From survival to healing
by Enid Vázquez
Outreach worker Stella Rivers-Goolsby represents a perfect combination of women at risk and women who have gone on to work in the struggle against HIV.
Stella works with several young women who have children fathered by relatives through incest, many times more than one. She estimates that 90% were molested by an uncle, grandfather, brother, or stepfather. Other women were told, often by their mothers, that it was their own fault because they were “fast.” One woman told her mother that her brother was abusing her, but her mother’s response was, “That’s a lie!” Stella has also heard the women say they were advised to “stay away from him”—even when the man lived under the same roof. As a result, many of these women ran away from home, but they earned money through prostitution, telling her, “It’s better than being in there getting molested. At least it’s on my own terms.”
“In the drug families,” says Stella, “I found that a lot of girls were with these guys because in their home life, they didn’t get that nurturing, love, caring, and trust they needed from their parents or guardians. So when they get out to the streets, and this guy comes along and says, ‘I’m going to take care of you. I might kick your ass now and then just to keep you in line, but you know I love you, don’t you?’—just those words will make them disregard and minimize all the ass kicking, the black eyes, the broken jaw, and swollen lips, because he said, ‘You know I love you, don’t you? And I’ll be there for you.’ And if you’ve never heard anybody say that—that’s a big thing. And this guy could have just stomped the shit out of you.”
“So it stems from not having been nurtured at the beginning. It becomes normal to them,” Stella says. “I tell them stories like mine. I let them know, this is not right, and you can get away from it.
“My mother had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 50s,” says Stella. “Growing up, I thought she was just a mean bitch. She had nine kids by eight different men, one of whom sexually abused all of us. But I understand now that she couldn’t protect us.
“It’s an intergenerational effect. My grandfather was very violent towards my grandmother, and towards other women. A lot of women said, ‘If he takes care of you, so what if he kicks your ass now and then? He pays the bills.’ If you tell them he’s cheating, ‘Well, all he’s doing is getting some pussy.’ So women came to believe this was okay. They saw their mothers and grandmothers do it. And now they’re doing it. And guys, who saw their fathers do it and their grandfathers do it, now they’re doing it. They don’t know how to be intimate or be caring. This is the way they interact emotionally.
My environment changed and my thought process changed.
After a while of being in recovery meetings, I decided that my issue was something that I needed to talk to someone one-on-one, and I sought therapy.
“So you have a guy who’s unhealthy and a woman who’s unhealthy. Together they make a relationship, whether it’s unhealthy or not. They feel like they’ve got somebody to depend on. And believe it or not, in a sick kind of way, these guys think they really love you, and you think that they love you,” Stella tells me. “Then it goes back to their self-esteem being so low. ‘Nobody wants me. Who’s going to take me with four kids? Who’s going to take me when I’ve been a prostitute? Who’s going to want me if I have no education? And I know he loves me because he loves me just like I am.’ But all that can change. You can educate yourself. You can find somebody who loves you for you, who understands that that’s what you used to be, that’s not who you are now. A lot of women don’t have anybody else but these guys. I say, ‘You know, you can do better than this.’
“And I want to share my story of abusive guys. One was really, really abusive, an alcoholic, and a drug addict. The first week I met him, I went with him because he had drugs. [Stella is emphatic on this point, as if to say, “It was that simple.”] People told me, ‘Oh, don’t mess with him. He beats up women.’
“About a week later, we were walking through this alley. I can’t remember the words verbatim, but he said, ‘What did you say?’ I said, ‘Fuck you,’ something like that. I woke up on the ground, because he hit me right in the face with his fist. I said, ‘What the fuck did you do that for?’ He said, ‘You don’t talk to me like that.’ So I thought, ‘fine,’ because I didn’t really know him, plus he had dope. A couple of weeks later he slapped me, and I slapped him back. And his response was: ‘Uhhh, you want to fight, huh, bitch?’ He literally started bobbing and weaving as if to fight me, and he nearly beat me to death.
“Eight months later, I want to leave him, but now, he’s got a hold on me. He follows me everywhere I go, even to my relatives’ house. He’s stalking me now. So I run off from him. He paid people to find me. I went home and opened the door and all I remember was he hit me. I woke up tied to the bed, hand and foot. Because, while I was gone, he had been looking in the house and found a man’s T-shirt. He thought I was with somebody else. And he beat me, tied me up, and tortured me for two days. He burned me with cigarettes, spit on me. By this time I had a baby by him and he had my son spit on me. ‘Spit on the bitch. She ain’t shit.’
“So after a while, I was afraid of him, and I stayed out of fear. Finally, the last straw was when he slapped my daughter because she was trying to help me fight him. That’s when I tried to shoot him. Finally, I left.
“I’m just giving you the skinny version,” she says. “It took that much, because he had already scared and tortured me. After a while, I felt like, maybe I deserved this. Maybe I’m doing something to make this guy feel like this. But later on, as I got in recovery and therapy, I realized that he was [pauses], a dirty muthafucker.
“You know something?” says Stella. “I used to actually brag, ‘Girl, didn’t you know he kicked my ass, so you know he looove me. He didn’t want nobody to get this pussy.’ You say stupid shit like that. I thought he loved me so much, he didn’t want me to be around anybody.
“What turned me around is that I got tired of the drug use. And the drug use is connected to the violence. When I realized that I didn’t have to be a dope fiend, an addict, I realized that I didn’t have to accept this, but I felt like with the behavior I was doing, nobody else would accept me,” Stella says.
“After I stopped using, when the clouds from the drugs started leaving, I started wondering, what’s wrong with me? Why do I want to be with him? But now, of course, I’m not thinking about drugs. And my children were saying, ‘Mom, why are you putting up with this? You can do better than this.’ I heard those words but pushed them to the back of my mind. Then I stopped using and I started going to [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings, and hearing people talk, nothing particularly earth-shattering, but just, ‘I’m working now and I bought this’ and ‘I did that.’ ‘I took my kids here.’ Just hearing things that were a normal part of life. I didn’t hear anything about somebody kicked my ass, somebody took my money, or somebody blacked my eyes. You know?
“My environment changed and my thought process changed. After a while of being in recovery meetings, I decided that my issue was something that I needed to talk to someone one-on-one, and I sought therapy. I found out my problems started with my mom, because she couldn’t protect us. It took some time, it wasn’t like [Stella snaps her fingers]. It took over three years, because I was still taking verbal abuse. No more physical, because I had started saying things like, ‘You put your muthafuckin’ hands on me, I’m gonna kill you.’ And I meant that from the bottom of my heart. [She speaks softly, with tears in her eyes.] ‘I’m paying the bills. You don’t work. You sleep with other women.’
“And finally, I just said, if I want something different, I have to try something different. I’ve done this, and I got the same thing. Pain, physical and emotional. I would see people in a relationship interacting differently. Loving people. Not talking to their women negatively. You could hear a different tone in their voice. All these were triggers for me to say, this is what’s real. That wasn’t reality that I was living and accepting.
“I get strength when I feel the love of the women who say, ‘Hi, Miss Stella! How are you?’ I really do. I believe anyone surviving domestic violence… you need to seek professional help. I don’t think anybody can do this without professional help. I really don’t. Because there’s something mentally wrong. I really believe we need to add drug treatment and work on domestic violence in all of our [HIV vaccine] studies.
“It took a long time,” says Stella, “but I healed my spirit.”
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