When I met him, I was only 16 years old. He was 20 and spotted me like a hawk waiting for its prey. After I graduated from high school, he talked me out of going away to college, and by the time I was 19, we were married. When I was 21, I gave birth to his third child. The older two were little girls he had abandoned along with their mothers. He had abused his exes. Mentally and physically.
I knew this, but somehow I thought I would be different — that I wouldn't piss him off the way they had. I thought I was so special to him that there was no way he would ever hurt me the way he had hurt other women. By the time I was 33, I had divorced him, had another child with another man, had at least three or four brushes with death — including acute pancreatitis and breast cancer — and had a trail of emotional baggage that was long enough to circle the entire globe. But I was alive and had escaped the abuse.
More important, I found a way to help myself and others. I began this journey as a victim but ended up a victor.
Domestic violence can be physical, psychological, sexual or financial. I have experienced all but the latter. According to the American Bar Association, African-American women ages 20-24 experience significantly more domestic violence than white women in the same age group, and approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by age 18. The No. 1 killer of African-American women ages 15-25 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.
My history with abuse began when I was a child, and it spilled over into every aspect of my adult life. My parents physically fought, argued and broke up and made up so many times I can't even remember it clearly. I was fondled by my uncle twice, once at 10 and then again at 13. My first boyfriend (who was five years older) talked me into thinking that having sex was the only way a guy would care about me. He raped me several times. I began smoking at 12 and drinking hard liquor when I was 14.
After all of that, I ended up marrying a man whose anger toward his mother for being a prostitute and alcoholic junkie made him abuse the women in his life. He was brutal and evil. I spent most of my days drunk and high off marijuana to numb the pain.
Maybe I thought I was unworthy of love and respect because I had never received it and nobody ever told me that I deserved it. Every adult woman I knew was suffering: being abused, cheated on, disrespected and struggling to provide for herself and her children.
That's exactly where I ended up: a struggling mother trying to raise two young girls to be everything I was not. I wanted my girls to be strong, confident, self-loving, self-respecting — able to recognize their worth and never let anyone take it away from them.
After years of rape and abuse, I'd had enough. I decided I was done wasting my life and hoping my husband would get better if I just stayed and continued to love him. Even though I left my abuser, I was still in pain. I gave the world a make-believe version of myself in order to cope. On the outside, the world saw me as a stoic woman who had endured the storm of the century with ease. On the inside, I was destroyed and my pain ate away at me like the cancer I would later discover in my left breast.
When I found out I had breast cancer, I was only 31 years old. I had recently returned to college and had a fledgling career as a freelance writer. Like many young African-American women, I had no idea I was at risk for breast cancer. I was diagnosed with the deadliest tumor — the triple negative — and it was moving fast.
African-American women under the often recommended mammogram age of 40 are more likely to be diagnosed with this tumor and are also more likely to die from breast cancer. We are also more likely than any other group to develop breast cancer before the age of 50. At 31, I had become a triple statistic: a victim of domestic violence, a survivor of breast cancer and a single mother.
Surviving domestic violence helped me to garner the strength necessary to battle breast cancer. I went through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Throughout the entire process, I thought about how I had already escaped death at the hands of an abuser and how I could escape it once more, even though I could not stand face-to-face with this deadly threat as I had with my ex-husband.
In that strength is where I found the courage to help others. I did this by giving talks to young women and holding workshops called "Love Doesn't Hurt." By talking about my experience, I helped other women understand their own. In the workshops, women were able to come and talk to each other and get information about what domestic violence is and when and how to seek help.
Helping others realize that the abuser will not change and that they are not the cause of the abuse is key to saving lives. My moment of healing came when I knew I could help others find the courage to escape cycles of abuse, neglect and dysfunction. That is the true meaning of healing from within: helping to heal others. Love does not hurt. Exorcise the demons and find a way to get free.
Zekita Tucker is a mother, a survivor of breast cancer and domestic violence, an author and a freelance journalist. She is also the founder of the League of African American Women.