We all have a story. For some of us, our story originates from a foundation laid years ago by our fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers.  It is filled with pride and the unearned conveyance of worth that comes from family history. Maybe your grandfather started a company that is still run by the family today. Maybe your mother built a reputation as one of the most kind and compassionate people in her town.  Maybe your father was an all-state athlete and later became a prominent businessman, well known and well respected in the community.  For those who are born into these ‘ideal’ families, there can be a sense of value and acceptance that is your birthright. Now admittedly, this is only my perception, since that is not my story.

My story is very different than that. By no means do I think my story is more tragic, more unfair than millions of people here in the US or around the globe.  But I do think that in many ways my story is one that is shared in some form or fashion by so many people; which is why I am sharing it. Both as another step in my own healing and growth to be free of the many of the scars that I have gained over my short 35 years, but also as inspiration and hope.

The hope that I pursue is to gain hold of the promise that Jesus gave me when he said that he has come so that we may have life and have it to the fullest.  My hope is to understand that my worth is not defined by my performance. My hope is to know in my heart that I belong; that I’m good enough, essentially that I am worthy of love.  It is only in recent years that I’ve even been able to articulate my pain and fear in these terms.  For so long, I was just angry.  I lived through a calculated plan aimed at proving my worth.  When it wasn’t received, acknowledged or simply wasn’t enough, it would crush me. 

I know now that that is not the plan that God has for me. That is not the plan that God has for all of us. I was recently told, “If you have to be perfect, doesn’t that make the cross meaningless.”  I understood that. It made sense to me intellectually. But my hope is for more than that for myself, and my family and anyone else that carries this burden. So I am sharing my story. May God use it to bless you and call you out of the darkness and into the light of God’s grace.

My early years (4 and under)

From my understanding my mother and father divorced when I was two and my earliest memories are from around the age of four when I lived with my mother, a guy named Clarence, and my sister Melissa who is fifteen months older than me.  I only remember just bits and pieces of this phase of my life. I can still see an image of a pen in our kitchen made of cardboard boxes. There were at least ten pit bull puppies in this pen and distinctly remember the smell of dog poop.  I can also recall watching pit bulls fighting. I remember the grotesque sounds of biting and flesh and the clink of the chains that served as leashes. 

The only other memory that really stands out from that time was that I would try to wake my mother up by pulling up her eye lids and saying ‘Mommy wake up, Mommy wake up.’  At the time I didn’t think anything was wrong, this was just the norm for me. It wasn’t until many years later that I later came to learn that she was using drugs heavily at this time and even shooting heroin.

Life with Dad (4 to 13)

One day we were taken from my mom’s home by my father.  At first we lived in an apartment complex in Fat City. This is an area of Metairie, LA known for bars, nightclubs and restaurants. My sister and I shared a room. I remember getting put to bed early in the afternoon one day as punishment for pushing my sister into the apartment complex pool.  I recall being scared and hungry and not really understanding what was going on.

Shortly thereafter, I don’t remember when, we moved to a duplex in another area of town. It seemed that everything changed then at about age 6 or 7. Saturdays became a ritual in our home. We’d be woken up at 7:30 am usually with the door being slammed open and told to ‘get up kid.’ We’d spend most of the day, until about 4 or 5 doing chores or work of some kind.  It was about this time when my father’s abusive treatment began. It started as a slap in the back of the head or a kick in the butt because we didn’t do something right.  I began to dread Saturdays. My fear and sadness would grow as the week went on.  Both for what I knew was coming and what I was losing. I longed just to be free and play. I would watch and hear the other kids out riding bikes or playing ball and want so desperately to be with them.

As the years passed the role that my sister and I played to take care of ourselves expanded and the abuse that we suffered escalated. From ages 8 on my father expected us to run the home entirely. We’d be dropped off at the grocery store to do the shopping. We’d prepare and cook all of our own meals. We were expected to clean the house like professionals.  As early as 9 I would get off the bus at a busy intersection and walk a mile to a karate studio where I’d sit for 4 hours until my class began, and then my dad would pick me up at 9:00 at night to go home.  When I got braces I would have to ride my bike about 4 miles on Veterans highway, a road similar to South blvd in Charlotte, to make it to my appointments.  I think about this today for my own kids and shudder.

I was an extremely athletic as a kid; I could play almost any sport well. I begged my dad to let me play, football, baseball, basketball anything. Finally he put me on a soccer team at age 12, and the coach would bring me home after every practice. I have no idea what my dad was doing while my sister and I were raising ourselves, but he always said he was working to provide for us.

