I Didn't Make Any New Year's Resolutions...

I Didn't Make Any New Year's Resolutions...

... & that's okay.

Ah, New Years Eve. The night that thousands and thousands of people gather together across the country and around the world to anxiously countdown to midnight to celebrate the arrival of a new year. Naturally, a new year represents a fresh start and new opportunities. The ever so common "New Year's Resolutions" social media posts or physical lists describe what individuals plan to accomplish in hopes to change themselves for the better. However, as I sat and watched the ball drop in Times Square with my family, and raised a glass in acknowledgment to a new year and farewell to the past...I realized that I didn't want to set a resolutions list for myself.

I know I am not perfect. No one is. So why didn't I make a list of "resolutions" for the New Year?

Honestly, I know that there are some things that I know I should stop doing...using profanity, drinking sweet tea, eating sweets, etc. Those could have easily made my personal list. Who's to say that I can't prevent myself from doing any of the above? The truth is I don't believe in the idea of completely changing or depriving myself of anything at the beginning of a new year. Instead, I choose to take what I've learned this past year and build on it. Not change it completely, but perhaps some simple "tweaking" could justify itself as a resolution. Not following me? Let's use an example.

When learning to ride a bike, you start from square one...right? Training wheels are placed on the back frame of the bicycle until you learn how to steer and operate the pedals to propel yourself forward. Once you have mastered that, you advance to the next level and remove the training wheels. However, learning to maintain the balance of the bike and using the brakes can be a slow process. I know that when I was learning, I fell over and over and over again. Despite how many times I fell and scraped my knees, my elbows, or even crashed my bike into the mailbox...I shook it off and tried again. I learned from the mistakes, improved on them, and eventually rode my bike all the way around my neighborhood without a single accident. Hence, the resolution.

My point? I didn't completely change the way I learned to ride my bike. Instead, I did some simple "tweaking" and figured out what worked and what didn't.

In my personal opinion, I don't WANT to change what I've done in the past. The things I've experienced, the memories I've made, and the people I've met all make me the person that I am today. I'm sure that eventually, I will make a list again and I've definitely made one before. As we get into 2018, instead of changing myself - I plan to do some "tweaking" and roll with the punches as they come. If I fall, I'll dust my knees, elbows, maybe even my ego and press forward. I'll take my training wheels off, and ride into the unknown with my family, friends, and faith.

Bring it on, 2018. I don't know what your future holds...but I can't wait to find out.

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The Best Way To Solve Your Problems Is To Write

We might be required to write for class, but we should all write in a free time.

You may find yourself chuckling when you talk to a friend or family member expressing that you have a great deal on your mind, and they respond with: have you tried writing it all down? Truth is, you probably haven’t tried writing any of what’s bothering you down, and the reason being is mostly due to the fact that you find it close to impossible to convey everything that’s going through your head.

Sometimes, it can be a great challenge to attempt to get out everything you want: why you’re stressed about classes, how you’re feeling about starting your summer internship, why the hell every kid in class stared at you when you answered a political question.

Whatever it may be, chances are we have all had days when a million different thoughts begin circulating around our minds and we just can’t seem to quiet them. We don’t know how to cope with the sadness of losing our childhood dog or the frustration of performing poorly on an exam we studied countless hours for.

What can we do? Is there any effective solution to our problem?

Yes, there is, and the solution to my problem came a few days ago in crafting the very piece you are reading right now. Writing.

Not everyone has a therapist or is interested in talking about their feelings with even close friends or family, and that’s okay. However, just because you may not be comfortable having certain conversations, doesn’t mean those topics vanish from your mind and you don’t need to talk about them.

In moments when you just can’t seem to move past a thought, but you really don’t feel comfortable sharing how you’re feeling with someone else, write it down. Whether it’s a feeling of being overwhelmed, sad, happy, excited, you name it, write about it and you will feel that problem and that power it has had over your mind gradually begin to fade.

Part of what makes writing about your problems so effective is that all of those thoughts and feelings get to remain completely confidential unless you choose otherwise. You get to decide whether you want to keep that to yourself once you’ve written it out or whether you want to share it with someone else because you realize talking through it may be the most effective for you.

Regardless, writing out what’s on your mind won’t cause you to go through a mental breakdown moment of, “Oh sh*t I wish I hadn’t said that, now they might tell someone.” Rather, you have complete confidentiality between you, and, well… you!

I’m not sure if this happens to anyone else, but for me, when there is something on my mind I tend to make it into a bigger deal than it actually is. My thoughts begin to snowball and before I know it, I have worked myself into a frenzy thinking that I am going to die of cancer because I have had horrible head and body aches for the last three days.

Yet, when I write about these feelings, I start to realize that the way I’m thinking is actually completely irrational and that I have nothing to worry about. Seeing those thoughts written down on paper gives me a moment of clarity, and I’m sure the same is probably true for many of you.

