KOKO x MADI APPAREL: CONFESSIONS OF A LADYSHARK
the story of how the world’s most misunderstood predator revived a deeply broken soul.
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When we were young our mothers prepared us for the monsters of this world. As children we peeked beneath our beds. As adolescents we learned to lock our doors. As developing women we learned to walk in well lit areas. Our fathers taught us the importance of the way a man should treat a woman.
However; what went untold is that not all monsters come equipped with seemingly endless rows of teeth. Sometimes, the most dangerous monsters enter our lives unnoticed. Sometimes, they are the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. Disguised beneath illusions of a love so unfathomably deep and beneath a mirage of good intention we welcome them into our hearts and homes.
I was twenty two years young when I met my monster.
And in the beginning, if even for what only feels like a moment, I truly loved him. Every word he spoke I accepted as truth. My clouded mind and heart smothered out the instinctual warning felt resonating throughout my bones.
He was handsome. He was compassionate. He was the most charismatic person I had ever met. I was mesmerized. I was hopeful.
I was naive.
Within two weeks he had convinced me to leave the solitude of my home. Within three weeks he had convinced me to leave my work. It took four weeks to become completely dependent upon him for survival without realizing.
And then suddenly this perfect man began to shift into a slightly less recognizable form each day until nothing but a stranger stood before me.
He was condescending. He was manipulative. He was untrustworthy. I was isolated. I was unemployed. I was homeless.
I had given him every ounce of control over my life and I was now playing by his rules.
Survival in Hawaii is difficult. Cost of living is borderline unreasonable. Decent employment opportunities are few and far between. Affordable housing is nonexistent. Survival in Hawaii is difficult; unless you are a member of the armed forces. And he was. It was easy for him to convince me to stay. It was easy for me to justify his actions and the reasons I should have left.
What I knew is that he had been married before.
What I had thought that I didn’t know was that he hadn’t told the military of his divorce and was now fraudulently using married pay to provide for us. And that he had been caught. And my only way out of being homeless, jobless, and alone in Hawaii was immediate nuptials.
What I actually didn’t know is that he was still married.
And that he had perfectly timed this fabricated situation to have a second marriage aligned just days after the finalization of his divorce in order to keep the pay and benefits so desperately needed for survival.
By the time I had discovered the truth it was too late. I had told my mother I had met the man I intended to spend the rest of my life with. I had told my father I had met a good man just like I promised I would. They had already scrambled to arrange my “spontaneous and intimate” beach ceremony and were on the way to Hawaii. I was too ashamed of myself to tell the truth. I was too ashamed at what my family would think of their weak, naive daughter. I remained silent.
I was twenty two years young when I married my monster.
I put on the dress. I wore the haku. I carried the flowers. I walked down the aisle barefoot in the sand.
Shaking from fear I made a vow that day. A vow to myself. That if I were to become a wife, I would not do it half heartedly. I would forgive. I would love.
Ku'u aloha no na kau a kau.
He made a vow too that day too. And although I heard the words, they held no weight.
Three days. That’s all I had with my husband before he was sent away for training. I had two months of solitude. Two much needed months where I reflected, healed, and learned to forgive and begin anew. I was ready to build a life and I was ready to be a wife. I wanted to start our lives hand in hand, embarking on an adventure.
When he finally returned we hiked the ridge lines of the Na Pali Coast. We swam beneath the lush waterfalls of Kalalau. We slept in sea caves shared with rock crabs and bullfrogs. We counted the stars each night and felt invincible. We flew across the country and explored his home town. We laughed with old friends. We ate hushpuppies until we couldn’t breathe. We giggled and held hands as we watched manatees play in shallow mangroves.
And then one night everything changed.
I was 22 years young when my husband almost took my life.
I saw the eyes of the man I loved go cold as he stared right through me while he wrapped his hands around my throat. I fought for my life against the man that vowed to protect and cherish me until the end of time.
And then I watched the world turn dark.
When I woke I was laying in a ditch on the side of a New Smyrna Beach backroad. Within moments an officer was asking my name. He asked if I could breathe. He asked if I had known who did this to me. A local resident had heard my screams and called for help. My mind couldn’t grasp whether this was my reality or some strange nightmare as I whispered the words, “my husband”. They took pictures of my body. I had never felt so alone and exposed. I couldn’t explain it, but even in that moment I felt fear overtake me as I suddenly felt the need to protect him.
