Sabrina Greenlee is a woman whose story boasts an unimaginable level of inspiration. She is the mother of four children – one of whom is superstar NFL wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins – a grandmother of six, and the founder of the non profit foundation, S.M.O.O.T.H.
Greenlee was inspired to create the foundation and dedicate her life to educating and empowering women after a domestic violence incident which changed her life forever. On July 20th, 2002, Greenlee was confronted by a woman who turned out to be the girlfriend of a man who she was dating. During the confrontation, the woman attacked Greenlee by throwing a concoction of acid on her. She suffered severe burns to her face and lost her eyesight instantly.
Greenlee was rushed to a nearby hospital and airlifted to a burn center. She was placed under a medically induced coma, which lasted approximately a month, and had to not only endure the trauma of what occurred, but adjust to an entirely new life.
21Ninety sat down with Sabrina Greenlee to discuss the early signs of domestic violence, how she was able to move forward in forgiveness, and how she is using her story and platform to assist other women in getting out and staying out of the dangerous cycle of abuse.
Jadriena Solomon: In an interview with 97.9 The Box, you spoke about how the relationship with the person you were seeing at the time sparked and progressed rather quickly in the time span of just three months. This person had keys to your home, access to your cars – access to a lot of things that he probably shouldn’t have had so early on in the relationship. You also shared that you were dealing with a lot of self-hatred and negative self worth at the time, and developed a quick attachment style which opened up the door for someone like him to enter into your life. What red flags do you recommend people look for in their partner, and in themselves, to prevent something like this from happening to them as well?
Sabrina Greenlee: The first thing that resonates with me is understanding and taking accountability. Because I’m very, very, self aware now to understand that nobody made me drive to that place [where the incident occured] but me. No one put me in that situation with him, but me. So I began to look at what was going on with me at that time, and the voids were in my life at that time.
The only way that I was able to heal from that situation was – first of all, putting myself in her shoes which takes a lot of boldness. That was the only way that I was able to look at how I got to that place at that time. I had to ask myself, ‘How did I allow these people to do this heinous act to me?’.
But looking back, I realized that I was accepting all of these red flags – the hiding the phone, the lies – I was accepting that because I was in a place of so much self-hatred. I had a tremendous amount of insecurities. Whenever someone would say that I was pretty, I instantly thought to myself that they were trying to be funny. So I realized that I was attracting emptiness and attracting someone who preyed on those insecurities. It led to constant arguments and I knew [something bad] was going to happen, I just didn’t know when.
The woman who attacked me – her name would start coming up in our conversations – and it began to be this scenario of, ‘I don’t know her, and she doesn’t know me’ type of thing. I began to look at her like she was the one I needed to have the battle with. But I should have just looked at myself and said ‘You know what. This is not for me. I’m worth way more than this. Why am I even in this triangle?’ I should’ve gotten out. All of the negativity that I was dealing with over the course of that relationship was feeding my insecurities.
So if I had to talk to advise young women, I would tell them to really take the time to look at themselves. Because the one thing about a man or people that are doing these things, is that hurt people hurt people – the man that I was dealing with had his own insecurities – but you should always stand up for yourself and always look at the red flags. It doesn’t get any better. It just keeps getting worse and worse. And it never stops.
JS: After your attack, you were in a medically induced coma. You lost your eyesight. Your skin had to be transplanted from other parts of your body to cover the lacerations that you sustained from the acid. You went through intense therapy to relearn how to talk, move your arms and regain your normal function. You went through an intense depression, where you spoke about moving only between your bedroom and your bathroom for the capacity of three years. You contemplated suicide. How did you keep yourself from becoming angry at the world, or angry at the people that did this to you? Or if you did become angry, how did you overcome that and move forward in forgiveness?
SG: I was so angry. I was so mad at everyone. And I think I began to muster up the courage to talk to people and allow people to come into my life – there was one particular lady, her name is Pastor Ova. She came in and started cooking in my home, and she would sit on the edge of my bed. And I would think to myself, ‘Why is this woman here? I don’t want to talk to anyone.’. But she just kept coming back.
