There has to be a purpose for all this pain
You know like there comes sunshine after the rain
If sunshine does not come quick I’ll drown
Those are the first lines of a poem titled “Mystery of Purpose.” The author, Yvette, was just 5 years old when the abuse began. By the time she was 19, she was married to an abusive man, had three children, and was managing work and school. It wouldn’t be until several years later that she’d communicate to therapists how bad the abuse was.
Her past filled her with shame and embarrassment. She had no concept of what a healthy relationship was. Throughout her teens and adult life, Yvette subconsciously chose toxic relationships, which is common for people who have experienced abuse. As she puts it, “I didn’t know how to not choose abusive relationships. I didn’t know how to set healthy boundaries for myself.”
Therapy was something Yvette tried for years, but life circumstances got in the way and forced her to quit. It wasn’t until she found herself on the ground in tears after being stood up on a date that she realized she needed help.
What can I do
To undo what has been done unto me?
I cannot run away
It is inside of me
Wherever I go
It goes with me
Yvette’s desire to “undo what was done” led her to United Way-supported YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis six years ago.
“I had so much pain and was committed to do anything to heal,” she recalls.
The YWCA offers individual and group therapy to women struggling with a range of issues, including abuse. Sessions are free and transportation is provided to and from if needed.
Yvette was matched with therapist Quandra Chaffers of YWCA. Yvette was hesitant. It took time to confide in a stranger about her past. Eventually Quandra’s patience and understanding led to their bonding, and Yvette saw that in order to address the domestic violence she experienced, she first had to address her childhood abuse.
Growing up in an abusive environment since age 5, Yvette was constantly told she wasn’t good enough. She believed she deserved to be hurt and sought people who continued the cycle. Through therapy, Yvette learned to change the way she viewed herself. She began to look at herself as beautiful and worthy of happiness, respect and a life free from violence.
“YWCA was the defining moment in my life when I was able to move beyond the abuse,” Yvette recalls.
After more than 40 years, Yvette discovered why she chose abusive partners. It was familiar to her and all she’d known. Therapy helped her to learn why she continued to do the things she did and to make better choices. She used to view herself as powerless and unable to break the cycle. With guidance, she’s unlearned lessons of her past in choosing abusive relationships and has found the strength necessary to get out.
“I used to beat up on myself because I would pick bad people, but I learned in therapy that we don’t necessarily look for bad people,” Yvette said. “We don’t know they’re bad until we get to know them.”
Quandra helped Yvette identify her triggers and develop healthy coping skills. Walking, dancing and writing became common practices for Yvette, things she could do to cope and navigate to a healthy state of mind when her posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was triggered.
Writing was a big part of Yvette’s therapy and is a coping mechanism she still uses today. It’s a strategy she learned before YWCA, but one she wasn’t able to take advantage of. She’s always wanted to write her life story, but she says doing so would force her to relive her past trauma and trigger her into depression. Attending therapy at YWCA helped her face and process those feelings. Today, she can talk and write about them.
“There’s something about that pen to paper that works. I feel I’m not alone. I feel empowered, that I have a voice and something to give to people,” she says. “I never thought I could heal, but YWCA saved me.”
Triggers used to send Yvette back to the thoughts and feelings associated with her childhood. She would become depressed and end up in the hospital. Now she knows her triggers and can avoid them.
Her poem, “Amazing You,” displays the incredible progress she’s made in her years of therapy, the coping skills she’s gained, the joy of being reunited with her adult children and the control and hope that’s come of her life:
You are amazing
I am loving you so much lately
You have overcome so many obstacles
You have had to make some hard choices
You have grieved what was
You are moving forward with new goals
You did not give up
I am proud of you for your tenacity
You are a strong warrior
Since her success with therapy, she’s empowered several women to seek help for themselves – friends, family and women everywhere. Her goal is to help others overcome stigma and show that there shouldn’t be shame in asking for help.
“Our culture teaches us to hide our emotions; it doesn’t promote us to be healthy mentally,” she explains. “It’s one of the last things we do when it should be one of the first.”
Earlier this year, Yvette moved from St. Louis to Arizona. It was a change that’s helped her escape bad memories of the past. Today she’s meeting new people and developing friendships, but more than that she’s on her own. Moving to a place with few familiar faces was a hurdle, but it’s a hurdle that shows the tremendous progress she’s made in therapy.
“I don’t have that ache inside to fill that void of self-love. I love myself enough to not allow those things to happen to me again,” Yvette explains. “I can love me, take care of me and stand on my own two feet. I don’t have to be in a co-dependent relationship; I can survive being on my own. I used to fear being alone, but now I embrace it. Being alone doesn’t mean I’m not worth anything because I don’t have a partner. It means that I have a lot to offer to the world. I know who I am and I know my worth.”
Yvette sees herself as “whole” now, something she hasn’t been able to before.
Her lifelong struggle shows the lasting effects of an abusive past. But with that past comes a tremendous desire to heal and move past the pain and help others do the same.
“It’s going to take a while to figure it all out, but I’m in a place now where I can help other women.”
Yvette, now 55, is attending a small business startup program. At the end of the 9-month, accelerated course, she’ll have the tools to pursue her dream of starting an organization to help mothers struggling with mental illness. She wants to share her story, the healing powers of writing and eventually lead women to and through therapy.
She envisions a safe place free of judgment and criticism, someplace to help women and keep families together.
“When I was a little girl, I didn’t have someone tell me, ‘You’re hurting and it’s OK. Get yourself some help,’” Yvette explains. “That’s what I want to tell women – that there’s help out there and they too can experience the happiness and realization of their own self-worth that therapy has given me.”
If you or someone you know is in immediate physical danger, call 911. If you are experiencing sexual abuse, call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. United Way of Greater St. Louis supports a network of local agencies that help children and adults effected by domestic violence. For a list of agencies that can help, please call 2-1-1 (or 1-800-427-4626).
About YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis
YWCA Metro St. Louis is dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women. Our vision is that women and their families achieve their full potential and well-being in a world without discrimination. YWCA Metro St. Louis provides in-person crisis-intervention to victims of sexual assault and abuse as well as group and individual counseling, including to individuals with developmental disabilities; transitional housing and case management for single homeless women; domestic violence support services; economic empowerment for single mothers; leadership and prevention education to teens; early education through Head Start and Early Head Start; and racial justice training and public discussion groups on issues of race and gender equity. YWCA has been a United Way-supported agency since 1923.