I Decided to Rise

blog featured ftf slotI used to suffer from frequent nightmares about being trapped in the foster care system. I’d be in a room, pounding on a window, and no matter what I’d do, I couldn’t escape.

For a long time these feelings stayed with me. It didn’t matter that I eventually had a booming modeling career or great friends who loved me. How I felt was internal, and it took years to overcome.

And really, that’s not surprising. I was shuttled around to over 23 different foster and group homes between the ages of 10 and 15. As a result of the trauma and horrific abuse I experienced before and while in the system, I suffered from PTSD and believed that I was not valuable because I had never been adopted.

Some of my foster homes were really bad. My worst memory is of a foster father who broke my finger for dog-earing a page of his new encyclopedia. He threw the heavy book at me, and when I put up my hand to protect my face, my finger snapped back and broke. At school I lied and said it happened on the school bus. By this point, I had already experienced sexual, physical and emotional abuse in this foster home, but this made me hit bottom. Walking around with a disfigured finger made me realize how lost, hurt, empty and drained I was.

Interestingly, my best memory also happened in this home. It’s the memory of the camaraderie my foster siblings and I had with each other. We all faced the same abusive situations (even working as child slave labor for this family’s business), but we took care of each other the best that we could. On better days, we would play together or swim in a nearby lake. This really mattered to me. We were one another’s lifelines.

Eventually, I aged out of care with no real preparation for life on my own. My “survival skills” consisted of being quiet (foster children are conditioned to be invisible) and trying to be loved. In high school I met a boy who told me I was beautiful. That led to me becoming a mom; however the courts almost took away my son when his father became abusive toward us. Luckily I was able to move us into a shelter for homeless teen parents, but I had to struggle to learn basic life and parenting skills while completing my GED.

My plight changed dramatically one day when I was buying diapers and was “discovered” by a well-known modeling agent. With a lot of hard work, I went from the girl no one wanted to a model on magazine covers and runways. While it was and still is amazing, I learned that no amount of success could erase my unhealed childhood trauma. When I hit bottom I had a breakdown and tried to take my life; however, from that dark place I decided to rise up and stop being a victim. That’s when I started on the path of healing my bottled-up pain.

Even though foster care has changed dramatically since I was in the system, stories like mine are still all too common. Children need the ability to express (in private!) how they think and feel about their situation. Adults also need to know the signs of child abuse and must be compelled to speak out. I’m still amazed at the people who either didn’t see or ignored the blatant signs of my abuse.

I’m also a proponent of mentorship and that children should have several advocates to ensure their education is up to par and that they have post-high school educational plans. And I strongly believe that all kids in foster care must have trauma counseling.

My trauma has pushed me to be a better person.  I focus on empathy and loving people the way I wanted to be loved. I wouldn’t want to reject, ignore or abandon someone because I remember how that felt. Above all, my childhood experiences have given me my life’s purpose: To be a champion for those who have experienced similar trauma and may still be debilitated by those experiences.

My advice to kids going through foster care is, “Just hold on.” Where you are right now does not have to define your future unless you allow it. One day you’ll have your power back and at that time, you can choose a happier, healthier life path. Believe there is better out there for you, and one day you will meet your best self if you do the work to get there. Foster care is only part of your journey; it is not what defines you.

Almost no one asks to be put in foster care. Even when a child has great foster parents, no one wants to be put with strangers and feel different than everyone around them. I want all kids in foster care to know that’s what makes them special, valuable and stronger than most. You matter. Oh, and you rock!

Published on May 5, 2016 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.