We all harbor memories of life-altering days. For some, it could be a wedding day. For others, it could be the day a loved one passed away. My unforgettable day, Jan. 28, 2010, was the day I moved into a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
I woke up that morning on the front steps of my university, if "woke up" is the right way to describe the end of a sleepless night occupied by a nightmarish journey to seek safety from my abusive boyfriend, alleviated only by 10-minute catnaps in a 24/7 drugstore, a café, at bus stops, and then outside my locked campus on a cold January eve.
It was, praise God, the last time I was forced to seek shelter on the streets.
The events leading up to that moment began years before. I was a pastor's daughter, exposed to much of the internal church politics and hypocrisy that Christians are too often defined by. I was homeschooled and lonely; I looked online for friendships, and developed a relationship with a man who offered to help me fulfill my dream of earning a journalism degree. Fueled by bitterness, I moved to British Columbia, Canada, to pursue the relationship and my education at 18.
It wasn't long before I realized I had gone from one apparent prison to another. Paul* behaved erratically and was heavily involved in the marijuana business. He had no credit and a lengthy criminal history; suddenly, he moved into my home and I assumed the responsibility of managing all of the contracts. Car insurance, internet, cell phones -- everything became tied to my name.
So when I, formerly homeschooled and uneducated in the implications, later learned that he was also a meth addict, I had no idea how to escape the mess I was in. I chose to bury myself in homework and my job. Months passed.
Terrified by Paul's lifestyle and connections, I tried to lessen the internal pain by starving myself. I didn't eat for a week. It was no solution, but it eased the mental pain by diverting my thoughts to my physical pain.
Meanwhile, his addiction worsened. He hallucinated. He heard voices and saw people following him. He talked about guns and kept knives everywhere. Everything was a conspiracy. If I coughed, it was a "signal" to my co-conspirator; if I returned home 15 minutes later than usual, the police were somehow involved. This went on for nearly two years. I was verbally, emotionally and sexually abused. Though he never beat me, he often threw things, broke things, and tore up the walls of my home. He'd return with broken windows on the car, and stories about hurting other people. He threw his sister to the floor as I watched.
I wanted out. I began considering suicide and dreaming about death. After years of threats and abuse from Paul, I'd been taught to doubt myself. I'd been taught that I was worthless and hopeless. I'd been taught not to trust my own judgment and to make decisions instead by asking, "How will Paul react?"
I carried prescription pills around, an easy way to end my pain. The option made the difficult moments more bearable.
I still went to church most Sundays. I was drawn by God's promises, but plagued by guilt and shame. Why would God love a girl who rebelled against Him and can't even stop failing Him? How could He possibly help me when I couldn't help myself? And what is love anyway? It seemed like a self-serving lie.
Still, I prayed and ask God for help, not realizing He was already orchestrating my rescue.
The urgency of my situation continued to escalate. Paul took my keys away, along with my cell phone and student loans checks, which I desperately needed to pay the bills. Sleep came rarely; I'd be woken every hour to his newest accusations about my involvement in The Conspiracy. If I locked myself in the bathroom to sleep on the floor in peace, he would pick the lock. If I left in the middle of the night to seek shelter outdoors, he would send his friends out to find me. He hung nooses everywhere and once tried to hang himself while I was again begging for sleep.
On Jan. 28, 2010, I was tired, cold and hopeless. I was dirty, hungry and broken. I had long before stopped looking ahead. I thought only about immediate survival. Because my confidence in my decision-making skills had been destroyed, it was impossible for me to help myself.
Thankfully, the God of the Bible -- the God of love, grace and forgiveness -- knew that and He saved me from myself.
That afternoon, a member of the faculty at my school informed me that I would need to leave campus with her that day. She would be driving me to a transition house -- a short-term shelter for women who were victims of domestic abuse. I don't remember offering much of a reaction, numb as I was at the time.
But relief set in that night, after the admissions interview and generous dinner, as I discovered I'd finally be sleeping in a clean, warm and quiet bed.
My life changed that day, though it took time to fully heal from the trauma I'd experienced.
I remember being tormented by nightmares in my sleep and visions of my ex in the day. Memories I'd blacked out would come back without warning. I changed my hair, acquired a new wardrobe and wrote under a different name to avoid being found. Make no mistake: he looked for me far and wide, attempting to defame me.
Meanwhile, I lived in one shelter after another, and fed myself with food bank donations. I picked up more work and continued my full-time studies.
In the shelters, I met many other women who shared similar stories of manipulation, victimization and vulnerability. We learned to love again by befriending each other and we realized our commonality that men targeted: we cared deeply about others in need. A girl who could not speak English became one of my dearest friends.
And God continued to reveal himself in my life in incredible ways. I was ready to quit college and move back to Maryland, but I was blessed with a scholarship that allowed me to pay my bills, and then with a job that financed an early exit from the long-term shelter I'd been accepted into. I became friends with the professor who had funded the scholarship, and he encouraged me to pursue an internship opportunity in New York City. And one Sunday morning, I found my church's entrance strangely locked; after chatting with another girl I met outside the venue, we learned we both had family members in the same city in Maryland. She moved to New York not long before me, and we became roommates after an apartment incredibly became available at a steep discount.
These blessings, and many more, have little to do with my own merit. If anything, I was destined for death and that should have been what I reaped. But Jesus died and rose again to give life, and to give it abundantly. As I renewed my relationship with God, I discovered that in my youth I'd wrongly been judging Christianity by the actions of imperfect people, when only Jesus lived perfectly.
My faith now is not in people but in Jesus Christ. I often recall Jer. 29:11, which says, "'I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'" Now, three years later, the Lord's plan was clearly greater than I could have imagined.
In three years, I have learned again to love, forgive and trust others through the power of the Holy Spirit. My life is whole and complete in my relationship with Jesus; I don't need to seek acceptance from other people and I don't need to pursue wealth or reputation.
I'm not saying I'm perfect, or that I've forgotten the pain I endured for so long.
I'm saying that God freed me from my chains -- the heavy burden of life -- and that He transformed my story of pain into one that can reach and impact others' lives.
After Superstorm Sandy struck New York, I was in awe to find myself back in a shelter, this time as a volunteer.
I look forward to seeing how else God plans to use my story to bring hope and healing to others in the future.
*Name changed to protect his identity