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A voice for the abused

Patty Lezama doesn’t sugarcoat the ongoing bouts of depression and nightmares that jolt her awake in the dead of night – two long-term side effects triggered by a plague of childhood traumas beginning at age 6, when her 20-year-old uncle molested her.

“This happened a month ago,” she said, rolling her left wrist over to reveal a fresh, vertical scar a few inches long. “I had a real down moment in the kitchen where I just kept cutting and cutting. I was trying to get release from the pain I’m carrying inside of me.”

A former anchor for Univision 67, as well as a former reporter for KION 46, Lezama is direct and honest; a quality that illuminates the frequent potholes in her ongoing journey toward emotional healing.

Confronting skeletons in her closet is just one aspect of her story, however. At the heart of searing memories and graphic details, a message of resilience emerges.

“He hurt me at the core of who I am. He literally took away my childhood. That’s something I’m never going to get back,” said the 35-year-old Hollister native who bottled her shame for years. “But at least it wasn’t in vain. All the people out there feeling pain, and feeling alone – they’re not.”

In conjunction with Thursday’s 30th anniversary of Community Solution’s Sexual Assault Program, which has aided several thousand victims free of charge in its three decades of operation, Lezama is again lending her story as a vivid reminder: Sexual assault in South County is not an anomaly.

Five years ago, Lezama began seeing a counselor at Community Solutions – a nonprofit community services agency with four branches in South County – with whom she confided her traumatic ordeals involving sexual molestation by a live-in uncle and later a female cousin, physical abuse from her father, suicide attempts, self-mutilation, insomnia and ensuing waves of debilitating depression.

“He was living in my house,” said Lezama, just 6 years old at the time, of the sexual encounters with her uncle, Enrique Lezama, that continued on and off for a year. “I couldn’t get away from him. No one knew.”

Lezama eventually went public with her story two years ago, spurning an outpour of response from closet victims who resonated with her “personal hell.” She never thought that by helping herself, she would be helping others, Lezama noted.

“It’s so scary to come out, but I feel it’s my responsibility to be outspoken about it. The more we talk about it, it ends the shame,” she said. “When I told all these people, I felt free, and beautiful … there’s so many people out there who don’t say anything. They just need that little push.”

Generally, 85 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and one in 10 sexual assaults is actually reported, according to Rosa Revuelta, sexual assault and prevention service manager at Community Solutions.

While their agency receives enough funding to serve 135 victims on its $317,201 state-funded budget, the need was so great, Community Solutions used $19,000 beyond its budget to provide services for an average 21 victims a month, or 256 in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Revuelta said their agency, which has a 24-hour Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline that receives 700 calls a year, is constantly debunking the common myth that “rape doesn’t happen here.”

“It does,” she countered. “It’s a very underreported crime.”

What still surprises her, Lezama ogled, is that every single rape and molestation victim that’s contacted her isn’t “getting help. I can’t even imagine the numbers. It’s beyond me.”

For victims who are scared of being judged, Lezama, who once feared people would accuse her of lying if she came forward, identifies with the feeling all too well.

After divulging to her best friend and college roommate the multiple unwanted sexual encounters with her uncle that carried on for a year, an 18-year-old Lezama tried to commit suicide by jumping in front of a car.

It wouldn’t be the last time she attempted to take her own life. Lezama tried to overdose on pills several years later.

Saying she “hated” herself for so long, Lezama recalled crying in the mornings as she drove to her former job at Univision, then faking a smile before going on camera.

“I would look at myself in the mirror and I would see a horrible animal, like an ugly pig,” she said.

It wasn’t until she learned and took advantage of the free counseling services in 2006 at the Community Solutions office in Hollister, followed by a weeklong stay in April 2007 at Concord Hospital Psychiatric Unit (where Lezama compared her mindset to that of “a zombie”) she finally began to understand “it wasn’t my fault.”

The staff at Community Solutions “taught me to start loving myself,” she said.

