‘Your life is worth saving and fighting for.’: Woman shares journey to healing from childhood abuse

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Disclaimer: this story contains details of child abuse that may be upsetting to some.

“‘You’re a whore.’ ‘You’ll never amount to anything without me.’ Imagine being told your whole life you’re not worth anything to anyone in this world. Imagine feeling disposable. Imagine seeing kids who were obviously loved and cared for in the grocery store while you watched your father threaten your mother over purchasing an iron, just to iron his underwear and clothes. How old do you think I was when I felt, saw and experienced all these things? I was only 8 years old. Those words still haunt me every day.

My dad passed away five years ago, but he still occupies mental real estate in my head. The amount gets less and less each day, but he still has a plot. Slowly, his plot will become smaller and smaller and eventually it’ll be down to a blade of grass that gets mowed over one hot, summer day. But until that day comes, his memory is still very much the prologue to my story.

My dad was a conman by nature. He got to stay in this country using a Green Card marriage. I think he wanted to stay with her but Pakistani culture dictated otherwise. They divorced five years after getting married and my dad immediately returned to Pakistan to find himself a victim. I don’t know much about the first marriage, except my mom told me she would visit occasionally with a little boy that looked like him. For all I know, I may have a half-brother in Florida that I’ve never met. Anyway, his abuse began with my mom. He started taking advantage of the fact that she didn’t speak English and was far away from family. She was literally locked in the apartment as he conned his way in and out of jobs, with the last one being in 1979. I found out as a middle-schooler that the only reason I was born was because of societal pressure, the desire for a son, and the Welfare checks he could obtain in my name. I was born in 1984. He abused her while she was pregnant with me. Hitting her, screaming at her, isolating her, you name it. After I was born, he endeared himself to me. I’d later figure out the monster he is/was when I was about five. He’d hit her if I cried. He wouldn’t let me out of my walker, despite the fact that I could walk. He did everything to make sure his meal ticket was well protected.

Courtesy of Sana Gatenby

My parents decided I would have a better life and be protected from the ‘corruption’ of having friends and a normal childhood by uprooting me and taking me to Pakistan. They were determined to solve their gender disappointment. (I remember watching my mom buy boy clothing before we left the States.) I was a highly observant 4-year-old. I’ve always been an old soul. The memories from the first visit are hazy as that visit was a short one. The second one, I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. I remember getting out of a taxi in Gainesville, Florida, in the middle of the night. It was breezy and I remember the last thing I saw on American soil: a TV guide bent back to an ad for HBO. We lived in Pakistan for nine months but it sure as hell felt a lot longer. My mom took her frustration of not being able to conceive by slapping my loose teeth out of my mouth as I took blows to the face. I sat at the balcony frequently watching the rickshaws go by along with the other traffic. I wanted to go home to America. I missed TV. I often thought of the monarch butterfly I saw when a kind neighbor in Florida came to say goodbye and offer me candy. I watched it flap its wings. It was so beautiful. It was free, while I was trapped behind the glass.

My dad threw my toys away. My mom helped him. They left things I treasured behind, for whatever their endgame was. During my time in Pakistan, thoughts of going home turned to thoughts of suicide. I wanted to jump from the balcony and die so I wouldn’t have to continue to take the abuse of my aunt, my parents, and my school teachers, who would hit me for not knowing enough Urdu. I lost a lot of my English while there, landing in ESOL when I got back to states. Anyway, my mom had some sort of epiphany and my parents separated. She went to Chicago to live with my family, and my dad went to Georgia to live with his brother. I should probably note that they were never legally married in the States. I had a childhood for a year. The year we lived in Chicago. My cousin and I walked to school. I had friends I played with. My cousins took me places. I went to McDonald’s for the first time. I had toys because my uncles bought them for me. I had my innocence back.

Courtesy of Sana Gatenby

I will never forget my last day of first grade in Chicago. Mr. Khan came to get me and take me and my cousin to ESOL. Little did I know, my classmates were making goodbye cards for me and one in particular, I still have. The one from my teacher. It has two cartoon bears standing there with handkerchiefs in their hands watching a family move away, and it says, ‘We’re sorry to see you go.’ My heart still breaks when I see that card. I was sad and I didn’t want to go too. My mom threw all the kids’ cards away but kept the one from the teacher obviously. I remember many Pan-Am flights. Airports. I remember her decision to leave her job working for a seamstress to go live with my dad and listening to the empty promises he always made to her about how he was going to change and buy her all these nice things with the job he didn’t have. I remember the night we landed there. We landed at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport on a cold, rainy night. We went through a McDonald’s drive-through and I got an apple pie and fries. It was that night, after his brother left, that he looked at my mom’s new ear piercing and hit her hard enough to tear it from her ear. I remember crying myself to sleep that night.

I grew up sleeping on the floor. In the same room as my parents. My bed was a pile of blankets with a family of cockroaches living under it. Night after night, beating after beating, argument after argument, the glass shattered and I wasn’t daddy’s little girl anymore. That’s when it became my turn. Sexual comments, like, ‘Who are you hiding from?’ while I changed shirts. He said, ‘I’ve seen a hundred girls like you.’ I was forbidden from closing the door while I showered, changed clothes, or used the restroom. He would steal the allowance he’d given me. He would pretend he couldn’t read things when notes came home from school. I’ve always loved music. I wanted to play the violin. My music teacher was willing to do anything to make it happen for me. They said no. I got kicked out of the chorus because of them. He didn’t want to drive the 10 minutes to school to help me.