Throughout all of this time there was constant verbal and physical abuse. Anytime that we overlooked something or did something wrong we were smacked around and yelled at.  Sometimes this would go on for hours at a time. My father never punched me, but he’d throw me around, hit me, shove me, kick me sometimes, throw stuff in my face, and yell and yell and yell. He would call us all sorts of names and tell us how much he was suffering in life because he was a single dad and we were to be grateful to have a roof over our heads.  We learned to live in a hyper anxious state. Many times my father would come home after we’d gone to bed and I’d hear his key in the door and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. I’d lie in bed and hope with all my might that he wouldn’t be angry or come and find me for something.  There were many times when I’d be sound asleep and I’d have the covers yanked off of me and be dragged down the hall by my hair just because a spoon was left in the sink or some other unseen transgression.  

I learned to try to be perfect. I made straight A’s in school, even graduated as the valedictorian of my 8th grade class.  I tried to anticipate my dad’s moods and placate him by doing extra chores or making him his dinner or telling him how great a dad he was even though inside I wanted to punch him out.

I had very little interaction with my mom during this entire period of my life. I learned later that she had moved to Colorado for a few years and had also gone to prison once for 6 months. I came to have two younger half brothers, Mack and Chris. I loved them and the few times that we got to spend with each other my heart would be broken when I had to leave them and go back with my dad. My mom was simple and loving. She became a functioning alcoholic and lived with my two brothers and my grandparents at their home across town. She worked a simple job as a veterinarian tech assistant and poured her time into my younger brothers.  

My grandmother, her mom, passed away when I was 13. This didn’t really impact me much at the time.  I had only seen her, my Memaw,  on holidays and didn’t really know what a connection with a mother or grandmother was supposed to feel like.  So I was kind of numb to the whole thing. My grandmother was a functioning alcoholic as well.  She’d drink martinis all afternoon each day and died at the age of 61.

So back to life with my dad; finally on March 27th, 1991 when I was 13 and my sister was 14, I had had enough. The yelling and hitting and abuse went on all day, at least 8 hours.  I remember my dad had turned my sister’s mattress over on top of her and was pulling her hair and yelling at her and she kicked him in the ribs and ran out the front door. I knew she wasn’t coming back. I just knew it.  So I stacked weights in front of my bedroom door, packed a bag and climbed out of my window. I just ran. I cried and ran. I made it about two miles by my estimation and stopped at a gas station and called my mom. She said that she couldn’t come take me to my granddad’s house because my grandmother had just died and granddad wouldn’t be ok with it, so she called my Aunt Celia. She and my cousin Ricky, who is my same age, came and picked me up.

My teenage years

I lived with Aunt CC, Uncle Richie, Ricky and my cousin Barbara at that point. The best words I can put to this time is freedom, joy, peace, relief. I think I would have taken anything over the oppression that I lived under before. But in reality, I was never part of my Aunt’s family either. I slept on the floor of my cousin’s bedroom for the 15 months I lived there.  Sometimes they would go out to eat and leave me home. Their Christmas celebration did not include me. I accepted all of this as normal. I realize now that I expected nothing else. 

After 15 months with Aunt CeeCee, I finally moved in with my mom, brothers and granddad. It’s funny but this is really when my childhood began in my mind. I was 15 years old, and a sophomore in high school. I would play all the time with my brothers. We’d play football in the front yard, baseball at the park, basketball at friends’ houses. I got to know my Mom and found that she was a simple and loving woman. She still drank a pint of scotch every day, but she gave everything she had to her sons. She made $5.50 an hour and we lived on food stamps. She would cash her $300 something dollar check every two weeks and put the money in a box behind the microwave. We could ask for anything we wanted, but when the money was gone, there was no more until the next payday.  She would go to my Aunt Sue’s house on Friday nights so I could borrow the car without my Granddad knowing. She sacrificed for her kids and delighted in her kids.

