Miracles and angels aren’t just the stuff of Christmas stories. Just ask Paula Lee. She knows something of them both.
She has only to look in the mirror to see one miracle: herself smiling back.
Her smile is a gift from Give Back A Smile, a national program for survivors of domestic violence, and the work of Homer dentist, Dr. David Nelson, who donated his time and services to give Lee the dental treatment she needed.
The work was far more than cosmetic.
“It’s given me self confidence,” says Lee of her new smile. “I get to look in the mirror and actually smile back at myself, which is huge. I don’t hide my face any more when I talk. It’s allowed me to get out of my shell. I’ve been smiling … like I’ve never smiled in my whole entire life.”
The smile is a visible reminder of how far she’s come in the last few years.
“I still pinch myself every once and a while. It’s a miracle. I don’t know any better word for it,” says Lee, who recently turned 41 and works as a rural advocate at South Peninsula Haven House.
Against heavy odds, today Lee is thriving in a life that just a few short years ago she would have believed impossible.
She credits several Homer residents — angels, she calls them — for helping her discover herself and a new life. She’ll be the first to tell you her story is a work in progress, and earlier chapters were more hell than miracles and angels.
Her mother was “a kid having kids.” Lee grew up with domestic violence and alcohol. She had her first drink when she was just 4 years old and even then she knew “that I loved being numb.” In school, she was put in special education classes and pushed through to her graduation because that’s the only way school officials knew how to deal with a child whose life was one of constant trauma and turmoil. As a homeless teen-ager living at Covenant House in downtown Anchorage, she found out she was pregnant. She gave birth to a baby boy at the age of 19. She gave him up for adoption eight months later. She chose men like her biological father, even though he was out of her life by the time she was 9.
One of those men she stayed with for 10 years, not knowing what a healthy relationship looked like because she had never experienced one.
“I walked on eggshells, the normal domestic violence stuff, the cops, the protection orders, him getting angry … and … I call it the yo-yo. You know, the high-end stage, it’s great and then it goes into the games, the guilt trips,” recounts Lee.
In 1998, while the couple was living in Homer, things took a turn for the worse.
“I was thrown off an inside balcony … and thrashed around like a rag doll. It was in the middle of the winter. … I was trying to get away and I couldn’t get out,” she says.
Eventually, a bruised, bloodied and shoe-less Lee managed to crawl to a nearby house. The neighbors, whom Lee did not know, called 911.
Still, Lee stayed with her abuser.
The couple moved around a bit — to Anchorage, to Sterling — his way of isolating her from friends and family. She lived under the threat of his constant accusations. If he called and she wasn’t home to answer the phone, she knew she would pay for it later.
“He had to know where I was at all times. If he didn’t like where I worked, I didn’t work there. If he wanted me to go get a job, it was the pressure of going and getting a job. And if I failed, wondering ‘am I going to get my butt beat?’” Lee says.
Finally, she had enough. Several factors played a role in her decision to leave. She was getting older and it was taking longer to heal from the beatings. The stress of always walking on eggshells was taking its toll mentally. And there was his unfaithfulness.
Remarkably, leaving wasn’t easy.
“I was very co-dependent. I had that misbelief that we could help each other since we came from such ugly backgrounds. I believed we were meant to be together. I truly felt that in my soul and in my heart,” says Lee.
For a while, Lee continued to pick men who were abusive. She just didn’t stay with them very long.
She knew it was time to work on herself.
A new life
Enter Lee’s angels.
There was friend Robin McAllistar, who used to work at Cook Inlet Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse and helped guide Lee on her road to recovery from alcoholism.
There was Dan Lush, a social worker and legal advocate at South Peninsula Haven House, who, among other things helped Lee with the paperwork for the Give Back A Smile program and introduced Lee to Dr. Nelson and his wife, Luanne.
There was Peg Coleman, former executive director at Haven House, who hired Lee to help others at Homer’s shelter for those suffering from sexual assault and domestic violence.
There were Lolita Brache and Jan Peyton, who helped Lee get ready for college-level courses and helped her realize “I’m smart where I thought I wasn’t.”
There were the Nelsons, who gave her a smile, as well as others.
If her “angels” have played a role in transforming her life, Lee also has touched those angels, as well as others.
“She is one of those people who struck me as never having had a chance, somebody who grew up with a lot of childhood trauma, but yet I was able to see the amount of compassion that she had for others. … Her experience, her strength, her compassion, her hope and fortitude were a wonderful match for Haven House,” says Coleman of her decision to hire Lee about three years ago. Coleman today is the executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“Her personality is willing to work hard. She doesn’t mope and feel sorry for herself … She has struggled and pushed ahead and she’s done it with a smile and a laugh. She’s a very enjoyable person to be around. She’s very kind and just a wonderful spirit,” says Lush.
Those traits have made her a wonderful role model not only for Haven House clients, but also for other staff members.
“She’s really inspiring,” says Carolyn Norton, family advocate for Haven House’s Child Advocacy Center. “She always has something positive to say. Even when we’re all stressed out, she has a good word to pass on.”
Lush, who also is a pastor, sees Lee as someone who is making the most of the opportunities she’s been given in recent years by helping others transform their lives — blessed to be a blessing, is one way to put it, he says.
Lee would agree.
“I don’t know why I’m here except to help other people,” she says.
The best miracle
Maybe it’s because she looks for them in things large and small, but the miracles in Lee’s life have continued.
The most amazing is reuniting with her son, Jacob Fitzpatrick, who turns 22 on Dec. 23. He found her via Facebook two years ago. They met face to face in Anchorage earlier this year and this summer he came to live with her.
The experience is “like living with a second you,” says Fitzpatrick.
“It’s like looking in a mirror,” chimes in Lee.
For both son and mother, being together has been healing.
“Being adopted, you want to know your roots,” says Fitzpatrick. “I had no idea that our eyes were a family trait. … There’s nothing missing anymore.”
For Lee, who is now learning to be a mother, the reunion means she gets to see how her son turned out, as well as be reassured that he had a better life than the one she could have provided. She is grateful he harbors no anger or resentment toward her.
For the first time since she gave up her baby boy for adoption, she is looking forward to the holidays.
“I always hated Christmas because he wasn’t with me. It was sad and a bit bah-humbug,” she says.
Not so, this Christmas of 2012.
“Literally my heart is full. My life has gone full circle. I’m content with what has happened,” says Lee.
The two bought their first Christmas tree together recently, and Lee gave Fitzpatrick, who enjoys music, his first ornament from her: a guitar with strings that actually plays. She plans to make rocky road fudge — a recipe from her mother — during the holidays. Their Christmas plans include visiting with relatives, but otherwise sound a bit low key with good reason. As trite and as much like a cliché as it may sound, they’ve already received what they wanted.
“I have the gift of my son. It’s the best thing that could have ever happened to me in my whole life,” says Lee.
“It’s awesome,” says Fitzpatrick simply.
Hope for others
Lee is as surprised as anyone about how her life has changed.
“This was never me,” she says. “Good things happened to everyone else, but good things can happen to anyone. We have to take the action for change.”
The first, scariest step is asking for help, says Lee, who is committed to being there for those who are ready to make a change. Healing starts when people are willing to break the silence that often shrouds domestic violence, she says.
She hopes sharing her journey will give others the courage they need to take that step to break the silence. When they do, she wants them to know miracles and angels can be part of their story, too.
The first thing she would tell them is: “There is hope. … You can learn to have a life without violence. Things change, and life is so precious.”
And, then, as if to prove her point, a joy-filled smile spreads across her face.