A native of Idaho, Andrea relocated to Michigan as a newlywed in 1998 after graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in Asian Studies and Japanese. After completing masters degrees in Southeast Asian Studies and History at the University of Michigan, she turned her attention to raising her four children. She became a client at The Women’s Center in 2013, where she found the information and support she needed to file for divorce and leave a troubled marriage.  As a Women’s Center front desk volunteer from 2016-2017, Andrea developed the confidence to apply for graduate school one more time. With the support of  Women’s Center staff, she was admitted to Michigan State University’s clinical social work program and awarded a scholarship for leadership potential. In September she began working as a intern-therapist at her favorite agency on earth, The Women’s Center, where she provided weekly therapy sessions to uninsured community members and co-facilitated the same divorce support group that had once supported her. 

How it started

My great great grandmother Anna Louisa was born in Sweden in 1859. When she was 17 years old, her whole family emigrated to Utah. At 18 she married Johann Wilhelm, a fellow Swedish immigrant, and they started a family. When she was 23 years old, 6 weeks after her third little girl was born, Anna lost her kind and loving Johann to pneumonia.

After 4 years of being a widow with three little ones to care for, Anna remarried Lorenzo, who had just moved to the area from Wyoming. Anna had grown up in a happy, loving home, and her first husband was sweet and kind, so I doubt she was expecting the abuse she experienced at the hands of her second husband.

We only know a few details about her life with him: When Anna was 8 months pregnant with Lorenzo’s 3rd baby, her 6th, he decided it was time to move from their home in Utah — where she was surrounded by family and friends — to Montana. She walked with her 5 children, ages 14, 12, 10, 5, and 2. They never made it to Montana, arriving in the Teton Basin of Idaho just 5 days before her baby was born.

In Idaho, Anna had 4 more children with Lorenzo, for a total of 10. She built a new home and community for herself, and eventually her sister moved from Utah with her husband to be Anna’s neighbor.

When Anna was 53 and happily settled, Lorenzo decided to move again. Anna was not happy to once again be uprooted from her home and community, including her sister and many of her now-married children, but she dutifully followed her husband.

Abuse becomes apparent

Seven years after this move, when Anna was 60 years old, Lorenzo broke one of her ribs. We don’t know if this was the first incident of physical abuse, or one of many, but two years later Anna filed for a divorce.

The rib that Lorenzo broke never healed, and Anna developed an abscess, which opened outside her body and into her stomach, and oozed whenever she ate or drank. This became a cancerous tumor, and she died 6 years after her injury at age 66.

On her deathbed, Anna told her children and grandchildren about a dream that inspired her to finally file for divorce at age 62. In her dream, she and Lorenzo were walking hand in hand along a mountainside. They were thirsty and hunting for something to drink. Anna looked down the mountain and spotted her sweet first husband, Johann. He was standing beside a spring of sparkling water. He smiled and opened his arms to her. Anna let go of Lorenzo’s hand and walked down the mountain toward Johann.

The pattern repeats itself

I found this story in a family history book several years after my own divorce. It gave me chills, because I, too, had been a young bride, married at age 22 to a perfect-seeming man who I met in a history class in college. But unlike Anna, I did not have a sweet first husband. It did not take long for me to realize I had made a terrible mistake, but like Anna, I was not willing to walk out on a commitment I had made, so I stayed.

When our first two children were small, my husband and I began to discuss divorce. He told me that if we took that path, he would sue for full custody of our little ones, and that he would tell the judge I was unfit to be their mother because of my struggles with depression. Rather than seeing this as a warning sign that I was in an unhealthy marriage, I interpreted this as a sign that I needed to try harder to be a more perfect wife and mother, and that I could never get divorced or I would lose my children.

First steps

My first interaction with The Women’s Center was in April 2010, when one of my friends recommended that I contact the Clinical Director for advice on how to transition from being a stay-at-home mom to becoming a therapist. Marnie talked to me about different schools, and recommended that I begin volunteering at some of the agencies in town that provide excellent volunteer training. Following her advice, I completed volunteer training at SOS, and later I worked at Ozone House, Ele’s Place, Arbor Hospice, and SafeHouse Center.

Shame gets in the way

But it was difficult for me to actually apply for graduate school. I had 2 master’s degrees and knew that I was capable of studying hard.  But each time I faced the application essays and the task of preparing a resume, I felt so ashamed of my work history and how little I felt I had done with my life that I couldn’t bring myself to apply, and another year would pass.

Knowledge is power

My next interaction with The Women’s Center happened in February 2013. A friend had recently gone through a divorce and attended a class there, taught by a lawyer, and she recommended it to me. At that point in my life, I had been married 15 years. I was so afraid of losing custody of my children through divorce that I actually saw suicide as a viable alternative.

When I walked out of the divorce education class that night, I was armed with the new knowledge that my husband would never be able to take the children away from me.  The next day I wrote in my journal: “Last night I attended a divorce education workshop at The Women’s Center of SE Michigan. . . .When I left, so many of my fears were gone. Main fears being that I would lose the children. I felt so happy last night and all day today. . . .I feel free and safe and unafraid. I feel strong and peaceful.”