Things in life seemed good and peaceful at this time. I played football for a travelling all-star team and got to go all over the country and even to Canada and Mexico. I started driving. I had a girlfriend and her family was very kind to me. Things seemed as good as they could ever be. Then on April 27th, 1993 my mom was diagnosed with cancer. In a whirlwind of two months she died on June 27th, 1993 at the age of 41. I was 17 years old. Leading up to her death, I had stayed in the house near my mom’s bedside for nearly two straight weeks.  On the day she died, I was invited out with friends and remember asking my Aunt Celia who was keeping vigil near my mom’s bedside if I should go out or not. I went.  I pulled back up to the house after being out for about 2 hours and saw police cars in front of our home. I knew what had happened. It crushed me that I wasn’t by her side when she passed. My heart was shattered. I hated God. I felt that He hated me. Shortly after her death, I remember driving down the road next to a canal and fighting with all my might not to plunge the car into the water and take my own life.

After my mom died, life seemed to accelerate in pace. I switched high schools to play Quarterback at another school. I had been going to an all boys catholic high school. There were about 1200 students at this school and only about 20 of them were black. The funny thing is I had grown up with my dad in a neighborhood that was about 80% black and very low income. So I was never really accepted at my first high school since I wasn’t from old Metairie and wasn’t part of the inner circle. That was the main reason I didn’t play football there. It was made very clear that I wasn’t welcome. Then I went to a public school that was about 70% black and was a normal co-ed school.  At this point I was seen as the pretty rich white boy that came from the private school to play Quarterback, so I was never really accepted at this high school either. My insecurity was covered in obstinate cockiness and that is not a good way to make friends.  So I began to feel very much alone.  I was trying to prove myself in every way. I turned down an academic scholarship at Louisiana Tech and accepted and Engineering Scholarship to Auburn University. I wanted to get away from New Orleans and prove myself out in the big world. I was determined to make something of myself and never to be in the places that my father and mother ended up in.

My college years

My first year of college was pretty normal by most standards. I started dating my next door neighbor in about February of my freshman year and within a year we fell in love.  I came to know her parents  and her two brothers well (who were incidentally the same age as my younger brothers). She was from a big family just up the road in Birmingham. We’d go there for holiday breaks and on weekends.  At first I was extremely uncomfortable in this environment. I never felt that I could be myself. I was always afraid that I’d do or say something that would bring ridicule upon me from her family.  In January of 1997 I proposed to her and we were engaged. I didn’t think I was young even though I was only 20 at the time. I felt that I had already lived a lifetime.  We had no specific planned date for marriage except for sometime after graduation which was still at least a year and a half off for us.

We dated for two years prior to the engagement and I had not so much as kissed another girl during that time. My 21st birthday came on May 2nd 1997. To celebrate I played golf all day, my fiancee at the time worked in the grill at the course and she served me my first legal beer (well I’d already had legal beer in Louisiana as the drinking age was 18 when I grew up there.) I drank about 8 beers that day at the course. That evening, friends came over and we all hung out and drank some more. We planned to all go out to the club that night, but as the time came, my then fiancee started to feel ill and didn’t want to go. So my good friend Kevin and I hit the club alone.  I ended up talking and dancing with a blonde girl that many men would rate as ‘hot’. I remember thinking that she was a sorority girl, the kind with a rich dad that would only date the other rich fraternity guys. We left the club together at 3:00 am and she asked me to drive her to her car. I don’t know what I was doing driving as I was probably 3 or 4 times over the legal limit. Her car was a brand new red Mitsubishi eclipse and that confirmed in my mind that she was what I thought she was. She asked if she could follow me back to my place. I agreed and she did. I clearly remember sitting at a red light and thinking, ‘Just turn right and hit the gas and you’ll be out of this situation.’ I was so drunk I was in and out of conscious thought. We ended up at my place in bed and my fianee walked in on us at 4:00 am. She threw the ring at me and ran out the door. I was mortified with shame and I didn’t even try to run after her. I spent the next year trying to win her back. I tried everything to show her how sorry I was but we didn’t reunite.  It was a painful lesson that I would later learn was really about my need for affirmation.

Life after college

Right after college I met Sara who would become my wife.  She was young and beautiful and complex. She had a 4 yr old daughter and I envisioned myself as her Knight in shining armor. I promised her in a letter after only three dates that I would ‘save her’ from her situation.  We worked on a long distance relationship for over 2 years and called it quits twice.  After the 2nd break up and ten months apart I realized that I was willing to take on the responsibilities of an immediate family and told her I would move to Michigan to prove it. I got a small apartment in Niles, MI and spent weekends there between consulting projects.  We were engaged on Valentine’s Day of 2002 and married on May 18th, 2002. During that time, my wife was baptized as a Christian.  I had already considered myself Christian at this point since I was raised Catholic.

