The Woman in the Red Dress | Nishani Ford
Some years back I had the opportunity to be MC and Keynote Speaker for a women’s day function at a very large banking institution. That wasn’t the highlight of the event. It was a woman that I met that same day and then at subsequent training I facilitated at the bank, who caught my attention. She sat quietly, but listened intently. When she asked questions, they were intelligent, and well-thought through. She left me with the indelible impression that she was hungry for change and growth in her own life. Her story is one of triumph through many trials and years of tears. Today Nishani has learnt that obstacles are those things you climb on to take you to new opportunities. Those opportunities have been the open door for her to take the rough material of her own life and enrobe others with courage and inspiration, through her wonderful speaking and coaching that she does through her new business called Working With Purpose.
Meet Nishani – The Woman in the Red Dress
I had the very rare privilege of growing up in a kind and loving household. We were a simple family who delighted in the joy of being together. My mother fell pregnant with me by miracle as she was told she could not have children. She was then dealt another blow as the doctors pronounced me dead in her womb. As my parents were people of great faith, they continued to pray and trust for a healthy baby. They were miraculously blessed with me. My mother had five more children after me, which resulted in what felt like a pyjama party every night growing up. I loved it! My father treated us all like we were encrusted with diamonds. He did not raise his voice or swear, even in times of difficulty – he remained dignified. Our home overflowed with love, and even though we were not a wealthy family, we felt totally rich. My father was highly respected and a gentleman to all. He set the standard and created a mind-set and an expectation in me that every man was like this.
I became a missionary, working on a ship that sailed around South Africa and I interacted with different people from all walks of life. I was instantly drawn to a person who was also on this boat. He had eyes as blue as the ocean that we were sailing on, his beautiful olive skin covering all 6 feet of him. It was love — at first sight. He proposed to me after a mere two weeks! The year was 1995 and the reign of apartheid in South Africa had only just come to an end, making inter-racial marriages legal, but still a very difficult process and acceptance in accordance with societal views was going to be a challenge. This hurdle compared to the love I had for Sean seemed small. I wondered how much more perfect life could get.
Within a year we were married and lived blissfully in a quaint beach cottage. Before long the first little baby was on the way. With one month left before our first child was to enter the world, he resigned his job to respond to an army call-up. This dreamy, idyllic life I had tasted was starting to be soured. The cultural differences became more difficult to manage after our son, JK was born. On the day we brought our brand new baby home and he was peacefully asleep, he started an argument that erupted into a verbal rage that left me reeling and shocked because this certainly was not the man had I married and it was so far removed from the loving way my father had raised me. Now that he was unemployed, we were solely reliant on the small payments from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, and I had no maternity benefits. Our baby’s first Christmas neared and our family and friends gifted us with much needed cash. I was so grateful to have the relief of covering all our expenses. One incident followed another, until shame started to creep into my heart; shame that I was married to such a man.
13 years of covering up his behaviour; compromise and pretense led me into a dark prison from which I thought there would be no escape. After my six week check-up, I found myself back at work since he was still unemployed and made no attempt at finding a job. The days were a blur of breast-feeding, caring for a colic new-born and work. All of this activity was shrouded by deep, dark bouts of depression. It seemed that I had a new-born child and a naughty toddler to care for, as my husband became more childlike, sleeping in late and playing video games for most of the day. Where was the father of our baby? He was hidden behind the excuse that as a white male in South Africa, jobs were impossible to find.
My family helped to look after JK when they could and I would try to be a good wife by juggling a full-time job, nursing my new child and still finding time to cook and clean. I tried to understand his point of view, but that amounted to nothing except his increasing bitterness and that I became his punching bag. Well-meaning church pastors gave us food vouchers and told me to submit to my husband as head of the home, and to stand by him because he was going through a difficult time and needed my support. All the while, he became frighteningly anti–social and I began to withdraw more into myself and away from the world. Menial jobs were half-heartedly attempted by him and these only long enough for us to catch our breath, but then he would get angry that he had to work and complain about how unfair it was that he had to do this kind of work. Finally he was asked to leave.
This pattern was a regular occurrence in our lives and it quickly spiralled into a cycle of joblessness, little or no cash and a sickening feeling of having no way out of the trap. I’m thankful to our family doctor who generously gave milk formula for the baby and to my family who helped with food and money to cover some of the bills. However there was a bigger trap that I was falling into. This was the trap of pride. Too proud to tell those who really cared that I was locked out the house at night without a warm nightgown or a cell phone. Nights spent sleeping in a cold garage didn’t do much for my health. But deep inside, I was proud, angry and determined. My pride stopped me from what I believed was stooping to ask for help. I was going to fix this all by myself. What a price was to be paid for that stupid pride. There was a verse in the Bible that kept stirring around my heart:
I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his children begging for bread.
