People Giving Back: Erica Is Running Against the Shame and Stigma—and for Herself

A Joyful Heart we are deeply grateful to our expansive community of advocates, and supporters.  You are inspiring, resilient and motivate our work in everything we do. We are able to accomplish so much because of our supporters and your investment in our programs.  

A special group of supporters have joined us as Joyful Revolution Athletic Club (JRAC) Athletes.  Joyful Heart’s JRAC Athletes are groups of individuals that set endurance and fundraising goals as they compete in sporting events, marathons, and races all over the world.  Most of our athletes have been touched by the issues Joyful heart seeks to address, and many have found solace and healing in their training.

One such athlete is Erica Linderman.  She is currently training for and fundraising on behalf of Joyful Heart to run in the 2016 TCS NYC Marathon on November 6, 2016.  We are deeply grateful to share her personal story of why she runs for herself, for other survivors, and in support of Joyful Heart. To support Erica, please visit her fundraising page here.

I am sitting at my desk in my apartment across the street from Smith College, where I am a rising junior (at the age of 37). I will graduate in 2018 with a double major in History and Theater. It is still somewhat of a mystery to me how I got to this point given my personal history. To say that life dealt me a crappy hand is an enormous understatement. There are so many reasons why I should not be where I am today. But I am here, and I am deeply grateful. I have a story. It is not easy to hear, but it needs to be said.

"The shame I felt surrounding my abuse was much larger than me and was what kept me silent. That has changed. I am no longer defined by the shame I feel—I am bigger than it is."

There really is no way to sugarcoat describing my early years. I was sexually abused from the age of 5 until I was 13, and my mother died after a year-long battle with cancer when I was 12. Breathe. (I say that as much for me as I do for you.) It is not easy for me to write or talk about my experience…I don’t think it ever will be. The difference is, though, that I am no longer living through something, I am living with it. It has taken me decades to find my voice. The shame I felt surrounding my abuse was much larger than me and was what kept me silent. That has changed. I am no longer defined by the shame I feel—I am bigger than it is. It has been a long, painful road getting to this point.

My entire childhood was marked by a secret. Initially, that secret was fun to keep. I thought what was happening to me was normal. It was just a game. After some years, the secret I kept evolved from being something fun and normal into something dirty and shameful. As I got older and the abuse continued, I began to see it for what it was and I couldn’t see a way out. To put it simply, at some point I decided that I had had enough. I wish I had a better explanation for why I chose to disclose when I did, but I don’t. I think I felt like things couldn’t possibly get worse and so I had nothing to lose by telling someone. I eventually told a friend what was happening, who then told a couple of my teachers, and then I told my parents. It was finally over. 

After disclosing my abuse, I thought my fight was over. Little did I know it was just beginning. I went into therapy almost immediately, but I was nowhere near ready to face what was now my past. I was so desperate for normalcy, and wanted so badly to have the childhood that I had been robbed of. I acted like I was fine, as if everything was behind me and I could lead a normal life, whatever that meant. I carried on (or tried to) as if nothing was wrong, as if nothing had ever happened. Truth was, I was not fine. I was not ok. I had become dissociated from everything. I managed to get through high school and went off to college to pursue my degree in acting. Soon, the dissociation that worked so well for me as a child wasn’t serving me anymore. It wasn’t enough. When I left for college, I slowly began to turn to alcohol and drugs as a solution—a coping mechanism. I carried my secret with me wherever I went, a secret that would get heavier and heavier as the years carried on. I did tell a few close friends about my experience, but always with immense amounts of fear and shame attached. It was so vital to my existence that people did not find out who I really was…or rather, who I thought I was: a dirty, unlovable, shameful thing. 

"Little by little, the words come, along with the memories, followed by the intense feelings, followed by the relief that I am getting better, that I am healing, becoming less of the 'thing' I believed I once was and more of the human being I always have been." 

By the time I dropped out of college and moved to New York City, I was a full-blown alcoholic. My struggle with drugs and alcohol would continue for the next ten years as I slogged through my life with little direction and a festering abscess of shame and anger inside of me. I had hopes and dreams, ideas about who I wanted to be…and yet I was pretty sure those things would never come to pass because I didn’t deserve to have a good life. I believed that I had somehow deserved everything that had happened to me. I thought I was, at my core, a shameful thing (not even a human being) that wasn’t allowed to be truly happy and that would spend the rest of its life being in pain. 

