Life is filled with twists and turns, some of which make you feel as if you are accomplished and successful and others which can reduce you to a limiting, often self-imposed, prison of sadness and grief. In hopes that you can find something useful and motivating to navigate a happy, purpose-driven life, I have decided to share my story with you.
The majority of my childhood was spent coping with my emotions and fear. I was a shy, timid child who, like every other kid in school, just wanted to fit in. I longed for positive reinforcement from my teachers and my friends but had a tendency to retain the negative comments. I was overly-apologetic, overly-sensitive and “too much” for many people. I still vividly remember the eye-rolling that would take place by my friends and family when my tears started flowing. They were not cruel nor did they bully me, they simply were unable to comprehend what I was feeling. Regardless of intentions, I felt weak in their eyes. I truly believed I was not capable of handling the situations or challenges most faced.
When it came time for college, I did not have any exciting dreams to chase or goals to achieve. I decided to attend a community college in San Antonio purely because I felt like it was what I was supposed to do, the obligatory next step. I landed a job at a bank downtown and, with the help of my Mom, signed a lease on an apartment. Then, in August 1998, I took the leap out on my own. It was exciting, yet scary. Where I had always desired the freedom to be an “adult”, the reality of it all was overwhelming. I was constantly homesick. I called my Mom crying more times than I could possibly count. Making friends was not an option in my mind as I was unsure where or, more importantly, if I would really fit in. At this point, avoiding rejection was my priority. Before long, I lost interest in my classes and school. I attended when I felt like it, which became less and less. I did, however, enjoy my job, the people I worked with and was successful for the most part. The job itself though was just not enough to make me happy with the life I was living and who I was becoming.
After seven months of exploring adulthood, my entire world was turned upside down. The evening of March 18, 1999, I finished up with work like normal. I called my boyfriend who was at my apartment preparing dinner to tell him I was leaving work and headed home. I went to my pickup and drove out of the parking garage. Little did I know, I was not going to make it home for quite some time. A couple of blocks away from the building, I pulled up to a red light. I did not see anyone else around, so I was startled when there was a knock on my window. I jumped and turned to find two men at my door. In a matter of seconds, these men, who I later discovered were identical twin brothers, were in my pickup and they were carrying a revolver. I will never forget the moment the gun was held to my head, the dreadful sound of the hammer being pulled back, nor will I ever forget the overwhelming fear and sense of helplessness that I felt. My mind was running like crazy. What do I do? What CAN I do? I looked around and didn’t see a way out. I cried, no doubt, but I also prayed. I prayed to the Lord above like I had never prayed before. Now, the moment that followed was remarkable but somewhat difficult to describe. I was hit with an unusual feeling of clarity. My body was overcome with a sense of warmth, a reassurance if you will, that started at the top of my head and traveled all the way down to my toes. As unbelievable as it may sound, there was actually a glimmer of hope associated with this feeling that made me believe that I would make it through. At that moment, I knew I had to play the cards I had been dealt and I prepared for the fight of my life.
The next several hours were horrendous. It was literally a real-life nightmare. I was driven to a secluded area at gun point. As we drove along, one would scan through the radio while the other would hold the gun and sexually assault me. Aside from the assault, there was intimidation. They revealed gang initiation papers which detailed the requirements set before them: kidnap, rape, rob and, most importantly, murder. Please know, I am very aware that this is a harsh way to share this message but there is no way to sugarcoat what I saw or what I went through. I shed many tears but, through those tears, I forced myself to talk to them. I told them about my mom and dad and how much they meant to me. I repeatedly told them I just wanted to go home. Though they did not tend to acknowledge me, I kept making an attempt to communicate all while pleading for mercy.
