Armed with only a 10th grade education and a GED, Sil Lai Abrams became an award winning writer, renown speaker and activist. But it wasn’t as simple as just getting the academic credentials. Abrams had to overcome an alcohol addiction, identity issues, and a relationship with a man who abused her. As a teen, the parents who raised her dropped a truth bomb, revealing to Sil Lai that they were not her biological parents. She became a teenage alcoholic and ended up hospitalized because of it. She was a victim of sexual assault, and domestic violence. But Abrams managed to turn her breakdowns into breakthroughs. Despite it all, Abrams still will not call herself a survivor. She’s a contender. She says a contender gets into the ring of life and when they get knocked down, they get back up. Her approach to living rather than just surviving is proactive instead of reactive.
After overcoming her obstacles, Abrams published a book based on her life experiences titled No More Drama: Nine Simple Steps to Transforming a Breakdown into a Breakthrough. In her book, she introduces readers to what she calls the SEPIA Process. Since then, she’s been featured on major networks including ABC and Fox and in national magazines like O and Black Enterprise. Currently, she’s working on her second book, writing articles as the relationship expert for Ebony.com in addition to speaking at conferences and spearheading her activist work with TruthInReality. Abrams was determined to not only make it through her dysfunction but to transform it and come out stronger.
Read below to take a peek inside the agenda of Sil Lai Abrams.
Your career is very intertwined with your personal story. Did you ever imagine that you’d be able to turn such a negative experience into not only a powerful testimony but a powerful career?
I didn’t imagine it. At the time, when I was coming out of my whole break down I was in a lot of pain and I had to find a greater meaning and a purpose just for my own survival. So that I could feel the courage to get up again. I was focused on getting my story out, purging and getting rid of the shame that I felt around the fact that I had experienced so many traumatic things. I really was taking it one day at a time. I didn’t think about it all the way to the end. I just thought ‘okay, you’ve got to show up for today.’
And the career has definitely been intentional. I didn’t just kind fall into it. I made a conscious decision to harness the power of story telling; of using your personal narrative as a way to inspire yourself, inspire your work..regardless of what that work is.
Outside of modeling, you started out your career as an office secretary and then transitioned to being a successful event planner. How did you make that transition?
Again, it was something that was very intentional. I was working at a company which I knew that I didn’t want to [grow in.] So I thought, well how am I going to engage myself? How can I stay connected to the work that I’m doing? So I just volunteered.
The CFO’s secretary was charged with putting together the annual holiday party and I knew she was just overwhelmed and didn’t really like it. I volunteered to help and ended up running with it, and it went so well that other department heads came to me and asked if I would be interested in helping out with other events, like media breakfasts or a golf outing for a client or a holiday party. I did that and then it wasn’t going anywhere. They did not increase the head count. So I resigned. And with the one contact, (and this is a real Sil Lai Abrams move) with the one contact I had, which was an event director of a night club here in New York, I went out and started pushing to do freelance gigs. And I bar-tended. I was doing a lot more bar-tending than event planning and after a year and a half, a job opened up at the Roxy Nightclub for an event coordinator.
It didn’t pay any benefits, it was $15 an hour and I went, and I started learning how to throw events. I was there for 3 months; money stunk, I didn’t like the environment, I was definitely being stifled.
I really have a very strong belief in God, or what I call God, or something much greater than us, and I know the power of intentional focus and of really having vision. So I started praying every day: “God I need to double my income. I cannot support my family on this.” And our expenses were high. Raising two kids is not easy. Supporting four people on less than 6 figures in New York City is definitely a challenge.
I prayed and prayed. And on a whim, I called the gentleman who was one of the partners at the company that owned Coffee Shop in Union Square. At the time they had several venues and they were looking for an event person. They were like ‘oh Sil Lai, if you know anyone let me know.’ And I was like ‘oh I know someone, me!’ And him being very polite and being that we’d known each other for twelve years, he was like ‘oh ok well send your resume over.’ My resume stunk. I had no experience.
This is a director position. [At the time] I was making 30 [thousand dollars] a year. [The position was] going to pay 50-60. I interviewed and I knew that they were interviewing other people who had more experience, so I created a marketing plan. I went and I got a book out of a book store, marketing 101 or something like that, and then just did an analysis of who the competition was and a case study of how I would promote. I submitted that and left that for them to review. They came back to me, and they offered me the job. They were paying on the low end, and I said ‘no, I need more.’ And I really believed that, I really believed it. So they went back, sat on it for a week and came back and they made the offer in the amount that I wanted, and so I did double my income.
God is so good. God had been at work in my life and I see God is at work in everyone’s life. If we’re willing to really listen we’ll see all those connections that are lined up.
At the time, you managed to have a thriving career while your personal life was spiraling. How did you manage to hide it?
You know my personal life wasn’t spiraling, it was me more so. At that time when my career was going through this evolution, I was married, I had a wonderful husband who I’m still friends with to this day. But I was broken. And if you look a certain way, no one would of thought my background was what it was. Certainly no one would think I was struggling with chronic depression, or any of the issues that I had. That again was intentional. I knew how to create a persona. I worked in an industry, entertainment, that attracts certain types of personalities, and I fit right in at that time.
