• Courtney Phillips

My story of healing – Heather Marie Van Cleave

From the outside, most people could never understand that Heather Marie Van Cleave had a struggle in the world. What they don’t realize is that she’s a survivor! She’s overcome depression and PTSD from multiple traumas throughout her life. She’s been the victim of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, rape, and physical, emotional and verbal abuse. But she’s working to help others by sharing her story and working with the nonprofit Runway2Life. She’s found healing through counseling, spending time with her kids, focusing on devotional time with God and sharing her story with others.

Learn more about her story of healing below:

Tell me about yourself: I’m a Jane of all trades, master of none. God gave me many different gifts and talents that I use to help make a difference in the world. I come from a musical, Broadway family where everyone sings, acts or plays an instrument. My instrument has been my voice. I use it to sing, speak and tell my story to bring people hope.

My story: When I was just a little girl, my mom and dad were both actors and singers on Broadway. Their marriage didn’t last long, and they went through a divorce. My older sister and I went back and forth to stay with my dad and mom. During the transition, a family friend of my dad’s sexually molested me. I blocked it out for years and didn’t talk about it until I was a teenager suffering from depression, shame and suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know that depression ran in our family until I found out that the death of my uncle when I was in middle school was from suicide.

As a teenager and ended up getting raped by a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. It added more depression and shame that I hid for years.

Because of these occurrences early in life, I learned how to fake being confident and ended up in one bad relationship after the next seeking love from all of the wrong men. Dysfunction was more normal to me than a healthy relationship, and I was married and divorced from my first abusive relationship before the age of 22.

When I became pregnant at 23 with my son, his biological father wanted nothing to do with me or my son. But, I knew I would love my son and raise him on my own. A year after my son was born, I met someone who seemed to be a good Christian man in church. He was a Navy Seal who said all the right things, including quoting scripture. I fell quickly for the facade of love that he offered.

Shortly after we were married, the façade slipped away. I ended up being locked in rooms and given a black eye. Under his controlling abuse, we had two daughters together. He had sexual addictions, rage and anger issues that left bruises on me regularly. After advice from pastors and counselors, I filed for divorce and went into hiding with my children.

It took two years and protective orders, after finding a tracking device on my car, to finally get him to sign divorce papers. I was given sole legal and physical custody of my daughters and have raised them on my own.

I would love to say that ended my string of bad relationships but it didn’t. I’ve been cheated on, had a loaded gun pointed to my head, threatened with a taser gun and cussed out regularly in public telling me how bad of a mother and wife I was. I went through more counseling and didn’t date for over a year. I spoke about surviving domestic violence and helped other women that were struggling.

I thought I was completely healed and then fell into another dysfunctional relationship this year that almost killed me. In April, I was strangled by the hands of my ex who struggled with severely unattended mental illness that I wasn't aware of. I thought I was going to die.

These men obviously showed their best side in the beginning, but I still ignored red flags. Most of them were in a friend zone for a while before I even dated them. But the problem is, when you are used to dysfunction, you ignore red flags. When you are searching for love from all of the wrong places in life, and in my case, from men, you settle for less when it’s offered in disguise as love. I’m a strong, independent woman, so how did I end up in these horrible relationships? The answer: They were “normal” to me.

What is the history of your struggle? I think every little girl needs a healthy male role model in their life to show them how a woman is supposed to be treated and to be loved. Even though I had a dad and stepdad in my life, I didn’t have a healthy role model of a loving father growing up or the greatest example of what a healthy marriage looks like. My parents did the best they knew how, and they now have been married for over 30 years after healing in their own marriages. But I definitely had a void of feeling loved by a man. Instead of living a promiscuous life with men outside of marriage, I got married way too quickly thinking that was what a Christian woman was supposed to do. I blocked out the pain and learned how to survive without acknowledging what was really going on inside. I was attracted to the wrong men instead of the right men from the abuse I endured and didn’t even realize it.

What was the instance that caused you to realize that you needed to seek care? After being strangled in April, I went back to my counselor that helped me get through my previous divorce to ask for advice on what I should do. Was I supposed to love him in sickness and in health? Should I try to make this work even after he tried to kill me because he was mentally ill?