They called him. He answered. I listened as the officer told my husband that I had been attacked. I listened as my husband told the officer he hoped I was dead just before hanging up the phone. In that moment, I wish I had died too.
The next morning my husband woke and wondered where his wife was.
The only person I wanted to console me was the very person that had done this to me. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. The moment the door opened his eyes immediately locked onto the black bruises wrapping around my neck, only made distinguishable into the shape of hands by torn skin and blood vessels broken in between them. I watched his eyes fill with tears as he broke down. I frantically watched as he began to talk his way out of it.
"This has never happened before."
"This must be PTSD from Afghanistan.”
“I love you so much. I would never hurt you on purpose.”
And then I watched the conversation turn.
“If the army hears about this I will lose my job.”
"We will lose our home.”
"You will end up back in Missouri.”
"Is that what you want?”
Because of the severity of the situation, the state of Florida was pressing charges on my behalf. Suddenly I went from the victim to the person destroying our lives should I tell the truth. And so I went to the court and made a written testimony that I didn’t remember what had happened to me.
He was free. And the moment that he knew that he would no longer be held liable for his actions, he was no longer liable to experience the guilt and responsibility of his actions either. And compassion was no longer welcome in his mind.
And so we went home.
I just kept thinking that everything would be fixed, we just needed to get back to Hawaii. But part of me never left the side of Saxon Road that night. And it didn’t matter where I was, nothing was fixed and nothing was okay. Night terrors haunted me incessantly. I couldn’t stand to be touched, which only made him more frustrated and angry with me. Sharing a bed with him made me feel like a thousand insects were trying to eat their way out from underneath my skin. I wouldn’t leave the house for weeks. I wouldn’t speak for days. I would lay in bed and play that night over and over in my head, wishing I hadn’t fought back.
Until finally I had found within me a reason to live, and I could breathe again. And the air didn’t feel so heavy anymore. I felt a purpose and love so deep that I felt saved. Until it left me. And I experienced a loss deeper than I could have ever imagined. And I entered a new depth of darkness I never knew was possible.
And it only got worse.
I was no longer allowed to be sad. I was no longer allowed to feel pain. I was no longer allowed to grieve. I couldn’t talk about it with him. But I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone else either. I was shamed for my emotions and told I needed to get over it. I was told I didn’t know what broken was until I’ve had my best friends die in my arms at the hands of explosives. I was mocked. I was ignored. The emotional and verbal abuse hurt worse than any of the physical. Those wounds healed. Scars formed and my body recovered. It was the mind and heart that suffered most.
After four months of internal terror and the loss of all will to live, fate brought me back to sharks.
I had always loved sharks and I had always known my life would be surrounded by them one way or another. I had studied them in my undergrad and planned on focusing my career path towards sharks before everything happened. I had done the SharkWeek episode earlier that year and it had opened the door for this new opportunity I was suddenly presented with to study shark behavior.
And so I decided to leave that godforsaken bed and fight for my life once more.
I threw myself entirely into my work and made the sharks my life. For the first time in months I had found the one place I felt at peace. When you are underwater with the sharks you are unable to think about anything going on above the surface. You become entirely focused on your interactions in that exact moment. How many sharks are surrounding you? Which sharks are dominant? Which shark is currently the alpha? Where do I need to place myself within the pack? Observe. Read their behavior. Remain dominant.
The thing about throwing yourself into a pack of 20-40 sharks every single day is that you can’t be weak. You can’t be uncomfortable. You can’t be uncertain in your movements and you can’t be complacent. You have to be an alpha. And so after hours that turned into days that turned into weeks that turned into months of observing shark behavior and interacting within the pack, I transformed. I was no longer this broken, fragile thing. I was an alpha. I was a ladyshark. And it reached a point where it translated to life above the surface as well. I had learned my own strengths and worth because the sharks had taught them to me.
After dedicating my life’s purpose to saving sharks, in the end it was the sharks that had saved me.
And the battle to protect them became more personal than I could have ever imagined. Because I owe my life to them. And no matter how much I try to do for them it will never be enough.
