March 18, 2020

I Am a Survivor, Hear Me Roar!

By: Brenda Wann

I had just been asked to speak to a group of male and female prisoners in a Chemical Dependency Treatment Facility, but I had never spoken in public. “You don’t understand,” I said to the woman on the other end of the phone. “I am 8 ½ months pregnant. My husband just had a relapse back into drugs and alcohol and had done some very terrible things. In fact, he did them on the premises of my place of employment! I am really angry! You don’t want me to speak to these people. Right now, I hate addicts and alcoholics!” Tears were rolling down my face, but I heard the caller say, “You will be perfect. When can you come in and speak?” Shocked, I agreed to a date and time and hung up the phone. Me, speak in public? What could I possibly have to say?

Growing up, domestic violence, neglect, abandonment, sexual abuse, poverty, and addictions were all that I had known. Each of these issues has a way of making a person lose their voice. Covering up others’ actions against me due to threats, unnecessary guilt and shame, and fear of repercussions had silenced my voice a long time ago. When I had tried to speak up, my story was not believed and the help and protection that I desperately needed never happened.

As I grew up, I had stuffed all of that trauma, suffering, and pain deep down inside. I didn’t speak about it to anyone else and I continued to be abused by others. Did I have a sign on my forehead that said, Abuse or victimize me? My adult life was repeating the patterns of abuse from my childhood in a horrific way. But now, I was a parent. I was the mother of 5 children. I deeply loved my children and I wanted life to be different for them. I wanted to break the negative cycles that were in my family so that my children could have a better life. I just didn’t know how.

At the Chemical Dependency Treatment Facility in a halting, shaky, tearful manner, I spoke to the audience of male and female prisoners. I shared about my life as the wife of an addict – an alcoholic who had been sober for five years when I had first met him in church. I started weeping and speaking in anger and pain about the disappointment, the embarrassment, the worry, the separations, and the fear that addictions were causing in my family.

I think that listening to an 8 ½ month pregnant, sobbing woman would have been hard on anyone, but on this particular group, it was breaking their hearts! They all knew that they were guilty of doing the same things to their loved ones that my husband had done to me and our children. There wasn’t a dry eye in that room as I stood to leave. Several men broke down and were sobbing themselves. I was deeply stunned by their reactions. I left feeling deeply shaken and very exposed. To my surprise, I was asked to come back and speak again!

The first year I could not even make it through my talks without breaking down. I did not see why I kept being asked to come back. How was this doing anything? After I had been speaking there for a few months, I started noticing some things. People would recognize me and ask to speak with me. Some of them would run to the facilitators and ask if they could hear me speak again. Sometimes, they would just want a hug or break down, or just say hello. It was deeply touching.

The facilitators told me years later that they were not able to get through to these prisoners, but my story did just that. As these prisoners broke, they started being kinder, more respectful, they apologized to their families or became better parents and spouses. They started allowing the Treatment Facilitators to do their jobs, which was to help the prisoners with their sobriety and become responsible, productive members of society.

After this first year of speaking, I left one day feeling a few burdens lighter. I actually felt joy, which was not something I was used to feeling. I realized at that moment that by sharing my story I was opening up and allowing light to enter my body, mind, and soul. As I shared my story, it became evident that it was helping my audiences in many different ways. Sharing my story had done more than just help others, I realized in that moment that it had also helped me. The joy that I was feeling was because I was healing. It is my belief that God doesn’t waste anything we go through. Our tears, suffering, scars, and experiences can and will be used to help others. I strongly believe that if sharing my story helps only one person, then my tears and suffering were not in vain. The messiness of my life had now become my message. This was the first of many, new beginnings in my life.

Realizing that by speaking up I could change things, I used my newfound voice to break the cycle of violence and addictions over my children. My children and I became survivors of domestic violence. I went on to speak for the Women’s and Children’s Alliance and Faces, Nampa Family Justice Center, Damsel in Defense, the radio, TV, the Idaho Statesmen. I chose to become a voice for myself, my children, and others by taking that first step to speak that day so many years ago. Now, I don’t stay silent. I speak up and speak loud and at times, I even roar!

This blog post was written by a woman in our community named Brenda Wann. Thank you, Brenda, for sharing your story with us. We are so proud that you have entrusted us to be a platform to use your voice and that you now want to use your voice for others.