Before you freak-out over the problems that seem to consume every part of your conscious state, take a step back. Grab your laptop or– even better– an empty journal and start writing. Don’t look at the clock, don’t check your phone, don’t focus on Netflix, just write.

Write until your hand cramps up and every thought in your mind is placed onto that page, and then read it over. Read what you’re thinking about and how you’re feeling and process everything from an outside perspective. You may be surprised by how you feel after.

Things are going to happen, problems are going to come, so my advice to you: when they do, be ready to greet them with a pen and a blank sheet of paper.

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Finding The Strength To Leave

How the love of a child overpowered the chains of an abuser.

As I sit on the floor and look up at our office wall I think, "I'm definitely gonna have to paint this before we move."

This is the third installment of Small Towns, Big Secrets. If you're asking yourself what in the world that means, click on my name to the right and it will bring you to the preceding articles. The central theme of the series is raising awareness about domestic violence in rural communities narrated through the experiences of Mae Matthews and Lynn Mitchell.

My wall has morphed into a timeline and storyboard. Details of Mae's and Lynn's cases are written in colored Sharpie and tacked up next to articles highlighting Cody Smith's abuse. Post-it notes with ideas and leads are scattered throughout.

When I started this investigation, I truly had no idea where it was going to go. All I knew was that Mae had endured an exceptional amount of hurt, and I wanted to share her story with anyone that I could. She introduced me to Lynn who shared eerily similar accounts of abuse by Cody.

But the story doesn't end with Mae and Lynn. There is a critical domestic violence issue happening in small towns across this country, and it's not being talked about. One study found that 22.9 percent of women in small rural areas reported being victims of IPV, intimate partner violence, compared to 15.5 percent of women in urban areas. The study also found that women living in rural communities reported significantly higher severity of physical abuse than women living in urban areas.

I take pride in being from a small town, but I refuse to sit back and watch that percentage rise and have our girls grow up thinking abuse is an accepted part of life.

It is a cycle, and the cycle needs to be broken.

My previous article detailed two incidents where Mae and Lynn's abuser, Cody Smith, was arrested. The second of which, left Mae with bald spots after he dragged her by the hair across the street and into their second-story apartment.

In between that incident and the next reported case, there was a 2-year break in news coverage of Cody's abuse.

His abuse didn't stop. He just got better at hiding it.

Cody and Mae had a hard relationship from the start. He had a wandering eye, he never could hold a steady job, and two months into their relationship Mae found out she was pregnant. Cody was ecstatic. He couldn't wait to be a Dad, marry her, and live happily ever after.

It was shortly after finding out they were pregnant, that Cody began to get violent. They had always fought, but insults and verbal abuse quickly turned physical. It started as punching his steering wheel or slamming on the brakes when the two would fight and progressed to punching, kicking, spitting, and choking Mae.

One night, when Mae was about three months pregnant, the two began fighting. She doesn't remember what it was about. But, what she does remember is being shoved in the bathtub with Cody holding her down and covering her face with a pillow as she gasped for breath. She can picture the rage filling his face as he drew his hand back to repeatedly strike her. Mae believed she was going to die. When his anger subsided, he broke down in tears, weeping at her feet, begging her forgiveness.

He didn't know what came over him. It would never happen again.

About a month later it was time to find out the baby's gender. Mae was so excited and had a feeling it was going to be a baby girl. Shortly after the sonogram wand was pressed against her belly, the technician left to find their doctor. They were told that their daughter Abigail had a severe form of spina bifida, her skull was not forming. The doctors informed Mae that she was the only thing keeping the baby alive and recommended the termination of her pregnancy. She was devastated, he was outraged.

Making a decision that no woman should ever have to face, Mae had an induced miscarriage.

After consulting her doctor following her escape from Cody's abuse, they came to the conclusion that it was very likely Abigail's birth defect was from the systematic beatings and stress that Cody inflicted on Mae as the genetic testing performed on her remains revealed there was nothing wrong with the combination of their genes.

Following the loss of Abigail, the two traveled down a darker path. They were fighting constantly, police would be called and bruises were explained away. One terrifying day, Cody brought Mae to an empty field and explained that he just couldn't do it anymore. She made him too crazy, he loved her too much, and she just had to go. He began to take out construction equipment out of the back of his truck. She pleaded for her life and begged him to think about what he was doing. He eventually relented, her life was spared and he promised he would change.

Mae and Cody broke up for a time shortly after this incident but eventually rekindled their relationship where the abuse continued.

It wasn't until their son, Giovanni, was born that Mae found the strength to leave.

Giovanni was born prematurely. Cody was unemployed, and she was working nearly 50 hours a week to keep them afloat. She gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but due to the prematurity of his birth, he was immediately transferred to a bigger hospital. Giovanni was in intensive care for three weeks. During that time, Cody made sure to appear to the doctors and nurses as the perfect doting dad. He explained that he took time off work to be able to stay and be with Mae and Giovanni in the hospital. He failed to mention that he had been unemployed for months. When it was just the three of them, he would unleash a steady stream of insults at her. Calling her a wh*re, a devil, a c**t. Mae ignored the verbal abuse and remained completely focused on her child.

