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Sometimes we need to go against everything we know to get what we need

Dawnna St Louis provides a classic example of someone who was conditioned to be strong, says Andy Lopata. But that's not all she is.

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Dawnna St Louis provides a classic example of someone who was conditioned to be strong. And if you meet Dawnna today, you will be impressed by a very successful, independent and powerful woman. But, as is so often the case, the image Dawnna presents to the world doesn’t tell the whole story.

Dawnna told me that she was over 40 years old before she could truly trust another person and easily let them help her. It was a skill that she had to learn through brutal lessons and it took two suicide attempts before she could really let someone in.

Born just after Martin Luther King was assassinated and raised in an American South still experiencing segregation in the early 1970s, Dawnna was the daughter of an African-American mother and part Jamaican, part Italian father. At the age of seven her family moved from California to Florida, from a very middle class, mixed-race area that she describes as a ‘melting pot’ to Miami’s ‘hood.

With dark curly hair and hazel eyes, Dawnna had more of a Latino appearance and, as a result, didn’t fit into the predominantly African-American Miami neighbourhood where her family moved in with her grandmother. Dawnna was bullied because of her appearance – she just didn’t look like the other kids.

The shift from suburban California to the poor, segregated Florida neighbourhood riven with racism was a real culture shock for the young girl. That shock deepened when her mother moved them out of their grandmother’s home into a predominantly Cuban area. Not being Cuban and not speaking any Spanish, the bullying and racism got worse. Told to stand up for herself, she found herself in a fight every week.

“After a while you lose your innocence and vulnerability,” Dawnna told me, “and the ability to be honest and true. Asking for help is a huge weakness. You’d better stand up for yourself. That was kind of my upbringing.”

Dawnna found that the more she fought, the more respect she would earn. Her vulnerable and positive emotions had to be tucked away and hidden from the world.

“I had this really tough, hard exterior. In a moment’s notice I could turn a joke into an attack to ensure that everyone knew that just because I laughed at something it didn’t mean I was weak. But on the inside I was soft and hurting. After I instigated a fight with someone I would cry in the shower or into a pillow at night. The next day it would start all over again.”

Moving every three years or so meant that Dawnna didn’t form the strong bonds that often emerge over time during childhood. The few times she felt that she trusted somebody enough to confide in them, those confidences would be shattered after the friendship broke up. So, she simply learned to keep her mouth shut.

Really a Blessing?

By the age of 17 Dawnna was pregnant and then things took a turn for the worse. Her daughter Tia died when she was just five months old. In her devastation she was told by an aunt that it was all for the best. “What were you going to do with the baby anyway?” her aunt asked. “What happened was really a blessing, right?”

“In my family there was no such thing as talking back. If an adult said something, that was gospel.”

But by the time she was 19 Dawnna knew she had to move away and change her life. Advice from another adult was the final straw.

“I had a guidance counsellor who had explained to me that, based on the trajectory of my life, I would be no more than a woman who had five kids: three would be in jail, one would be dead, and one would follow in my footsteps. Those footsteps would be that of an addict with a serious cocaine problem. I would use government assistance, my children, and my body to get to my fix. I would never make it out of North Orlando.”

Dawnna had a rusty old car that she had purchased for $300. She got into her car and drove north with no destination in mind other than to prove her guidance counsellor wrong. But once she passed Disney World in Orlando, she just kept going.

“After 12 hours of driving I decided to sleep. Being a street-smart kid, I knew better than to stop at a rest stop or a truck stop. They were hunting grounds for girls travelling alone. So, I drove my car deep into this wooded area. In the morning I was ready to go but my car was not. I was stranded with no way to get help.”

‘I Am Never Going to Starve to Death if You Keep Feeding Me!’

With no money and no way to repair the car, Dawnna lived homeless in the woods for two years. She tried begging in the nearby town but her reluctance to turn to other people for support even made that difficult for her.

Eventually, not seeing a way out, Dawnna considered suicide. Fortunately, she didn’t see it through. She decided that she would die naturally from hunger soon anyway. But she still had her pride; she didn’t want to prove her critics right.

Half a mile from her car was a YMCA. She knew that the manager, Pop, would come out early every morning, playing his boom box loudly and cleaning the windows. Dawnna decided to do something that went completely against her instincts and ask for his help.

“I went there and I begged him to let me take a shower. I told him that I just wanted to be clean before I died in the next few days. I just wanted my body to be clean when they found it – for my mother. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I felt humiliated by them.

“Still wanting to protect myself, I showered without ever closing my eyes or taking off all of my clothes. When I exited the shower wearing wet clothes, Pop chuckled a bit as if reading my mind. In my embarrassment for misjudging his kindness and not having anything to give in return, I rushed towards the door with a fleeting ‘thanks’.

“He responded, ‘No problem. I will see you tomorrow.’

“His words stopped me in my tracks. I replied, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Come back tomorrow. If you don’t die today, you’re going to need another shower’.”

Dawnna went back the next day and carried on going each day, offering to clean the windows and gym equipment in return for her shower. She and Pops talked while she cleaned.

“Before I showered, Pop asked me to share his breakfast with him. I was so hungry but so sceptical of his kindness. My stomach growled at the smell of the eggs and bacon. He said, ‘I can’t eat it all and it’ll just go in the garbage so you can have the rest’. Pops left the counter for a moment. By the time he came back the plate was completely empty and I had disappeared to the shower. I yelled, ‘I am never going to starve to death if you keep feeding me!’

“It was the first time I was actually vulnerable, truly vulnerable with someone, and it scared the crap out of me. I constantly questioned what he wanted from me which made those moments of vulnerability fleeting.”

What shocked Dawnna was that Pop never wanted anything in return. When she found a job, she saved up some money and took $70 back to the YMCA. It was a huge amount for her at the time but she wanted to pay Pop for the water she had used and the food she had eaten.

Pop simply refused to take it. And he wasn’t the only one.

A police officer, Officer Smiley, found Dawnna’s car in the woods. Dawnna naturally expected to be arrested but instead Officer Smiley came by every day with peanut butter and ate lunch while sitting on the bonnet of her car. After a couple of weeks, he introduced her to a local businessman, FJ Pillack.

FJ didn’t just give her a job but also paid for her to stay in a motel room across the street from the office until she could get back on her feet. Dawnna asked him to deduct the cost of the motel from her pay. Like Pop, FJ refused.

“There were people being kind to me for no reason and it made me feel very uneasy. When you have a tough exterior, you do not know how to handle people being nice to you for no reason. They must have ulterior motives. Growing up in the ‘hood you never want to owe anyone anything.

“These three men were all extremely kind to me, yet they never asked me for anything. It scared the hell out of me.”

Dawna flourished under FJ and by 26 she had started her own tech consultancy, which she sold when she was 39, taking early retirement. 

Where the Light Shines Through

There’s a pattern that appears throughout Dawnna’s story. Driven by the lack of acceptance by any of the communities in which she lived as a child, being able to show others that she was strong and didn’t need their help was a key factor in developing her tough exterior and trying to blend in. Breaking that pattern has been an important step in being vulnerable and accepting other people’s help.

“Quite often we worry about what people will think about our actions, our looks and our lives. They are not. It is our ego that makes us believe that people have an opinion about what we do. It is our ignorance that drives us to let their opinion shape our lives.

“The more authentically I showed up, the less I cared about what people thought about me. The more vulnerable I was, the more courageous people thought I was and the more people could connect with me – the real me. Then I heard this amazing quote: ‘Let people see the cracks because that is where the light shines through’” .

This is an extract from Just Ask: Why Seeking Support is Your Greatest Strength by Andy Lopata.

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