My 9 Year Old Best Friend

I have the pleasure of working with some incredible kids within the Columbus community. One of the organizations I work for does a yearly summer sports camp on Ohio State’s campus. Each summer, more than 600 at-risk youth living within the Columbus community attend. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, because it’s not… it is so much more than that. This month long camp is totally free for families, transportation is provided to and from camp each day, and every kid gets breakfast and lunch. We also teach youth social competency skills.

For the past two summers I have had the upmost privilege (and challenge) of having kids at a sports camp, in a classroom setting, while teaching them social skills. I’m sure you can imagine how excited 9-14 year olds with too much energy are to sit in a classroom in the middle of the summer at a sports camp. I’m sure you can picture the amount of times I say, “Put your fidget spinner away,” or “Take your headphones out please,” or my personal favorite, “Keep your hands to yourself!”

You’d be surprised to learn that most kids actually love this part of camp, sometimes more than the sports themselves. Welcome to “Chalk Talk” with Coach Ellen.

This is a story about my favorite camper from this past summer, my fierce 9 year old companion. I hope this story touches you, just as he has impacted my life for the better.

The first two weeks of camp with his group are difficult… his group has a lot of strong personalities. And when I say “strong personalities” I really mean a lot of behavioral issues. He always sat front row, as close as a kid could possibly get to my desk. He was clearly tired of his group’s behavior issues, and honestly, I was running out of patience myself.

Both I and another Coach spent the last couple minutes asking the group to be respectful and reminding them what our expectations are. I remember him breaking down crying, throwing his head and arms onto the top of the desk. “I haven’t done anything wrong all day! I’m tired of being blamed when I’m not the problem!” He was inconsolable.

As the group begins to leave, I ask if he will walk with me. I reassure him that I know he’s not misbehaving or acting out during Chalk Talk. I tell him how much I appreciate that he sits front row every day and is so eager to participate. I ask him to remember that if his group is getting into trouble, and he knows that he’s not the problem, the Coaches see that too. I encourage him to be a leader and to help get his group members back on track, because I see that ability in him. I think this is the moment we first became buddies.

It was as if a lightbulb went off in him after our conversation. We walked all the way to lunch hand-in-hand. He stopped crying, and instead wore a big smile the rest of the day.

The third week of camp, I started sitting with his group at lunch. Of course he saved a seat for me each time; we were buddies after all. I remember that it was a Wednesday and my first group was pretty stressful. His group was next for Chalk Talk… they had a pretty challenging session as well. His group lines up to leave, but he is glued to his chair. The expressions on his face go from angry to sad. I’ve never seen my little buddy look so sad before.

“I’m not leaving,” he says firmly. I try as best as I can to talk with him and figure out what’s going on. It takes 45 minutes for the two of us to walk to lunch, which is normally a 15 minute walk. He is fighting me the whole way, stopping randomly on the sidewalk to pout. It’s a hot, sunny day and I am growing more impatient and hungry with every passing minute. He says that he’s mad at his Coach who had promised to give him a self-control button for being good during Chalk Talk, but then never gave it to him.

Unamused and not understanding why he is so bent out of shape over not getting a little button, I try to reason with him. “I’ll talk to your Coach once we get to lunch. I bet he just forgot. I’ll remind him.” Nothing is working, I can’t get through to him. My little buddy’s comments are becoming increasingly troubling…

“Everyone always lies to me.”

“I hate my life.”

“I can’t trust anybody.”

“Everybody always lets me down.”

“I… I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“I want to die.”

“No one would even care if I wasn’t here anymore.”

“I’m just gonna kill myself.”

I realize that there is so much more to him being “upset over not getting a button.” He has felt this way before. This conversation is no longer about a tiny piece of plastic awarded for good behavior at a summer camp.

He is 9 years old… He is only 9 years old but knows what it feels like to be let down, to be betrayed, to be lied to… He has felt all of these many times before. I don’t know what his home life is like or what his life looks like outside of camp, but there is clearly some trauma here… and because of this, he is triggered by the button fiasco.

Before I can even say anything he takes off running. He is running head-on towards a moving truck driving in the street. My legs start moving before my brain can even process what is happening. I am sprinting and waving my arms at the truck driver. Luckily, I catch my buddy before he gets too close to the oncoming vehicle. My arms are wrapped around him but he is trying hard to fight me off. “Get off of me! Get your hands off of me!” I am trying to talk him down and explain that I cannot let go of him until we are at lunch and I know that he won’t try to harm himself.

