation in their lives, a safe and stable place. Providing that for them especially in the midst of a tough separation is invaluable.

Stop beating yourself up over situations you cannot control or people you cannot change! Instead, focus all your energy on creating a new and better life. Live in the present moment and focus on what you have, not what you lack!

To be a good parent, you’ll often have to sacrifice and be ‘the better person, the strong one, the responsible one.’ It can often create resentment in our hearts and anger when we don’t see these things being reciprocated by the other parent. My best advice: LET IT GO. If you don’t, you will suffer and so will your children.

Letting go is not easy, so here are some tips: create physical distance, stop texting, and resolve to connect strictly through email. Be gentle with yourself, focus on staying relaxed, and do things that bring you joy.

This too shall pass. I’ve repeated this to myself over and over. Don’t rush, just breathe and remember that nature always takes its time, and yet everything is accomplished!”

woman hiking
Courtesy of Flo Zurkinden

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Flo Zurkinden of Easton, Pennsylvania. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. 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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