– Psalm 37:25
Abuse comes in all forms. By this time I was living in the vicious cycle of financial, emotional, physical, psychological, verbal and sexual abuse. Too ashamed, too isolated and depressed – I tried to commit suicide several times. Panic attacks and silent, dark depression were part of my daily routine. I was a hopeless victim at that stage. As much as I portrayed a tough exterior, my self-esteem and self-worth plummeted like a ton of lead. I no longer shopped for my personal needs and wore only hand-me-downs. I wanted to leave him. I tried to several times. To my dismay, I found out I was pregnant with our second child. My then employer wanted to retrench me. This led to a three-month battle in the Mediation and Arbitration Court which finally awarded me maternity benefits and an acceptable pay-out.
Then in a seemingly negative synchronisation, my beloved father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. If we will take the time to recognise the silver lining in every cloud, I realised that the gift of retrenchment allowed me to spend the last few months of his life with him in a very special way. But his illness was the cataclysmic event that finally pushed my world off its axis. I wanted to end it all. But leaving my babies with an abusive, unloving man would be the most serious mistake of my life. Instead I made a higher decision to find my courage.
I heard that jobs were available in Gauteng. I took my first job as a receptionist in a major bank and I knew that I had God’s favour. The company paid for all my relocation expenses despite a black mark and negative credit rating against my name. God opened the door to a new future. Work became a place of solace and I started to find a place of rest in my soul there. When I got home though it was hell again as he continued to lash out at me and now unfortunately at my boys too. The verbal abuse increased and turned into sexual abuse – the depths of which are not worth writing about. The only way I could cope was to become completely lifeless by cutting off my feelings and living in denial. Ice cold…my heart was as hard and cold as stone. The depression worsened, panic attacks swamped me, and I started to harm myself; hitting my head against the wall to at least try to feel alive – to feel something. I became suicidal. He preyed on those moments – always telling me what a hopeless mother I was and how I could not cope. He would hurt me, continue to lock me out and spew out vitriolic obscenities.
To the world we looked like a normal family. I recall how he would teach a Sunday school class at church and then in the car park after church he would start his onslaught of verbal abuse. It was diabolically hypocritical. I would beat myself up for not leaving him. Everything was a lie and I hated myself for it. I was working two or three jobs now, selling food and crafts which I did after 8 o’clock when the boys were asleep.
Then a life-changing moment happened. The women at the office were all going to a breakfast hosted by Angelique du Toit, at an elite hotel in Sandton. I was desperate to go, but could not afford the R350 which at that stage seemed like a million bucks and an utter luxury. But deep in my heart I knew I had to get there. I had met Angelique through her previous work with the bank and was invited to this breakfast as her guest. Her words, “Your gifting is your avenue for revenue”, made a great impact on me and I was inspired to dig myself out of this very deep, dark hole. I started to exercise my choice and to excel at my work. I took everything seriously, knowing that I had to be financially and emotionally strong to make a move in my personal life.
Looking back at the last 15 years at the bank, I worked my way from being a temporary call centre agent, into the Head of L&D of an entire cluster – earning over ten times what I did as a receptionist. In 2007, I was awarded a place on a women’s leadership programme. It once again changed the course of my life! I started to feel alive again, I allowed myself to believe that there was hope and that I was indeed truly valuable. I gave of myself completely, immersing myself in this experience. It was the birthplace of my gift of poetry as a way of self-expression. Another step of victory was climbed and achieved when I was nominated the Top Achiever on the programme. I was then given the opportunity to be a leader and mentor of the programme for the next few years.
Working and giving became a path of healing for me.
Set Me Free…To Be
Where are you she screamed?
Trapped within a cage.
I need to break free…to be.
I need to break free…to be.
To Be true to who I am –
The woman in the depth of my core screams,
Set me free.
Do I have the courage to let her go…
Am I afraid to open the door, or
Am I afraid of what her great freedom would mean to the world?
Courage! Courage! She Screams…
Let me free to BE
Magnificent, Celebrated ME!
I was still trapped – but I was alive and growing stronger each day. It was December and I remember the argument we had just had. He was not working again and bills were mounting. He had shoved me against the wall and my head was in pain. I had packed a suitcase for the weekend and I was gone. The next three months saw me living with family and trying to get back on my feet. It was tough on my own. The worst part is that I loved him still – or so I thought. I wish I could say that I did not return to him, but I let him back into our lives. You see he was charming, the father of my sons and full of promises of change. He even admitted himself into a rehabilitation centre to deal with his anger issues and he assured me that he had changed.