And I remember one day I woke up and I was just tired – tired of being tired. And I realized that I had counted forty eight pill bottles on my nightstand. I took pills to wake up, to go to sleep, to eat, to function. And I was just tired. And I remember picking up the phone and I asked her, ‘How do I pray for my children because I’m tired?’. And she just said, ‘I’ll be right there.’ And it was that one simple little muster of faith – that was all I needed.
I wanted to know how to get out of that rut and I began to realize that I wanted to be a mother again. And she began to speak life into me. She told me, ‘One day you’ll be in front of thousands of women’ and I asked her, ‘How am I going to be able to forgive them? How am I ever going to face people again?’. And more, and more, I began to build my faith and build my confidence up.
I mustered up the strength to get out of the house, and make my way back into the kitchen – which was so tough, there were a lot of tears. Every little thing seemed like a mountain to me. I had to start over. But it took someone else to believe in me – to say ‘You’re so much more than what you’re doing right now. And it’s not right what they did to you. But God spared your life, so what are you going to do with it?’. It took one person to truly believe that I could get up out of that bed.
JS: Society can often label the victim as the victim. But I think the true victim in a lot of horrendous circumstances is actually the abuser because their actions, which are intended to inflict harm on others, actually shows how broken and in need of help they are. What do you say to that?
SG: I would say that statement is absolutely true. As I said earlier, hurt people hurt people. People don’t just, by chance, wake up and say that they want to abuse people or they want to hurt people. There’s something that has been broken in them. There are root causes to everybody’s actions – I truly believe that.
But I feel that we as a society have to get to the root cause and start working on going to the schools and implementing programs so that people can deal with trauma so much earlier on in life. That is where I feel we are lacking – at catching it at an early age so that we’re not looking at so many of these cases later on in life and wondering why. And then, it’s almost like we’re numb to it now. It just happens so much, but what is the root cause of all of this?
JS: You are a survivor in so many forms of the word. How have you been able to take that title or label of “victim,” and flip it to first and foremost prove to yourself that you’re not that – that you’re so much more than that. How were you able to first bring yourself to believe that?
SG: Through helping other people. I still sometimes get caught up in feeling like I can’t do enough. And the word survivor – what did I survive? Have I really survived? So I still ask myself those questions because I feel like I want to do enough.
So as long as I’m living, I’m still surviving something. I’m still dealing with some form of trauma in some type of way because I’ve lost so many loved ones and gone through so much. But helping other people gives me so much healing and pleasure. When I can help other women and make their lives a little bit easier, that is when I’m most gratified. So they can get to that place of saying that they’re a survivor – I know it’s going to be a long road, I’m still surviving.
JS: Your kids were fairly young when you were attacked. And although they weren’t there when it happened, how do you feel they internalized the violence that was done towards you? And how do you feel children, in general, internalize watching violence unfold in front of their eyes?
SG: I’ve always said that society needs to really understand that children are survivors. Just because my children were not there when it happened, they still felt the impact that it had on me. People don’t understand that when you do something to a mother, you do something to the entire family. It’s a family unit. And so, my children – I still say that they’re survivors.
They still needed counseling, and mentorship and the understanding that they’re going through something as well. I do believe that my children were impacted severely because of the attack on my life. And I did everything the wrong way, of course, in the beginning – I was just silent. And now we talk about it, there’s an open dialogue because they needed to heal also. And we need to understand that as a society we have to reach out to these children. With all of these recent things that are happening to women being abused or being attacked, we need to also acknowledge the children in every situation and get them the help that they need.
JS: You reflect on that horrible experience that happened to you as actually being a “blessing in disguise.” It propelled your children to successful careers. And it also handed you the experience to create a platform, and deliver resources for women currently going through the cycles of abuse. Can you tell us more about your nonprofit, S.M.O.O.T.H.? (Speaking Mentally, Outwardly, Opening Opportunities Towards Healing)
SG: Absolutely. S.M.O.O.T.H., of course, advocates against domestic violence. We help women transitioning out of organizations and agencies – as they’ve gotten the courage to get out and stand up for themselves and their children.
