Surviving the trauma of my family

PHOTO CREDIT:  Barry daly

PHOTO CREDIT: Barry daly

Trigger Warning: This article addresses suicide, sexual assault, drug use, and abandonment.

Can you imagine not knowing what your mom looked like?

Waheedah Safia, meaning unique and pure.

The foster care staff failed to give me any photos of my mom before I was adopted. I don't have a single keepsake of hers. Thankfully, she passed down her tenacious spirit and blessed me with an Arabic name rooted in her Islamic faith. It's as if she knew its meaning would keep me going.

But I imagine it was her way of hoping I would lead the pure life she didn't. She survived years of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and prostitution. With my father as her pimp, it took her several years to leave New York and relocate to Florida. She wanted to give us a better life but by the time things turned around, she was diagnosed with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). It seemed like the world refused to give us a happy ever after. Pretty soon, child protective services removed me from my home after wrongfully deeming my mom as unfit because of her bipolar disorder. She was the only family I knew and I never got a chance to know her intimately. She died when I was two.

After being placed in foster care, I was eventually adopted by a Black couple. For a few years, I had what appeared as a "picture perfect" childhood. I grew up in a Christian home with faith and family at the center. I can remember being spoiled by my grandparents with memories of eating watermelon on the porch and learning how to swim in their pool. But it feels strange to hold such pleasant memories when these same people caused me great pain. 

Those memories were tainted when my grandfather began to molest me. As a six year old, I was confused and afraid. I knew it was wrong but I didn’t know how to respond because he was my family. He was the one who was supposed to protect me. He was the highly revered church leader in the family who could do no wrong. What started off as “touching games,” slowly progressed to penetration and rape by the time I was 10. I cried out to friends and tried to tell my adoptive mom that I didn’t want to be alone with him but it was brushed aside.

I remember the day when one of my friends made the decision to stand up for me by telling his mom about my abuse. As a result, my adoptive mom called an emergency family meeting where they interrogated me as my grandfather sat directly across from me. They questioned why I never cried or screamed, as if that was the only way to prove the abuse I endured. When he denied it, everyone left... and I felt my stomach drop to the floor.

My worst fear came true… no one believed me.

My grandfather was right when he had said, “no one will believe you.”  In the end, my mom wrote me off as a liar. After that, nothing was the same. I struggled with low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. When my dad found out, he responded with, “Black people don’t commit suicide," and once again confirmed my pain was irrelevant.

Eventually, I grew tired of the grief and rejection from my family and crafted a plan to take my life. I had experienced so much and didn’t foresee things getting better. I won't go into the details of my suicide attempt but I'm grateful to say I survived. Alone on my bathroom floor, I wept like I never had before and asked Jesus to save my life. In that moment, there was an overwhelming sense of peace as if God met me in that room. It was the first time I felt seen by God and after all I had been through, I finally felt hopeful.

Right when I felt as if I'd found my way, my parents kicked me out the house. Once again, the people who claimed to care were abandoning me. I was back to square one. I was an unemployed, homeless teenager struggling to make it to my sophomore year of high school.

photo credit:  EJ

photo credit: EJ

Somehow, I graduated from high school with acceptances to several universities (quite a feat for a former foster care kid). I went from being a “crack baby” who attempted suicide to graduating from Florida State University a year early. According to statistics, I shouldn’t be here. My mom used and drank heavily for the majority of her pregnancy with me. She was HIV positive but I'm not. The fact that I am thriving makes me believe that I have a divine purpose…and I believe that for all survivors. The trauma we experienced is real but we can work through it.

We can heal from our pasts.

I made the decision to continue healing last year when I met an amazing Black therapist. She helped me put my feelings and experiences into words. Now I can name the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when it appears. I’m learning healthy ways to cope and it's left me feeling light and free. 

With her help, I've realized my diagnosis doesn't define me. Instead, it explains my body’s response to the traumas I survived. I genuinely feel so much better because of the work I've done in therapy and in my spiritual life to forgive my grandfather (who died unexpectedly of cancer). I am healing from the pain of my childhood with someone who finally hears me, believes me, and makes space for me...and it is my deepest hope that you're able to experience that too.

You have a right to the same healing and wholeness.



Meet Lia Epps, a 24 year old freelance photographer based in Orlando, FL. She focuses mainly on portraits but has expanded with event photography and field photography for mission trips. She is passionate about what she does and uses photography & writing to help others capture joy. Learn more about Lia.