The Courage to Be Me: A Conversation with Ria Story

I recently had Ria Story on as my guest. She has a very inspirational story to share with all of us. Thank you Ria for your time and being the awesome and courageous woman that you are!

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Welcome to Courageously Go! where we will venture to places we’ve been afraid to go. Women of the world, we are going to start a movement. A movement towards courage. Hello everybody, I am Debbie DiPietro, your host of Courageously Go! and I’m so glad you all are out there joining us here today. These are our essential truths: I choose courage. I use my voice. I embrace the new. I welcome challenge. I continue to grow. I am a woman of action. I courageously go. If any of those statements resonate with you, you are most certainly in the right place, and I’m glad you’re here with us.

Every week we facilitate a global conversation about courage. Why do we do this? I believe that when we live from our hearts, and by choosing courage, the life of our dreams and a better world for all are possible. No matter our age or circumstances, we never, never ever, need to feel stuck or alone. And so it’s just an honor and a pleasure to bring on all these wonderful people that we talk with every week, and today I have a really special lady to introduce you all to. She has quite a story, and a lot of courage I think, when you find out what her story’s about, to bring it out, and bring her message, and share her story with all of us and with the world.

So I am very humbled and honored to introduce to you my guest today, is Ria Story. And like many, Ria faced adversity in life. Ria was sexually abused by her father from age 12 to age 19. She was forced to play the role of his wife, and even shared her with other men. Desperate to escape, she left home at 19 without a job, without a car, or even a high school diploma. Today Ria is a motivational leadership speaker, a TEDx speaker, and author of 11 books including “Leadership Gems for Women”. Ria shares powerful leadership principles and tools of transformation from her journey to equip and empower women, helping them maximize their potential in life and leadership, and become the woman God created them to be.

Ria, welcome to Courageously Go!

Ria Story:                             Thank you Debbie. I’m just so excited to be here with you today.

Debbie DiPietro:               Yeah, I feel the same way. I’m super excited that we could connect and make this happen. I think that this is a very, very relevant and powerful topic and not … We talk about a variety of things here on this show, and this is certainly not your happy, sweet story, but I think really an important one to share. So why don’t we just dive in and what would you like to share with us today?

Ria Story:                             Well I love the theme for your show, and really talking about courage, because you know every single one of us face adversity in life. My story is unfortunately not that uncommon, but even if my story isn’t your story or someone else’s story, you know we all have to deal with pain or hardship at some point in life. I think that it challenges us because when we’re able to live with courage, we’re able to live through that experience and grow from that experience. And therefore it gives us purpose because it shapes us, absolutely it affects us, but how we come out the other side is our choice.

And you know when we think about that, you know certainly bad things happen and they affect us, but they don’t have to determine us, and that was really powerful. When I realized that, you know the world changed for me because then it was, you know, the courage to live authentically as we are in ourselves.

Debbie DiPietro:               I have to say, I mean it was just … learning a little bit more about you and reading your bio, it’s just heartbreaking to me. I have a very young … I have a 21 year old daughter and it just really puts me right there in my heart space. But then listening to your voice and you’re so uplifting and inspiring, I just want to learn more. I bet we have thousands, hundreds of thousands of listeners out there that would like to learn more. So why don’t we go back a little bit, Ria, if you wouldn’t mind sharing a little bit about your story. How you got out of that very, very horrible … sounds like a nightmare situation, and then what inspired you to come out and share this story with all of us?

Ria Story:                             Sure, that’s a great question Debbie, and you know I love to … I tell people that my last name is Story, and I married my husband for his name, but it’s not true.

Debbie DiPietro:               I was gonna ask you if that was really your name.

Ria Story:                             It really is. It really is. But I tell people, you know, if you’re gonna be a speaker and a writer you better be able to tell some stories.

Debbie DiPietro:               That’s right.

Ria Story:                             I grew up in a farm, in a little bitty, itty bitty town in Alabama, very rural, very isolated. We didn’t go to church. We were very isolated. We didn’t go to school. I never went to school, all 12 grades. There were a few homeschooled family friends that we had, but we were very isolated and protected and sheltered growing up. You know, living and growing in that environment, my father really just had complete control over us because there was just so much isolation. We weren’t exposed to a lot. We weren’t out in society. We weren’t talking to other people. So we really didn’t have … I really didn’t have an idea of what normal was. You know, what was right and what was wrong.

When my father started sexually abusing me at 12, even at that point, I knew something wasn’t right, but you know I had really been raised to believe that what my dad said was absolutely the truth and absolutely the law. You followed it to the “T” kind of thing. So it didn’t … it really didn’t register with me I think, just how wrong it was. And it progressed. The abuse progressed as I grew older to the point by the time I was 17 and 18, he was regularly having sex with me, and would bargain with me for sexual favors in exchange for something like a night out with my friends.

