Black in Cincinnati: 'Today I choose to be victorious, not a victim'

'Today I choose to be victorious, not a victim'
'Today I choose to be victorious, not a victim'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-25 08:47:34-04

Welcome to the series, “Black in Cincinnati.” We invite people to write honest and personal stories of their life in the Queen City. Do you have a story about being black in Cincinnati? Let us know. You can scroll to the bottom for contact information and to see other stories in the series.

Angela Merritt lives in Over-the-Rhine with her 9-year-old daughter. She told her story to 9 On Your Side reporter Lisa Smith. Digital reporter Lucy May edited the interview for length and clarity.

I was born in Cincinnati. My mama came here from Alabama pregnant with me, and she came and stayed with one of her sisters. She’s the third youngest of 19.

She came to Cincinnati because my father and her did not get along. She married him twice. But it didn’t work out, and she came to stay with one of her older sisters.

Growing up in Cincinnati was fun. I grew up in a house with my mother and my stepfather in Mt. Auburn, and he owned the pony keg in Mt. Auburn.

It was fun, meeting all different community people. My mother worked in the kitchen part of the pony keg because they served food as well.

I graduated from Taft Elementary. Always was an honor student. I loved the school. I loved the learning. I loved the playing and learning something new always.

Angela Merritt (Ryan Heeter | WCPO)

I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Because how people think is interesting to me.

I went to the Cincinnati Academy for Physical Education for two years. I loved sports as well. I played basketball and ran track, and I did archery. I left there and went to Hughes HS and graduated my last two years.

Unfortunately, there was some dysfunction in my family. It was very dysfunctional. My mother worked a lot. After the pony keg, she worked at General Motors. She worked a lot, and she worked hard. She wanted to make sure I had things she didn’t have growing up by her being the third youngest of 19.

She got a lot of hand-me-downs, and she wanted to make sure I didn’t have that. So she worked hard to make sure I had some of the best things in life. But unfortunately while she was at work, a man she trusted chose to do things to me sexually and fondle me. It went on for a long time. And I didn’t tell my mother because he was a mean man. He was very mean and stern. And so I never told my mom until I was 39 years old. Unfortunately at a young age as well, I started drinking alcohol and using other types of drugs to escape. That was my form of escaping. And I even chose to have a boyfriend at a young age so that man would leave me alone. He was angry about that.

I went on through life with this big secret until I was 39. I did a lot of things I wish I wouldn’t have. But it was a form of escape. But then the alcoholism took over because I would drink every day before school. You know, sneaking my mother’s wine or alcohol.

I still managed to have a good grade point average and stuff, even through all the turmoil growing up.

My schoolwork was a form of escape, too, from what was actually really happening in my life. I didn’t want to tell my mom because I was afraid the man would abuse her physically because they used to argue a lot. But she always still tried to make sure that I was happy, like with material things or go to the show.

I would love to go over to my family house. My aunt had 12 kids. So it was a lot of fun over there. There was always something to do. Because I was the only child for many years, and it was just me or me and my pets. My mom made sure I had pets. I had dogs, bunnies, birds -- all those type of things.

I graduated from Hughes in 1987. My father, he died when I was 11. He was a vet, and he was a Mason and he was a tavern owner down in the south. And I was getting Social Security from my father growing up through school. My mom told me she would be saving me some money so she could get me a car when I graduate. She didn’t, and we got into a big dispute about it. So she sent me to my aunt’s house, the one aunt who she came to when she was pregnant with me.

Angela Merritt's late father

I stayed there for like a year. And I got my first job at a place on the Skywalk Downtown. I learned a lot. After that year, I met a guy, and I had my first baby at 20. She’s 30 now. That’s the guy who I eventually stayed with for four years. I had two kids by him.

I went to UC in 1994. It was still that secret that I held for all those years. And some of the things that man would say mean to me that haunted me. So I would get so far and feel like nothing -- like I wasn’t worthy. Even though I was on the Dean’s List there at UC. It was just something that was just crying out for failure. And it mainly was the voices and the negativity of the things that man who molested me had said. That I was nothing and that I would never be anything -- things like that. So yeah, I stopped going to school.