I wanted to get the women that were coming out of shelters and taking that courage to stand up for themselves. As they are transitioning into their own dwelling – whether it’s a condo, a house, an apartment, a trailer – we give them the necessary tools to sustain that transition. Whether it’s financial literacy, mentorship – I recently got all of my ladies life coach certified, as myself – we’re prepared to talk to these ladies and be there mentally, not only physically.
We provide them with household supplies, furniture – whatever it takes for a woman to sustain that transition so that she’s less likely to go back to her abuser. That was my whole goal in creating S.M.O.O.T.H. I wanted something that could help people get out and stay out.
JS: In the acronym of S.M.O.O.T.H., you have the phrase ‘Speaking Mentally, Outwardly’. Why is it so important, on the journey towards healing, for survivors to raise their voices and share their experiences?
SG: It’s a must. So many women suffer in silence – You’re already isolated. Your abuser has isolated you from your family or friends. And he or she has done everything to keep you in this bubble of believing that no one else loves you, and they’re the only ones that can take care of you.
It’s important that you speak out. It’s a must that you talk to someone. The healing comes – and I realized this on my journey – that the healing came the more I talked. There’s healing in finding your voice. You have to do that. Because you’ve already been in silence long enough, and suffered in silence – so why not change the narrative and speak as loud as you can?
JS: You also are preparing to release your memoir, as well as a documentary about your life. When can we expect those to arrive? And what will we be able to learn about your story, that we haven’t yet through those mediums?
SG: This memoir has so many tools – there’s life lessons, forgiveness, isolation, depression, self worth – there’s so many different things for people to take from it from all different aspects of life. My main goal was not only to tell my story, but have something that people can use and implement into their daily lives.
I recently got a book deal with Harper Collins. I’m so excited to announce that. And they’ll be putting me on a book tour really soon. I’ll be able to get out and meet survivors, and be hands on with meeting people as they read my book and become inspired. We’re still working on the memoir’s release date, but eighty percent of it is done so I’m really excited about that. I want it to be an amazing memoir, that even when you read it, you can’t put it down. And even when you’re finished, you want to pass it to a hundred people – it’s like everybody has to read this. And I’m so excited about it!
Because of the pandemic, the documentary was put on halt but everything is now coming back to life. We are back in development, looking for a director. And in 2023, we will be in production.
JS: We opened up the conversation on the topic of self hatred. How have you been able to rebuild your self love on your journey of healing?
SG: I think it is very important to speak affirmations. I know it sounds a little like ‘hmmm’…. but I wake up every morning, and take the time to stand in the mirror for fifteen to twenty minutes. I start with ‘I am’ and I either end with phrases like ‘I forgive myself for…’ or ‘I love myself’ but I always start with who ‘I am’.
Now mind you, I’m totally blind but I still stand in the mirror – because I’m optimistic, and I truly believe that anything is possible through God. I truly believe that one day I’m going to see again. And I truly believe that I am an amazing, strong woman. I believe that affirmations affirm that you are something and you can do anything. It connects your thoughts and your mind and your physical being – it all connects when you say affirmations out loud. And then you begin to psychologically believe it. It’s just like when you say anything so many times, eventually you begin to believe it.
You have to tell yourself that you’re worth everything so that you build yourself up, and there isn’t one person that can come in and tell you otherwise – not a family member, not a man, not somebody you meet on the streets – because you’ve built yourself up to understand and know that you are worthy and you are beautiful regardless of anything you step out into the world and encounter. Just living day to day, there’s always someone in our lives that wants something from us – but what if we were able to control the time and space that we give people?
I control every single thing that happens in my day. That is huge to me – to know that I have the ability to do that now, and that is why I’m able to have so much peace and calmness. I have control over anything that I allow into my space and throughout my day, it doesn’t matter what it is.