And though this was at the heart of my beliefs about myself, there was always a small part of me that knew that somehow, some way, things would get better. I just couldn’t find or see my way to it. 

Through this whole time, I never seriously considered ending my life. Not once. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to be here either. That little glimmer of hope, that things would get better, is what carried me through. Eventually the pain became so great that nothing could prevent me from feeling it. No amount of booze or drugs could numb my insides. I couldn’t run away from my truth any longer. I’m not sure what changed for me, some would call it grace, some a miracle, all I know is that I woke up from a blackout one morning (blessedly in my own bed, in my own apartment) and knew that I had had enough. It was very similar to the feelings I had before I disclosed my abuse. I felt like I had nothing left to lose. The pain I was feeling couldn’t possibly get any worse and I could not run from it any longer. I was done. It was time to face everything head on. This is when my true journey began.

With the help of many, I was able to get sober. Sobriety has brought me tremendous clarity…for more obvious reasons than not. After a little over a year of being sober, I sought out a therapist because—for the first time in many years—I was actually feeling things. My emotions became very real for me. I knew that I did not have to go through this alone. I knew that I couldn't gothroughitalone. There was help available to me and all I had to do was ask. I was lucky to find a therapist whom I felt safe with and who continues to guide and support me through my journey. I have always felt so overwhelmed by (and sometimes afraid of) my feelings, especially after having numbed myself for so many years. I still struggle to articulate my emotions, and the work I am doing is by no means complete. I’m not sure it ever will be. But little by little, the words come, along with the memories, followed by the intense feelings, followed by the relief that I am getting better, that I am healing, becoming less of the “thing” I believed I once was and more of the human being I always have been. 

"I have learned that a lot can happen if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I have felt the exhilaration that comes from running towards 
something instead of running away from it."

The work I am doing on myself is wickedly painful at times. There have been numerous occasions where I have wanted to throw my hands in the air, walk away from all the work, and just settle for being miserable and angry and unhappy for the rest of my days. But then I think, “I didn’t come all this way to give up now.” I didn’t work this hard to be where I am to just “settle” for an existence. And to be able to sit here and write this is a huge step. To finally feel that I am lovable and worthy of a great life is even more huge. But, most important, I embrace the fact that despite everything I have been through, life can be, and is, a beautiful thing. There is hope. There is more hope than I ever imagined. I do not have to feel ashamed anymore. I do not have to let that shame silence me anymore. It can and will get better. 

Shortly after starting therapy, I became a runner…this time in the positive sense of the word. I picked up running because a dear friend dared me to run a 5K. I ran that 5K and just kept going. I had no idea running would come to be such an important tool for me in my journey of recovery and healing. I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought or believed. I have learned that even though I typically run alone, there are times when I can’t and I need someone to run with me and help get me through. I have learned that a lot can happen if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I have felt the exhilaration that comes from running towards something instead of running away from it. 

This November will mark the third time I will run the New York City Marathon. I am humbled and proud to be running this year in support of Joyful Heart Foundation. The work Joyful Heart does has inspired me to go public with my story and I am so grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to do so. The statistics about sexual abuse and assault are staggering and there is such an overwhelming need for healing and advocacy groups such as JHF. And it is for that reason that I chose to come forward, because I am not the only one, there are millions of survivors out there; and, tragically, there may be millions more to come. My hope is that, by speaking out, the shame and stigma surrounding all survivors of sexual trauma will lessen, that people will become more aware of how pervasive sexual violence is in this world. Ending the silence is the first step in eradicating sexual violence. I am only one voice, but my voice joins the millions of other brave people that have come forward with their stories.

If this too inspires, angers, motivates, or compels you to act, I would be honored and so grateful if you did so with a donation to my effort. You can click here to donate.

I spent the majority of my life surviving it. Now, I am living it. Today I end my silence. I share my story for those that cannot share theirs, for those who have yet to find their voice, and for those whose voices will never be heard. I share my story in the hope that it sheds even just the smallest glimmer of light into another’s darkness. If that person is you: know that you are not alone, that you are loved, that there is hope, and that life can, indeed, be beautiful. I am living proof. 

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