On the way up the many flights of concrete stairs into the football stadium where we eat lunch, he tries to jump off. My arms are firmly around his body which he is not happy about. He’s fighting me off again. Finally we make it into the lunch room where I immediately hand him off to a behavioral specialist and explain the situation.

I didn’t see him the rest of that Wednesday of camp.

I couldn’t stop thinking about him when I got home.

I lost track of how many times I cried that night: wondering if he was okay, if he was safe, if he felt cared for.

I didn’t sleep much that night.

I had not known the things he was carrying, the pain he has already experienced at 9 years old.

The next day at camp I search for him before the day starts. He is stand-offish upon my arrival. I ask if he is feeling better today and he just shrugs. “I know you had a rough day yesterday. Do you want to spend the whole day in Chalk Talk with me, as my helper, instead of going with your group today?” There’s that smile again. I missed that smile. I wasn’t sure if I would see that smile again.

We spent the entire day together.

It was one of the best days of my life.

He helped me prepare for each of my groups, teach lessons, and pass out supplies.

The following day he asks to stay with me again. We had a rain delay the entire day of camp, so we spent our time playing Uno, watching movies on the projector, and making trips to the vending machine. I let him take the elevator with me instead of the stairs. We raced all the way to lunch in the pouring down rain (he absolutely smoked me and I suddenly realized how out of shape I am).

It’s the final week of camp and I don’t want it to end. Ever since that day where my little friend had his breakdown, he has spent every second of camp in Chalk Talk as my helper. Now it wasn’t always easy having him as my helper. Sometimes I would have to remind him to be a helper and not disrupt my lesson with a group, but I wouldn’t change a second of our time together.

The final day of camp was incredibly fun. I had learned so much about him. We told each other secrets, and he told me about his family and about what he wants to be when he grows up. I tell him that he’s my favorite camper, to which he said “I already knew that!” I told him that I want to have my own group next summer instead of doing Chalk Talk again.

He made me pinky promise that I would make sure he’s in my group.

I told him I don’t break pinky promises.

It’s time to load the buses and I am dreading our goodbye. It’s pouring down rain as we run outside to his bus. We are standing in the rain and I’m doing a pretty good job of holding myself together.

I’m resting my knees on the pavement so that I’m on his level. “Have a great rest of your summer! Be safe. Stay out of trouble! I’ll miss…” He cuts me off.

“Coach Ellen!” He gives me a quick hug then pulls away.

He looks me in the eyes and says, “Coach Ellen… I love you.”

I am so surprised by this. Does he know how much he has taught me? How much I care about him? He is one of the kindest, most energetic and goofy kids I’ve ever worked with. He is carrying so much, yet he is so full of love and compassion. Does he know how special he is? The world is lucky to have him… I am lucky to know him.

I couldn’t help but tear up as I stared back into his eyes.

“I love you, too” I tell him.

We hugged once more before he ran onto his bus. We are both drenched from the rain. He waves to me from the bus window, the biggest smile on his face.

I hope he is safe. I hope he knows how much he is cared for. I hope he never forgets that he’s my friend.

I can’t wait to see that smile next summer. I can’t wait to see how much he’ll grow and how much he’ll learn before next summer. He is my favorite camper, he is my little buddy, and he was the highlight of my summer.

This is his story; this is our story. I do not know the full weight that he carries… but I do know that he carries love, laughter, and light inside of him. Most of all, I know that I am a better person for knowing him.

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The Things I Carry

Creating a blog has been a dream of mine for quite some time. But it was never the “right” time or I was “too busy.” The truth is… I wasn’t ready. I was afraid. I was ashamed. I didn’t want people, more people, to know the weight I had been carrying… the weight I still carry.

My first blog post is dedicated to my own story. A story that takes place over the past 3 years. This is my journey where at times, I only saw darkness and felt heartbreaking loneliness. This is my journey where the only thing I feel now is unimaginable freedom. Everyone has a story; I am finally ready to tell mine. Please bear with me. It’s lengthy but I believe it’s important.

It’s the very beginning of my sophomore year at The Ohio State University. Classes haven’t even started yet. I am introduced to a boy through a mutual friend. We quickly hit things off and begin spending more and more time with one another. He is so charming, kind, outgoing, and funny, like really funny! All of the things a girl my age could want. He has a big group of friends. He makes me feel special, the kind of special I have always wanted.

Fast forward a few months into the relationship:

He’s lying about various things, not big things, but still, things. Playful insults are next to come. But it’s no big deal, I mean we all know how college boys can be, right? He doesn’t really mean it like that. Who do I think I am not to laugh at his moderately hurtful “jokes?” He is nice to me, he buys me flowers whenever he messes up. He still makes me laugh A LOT. Seriously, he loves me and I love him. Relationships aren’t supposed to be perfect.

