Sometimes when Gabrielle remembers the day her children were taken away from her, she thinks, “That must have happened to someone else.” A life darkened by abusive relationships and the loss of her parental rights seems so distant from her childhood dreams to grow up and save children, like Mother Theresa. The innocent altar girl never imagined the tangled journey her life would become.
In her words, Gabrielle grew up “a good little Catholic girl.” Her heart overflowed with love for God and the church; she even served as an altar girl. Family life revolved around parish activities, and Gabrielle basked in it all. The stories of the saints, their martyrdom, and service, fascinated her. Their lives inspired her to dream about dedicating her life to serving others. She took long walks in a neighborhood park, chatting with God about her dreams and gazing at His creation. These special times radiated with light and joy.
At home, Gabrielle’s family lived with some shadows. Her father suffered from schizophrenia due to a jeep accident while he was in the military. His resulting head injury was far more severe than doctors realized at the time. He was simply bandaged and sent directly back into the field. This misdiagnosis created permanent damage. The long-term brain damage forced Gabrielle’s mother into the role of primary bread winner while her husband remained at home. Most days he switched back and forth between sitting quietly, staring into space or pacing around, laughing and talking with voices only he could hear. Sometimes Gabrielle and her brothers found themselves home alone because their father would periodically disappear. On other occasions, he’d toss furniture and plants around the house when his mental confusion reached a crisis point. At those times, Gabrielle remembers policemen taking him away to the local veteran’s hospital. Gabrielle’s mother desperately tried to shelter the children by telling them that daddy was “taking a vacation” for a while. Since it was all she ever knew, Gabrielle accepted her father’s ever-changing moods, mental outbursts and “vacations” as normal.
The launch of her adolescent years caused Gabrielle to question things she previously found acceptable. The turmoil of becoming a teenager churned up a rebellion inside of her. Suddenly, the girl who longed to be the next Mother Theresa didn’t find church so interesting anymore. A sweet, respectful daughter transformed into a mouthy, disrespectful teen who also lied to her parents. On one occasion, she ran away because her father, frustrated by her ugly words and attitude, spanked her with a belt. Like many teenagers, she developed the art of how to get her way by playing her parents off one another. To make matters worse, her grandparents frequently treated and spoiled her, giving into all her demands whenever she spent time with them.
In the tenth grade, Gabrielle experienced a radical life change that thrust her into the midst of the evil her parents and parochial school protected her from for so many years. She transferred out of her private school with its high moral and educational standards, into a tumultuous inner city public high school. Armed security guards and fights between students overwhelmed Gabrielle. Crude words and behaviors, forbidden in her former school, now engulfed her like a muddy stream swirling through the school’s hallways. Much of her class content during that first year consisted of knowledge and skills she already mastered in the 9th grade at her former school. The innocent altar girl learned quickly that street smarts carried far more weight in her new school than knowing facts about the lives of saints. This frightening new world would swallow her if she didn’t adapt.
During her senior year in high school, an interesting, handsome boy moved in across the street from Gabrielle’s family. Initially Gabrielle peeked at his comings and goings from the safety of her house, hidden behind curtains. Then an opportunity presented itself that Gabrielle couldn’t resist. She needed an escort for a formal coming of age party. Normally, her cousins accompanied her, but they refused this time leaving Gabrielle stuck. She pleaded for her Dad to cross the street, meet the handsome boy and decide if he was a suitable date for his sixteen-year-old daughter. The boy poured on charm and engaged Gabrielle’s dad in conversation to win the honor of being her first official date. Gabrielle and her father didn’t have a clue until it was too late, that the young man’s looks and friendliness covered a violent, dangerous personality. His recent release from a juvenile detention center never came up in the conversation with Gabrielle’s father.
In spite of her two years in a tough public school, Gabrielle remained innocent compared to other girls in her class. Her date’s flattering words coiled around her like a python slowly wraps itself around its prey. The darkness remained hidden behind charisma and a handsome face. Before long, this boy became Gabrielle’s first sexual experience. Fantasies of love and tenderness filled her imagination before the encounter. Lifelong standards of purity became obstacles that were shoved aside for the sake of what she believed to be romance. The unromantic reality of the experience shattered Anna. Sex with a predatory boy turned out to be nothing like a young girl’s dreams. She wept and believed she was a disappointment to God. Shame encompassed her with a dark cloud.
Shortly before her seventeenth birthday Gabrielle discovered she was pregnant. This event sent her life down a far different course than what she dreamed as a young girl. Her first child brought her great joy, however, which Gabrielle counted as God’s blessing. More children followed while she and her boyfriend remained unmarried. By now, Gabrielle knew the true nature of her children’s father. Cocaine and alcohol use enhanced the inner darkness making him a violent, abusive man. Fists and demeaning words assaulted Gabrielle as a regular course of events. The only break in the fear and chaos the family lived in was during the times her boyfriend became incarcerated in prison or jail for theft, drugs and concealed weapons. His erratic behavior made finances difficult and home ownership an impossibility, so the family lived a nomadic life moving back and forth between their two sets of parents.
Surprisingly, after years of violence and abuse, Gabrielle decided to marry her boyfriend. She clung to the romantic notion that marriage would somehow convert a deeply troubled man into a better husband and father. That illusion evaporated quickly after the wedding. Verbal and physical beatings continued with no regard for the couple’s new legal status.
