My Past Did Not Define Me, It Designed Me

By Shandreka Jones

My 17-year-old mother was in foster care when she had me. She left me with shandreka-large-254x300her mother, whom she ran away from years earlier because of abuse. My grandmother carried the abuse down to me and I still have a half-inch scar above my right eye from when she pushed me into the dining room table. I was about 6, and she got mad because I couldn’t tie my shoes. When I was 7, she used a key to cut my back when I coughed in an elevator, something she didn’t want me to do. My teacher found out, and I was placed in a foster home in Mount Vernon, New York.

My first foster family seemed to be sent from heaven, until my social worker visits became less frequent. The family abused me mentally and physically and neglected even my basic needs – like ensuring I bathed properly. They restricted me to their attic and wouldn’t allow me to interact with their biological children. When my social worker made sporadic visits, I cried and begged her not to leave me with “the mean people.” She promised she would come back as soon as she found me a new family.

To this day I can’t understand why my social worker left me there after what she witnessed. My clothes were always dirty and my hair was never combed. I developed ringworm on my forehead and scalp. After a few more months of abuse, I was moved to another home in New Rochelle, New York.

But it wasn’t any better than the first one. In fact, it was worse, and I was forced to live there for the remainder of my adolescent years. When my social worker visited frequently, my new parents tended to my infected and malnourished body. However, once my social worker lost interest, so did they. Again I was treated differently from their children. I was beaten and called names. I was constantly reminded that my “own mother” didn’t want me, so I should be grateful that they had taken me in. After a few years living with them, they talked me into being adopted. I wasn’t sure why they wanted to adopt me – they hated me. Years later I learned that they continued to receive money for my “mental disability.”

But to me, the only thing that affected me mentally was living in that home. I ran away numerous times and tried killing myself by taking a bottle of over-the-counter pills. I stayed angry all the time, which caused me to fight anyone who dared to get in my way. When my adoptive mother held a knife to my throat, I left for good. I was like a newborn baby again, but this time I was responsible for my well-being – nobody was there to help me or check in on me. I didn’t have a mentor, guardian ad litem or Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer to steer me in right direction. I didn’t have a clue how to be young lady. I didn’t know how to love or receive love.

My low self-esteem caused me to use my body as a tool. I was playing Russian roulette with my life with excessive drinking and reckless relationships. I abused alcohol to escape my insecurities and myself. I began believing I was mentally retarded just like I was told for all those years. My anger turned into depression. I didn’t think I was pretty or worthy enough to be around others who seemed to have it all. I hated myself for not being what I thought I should be.

I lived from couch to couch, including my biological mother’s, until I couldn’t take my life anymore. I knew I was destined for greater things – I just didn’t know how to reach them. I got on my knees and asked God for his strength and guidance. The following month at the age of 20, I enlisted in the Army and never looked back.

I carried hatred in my heart for many years toward those who hurt me. I still wonder about my foster families’ reasons for being so cruel. However, in spite of it all, I have done great things. I have a loving husband and son, who love me for me. By the grace of God, I was able to break the cycle of abuse and neglect that seemed to infiltrate my family for decades.

I’m currently pursuing my Master of Social Work degree at the University of South Carolina and writing my memoir. I’m grateful for my dark past because it made me the person I am today. I believe I am a survivor for a reason, and that my story will help someone else heal. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I can tell anyone that has been through experiences like mine, God has greater things for you.

Published on May 14, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.