At some point he gave me a wedding ring, and he started sharing me with others. Men he would meet from off the internet. There were times when life was just almost not worth living, because I was so conflicted inside. On one hand carrying so much shame, and feeling I didn’t have any sense of self worth. I had just so much shame. I was terrified that someone would find out how awful I was, because of what he was doing to me. You know I didn’t know how to handle that. I started … you know just desperately I would sneak out at night sometimes to meet with friends, or you know just find any escape that I could.

When I was 19, I met my now husband of 18 years, and we started talking and I started sneaking around to see him, and pretty quick into our relationship he realized something wasn’t right. Like you know he never could come to my house. He couldn’t meet … obviously he couldn’t meet my family because I was never allowed to date. In our household and growing up, the expectation was always that if I ever got married, my father would choose that person. You know now, almost 20 years later, I realized just the mentality of that and growing up in that environment, just how much it affected me. But at the time, I didn’t have a perspective of what was normal, what was not normal.

Debbie DiPietro:               I wanna ask you, did you … I’m sorry to interrupt you … but was your mom or any siblings in the picture? What was your family made up of? Did you have a mom and siblings?

Ria Story:                             I did. My mom to this day continues to support him. I have a younger brother, and he’s obviously grown now. He’s a little bit younger than I am. But yeah, even to this day my mom stands by. When I did … after I met Mack, pretty quick he just asked me. You know we’d only been dating a few months, and he just asked me. He could tell from the way I carried myself, he said, “You know what, I really think you’re being abused.” And he really took a risk just bringing that up. That’s a difficult conversation to have with anyone, but certainly someone you’re in a relationship with. And you know, I was 19 at the time and he was a little bit older, had been divorced.

He was the first person to ever ask. In all of the years growing up, everyone suspected in my family. Grandparents suspected, and some friends suspected, my friend’s parents suspected, but nobody wanted to get involved. Nobody wanted to rock the boat. He was the first person to just come out and say, “I think this is what’s happening.” And I just completely broke down, because it was such a relief to have someone actually just confirm that. I think the number one fear that a lot of child sexual abuse victims have is that if they share what’s going on, nobody will believe them.

You know to have someone on my side for the first time was just incredibly uplifting, and someone who cared about me, for me, rather than what I could do for them, physically. So I left home that weekend, I didn’t go back. Mack and I waited until a couple years … waited until I was 21 actually to get married. You know we wanted to give that time to kind of grow up and make sure that it was the right relationship for us. But truly, if you’re a person of faith, I think there aren’t any coincidences in life. Things definitely happen for a reason.

What had happened to me after I left … I didn’t really know how to deal with the shame, and I was afraid people would see me differently. I didn’t want to press charges. I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. And so I pretty much just locked the door up on my past and threw away the key. I said, “You know what, I’m just locking that part of my life up,” and I pretended it never happened. I didn’t tell … but you know I told a few family members and my grandparents and some friends, but I didn’t talk about it publicly certainly. And I spent 13 years pretending that that part of my life just never happened.

I tell people, “That’s not living with courage. That’s feeling ashamed about our past.” The difference between guilt and shame … guilt is “I made a mistake.” Shame is “I am a mistake.” At some level I really carried that with me for a long time. And then in 2000 … The only job I could get … I didn’t have a high school diploma, I’d never been to school, I didn’t have a job obviously … so the only job I could get after I left home was working as a waitress. I was making $2.13 an hour back then. And it didn’t take me long to realize if I wanted life to be different I was gonna have to do something different.

So I started working. I had to study and then go get my GED. Then I started community college and progressed through my career, and I had a good career. Got a really great job with a great organization in hospital, but all through those years of being successful, I still had that burden of shame that I just carried and refused to talk about it. My parents moved out of state. My mom to this day still supports my dad, still lives with him. And in 2013 I heard a man called Les Brown speak. Now if you don’t know Les Brown, you should look him up on YouTube. He’s a relational-

Debbie DiPietro:               I’ve heard of him. Yeah.

Ria Story:                             You have? Okay. He is awesome. But he was speaking to a room full of people, I was at a conference, and he said, “You have a story to tell and someone needs to hear your story. And only you can help that person.” That hit me like a thunderbolt, because I was sitting there in the audience and I remember thinking, “I’ve got a story to tell, but I don’t wanna tell it.” You know I’d spent 13 years not telling it, you know, I didn’t want people to see me as a victim. I didn’t want people to know that about me. The shame just had som much of a hold over me, It took me six months to get to the point of saying, “If I could help somebody else by sharing my story, it’s worth it.”

