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My Awakening & Rebirth Along the Journey of Hope, Part Four: by Donnalynn Scillieri, MA

with Gerri Budd, Ph.D.

Noteworthy: I believe three things: 1) No matter what our socio-economic background is, survivors all have an awakening that stirs in us very slowly and leads to a complete rebirth of the body and soul from the tragedy.  2) I believe there are many opportunities and people that come into our life, most of which only temporary, to guide us on our journey of hope.  Almost like angels if not actually angels.  3) My story will inspire anyone who is or has suffered any injustice to find hope and healing.

I have written and re-written my story many times over the past seventeen years. I think there is something special about the seventeenth year. Maybe because we have our one body with seven main chakras or cicadas emerge every seventeen years or the year we come of age. I wrote this as a victim, an academic, an advocate and a mom to be explained at the end. 

My ex terrorized me with every opportunity.  He would take the children away from me, ages thirteen and eight at the time and dump them on friends just so I could no have them.  He threatened to kill me and hire a hitman.  He brought them to parks where drugs were sold and moved in with addicts after he lost two apartments.  He stalked me, robbed me at cash machines, wrote bad checks using my grocery store tags, ran toll booths in a vehicle registered to me which generated a warrant for my arrest.  Every inch of the way, the police helped me, but it was relentless.  I was terrified for my children’s safety.  My friends were hiding them at their homes.  Somehow, I completed two semesters, comps and graduated in May 2006.

Prior to my graduation, I thought I was going to have a complete breakdown and there were days that sounded like a great option. A breakdown would be an excuse to be locked in a hospital to escape and just sleep. My friends and cousins were wonderful, but I had limited to damaging support from my immediate family over the years.

The professor that I had worked with brought me to a Buddhist Center to help me find peace in my turmoil.  I surrendered to their help for two years. The first step was to forgive my ex in this hell, to build strength and take the power away from him.  Tina Turner exemplified Buddhism in her film, What’s Love Got to Do with It when she chanted, NAM MYOHO RENGE KYO.  Polishing your mirror and bringing out your Buddha nature.  From Soka Gokkai, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is thus a vow, an expression of determination, to embrace and manifest our Buddha nature. It is a pledge to oneself to never yield to difficulties and to win over one’s suffering. At the same time, it is a vow to help others reveal this law in their own lives and achieve happiness.”

One of the two women, who had been in the room during the Flyin’ West meeting became a mentor to me.  Marie was a director and I said to her one day in the midst of tears, “I am never going to be a together person like you.” She responded, “I was once you.”  She shared her story with me and gave me the hope that I could do this.  I had mentioned earlier, she explained to me that I was on a journey and should be excited about the new life I was traveling to.  Also, she told me to travel without anger and to come out of this without bitterness.  I whole heartedly agreed about not being bitter but thought she was crazy about the excitement part, but she was so right, and I kept her words in my heart because I knew on some level that she had an innate wisdom. Today, I share those words over and over to help others.

The other woman from the Flyin’ West meeting was Esmilda the Director of the Women’s Center at MSU and she validated my experience.  I asked her how did this happen to me?  She explained that I was the poster child, and her explanation is in line with Dr. Weitzman.  “The higher the level intelligence of the woman, the higher the multi-tasking ability and with the notion this does not happen to women like me there you are.  Women think they can fix anything, and his drug addiction was beneath me and go check into Hazelton and get fixed while I kept juggling.  Eventually, everything crashes, and it did.”  Esmilda helped me rebuild a social life and networked me into AceNet made up of a campus group of women and invited me to lunch with other professional women for companionship.

Upon my graduation, I took a job with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, but my ex terrorized me at there and by June he was completely out of control.  I went to Passaic County Family Court and an advocate told me to get a restraining order.  I went through the process, but the court day was a week away and I had already made arrangements to send my children out of state to keep them safe.  In one of my ex’s rages, he had signed a medical release for their visit so he could not claim they were kidnapped.

