Success means different things to different people. One person’s success is not that of another. For me, success didn’t have a meaning early in my life. That’s because I never saw it. No one ever talked about it within my family. I wouldn’t recognize it, even if I had it.
As a young girl, I was a bright child, inquisitive, trusting, and full of wonder. I was little girl filled with hopes and dreams. But I grew up in a volatile home with domestic violence as the backdrop. After a while, I lost my way. I had no self-esteem and no sense of belonging—only hopelessness, and I learned how to be a victim.
In my young adulthood, I wore pain like a badge, and I tied a cloak of victimization tightly around my neck. It wasn’t that I liked this role; it just became comfortable and part of my everyday routine. I attracted people just like me. My first real boyfriend suffered from his own abuse, and in turn began to become physical with me. I was already caught in the cycle. It was familiar to me, and It was a normal way of life.
I muddled through life accepting and expecting something terrible to happen to me each and every day, and it did. At the age of 26, I had already had two failed marriages, and I was a single mother and survivor of domestic violence. But the worst scenario that I could have imagined was looming ahead.
In 2000, I moved back home to Memphis, Tennessee with my son, full of hope and expectations. I was going to start my life over, begin college, and find a nice job. One night I just wanted to go dancing. I wanted to celebrate starting over and leave it all on the dance floor. But just as I made my way to the door of the nightclub, I heard the catcall from a very nice vehicle with two attractive men sitting in it.
The driver urged me to skip the club and meet them for breakfast at a nearby restaurant. Against better judgment, I agreed, and I jumped in my car and followed them.
Once there, the conversation flowed. I told the driver, who I thought I had a connection with, all about how I had just arrived in Memphis, was looking forward to starting college, and was looking for a job. He listened intently, and it was easy for me to open up. I left the two men to excuse myself to the bathroom, but on my way back to the table, I knew something was off. I ignored my intuition.
When I returned to the table, the driver’s friend was nowhere to be found, and I became nervous. My new friend asked me to sit down. I was hesitant, and that hesitation quickly turned into panic when I realized I left my purse at the table. He sensed my worry, and held up my purse in a sort of mocking gesture to insinuate that yes, I indeed had fucked up and left it.
This time he didn’t ask me to sit down; he demanded that I sit down. He scooted in so close to me I could feel his breath on the back of my neck, and the steel from the gun he had pressed on my thigh. He proceeded to tell me that I had found the new job I was looking for.
I had walked into that restaurant a free woman, but I left as a sex slave. The cloak of victimization became heavier than ever before and now, I had taken victimization to a whole new level.
This was a sort of pain I had never felt before. I don’t know if any of you have ever felt the emptiness of feeling worthless, as if your very birth was a grand mistake and your life was one big joke, and even God was laughing. This new victimization had a grasp onto me and I feared the only way to escape would be death.
I fantasized about death, begged for it even, but God had other plans. Realizing that I needed to live for my son, I made a pact with God. It took years to begin to put my life back together.
One night while trying to sleep, I heard a loud, clear voice. It scared me! I ran to my mother’s room insisting that she hold me, telling her that in the morning she needed to take me to the mental institution because I was hearing things. She simply asked me one question: “Do you hear a lot of voices, or one in particular?”
“Only one,” I replied.
She then tightened her hug and said, “Honey, you aren’t crazy. You hear God. Peace be still baby, peace be still.” That night I slept like a baby.
The following days and weeks I listened and wrote in my journal. I meditated. I practiced yoga. I studied different religions. I sought the help of a clinician to overcome the trauma. He encouraged me to break the victim pattern and seek the light that was within me. What I found was that it was never ignited, and it was up to me to light my own fire.
As the years passed by, I began to give back by volunteering at domestic violence shelters. I became a college graduate, and I reunited with my son’s father. We had a daughter and got married. I began my life as a mom in the suburbs with a great job, husband, and family.
I thought I’d taken the cloak of victimization off, but I began to realize that it was still there. I simply got caught up in repetition of living. I forgot the pact I’d made with God, and I forgot about the woman I was who fought to survive in my early twenties. I was so caught up in shame and guilt that I ignored her, and I tried to become someone else.
I began to have dreams. I dreamed that I had purple wings and was flying. I had no idea what it meant, but one day after a strenuous day of working at my internship at a runaway shelter, I frantically began to search for an organization for at-risk girls—somewhere that would have given me the type of help I needed as a teen girl, and where I could refer my own clients to, but I came up short. There weren’t any. And so my “aha” moment came.
I started putting together a plan and enlisting help to start my own organization called, Purple WINGS, an acronym for “Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully.”
I worked hard securing a location, the right type of help, and opening the doors to begin my organization, and when girl after girl sat in front of me telling me their stories about the trauma they suffered at the hands of domestic violence, rape, and being the victim of sex trafficking, the cloak began to tighten around my throat and nearly choke me! I wanted to yell out, “Me too! I understand because I was a victim too! You are not alone!”
But I remained silent. I feared being judged because of what I’d been through. I feared losing people who I regarded as friends, and losing the love of my life. I feared embarrassing them.
There was so much shame. How could I tell anyone that I had been sexually abused, pimped out, beaten? How could I tell these girls, or anyone else for that matter? Who would accept me? Most of all, who would love me?
So instead of dreaming, I felt a soft tapping on the shoulder—a nudging if you will. I got it. I needed to speak up about what I’d been through in order to help others see that they were not alone. I needed to speak up in order to give others permission to use their voice, to stand up, and stand strong.
I told my husband what I planned to do and he was mortified. In fact, he forbade me to tell a soul. He was worried about what others would say. My eyes opened up at that moment and I realized that I had to start living for me, and that I had to stop seeking validation and begin to accept my past in order to start my new future.
I was proud of surviving and being able to live to tell the story to warn others, and if that meant that I had to stand on my own two feet, then that’s exactly what I would do.
So as a newly divorced woman, I released the last bit of victimization. I refused to allow any person to ever make me feel guilty for having a past. I refused to allow anyone to ever pull the strings on my life and determine the type of woman I would be. I began to speak up, and I started to tell the girls from my program. I finally told my family. I stood on a stage and gave a Tedx talk that went viral. I became free, and at that moment I became successful.
See, in order to light the fire within and have success according to your own terms, you must learn how to first love yourself! Accept your past, forgive yourself, forgive others, and find your voice.
You can’t wear the cloak of victimization, shame, and guilt and also put on the cape of success. It won’t fit! It doesn’t feel right.
Now I wear that cape and I stand in my full truth. I accomplish my goals because I don’t allow anything or anyone to get in the way.
Success for me is defined by being able to look in the mirror and see worthiness, to see beauty from ashes, redemption, a second chance, hope, and above all happiness—on my terms—by being authentic, and by first getting real with myself. It’s living with purpose, giving back, and leaving this world a little bit better than when we came into it.
My legacy will be set by the works that I do within my own community. The girls and women I serve are thriving because I lit the fire and taught them how to turn up the flame.
When the flame dims, my organization Purple WINGS turns it up, and we make it shine brighter than ever before.