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The Keys to My Chains
Elvia Victorio

I remember a strange girl showing up to my 4th birthday party, in Mexico. My mom told me she was my half sister; my father had a whole other family who he lived with. I only saw him on some weekends, when my mom took me to meet him in the garden where he worked. I had to be a secret, so my mom would cover my stroller whenever we went to the garden.

One day, soon after we started visiting, I was dancing around the flowers, and I heard my mom scream. Scared, I turned around and saw her on the ground crying. My father was yelling at her to be quiet and hitting her with a broom.

One year later, the three of us moved to the United States, leaving my mom’s family and my father’s other wife and children. In New York, my mom gave birth to my sister Juliet, and had my brother Jonathan three years later, when I was 10. I often took them to the park or the library to keep them away from our violent, alcoholic father.

He continued to abuse my mom, and he would sometimes try to molest me. Some nights as he was hurting my mom I would jump in the middle of them to protect my mom but he would slap me out of his way. I didn’t understand why my peaceful mom would stay with such a beast.

The Ogre

He didn’t hit my siblings, but he grew more violent over the years. My mom called the cops on him about four times, but each time they released him. They would issue a restraining order; he would disappear for two days and then come back. It felt as if we were trapped in this cycle of pain. We kids referred to him as “ogre.”

When we couldn’t escape the house, I would hide with my brother and sister in our closet. Sometimes we even slept in there, to muffle his music and the screams of him and my mom.

On July 2, 2013, when I was 16 years old, the ogre looked like he had taken something more than beer. When he leaned in to kiss my cheek, I quickly backed away because he smelled like a really bad garden. His eyes looked demonic.

He’d brought flowers for my mom and apologized to her for getting drunk the night before. My mom put the flowers on the table and said she was going to take a shower. She kissed me, Juliet, and Jonathan goodnight and turned off the lights.

As Juliet and I were falling asleep, we heard strange screaming outside our building, like something kept the woman from screaming as loudly as she could. The raindrops against our window made it hard to make out what she was yelling. Then I heard “Janet!”—only my mom called me that.

I jumped out of bed and ran outside to see the ogre attacking my mom, who was lying on the ground. At first I couldn’t move, think, or breathe. Then I ran over and tried punching him off her. He pushed me aside, let go of my mom’s neck, and walked away with a bloody knife in his hand. I dropped to the ground next to my mom. I tried everything I could to keep her breathing. Her hazel eyes looked at me as if she was trying to tell me something.

Policemen covered my siblings and me in a blanket as we dodged people outside our building trying to take pictures of us. A cop put us into an ambulance that drove us to Elmhurst Hospital. A social worker there asked if we had any family members to take care of us for a while. I called my mom’s closest relative, my Aunt Amelia. She didn’t pick up. Looking at my phone, I saw my little sister had messaged my aunt while we were in the ambulance “Ayudanos tia!” which means, “Help us, aunt!”

Everything Seemed Impossible

Less than an hour later, Aunt Amelia ran into the hospital with tears rolling down her face. Her arms shook as she put them around me, and her voice was low. She mumbled in my ear, “I went to your house in a cab as soon as I got your message, my phone wasn’t on after that….so many cops and they wouldn’t let me in…they told me she’s gone…that son of….”

Then she took a couple of deep breaths and spoke loud and clear. “You, Jonathan, and Juliet are staying with me and your cousins,” she said. I couldn’t find my voice anywhere in that room, so I nodded my head and pointed at the social workers with my eyes.

“Don’t worry about them. You three are staying together and you are safe now,” Amelia declared.

The Girl Who Didn’t Speak

Those last four words were the keys to my chains. I didn’t have to go through this alone. Before that night, I only saw Aunt Amelia once or twice a month when I took care of her three younger daughters, Kimberly, Natasha, and Xcaret. But she didn’t hesitate to bring my siblings and me into her home and family.

My aunt lived in a small studio in the Bronx with her daughters. When we moved in with her that summer, I was going into my senior year of high school and began worrying I wouldn’t graduate. Without my mom, everything seemed impossible.

I stayed in the same high school in Queens, although I worried that I’d be the center of attention. In school, I thought everyone was looking at me—the girl who lost her mom, the girl who couldn’t save her, the girl who didn’t speak up. But it turned out most of the kids at school didn’t even know what had happened.

image by YC-Art Dept

One day during lunch my friend Matt playfully poked me with a plastic knife, and I panicked. I grabbed the knife from him and threw it on the floor. “What’s your problem!?” he exclaimed. He was a good friend, and I knew he didn’t mean to upset me. I grabbed his hand and as calmly as possible told him, “I had a traumatic thing happen to me this summer.” And then I told him the story.

After that, I told four other close friends. Speaking to them helped me feel less lonely. I was glad I hadn’t switched schools and could trust my old friends rather than having to start over at a high school in the Bronx.