So I went back for a speaker [crosstalk]. No, go ahead.

Debbie DiPietro:               I just … This might be a good opening, if someone’s out there listening to us right now, and she’s in an abusive situation, what would you tell her? What could she do?

Ria Story:                             Number one, I would tell that person, male or female, number one it’s so easy to lose our sense of self worth. Sometimes we feel like we are a mistake. I think that’s a lot of that shame, is just feeling like I’m the awful mistake that shouldn’t exist. So I would tell that person number one, there absolutely is hope. There’s hope for healing. There’s hope for getting out of that situation. Number one you need to know there is hope, because if I can do it, anyone can. Sometimes it’s a lot of courage to leave behind an abusive situation because as crazy as it sounds, it’s a known situation.

And so it takes a lot or more courage to break away from that, even when it’s bad and it’s terrible and it’s abusive. But it’s a lot of courage to step away and say, “I’m gonna live a different life. I can’t control everything that’s happened to me, but I can control how I respond, and I choose differently.” Whether that means physically leaving the situation and looking for resources and support, there are so many resources out there. There’s the National Rape Hotline, that you can look online or you can call. There is the national organizations to support … they’re regional organizations, there’s county organizations most of the time that you can go to them for support.

So number one there is hope. Number two, it’s a choice that we make in saying, “I choose differently because I’m worth it.” That person out there who might be listening, you absolutely are worth it. You are special and gifted and unique. When we leave that situation and we overcome it, it gives us purpose I think, for the pain.

Debbie DiPietro:               Well thank you for that. And we’ll be sure when this podcast is available on [inaudible] we’ll put together a show notes and we’ll put together a blog post. I’ll be sure to get some links from you that we’ll share on website and my blog post and you can share as well for people out there. I think that those are important resources. Before we run out of time, I wanna go back, you were telling us about getting out there and starting to speak. So that in itself, that takes tremendous amount of courage. Well public speaking anyway does, and then to tell your story. So how did you get lout in the speaking circuit? How did that all come about?

Ria Story:                             Well after I heard Les Brown speak for that very first time, this was in 2013, and my husband signed us up for a speaker training with Les Brown. I was like, “We don’t need to spend money on that.” I was very happy in my career, I’d gone to school for 10 years to get the job that I had. And he said, “No, we’re just gonna try. We’re just gonna step out there.” So I went to the speaker training, and part of the training was every person there was expected to create a one minute speech. And it could be anything that you wanted to say, but it could only be one minute. There were gonna be three rounds, and the winners would be invited to speak on stage with Les Brown.

I had been wrestling with this story about my past for so long, and feeling really that I could help some people by talking about it. And I didn’t even tell anyone that I was thinking about making my one minute speech about my past, because I was afraid that I couldn’t do it. The morning of the conference came, and the contest, and I literally had a meltdown in the ladies room. I mean ugly crying, mascara running, I thought, “You know what, I can’t do this.” But I just repaired the mascara and wiped up the tears and went back into that conference room, and I shared my one minute story.

It actually was 47 seconds. I told the world that I wasn’t gonna let the past hold me back, and in saying it, I did it. And saying, “I’m not gonna be ashamed any longer.” When I sat down, it didn’t matter if I won the contest because I’d won the victory inside me, in saying, “I’m not gonna let it hold me back. I’m not gonna carry that burden of shame any longer.” But I did win the contest as it turns out. As so just a couple months later, my husband and I went to Los Angeles to speak with Les Brown. 10 days after giving that speech for the first time, I resigned from my corporate job, my career, because it … I tell people, “You know I had a great job in a great organization, but I’d found, instead of a career, I’d found a calling.”

Cashed in my 401K, we sold our cars, we sold our house, we invested everything in a business and we started talking and speaking about leadership principles. And here we are six years later and 22 books written.

Debbie DiPietro:               Wow, that is quite a story. I sometimes will talk about courage and trends, and sometimes we just have to jump out of the airplane and you know, to build that parachute on the way down. It sounds like you really did that. So that is quite a story. So how has life changed since you’ve followed your purpose and your calling, and you’re speaking now and you’re writing all these great books?

Ria Story:                             Life is … You know, life is just richer. You know I did a podcast the other day on … you know it used to be working … and I had a good job, I think I’ve said that a couple times, but I was very fortunate to be there. A lot of opportunities. But you know it was kind of like, “Ah man, it’s Sunday night. Tomorrow I gotta get up and go to work.” I don’t have that anymore. I’m living in alignment with my purpose. It hasn’t been easy building a business from scratch. We didn’t have a network, we didn’t have hardly a LinkedIn profile, and you know we didn’t know what we didn’t know about getting started as speakers and trainers.

