The one less traveled…


Photographer: Don White

When I was six, my mother passed away from cancer.  My father loved my mother deeply and was a broken man when she slipped from this life.  He wandered, halfheartedly, from one relationship to another; feeling he needed to find another person to mother his children.  He finally met the woman who would eventually become my stepmother.  She had seven children of her own and, I suppose, he assumed that she would be a good mother.

I grew up with a stepmother who never failed to tell me daily that I was stupid, ugly and a piece of trash that I would never amount to anything in life.  She took every opportunity to demean me in front of family, neighbors and complete strangers.  People were told what an awful child I was…how difficult it was to deal with me and what a burden she had taken on.  I was always being warned that she would send me away to a home for bad children and I believed that.  I was only a child after all.

She would whisper things to me that only I could hear…how she knew every move I made and every thing I said to others.  She warned me that people would not believe what I told them and that they would only come back to her and tell her what I said anyway.  She told everyone that I was a liar and that I made up stories.  Her whispers burned shame deep into my skin into my soul.  They became the echoes in the night…ghosts that haunted me.  My nights became a fearful place filled with the recurring dream from being raped by a babysitter at the age of 5 and my stepmother’s voice whispering I was trash, ugly…worthless.

If there were fights or arguments with her other children, I was the one to blame.  She would find things to scream at my father about me…to beat and humiliate me for.  I would be punished for weeks on end…sent to my room…not allowed to play with others or my siblings.  She isolated me as much as she could from anything that I could possibly enjoy.  When she found out that I loved to read, during the long hours spent alone in punishment, I was further restricted from reading anything apart from school books.  Whatever brought joy to my life was eventually taken away as part of my “punishments”.

At first, I spent hours creating stories in my head…where my real mother came and rescued me.  As time progressed and I grew older I just wanted to disappear…to die.  I desperately wanted the pain to stop.  I became fearful, mistrusting and ashamed of myself.  School was very painful…I was ostracized and the labels that were seared into my soul by my stepmother were burned deeper by the cruel bullying of my peers.  I felt worthless.

When I became an adult, I thought it would all just go away.  I vowed that I would never let anyone treat me like that again.  I became wild, defiant and head strong.  I experimented with everything life brought my way.  My 20s were a roller coaster of angst and hedonistic recklessness.   There were incredible moments of achievement and even deeper moments of pain.  I lost the only person who I ever truly felt loved by…my father. Regardless of how much I tried to drive them from my life…fear, mistrust and shame were ever present and now my anchor was gone.

In my 30s I moved to California and found a respite from my ghosts.  I was blessed to meet and work for some amazing people associated with Chicken Soup for the Soul.  Through these individuals and the other amazing people I met, while living in California, I was able to forgive my stepmother and release us both from the anger prison I had held her in.  I thought I would now be able to move on and all would be well. The ghosts started drifting back in…the whispering echoes not far behind.  Fear somehow found me again and took up residence so I moved; hoping this time it would not follow me.

When I journeyed back to the east coast, I returned feeling defeated…as though I had failed yet again.  I settled on the coast of Maine and unpacked my things…only to find fear and all those labels had journeyed back with me…stowaways in my life.  I tried to drown my ghosts in alcohol…that didn’t work.

Then I found the internet and, for a time, used that to escape the whispers of worthlessness through engaging in vacuous, anonymous encounters.  I created a persona that portrayed only a small part of my personality, I hid behind it; I even created a website to bolster the false power I felt with this identity.  It didn’t take long to wake up to the tenuous false sense of worth I had from “connecting” with others in a virtual setting.  I dropped most of the socnets I subscribed to and retreated back into my safe seclusion.  The ghosts and whispers returned.

I have made so many poor decisions in my life…decisions that have led to where I am now.  So many things are broken and I don’t know how or even if I can fix them, but they are my sole responsibility.  My nights are filled with threadbare sleep full of my ghosts and whispers…I wake up exhausted, defeated…feeling worthless.

A lifetime spent feeling worthless has shaped me from the inside out.  I live a secluded life and when I do meet others, I work  hard to distract them from seeing my worthlessness.  I do what ever it takes to make people smile, to laugh to not notice the ragged edges around my crumbling life…it leaves me empty and spent.

I am not writing this for pity and I care not what you may think of me…it couldn’t possibly be any worse than feeling worthless.  I am writing this because I have a voice inside me that I have not always honored, respected…listened to.  I am writing this because I once wrote about my love of words and the power I feel they hold.

I am writing this because I hope that no one, not another child, not another human being should ever be told they are worthless.

Before you utter another careless word that writes on the soul of  a child of another human being…take a breath and think about what you say because a million positive affirmations can never erase one word….worthless.


2 responses

  1. Don White

    Dear Justene.
    That is one of the most difficult pieces of prose that I have ever read. Once I started I knew I couldn’t stop until I reached the end. I cannot imagine the Hell you lived though as a child. I don’t think I’ve ever known a child who has suffered that type and amount of abuse.

    I’ve known you now for a number of years via the Social Networks but unfortunately we’ve never met eye-to-eye. When I first met you I found you quite enjoyable with a great sense of humour. Then you suddenly disappeared and I had no idea what had happened to you. I must admit I missed you – virtual friends can be dear as real-life friends. It was great pleasure when I received a friend request on your return to the ‘Net.

    We have all made poor decisions in our life at some point and that can happen no matter how we’ve been raised. I know I have quite a few under my belt. But when we can recover from them as you certainly seem to have done, then we certainly should hold our heads high and wipe out any thoughts of being worthless. Now if an older man (I was going to say old man ) may be so bold as to comment on your personality, I find you more mature and philosophical this time round. You have always been a joy to communicate with but this time you seem to developed an aura of internal beauty that I find fascinating when I read your FB posts.

    If even one child gains a reprieve from abuse as a result of someone reading this article then you will have accomplished more than many of us can ever hope to.

    Now one last thing – anyone associated with me, on the ‘Net or in real-life, is not allowed to feel worthless and will never be worthless. I just don’t allow it. Keep that in mind, young lady.

    All the best,

    P.S. I think you picked the right photo to illustrate the theme of the article.

    December 5, 2011 at 5:43 pm

  2. My Beautiful Justene,

    She couldn’t have been more wrong. You are so beautiful, inside and out. Your heart, warmth, wit, intelligence, generosity, and compassion are just fragments of the whole. You are so many things, and all are the opposite of what you grew up feeling. How could anyone call you worthless, when to me, your friendship is absolutely priceless?

    You, my darling, are perfect… to me…


    December 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm