By Millie Grgas
In the middle of Spring-cleaning this year, I found this old tape recording of my first trip to Paris with my mom when I was 5. Listening to that cassette reminds me of how lucky I am to have one parent who cared enough about me and my safety to leave her abuser.
My name is Millie Grgas and I am a survivor and child witness of domestic violence.
No one can tell that right off the bat, though. I am a genuinely happy and well-adjusted individual. One of the most traumatizing things about violence is that even if it is physically destructive, what lasts long after the scars on your skin fade are the emotional and psychological fractures. Those are things that I have to work on every day.
I try to emphasize that abuse is something that happened to me; it does not define me. That said, I know that it has definitely affected me and my outlook on life. I know that it has certainly affected my relationship with the opposite gender.
I grew up always referring to my abuser as “stupid,” never by his actual name. The thought of calling him dad or even “my father” just didn’t feel right. My mom and grandparents never tried to change the way I referred to him, because as they were told by my court-mandated therapists, it was a normal reaction. Not necessarily a healthy one, looking back on it, but these family-therapy sessions were pretty new technologies back when VAWA was just in its beginning phases in creating resources for women. (Childhood trauma was still a burgeoning field of practice.)
One of my most vivid memories was when my father tried to force me into his car from my elementary school. He came up and I refused to go with him. About 40 minutes after everyone had been picked up, I sat waiting for my grandfather to pick me up—my 8-year-old brain assumed that my father would call and tell him to, of course—but my father came back instead, in a seemingly drunken rage.
I can’t of course, know for sure that he was drunk, but to my childhood mind, this is how I perceived his rage—out-of-control. Something in me knew that I didn’t want to go with him, so I bolted down the staircase to the office, where he grabbed and twisted my arm behind my back, like a criminal being dragged to a cop car.
At this point, I was screaming bloody murder, I just wanted someone, anyone, to come save me.
The next thing I remember is being in the school office, cradled by my 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. N. I so distinctly remember her rocking me gently as I cried and cried and snotted all over her fuzzy cobalt blue sweater. It was so soft, it reminded me of a bunny’s ears.
That warmth contrasting with my father’s booming voice in the background, made me feel simultaneously comforted and terrorized. I was scared that at any moment, he would come in and ruin the moment and hurt me and Mrs. N, as he had done to my mom. All the self-defense I learned in Tae Kwon Do flew out the window and I felt scared and ashamed that I couldn’t protect myself. He was just TOO BIG.
A few days later, as follow-up to the police report, Child Protective Services came to our house, since I refused to speak with them or the cops on-scene. OF COURSE I wouldn’t want to talk to some random police officer with a gun who was even BIGGER and SCARIER to me than my dad had been.
Thankfully, times and protocols for domestic violence reports have changed since then and take a more child-friendly approach, with advocates on-scene, instead of just the cops.
I didn’t experience the seven years of abuse my mom did before I came into this world, but I have been affected not only by the physical abuse of my father on both of us, but also suffered verbal, psychological and emotional trauma after the fact. It isn’t easy for me to maintain relationships today and sometimes I feel like no one cares about me at all. Which is ridiculous because I have lots of friends who support me.
Love is not a switch that you can just flip on or flip off at any moment, but sometimes I still feel like it can be. To this day I have not had a romantic relationship because I do still have a lack of trust of men. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of guys as close friends, but I choose not to head in that direction because I feel like I have to find the ‘right guy’ who will just understand and accept all these parts of me.
My brain knows that all healthy relationships take work. But, because of my first-hand experience—my ‘relationship’ with my abuser over the years—I know I will always be hesitant.
Childhood trauma is life-long. A child born into this world seeing violence instead of love creates an unbalanced person out the gate.
Every day I work to prevent adding to the list of statistics researchers may include me in. I seek to change the world we live in, in the hopes that I leave it a more peaceful place than the one I was born into.
I am thankful for those who have helped me to heal and those who continue to do so, but this is a life-long journey filled with ups and downs and that’s how I want to be remembered. Not just as a childhood victim, but as a woman who overcame violent origins and built a new life and world for herself and her family.
Grgas is a graduate of New York University and currently serves as Miss Greater Delta Valley 2013 for the Miss California & Miss America Organizations. In her role, she is promoting her personal service platform, “Voice Over Violence: Break Through the Silence.” As a spokeswoman for domestic violence awareness, Millie serves as a Survivor Speaker, Violence Prevention Specialist, and supporter of many campaigns through Peace Over Violence and most recently, A Window Between Worlds’ “I CAN WE CAN” series.