I was never part of a community. As a little girl, my dad was deliberate in destroying our sense of community before it ever formed. He forced our family to flee from town to town, school to school, to prevent anyone in the community from learning he was sexually abusing me. In every town, I was the new kid who struggled to fit in and find acceptance. Ultimately, I just stopped trying. I never belonged anywhere.
My Journey to Creating Community
In reflecting back on my 25-year journey to enduring success, it’s clear to me that five choices I made along the way propelled me forward: My first choice was all about recognizing the power that I had to choose. By making my first choice, I gave myself the chance to change. My second choice was a two-way agreement that held me accountable to my promises and kept me safe. My third choice was about trust, learning to trust myself and inspiring the trust of others in me. It was many years before I arrived at my fourth choice.
Friendship. Children’s books often make it seem so easy, but if you’ve been through trauma that strips you of your ability to trust yourself and others, it feels safer and easier to keep those walls intact that purport to protect you from sadness and pain inflicted by others. But actually, friendship is just love at its core, and eventually, through a deliberate choice (choice number four!) to open up to and give to five women, I created my first community and received incredible, lifelong friendships. Here’s the story of my fourth choice.
I was 30 years old, living in Chicago, thriving in the workplace, and I was stable. In fact, I was friendly with everyone. My colleagues and I laughed together, we bonded over client woes and triumphs at work, and we shared surface-level stories about our days. But I was friends with no one. I still didn’t belong anywhere.
When I was little, we had plenty of pets: hamsters, bunnies, cats, dogs. But nothing compared to my love for the little pony my dad let me call my own in the makeshift stable on the outskirts of town. Evenings and weekends were dedicated to going to the stable with my dad to care for her—brushing, cleaning, feeding her–and dreaming of when I’d be just big enough to ride her.
That Saturday morning came. The sun breaking through the evergreen trees, I held my dad’s calloused hands, hopped out of his pickup truck and with my oversized cowboy boots, skipped to her stall. I thought, “I’ll remember this day forever”!
And I do. My dad sexually abused me that day for the first time. A pattern that continued, at the stable, for seven years.
I didn’t stop loving this pony. Besides my big sister, Maria, this pony was my only friend. But caring for her, riding her and loving her, was marred by the abuse that I endured at the hands of my father, over and over.
One day his abuse stopped because I was taken away from him. But that also meant that I was taken away from my pony. I also lost my hope of having a friend.
Running Towards Friendship
So, at 30 years old, after years of progress and for the first time since my pony, I finally wanted a friend. And I wanted to be a friend. This was the root of my fourth critical choice: to forge a community and to create friendship.
So what did I do? I joined a running club! I had never run a step in my life. I didn’t just join any running club. I joined the Chicago Marathon running club. About two weeks in, I started naturally pacing with a group of five other women. None of us knew each other, and we were all different.
I loved listening to them. I’d throw in questions to keep their conversation going so I wouldn’t have to say anything because I was nervous and didn’t know how to make friends.
But then the intensity of the training took over and all I could think about was getting through the weekday miles. . So I asked these women if they wanted to team up to run our 5:00 AM weekday runs together, and they said “yes!”. There was never a morning that all of us wanted to get up at 4:15 AM before the sun to run, but there was never a morning that none of us wanted to. There was always one person to motivate the group to go. Running 10 miles on Tuesday before work or 15 miles on Saturday before the world even has coffee translates to a lot of time together. And still, I was only asking questions. They were sharing. I noticed the group connection started to form between the five of them with me on the outskirts.
They were unknowingly showing me that friendship is caring enough to listen and trusting enough to share. But given my life, sharing seemed near impossible. Over time, at about the Week 11 mark, I started to emulate these women and chose to share. I started slowly, but then offered more and more as the weeks went on. As I did, I felt the connection form between me and these women, and I found myself wanting to share more and nurture an even stronger connection. Had I not given them access to me — my thoughts, my fears, my hopes — I wouldn’t have got friendship in return.
Four weeks before the marathon, I hurt my ankle, so I wasn’t able to run. But I spent those last four weeks riding my bike alongside the group in support as they wrapped up their training. On the day of the marathon, I had recovered enough to run at least half, so, I decided to run with my friends and cheer them on for as long as I could. I shifted my mindset from not completing the marathon to supporting this group of women, my friends.
We got to the halfway point, I felt great, so we went to mile 15. But at mile 15, my friend got a stomach cramp and had to slow down. But because I was there, the other girls could keep going. I stayed with my friend mile after mile.
The next thing we knew we could see the finish line…and our four other friends were waiting for us and cheering us on. The joy I felt that day wasn’t about completing the marathon. It was that we all did it (the six of us)—collectively and together.
On October 9, 2005, when the six of us crossed the Chicago Marathon finish line, hand in hand, I knew I had achieved so much more than five summer friends. We had safety, shared identity and belonging. 20 weeks earlier, I had set out to make a friend. But I created something much greater: community.
So, here’s my advice to you.
Start slow and start with curiosity. Ask questions, engage with the people around you. Let them feel safe to share with you. And then, when you’re ready, start sharing with them. Give yourself permission to be open and honest. After all, you get friendship and community by giving wholly of yourself, by reflecting to others, and embodying all the love that you wish to receive back.