The first time I ran away from home, I was four. My older brother, Michael, was six at the time. For years I followed him everywhere. He walked, I walked behind him. He ran, I ran. I looked up to him, and I obeyed him. My parents thought it was very cute how we would play “Joes.” Michael would say to me, “Hey Joe, let’s go camping!” I would always say, “OK, Joe.”
One day I said, “No, Joe, I don’t want to go camping. I want to play with my dolls.”
Michael exploded and began throwing things all over. He broke a lamp, then came after me.
I ran looking for my parents, but I couldn’t find them. Finally, I found my mom. I thought she would help me, but she only became angry that we were both being so noisy and disobedient, breaking the lamp and all.
She sent us to our rooms. Unlike Mike, I was glad to be in my room. At least I was safe there. But I also felt isolated. So I got out all my dolls and sat with them on my bed.
My dolls were my real family. I knew they loved me and would never hurt me. I took out my suitcase and started packing my dolls one by one, kissing them and telling them everything would be all right.
Quietly I opened my bedroom door, snuck down the hallway, and escaped out the front door. “Run away,” I kept repeating out loud as I crossed the street and into the cover of the big orange grove where I had played with my brother many times before.
This time, I was alone, but I wasn’t afraid. I just kept walking deeper and deeper into the trees. After walking what felt like miles, I came across an old tool shed and went inside. I closed the door behind me. It was dark. It didn’t take long before I began to feel helpless and scared.
I sat down on an old woodpile, took out my favorite doll, held her tight, and started to cry. I looked around me and saw spiderwebs everywhere. Visions of black widows crept into my mind, then rattlesnakes, and tarantulas.
I jumped to my feet and started to run toward the outside when I saw the silhouette of a man standing there, the sunlight filtering into the shed behind him from the now open doorway. As I got closer, I was relieved. It was my dad. I ran into his legs and wrapped my little hands around him. He had come to save me.
As I did, he grabbed my arm and yanked it so hard that I dropped my suitcase. All of my dolls came tumbling out onto the dirty wooden floor. When I looked into my dad’s eyes, I could see he wasn’t going to rescue or comfort me. I was as frightened as if I were surrounded by the deadly creatures that had first caused me to run.
My dad dragged me back to the house and gave me a spanking so hard that it left red marks on my behind. From then on, whenever my brother asked if Joe wanted to go camping, I never said anything other than, “OK, Joe,” no matter how much I didn’t want to. I knew any alternative would be worse. I had learned my lesson. Like the spanking, it, too, had left its mark.
Many relationships and two marriages later, I had become a people-pleaser, a codependent, and a doormat. In all my male relationships, I instantly took the position of follower. My identity changed with every male, every Joe, who took an interest in me.
I dated a triathlete, and I became one, too. Then a Seventh Day Adventist, which I also became. In my first marriage to a workaholic, I became the perfectionist Stepford wife. In my second marriage to an alcoholic, I became a drinking buddy.
I would eventually run away from each of these relationships like I did from the one I had with my brother, and eventually, the one I had with my dad because I felt I was losing my soul. And, I was. It took me eight years of intensive therapy, meditation training, and Bible study to break the pattern I established in my childhood.
My most recent relationship, with a man battling addiction, was a test to see how honest I could stay to myself. Years earlier, after my first marriage, I had started a meditation practice to fight anxiety and control my breathing.
Out of the experience, I discovered the voice of my soul and the Voice of God. I realized that these two voices, even though sometimes in conflict, were the voice of my truth. Unlike with previous relationships, this time, I heard, “Be careful, don’t follow, stay on your own path.” The voice of truth reminded me that I wasn’t an addict like my partner.
I wasn’t a people-pleaser, a codependent, or a doormat either. And even though the relationship didn’t work out, because of that, I didn’t get hurt. There was no rejection, no abandonment, no abuse. There was only me honestly expressing my truth, which was that he wasn’t the right man for me. As Jesus said, the truth will set you free (John 8:32).
I followed my truth. When I did, I forever broke the pattern of following someone else’s.
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Tonyah Dee has studied the Bible and wisdom traditions of the world for the last 30 years and teaches about finding ways to increase inner strength, stability, and confidence through practicing spiritual disciplines and healthy habits daily. Tonyah is a nutritionist, registered dietitian (R.D.), and earned her B.S. from Loma Linda University. She also holds certifications in Christ-centered life coaching, equine therapy, and meditation. Tonyah has been published in Scary Mommy, MSN, The Mighty, Mantra Wellness, CoveyClub, Thrive Global. Follow Tonyah on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Medium.