Many victims of child abuse, neglect, abandonment or molestation go on quietly with life, hoping that no one will detect their barely concealed wounds. Often, the memories of painful experiences lie just below the surface and trigger anger, frustration or depression — and, sadly, feelings of being unwanted, unloved, stupid, ugly, [fill in the negative adjective] hold many abuse victims back from fulfilling their full potential.
In her new book “Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through,” Rhonda Sciortino explains how she went from poverty to affluence, alone-ness to a network of wonderful friends and family, and the feeling of being unwanted and unloved to a genuine sense of worth and value. Here is an excerpt.
I don’t know how to explain how very different my life is today without describing how it used to be. I want it to be very clear that I went from being a ward of the court to where I am today without winning the lottery, marrying a wealthy man, or inheriting anything other than trash — literally.
In December of 1961, my mother gave a package to the neighbor, but it wasn’t a Christmas gift. It was me, her 6-month-old baby girl. Hours after the diapers and formula had been used up, my mother still hadn’t returned from her shopping trip. The neighbor was nervous that something terrible had happened — and if there hadn’t been some tragedy, she was upset that this woman had really stretched the limits of their friendship by burdening her with a baby and absolutely no communication about this extended absence.
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When there was still no word by the next morning, the neighbor called my mother’s mother. My grandmother lived with her physically abusive husband, my grandfather, in filth and poverty. She numbed her pain with alcohol, but she never worked up the courage to do anything to change her circumstances. When my grandmother got that call from the neighbor, she came to get me, thinking she’d keep the baby until her daughter showed up. It didn’t occur to my grandmother then that, like so many grandparents, she was starting over by raising another child.
Days and weeks passed with no word from my mother. There were no reports of any car accidents. No local hospital had admitted anyone by her name. None of her friends knew where she was, or if they knew, they weren’t talking. My father was working seven days a week as a truck driver, so no one could reach him to ask if he had any idea where his wife had run off to this time. Months passed before anyone learned that my mother had met a guy who she thought could give her the life she longed for. When she told the neighbor she was going shopping, she was already packed and ready to move out of state with him.
That December day was the start of the most fearful and painful 16 years of my life. But before you go feeling pity for the little girl I used to be, consider the fact that those horrendous experiences provided an education I couldn’t get any other way. Those 16 years formed an unshakeable foundation on which I launched a lifetime of determining what works to improve the circumstances we find ourselves in, whether they result from our own poor choices or were forcibly imposed on us.
Except for a very brief time in a foster home and the months that we were homeless, during those 16 years I lived in a filthy, rodent- and insect-infested environment filled with strange and superstitious beliefs. The dilapidated 500-square-foot house we lived in was built in the early 1900s, had no heating other than the burners on top of the gas stove, and certainly had no air conditioning. We used a “full” toilet that was flushed only when “absolutely necessary” by pouring a bucket of water into it. This drained into a cesspool that frequently overflowed, its contents running down the driveway and out into the street where the neighborhood children played. As a result of the cesspool situation, I bathed only weekly in about an inch of water and went months without washing my hair. Until I was 13, I didn’t own a toothbrush. Until I went to high school, I had no idea that people showered, brushed their teeth, and washed their hair EVERY DAY!
I wore clothes and shoes that we bought at the thrift store or picked out of the local dump. My clothes were ill-fitting and out of style, and my feet usually hurt from being squeezed into shoes that were too small. But kids making fun of the way I looked and sore feet were the least of my problems.
To say that the house was disgusting was an understatement. The grime from the five to six packs of cigarettes smoked there every day clung to the walls; the slightest brush up against them left a gooey brown smudge on our clothing. The floor was wood, and I don’t mean the beautiful hardwood that covers the floors of many lovely homes. I am referring to the plywood that held the bottom of that old house off the dirt over which it sat. There were holes through which mice, spiders, and assorted insects climbed in and out of the crawl space under the house to live off the spilled food and drinks that littered the kitchen floor. Some of the larger holes were “repaired” by nailing the tops of vegetable cans over them into the floor. Since we spent the summers barefoot, I learned early and often to navigate carefully around the “landmines” of the sharp can lids.
While Alice on “The Brady Bunch” was doing the family’s laundry in an electric washer and dryer that were actually inside the house, we had a wringer washing machine outside on the back porch. If we had an exceptionally rainy season, there was no point in washing the clothes because there was no place to hang them to dry. So, there were many, many times when I not only wore the same jeans and shirt to school day after day, but I wore them dirty and reeking of the smell of body odor and cigarette smoke — so much smoke that my second-grade teacher sent me to the principal’s office for disciplinary action when I was 8 years old. I NEVER smoked! I hated cigarette smoke and the headaches and breathing difficulties that came with it; I still despise cigarette smoke and the way it makes me feel. But until I left that house at 16, I smelled of a toxic mixture of body odor, stale cigarettes, and occasionally alcohol after being hit with a glass or bottle of it.
The little house we lived in was hardly big enough for two, so there was no room for another bed. As implausible as it sounds, I slept in a crib in the corner of the room until I was 7 years old. When I could no longer curl up enough to fit in the crib, we hauled home an old twin mattress someone had left at the curb and put it on the closet floor. That little closet was my “room” until I was 16, and I was grateful for it. Even though it had no door, I was grateful to have that space because it was difficult for my grandfather to get inside. I could finally stretch all the way out in a place where I was off of the floor. I could turn my lamp on and read while my grandparents watched the blaring television on the other side of the plywood wall. For the first time in my life I could change clothes without anyone watching. In that little closet, it was easier to entertain the fantasy that I was like other kids.
Although we always eked out enough money for cigarettes and booze, we were often short on food. Above the sense of abandonment, the abuse, the neglect, and the craziness of that time of my life, my strongest memory was of the hunger.
From “Succeed Because of What You've Been Through” by Rhonda Sciortino. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of N&SMG Inc.
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