I am reminded of the analogy of a frog that when put into boiling water will immediately jump out, but if put into cold water which is slowly heated up, the frog will stay and die a slow death. That was me. As the pot of water was reaching boiling point, I met a life coach who asked if I would consider being a case study for her. This six-month process got me on a path of self-development that was unlike any other. I started to see how I needed to love myself again. I remember developing a language dictionary for emotional language because I had completely forgotten how to feel anything. I acknowledged my need for support and for the first time started to see my life for what it really was.
I was thirsty for this knowledge and skill, and especially that it could change the lives of others too. I enrolled for a three year course at the University of Cape Town which helped me apply my own life lessons to the case studies. I signed up for three other qualifications concurrently and excelled at each one. As I embraced the power of choice and change, he remained the same, and our lives were faced with a fork in the road. My boys did not know the real me; I laughed very little, showed no joy, and we had never been on a family holiday. I was angry at life – and at God. But He had given me a promise to hold on to: “I will restore to you what the locust has eaten.” I would only begin to understand those words much later.
But for now I was working on my three year exit plan. We lived in the same house but in separate rooms, except when I was forced to perform my wifely duties. My plan was to pay off the debt and try with every bit of my being to stay out of his angry way. I was constantly walking on eggshells to keep us alive.
The defining, life-changing moment came when I looked up into my children’s eyes as he had a knife to my throat. In that split second of time I thought my boys would watch their father kill their mother today. By some miracle, he lowered the knife, and I knew beyond doubt, that this was my final sign. I had to leave. I had had enough! His leaving was not dramatic or theatrical in any way. The paradox of the leaving was rather uninteresting since my life had been so full of tension, that once on my own, I exhaled for the first time – and breathed again. I started picking up the fragmented pieces to put together the puzzle of my life and to live once again.
The first three years after we separated were terrible. My children seemed to buckle under the pressure and stress of the trauma. JK went missing and became a user of heavy drugs. No doubt for him, it was a form of escape. Both boys became violent, acting out all they had seen. I had to send my child to a rehabilitation centre. He was only 13.
It has been a long and winding road but I have allowed myself and my boys to heal and to love. I have deeply deposited into their lives the riches of self-respect and self-worth and how to treat me as a woman. It has been a roller-coaster ride of family ups-and-downs with its own fair share of challenges. I often wondered what God was thinking. How much would one woman be expected to handle? Even the church and well-meaning Christians seriously hurt me during this period. My faith was shaken and I stopped going to church for about a year. I wanted to find God and be guided by Him only, without the influence of religion and the endless judgements it imposed. The decision to draw close to God in my own personal way helped me to draw closer to the God of my childhood and I learned the freedom of divine love without the shackles of organised religion.
I also learned that there is much work to be done in educating religious organisations to deal with the issues of Addiction and Abuse. We have started to really bond as a family for the first time. We certainly are not there yet, but we are far better off now than were we were before. I realise that the greatest gift we have is personal choice and forgiveness. I have learned to forgive myself and my ex-husband for the pain he caused me. I pray for him. Perhaps one day he will find a way out for himself.
When I look back over these pages, I wonder how twenty years of life have fitted into these few pages. Laughter now dances on my heart often. I am truly free in my soul and body. There are many things I aspire to. I dream again and have started to live a life of purpose. I am living my dream every day now. I have my own company assisting families, communities, the medical industry and government, in the vast area of Addiction and Abuse. The focus is to move them from the strongholds of addiction and cycles of abuse to a way of life that brings true healing and restoration. I dream of living a full life with my own children and of knowing true love for the first time again.
I wish I could tell you that this story has a “Happily Ever After” ending… My son is a recovering addict and we are still a family on a journey together. But I am in a place of courage that allows him to receive the help he needs and for us all to be free – truly free… Today, for the first time in 20 years, I put on my red dress. I dance with the freedom that God has given me – the joy of loving who I am, of reveling in the laughter of my children. Dancing in Grace and Dignity in the sheer delight of the moment…I am alive again.
(Angelique – This beautiful piece I dedicate to Nishani)
YOUR DIMENSION OF GREATNESS
No one can know the potential,
Of a life that is committed to win;
With courage – the challenge it faces,
To achieve great success in the end!
So, explore the Dimension of Greatness,
And believe that the world can be won;
By a mind that is fully committed,
Knowing the task can be done!
Your world has no place for the skeptic,
No room for the doubter to stand;
To weaken your firm resolution;
That you can excel in this land!
We must have vision to see our potential,
And faith to believe that we can;
Then COURAGE TO ACT with conviction,
To become what GOD meant us to be!
