We Were Ghosts

By: Tabitha Barret

The Secret Life of a Survivor

Chapter 1

The beige room was too bright and smelled like chicken marsala. The banquet room next door was having a brunch but the smell wafted into our meeting room. I stood at the wooden podium and peeked up at the crowd that had come to listen to me speak, while I reviewed my notes and gathered my courage. They didn’t come to listen to me because I was funnier, or smarter than they were. They were here because we all had something in common. We were survivors. Though our abuse was different, the end results were the same. We had all suffered and we all wanted to find a way to cope with it.

I cleared my throat and smiled at the men and women who patiently waited for me to start. It was the same smile I used to hide my fears and anxiety as a teenager—the same smile I used to keep everyone in the dark about my situation. I had perfected that smile over the years and now it was second nature.

I wiped my hands on my black knee-length skirt and leaned into the microphone. “Every morning we wake up and start the day. Every night we close our eyes and go to sleep. Why is this an accomplishment? Why does this matter? It matters because we are still here. So many people who have gone through the things we have experienced are no longer here. They couldn’t deal with their pain so they left this world. We are still here fighting every day to be who we want to be. We are not being controlled by anyone. We are no longer at anyone else’s mercy. We are trying to live our lives the way we want to. This is important because it is our choice. We choose to be happy. We choose to cry. We choose to walk in the world and exist. No one is telling us what to do. No one is harming us. We are free,” I said emphatically as people began to applaud softly and nod their heads.

I had given this speech to 34 different groups this year. The theme for this tour was, “Freedom from the Past”. Last year, it was a different speech about hope. The year before that, it was about courage. I had been giving these speeches for the last five years. Some of the faces were the same from year to year, though sadly, there were always plenty of new faces. I was never sure if people came because I inspired them or if they were trying to commit my words to memory and use them as an instruction manual. I never claimed to have all the answers, but I offered them something many of them never had before. I offered them hope.

Yes, we were survivors, but we were all at different stages of recovery. Everyone talks about recovering from an addiction or an injury, but most people never speak about surviving the abuse inflicted by someone in power, whether it’s a mother, father, step-father, teacher, boss, or anyone else who feels it’s within their right to take away someone else’s power. There isn’t a clear path to recovery, but each of us has to learn how to trust, how to love, and how to live again.

During my speeches, I gave insights into the nightmare that I had escaped from so that the audience would understand that I was one of them. I wasn’t pretending to understand their problems, and talking about abuse in general. I was talking to them from my heart.

I may not have the best memory of everything that happened in my life or remember everything with perfect clarity, but I remember 1988. I was excited to be one year closer to graduating and a few months closer to getting my driver’s license. Growing up, in my eyes, was never a burden or a curse. I wanted to take on more responsibilities and get a job. I was eager for a boy to ask me to a dance. I wanted to do all the things I dreamt about, but more than anything, I wanted to be free.

I walked down the hallway of St. Theresa’s Prep School in my blue plaid skirt and ugly navy blue socks, a color I would never wear once I graduated. I smiled at the other kids who acknowledged me and ignored the ones who didn’t. This was a day like any other, until I saw...him.

It was two months into the school year, an odd time to see a new face floating through the hallways. Halloween decorations were popping up in the classrooms and on the lockers. Everyone was talking about what costumes they would wear and if they would go Trick-or-Treating this year. They were deciding if they were going to the Spooktacular Dance—a name the teachers had made up in an effort to make the dance sound like it took place in a haunted mansion rather than in the school gymnasium.