‘I Took My Weakness and Made it a Strength’
“I’m an immigrant. I came here when I was seven and was raised by a single mom.”
Karen’s mom was abusive when she was growing up. Her family would occasionally intervene but most of the time it was just the two of them. One day, her mother hit her as her neighbor watched. Karen was removed from her home, stayed in foster care for a couple of days, then lived with her aunt for six months. When she went back home, the physical abuse stopped but the emotional abuse continued.
“My mom would compare me to my dad,” says Karen. “She would tell me that he didn’t want me and that she hated me because I looked like him.”
For years, her life was “living in silence. Constantly having dark thoughts and thinking, ‘why am I here, just to be trapped in a room with no opportunities,’” she says. “My mom brought me to this country to succeed but she was depriving me from that because I wasn’t doing what I was told to do at school – join clubs, do things in the community. If anything, it made me seem like I couldn’t finish or commit to anything because my mom didn’t let me.”
Karen left home at 18 and ended up living with her ex-boyfriend and his family, for whom she also worked. Now living under the ex’s roof, they got back together and broke up several times.
She wanted to attend a four-year university but was unable to get financial aid. With no credit, no loans and nobody to help, she was forced to stay in her ex-boyfriend’s house longer that she wanted to. When she had finally decided to leave, she found out that she was pregnant.
“I was in my old-school mentality: ‘I made this choice, I have to stick to it. I have to please him.’ I didn’t value myself the way I should have,” Karen explains.
The pregnancy started taking a toll on her, and her boyfriend took notice.
“From a shout, it went to a push,” she says. “From a push, it went to on the ground to something more physical. It was like that during the whole pregnancy. I thought it would get better.”
While Karen’s partner was becoming increasingly abusive, her mom had reached out and apologized. Professional help, time and distance between them had made her mother reflect on her past mistakes. She told Karen she understood that she had been wrong and wanted to be a part of her granddaughter’s life. Karen moved in with her mom.
Her relationship with her boyfriend improved for a while. “He kept saying he wanted us to be better and to be a family,” she says. “Eventually, he got his own apartment, and my daughter and I moved in. Things were good in the beginning, he was controlling himself more … but then his temper started to come back.” The cycle began all over again.
One day, he followed her as she drove to work and tried to ram her car with his. He got into her car as she was on her phone, asking a coworker for help. The coworker called the police, who escorted Karen to their apartment. They talked to her boyfriend, assessed the situation, then filed a domestic violence report.
Karen was granted full custody of her child – but she had no place of her own. She had connected with Carolyn, a housing coordinator at the MHALA Integrated Services Recovery Center in Lancaster, who began to lay the groundwork for her own apartment. When she received the domestic violence report, Karen called Carolyn, who told her, “We have a unit for you. We’re going to sign the leasing papers.”
“She gave me confidence,” says Karen. “I told her that I had to go to court and she said, ‘It’s ok! We’ve got it. If you need us to be present in court, we’ll be there for you.’ She was in contact with me the entire time. She went to see the unit with me and was very supportive throughout the whole process. She helped me make it happen.”
Karen’s personal life made her miss work and classes. But “the moment that Carolyn stepped was when change happened. I don’t think I would have gotten through that time without her.”
Therapy has been another key component of Karen’s progress. “This is why I am able to speak about my experience. I was able to let things go. MHALA has given me the courage, the strength … the entire team has been amazing.”
Karen’s part-time job turned into a full-time position. She will soon begin a new job at an area hospital. She is back on track in community college and will graduate in the fall.
“I’ve progressed more than I ever thought. I always wanted to be independent. I want to value myself and give myself that standard of yes, I am somebody. And because of Carolyn’s support, I have been able to become that person,” adds Karen. “She tells me, ‘Everything that you went through, it sucked and nobody should go through it, but it has molded you into the person you are today.’
“She’s right. It’s made me a stronger person, a better person. I took my weakness and made it a strength.”