Nishani shares her hard-earned lessons by way of encouragement. Take them, make them your own, learn from them, and find your own courage to make the changes that will take you to your next beautiful chapter:
- It took me thirteen years to leave an abusive husband. It seems odd now that it took me that long. The important thing though is that I left. Recent statistics show that over 70% of abused women stay in their destructive relationships. Unfortunately, the abuser over time makes you believe that you are nothing without him. It’s a lie. Follow the truth. Find your courage. Leave. There is never a guarantee that you will change him or that he will ever choose to change. You and I both deserve a fighting chance to be free and happy.
- Have a plan. Several times along the way I tried to leave him, but could not. My final exit took me three years of planning. I needed to have a home for my boys, a car – and to be in a financially strong position. Plan your exit and execute your plan. The situation will not change on its own. Use wisdom.
- Keep records of doctors’ visits and police interventions, even if you do not press charges. This helps when the custody of the children matters becomes a reality. I managed to get sole custody of my boys. No doubt good record-keeping assisted in this.
- Find your own path to God. Build your relationship with Him. We have a lot of man-made religion that doesn’t lead to true life. True spirituality is deep and wonderful. Forget the perfect offering – there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.
- I have always had what I needed when I needed it. I have never gone without food or a roof over my head. I am not sure how that was possible over time, but I acknowledge that God is always there and His Divine Intervention comes just at the right time. Believe. Have faith. Know that you are not alone.
- Choices: We always have a choice. My choice was to look at my choices and issues eye-ball to eye-ball until I was clear about which way I needed to go. I take full responsibility for my choices these days. The hardest thing to live with was that I was a part of my children’s pain. I chose to stay and they were hurt so much in the process. Make choices that will give you and your children the best chance of creating a new lifestyle. And while you are creating your new lifestyle, forgive and love yourself and others. It’s the best gift.
- Recognise the miracles as you go through your own processes of change.
- THE MOST IMPORTANT: “DON’T WEAR YOUR WISHBONE WHERE YOUR BACKBONE OUGHT TO BE.’’ Love yourself enough to ACT. Faith without works is dead.
Some of my personal, appreciated miracles….
- I was blessed with a home. Given as a gift to me.
- A good car for just R 25 000 was available when I needed one.
- My studies have been funded to the value of R 500 000 with no lock-in contract.
- With all the upheaval I was going through, I have been awarded many accolades. In early 2013 I was was featured in the Mail and Guardian book of South African Women.
- My weight has come down 22kgs and I’m still counting. I am no longer the ‘Whale” he had made me believe I was.
- Our lives as a family have become enjoyable. We spend weekends away and I have booked our first overseas trip. What fun. Such celebration!
- Be willing to do the work and make the changes. Recognise that the journey will require hard work and determination. This is a woman who did not count herself worthy to shop at a daily department store. Now I confidently buy tailored designer clothes.
- Never raise the white flag of surrender. I won’t surrender or give up without a fight for those things that are important. It takes courage to survive daily abuse. I know what it’s like to fight for my son’s life. I’ve had nothing, but I learnt in that moment to be content.
- Shame: What a wasted, twisted thing! I was abused and I felt silent shame. My son was an addict and I was ashamed. You know it’s a waste to not talk about these things. When I share my story, many people come out the closest, and because they speak, they can be helped. The things we do not speak about hold a shameful, destructive power over us. Society judges and warns us to be private and not to share personal matters. I don’t care too much about that society, especially when we can save lives. I am fortunate and grateful to be alive.
- Acknowledge those people in your life who become real gifts and who help you along the way.
- Love your neighbour as yourself. Learning to love and accept myself has been a challenging journey. But I like who I am now and I enjoy the company I keep with myself.
- Grow in Gratitude. A dear friend introduced me to the idea of a celebration plate. Whoever had something to celebrate that day could share it at dinner and eat off the celebration plate. I cannot tell you how when times were the darkest and we felt utterly alone, that this small daily practice gave my boys and I a flicker of hope. It kept things in perspective and we were able to pull through by being thankful for the smallest of things.
- Recognise the magic moments in the most ordinary things in life. I have learned to live fully in the moment and to really play a lot more. Laughter dances on my heart often and I am free in my soul, body and mind. There are many things I aspire to. There are still many challenges – but I am no longer afraid and drink it all in as the exciting journey unfolds.
Laughing and dancing on my journey, in my red dress (symbolic of joy, passion, love for life), has led me to open my own business, working in the space of Leadership and Coaching. I offer key note addresses which I am proud to say have taken me around the country and to Swaziland and Namibia. I am currently writing a book on Recovery Coaching.
I am alive again.
You are invited to connect with Nishani Ford on the links below. Be sure to invite Nishani to speak to the women at your event.
Nishani, I knew from the moment I met you that you had rich substance deeply ingrained in you. Have you ever proven me right! I am so proud of you and your achievements. Thank you for the contribution you are making to our nation and our continent. Working on your story with you has enriched my life deeply. Thank you.
With love and appreciation,