It was around September 2018 in Miami; about 7pm and I was on my way back home from an intense work out from the gym when I met "Amanda Panda" (at the request of the individual to be anonymous). I was contemplating on what to eat for dinner while driving but clearly, nothing came to mind since hunger and exhaustion got the best of me. Meanwhile, I was 5 minutes away from home when I suddenly noticed and passed by a quaint Italian restaurant that caught my eye because it was so busy with all the cars trying to find a parking. I told myself to check it out and maybe I will find something for a take out dinner.
The moment I stepped in the restaurant, a little shy and uncomfortable in my sweaty gym clothes that had a design of a panda working out, I was approached by a friendly lady who works in the take out counter. She has this angelic, cherubim-like face, blue-green eyes and curly hair. I told her I never heard of the place and was just passing by and lived in the neighborhood. While finally decided to order my food, she immediately asked me where I got my panda shirt from because she said that she like pandas (and to my argument, "Who wouldn't anyway, right?"). I told her that I love collecting pandas too and that it was a gift from a friend. We chatted a little bit while waiting for my food to get ready and told her that she should check out my blog because clearly I post about a lot of panda-related content that she may find interesting. We then exchanged social media accounts as my food came and left.
Couple of days after, Amanda reached out to me and told me she was interested in purchasing a product that I sell to support one of the associations I support (Pandas International). Ever since, we kept in touch via social media but never really had the chance to see her again as I was constantly traveling. I told her however that once I am back in Miami, I would love to see her and catch up.
Fast forward to 2020, I found myself spending some down time in Miami during the pandemic and reached out to Amanda for a casual outdoor drink and this is how it all started. Amanda mentioned to me a bit about herself and that she is a recovering addict. I immediately asked her if she would be willing to share her story and recovery in my blog and without hesitation she told me that she would love to. I invited her a couple of months ago (it was around September 2020) at The Panda Palace (AKA my Miami residence), so I can ask her in-depth and personal questions that really made me get to know Amanda and the inspiring story of her life's journey.
PP: Hi Amanda, thank you for coming and visiting me. So please tell me a little background of you and your childhood.
A: I was born in Miami, the youngest of three. I have two older brothers. My parents were both working while I was growing up so I spent most of my time with my grandparents. When I was growing up, my eldest brother was incarcerated so I never really had a relationship with him but I did have a close relationship with my other brother.
PP: How was the dynamics and how was your parents at home when you were a child?
A: I could say that they were more strict with me being the youngest and the only girl in the family. I can remember that they will not allow me to play outside and prohibited me to use the computer and phone for too long. My parents were more lenient with my brothers than they were with me.
PP: I am interested to know about your relationship with your grandparents. When I first sent you a draft of the questions, you came back with answers that vividly described a strong bond with your grandfather. Can you share a little bit about that?
A: I was very close to my grandfather because while my parents were working, he was a father-figure to me and I remember that he used to pick me up after school and often, spend time at the park, feeding the ducks old bread or stale cornflakes. We would slide in his car and burn ourselves on the seatbelt buckles. Those are some of the best memories I have of my grandfather.
PP: Those are nice memories of him I may say, and what happened next?
A: My grandfather sadly passed away of cancer in 1996 and I felt an immense loss that year. Not only I saw my grandmother cry almost all the time but I felt like I was robbed of the closest person growing up. I was 7 years old that time.
PP: I see, the draft essay you sent me, you wrote that at that age, you also "unwillingly lost your innocence", can you elaborate on that?
A: One day, my grandmother cannot stop crying, still mourning for the passing of my grandfather. That day, my grandmother and I went to her friend's house because she was so sad and wanted to see her friend to find a little bit of consolation. The friend of my grandmother had a son who was in middle school (somewhere around 10 or 11 at that time) and he was the one who took my innocence. I remembered while my grandmother was talking to her friend, there were two boys (including the one I mentioned), invited me to go to the swimming pool and hang out (in the apartment complex) while my grandmother and their mother (her friend) were talking. The younger boy lent me some change of clothes since I did not plan nor bring any to go swimming. The agreement, however, was that the older brother was to accompany us.
PP: So what happened next?
A: While we were walking to the pool, the older brother kept complimenting and saying some remarks about me physically but I could never really wrap my thoughts around it since I was only 7 yrs old and I never experienced a situation like that. So when we were in the pool, we decided to play tag. The older brother decided to join and chase me around, while swimming and forcefully tried to stick his finger inside of me. Immediately, I felt shame and thought to myself that it was wrong and something was not right. In my head, I can hear my mother screaming at me, "You don't let anyone touch you"... But how can I tell my parents that this boy violated me? I felt that this was my fault.
PP: Wow. I couldn't imagine how traumatized you felt at that instance at such a young age. What happened after? Was this the beginning of the spiral of events in your life?
A: It was a whirlwind of emotions for me. I still remember that boy telling me something which stayed with me for a very long time. He said after we had all got out of the pool that I was more beautiful than any girl he had seen in a Playboy magazine. As a child, I really could not piece everything together, but now as an adultl, I found out that when that incident happened, they actually had an older brother who may have played a part for this boy to be intrigued about sexuality at that age. Unfortunately, I happened to be at that picture at a wrong time and circumstance. I felt like even if it was his fault for forcefully doing that to me, I am sure that his older brother or parents are somewhat to be blamed as well for not teaching him what is right from wrong in the subject of sexuality.