She said, “Heather...every relationship you have been in has been with someone who was mentally ill with addictions or anger issues. You try to help them, but they don’t want to change. You are loyal...to a fault. And you’re like a bulldog who isn’t afraid of a fight. You deserve better than this. But you’re like a Phoenix and every time you get burned by the fire, you rise up stronger.”

She was right in every way. I had dated or married men that struggled with addictions, anger issues and mental illness. I was trying to help fix them to be loved in return. I thought I could help them change. I realized that day I can’t change anyone that doesn’t want help or see that they need to change. The only person I can change is me. I had to stop seeing the best in these dysfunctional men from my own pain trying to be loved in return and see them for who they really were. I had to break the cycle of looking for love. I had been trying for years to fill a void that only God can fill.

What does your recovery look like? Overcoming PTSD from being strangled and the depression that followed was not easy. I had nightmares for months and lost an unhealthy amount of weight. I went to counseling and filled my downtime with helping others to keep my mind off of me and the trauma. I made sure I started to take care of my mind, body and soul again and made time for me in the morning to have devotional time with God. I was intentional about getting in gym time and started sharing my story more freely to help others speak up about their struggles too.

Where are you now?

I can’t say that I’m completely healed, because it’s a journey and it takes time. I still have moments when my PTSD responds to a place or person that brings back the nightmares and trauma. Depression and shame tries to creep back in at times but when it does, I stop and pray and ask God for help. That always brings me peace. I love spending time with my kids and also have a close circle of friends and family that I can reach out to for encouragement and prayer. When I feel like I need more than that, I go to counseling. Talking about what you’re struggling with inside is healing. I’m very open with my kids about my struggles so that they know it's ok to talk about it. I never want them to repeat my bad mistakes. Raising them on my own has been humbling. I’ve apologized to them for my personal mistakes, and they know I’m not perfect. But because I’m honest about my struggles, they know that it’s ok to be honest about their struggles too. We all have them. The more we talk about it, the less of a stigma it becomes.

One piece of advice you would give someone in a situation like yours trying to decide whether or not to seek care:

We all have issues and struggles in life. We all have voids from something that is missing in our lives. We can’t ignore them or try to fill them with temporary substitutes; we have to face them. God can fill your voids better than anything or anyone else. We all have either experienced a traumatic event in our lives or know someone else who has. Talking about it brings darkness into the light. It not only helps you heal, but it helps someone else who might be struggling too. I’m a huge advocate for mental health and domestic violence awareness. I encourage anyone who is struggling to seek help with counseling or medical treatment if needed. Just like with a broken bone or sickness, you go to a doctor to help fix or repair what’s wrong. Your heart and mind can become broken, and they need help too. Take care of your mind, body and soul. If one is off, the rest will also feel imbalanced. It’s important to make sure you are taking care of all three to function in a healthy lifestyle.[MOU4] Bottom line, know your worth. Don’t settle for less than you deserve, but first, you have to acknowledge any pain that you’ve endured to get healing and know that you deserve better.

Mental Health Resources If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don’t suffer in silence! There are free and affordable resources to help you get through these times. Here are just a few options for you below:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255): Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your confidential, toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. 

  • National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) offers peer-to-peer support groups in most locations. This in-person group experience provides the opportunity for mutual support and positive impact. You can experience compassion and reinforcement from people who relate to your experiences. 

  • Some federal agencies offer resources for identifying practitioners and assistance in finding low-cost health services. These include:

  • Health Resources and Services Administration works to improve access to health care. The website has information on finding affordable healthcare, including health centers that offer care on a sliding fee scale.

  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has information on its website about benefits and eligibility for its programs and how to enroll.

  • The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus website also has lists of directories and organizations that can help in identifying a health practitioner.

  • Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offer resources to help answer questions about insurance coverage for mental health care.

  • Service members and Veterans have unique needs. https://www.mentalhealth.gov/get-help/veterans provides for their specific needs.

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