A few more months:

Well, he cheated on me again. But he cried about it and apologized. He seems really sorry. I truly believe him when he tells me it won’t happen again. Realistically, he is a college boy and we are so young; I can’t expect him to be perfect all the time. And did I mention that he’s sorry? He practically begged on his hands and knees for me to stay.

Things are better for a few weeks and he takes me out to dinner. But now his once “playful” insults are not in the slightest bit playful; and sometimes I cry when he speaks these words to me. But at least he’s only shoved me once this week… he was drunk after all and I should’ve known better than to start a fight when he’s like that. But the next day he slaps me. This time, across the face, hard. My cheek is red and soaked with tears, but he said he is sorry and is back down begging on his knees. I love him so much it hurts, but is love supposed to hurt?

More & more & more months later:

Things aren’t so great. I mean he loves me so much and I love him, but the fighting is constant. I can’t even keep up with it anymore. He says everything is my fault, and I’m starting to believe that too. The pushing and shoving and yelling and slapping and insults and throwing things has become our whole relationship. I think that I am afraid of us… wait no, I am afraid of me… no, I am afraid of him. He doesn’t like it when I say that. Come to think of it… he doesn’t like it when I say much of anything, that is, if my opinion is different than his. So I keep quiet for the most part so I don’t start a fight. He slept with another girl last night, but everything’s fine because he’s right. If I was “a better girlfriend” he “wouldn’t have to stray.” So I’ll just try harder for our relationship to work. Work, this is so much work. When was the last time I slept? Or ate a meal? Or hung out with someone other than him?

Over a year in the relationship:

Constant. We are constantly together, but that’s normal. Couples spend a lot of time together, right? When I go to class or work he blows up my phone. Constant communication. If I don’t text back quick enough it’s okay because he sends another, and another, or enough until I respond. I mean, even when I am with my family he wants to know what I’m doing. So instead of texting he’ll call. Isn’t that sweet? He misses me so much! I better respond or answer the phone quickly. I don’t want to upset him. I don’t want any more threatening voicemails from him, or angry texts, or for him to hack into my social media accounts again. One time I accidentally fell asleep and he texted me 57 times, called 23 times, and left a few voicemails. Another time he deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts because I followed one of his friends without his permission.

The final months:

I don’t understand why he is allowed to say and do so many things that I am not. Why can he wear whatever he wants? Why can he go out drinking with his friends, but I can’t with mine? There are so many things I don’t understand. But we had a great last month! We did so many fun things on our trip together and we love each other so much. He broke up with me again, but this time it was only for a few hours… I still haven’t stopped crying about it. He doesn’t like it when I cry because sometimes it makes him feel bad. Why am I always crying anyways? When was the last time I fell asleep without lying on a tear soaked pillow?

He is my best friend, but he doesn’t like any of my friends. He says he “doesn’t trust them” and thinks they are “bad influences” on me. I mean, my roommate noticed the marks and bruises, but don’t worry I told her just like we rehearsed- “I was drunk and tripped… you know how clumsy I can be when I’m like that!” But now he is criticizing me in public and in front of my friends. They don’t think it’s funny. And now they are texting me worried saying that he isn’t nice to me and I should break up with him. But I don’t want to break up with him; it’s not that bad. It could be worse…

Drinking sometimes helps because at least when I’m like this I won’t have to remember the things he says or does or throws at me. My friend texted me and said that she thinks I’m in an “emotionally abusive relationship.” I don’t even know what that means so I Google it. Eyes wide, I follow along the “check-list” of “emotionally abusive behaviors.” How is this possible? Every single behavior on the check-list is all too familiar. I feel sick. But maybe this can be fixed. He needs me. He said that he wants to marry me someday and I’m sure we can work this out before then.

The moment I knew:

It’s his best friend’s 21st birthday and we are all so excited to celebrate! The pregame went well. We didn’t even fight this time! He asks me to hang back while he changes his shirt, so we tell our friends we’ll meet them at the bars soon. Suddenly we’re in his room with the door closed; I don’t remember closing it. He’s screaming at me and I’m so confused. “Please stop yelling, I thought we were having fun? Please, just calm down for a second.” He didn’t like that. Telling him to calm down wasn’t very smart of me. Why did I say that?

He stops yelling but is now glaring at me. And this isn’t one of his normal, angry glares. The look on his face is terrifying. The look in his eye is like nothing I have ever seen before; there is nothing human about it. His closed fist connects forcibly with the right side of my face… My face, ouch! My right ear is ringing so loud I can barely hear a thing. And my jaw… oh my god it has to be broken! I have never experienced this pain before. He approaches me apologetically, but I am in fear of my life. “Get AWAY FROM ME!” My whole body is trembling. I grab my phone to dial 911 and say if he comes near me I will call. So I run.

