A few years ago, in March of my Sophomore year of high school, I found myself sitting on a couch at a battered women’s shelter in downtown Portland. My knees were hugged tightly to my chest, my forehead throbbed, my lips felt chapped, and the left side of my face felt puffy and painful from where I had been hit. My heart was beating fast from the insurgence of anxiety and fear that coursed through my body. At the age of sixteen, I had checked myself into a shelter because I wanted to hide my bruises from my single-mother, who I had witnessed sacrificing so much and work immensely hard to bring our family out of legal homelessness and back into our apartment. I was terrified of being tracked to a shelter in the first place as well, so I hadn’t said a word since I walked in the door. I refused to give a name or age, and just walked in and the woman at the front-desk saw my eye and face, stained with dried blood, and welcomed me.
When you look at me now, I don’t look like someone you might associate with poverty and a history of assault and domestic abuse. Instead, I appear to be the optimistic, outgoing, successful, and confident 18-year-old that I am. What you most likely won’t know, is that my empowerment was made possible by a singular awakening that I had over my first night at that women’s shelter.
When I walked into the shelter that night, I felt like a victim and close to worthless. As I sat on the couch asking myself why I was experiencing abuse and putting myself in harmful situations, I thought it must be because I deserved it. I looked at my left wrist, and cried as I saw the healing scabs from the small cuts I made with a razor a couple days before. I continued to cry silently to myself as other women began to gather near where I was sitting. Somehow within the next couple hours I was engaged in conversation with them and we were trading stories about struggle and abuse.
Over the time my family was legally homeless, I was fascinated by other people’s hardships because it distracted me from worrying about what I was experiencing, and helped me better understand the spectrum of privilege that we live in. I asked them what they found most challenging about their living situations, as I usually asked the women I spoke to on my regular two-hour bus commute to school while my family was couch-surfing. For the most part, their responses surrounded the topic of menstrual hygiene, and they joked and complained about shocking and unclean strategies they used to maintain their periods.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, flashbacks of past abuse rushed to the front of my mind and filled me with body-shaking anxiety. To cope, I stayed awake and wrote in my journal about my day and recorded the stories I had heard from the women at the shelter. When I was finished, I read through my journal and by sunrise, I truly felt that my mindset had transformed. I recounted countless memories of talking to women about their living situations, which were much worse than mine, and how they ended up in those scenarios because of a lack of educational and employment opportunities, and the lack of a support system and often family. I realized how often I noted women being scared to talk about menstrual hygiene and telling me stories of using brown paper grocery bags, stolen pillow cases, and toilet paper from public restrooms to absorb their menstrual blood. I realized that I was extensively privileged in all the areas that led them to homelessness and abuse.
I thought about how fortunate I was to be attending a private high school on scholarship, and how that education was going to prepare me to think critically and discover my own perspectives. Even though my family was legally homelessness, my mom always insured that we had food and access to school, and never spent a night outside. Reflecting on my mother and two younger sisters was the strongest factor in my epiphany that night. I thought about how privileged I was to have my mom as a role model, and thought about how she was a strong, independent, female advocate. She was an ivy-league educated woman who left corporate law to be more family oriented and devote her efforts in nonprofit management. I thought about my younger sisters, and realized that if they were ever in an abusive relationship, I would fight for the respect that they deserved...so why was I continuing to let myself live in this self-imposed identity as a victim, and letting myself be hurt by myself and others?
In realizing how much potential that my voice was given by the education, connections, and values that I was so immensely privileged to have been exposed to, I felt the beginnings of a self-transformation. A couple of days later, I walked out of the shelter feeling this new sense of purpose and worthiness as an individual. For the first time, I felt worth it and knew in my heart that I deserved better, and I felt that in hearing the stories of a lack of menstrual hygiene, I had found my purpose. In the following month, I got out of my abusive relationship and was introduced to someone who would become my first love over the next two years. To address periods, I founded Camions of Care, which is now a global organization that has addressed over 22,000 periods. Although I still struggle with anxiety am still learning to maintain confidence in myself, I constantly remind myself of how grateful I should be, and the impact I have the potential to make.
If you would like to join me in the menstrual movement, and would like to directly contribute, you can do so here. My TEDxPortland speech is below: