10/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Everything I Own Fits In a Hefty Trash Bag

The truck I stole to have a place to sleep was a white Toyota with yellow and orange stripes, lifted with fat tires and no power steering. Everything I owned was stuffed into a dark green Hefty trash bag, including a birthday card my mom had managed to get to me when I turned 16. At the bottom: my emotions, my fears, my dreams, my pain and my self-esteem. Back then, a 17 year-old abused homeless runaway since just before my 16th birthday, getting what I needed to survive sometimes meant hurting those that I loved and those that loved me most.

Bob, a platonic friend, had left his keys on the table at his house one morning while he was taking a shower. I looked at them long and hard. I thought about another night of waiting for his parents to fall asleep so he could sneak me in, and getting up before dawn to sneak back out, wait on the side of the house for them to leave for work, and sneak back in to get something to eat. I wanted to be away from everyone, everything, start over somewhere. By the time he stepped out of the shower I was gone and so was his truck. The note said, "I'm sorry."

My initial feeling was elation. I felt free. I felt bold. I felt badass in that four-wheel drive beefed up Toyota. I never even thought of getting pulled over in the truck that I had just stolen, or the fact that I didn't have a license. I didn't think about how I was going to get gas or what would happen if I broke down. It didn't matter because for a brief moment in time, I was driving out of that town I felt so trapped in, away from everyone who knew me, and on my way to a better life realizing that everything I owned was in the passenger's seat bulging out the sides of that Hefty bag. I was headed for Los Angeles.

First stop: Huntington Beach. I had met a girl who lived there at my last job. By the time I arrived her mom had already told her I could not stay at their house. She knew my rough past that was filled with violence which led me to run away, men I had ended up with trying to find someone to love me, and drugs to numb it all away. I followed her to a party where I wasn't allowed in because I had no identification and as she went into the under 21 club I drove away, still headed north.

It was dark when I finally arrived in LA. As I drove my eyes curiously took in every detail of the streets and people around me. It was dirty. They all seemed sad or desperate or seedy to me. There was nothing glamorous about any of it. My elation was turning into emptiness that I could feel in the pit of my stomach. I parked along a residential street, locked the doors and covered up with a coat as tears began to run down my cheeks and onto the Hefty bag that had become my pillow. It was morning before I knew it. I sat up and took a look around me. The street looked so different in the light of day. The trees that lined the street were full and green. The cars were shiny and the lawns were manicured. I decided to walk to Sunset Strip. I needed to save the half tank of gas I still had left.

I rustled through the Hefty bag, avoiding the fear, anger, loneliness and hopelessness stashed inside, and grabbed a pair of jeans and a wrinkled pink top. I jumped down from the lifted truck and began walking along the streets of LA. My mind began to wander back to Bob. Did he call the cops? Was he okay? How could I do this to such a sweet guy? He loved me. He only wanted to help me and look what I had done. What was happening to me? What good could come from this?

I shook it off as I turned left on Sunset Blvd. I walked for hours down the streets, eyeballing tourists taking pictures in front of the old Mann's Chinese Theater. I traced the stars with my feet on the walk of fame. I met some other teens that were living on the streets of LA and listened to their stories and how they had survived. I was amazed that they still were able to smile and laugh. They gave me money for food and told me about their dreams of becoming rock stars or actresses. Some didn't have those goals. They were like me. Lost and escaping to anywhere but there; rolling stones because they have never known a place called home.

I had moved the truck twice fearing a resident would turn me in to the police for sleeping on their street too many nights in a row. By the end of the second week, I didn't want to get out of the truck at all. Older men were approaching me and asking if I needed money or help. I would just say no and walk away not knowing exactly what they were offering, but I had a pretty good idea. I decided to drive to the coast and put my feet into the sand while contemplating my next move. My next move was to call Bob.

From a payphone near a beach in Santa Monica I dialed Bob's phone number and heard my heart pound out of my chest the second he answered the phone. I swallowed hard and could only muster a faint and squeaky "Hi." In his sweet and caring voice that had not been tainted by the fact I had stole his truck while he was in the shower, he simply asked, "Are you okay?" A few minutes later I hung up in tears after he told me he had not called the cops and just wanted me to come home, get help and that he loved me. How could anyone love me; a homeless, broken, ugly, dirty, desperate, selfish liar that had no idea how to deal with all that was stuffed inside that bag? But it was there, all of it. The fury of my dad who, on the inside, was still an angry abandoned boy in an orphanage, and the abuse that I, my mom and siblings suffered and all that had happened since. I looked at the waves that reminded me of all that was crashing into me in that moment, and the ocean that reminded me of all the vast possibilities ahead if I chose to dive deep down into my own soul and believe in myself.

Running out of gas and the nerve that got me to LA in the first place, all I could think about was getting Bob's truck back to him and changing my life. I drove back to San Diego and went straight to Bob's. I didn't ring the door bell to find out if he was there or not. I parked in his driveway, left the keys in the front seat, took my Hefty bag with all that I owned and disappeared. It was two weeks later that I walked away from drugs and everyone I knew who was involved with them in the middle of the night, with nothing but my new hopes and dreams inside that tattered plastic bag. I never looked back. When a couple picked me up in a van and drove me to Pacific Beach I walked around the streets until I stumbled upon Mike and another Bob, two guys who let me stay in a bunk bed in their house after I approached them about a room for rent while they stood in their front yard watering the grass. I stayed there for six months, began to unpack all that was in that dark green, worn Hefty bag, got a job as a waitress and eventually rented a room in a house near the beach where I met my future husband and began my 13 year banking career.

Sometimes I forget how far I have come in life. I forget how I felt those nights on the bench seat in the front of that Toyota truck. But I will never forget how much Bob (both of them) believed in me. They saw something in me that I never saw in myself until the night I walked away from everything and everyone that was a negative influence in my life. And although it was all a blur, foggy and hard to make out any real direction at that time, I knew in my gut that my true north was guiding me in the right direction towards spirit, light and eventually self-love.

25 years later I am blessed to be a mom to an amazing girl and am an ex-bank executive turned author, entrepreneur and advocate for non-violence and positive change. I finally not only unpacked that Hefty bag for good, I went through everything in it with a fine tooth comb and walked away with life lessons, self-acceptance and my truth.

Today, like those who took me in when I chose to better my life, I embrace others with open arms and open mind, without judgment, who are choosing to walk in a brand new direction in their life filled with nothing but dreamBIG goals and faith that one can change not only their own life, but help others do the same in the process. I realized that I walked away from that big green plastic bag knowing that sometimes all we ever really need in life is what we can fit inside of a Hefty bag size heart daring to live our dreamBIG life.