Student Success Story: Jan’s Path to Life After Trauma
August 18, 2021
by Jane Hess Collins
“I’ve never given up on life.”
Jan Williams wanted her twin sons back. She did not want them to hear that she died as a crack addict.
She tried many times to stop smoking crack and had many more reasons to use it as an escape. The move from Pittsburgh to Daphne, Alabama, in 1975 when she was eleven, and the race-based name calling and fights that ensued, was one reason.
The sexual abuse that started in her home when she was six years old. The pregnancy, fathered by her abuser, when she was twelve.
Jan attempted suicide that year.
Her mother knew of the rapes happening under their roof but did nothing to stop them. To escape her molester, Jan avoided going home. She stayed with friends and at school, coming home only to shower, eat, and sleep. The rapes continued.
Her friends introduced her to crack. She would never get addicted, she told herself.
The rapes stopped when Jan was 15 years old. At age 18 she left home to attend the University of Pittsburgh to become an executive secretary.
Then life intervened.
“My mother called me home when her husband died,” Jan explained. “My brothers and sister were married with kids so no one could take care of her but me, and she needed help paying the bills.”
Returning home to help
Jan returned to Alabama. She also returned to her old friends and her old crack habits. Jan cared for her mother, worked various jobs in the food service industry, and used.
Ten years later and now a single mother of two-year-old twin boys, she was exhausted. “I was tired of life, I had no goal, no motivation, nobody on my team,” she recalled. The nightmares from her trauma were too much. Her pain was unbearable. She tried to hang herself in a hotel bathroom in Mobile.
Her boyfriend, sensing something was wrong, kicked down the door and saved her.
It was then that Jan realized that “suicide is not going to work” and she vowed to “suck it in,” keep her pain at bay and raise her sons. Life was more stable for the next few years until one of her sons remarked that he did not want a particular family member to bathe him. Triggered by her past rapes, Jan immediately accused that family member of molesting him. When she threatened to kill that person, her mother, knowing Jan was capable of doing so, threw her out.
Moving in the right direction
Homeless, couch-surfing with friends and missing her sons, Jan finally stopped using. She saved money and eventually asking to move back in with her mother, who had guardianship of her boys.
Her mother refused, not trusting that Jan would stay clean. She recommended that Jan move to Alexandria, Virginia, and live with her sister. By now Jan’s sole motivation was to get her sons back. She knew that if she stayed in Alabama the wrong people would influence her, so she made the lonely move to Virginia.
For the next seven years, Jan focused on her recovery. On her own, without court intervention, she received therapy, enrolled in several residential treatment facilities, and was diagnosed and treated for bipolar and addiction disorder.
She got her boys back in 2002 when they were 12 years old.
Today Jan has been sober for 18 years
How did she do it? “I love my kids and I love me,” she replied.
In 2013, when Jan was 49 years old, her mother died. Still, Jan tears up when talking about her. “I’d do anything for my mom,” she said, choking up. In therapy to deal with her sexual abuse, she recalled, “I had to walk in my mother’s shoes, and it really broke me down. She went through so much as a child, teenager, and young mother. And her shoes were heavy.”
When Jan’s therapist urged her to look at her mother as a friend, Jan realized the trauma her mother had endured. “She’s my fountain. I love her so much,” Jan said tearfully. “I never heard her complain.”
By 2020 Jan was ready for a change. She was tired of restaurant work and still held her dream of working as an executive secretary. An internet search led her to the Virginia Higher Education Fund’s College Scholarship Assistance Program, which led her to Computer CORE.
Jan was all in.
“They were warm and they cared about me,” she recalled. “They really, really want you to make it and follow your dreams.”
“And they gave me a computer!” she added gleefully. “How great is that? Getting a computer to further my education! So they’re investing in me.”
A computer and a job – and still another goal in her sights
“I’m going to make them proud of me,” Jan decided after receiving her computer from Computer CORE. She completed courses in administrative assistance, Microsoft and Google, interviewing, resume writing, and creative writing.
She volunteered to help with a CCNA coat drive that Computer CORE helped with and donated to them when she could. “I give back,” she explained.
Calling Computer CORE her “foundation,” she received her certification as an executive secretary from Northern Virginia Community College last June and now is employed by the Johnny Apple Seed Association in Manassas, Virginia.
But Jan’s journey is not over yet. She is recovering from a sexual assault that happened three years ago, and in May she won a scholarship to earn certification as a peer recovery specialist.
Next? Jan plans to achieve her dream job as a trauma therapist.
“Look at me and what I’ve been through,” she continued. “I was supposed to have given up on life by now.”
Jan says, “I want to set people free. I want to show people they don’t have to dwell in their pain. There is healing. It’s there if you want it. If you’re miserable, life is still going on without you.”
Author Jane Hess Collins is a communications consultant and coach, and the founder and executive director of Heard, a nonprofit that brings creativity and life skills to people in need. www.heardnova.org