When Giovanni was released from the hospital, Cody became more and more irrational. He was never home, was always out with his brother and friends. Mae's maternity leave was the only source of income the two had, but he wouldn't allow her to leave the house to get groceries or do laundry. After being home for two weeks, Mae confided in her mother that they didn't have any food. That he told her to eat some cream of wheat and suck it up. Her mother brought over groceries and took their laundry home to do. That night is when everything changed.

Cody came home late and was visibly angry, which was a usual occurrence. He started screaming and yelling at Mae. Calling her the usual names, wielding the usual accusations. But then, he picked up Giovanni - the 5-week old premie who had been released from the NICU two weeks earlier - and told her he was leaving and was taking Giovanni with him. He continued to scream at her when she tried to explain he couldn't leave with the baby as he needed her milk.

Mae called Cody's mom.

It is a long-standing tradition in the Smith household to "call mom, not the police" when Cody starts getting out of control.

Throughout the events of the evening, his mom remained on the phone. She heard everything.

At first, Cody denied that anything was happening. He told his mother that Mae was crazy, meanwhile, he was grinning and flipping her off as he kicked her and told his mom that there was nothing going on. Then suddenly, he ran up the stairs into their bedroom with Giovanni and locked the door. The baby was screaming, and Mae started pounding on the door pleading for him to come out. She was terrified, and to this day she has no idea what he was doing in there. He walked out, shoved Giovanni into her arms and said: "there, feed him, milkmaid." He stormed downstairs and began slamming things around.

Mae locked herself in the room and began to nurse. Not long after, Cody pounded on the door to say the cops were there (they weren't). She finished nursing, opened the door and he burst in, turned her purse upside down, and took her car keys. Speechless, she pulled her son tighter to her chest. Cody continued screaming at her telling her that he would be taking Giovanni and leave, but she wouldn't let go. He took her arm in one hand and her head in the other and began applying his full body weight as he pushed her into the wall. She cried out that he was hurting the baby and that if he stopped she would put him down.

As soon as she laid Giovanni on the bed, he scooped him up and tore down the stairs. Again, his mother heard all of this and as Mae ran down the stairs after him. She dropped her phone. He stomped on it repeatedly as he knew she had been collecting evidence of his abuse. His mom began screaming at him, telling him to put the baby down, that Giovanni needed Mae, and it wasn't safe for him to be with Cody.

He eventually left, leaving the baby with Mae. She deadbolted the doors and slept on the couch with a knife under the cushion.

She believed that if he came back that night that he would kill her.

He arrived home the next morning at 7 AM. He went right upstairs and passed out. When her mother dropped off their laundry, Mae told her, "Today's the day. Something is going to happen. I don't know what that is, but today's the day. I can feel it."

Cody, Mae, and Giovanni were supposed to go to the Smith house to visit with his family. It was time to go, and she couldn't wake Cody up. He was out cold. So, she started writing a note letting him know that that's where she was and to meet them there. Giovanni began crying, and Cody came flying down the stairs. "You're not taking my child," he said to Mae as he pushed her out the front door locking himself in alone with the baby - again.

Mae called his mother and said, "This is the last call like this you will ever be getting from me." She told her everything and instructed her to call her son. She did, and from the outside of her home she heard Cody screaming and yelling. Finally, he came out with Giovanni, slammed the car seat in her car and said: "Go to my parent's house, wh*re." Those were the last words he would say to Mae face-to-face, and that was the last time he would see Giovanni

She called her family and explained everything. "I felt terrified. Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I ruining Giovanni's life? Where will we live? How will I get our belongings?" But the doubt was overshadowed by the stunning realization that she didn't have to live this life.

"I said screw it and put the pedal to the floor and drove away from my past."

It's been two years since she closed that chapter of her life. Giovanni is a healthy, happy and handsome little 2-year-old. He is the spitting image of his mother and completely adores her. Mae and Gi live with her mom and have created a beautiful loving life. There is a 13-year order of protection against Cody for Mae and Giovanni. Neither he nor his family has access to him.

But this isn't where Mae's story ends. The case didn't go to trial, he pleaded guilty, and was imprisoned for 6 months.

Mae is thankful for her life every single day. I've never met someone who has gone through as much as she has and yet remains a ray of sunshine in this dreary world. She is an outspoken advocate for domestic violence issues and aims to help others, like Lynn Mitchell, get their life back.

What started as a conversation about her experiences, turned into something greater than I could have imagined. The information I have found on Cody and the statistics and facts mentioned in the series have made me realize I have to keep sharing these women's stories.

We have to face the reality that domestic violence is a local issue. We need to confront the facts, examine the statistics and share survivors' stories. Because small towns do have big secrets and it's time those secrets are revealed.

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