From Abused and Homeless to Ph.D.

09/23/2015 03:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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"Oh, my God. Are you serious?"

That's a reaction I often get when people hear how I accidentally discovered, at the age of twenty, that I was adopted. It's a story I don't often share. Growing up abused and isolated, I learned to protect myself by distancing myself and not speaking up, so I've seldom said anything about how, as a child, I was neglected, stalked, and strangled. I don't talk about how my name was changed at least three times, what it was like to live out of my van in the park when I was between colleges, or how I've struggled with anxiety, depression, and having been suicidal.

By many measures, my life is an example of overcoming great odds. I went on to earn two graduate degrees and I hope to complete my doctorate this year. I've become a widely published author, social commentator, and civil rights activist. But my life does not fit into the narrative of the "inspirational survivor," the person who overcomes tragedies with grace, courage, and humility. I suspect that, for most of us, real life is more complicated than that.

As someone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I can attest that tragedies don't always remain buried in the past. I continue to relive times when I expected to be killed by my mother and father; times when, even with the police outside the door, I thought no one could save me. There are times when I'm terrified to walk on the sidewalk, to look at a door, to hug my loved ones. I don't think many of us feel courageous or graceful in times like these. And when there's no end in sight, every day can be a struggle, a tragedy all its own.

Like many people who've faced these kinds of experiences, it's taken me years to realize and accept that I was abused and neglected. Even as I push my way forward, I continue discovering just how much of my life and identity has been shaped by events of the past.

That's one of the reasons that my work to advance civil rights and social justice means the world to me. Helping in some small way to advance LGBT rights, to combat racism, and to defend religious freedom gives my life direction and meaning. It also gives me a way to turn my past experiences into a strength, to flip the negatives on their head.

But what has really helped me survive isn't some noble purpose, some lofty goal. What's really helped is surrounding myself with caring, loving people, and the day to day skills I've learned through extensive research, trial and error, and the help of skilled professionals. They've taught me how to slow down, to breathe, to be thankful for what I've got. They're the ones who make my loftier goals possible.

My hope is that sharing my story might help others to see what is possible even in the darkest of times and to help others to stand up and speak out. I have no illusions that I am in any way special or unique. I'm a common man, no more deserving than anyone else. But for far too long I've been afraid of how others might think of me damaged goods. I've worried about how I might be treated differently, how employers might think of me as too great a risk.

Pain and fear teach us silence. It's time for that to change.

I don't know what tomorrow might bring. But one thing I've learned is that if we can hold on and find help, if we find ways to get through the day and speak up, we can not only survive, but emerge stronger than before. As my girlfriend told me, our very survival can be an inspiration all its own. And with her love and that of my family, I look forward to so much more than completing my education. I look forward to the future.

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DaShanne Stokes is an author, speaker, and commentator known for his work advancing civil rights and social justice. He recently completed a memoir about his experiences.