PP: I totally agree with you. I feel like there is a fine line that parents should put in mind that they have to educate their children one way or another about sexuality, consent, morality and the likes at a very young age instead of children trying to discover it on their own (and not knowing if it is right or wrong or illegal). So how did this unfortunate incident affect you?
A: So I kept that inside of me and did not share it to anyone because of shame and fear. At the same time also, things were not too good at home as my parents were fighting a lot, my other brother (the middle child) started to become a problem child, I was starting to get depressed because I cried a lot all the time and I just did not know how to voice it out or put words into all the mixed emotions I have bottled since I was 7. My parents never really knew what was going on and I had to see a psychiatrist that would only drug me more by prescribing all the medications that I had to take. I think my mother just thought I was a sad little kid. At one point, we even moved to California since my parents joined a church missionary project and also to change the environment for my brother.
PP: When did you first start using drugs?
A: I started getting high at the age of 7, the same year that my grandfather passed away and after the traumatic sexual incident. In the beginning, it was just my brother and I playing around and competing of who can take the most Benadryl and still function normally without falling while having that "high" or "dizzy" feeling.
PP: That is indeed a very young age to start experimenting with drugs, so what happened next?
A: I started to smoke weed and drink while in California just because outside of the church, it was always around and available (because of my brother). After a year and half, we ended up going back to Miami because my brother was getting into more trouble than ever. We temporarily moved in with my grandmother at that time but because of the dynamics at home where my parents were always fighting, I eventually moved out and lived with my aunt. My parents finally divorced when I was 17 and I also started experimenting with other types of drugs like cocaine and had already dropped out of high school. Everybody had to fend for their own since my mother met her boyfriend, my brother moved in with his girlfriend and I was left by myself. Eventually, I would meet the father of my son, Eliseo. My ex-husband and I are no longer together but I am glad that my son is finally living with me since my ex-husband had custody of him while I was in rehab.
PP: Do you think a lot of the things that you have experienced were your own choice or partly due to lack of parental guidance?
A: I always had a weird relationship with my mother. When my parents divorced, my father moved out and at some point, I found out that my mother was also sexually- abused and now I sort of understood why she did not know how to handle what happened to me (after eventually finding out). I think it was a cycle that could have been stopped if only my mother knew how to address and correct this since it happened to me at a very young age and I really felt lost and did not know what to do. Although, I knew that my mother did the best she could to take care of us. Now that I am a parent, I definitely try my hardest to be a good role model to my son.
PP: So at the age of 20, you went to rehab. What happened?
A: I went to a rehabilitation center for six months when I got separated from my husband. At that time, I was using all kinds of drugs and drinking excessively and still dealing with depression. Then, I met a guy while in rehab who I ended up with and who introduced me to heroine when we got out of the program.
PP: You got out of rehab and yet continued to use drugs?
A: Yes. I guess it was something that I was not ready to fully end and I was not ready to admit that. This drug (heroine) would bring me to my knees spiritually and homeless under a bridge for a few months. I stole, lied, whatever it took to get the next hit. I would end up in a hospital for a few weeks. I contracted Hepatitis C and I was developing physical symptoms. However, this did not top me from using. The man I was with overdosed so many times but I was always able to bring him back until the last time when finally, not me nor help can bring him back to life. His family blamed me for his death. My father also eventually died with his battle from Huntington's Disease.
PP: I am so sorry to hear that. You have been through so much at a young age. What happened next?
A: I finally felt that I had enough of this spiral. I started detoxing and attended meetings. I followed their suggestions. The most important one to me was to give myself a chance: I have not touched a needle in five years-the same length of time since my boyfriend passed away.. I did piece together 6 months of clean time and thought it would be a good idea to drink again but that ended miserably. I realized how important and valuable clean time is. You get it one day at a time. I put together 3 years this month (September 2020) of absolutely no drinking, no drugs or self-harm. I have my son in my life. For awhile, I worked in a restaurant (where we met) and went to meetings. With the help of my friends, I applied at a Cancer Institute; an opportunity I thought I could never have but the Higher Powers have plans for me...
I learned that if there is anyone in the spiral of addiction, there is hope. My life is not perfect but I have great peace. I get to work on myself a little everyday and I am proud of where I am right now. I lead a completely different life. I do my best to love me today. If you are as tired as I was and your life is a complete mess, there is another way...
PP: Thank you so much Amanda for sharing your inspiring story, Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this journey and I am proud of the strides you have made for yourself and your son. I am sure that everyone who will read this article will be inspired to better themselves and have hope especially for those who are suffering and battling their inner demons and addiction. Thank you!
*** By sharing Amanda's story in this platform. I can only say that I am indeed very lucky to have known her and be given the opportunity to witness her transformation- She is continuously blossoming to the butterfly that she truly is; that is why I entitled this article. Amanda's Metamorphosis. In life, we all have our share of ups and downs and although our life's journeys may be different from everyone else's, there is one universal thing that we can learn: When life throws a curve ball, you can change the trajectory of your life's path for the better with willpower, courage and determination. Amanda's life experience is a testimony that it is possible. May we learn to never take every single waking day for granted-- For it is a new opportunity for a change, to conquer and to seize the moment of becoming the best version of ourselves.
Until then and have a promising 2021 everyone!