While the children were safely away, he became more enraged and insane.  In August 2006, my daughter came home, and he was threatening to come to the house with a junkie buddy and take her.  I called the Wayne police, and the later Detective Chris Wittig (Captain) was already at my home when my ex called and threatened me.  The officer looked at me with all the compassion in the world and said, “Lady, this isn’t harassment, it’s domestic violence and we can help you.  Come down to the station with me and I will give you a window of opportunity to change this.”  I gave my daughter to my parents and went to the station.  The officers counseled me and tele-conferenced me with a judge.  They told me they could get me a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) but probably not with my children on it.  I spoke to the late Judge Waks and told him that my ex was a cocaine addict and that he could get the children into an accident, or a fellow junkie could molest my daughter.  The judge agreed and granted it for the three of us.  Within an hour he was served in Haledon, NJ and the Haledon police had helped me over the years.

I had retained an attorney for $5000 the week before and she informed me she couldn’t go to court with me because she was a judge elsewhere in Passaic County.   She asked for another $2500 and if I thought she was wrong, come take the check and I did.  I called Family Court, and they said that I did not need an attorney and if the order was violated it would be turned over to the Prosecutor’s office.

My friend very dear friend, Jodie had been a paralegal and not advised me but came to court and guided me.  My ex had stolen money from her at one time and when I left, she knew it was not me and became the rock of my journey.  Jodie and I did the divorce pro se.

Jodie came to court with me and she had me write a laundry list of what he had done so I was prepared when the judge asked me.  We sat in an Italian restaurant, and I wrote and wrote and ate spaghetti. When I was done, Jodie tore it up and said, “Good that is out, now sit in the court and say nothing to the judge except answer exactly what he asks as simply and politely as possible. I was so scared, but I was blessed to have the late Honorable David Waks who had granted my TRO.  He was the kindest and most patient man with me.  He asked about the kids, my migraines and stomach problems.  My ex admitted he was violent because, “If you lived with her, you would be, too.”  Then he admitted under oath that he had a cocaine problem.  Judge Waks stated, “Mr. Levine, whether you use your fists or words it results in physical harm and you sir are guilty of domestic violence.”  Supervised visitation was put into place and a Formal Restraining Order (FRO) for the three of us was granted.  I turned to Jodie, “Did we really win and is it really over?”  Jodie assured me we won, and it was over.  I said to her, “The silent scream was finally heard,” as we left the court room.

Five hours later, he violated the order and within two hours he was a guest of Passaic County jail for three days.  The next day the NJSO fired me because of him…like a Lifetime movie. In New Jersey it is now against the law to fire domestic violence victims.  I went on to work in Manhattan at the Town Hall Theatre.  Unfortunately, I was still suffering from flashbacks that ran like movies in my head.  My office was next to a performing arts high school, and I was terrorized when they rehearsed loud scenes but by the end of two years, everyone noticed I did not even blink anymore, I was healing.

In November 2006, my ex was arraigned, and I was a wreck, but the prosecutors were amazing but more important they were kind.  One of the women, from the prosecutor’s team sat with me, Carmetta and she promised me that everything was going to be ok with all the authority in the world.  At the end of the hearing, Judge Waks had the court document state, “Mrs. Levine is responsible, respectful and reasonable.”  He passed on shortly after that, but those words helped in the filings that followed over the next few years.

With Jodie’s guidance, I filed all necessary motions for my divorce.  We went to the courthouse law library and did what needed to be done.  I was blessed again to have Judge Selser over the years and my final divorce was heard by Judge Diamond.  All were very patient with me because I did not have an attorney and I was never re-victimized by the court system but treated very well.

Initially, the supervised visitation was held with the Sheriff’s department, but it was granted to my Pastor.  All the necessary interviews for the court were handled by my Pastor and he appeared in court with me to share the reports with Judge Selser.

In April 2009, my divorce was finalized and the FRO for the three of us is permanent in New Jersey and carries federal weight.  Most interesting, he was able to qualify for legal assistance to try to get the supervised visitation lifted and for the final divorce hearing.  We had everything filed ahead of the deadlines and they did not.  His attorney tried to disqualify my Pastor but to no avail.  At the end of the day, we won out over his attorney and that felt amazing.

The bottom line was that we were able to move on with a new life.

I left my job in New York to be closer to the kids during the day and was working with a friend in advertising sales and then started freelancing grants and advocating for domestic violence victims.

I reiterate the angels and hands that pull you along are there if you surrender to them, though sometimes hard to recognize.  I received a hefty tax bill from the IRS in the spring of 2008.  I or email, so I sent an old-fashioned letter.  On a Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2008, I received a phone call from a woman, Elaine with a heavy Irish accent from the IRS.  She told me not to be scared that she was going to help me, and she works nights and weekends.  Go figure an IRS employee working those hours.  She was a domestic violence survivor and told me to sign a specific form with my social security number and fax it to her.  Believe it or not, I did it and within four weeks I had two checks from the US Treasury.  I truly believe she was an angel from above.