The exact details of what took place over the course of the evening are difficult to share. Not because I am ashamed but because so many unbelievable things happened. I could tell you how I was warned that one of the men holding me hostage was volatile and he had killed before. Or I could describe how I was forced to purchase televisions from Walmart and Target with the fear that, if I did not or if I saved myself, my boyfriend would be shot dead in my apartment by the brother waiting outside. I could also share the moment when we were pulled over by a police officer in front of the home of one of my attackers with his girlfriend and children watching. The police officer, by the grace of God, let us go or neither one of us would have lived to tell this story. It was all so strangely surreal. I mean, this kind of thing only happens in the movies, right?
I cannot tell you how long it was before they finally decided they would release me. It seemed like an eternity. Fortunately, the torture did come to an end and I was still alive. They drove to a highway outside of town and pulled over. They made sure I understood and believed they would be monitoring my every move after I left. I was ordered to stay away from the police, to go home like normal and continue going to work each day because “they would be watching”. To solidify this fear, they took addresses and numbers of family and close friends from my address book for leverage. I was then told what direction to drive and they jumped out of the vehicle. I drove home in silence as well as in complete and utter shock.
The events that followed were a blur. When I pulled in the parking lot of my apartment, my boyfriend was there. He had called my parents who, in the back of their minds, knew something bad had happened. They lived two hours away but made it to my apartment in record time. Shortly thereafter, I went with my mom to the hospital. The fear of brutal retaliation from my attackers lingered but I sadly had no fight left in me. I was on autopilot now, feeling safe in my Mom’s arms. The doctor examined me and the officer took my statement. It drug on for what seemed like hours. I was exhausted—mentally, physically and emotionally. I honestly just wanted to go home, bury myself in blankets and forget everything that had just happened. Of course, deep down I knew I had a long, hard road ahead of me.
I picked up and moved that day. Actually, I should say WE moved. I had tremendous support from my parents. With the police report in hand, the manager at my apartment complex graciously allowed me to break my lease with no financial penalty. My cell phone company also let me out of a brand new contract with no questions asked. Then, there was my job. They understood why I was leaving that day. They really did. However, I was not allowed to say goodbye to anyone because they did not want everyone to be upset or scared to come to work. This made me sad as this was the one part of my new life I had enjoyed. Nonetheless, I thanked them for the opportunity and went on my way.
Once I was home, I continued to pursue criminal charges against these men. I was contacted by the detective assigned to my case. I could not have asked for a better woman to assist me through this process. She picked up my case when others in her department thought I was making it all up. They believed I was involved in sex and drugs and too scared to tell my parents. Not Detective Zuniga. She listened to my story, believed me, believed IN me and fought for me. With the details I was able to provide her along with her sheer determination, she found them within a few months. She gathered evidence which included my clothes, security tapes from Walmart, Target and a convenience store and she was even able to locate the police officer that pulled us over. Some might say that was her job but to me, she went above and beyond. I cannot say if she knows what a tremendous impact she had on my life. What I do know for certain is this woman did not know me personally. She had no knowledge of the shy, insecure child who cried at the drop of a hat. She was, however, very aware of the demons I had faced that one traumatic evening and wanted to make sure those men were brought to justice. I will never forget when she looked me straight in the eyes and told me I was a survivor. She said that I somehow, someway was able to humanize myself to two terrible people and, because of that, I was alive. It was then that I realized that my emotions, my thoughts and my reactions did not hinder me. They saved me! I was NOT weak. I was a survivor!
It is safe to say, my life was forever changed. Yes, I had experienced something that no person should have to go through but I came out on top. I was ready to find out who I was and what I was capable of doing with my life. I would not let what others thought or what happened to me control me any longer. Granted, that is easier said than done. I knew that and I knew it would be a lengthy process. I went to counseling for some time where I worked through emotions, fear, guilt and shame. My counselor shared coping techniques with me for lingering anxiety like dim lit rooms and warm baths, which I still use today. I fought hard to find my new normal. As crazy as it sounds, after hearing about my strength from a complete stranger, I was determined to live up to that observation. For the first time in my life, I was working towards something, which was self-improvement, not because someone expected me to but because I actually believed in myself. It felt amazing!
