I’ll never forget the night that changed my life. I was 13 years old and asleep in bed when I heard a loud noise. I came out of my bedroom, and my mother was standing in the front door. There were drunk men on the porch. I heard them say, “We’ve come to get what’s ours.”
My mother, Georgia, said, “What are you talking about?” She was fumbling to tie her bathrobe, and I could hear her voice shake. They said, “We’ve come to get our furniture. We won it in a game of poker.”
I’ll never forget what she said next: “Where’s Jim?”
They said, “He’s not here.”Imagine what she must have been thinking: My husband just gave you our address and let you come.
I couldn’t see how many men were out there, but they sounded like big old monsters. Our family had already endured poverty and uncertainty because of my father’s drinking and gambling. I was picturing 50 men bursting through the door and coming into my room to carry out my bed. But then my mother said, “Well, you’re not coming into this house.” Her voice was strong, and suddenly she grew to ten feet tall and 500 pounds in my eyes.
“You’re not coming in,” she said again. “Have your wives call me in the morning, and then we’ll discuss what you think is yours.” I watched as she closed the door and turned the lock. Then she looked at me, smiled, and said, “You can go to bed now.”
I must have stood there for … an hour? Two hours? Leaning against the wall, staring at that front door, replaying that scene over and over. I made two life decisions that night. One, I would never marry a man who drank or gambled. And two, I would be a powerful woman who protects her home and family. My mother stood in the door against all those men who wanted to take the little bit she had. If my mother could grow to ten feet tall and 500 pounds, then I could too.
Right then, I vowed that no one would ever threaten my family, scare my family, or cross the threshold of my home without an invitation. My children would never live in fear of their father’s alcoholic drinking. And I, as a child, would become an island in a sea of chaos.
On that pivotal night, I decided who I wanted to be.
On my first date with Phillip (or Dr. Phil, as most of you know him), I asked, “Do you drink alcohol?” And he said, “Actually, I think I’m allergic to it.” We just celebrated 37 years of marriage, and I’ve never seen Phillip drink. We have two grown sons, Jay and Jordan, who have been the center of our lives. My oldest, Jay, has two precious children who have taught me the definition of being a grandparent: love without worry.
This year, I’m facing another pivotal moment in a woman’s life—I’m turning 60. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother, and I credit so much of the woman, wife, mother, and grandmother I’ve turned out to be to her influence. She lived for her children and taught me that joy is being at home surrounded by family. But what I remember most of all is her smile. Even through the darkest times, my mother never failed to smile. It reassured my siblings and me that when we woke up, there would always be someone in the house taking care of us.
I look back with clearer eyes now, and I have to acknowledge that my mother taught me some negative lessons as well. My mother never got to see this stage of life, because she died of undiagnosed heart disease. My mother never put herself first, because she was so busy taking care of everyone else. I’ve vowed not to carry on her legacy of self-neglect, because I want to be here for my family.
I also believe my mother died young because she internalized the stress from all those years my father was drinking and gambling. Just to be clear, my parents adored each other, and my father was a kind and loving man when he wasn’t drinking. But he was a binge drinker, and when he drank, he stayed gone. We’d know he’d come home because the bedroom door would be closed and he’d be sleeping it off. When he came out, all cleaned up and dressed for work, he’d say, “Good morning!” and we’d say, “Good morning.”
No one ever talked about it.
My mother just pretended that my father hadn’t been missing for three days. We kids had no idea for many years how bad it was, how poor we were. My mother just smiled and took care of us through it all.
For the past 11 years, I’ve had the privilege of being in the audience at the Dr. Phil show. I will say, I can’t take my eyes off Phillip, and I listen to every word as if it’s the first time I’m hearing him because I think he’s just brilliant. But I’m truly mesmerized by the people who have the strength and courage to go on the show to ask for help. They are helping millions by sharing their stories.
I’ve been especially moved by the women who share stories about being victims of domestic violence. The number one tool abusers use is isolation. They keep the women from family and friends. Only one in four women reports her abuse. They think it’s normal or don’t think there is a way out.
Even though my mother was never the victim of domestic abuse, she pretended everything was normal and suffered in silence. It wasn’t until I was an adult with a family of my own that she finally told my father she’d leave him if he didn’t stop drinking. She actually filed divorce papers and allowed him to be served—he was shocked, and so was I! He stayed sober for their last years together. I feel great peace that they shared that time.
I’ve been searching for my purpose in this next phase of my life. Something I read in Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a book Phillip gave me, stays with me. The gist is that you must have meaning to your suffering because otherwise, it’s all for naught. Someone can take control of your life, but they cannot control your mind. The night that the men came to take the furniture, I didn’t have control, but I made a choice to have personal power over my life. I think all women can make that choice.
I’m launching a foundation this month to help victims of domestic violence. I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue. I want women to know: This is not normal. Don’t be ashamed. Tell someone. We must guard against judging these women, against saying, “Why don’t you just leave?” The resources each woman has within herself, her family, and her community at any given time vary greatly. I’m calling the foundation When Georgia Smiled because I want to give women the fierce strength I learned from my mother.
If my mother could talk to the women I’m trying to reach, the victims of abuse, she would say: Be strong. You deserve help. You’re worth it. She’d give them a hug. And then she’d smile.