In this story originally shared at WCF 2022, Tonia Brown shares how she learned to choose a better life for herself after facing abandonment, abuse, and homelessness.
Content warning: This piece contains mentions of physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
Growing up, I had no reason to believe I had a say in what happened to me.
I was born to teenage parents who abandoned me at age three. Throughout my childhood, I was subject to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of family members and other adults. I wound up pregnant and homeless at eighteen. As an adult, I found myself trapped in an abusive marriage where I was physically and mentally abused by my ex-husband until I attempted suicide. All of that and none of that define who I am today.
Like many people in these situations, I sought an escape. While I mostly managed to sidestep substance abuse, I fell victim to my own drug of choice: food. I gained up to 325 pounds. At just twenty-three years old, I had a heart attack and ended up in the emergency room with a doctor telling me that if I didn’t make some changes, I wouldn’t live to grow old.
This is where things changed. Despite the circumstances, something in those words gave me power.
I could make some changes. I could choose to change.
And that’s what I did. I found a therapist who helped me understand that I could decide whether to allow my emotions and circumstances make me a victim or propel me to be my own victor.
From there, I began taking steps to improve my life, one choice at a time.
In 2006, India Aria released a song called “I Choose”. Her lyrics helped solidify my new view of the world and my place in it.
Because you never know where life is gonna take you
And you can't change where you've been
But today, I have the opportunity to choose
Those lyrics showed me that my past doesn’t define who I am and that I have a say in my own life. I had never considered this before, and the idea thrilled me.
That phrase became my mantra. I started every day by saying “today, I choose…” and I would name what I was choosing. Some days all I could choose was to get out of bed and brush my teeth. But whatever it was, once I chose it, I committed myself to doing it.
Soon, little choices became big choices, and I was making decisions that would lead me to the incredible career I have today.
In 2008 I was laid off from my job as a project manager at a small healthcare revenue cycle solutions company. With my new outlook, however, I chose to see this as a gateway rather than a closed door, and I’m so glad I did.
My stepfather was the manager of a restaurant that did a lot of catering. He offered me a catering gig one weekend and I said yes without hesitating. After all, I was on unemployment and $275 per week doesn’t go very far as a single parent with a mortgage to pay. So I showed up, ready to put in some work.
It turned out that the catering was for a collection agency that was celebrating their twenty-year anniversary. I got to talking with some of the employees and found them to be kind, funny and just plain wonderful. These are my people, I thought. I sent my resume the following Monday, interviewed on Tuesday, and started as a collector on Wednesday. Had I reverted my old habits after being laid off, I never would have stumbled into this job, nor the trajectory that followed. As it was, I embarked on a life-changing career journey.
I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t a good collector, but I knew I had skills that they needed and I loved the company.
So, I chose to make another path for myself rather than floundering in a role that didn’t fit me.
I presented a quality assurance plan and was given the job of getting the company PPMS certified. Once I got started on that I was asked to start an HR department and a compliance department. That led to me taking on training, new hire orientation, recruitment, and benefits. Eventually, I was made Executive Vice President.
My time and growth at that agency is a true testament to the power of choice. Over and over, I chose to remain positive, to look for opportunities, and to make the most of what was in front of me. This time period truly transformed the way I thought about myself and what I was capable of.
Now, I’m a consultant for a firm that has clients all over the United States and is growing. I never would have gotten here if I hadn’t embraced my power to choose my path.
Every day you make the choice to be the victor or the victim. Today, I choose victor, and I hope you will too.