Now desperate, Gabrielle needed comfort and guidance and turned to a local church. Her weary mind latched onto a message about God she never heard before: Jesus wanted to be her Savior and closest friend. Jesus cared about her family, her problems, and her soul. Gabrielle responded to an altar call to accept Christ. Fires of love for God ignited in her heart, and she started attending services at the church three times a week. This decision became Gabrielle’s first step out of the dark shadows of her life into a new light she never knew before. Loving God was one thing, having a personal friendship with Him was a different experience entirely.
The violence at home continued when her husband returned from another prison sentence. By now, Gabrielle wanted out of the marriage she thought would solve her problems. Safety and peace for herself and the children became a priority. She also looked for comfort, but this time it was apart from God. The arms of another deeply troubled man seemed to be a refuge. Soon she became pregnant again. She decided to start divorce proceedings and moved away from her husband. A relative offered his home as shelter for Gabrielle and her growing family. She continued to work a job, and the relative volunteered to watch the children during work hours. Just escaping the chaos of her previous life made this new home seem safe and peaceful. The truth was another snake coiled itself around her life and the lives of her children. This snake’s venom eventually caused horrific, permanent damage to her family.
During Gabrielle’s work hours, the relative secretly molested her daughters. The traumatized girls struggled to find the right words to explain what happened to them whenever she left. It sounded, initially, like harsh discipline. By the time Gabrielle understood the true nature of the abuse her girls were suffering, another relative informed Child Protective Services without informing Gabrielle. The children disappeared into the custody of the state immediately. Gabrielle’s family scattered to the winds and the hole left inside created the deepest shadows she had ever known. In place of children’s laughter, only silence echoed and her empty arms ached.
Now on the state’s radar, Gabrielle not only lost custody of the children from her marriage but three days after birth, the child of the new man also vanished into state custody. Meanwhile, the baby’s father provided little comfort. Also addicted to drugs and alcohol he regularly threatened to harm himself. In spite of this, Gabrielle stayed with him for five years and became pregnant one last time.
What happened to the woman filled with fire for God only a few short years before this? In spite of Gabrielle’s newfound relationship with Christ, she chose to partner with a man who didn’t share her values. She chose to leave God out of her daily life. Her passion for God became smothered under all the chaos created through poor decisions. In Gabrielle’s words, “My life was an unending cycle of chaos.” Nevertheless, God waited faithfully for Gabrielle to turn to Him. While she continued in the pain of this new relationship, another blow fell. The family court system ruled that Gabrielle’s parental rights were to be terminated permanently. Her children belonged to the state until they could be placed in new families. This devastating judgment couldn’t uproot Gabrielle’s love for her children, but she was no longer able to share it with them. The darkness of despair continued to consume her.
The only bright spot in the gloom of Gabrielle’s daily life was her second pregnancy with her new man. Finally, a lonely mother felt her arms filled with a baby once again. The joy of a new child didn’t alter the behavior of the child’s father, though. After five years of suicidal threats and drug abuse, Gabrielle ended the relationship. Tragically, her remaining son lost his father permanently shortly after the couple separated. The man made good on the threats he dangled over Gabrielle for years and ended his life. Right before he died he lashed out at her one last time. He called Child Protective Services, who was unaware of her pregnancy, and suddenly Gabrielle landed back onto the state’s radar. To get herself out from under the oversight of CPS she persevered for two more years of observations, court hearings and counseling before the state closed her case permanently.
The emotional wreckage left inside Gabrielle, after all she lived through, caused her to seek out another nearby church. The welcome she received there comforted her and opened her eyes to a different way of living. Christ-centered believers demonstrated what life looks like when Christ is in the middle of every moment. Gabrielle’s pattern of depending on people for happiness and comfort led her down many dark pathways thus far. She longed to walk in the light like the believers she came to know at her new church. Biblical counseling and teaching showed Gabrielle how to let Christ be Savior and Lord of her life. Looking to Him for guidance, instead of other people, was all new to Gabrielle. Her thoughts and behavior began a transformation under this new walk with God. Light invaded her shadows and joy rose inside her again. This was the beginning of her journey as a new creation in Christ, and she was eager to see the next chapters unfold.
A support group at another church, “Celebrate Recovery,” helped her understand the co-dependent, enabling attitudes that controlled her life for so long. She learned how to forgive and release everyone who ever damaged her life and sought forgiveness herself. The opportunity came to sit down with her children, one by one, to apologize to them and ask them to forgive her for all the pain she caused them. Slowly, her lost children are returning into her life with a bonus of fifteen grandchildren! Gabrielle is overjoyed that two of her children have started a relationship with Christ in recent years. She believes prayer and grace will draw the others into the light someday.
Gabrielle is remarried to a godly man with whom she is learning how to be a wife instead of a dysfunctional, co-dependent sparring partner. Years of battling with her husband and boyfriend left Gabrielle with a pattern of trying to control the men in her life. Even though this behavior was disastrous, it was the only relationship pattern she knew as a safety mechanism from the abuse. Today Gabrielle, her husband, and son center their home and relationships around Christ. The future looks hopeful, and she faithfully believes God will continue to heal the damage of so many painful years. One of her favorite verses is a wonderful promise to anyone in need of a new beginning. “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts, and the locust swarm…” (Joel 2:25 NIV). Gabrielle life today stands as an example of what God’s power can do to repair broken hearts and lives. Her once empty arms are filled with children again.