As a young girl, I was inquisitive, intelligent, hilarious, and I loved being the center of attention—all traits that I have come to rediscover over the past several months. I have always loved to learn, and I had a beautiful, model childhood. My parents are still together and lead successful lives. By my siblings, I was given all the right examples of who not to be. I have not-so-lovingly referred to myself as my parents’ “fix-it-child” for as long as I can remember. My innocence was very protected, but I was still unbelievably self-aware at a young age.

However, at some point, my once blindingly bright enthusiasm for life began to dull. It happened slowly over the course of several years, and I could never put an exact pin in my timeline of life on where it began.

Perhaps it began when I was in kindergarten and I was told to lift my shirt for a boy twice my age. Or maybe it started at age 14 when I was coaxed into the woods by an older boy who only had one thing on his mind. Or more accurately, let us assume it was a culmination of several events that led to who I became.

It was not until age 22 when I realized that I had forgotten everything I once knew about myself, but my moment of realization will forever be crystal clear. I was in the kitchen of my hotel room 1,000 miles from home where I had lived for the last month. I stood, frozen, staring at my reflection in the microwave, tears rolling down my face. The only sounds I could hear were familiar: the ringing in my ears from the impact from his hand to my face, and his voice still screaming profanities at me from the bathroom. Right then and there, I promised myself that I would come back and remember that exact moment, staring at my reflection someday. A day when I was genuinely happy because I knew the day would come one way or another.

This was the moment that immediately entered my mind when I heard that at the end of our class, we would be writing our stories.

It was not until another year later that I took my first baby steps to freedom. I was much more fortunate than most people in domestic violence situations. He left for the last time, and I finally saw it as an opportunity to not let him back in like I had so many times before. After things settled, I realized I didn’t know what came next. I knew I could not and should not proceed alone, so instead of falling into another unhealthy relationship, I reached out to start therapy with OFC. Thus began my journey to self-discovery and self-respect.

When I started this Getting Ahead class, I didn’t know what to expect. I naturally was open to the idea, as I was groveling for any way to belong to something. As cliche as it sounds, you truly feel as if you are the only one who has ever experienced what you have, until you are shown otherwise. Initially, that is what Getting Ahead did for me. I was introduced to all these women who had all been through similar experiences, which was as refreshing as it was terrifying. It was horrible to learn how common this sort of thing really is, but when you come together as one, it is such a beautiful and powerful thing.

As we went around the room introducing ourselves, I began to realize that, except for one person, I was the newest out of my domestic violence situation. In a way, it gave me hope. So many times, I felt as if I couldn’t carry on, or that I at least didn’t deserve to. But meeting these women who had been out of their relationships for two, four, or even six years helped me realize that there was hope beyond just being a victim of something terrible.

Throughout the class, I have learned so many tools for my future life. I had high expectations for my time in Getting Ahead, but there was so much information that I had no clue I didn’t know! I now have confidence in myself and my path, whereas before, I had no idea where to even begin. Getting Ahead has helped me lay out a game plan for the life that I want.

During the process of this class, I moved out of my apartment where I had endured somany years of trauma. I got a promotion at my job that I love so much. I began and am now in the process of building my new house. I started budgeting differently and now have a goal laid out on paper of where I would like to be financially within the next year. I have cultivated healthy relationships. I even decided to go back to school like I have been wanting to do for so long, but I just haven’t had the correct mindset until now.

In just one year from now, I plan to have a cushion of at least $1,000 saved. By then I hope to also be enrolled in college and already working toward becoming a medical doctor, a dream my younger self always held onto. I know wholeheartedly that the inquisitive, intelligent, funny little girl in me is thriving and that the young woman in the reflection of that hotel microwave would be so proud of me. Deep down, I knew all this time that I could reach my goals, but I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge that I do now after completing this class. I know that there will be harder days than others and that every day is a work in progress, but with all the information I have learned through Getting Ahead, I am finally confident in my path.

While I would love to give all the credit to the makers of Getting Ahead, I can’t help but acknowledge my incredible facilitators. I truly thank each of you for the conversations, experiences, advice, and friendship we have shared. We have laughed a lot and shed a few tears, and I am so grateful for you all. I mean it when I say you have changed my life.

So from the bottom of my heart, thank you.