What kind of name is Tough as Milk?

(Warning: there may be triggers for trauma survivors in this recount.)

I didn’t have a normal childhood, but my mother filled it with enough love and wonderful memories to crowd out the awful ones. My mother, Milka (who everyone lovingly calls Milky), did art projects with me, took me on adventures and believed I could do anything. I watched her paint picturesque landscapes and decorate beautiful wedding cakes. I can still hear her playing music and making up silly song lyrics while making my siblings and me crepes every Sunday. My mother didn’t just tell me to be a good person, she showed me how to be one. No matter how little we had, she was constantly working to build a better future for us. As I grew older, we became even closer - talking on the phone multiple times a day and always greeted with, "Hi, my baby girl!" I cherish the Friday nights that I would “guest DJ” during her radio show, a passion project she kept up for twelve years.

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There were bad times, too.  I would hear them yelling and wonder how my father could say such awful things to her. I would see him spit on her. I learned he beat her while she was pregnant. The police would come and I saw him talk his way out of getting in trouble. I remember the police asking my ten year old self what happened and me being so terrified I couldn’t answer. I would see my father cry apologies and say how much he needed us. We tried to get away many times, but when we were on the verge of moving on, he would threaten to kill himself.  I watched my father use manipulation and isolation to keep our family in the tortuous cycle of domestic violence.

Then came August 21, 2011. He was bitter we discovered he cheated on my mother with one of his employees. Upset that we were picking up the pieces and moving on, he walked out of our kitchen into the garage and I saw his shadowy figure walking back holding an ax. I braced myself against the door, but he charged in. He started swinging. I grabbed the ax with my right hand, but not before he hit my left hand with it, splitting it in half. He brought the ax down on my head. I pushed up on the handle, so it couldn’t make complete contact. He swung at my mother and hit her in the head. Down went the most important person in my life. I was screaming for help and my only thought was, "Get the ax away from him and save mom." I managed to push him out to the garage and get both hands on the ax. He continued to beat me and squeeze my mangled hand. A neighbor saw and called the police. My father was able to overpower me and went inside to deliver another lethal blow to my mom’s head before I pushed him out again. I kept screaming, "He killed my mom! He killed my mom!" Thinking the job was done, he decided to smoke a celebratory cigarette in the driveway. 

Meanwhile, another neighbor heard my screaming from inside his house and rushed outside. The police arrived, but before they got out of their cars, he courageously ran into the house. He put pressure on her wounds, while at the same time preventing her from choking on her own blood. An officer walked into the house and was stunned at the gruesome scene. He told him to keep doing what he was doing and went to cuff my father and put him in the police car.

My mother was life-flighted to a Level I Trauma Center, underwent 6 hours of brain surgery and survived the night. A week later, she had a CAT scan to determine the extent of the damage. When the doctor spoke, he spoke slowly, as if his words weighed a thousand pounds. "Things most likely affected by this are comprehension, memory, eating...breathing. She may be a vegetable, but we should give it a month and see if it is time to remove her from life support." At the age of 22, I had to decide whether or not to end the life of my best friend. I collapsed.

 I told myself that if she wasn't steadily improving over the next month, I would not be selfish and keep her here. If she showed me that she was still fighting, I would not give up. My brother, sister and I made it our mission to stay positive, talking about our favorite memories and sneaking in Macedonian and cheesy 90’s music to help her precious brain work its way out of the coma. Very slowly, she began to defy the odds. She started breathing on her own, eating, walking and eventually being able to speak a little bit. She moved into a nursing home and is continuing the fight to find her words and walk without a walker. Despite all this, she still is able to laugh and love like the Milky we’ve always known.

The five years after the attack were very dark. I loathed myself for not being able to protect her and was convinced that I would never and should never be happy again. I was immersed in a toxic environment and soon fell victim to sexual assault. Abusive relationships became a running theme in every aspect of my life. It was like trying to heal in a petri dish. I really wanted to die, but my mother motivated me to keep breathing. If she could find a way to smile, then surely I could too. I pretended I was handling everything while my mind constantly raced between grief, fear, anger and self-disgust.

By spring of 2015, I reached a breaking point. I felt utterly and completely alone. I had no support system and people kept suggesting I hide my story, which only added to my shame. I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in 4 years because nightmares and flashbacks convinced me that my loved ones or I would be murdered at any moment. The enormity of my beautiful mother being trapped in a nursing home and unable to really speak paralyzed me.

So I made the call.

I called the Cleveland Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center hotline sobbing and finally told all of my story. I started weekly sessions with an amazing therapist who was familiar with how to treat victims of trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD and it was comforting to know that I was not alone, that there was an explanation for my intense fear and repetitive thoughts. More importantly, there were ways to cope. She coupled science with compassion as we talked about how to overcome my various obstacles. She taught me the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. I learned to recognize my symptoms and know they were temporary. Before therapy, I thought I needed to be kind to everyone no matter what they did, when in fact, setting boundaries was healthy and crucial to my self-worth.

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During this time, I decided to focus on my physical health. I had been athletic prior to the attack, but I did not work out for three years after. I had dabbled in yoga, but began practicing almost daily. I noticed I felt better and more relaxed. Running and lifting weights became a part of my routine. Feeling strong and capable is so important to someone who feels like they could be hurt at any moment. Having to concentrate and be patient with myself physically helped me apply the same concepts to my mental health. It felt like an equation I was repeating over and over:

Therapy + work out + yoga + meditation + self-care = recovery

After many months, I began to feel strong. My heart felt strong too. My self-love had finally come back, but in a form I didn’t recognize. I didn’t go back to being the goofy, optimistic Bil I was before the attack, I am now a blend of the before and after. I still struggle, but I now know I have inherent worth because I’m a human being. I want our clients to know they do too. 

It took five devastating years for me to realize that I deserved love. The kind of love I have for my mother is the same kind of love I should have for myself. No one deserves to be abused.

Tough as Milk is a valuable tool to help survivors rediscover their strength and worth. The name comes from the strength my mother embodies, the strength to still be kind and loving despite life not being kind to her. Recovering from trauma can be excruciatingly painful, but I believe that with therapy, healthy movement and self-care, we can find a way to truly live and make the world a better place.