It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the leaves were changing color on the trees, and there was a crisp, fall breeze. Everything was normal. We had just finished a cross country meet and were returning to the bus when I jogged into the park to get something out of my car. As I was walking across the lot, everything changed.
When I turned the corner, I could hear someone screaming "get away from me" and "you can't do this." Assuming it was a child throwing a tantrum, I proceeded to my car until a sight I never expected made me stop short. I saw a man beating his girlfriend. He had her by the collar and kept forcing her onto the pavement. My heart was pounding out of my chest while I contemplated what to do. Then, she made eye contact with me. I was the only person around, so I began to go towards her to help. He hadn't seen me yet, so I continued at a brisk pace to make my presence known, hoping that he would stop.
I yelled "hey!" and he turned to face me. His eyes were dark and cold. I stopped, couldn't move, and couldn't think. This was probably the first time in my life I experienced genuine fear. My heart was pounding, my skin was burning, and I could not move. I broke his gaze and looked at the woman. Her eyes were pleading for help. I took another step towards her when the man began to approach me. I looked at him and felt a burning pain in my chest. In fear, I ran. I left and kept running. The next thing I remember, I was collapsed in my friend's arms yelling for help. He ran ahead to the parking lot and by the time we got there, the man and the woman were walking away together. Together, after all of that.
This was something I could not fathom at the time. I knew that she was walking right back into an abusive relationship. Looking back, she probably felt she was dependent on him and couldn't break away-relied on a toxic relationship because she felt there was no other way. Afterwards, I left my friend and sat in my car for hours. All I could think about was the look she had in her eyes. The look of fear and desperation. I was the only person around and I froze. I replayed the event over and over and could not forgive myself for freezing. "I could have helped her," I thought. A while later, the same friend called me and I burst into tears. In the month following, what happened that evening followed me everywhere.
I hated myself for getting scared and running away in fear. The word "coward" played over and over in my mind. Fear for my own safety stopped me from stepping in and helping her. I dreamt about it every night and woke up shaking uncontrollably. At school, I would be okay one second, and then I would remember what happened the next. Wherever I was, I would freeze and my heart would start pounding again. I would hide in a restroom or go to my car and cry, hating myself for what I wasn't able to do. One day, I was sitting with a friend after practice. We were having a normal conversation when I broke down and began to sob. That day, she brought me to a counselor to get help.
I sat in his office and told him my story through tears and anger. He asked me how I felt and I finally let it all go. What had been going on, the nightmares, my thoughts, and memories of that woman. After letting go, speaking out, and hearing my own story out loud, I felt a little weight come off of my shoulders. With every session, I began to feel like myself again. The counselor told me over and over that I was a teenager, alone in a park with a violent man approaching me. He repeated that it would have been more dangerous if I had gone any closer, It would take me a long time to forgive myself, but talking about everything truly saved me. Day by day, the nightmares began to go away and the episodes subsided. After about a month, I was given an opportunity to use my experience to enact change.
I was given a position on a board that interviewed and funded nonprofit organizations in my county. On my first day, I was sent to visit a women's shelter that was in need a funds for a new safe house. It seemed as if it was meant to be. Upon my arrival, I met with the board of directors and a few of the founders of the organization. Their goal was to give victims and their children a new life. I was truly inspired by the program and set out to get them the money they needed. For months, I prepared my presentation. At the time, 10 other organizations were being considered for a grant, but I wanted the board to understand the importance of advocating for abuse victims.
Finally, the time came for me to present. I stood up and began to point out statistics and logistics of funding a new safe house. I noticed people were zoning out, as they tend to do in meetings, so I took a deep breath and told my story and stressed the importance of a project like that one. This was the first time I had opened up to people other than my counselor. When I was finished, everyone agreed to give the grant to the shelter. Within a month, they were given the money they needed to complete their project.
On this day, I learned the importance of opening up to others and how powerful personal stories can be. At that moment in the park, I was petrified and angry, but months later, I was able to use that anger and hardship to do good. No matter how dark and alone you may feel, know there is someone out there who is experiencing hardship as you are. You are not alone. Speak out and use your personal experiences for good. You will be surprised what kind of a difference you can make. Stay strong, ask for help when you need it, and share your story.
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