Beginning as a front-desk volunteer

Three years later, in April 2016, I went into The Women’s Center looking for more advice about becoming a therapist. I met the Program Director that day, and Paula invited me to be a front desk volunteer. We set up a formal interview, which I was expecting to be brief and cursory. Instead, she spent over an hour asking about and listening to my story and providing me with plenty of tissues while I cried. She shared with me that she, too, had been in a difficult marriage, had gotten divorced, and had started her career as a therapist later in life.  I began a weekly 4-hour shift at the front desk.

During the next 18 months as a volunteer, Paula, Marnie, and Katie, one of the intern-therapists, would regularly come and sit by my side to check in and see how my week had been. They were a source of comfort and confidence boosters to me. I also met with The Women’s Center job coach, Lisa, and she helped me realize that I really did want to go back to school, even though I was afraid to apply. I attended the 10-week divorce support group that Paula runs, and made friends that I still see every month.

Becoming an intern-therapist

I finally was able to face and complete my applications for social work school, 6 years after first contacting the Women’s Center’s Director for advice on how to become a therapist. Marnie and Paula wrote two of my letters of recommendation, and I was admitted to both of the schools I applied to. When the student internship I had lined up fell through at the last minute, Marnie made a place for me to be an intern at The Women’s Center. In September of 2017, I switched roles from front desk volunteer to graduate student therapy intern.

Clinical training and support

Over the past 7 months, as part of The Women’s Center intern cohort, I have received exceptional training and support to begin my career as a therapist. We receive 1.5 hours of training as a group each week, provided by experienced therapists from our community who volunteer their time, plus one hour of one-on-one time each week to review and ask questions about how to best help our specific clients. I have not heard of any training site my classmates are at that gives students the experience and support equivalent to what The Women’s Center provides.

Partnering with my clients

I have had the sacred privilege of working as the therapist for 8 women these past several months. My clients range in age from 18-70. They have faced abusive families and intimate partners, abandonment, deaths, health challenges of their own and of loved ones, unemployment and troubles at work, discrimination, and the stresses of moving and reestablishing themselves in new communities. None of my clients have insurance that will pay for therapy, and that is what brought them to The Women’s Center, where we let clients choose how much they can afford to pay for services. My clients donated between $10 and $20 per week to The Women’s Center in order to work with me, and if they had needed to pay less, they could have.

Women just like you and me

My clients are vital members of their communities — of our community. They are students, teachers, employees, business owners, renters, property owners, devoted daughters, mothers, and caregivers. They have bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and professional credentials. I have heard countless stories of acts of service they have performed for friends, neighbors, co-workers, housemates, and family members.  One lives on disability, yet makes extra donations to The Women’s Center whenever she can. At our last appointment together, she emptied out her wallet, giving me ten dollars for her therapy fee, and an additional eight dollars to help keep The Women’s Center going.

What we worked on together

At the end of our time together in April 2018, I asked each of my clients what she had learned from our work together. Several said that I had helped them understand that they are trauma survivors and how those difficult experiences in their past are still affecting them today. This helped them move from seeing themselves as defective and at fault to understanding the role their environment has played in their struggles. Others told me that they have begun to hear my voice in their mind, telling them that they are good, worthy, and valuable, and that is helping them to be more gentle and patient with themselves. A number of clients said that although their life challenges are still the same, after our work together they feel more calm, peaceful, and better able to deal with those challenges. They told me they feel safe, normal, unjudged, accepted, loved, and supported at The Women’s Center. During our time together they found the strength and courage to face fears, make difficult changes, process trauma from the past, and embrace life more fully.

The ripple effect of women’s power

Why does helping women matter? The Women’s Center was there for me when I was struggling, without much support, to find the courage and resources to change my life.

Now my children see the work I do at The Women’s Center. On Thursday nights last semester, they watched movies and ate treats in the room next door while I helped facilitate the same divorce support group I once attended. They are proud of the way I am helping and supporting other women. I know that if my children find themselves some day in a situation that is hurting them, they may not need The Women’s Center, because they have me. And it is not just my children who have me: It is my therapy clients, my co-workers, and the members of the new community I am building for myself out of the ashes of my old life. I am a force for good in this world, and I am not cowering inside my old life any longer. When women suffer, our suffering spreads to all those whom we care for, and that is often a great web of people. Likewise, when we help women, we help all the members of their family and community. Women are a good investment.

Changing generational patterns

For many of us, the people we are closest to are the ones who are hurting or who have hurt us the most. Many of us do not come from safe, healthy, or resource-rich families or communities.  We might be trapped by toxic patterns, harmful beliefs, and false information. We may need someone to beckon to us, like my Grandpa Johann beckoned to my Grandma Anna in her dream — with a smile, open arms, and a spring of pure water — to let go of whatever is tormenting us, and walk down the mountainside toward hope and healing. That is what The Women’s Center has done for me, and for my clients, and countless others. Please help us to keep doing this vital, life-saving work, not just for women, but for all the lives that women touch.