ETERNAL OPTIMIST. LOVER.
Many people have rough childhoods; mine just happens to be exceptionally dark. Growing up, my body and soul were a canvas for other people’s work. I carry more physical and mental scars than most see in a lifetime. I was born to a teenage mother who was hardly around and a father who walked out days after I was born (insert the beginning of my abandonment issues here). I witnessed violence among my mother’s friends. And at the age of four and five, I was sexually molested, left in the hands of countless babysitters and their kids.
My saving grace during my formative years was Grandma T, my mother’s mom. Everything I wish to embody as a woman today is what I remember of my grandma. She was independent, worked her way to top management at a credit union, and managed to have four children—and five grandchildren. She cooked, cleaned, hosted dinners and holidays. She pushed my mother to make sure I received a proper education and eventually had me move in with her when I was five. She knew my mother wasn’t fit to be a mother, despite how strong of an example she tried to set. My grandma was more of a mother to me than my own mother ever was. She loved me and did everything she could to make me happy and give me some semblance of a normal childhood. My grandma even painted her house pink because that was my favorite color. She was my world.
I was seven when she passed away from cancer.
I was a child and could barely wrap my young mind around the concept of life and death, let alone cancer. The one thing I did know was that I was now completely alone. Since most of my family did not think my mother had her shit together, I was placed in the home of my uncle (my mother’s brother) and aunt (his wife). I shudder to even call it home; it was the furthest thing from one. My aunt physically and mentally abused me from the moment I moved in. She never laid a hand on my cousins, just me and me alone. I can still remember the first slap that left the inside of my mouth completely bruised and mashed. I remember asking my uncle what was wrong and showing him the injury. He simply said to stop biting the inside of my mouth. I hadn’t actually made the connection of the slap and the bruising until a few weeks later when it occurred again. The abuse went on for four years. She would choke me until I passed out, broke my two front teeth twice, and severely burned my hand with a curling iron. The list goes on and on.
My school life wasn’t much easier, either. I was—excuse me, I AM—knock-kneed. Whenever I ran marathons, kids laughed at the way I ran. Apparently my legs swing out to the side while I run, so my peers incessantly mocked me. I was devastated; I stopped running and participating in sports that required it. I also had the worst set of teeth a kid could have, crooked and teeth growing behind teeth. Not to mention when my front teeth were broken, kids would mock me by gumming their lips over their teeth. Since my every move was scrutinized at home, I took everything personally. Any time a kid made fun of me, I became more embarrassed and ashamed. From the stains on my clothes to my unkempt hair, to the fact I liked the Power Rangers—anything and everything I did made me the object of ridicule to my classmates… and my aunt.
There was this one incident my sixth grade year, where I befriended three girls. I longed for acceptance and friendship, so I finally tried. After a while, I told them about the abuse that was happening. I made them promise, promise, not to tell an adult, which they upheld for what seemed like weeks. While they were away at a school camp, I wrote to them about an episode that had happened. While they read my letter a counselor found them extremely upset, at which time they told the counselor everything. When the class returned, I knew something was wrong: I knew they had told. Something you learn from years of abuse is how to read people; I always had to be steps ahead to anticipate the next move, the next abusive moment. I spoke with school counselors about the abuse; I had no choice at this point. My aunt was arrested and I was put into the foster care system.
Ironically, after placement in foster care, life actually became a bit easier. I no longer feared the end of my life or constant physical pain. Finally feeling somewhat safe, my real issues began to bubble to the surface. No one in my biological family stepped up to take care of me and I couldn’t understand why.
Somehow, I was one of the lucky foster kids. One of the several, and I mean several, caseworkers happened to be friends with my now foster parents. They were not looking to be foster parents, but my caseworker stressed that I would do well with them and that I was special. On my first drive out to meet them, I was told that I would be moving in. I wasn’t given a choice. Exactly one week after I met my soon-to-be foster parents, I stayed the night; one week after that, I moved in. Done and done. I was 11 years old—in a few months, twelve. I was terrified and excited. I had moved so many times between my biological mother, grandma, and uncle and aunt that this was just another journey in the life of Cherie. I hoped it would be painless. But, more than anything, I just hoped for normal.
My first year at my new home was great. We lived on acres of property where I explored, climbed trees, and played in fields. My parents introduced me to as many other kids and activities as possible. I even started riding horses. It was such a nice escape from the real world and a way for me to fantasize. Whatever I wanted, whatever made me happy — a first to me since living with Grandma T.
My biological father even found me during this time. We officially met and had several supervised visits. Then he said he wanted me to move in with him. I was elated. My father had come back for me! He wanted to be a family! I started turning in my assignments for classes with Cherie Hawes-Pauwell written at the top (Pauwell being my father’s last name). But after an unsupervised weekend together, I NEVER heard from him again. I called. I left messages. I even mailed him letters. Seriously, to this day, I have not heard from him. You hear of people who have their fathers walk out on them—I just happened to have it done to me twice. My previous abandonment issues paled in comparison to what I experienced now.
Then the nightmare began. I began having literal nightmares and flashbacks of abuse. I no longer felt safe. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder along with anxiety, and was put on medication. I pretty much lost it after that. I didn’t know how to handle my PTSD and anxiety. The meds were definitely not helping and I started lashing out at the people who meant the most to me. I said horrible things to my foster parents. I yelled and refused to do things they asked of me. Sure that sounds like your typical teenager, but coming from my background they knew it was much, much more.
