An Innate Survival

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| This is the 348th story of Our Life Logs |


I grew up in a small Italian neighborhood in the North End of Bridgeport, Connecticut, alongside my younger sister. Growing up in the 1980s, we spent our days running off with neighborhood friends, only returning home when the hum of the streetlights came on.

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With my grandmother and my little sister (I’m on the far right).

If I wasn’t playing with friends, I was with my grandparents who lived only a block away from our Connecticut home. Even when we moved to Las Vegas for a short while when I was about four, my grandparents followed us to live in the same neighborhood. I loved spending time with them, so much so, that as a tiny 4-year-old, I wandered out of our house and walked the strange new streets to find them. Thankfully, I somehow ended up on their doorstep. While it makes for a cute little story, the reason was quite sinister. From an early age, I knew something was not right in my own home.

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Me as a little baby, sitting with my mother and grandparents.
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The older I got, the more I noticed how broken my home was. My father was incredibly abusive and would go out of his way to take out his frustrations on me. I never really understood why. By the time I turned eight, I stopped calling him Dad. Once he realized this, he resorted to control tactics. If I needed money for a school field trip, he would only give it to me if I called him Dad.  I refused and would not go on the school trip instead. I always stood up to him. It was also the only control I had in my life.

By the time I was 12, I had absolutely no relationship with my father. My mom had turned to prescription drugs and alcohol to cope with her bad marriage, so our relationship became nonexistent too. I took over the motherly role, looking after my sister. I begged my grandparents to let me come live with them, but they refused. They didn’t want to get into any trouble, and I respected that.

So, I started to research how I could legally separate myself from my parents and I learned that I could become emancipated once I was 16. Just like that, I had a plan. On my 16th birthday, I would leave and take my sister with me.

From then on, I tried my best to get through, counting down the days until I could get us out. Then, the totally unexpected happened. Two weeks before my 16th birthday, my mother left us. No warning—she just packed up all her belongings and moved to Florida, some 1100 miles away from her children. Her only explanation was that she “had to save herself.”

I thought my plan had been foolproof, but just like that, Mom derailed everything. She left us alone with a man whom I did not even acknowledge as my father. I couldn’t stand to live there anymore. I left by myself while I was still 15.

Apparently, my father had looked for me for about a month before he moved on with his life. I didn’t believe for one second that it was out of concern. He was just so angry at my defiance. Once he found a new girlfriend, he dropped my sister off at a relative’s house.

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For the first four months, I lived with a friend. There was really no adult presence in the house, so you can imagine what a house of two 16-year-olds with free reign was like. We came and went as we pleased, coming home at all hours of the night. We had no structure, no one to make sure we were going to school, eating right, or going to bed at a decent hour. I tried convincing my grandparents to take me in, but they feared my father’s wrath. I felt so let down and alone.

A few months later, things began to unravel. The absence of structure and guidance took its toll. We began fighting, but I had no other options. My money was running out and I couldn’t even afford to take care of my sister. I had to stay.

The last day I was there, my friend and I got into a fight that was so bad that I called my grandmother one last time. For whatever reason—maybe the conviction and desperation in my voice finally overpowered her fear—she came within minutes.

My grandparents got my sister and we both went to live with them. As I looked at all the instability of my life, I was shaken at all my sister and I had endured in so little time. I swore that when I had my own family, I’d never make them deal with the horrors I’d been through. Things would be better.

Of course, promises made as a kid are seldom kept. Life has its own way of running you around.

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Me in my car, sometime in the ’90s.
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The next chapter of my life started at a close friend’s wedding when I was in my early 20s. At the rehearsal dinner, I met my husband. It was a whirlwind! He was attractive, and we hit it off instantly. Two months later, he proposed, and a year later, we got married.

At first, our marriage was fine. It wasn’t a marriage like in the fairytales, but I still had fun with him. He provided a certain amount of stability, something my life often lacked. Six years into our marriage, I got pregnant and became insistent on buying a house before our baby arrived. In a desperate attempt to provide a home for my family, I made the hasty decision to allow his parents to secure the mortgage in their name.

Unfortunately, not long after the birth of our daughter, things turned sour. My husband was not invested in being a father and was emotionally absent with our daughter much like my own father was with me.

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Holding my sweet daughter.

As a child, I was stuck in a home where I watched my mother stay, year after year, in an abusive marriage. I had always hoped to see her stand up strong and take her children away from the bad home. Instead, she stayed until she could no longer bear the abuse, only to then leave us in the toxic waste. I knew things would only get worse in our home, and I knew I needed to be the example for my daughter that I never had. I wanted her to grow up seeing what a healthy relationship looked like, so, when she was just two months old, I filed for divorce.

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I had hoped for an amicable split and co-parenting. Looking back, I can’t believe I ever thought that was possible. The divorce was anything but amicable, and the fight over the house went on for many years. The situation got so heated that one day he exploded on me.  It was reminiscent of a scene from my home growing up, only my mother would have accepted this as normal and would simply wait for it to pass. I, however, went to the local police department and got a restraining order against him, learning from my mother’s mistakes.

On the weekends, her father had visitation, and my daughter had to endure hearing terrible things about me. She was too young to understand, and I often worried she would believe the things she heard. At the age of 10, however, she confronted her father and stuck up for me, which caused terrible animosity between them. I was proud to see that my daughter was a mirror image of my younger self; a strong young girl, brave enough to stand up for what was right. Yet, the mirror brought some of the bad parts I endured. She became her father’s target for hostility, just like I was as a little girl.

The last night she ever stayed at his house, she called me in the middle of the night, completely hysterical, begging me to come home. It would not be possible to get her smoothly out of the house at that hour, but I knew the importance of the moment; I had to be the example of strength. I needed her to know that I would never leave her stranded; that I would always come to rescue her the way that no one ever did for me. No adult in my life was strong enough to do the right thing. I had to be strong for her.

I stayed on the phone with her for hours until daylight, letting her know that I was in her corner. I assured her that I would be coming to get her the moment it was possible. As soon as the sun came up, I was in front of that house. She bolted outside, into my arms, never to look back again.

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With my daughter at her birthday party!
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Sometimes, life takes a while to come together. I was prepared to never get married again. I was comfortable with being a single mother, but I met my now-husband 10 years ago. He renewed my faith that there are good men and I have been blessed in more ways than I could have ever imagined, including a son who brings so much joy to my world.

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My beautiful and happy family.

Because of what I went through, I have a low tolerance for injustice. By starting a career in social work, I’ve made it my life mission to stand up for those who have been wronged. I am standing up for the child in me that no one stood up for. In my line of work, I am fascinated with what causes some people to go in the wrong direction when faced with adversity, and why others overcome, as in my case. I have come to believe that some are simply born with it; an innate survival.

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This is the story of Debby Marino

Debby currently resides in Connecticut with her husband and two children. Growing in an abusive home, Debby left to live on her own just two weeks before she turned 16. She soon learned the difficulties of being on her own and had to reach out for help but as she reflected on her life, she swore that she would never do to her kids what her parents did to her. Unknowingly, she headed down a similar path. When she noticed the parallels between her life and her daughter’s, she broke the cycle and started their life anew. Debby has prevailed through some bad circumstances in her life. She believes it prepared her today for the biggest fight of her life; for fairness, inclusion, and services for her son who has learning disabilities. She has not spoken to her father in over a decade. Debby is determined to be strong for her kids, something she wished her own mother had done for her.

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This story first touched our hearts on May 15, 2019.

| Writer: Jennifer Farmer | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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