The assistance provided by the sexual assault program is comprehensive, including the 24-hour crisis line, in-person response, help with restraining orders, referrals, civil and criminal cases and accompaniment to court dates, to name a few services.

Veronica Echeverria, 35, a volunteer of one year, said watching victims “blossom” and take control of their lives again is “a blessing.”

She’s focused her efforts on legal advocacy, and gets emotional recalling victims who are “so thankful” just to have a friend supporting them in court.

“One woman told me, ‘no matter how desperate I get, I’m going to follow through with what I’m doing,'” remembered Echeverria. “It’s so rewarding to see these women become independent again.”

While every client’s experience post-trauma is different, the struggle is constant, Revuelta said.

“It’s something that changes their life completely and so because of that, they have to basically start their lives again. Sexual assault hits the core of someone,” she said. Coping with self-mutilation isn’t a healthy reaction, obviously, Revuelta said, and that’s where Community Solutions can intervene.

“We do know that part of the healing process is being able to talk about it and finding healthy ways of coping with the memories and the experience,” said Revuelta, who has worked in the area of sexual assault counseling for six years. “So we help to develop and find strength within, because someone has taken their power and control away. We try to help them gain power in their lives.”

Revuelta recalled a time when she gave a stuffed bear to a 7-year-old, prior to the little girl testifying in court.

Victims come in all ages, she said.

“She would position her teddy bear on the stand, so she wouldn’t have to look at the perpetrator,” said Revuelta. “It can be so empowering when (the victim) sees their attacker be held accountable for their actions.”

Many clients are grappling with assaults that happened months, years or decades ago, Revuelta said, but no matter the time lapse, “it can be very healing to talk about it and speak out against this type.”

When Lezama decided to confront her uncle at age 33, she described the encounter as “liberating.”

Narrating the memory, Lezama closed her eyes and shuddered.

“Just seeing his face, his scent … just remembering things he would do to me with his fingers and his hands,” she said, voice trailing.

“Because of you, I tried to kill myself,” she said to his face. “Because of you, I had nightmares.”

Her uncle apologized, although Lezama said his sincerity felt artificial.

Several days later, Enrique moved to Arizona with his wife, two daughters and one boy.

Lezama wasn’t able to press charges due to the statute of limitations, which, in this particular case, states her uncle’s crime is no longer punishable after a six-year time lapse.

Reflecting on how difficult it can be to grapple with the maelstrom of confusion and pain surrounding sexual abuse – especially without a reliable advocate, such as those available at Community Solutions – Lezama remembered, “I promised myself I would never tell anybody, because I was so ashamed. I was afraid people would accuse me of lying. I just felt dirty, like no one was going to believe me.”

Lezama’s method of confrontation was direct, she underscored the multiple options of addressing one’s attacker, such as writing a letter, or visiting the attacker’s grave site (if they’ve already passed away).

However, in her many exchanges with other victims, “the one thing that I hear the most is that they wish they would have confronted that person,” she noted.

Lezama wants victims to know the struggle “doesn’t end” – she’s taking a number of medications so she can remain stable. But she underlines the difference between seeking support, versus sticking it out alone.

“It sounds so beautiful that I got help, but it comes back, and it will for the rest of my life,” she said. “And that’s why it’s so important to have organizations like Community Solutions. Especially free ones.”

Lezama said she doesn’t regret facing the man who assaulted her.

“That day I had a lot of power over him,” she said. “And it felt good.”

Get help/volunteer/donate to Community Solutions

– Gilroy: (408) 842-7138

– Morgan Hill: (408) 779-2113

– Hollister: (831) 637-1094

Visit: www.communitysolutions.org

Domestic violence/sexual assault assistance

– Offers weekly counseling for up to six months, advocacy, court accompaniment, self defense classes, resources and referrals, crisis intervention, in-person response and help with restraining orders and criminal/civil cases.

– Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Crisis 24-hour hotline: 1-877-363-7238