I also wanted to stay in my old school because I felt closer to my mom there. Most of my good memories of her are in Queens, and I liked to keep them alive by going back.

But then the ogre entered those memories. I stopped walking around that neighborhood about a year after my mom passed away, because I started having flashbacks of him. I knew he was in prison and couldn’t hurt me anymore, but the flashbacks still scared me.

Aside from being haunted by the ogre, my last year of high school was also scary because my mom had been very involved with my academic life. Without her I didn’t know where to go for help or even how to ask. I wanted to visit colleges with her. I needed someone to talk to about the college application process, turning 18 as a foster youth, being responsible for my own accounts, making my own appointments, financial aid. I didn’t know where to go to ask all these questions.

My aunt and I rarely talked about school. My mom had told me that Amelia didn’t finish high school, so I felt self-conscious talking about college and especially financial aid with her. My aunt had her first child very young with an aggressive boyfriend who didn’t allow her to finish high school.

My mom had me when she was 18. She’d told me that she received her high school diploma when she was very pregnant. I would joke around with her about that, saying “I already graduated high school in Mexico when I was in your belly, so why should I again?” Instead of laughing, she lectured me not to make that same mistake.

I had seen horrifying consequences of falling for the wrong guy; I certainly did not want an ogre in my life. I thought my aunt and I might connect over our violent experiences, but I couldn’t open up to anybody that first year.

Pencil and Paper

Aunt Amelia encouraged me to go to therapy. “You can’t carry all that pain by yourself,” she said. I went to four different therapists, but I wouldn’t tell them what I really felt—or speak at all sometimes. I thought they were only doing their job, they didn’t care about me, and they couldn’t make me feel better or forget what I had seen. Most importantly, I knew that nobody I spoke to was going to bring my mom back.

Then I got a therapist named Natacha. Instead of asking me how I felt or if I planned to hurt myself, she passed me a pencil and paper and told me to write a short story about myself. She helped me express myself through art and writing, and after a few sessions I began to feel more comfortable talking to my aunt at home. I told her the details of the night I lost my mom and why I was scared of certain things.

Talking about my mom’s death with my aunt and Natacha triggered bad dreams. I had trouble focusing at school, and started to fall behind. A couple of months before graduation, I actually wanted to quit high school.

Amelia came to my last parent-teacher conference, and we sat with a teacher who knew what had happened. Mrs. C. told my aunt that I did all my homework but that I seemed distracted and didn’t speak in class.

My aunt said, “Yes, I would love it if she told me what she felt sometimes so I could help her. I know I’m not her mom, but I try my best to support her.” Mrs. C. looked at me and said, “We just want you to succeed, and you would be making the three of us proud.” She held my hand and my aunt’s. I couldn’t hold back the tears.

My last semester, I got my motivation back. Natacha helped me control my flashbacks through meditation and art. My foster care agency gave me tutoring and advice on getting financial aid. Aunt Amelia encouraged me to take advantage of the resources she never had. “I stopped going to school and no one cared,” she told me. “I care about you finishing high school, going to college and getting a career. Do it for your mom and for your own future.”

I passed all my classes, but at first I didn’t want to go to my high school graduation. My mom had told me that she dreamed of me going up on that stage to get my diploma and waving to her. She would have wanted to take me to get my hair and nails done. But Aunt Amelia said she would do that. And she assured me, “She is always watching over you.” So on June 4, 2014, I went onto the stage, waved to my aunt, and smiled up to the sky.

Digging Deeper

Reading a story like Elvia’s, it’s easy to feel only the sadness of her trauma. But the story also shows all the ways the writer helped herself, as well as how a circle of adults helped her heal.

• She told five close friends about her mother’s murder, which made her feel less lonely.
• She chose to stay in her old school in Queens so she wouldn’t have to start over at a high school in the Bronx, and because she felt closer to her mom there.
• She took advantage of tutoring and other help.
• She opened up to her therapist and her aunt when she was ready.
• She remembered the goals her mother had for her.

• Aunt Amelia provided care and support, and encouraged Elvia to go to therapy.
• The therapist Natacha gave Elvia an alternate way of expressing herself, by asking her to write a short story.
• Natacha taught Elvia strategies (meditation and art) to help control her flashbacks.
• Foster care agency education workers gave Elvia tutoring and advice on getting financial aid.
• A teacher, Mrs. C., was supportive and told Elvia and her aunt, “We just want you to succeed, and you would be making the three of us proud.”
• Aunt Amelia took Elvia to get her nails and hair done for graduation, the way her mom would have.

Foster parents, staff, and other adults: Give a child who’s been through a tragedy space to grieve, but keep offering her ways to tell her story and supports to enable her success. Reading this story with your teen may help, too. Ask her about her own coping skills and to identify the adults who have her back.

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