Fast forward. It’s 1995 and he decides to move the family to Orlando, Florida. I moved a lot as a kid. I spent the bulk of my youth in Florida and I was born there, so it’s still home to me. We lived in a mold-ridden apartment for 20-some-odd years. My time there was shorter, thanks to a boyfriend who moved me out. I was bullied and humiliated in high school. My belongings constantly inspected, dug through, violated by my own father. My mom started working at Kmart in 1996. I was often stuck with my dad on the weekends. I was denied a childhood in GA and I was denied once again in FL. People tried to befriend me. I’d get invited to things and I wanted to go. They told me I’d become corrupted and unpure. Anytime I’d get sick and throw up, they would scream at me and ask me if I was pregnant. There was no way, considering I was never out of their sight. They would time how long it took me to walk from the bus stop to the apartment. I learned to hide my crushes. I hid who I really was. He thought he’d gotten the best of me, even intercepting a plea to my uncle. I hid things in the trash and he’d find them.

Courtesy of Sana Gatenby

I got smarter. I’d wait till they started leaving me home alone weekend nights when he would go to pick my mom up and shoplift and do whatever else. I knew how long it would take to go from the bedroom window to the front door which I would deadbolt when he left. If I needed extra time, I’d pretend I was on the toilet. I hid notes in menstrual pad packaging. Posters in my locker. Anything else in shoeboxes he never checked. I had free time and a computer. I had AIM. I was about to make up and live in a fantasy world through music, books, and the internet. I was beautiful in that world. I mattered in that world. I could be loved in that world. He found my diary. He read it. Humiliated me. They tracked my periods. It was like living naked. Take what you want. You can’t break me. I have things you can’t take from me. ‘I’d hire you because you’d definitely not be a distraction,’ he’d say. He made me feel so ugly. He spent every birthday of mine at strip clubs with his brother. He told me he had more respect for the strippers than he did a straight-A student who tried so hard to please him. He once threatened to kick me out unless I kissed his feet. I did it. I remember his disgusting feet, I remember wishing I was dead. It was non-stop. Sabotaging my school projects. Forcing me to stay in town for school, even though I had a full free ride to go anywhere I wanted and study anything I wanted.

I ended up graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007 with a degree in Elementary Ed. I loved UCF but I couldn’t enjoy it because his specter always loomed. I finally caught a break from the sexual comments, stalking and threats of having my financial aid revoked by my dad when he had to return to Pakistan to deal with family matters. I remember the day he left, August 14th, 2005. It was Pakistani Independence Day and my mom was a foe I could handle. I went on my first date, got my first kiss, dated a bunch of guys to the point where I don’t remember their names, and was date raped. I lost my car in a car accident and I stupidly begged my dad to come back and he didn’t. He was angry his name was not on the title of the replacement beater we bought. He said he would’ve sued me for it. I’m pretty sure I would’ve hurled the keys at him and said ‘keep it.’ He’d forced me to go to community college, but as he left, I was gearing up for UCF. It was a beautiful time in my life. I could finally breathe. I vowed I’d never live under his roof again. He returned in 2010 unannounced. I was still teaching, had two weeks left in my teaching contract. The guy I was dating at the time was a kind-hearted spirit I loved with my heart. He’d moved all my belongings the weekend before. My dad was a dangerous man. He knew my social security number and all of my personal information. He would continue to abuse my mom long after I left, running like a refugee to Jacksonville, where he couldn’t reach me. I took the Honda because it was in my name.

I could easily say that my life was amazing in Jacksonville and it sort of was, but I was battling severe depression and anxiety that went untreated for years. The kind soul I found made me feel safe and loved. He was my place to hide when things went wrong. I’ve been burned and risen from the ashes many times. As a kid. As a college student. As an adult. I wish I could tell you that things are easy and perfect and that you can escape all this abuse unscathed. But that would make me a liar. Every setback makes you stronger. I still say this to myself to this day, ‘You tried to break me. You told me to kill myself. You made me question my worth. But you won’t win. Are you going to have days where what you did to me still has a hold on me? Yes. But you will not win. You took me to the point of so much self-hatred that I tried to attempt suicide. I failed, obviously. You laughed as I faced battle after battle. You probably laugh from the indigent burial hole you live in. That’s cool. YOU WON’T WIN.’

Courtesy of Sana Gatenby

I ended up marrying the kind soul who moved me out. We’ve been together for almost 13 years and married for 8. We have a son, Henry. Every day, that little kid gives me a reason to live. So, if you’re reading this. You will survive. You will find your purpose. You will emerge from the fires of hell stronger than you ever imagined. There are days you will cry in your car. There will also be days where you sit in the same car, with the sunroof open, reminded that in the end, you prevailed. You’re still alive. You found a way out. You’re living this precious gift you have and you’ll be damned if you ever let anyone ever make you feel like you’re anything less than amazing. Your life is worth saving and fighting for.”

Courtesy of Sana Gatenby

[If you need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org to live chat with someone 24/7. Help is out there and you are not alone.]

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sana Gatenby. 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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