Shawnda's Story

* Written by Shawnda James

"As a little girl, there were several circumstances and experiences that caused me to feel unloved and less than worthy. First was my mom’s abandonment of me as a result of her heroin addiction and her presence in my life after a detox experience where she verbally expressed her want to get away so she could get her drug of choice. Then came the death of my father (my maternal grandfather) and the loss of Gram (my maternal grandmother) mentally and emotionally as she struggled to cope with the loss of her husband. Last, my mom’s death by overdose. All these events were impactful in creating in me a broken mentality, overwhelming emotions, and a toxic shame all by the age of 12.

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As I prepare to turn 40, I am blessed and often amazed that that was not the end of my story. I am a healed, matured woman who now uses every day to help others know that if I can come through it, so can they. I can’t change the actions of the past, but in every decision I make now I focus on creating better futures, not just for me and my family, but for others. As a certified peer recovery specialist with the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, I lead groups and facilitate classes centered around trauma and healing and help others on their journey of recovery. There is still a little girl inside of me that is now just as excited to know that there are others who love me and believe in me, have seen the growth in me, and are fighting for my release. All of my growth has happened in these 25 years inside of prison, and I look forward to seeing what it translates to outside of these walls. Thank you!"

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However, as sad as that was for me as a little girl, it became a tragedy for the world two years later. Gram decided to send me to Tennessee to live with my aunt and uncle. My uncle’s military style of discipline mixed with physical confrontations by both my aunt and uncle continued to split my fragmented mindset. I ran away ten days before I turned 14. I was taken to the Giles County Sheriff Department to talk to Sheriff Eddie Bass with whom I shared the happenings going on in the house. Nothing resulted from that conversation. I was sent back with my aunt and uncle who were told what I had said. In the following six weeks, I had my 14th birthday, the physical encounters in the house became more frequent, and I made a choice that would destroy lives. On March 5, 1995, I shot and killed my aunt Kelly as she lay sleeping. Her life was ended, but that is far from the whole picture. I robbed my cousin of a life with his mother, I robbed my uncle of his wife and made him a single parent, I took Mrs. McCrary’s youngest child from her, I created a chasm in my own family, and I hurt many who had never contributed to my brokenness. That was the whole picture…when I was 14.