How did you come up with the SEPIA process?
When I was telling [a friend] a little about my life– she [happened to] work in publishing– and she’s said you know Sil Lai you should write a book about your life. After writing the first few pages, I wrote basically 50 to 70 pages, I felt horrible, and I didn’t understand why. When I was reading what I had written, I realized that my framework was off. The way I was looking at the world was skewed because I was focusing on the negative and not on the positive.
I was focused on things that I had suffered as opposed to focusing on how I had overcome. I then started thinking, well okay yea you have been a victim of sexual assault but how did you get help? Yea, you were a teenage alcoholic and you did end up hospitalized from your drinking, but how did you stop? How did you form a career armed with only a 10th grade education and a GED? How did you do those things? I realized that every time that I did, I took certain steps. I’m like okay well, what’s the first thing you did? When you got honest with yourself about your drinking, what did you do? What’s one word to summarize it? I went through the steps that way.
How do you find the strength to constantly retell what you’ve been through?
When I tell my story, I try to not spend a lot of time in what happened, and I like to spend more time focused on the solution, which I think is important for those who experience trauma.
I was at [an] event on Thursday, and after I spoke, there was a book signing. A young lady comes up to me, speaks to me to see if I could sign her book. She talks to me telling me how my speech touched her and I gave her hope to rebuild her life. She said, ‘I lost everything, I’m in a shelter now.’ She says, ‘I lost my kids, the judge took them away. He even ruined my smile.’ The whole time she’s speaking to me, she can’t make eye contact, she’s looking at the ground. Then she opens her mouth and I see she’s missing teeth on the left side, because her batterer knocked her teeth out.
So she inspired me, to reach out on twitter, and to go and find an oral surgeon who is donating his time and resources to give her a new tooth. It’s women like Milagros who motivate me to get up there and to share my story. They motivate me to use my resources.
Ultimately what I do is not about me, it’s about being of service to those who don’t have a voice for themselves, and that’s what gets me up there and sharing. It’s women like that. It’s women like the women I meet who are in prison, serving time, because they made a bad choice because they’re trying to hold on to their partner. It’s women everyday, women like myself who drew a short straw in life or made the wrong choice of loving the wrong person. But I know, if I could work it out and rebuild, trust me anyone else can, because there’s nothing extraordinary about me.
What are some methods you use to manage your various roles as a writer, speaker, activist and a mom? What comes first in your day?
What comes first is prayer. What comes first is meditation. What comes first is reading an inspirational passage from any of the Holy text. That’s the first thing. And I set my intention for the day to be of service first and foremost. Then after I give thanks for what I have, then I go and tackle things. I have a running list which I break down and personalize, Truth In Reality and my business. My advocacy work, my business, my company, my personal life. At the start of every week, I write down, I kind of do a brain dump of everything. Then I highlight the things that are important and then I go and I review it everyday and I add things to it.
What motivated you to take such a strong stance against reality TV programming? And why do you think people watch the ignorant/degrading shows?
I took a stand particularly on reality television because I saw women, black women, women of color who were being singled out, and being put on this huge platform that was focused on encouraging some of the most unhealthy and destuctive behaviors .
When I’m looking at Evelyn Lozada or NeNe Leakes, I was that woman. I was here in New York, ask any one of my friends who knew me when I was 22, running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I was in that scene, I was in the hot scene. I would get drunk. I would be loud. I didn’t have a purpose. I thought that a man was an acceptable life plan. I was that woman. But fortunately I was given an out.
My dysfunction was such that I couldn’t take the middle path. I had to choose. And so that’s why I took a stand because I said you know this is what media is telling our young girls to aspire to. We can’t allow ourselves to buy into the stereotypes and the lowest common denominator of a survivor. We are more powerful than that. We as a people overcome so much more and to see otherwise beautiful, attractive women, physically attractive women, acting crazy, all for a little bit of coins in their pocket and being manipulated by corporations by producers. I was like ‘oh absolutely not, hell no.’ If I could do it, with an alcohol addiction, being a single parent, you can do it.
Do you have a motto that you live by?
Work hard, give back, and love. Everyday I wake up, I’m like alright you have to work hard, you have to focus. You have to work hard, make sure what you’re doing is going to help another person. Try and love people — no one’e perfect, everyone’s got issues, and for me, I always try to remind myself really to love. It’s hard being in this position of an activist because I have people tell me ‘oh you’re so judgmental.’ I take a position on something I know is harming my people. I’m entitled to that but it doesn’t mean that I can’t love my brothers and sisters.
What’s on your agenda for 2013?
Finishing my second book, and continuing to push. I ultimately want to create a cultural shift in the way that our community views domestic violence. So a number of initiatives that are all aimed towards that. And, just being able to breathe. Much more personal relaxation. I think I tend to work myself a little too hard. So finding that balance and reincorporating physical fitness. That’s a goal for me.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS PIECE WAS PUBLISHED Oct 29, 2012.
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