At the time, the kids’ father and I weren’t getting along because we had started trying different drugs. Things started going bad. I tried cocaine with him because he was already doing it, and I didn’t really know he was doing it until I came into a room one day, into our bedroom and he had it, putting it in some marijuana. Marijuana and alcohol at the time was the main thing I was doing to manage my feelings, my emotions and all of that and to deal with the not following through with a lot of the things I had set out to do.

I had the courage enough to leave him and got on subsidized housing. It was me and just my two kids at the time.

I still was doing coke and drinking and just going through life like, “Well, I guess this is what it is. I guess this is what it’s going to be. Drink, smoke weed, raise the kids.”

They were always clean. I still was sending them to school on time, all of that.

I was really depressed. At that time, I didn’t see no way out of the mess I had made of my life.

I felt stuck in a place because I never wanted to have children without being married or without being with their father. So that was depressing. Raising two kids by the age of 22. They’re 18 months apart.

The bottom for me was when I was homeless. I was homeless for like 11 years. At that time, I had three kids. And then while I was homeless, I conceived another child while I was on drugs. My aunt took her, and she still has her. She’s 16. My aunt has done an amazing job with her and with helping me maintain a relationship with her. She still calls me “Mom,” which is powerful, rewarding and uplifting to my soul as a woman. I could never repay my aunt for what she has done for me and my child, and I am forever grateful for her.

Angela Merritt in 2016. (Emily Maxwell | WCPO)

I lost the first three children. By the age of 26 I had another child so I had three at home raising them by myself. I was dealing with men that were in the street life to help supply my high, of course, but also to try to make sure my kids had some of the nicer things in life. Just my government check wasn’t enough. I wanted to make sure they weren’t talked about because of what they had to wear. I chose men that weren’t the best choice. But I was thinking along the line as long as they can help take care of my household, we’ll be all right. But doing that comes with a lot of other turmoil, dealing with men that are living in the street lifestyle. They’re always on the go. They’re angry. They’re abusive, too.

I went through that with the third child’s father -- abuse. I had to run and leave him and go to a battered women’s shelter and all of that. So I’ve been there, too. Women Helping Women had helped me years ago to get to the shelter. I had to get away from him.

I just got deeper and deeper into the drugs. Eventually I lost the kids to 241-KIDS child welfare services. Once I lost them, as a mother, as a person, I was like there was nothing left to live for.

It still touches me. Because that was a point in my life where I had given up on living. It just got worse. And that’s when the epidemic with the crack and all that was on the rise. I got into that and just was homeless out there surviving on the streets.

Through that there was a lot of in and out of jail at the Hamilton County Justice Center. I went to Marysville once. All of this revolved around the drugs. Before that I never had a record or anything. It was horrible because I didn’t come from that. So I sort of stuck out like a sore thumb on the streets. It was a lot of pain and traumatic events out there. It’s no place for a woman to be. It’s no place for no one to be, but especially a woman.

Through those times, I had tried and attempted to get clean through many places and treatment centers. But it was always that secret that would tell me that I wasn’t worthy to be free of that.

In 2007, I had been to like 15 treatment centers. I wanted to be clean. I thought it was just stopping. But it was much more than just stopping. It was like being honest to your soul about some things that need to be free. To set you free.

So in 2007 I set myself free, and I told someone about being molested. The first person I told was a psychiatrist because at the time I had got hooked up with Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services. And it was like a load had been lifted.

I knew the power of the mind and what the mind can do. There’s power in words. And that can linger for years and years -- negative or positive. So I fought to erase that negativity, thinking it kept me from succeeding in life or to be free to be whatever I wanted to be. During the time I had to do a lot of talking to remove all the doubt, the guilt, the shame -- all of that -- and start living. And I had to find a way to just start living all over at 39 because that’s when I decided that was enough.

My kids had gotten older. But when I did get clean, I made it to all their high school graduations. So that was a wonderful thing that I could do.

My two oldest children are happy and are doing well now.

My youngest child at the time, when I lost her, was three. But I got her back when she was 15. They told me I would never be able to get them back. I had lost permanent custody. So I fought. I went and applied for my daughter back. And they gave her to me back.

