Love after abuse
by Latoya Burnham
Colleen Williams can smile now. She can even joke with the new love of her life and it is a life where she is still learning to take one day at a time.
From the age of nine in Trinidad, Colleen has been intimately aware of forms of abuse some of us only hear about. Up until age 12 at the hands of people that should have cared for her, she says instead she learnt fear, anger and hurt.
But then at age 13 she thought she had received her reprieve and moved to Boston to live with her mother there, but again, she says, horror followed.
Hair tightly wrapped into African knots, Colleen has a shawl thrown over her shoulders, because even though the room isn’t cold, she still has problems showing off her shoulders or showing skin; and underneath is a purple dress – a deliberate choice in keeping with her nickname Warrior Empress, and perhaps more coincidentally, the colour for domestic violence.
She sits with her hands wrapped around her waist even now as she tells parts of her story, with her fianc? Robert Gibson sitting beside her, silently lending strength. All accounts are not as detailed in this interview because she has already poured her soul out in her book Who Feels It Knows It, set to be released by Amazon in a few weeks.
The shy smiles the two share at times and the genuine feeling of love that emanates from them is something Colleen admits still leaves her with questions at times because after the sexual, physical and emotional abuse she has suffered for most of her life, she still can’t believe this man is hers.
“It started in Trinidad when I was nine, that was the sexual abuse part – nine to 12-and-a-half/13; then it continued in Boston when I came to Boston, 13 to whenever – it was verbal, physical, emotional by my mother; then I left her and got married and it continued with him, the physical and the verbal and the emotional. It stopped there because I escaped and came back to Boston,” she says in a rushed short summary of her life.
She would go on to explain that at the age of nine her mother left home “to go to the shop” for breakfast items for the following morning. They were staying with two people at the time, because as Colleen would explain, her childhood was filled with lots of moving around and constantly sleeping in new places. But by morning, her mother had not returned.
“Now we are living with these two people that I don’t know. We would go to school and come back home and every little thing we did was a problem. From school to home and if anyone said anything, the beatings…,” she trailed off again, hugging herself as her eyes cast down to her lap.
It was in this period that she says she was sexually abused. That is, she believes until her mother, then living in the US perhaps heard through relatives about what was happening and sent for her and her sister.
“When I went through the sexual abuse, when I came to Boston I did not forget about it because it happened to me, but I just shut it down.”
But her move to Boston, she says, rather than being the haven she would have needed at the time, instead became an even harsher place. She believes it is because her mother never wanted her and she maintains still hates her for reasons unknown. So again, every move had to be calculated to stay out of her mother’s reach, and what she thought would have been her “escape” years later as an adult turned out to be yet another wrong step.
There were beatings, choking, more verbal and emotional abuse, she says, at the hands of her then husband, but she bore it until she couldn’t anymore. She would run from him and seek a divorce.
“I didn’t bring it up until like four years ago I was invited to do a speaking engagement and I talked about it and it was the first time I ever said anything and I cried because the audience was amazed and I was like, somebody actually cares.
“Someone told me to go to counselling and the counsellor said I might act like it doesn’t hurt but I didn’t talk about it so everything that happens in my life I didn’t see [a connection]; I don’t see the connection, I don’t know why.”
Through it all, from childhood she kept notes and journals chronicling some of her experiences and this would later form the basis for her book.
“I didn’t want to tell it, but it happened I think because of so much abuse and just being neglected and no one listening to me. I just decided to keep writing. It was difficult. It is difficult now when I look at the book and think, ‘Man I went though that’.”
And in the midst of her writing, she met Robert through a mutual friend they were both following on Twitter. She read some of his poetry and decided he would be perfect for the launch of the book. But then her computer crashed and she lost everything, or so she thought.
She was saved by a long ago emailed draft and though she wanted to give up Robert kept pushing her to go through with it.
“I kept sending virtual hugs and kisses that we are going to get through it. So she found an old copy and we started with that, that is how we got started and I got involved from being a friend. Two things happened — talking every day made us start to get closer and I decided to become her agent for the book, so I started helping her try to put the book together. In the midst of there I told her I love her,” Robert says, peaking a glance at his Empress.
Colleen could not have been more shocked. “It was a surprise. He was sending virtual hugs and kissess and I was like he doesn’t get it. I was crying. I was so mad because this is my pain that I was going through, but he comforted me through it all. He really did and I had a whole different attitude because it was like someone cares.
“In the midst of that he hadn’t read the book yet. When you read the book it is like you are going to think, who is going to want you after all this. I couldn’t help but think if he reads this that boy is going to see a different side, but he read the book and fell in love more. I was like okay, I got a winner…
“I swear if it wasn’t for him I don’t know where I would be or where that book would have been. I probably would have been dead by now. I think the way the book is and what I love about the book now is that when you read it, it is really coming to life. I just wrote this thing that’s called Mr. Undefeated about this guy that I was looking for and I would fly ten thousand miles to be with him and this and that and literally that is just how it happened.
“I flew really far and I wrote this without meeting him and I told him since we are going to be together, read this and end the book off with an answer back to what I wrote and that’s how it is. It’s been wonderful and I know it is because of him. I thank him so much from the bottom of my heart,” she says, blowing him a kiss and laughing almost a bit embarrassed by her show of affection.
Their journey together has only begun. Robert says they have already been through so much together but believes it is making them stronger for the path ahead.
As to what kind of reception the book will receive, Colleen is not holding anything back. Robert says he still can’t convince her to go to therapy, but Colleen says the book is her release. For her it’s like finally coming home after a long time away, the only problem is she now has to learn the house in front of her, the house that is her life. It’s a new life that still gives her a jolt sometimes and it scares her to think how easily people can change.
She admits that sometimes she still looks at Robert and marvels at the fact that this Bajan man could love her and support her after everything she has gone through. And it is at moments like that when the doubts start to niggle, that she has to work hard to not let fear and dread control her life because she is ready to start anew, and Who Feels It Knows It, she says, is her key to enter. firstname.lastname@example.org