My stepfather Bill, raised me like I was his own daughter. Along with my mother, the three of us formed the Three Musketeers. Since we moved so much and so frequently, we were a very isolated family, so I really came to depend on that core family structure for everything - friendship, family and guidance.
Standing at 6'2, Bill was my protector. Bill was the one who taught me boundaries. Up until I met my current husband, Bill was the the only man in my life who showed me what the character of a good man is - gentle, patient, and empowering.
When I was 18, I held Bill's hand as he died, and in an instant everything I knew faded away.
When I first viewed his body, my mother took off his wedding band and gave it to me. I wore it always, first around a chain and then when I saw the metal wearing down, I had it resized as a thumb ring.
The day after I left my abuser, sitting in my office with my backpack and little box of things, I realized that I had left my father's ring sitting on the kitchen counter in the loft. I knew I'd never see the ring again.
The young woman I was staying with walked in and asked what was wrong, and I told her.
"Hey," she said. "Your family sounds a little crazy and pretty great. Show me some of those pictures of them."
I reached inside my box of mementos, and I pulled out some pictures of Bill's side of the family. She started to flip through them, and then abruptly stopped.
"Um... that's Cindy, Beaver and Lori," she said.
"Oh! Let's see, yeah, those are my cousins on my stepdad's side. Cindy, Beaver and Lori."
"Wait, wait, wait... those are my cousins," she said. What followed was a real life Parent Trap moment.
That night, while we were cocooned in her living room, we went through the rest of the photos. The wedding photos that had made their way into the pile of pictures, we ripped them up, spat on them, stomped on them.
Eventually she asked if I wanted to tell her what happened. I had lived in silence and secrets and lies for four years, and with this person - my family found - suddenly, everything that I had ever wanted to say came rushing out.
As I talked for hours through blurry, tear-filled eyes, I saw my cousin listening, but I could also see Bill. I could see his concerned blue eyes patiently waiting for me to get through the details, the forgotten hopes, the trauma and the fear.
That night made up for all of the times I was locked in a bathroom wishing Bill would come and save me.
It made up for all of the times I was on the verge of passing out from being choked and hoped that I would wake up in my childhood bed, hearing Bill making his morning coffee and setting out my cereal bowl.
It made up for all of the times I crawled to my phone wishing that I could call him and tell him to come and pick me up.
When I finished telling my cousin everything, exhausted and hoarse from talking, I realized that all of this, all of the events that led to us meeting had been orchestrated by some power greater than myself. I believe that more than I believe anything else. I had been given the gift of meeting the only person on earth who could have filled what I desperately needed in order to move forward - a young, compassionate woman who had a safe place for me and the eyes of my father.
But this cocooning couldn't last.
L.A. is a small town, after all, and the demons were circling closer.
70% of deaths from intimate partner violence happen after the victim leaves.
Safety for survivors and for their loved ones is the most crucial in the days and years following their escape.
The question should never be "why did you stay?" The question is "How the hell did you leave?"
It was time to take my back pack and move on. But now I didn't need Bill's wedding ring to be reminded that he was still and always with me. I knew that I could be my own advocate and protector, I'd need that reminder throughout the rest of this journey.