Jan 1, 2024

Cindy Bell Gerhardt: From Fear to Freedom

“You are worthy of love and wholeness. You do not need to be trapped in an unwanted life. If you are experiencing abuse of any nature, please reach out to someone you trust.” —  Cindy Bell Gerhardt, domestic abuse survivor

No more beatings.

No more painful purple and black bruises.

No more self-hate, shame or humiliation.

“All of this is gone,” said Cindy Bell Gerhardt, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic abuse. “I went from being the girl who hid in the laundry room, to being free and becoming a strong woman.”

Gerhardt explained how someone can become a victim.

“Abuse doesn’t show up at your door one day and say, ‘Here I am.’ It slowly seeps into your life. The young woman who allowed that to happen at age 23 isn’t me anymore.”

In her compelling book, “From Broken to Badass: The Journey to My Brave First Step,” Gerhardt, 57, shares her life journey, from her early years as the only child of Southern Baptist parents to her 16th birthday when she was sexually assaulted by a pastor to adulthood when she was violently beaten by her second husband.

Gerhardt’s story reveals her struggles, her “many mistakes and bad decisions,” and how she reached deep inside her soul, tapping into her inner mettle to create a new life for herself and others. After the book was published, she began developing the nonprofit Brave First Step to help other victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. All book sales go to support the nonprofit.

“To move on, you must be honest with yourself; the book is my truth,” Gerhardt said. “My goal is to help those who suffer find the courage to unmask the brokenness and be brave enough to say, ‘I need help.’ Brave First Step is a bridge to connect victims with the available resources to help them.”

Gerhardt clearly recalls the day she faced her truth. It was the last time her husband beat her, but it was also when the words of an emergency room doctor hit her like a train. Expecting pity, she says she was caught off guard by the doctor’s frustration and irritation.

“He reviewed my chart and acknowledged this wasn’t my first visit to this ER,” she said. “He asked if I was going to press charges this time. I said yes. He asked if I was going to return to my husband, like I apparently always did. I said I didn’t know. He shook his head and asked if I would at least consider being a good mother and let someone else raise my kids.

“That statement floored me,” said Gerhardt, the mother of five children. “Had I heard him correctly? Did he just accuse me of being a bad mother? Where was his compassion? He explained that by staying I was teaching my daughters that it was OK to be abused, to be disrespected, and to be treated like trash. He said I was also teaching my sons how to be abusers. He was tired of cyclical behaviors of battered women. He also said I might not make it to the ER next time because I may not survive and would be leaving my children to be raised by an abuser.”

It’s true, Gerhardt said. The truth shall set you free.

“Thanks to that doctor’s harsh but heartfelt words that day, I finally made the decision to save myself and my children,” she said. “His words changed my life.”

Gerhardt’s life is more than a battered tale.

Among her favorite pastimes are photography and hiking — an activity that has taken her to the Rockies, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park, Appalachian Trail and many other popular hiking destinations.

And she especially loves her family, children, grandchildren and volunteering for various associations — including mission work abroad, homeless ministries locally, as well as child and family advocacy groups nationwide. She relishes public speaking and has addressed commissioners, governors, state and U.S. senators, members of Congress and the U.S. Secretary of Education.

For about 30 years, she has been involved in the PTA at national and state levels, involvement that keeps her on the road volunteering and doing speaking engagements.

“Today’s PTA is a powerhouse,” said Gerhardt, past Florida PTA president, National PTA Board of Directors member from 2021-2023 and current volunteer committee member. “The PTA represents families of all dynamics, religions, nationalities and socioeconomic statuses.”

She also served as an area director for Auto Plus, covering Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. When not on the job, she worked on her book in the sunroom of a home she owns on Lake Allatoona in Georgia and at a cabin on Cheaha Mountain in Alabama.

“The cabin is where I make all of my big decisions; I never make decisions at sea level,” she said, laughing.

Yes, these days, her life brims with laughter and smiles, she said.

One amusing story Gerhardt shares from her dark past still garners laughter: Way back when, Gerhardt had told her abusive husband that she had been taking aerobics classes, and she invited him to a tournament. But when he arrived, he quickly realized he was at a martial arts demonstration. Gerhardt excelled as a student and eventually earned a black belt.

“Just remember that everything that happens to you is the fabric of your creation,” Gerhardt said. “Of course, I am really 100% fallible, but I love who I am. You cannot be in a healthy relationship until you love yourself.”

Sadly, Gerhardt’s father passed away last summer, and she is now caretaker for her mother who uses a wheelchair.

“Your life must be whole to be happy, and that happens in many ways,” Gerhardt said.

Turning words into action

Cindy Bell Gerhardt is author of “From Broken to Badass, The Journey to My Brave First Step” ($19.95) available via Amazon.com.

She is also developing a plan of action for Brave First Step, a nonprofit that provides for the urgent needs of those in domestic violence situations, connecting them with resources and sanctuary and working within communities to develop new or enhance existing programs.

To receive help or to volunteer, send an email to abravefirststep@gmail.com.

For more information, go to bravefirststep.org.