With the money in hand, I woke up one morning with the notion of fundraising for domestic violence centers.  I was training to volunteer with Passaic County’s Women’s Center and met someone from the WAFA House and began attending roundtables and events with them.   I sat in a board meeting and in walked Carmetta from the prosecutor’s office.  I had come full circle.  I wasn’t the broken plaintiff in the courtroom anymore but her peer.  After the meeting, I told her she had been right, that everything was ok.

The week after my divorce was finalized the WAFA House honored Judge Diamond and there I was at a gala chatting with Judge Diamond who had just made all the difference in my life with my children.

I had decided that my journey was to become a domestic violence advocate, to make a difference, to be the hand that pulls someone along the road of recovery. At the end of 2008/early 2009, I began to travel the state meeting experts who worked in Domestic Violence.  I attended workshops, meetings, roundtables and seminars around the state and became a member of the New Jersey Coalition of Battered Women (NJCBW) now known as the NJ Coalition to End Domestic Violence (NJCEDV).  The first time I went to the NJCBW, all of these professionals from the entire state were there at this large round table to help people like me.  For a time, I was on their board and as an ally, I headed the LGBT Task Force. I became a Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology professor, a global gender-based violence expert and speaker, have a partnership in a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging training firm. I have advocated for domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking victims with law enforcement.

I grew up in a middle class/professional community and this journey has broadened my children and my horizons.  We met so many people of different races, cultures, ethnicities, sexual and gender orientations, and lifestyles from various socio-economic backgrounds.  We have had amazing opportunities to help at shelters and our dear friends from Be the Change New Jersey plus so many other groups. We have woven all of the people we have shared experiences with into the rich tapestry of our souls and beings.

On the personal front: Now I remember who I was and not the abused person.  An old friend from childhood said, “I hated Donna Levine, but I always loved Donna Scillieri.”  Flashbacks are rare and short if they happen at all.  I did not date for the first three years just focused on rebuilding our lives. My children and I healed and spent time with friends and family and love the rich tapestry of our family. We made new memories and new traditions and a favorite vacation spot. I want them to leave the past and gather up all of our experiences and memories and keep making more.

And yes, Marie, this is a wonderful journey, and it is a wonderful new life.  One of my students said it best, “The horrible thing that happened to you is bringing blessings to others’ lives.”  That is why I am public; every morning when I look in the mirror, the professional mom is looking back but not the victim and past the survivor because I can be who I want to be.  In the Buddhist tradition, I am polishing my mirror.

Final Words: Coming Back to the Different Lenses I Wrote This Through as I Grew

As a victim when I wrote this, I realize that I was fortunate in a nightmare with two children because the three of us escaped.  We were able to stay in the same town with one of the best school districts in New Jersey in a large home in a lake community.  I handled my formal restraining order and divorce pro se after I fired my lawyer because she too, was abusing my financial situation.

As an academic when I wrote this there was a “woke” moment when I realized that I had white privilege and class privilege with a Master’s from an educated and professional family.  In the courtrooms, I witnessed injustices against women and children that still haunt me and led me to become an advocate.  I teach in Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology and with a dear friend and colleague, Dr. Gerri Budd own Peace in Action, LLC (SBE/WBE) and we train corporations, community groups and non-profits in diversity, equality, inclusion and belonging.

As an advocate when I wrote this, I became a voice for those who do not have a voice and speak globally about gender-based violence. I have also been a coordinator of panels and events, a second responder with law enforcement, on the board of the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence and heading task forces. I intersected with sexual assault and human trafficking with the opportunity to help write policies and laws.  Recently, a client said to me, “I am not a survivor, I am a creator.”  I meditated about it and in other words, “I can re-create myself and build a solid foundation to move forward – I am a creator not just a survivor and not a victim.

As a mom when I wrote this, I raised my kids without alimony nor child support in a family home where we were not wanted. But we have wonderful friends and relatives, like my cousin Steven and his family and my dear friend Kim with whom we both supported each other and our families through seventeen years of ups and downs.  I celebrate seventeen years owning a home with two doges. My son is a Ph.D. candidate, and my daughter is a MSW candidate.



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