I run out of his room. I am running so fast but I can’t breathe because I am crying so hard. How did this happen? How did my life end up like this? Is this my fault? I call my best friend because she has to know what to do. I certainly do not know what to do. She runs from the bar and meets me, hugs me, cries with me. But then he is there, running down the street towards us and I am yelling again and people are watching, but no one is helping. I am screaming about calling 911 and time is standing still. He looks so sorry. I have never seen him look that sad before so we go back to my apartment together and he takes care of me.

My best friend told a few of our… no, his friends. After all, they are his and not mine and he always says that no one will believe me if I tell. And he is right, because the day after it happens he convinces all of his friends that it never happened. I mean, he is a “good guy.” There’s no way he could be capable of doing “something like that.” So I stay with him for another week, but my friends know. We have been… wait- I have been… no, he has been exposed. He is seeing a therapist and not drinking for a while until things go back to “normal.” But what is normal? We haven’t been normal for over a year and I am crying again. I can’t do this anymore.

The final incident:

I’ve been icing my face for days but the swelling hasn’t gone down. I had to call off work and miss class again. Who am I? Who can I turn to? He keeps blowing up my phone but I don’t want to see him so he tracks my location and now we are at his house. How can he be so cruel to me? Why is he saying all of these things? I don’t want to be here but he won’t let me leave. I am trying to push him off of me. “No I don’t want to be here. Please let me leave!” But he doesn’t like that, so he keeps shoving me back onto the bed. But this is not my bed and this is not my home and I do not belong here. I have not felt safe here in so long. With closed fists he does it again, this time piercing my rib cage. The wind is knocked out of me. I am gasping for air and now I am screaming. I have never screamed so loud. I don’t even grab my shoes… I just run and try to dial 911 again.

And then they see me: his friends… no, our friends… no, my friends. Please be my friends and not his in this moment because I no longer have friends of my own.  I am still screaming and everyone is trying to console me, but I am unrecognizable, “Please don’t touch me!!” They are only trying to help but I am not in my body anymore. I am a ghost of who I once was. So they help me and call my roommate who collects me and takes me home.

I am so broken I could die… no wait, I want to die. I cannot break up with him, but I can’t stay with him because it hurts too much. Everything hurts. He texts me the next morning, “Are you okay?” Of course I am not okay. I can’t remember the last time I was okay. I am so afraid of him, but he warned me too many times not to break up with him because of what he’ll do to me, to my friends, and to family if I leave. But I can’t live like this anymore. This isn’t normal. I will never change… wait, this relationship will never change… no, he will never change.

The journey to freedom:

Blocking his number was so liberating. Breaking up with him face-to-face was one of the scariest moments of my life. He says he’s the victim, but I thought I was the victim? I don’t understand. And now he’s turning everything on me, calling me the “abusive” one. Was our relationship “abusive?”

My two best friends take me to tell my parents because they want to help me. I will never forget the look on their faces, as if this mess could be their fault. But it’s my fault, can’t you see? All of this. My fault. My parents call his parents but his parents defend him. How can you defend what he has done? How can you defend what he is?  Next I tell my two older brothers which was the hardest conversation I’ve had in my entire life. They gave me the same look that my parents did… but this is all on me, don’t you understand that?

And now his fraternity is reaching out to me so I tell them my story. The look on their faces is all too familiar. I can’t stop shaking. I am so embarrassed, I feel crazy! Is anyone believing what I am saying? Do I believe what I am saying? They couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful in the process. He is kicked out of his fraternity, but he is still on campus walking around. Do other girls know what he has done? What he is capable of?

Next comes a student conduct investigation and a few police reports. I remember the Columbus Police Officer being so comforting, like he has heard about this before. This confused me because I have felt so alone for the past year and a half, which is funny because I don’t think a person is supposed to feel lonely in a “loving” relationship. And now the officer is telling me that my safety is in grave danger. But there are no services to protect me, so be sure to double check my doors are locked at night. The same doors that my abuser has a key to because he stole it from me two weeks before.

I’ll never forget when the advocate assigned to my case said to us, “He is so obsessed with controlling every aspect of your life and knowing exactly where you are and who you’re with at all times… the next step for him is to murder you.” Suddenly my mom and friends are crying but I am not because I feel absolutely nothing. My brain has been on overload for far too long I cannot normally react to anything anymore. Instead I am numb.