Then the cutting began.
I can’t even imagine the feelings or thoughts that went through my foster mom’s head when she found me. I was crying in my bedroom. Stuttering and shaking, I rolled up my sleeves, blood everywhere. She immediately took me into the bathroom and cleaned me up. It was the first time I’d ever inflicted pain on myself, but definitely not my last. I remember going into the woods of our property with a keychain knife. I remember thinking, This is too much. I was in so much pain, but I could not see the pain. I couldn’t communicate what was going on. So I did the one thing I knew I could handle, I could explain, I could understand. I cut. I cut both arms. It’s odd now to think of the relief I felt. Cutting never truly hurt; it instead let me expose the emotional and mental pain I didn’t know how to handle or communicate.
It all came to a climactic end with a suicide attempt. It happened only once, but I had no desire to live with the pain of my childhood: the abandonment, the abuse, the fear and self-loathing trapped in my head. My parents did the hardest thing I needed. They asked the State to take me away to get help. This meant I lived in a couple different foster homes for several months, then a shelter, followed by a 3-month stay at an evaluation center, and ending with a 5-6 month stint in a live-in facility that gave me all the therapy and skills I needed. I pretty much missed my entire sophomore year of high school. It was tough, but I learned so much about myself in that year. And I was weaned off all the meds I had originally been put on.
My greatest discovery was finding love. I found love from my foster mom and dad. Not once did they leave my side. They visited me during holidays and always checked in on me. They sent me little gifts and reminders of home. It was the first time I was shown love and not abandonment during a difficult time. A few years ago I finally dropped “foster” and I now just call them Mom and Dad.
During my time away, I learned that everything from my past was not my fault. The people who inflicted pain on me mentally, physically, and sexually were the sick ones. I wanted to be happy and I wanted to be free of all this pain. I just had no idea how to do that. I met a therapist at the live-in facility who worked with me several times a week and reminded me what was important in life. She helped me learn again how to love myself and how to communicate effectively with others. I was encouraged to do the things that made me happy. I also learned how to be a better person in the world. I helped cook dinner for the other girls, arranged games, mentored during studies, and many other things.
I am even learning forgiveness. My biological mother and I have always had some sort of relationship, some times more estranged than others. But recently, we had the deepest conversation about why she had to give me up and the things she had gone through. And I realized that she too is human. We are working on our relationship. Slowly.
Undeniably, the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the years are all about self-love and self-acceptance. I cannot change the abandonment I endured, my knock-knees, the many scars left over from the mental and physical abuse. I’ve learned to let that go and love myself. I am good enough; in fact, I am worthy! Harboring anger and hate toward past events in my life only clouds what the future holds for me. It’s not easy; every day I have to work at it. I constantly remind myself that I am a survivor, to relax, and to breathe. I’ll never get this opportunity again to be me, to live this life, my life. I fight for that self-love and self-acceptance, because it is absolutely worth it. Every day. Every time.
To my fellow foster kids,
There is a better life than the one you were dealt. Trust me, I should’ve wound up strung out on drugs with children. But I wanted to do better. I wanted to be happy. There are people out there who can help you. Seek out an education or a trade that you are good at. Find a way to communicate and deal with whatever issues you may have. You will start to feel happiness and find self-worth. Just do it. It will be uncomfortable and others might not understand you. But you know what? That is okay, because you are you. Nobody else has to live with the decisions you make, so do things for yourself that promote self-love, growth, and acceptanceYou might feel alone, like no one can help, that it’s you against the world, but I’ve learned this is absolutely not true. Life gets much easier when you stop fighting that battle.
Chérie Hawes X UDD
As a child, one of my favorite toys was Bozo The Clown, aka “The Knock Me Down” clown. I can’t tell you how much pure joy I got from belting it with my best 5-year-old punch, only to watch it slowly rise and match my gaze, eyes wide...smiling. Bawse! I don’t know what intrigued me more, the fact it could take my punches, or that my punches couldn’t take it. Either way, Bozo was resilient. So is the case with Chérie Hawes.
I’ll be honest. The first time I read Chérie’s story, I was overwhelmed…mystified. I literally sat in silence for about 15 minutes. I thought, How is she still standing? And how does she reflect such innocence and forgiveness, such a beautiful view toward life when it’s given her some heavy blows? But I too, understand the heavy blows of life. And I, too, had to learn to release the grip on myself and allow the embrace of others. Chérie reminds me that the human spirit is resilient, if allowed. If we allow it to be nourished, enriched and inspired…if we allow it to be loved. Resiliency is a choice. Choose.
What do you need? Learn yourself and your limitations. Get help. No one is an island. Even a tree, seemingly a loner, needs the sun and soil for nourishment, the birds for pollination. Hell, it even gets tougher through adverse winds. No one or no thing can go at it alone. We just weren’t wired that way. But when we are plugged into the right things, and allow ourselves to be enriched—well, that’s when the magic happens. That’s when you discover people who genuinely care, like a therapist, a foster Mom and Dad, and a Grandma T—just waiting. Real love challenges, nourishes, and heals. It gives. You discover love when you choose love.
Chérie wants to start her own blog for foster kids, admitting this was the push she needed to get started. She wants to shed light on the abuse that happens to kids in the system. Through her story, she wants to show others they don’t have to stay on the same path they were dealt. She hopes to give them a online space to call home.
Like I told you, love gives.
What were your first lessons in resiliency? How did Cherie's story speak to? Let's talk.