After the wedding, my wife and new daughter joined me in Charlotte, NC and we began our lives. Two months later we found out my wife was pregnant.  We had Annabelle on Feb 13th, 2003. I traveled as part of my job, so I was gone Monday thru Thursday each week. I spent the first 4 ½ years of our marriage on the road.  This weekly time apart served to cover many issues that would later surface.

I stopped traveling on July 15th, 2006 to work full time in Charlotte. I also decided to start a business at the same time.  I didn’t understand it then, but jumping into a venture like this immediately and never really making my wife a priority hurt her very deeply. In addition, this added tremendous stress to my life and only made me more irritable and controlling.  This is when my marriage started to fall apart. It’s not that my wife was without any fault, but my constant need to prove myself and the expectations that my wife do the same, became more than the family could bear.  My wife and I separated officially on January 13th, 2008. At the time, I was determined that I was going to come out of the situation proven to be the righteous one. Ten months into planning for my ‘new’ life and making a number of bad choices, God decided to come and find me.

My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment

On September 26th, 2008 I was on the golf course wrapping up a particularly bad round of golf playing in our club’s Member-Guest tournament. I remember walking down the fairway on the 17th hole feeling utter despair and contempt.  I remember thinking and even saying to myself, ‘You suck. You’re such a piece of crap. What the hell is wrong with you.’ It dawned on me that maybe most people don’t feel that way about themselves. I had clarity at that moment that something inside of me was missing. That I was full of anger and it was such an overwhelming burden to carry; that I longed to have peace.   That evening, I looked around and saw the destruction in my life. Inside I felt dirty and empty, and outside everything in my life (my job, my business, my kids, my faith) was in shambles. I cried out to God that day and said ‘God, break me. Please do whatever you have to do with me to lift me up from this place. I don’t care if you take everything I have, please save me and save my family.’ In that moment I felt tremendous hope and then God whispered something to me that terrified me. I shrank back in fear and my tears ceased immediately. He told me I would have to tell my wife who I really was and confess my sin to her.  In that moment, I decided that I’d turn my life to Him, but I couldn’t do what he had asked. I thought that would pass.

I started to change things in my life at this point but the real submission to God would come in a more dramatic fashion a few weeks later.   Some friends of ours invited us to attend the Festival of Marriage conference in place of another couple that had to cancel. After clearing many hurdles and waiting on my wife to determine if she felt comfortable enough to take a weekend trip with me, we ended up going.  I feel like in this weekend that God showed me what marriage could be and the plans he had in store for Sara and me.  After the weekend I started to hear God’s voice telling me it was time to do what he had already revealed to me. I fought Him with all of my will for two days. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. It was the most horrible 48 hours of my life. Finally at my desk at work on the Tuesday following the marriage retreat, I started to write out my confession with no intent of reading it. As I finished I started to cry and walk. I put my sunglasses on as I walked the two or three hundred yards to my car, with tears pouring down my face. I went to the house and read the letter to Sara.

My confession revealed the worst of me.  It hurt terribly to see my wife’s pain, but I knew there was no other way.  For the first time ever, I was willing to risk being rejected, deemed unworthy of love.  I did not understand what was happening to me during this time, but I understood that whatever happened in my marriage, I would be ok in Christ. I had an assurance I had never experienced. I had a vision and a taste of peace. The next months were anything but peaceful.  God walked Sara and I through each day, each hour as we revealed ourselves to one another as we never had before.  As we re-entered relationship with one another, I faced the same fears, injustices, pain, and rejections and began to see how my own story drove my reactions. But, God gave me new choices. Through prayer, support from friends and counseling and above all the Holy Spirit, our life and marriage were renewed.

A new heart

I can say and will say for the rest of my life that God gave me a new heart.  I’m not sure where I stand on pre-election and salvation, but I know that for some reason God answered my prayer and changed my life. I am still very much aware of my old nature, and I still have many rough edges and sin that God is working out in me. I am still bent to perform for love, God’s, Sara’s and my own. I regularly fall back into this pattern and am then made aware of it through prayer and sometimes gentle prompting from my wife.  But I am now able to name my feelings of anger / disappointment / hurt and speak to them before I rage or seek validation in some other way.  So it is a daily journey. I realize simultaneously that I am only one choice away from being the same man I always have been, but also that I am transformed and a new creation in Christ.  As long as I continue to look to Christ as my only necessary source of affirmation then I will have my victory and peace.