So I was like, there’s hope again. There’s hope again. And so I got her back after being a year clean from drugs and off of alcohol. And I didn’t have a car or nothing. But we caught the bus, and I took her to get her first job at Kings Island. And mater of fact I’m going to her graduation. She’s 25 now and going to be an RN.

Members of the Women of OTR Support Group.

I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I had to get some skills because I had lost all the skills that I’d had. And the skills I did have, they were outdated. So I went to Goodwill to learn computer skills. The course was six months, but it took me almost a year. And it was trying because the voice that always told me that I was nothing was telling me that again. And I refused to let that voice win again. And I told him that he was a liar. I’m more than that. And I’m worthy to live and be what I want to choose to be.

So I refuse now to let fear stop me.

After that computer class, I was looking for work. And of course no one would give me work with my past history and my record that revolved around the drugs.

A year after I got my daughter back, I had another baby at 40. I love all five of my children. But she’s like that child that didn’t have to endure some of the hard things that my other children did. And she really is a gift because during the trying times when that voice would appear, I looked at her and knew I couldn’t take her through what I took my other kids through.

It gave me strength to fight the negative thoughts, the bugaboos and all of those things. I finally got off of probation in that year.

I was like, “Wow I’m finishing some things. So I must be better than what I thought. There’s more in me than I was giving credit to myself due to things that had happened to me.”

I got my first job with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing as an employment specialist. I did that for a year, and it built my self-esteem. When I started helping people get jobs, and it was following through, I thought, “Wow, I’ve got some more to give.”

During that whole year, they was talking about all the drugs, and the value of their properties were going down because the drug dealers in front of their properties. At one of the staff meetings of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing I said, “What about a women’s group?” And they said, “Well, we’ve tried that before with our residents, with the women, and it didn’t work.” And I said OK.

So I went home and like for a couple weeks I just would pray, saying, “OK God, you got me here. I’ve been believing in you, and what can I be used for?”

One day I was coming out of my gate on east Clifton and, bam, I believe in God, and He spoke to me in a voice, in a whisper in my ear, and He said you’ve got to help the women down there. Because I live near where Rothenberg School is, but the other end is where a lot of drug activity is going on.

We had another staff meeting, and I brought it up again. I said, “Well the God of my understanding said I’ve got to help the women that lives down there where the drug dealers are at, and I have to start a women’s group.”

So the director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing said, “OK, we’ll give it a try.” That’s how it got started. It’s been two years now. Our anniversary is Dec. 11.

RELATED: These OTR moms find strength in each other

When the women meet, we come together. We hug each other as soon as they come in. They show some love. We usually talk about how our week has been, or what we’re going through. Some challenges. And most of them are like challenges with our kids and just life. Should we make that decision or walk through the fear of trying to get better by trying out something new to better ourselves for our kids by being the example?

For instance, a woman was so afraid to go back to school. We encouraged her and through some of the events that I told them about in my life and what I overcame and the fear, once I faced it, it wasn’t as scary once I started doing it. And so she went to get her GED, and she’s in college now. She’s got four kids. She stayed through Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and she’s still with us. She’s growing.

Another lady is making jewelry and selling her jewelry and just facing life on life’s terms. That’s what I didn’t do. That’s why I want to encourage the women to just face life on life’s terms.

I know I’m doing the will of the God of my understanding for my life today by giving hope that anyone can be freed from their past pain and by showing and living by example. I’m showing that you are not what has happened to you or what has been done to you. That’s not your identity or purpose in life.

Members of the Women of OTR Support Group visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I got more relief and freedom once I started believing that my mess was a message of hope to others that they too, like me, can choose to live a life of purpose and that anything and everything is possible through your choices in life.

Today I choose to be victorious, not a victim, by being that example of living by what you talk, by treating other human beings like I want to be treated -- with love and compassion. Most of all, I’m always giving people lots of hope that the impossible can be reversed.

Other stories in the Black in Cincinnati series:

Black in Cincinnati: 'This is my story'

Black in Cincinnati: 'My family, my purpose'

Black in Cincinnati: 'I thank my dad every day'

Black in Cincinnati: 'Culture Shock'

Black in Cincinnati: 'I value those who believe in me'

Black in Cincinnati: 'I love who I have become'