The student conduct process takes 3 months to get a hearing date scheduled. I am tired of running into him everywhere on campus. He is asking friends and acquaintances if they have seen me or know where I am because he is looking for me. But I am not looking for him; I don’t want to see him ever again. I remember running into one of his friends and he yelled at me, “You’re ruining his life, you know that? We all know you’re lying anyway!” Was I ruining his life? How could I be to blame when my life has been in ruins since the day we were introduced?

Finally, it’s the conduct hearing and I have my advocate, my mom and my two best friends with me. But my mom can’t be present in the hearing and my friends can only come in when they are called to give their witness testimonies. But he is here and he has lawyer and I do not. Do I need a lawyer? Did I do something wrong?

With shaky hands, I begin to tell my story to a panel of professors. Although he is in another room, I can see him out of the corner of my eye through the TV screen. He is slouched in his seat with arms crossed as if he is bored in a lecture while every part of my being is trembling and longing for this to end. His lawyer doesn’t let him speak, which is kind of nice because just hearing his voice makes me nauseous. But I tell my story and explain why he cannot be on this campus, on my campus, on a campus full of innocent women for him to prey on. I remember the facial expressions of the men and women on the panel as they were listening. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel insane. Now the hearing is over and we wait.

The verdict:

They say it usually takes 2-3 weeks before a decision is made, but it only took 2 business days for them to come to a decision. I remember feeling absolutely nothing reading that he was “permanently dismissed” from the university “effective immediately.” But he and his lawyer had a chance to repeal that, so we both had to write letters to the Vice President of Student Life explaining why or why not we wanted this result. I remember that he and his lawyer wrote 3 sentences and I wrote a 3 paged letter. Their sentences went something like this: “He has no record with the police. Everything that happened between Ellen & him was simply a disagreement during a relationship. Lastly, the punishment given is grossly disproportionate to the violation(s) committed.”

I often think back to these sentences. A “disagreement” during a relationship would be, for instance, if we argued over what movie to see or where to go for dinner. Domestic violence is not a “disagreement.” It is a carefully calculated behavior pattern and cycle of abuse. There are those words, domestic violence. At last I understand, I can put a name to my story. Luckily he left campus, never to be seen or heard from again.

Healing:

For a long time during and after the relationship, I suffered. I was a ticking time bomb of PTSD and self-destructive behaviors. If it had not been for the unwavering support system around me, I truly do not know if I would be here today. It has taken me quite some time to process everything, to learn from it all, and grow into the person I am today. For too long, I felt extreme shame, guilt, and embarrassment from what happened to me. Most days I was too depressed to get out of bed. Every aspect of my life suffered because of my abusive relationship. Being a social work major has taught me so much about domestic violence and has been a strong contribution to the knowledge and peace I now have.

Months ago I stumbled across a blog about grief that talked about why telling someone that “everything happens for a reason” is bullshit (i.e. Everything Doesn’t Happen For A Reason by Tim Lawrence). I was feeling outraged about my past and upset with myself that I didn’t go through with pressing charges. But in Tim’s blog, I read a quote that has stuck with me and helped me throughout my healing process. The quote goes like this: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

The Things I Carry:

Since the relationship, I have been desperately searching for a way to fix every little scar, emotional and physical, I was left with. It was in this moment I realized two things, 1) I will always carry my story with me (and that’s okay), and 2) every single person in this world has something they carry. I see this all the time with the kids I work with and in daily life with my friends and family. It’s actually a really beautiful thing, realizing how resilient human beings are, realizing how resilient I am, realizing how resilient we all are.

This is my story. A story that I am now proud to claim. I was forced to be silent for so long out of fear of repercussions. But I’m tired of being silent. My story is important and it’s valid. I now know that the abuse I endured was not, and never will be, my fault. I have rebuilt the relationships around me stronger than ever before. I have relearned how to love myself and now know what I deserve. Verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, and financial abuse (to name a few) are all forms of domestic violence. Healing from each of these has been a truly remarkable process.

These are the things I carry with me, and I will never stop sharing my story with people in hopes that it helps others experience the freedom I feel. I can’t stop thinking about the young girl or woman reading this- maybe she is me in this story, maybe she was, maybe her friend is in an abusive relationship- that is an important voice and I am so glad I can share this. I am proud of the things I carry. The relationships in my life bring me nothing but joy and have taught me a lot about what a healthy relationship should look and feel like. Although I carry these things with me, I am the strongest, happiest, and wisest I have ever been; my weight has been lifted! Thank you for letting me share my story. Now that I’ve shared my story, I am very excited to create more blog posts about the kids I work with and the things they carry!