I became so focused on work that life outside of it didn’t exist. There was nothing but sharks. For a long time. And everything else in my life got set aside and ignored. I shoved all the dark, broken bits of my life into a corner and left them there as if they didn’t exist. And we pretended everything was fine. We put on the show and everyone admired us for it. We became #relationshipgoals and people envied our life together. But it was just that, only a show. While we praised and worshiped each other on social media we slept in separate bedrooms and hardly spoke in real life.
Eventually I sought help. We went to therapy both together and individually. My heart still ached for him and what he went through on deployment. I truly believed he was sick and broken and I had made a vow to be there for him in sickness and health. It wasn’t an excuse for the continually toxic environment he insisted on keeping me in, but I felt obligated to stay. So I did. He talked about his deployments. I vaguely talked about what I could without discussing any physical violence that could get him in trouble. But that wasn’t helping. It was just another person I wasn’t allowed to tell. I still wasn’t allowed to heal the way I needed. He was ordered to remain sober to prevent any dangerous circumstances. I told him I was willing to try to save the marriage if he gave me a reason to. He continually gave me reasons not to.
Finally I fought up the courage and asked for a divorce. Even then a bit of my heart held hope that there was a part of him in there capable of being saved. Even then he could have convinced me to stay just once more.
He under no circumstance wanted the divorce. He made that very clear. Months went by. He made it nearly impossible for me to leave. All of my finances were his. I had been supporting his every need and want to the point where I had nothing for myself. He fought hard for me to stay. He promised it would be different. He swore I was his life and that he will never let me go. Those words eventually turned into threats and promises of never letting me go. He began to sabotage my career every way he could imagine. And so he tried to take my life from me again; this time in the form of my passions. Ripping them from me and using them as a tool of revenge.
And that was the breaking point.
I packed a single backpack and bought a single ticket to Southeast Asia and told him I wasn’t coming home to him afterwards.
When I finally returned months later with divorce papers in hand; my nightmare was over. He had finally agreed to sign.
I was 24 years young when I rid my life of my monster.
It wasn’t until after the paperwork was signed and I felt uncomfortable enough to file a restraining order that I discovered that my monster was not my own. My monster belonged to many girls before me. This was not the first time anything like this had happened. In fact I was not even the second, third, or fourth girl. The girls before me stretched back as far as 11 years ago. Well before any time spent in the military and overseas. However, deployment PTSD as an excuse was just another fabrication. His staff sergeant confirmed that not only had he never been to Afghanistan, he had never been deployed on a single mission throughout his entire military career. He was not even affiliated to the unit he was claiming.
I remember the exact moment that I realized what I had done. I had given my life and heart to a complete stranger. Every memory, every last happy moment I had held on to was instantly torn from my mind. And I was left numb.
Even still, I remained silent.
I picked up the pieces. I carried on. I removed all access he could possibly have to my life. But he made sure I couldn’t forget. He tarnished my name and began a mission to break me in every indirect way he could think of. And even when I watched our friends turn their back on me; I remained silent. I would have rather played the monster in his world than welcome them into the shame I felt within mine. At least in his world I was the tormentor. At least in his world I had the upper hand. And although his world wasn’t real, somehow it soothed me.
For I wished so deeply that his world was truth. I would have gladly traded my truths for his fabrications; because in his world he was the weak one. And I was the monster.
And so I remained silent. And I chose to leave the island that once felt like home.
It has been some time now since then. And I have learned more about myself than I could have ever imagined through the journey. And I have rebuilt the broken bits of myself and have cherished them deeply for the lessons they provided. And there are moments where my monster haunts me even still, and I struggle to recognize just how far I’ve come and just how beautiful the journey can be.
But I am not that fragile, broken girl.
I am a ladyshark.
I am silent no more.
I will no longer be ashamed.
And I will continue to fight for my life.
I have decided to bare all not only as a form of healing for myself, but to help any other women who may relate to my story. Because this isn't about me. Or him. This is about inspiring you to conquer your monsters; whatever or whoever they may be.
Because falling victim to domestic violence does not make you weak.
Because “loving you too much” is never an acceptable excuse.
Because there is no acceptable excuse.
Because there is a ladyshark within you, waiting to be awoken.
Because I believe in you. And you are not alone.
Shoutout to two insanely incredible women in my life; Jules & Kay. I wouldn't be where I am today without the constant support and inspiration you two have provided and continue to provide. You girls are everything to me. xLS