I cannot say I recovered quickly but I worked diligently. After about a year and a half, I was ready to try again. I found a job in the banking industry and moved to Austin. At work, I made new friends which was mostly a new concept to me. My boss became a mentor. He helped me identify my talents and even helped me identify a college degree I wanted to pursue. With his blessing as well as that of my parents, I decided to take the leap. So, in the summer of 2002, I did just that. I enrolled at Angelo State University to pursue a Bachelor’s degree. Finding a job that would work with a school schedule was not as simple. Fortunately, a temp position became available at Wells Fargo and I took it. I did not like the idea of temporary but I knew I needed to do something. Little did I know, my career was about to really take off.
As I have said before, I now saw myself for my potential rather than my flaws. It was at Wells Fargo that I realized the dream of others seeing that in me became a reality. Granted, looking back, I realize there were many people willing to help me learn and grow when I was younger. I believe I just did not understand myself nor was I receptive to feedback as I feared failure and I did not want to let them down. Nonetheless, here I was working in a large corporate setting with individuals who encouraged me and made sure I knew I had a bright future. Over the next six years, I was promoted multiple times and I was very successful by the career metrics set before me. I was even recognized on a national level for my achievements. From a career standpoint, I literally felt like I was on top of the world. So, why did I feel like I was falling short? Why did it feel like I needed to be doing something else?
Fast forward ten years and here I am. I am happily married with two beautiful children. I have a close relationship with my family. I stand strong in my Faith and relationship with Jesus. I work for a wonderful organization doing something that I enjoy while using my college degree. I am also very involved in my community. Basically, I am living a busy but very happy life. I am in a place where I feel truly blessed on a daily basis but, and that is an important but, I long to do more. Until now, I had no clue what that was.
In early November of 2018, I attended a Women’s Leadership Conference in College Station, Texas. I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Alise Cortez speak about Living on Purpose. She talked to us about our one precious life and asked what we were going to do with it. I listened as she explained the difference between managers and leaders. Her questions were, “what if we lead by looking for what lights them up and inspires them, by looking for how to empower them, by helping them find their purpose?” Though not necessarily Dr. Cortez’s meaning, I realized I could lead others without being in a management position. I could use the traumatic time in my life for something positive. I can help empower others, help them find their strengths and possibly even their purpose. At least, that is what I could hope for and, honestly, is what launched me into what I feel to be the most important chapter of my life.
My story, the story you just read, is a difficult one to write and probably difficult to read. I decided to share now not because I want sympathy or pity nor do I want to necessarily brag about the achievements in my life. I want to share to hopefully encourage individuals who are hurting or struggling. What I want readers to take away from this is a feeling of hope and courage. I am not arrogant enough to believe someone would be immediately healed by my words. Fact is, I have come to realize that I am not as healed as I thought I was. There are things that happened that still make me tear up and cringe and there are times when that old familiar fear takes over. My emotions when reflecting upon all that has happened, surprisingly, are still very raw. Does that make me weak? Does that mean I have reverted back to the old me? Absolutely not! Coping with fear, doubt or trauma does not mean it goes away. It simply means you find a way to truly be happy and make the most of the life you have.
So, how does one get to that place? In all honesty, there is not one specific answer to this question. The battles we all face are different on so many levels, whether it be our emotions, our fears, or even overcoming physical and/or emotional trauma. I do strongly believe that there is strength and healing that is associated with sharing our struggles. Finding commonalities with someone that works to overcome the obstacles life has set out before them gives others a needed reassurance and encourages them to do the same. My hope is that my life and my experiences can be shared with others in a way that creates a spark in their life. I hope it motivates someone to pursue the happiness they so very much deserve. Last but not least, I hope to remind others that every day is a new beginning, as well as an opportunity to chase our dreams. As Dr. Cortez has told many, we only have one precious life. I want to be part of making sure others I come in contact with do not waste it.