We really did just throw everything in and say we’re completely focused. But it’s given us much more fulfilling life. You know there’s a difference between success. Success is about me, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We have to learn to be successful before we can help others be successful. But then the level above that is really significant, where I’m willing to go beyond success and sacrifice to help someone else. And when you do that, we find meaning.

Debbie DiPietro:               That’s great. I’m taking notes right now. That’s a great message, and I’m sure a lot of people out there are really listening to that. That is really a good message. This show goes by so fast, so why don’t we … I know that you have written a number of books. Would you like to share at least one with us? What book have you written lately, or what one would you like to share with us? We’re gonna run lout of time quick, so.

Ria Story:                             Sure. So I really talk about if you’re learning to overcome adversity, “Bridges Out of the Past: A Survivor’s Lessons on Resilience” is really my book on that. You know, learning to overcome and become resilient. It’s where I share a lot of my story, and also the learning points in how to overcome shame, how to overcome fear, how to overcome anxiety. So a lot of those lessons in that book.

Debbie DiPietro:               Okay. And where can people learn more about you if they want to purchase your books, or if they want to hire you to speak at their event? Where can they learn about Ria Story?

Ria Story:                             You can find me … my website is RiaStory.com. That’s R-i-a S-t-o-r-y.com. You can find my books on my website or even Amazon. You can also feel free to reach ut to me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, I’m on all of those platforms as Ria Story.

Debbie DiPietro:               Okay, well that’s great. And we still have a few minutes, so Ria what is in store for you for 2019? What are you most excited about right now?

Ria Story:                             Right now I’m super excited about, you know, just what the future holds. I’ve been really involved here lately with getting … working with the Georgia State Task Force on Human Trafficking, so I found really an opportunity to serve by speaking to survivor groups and things like that. So really excited about being … There again, if I’m able to use my story and give people hope, if I can overcome than so can any of us. Even when I speak in the corporate world or at conferences or leadership trainings, you know almost every event there’s someone, male or female, that has a story of Me-Too. I find that I can give those people hope just as much as I can give trafficking survivors.

Debbie DiPietro:               There’s just so much, you know, it’s just quite a time we’re living in, right? I mean there’s just so many … you know abuse victims are stepping up and coming out and there’s just so much more awareness I think on this issue, and also with the human trafficking. It’s really sad when you say I have a lot of acquaintances and friends that will post missing … this child’s missing or this girl, this young woman is missing. It’s heartbreaking. I’m glad their sharing this and getting it out there. Right? I know that we have an organization here in Jacksonville. I had her, Kristin Keane’s Rethreaded, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. But I’ve had her on as a guest here on Courageously Go! But they’re doing good work and helping women off the streets and getting them … you know, teaching them good job work skills and getting their lives back, so.

Ria Story:                             Right, absolutely. That’s wonderful, Debbie.

Debbie DiPietro:               So thank you for all the good work you’re doing. I have to share with you one of my … You know how we always have our little bucket list or … One of my dreams is to do a TED Talk and so I’m just getting off topic a little bit, but how do you get on a TED stage? I wanna know. I need some tips.

Ria Story:                             You know, you actually can apply. And there’s a video submission process, but you can just Google TEDx call for speakers. It’s a question I get a lot and you know I probably should do a podcast on that experience because it was a wonderful experience. Maybe I’ll do that in a future episode and drill down. You can catch my podcast “Fearfully and Wonderfully Me”. But yeah there’s a video application process. You submit a video. I had to submit several videos and they give you feedback, and you know you go through the process over and over again. For me it took time. I think I applied … I think it was probably three years from the first time I applied to when I finally got accepted. Some of that is just growing in my message, you know. TEDx is not just about a story to tell but an idea we’re sharing.

And so before I started speaking I had a story, but I didn’t really have any ideas. I didn’t know what to do with that. [crosstalk] some of that was just growing.

Debbie DiPietro:               Okay, well we are out of time, but I tell you what. You have inspired me and I’m sure you’ve inspired many others on so many different levels. I wish I had more time with you, maybe we can have you back next year, and maybe then I can share with you, Ria I did my TED Talk.

Ria Story:                             Yeah, absolutely Debbie.

Debbie DiPietro:               Thank you for having the courage to do what you’re doing and sharing your story, and I really appreciate you’re being a guest here with us today.

Ria Story:                             Absolutely Debbie, it’s my pleasure. Take care.

Debbie DiPietro:               All right, you too. All right everyone out there, thank you for joining us. My name is Debbie DiPietro, and you can visit our website courageouslygo.com to get more information about this show, and remember ladies, until next time remember this: It’s our time to shine, let’s make it so, and Courageously Go!

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