Shawana Perkins crawled into bed that night a week before Thanksgiving 2020, exhausted but content.
Life was good. She was providing for her daughters on her own since her divorce and was caring for her mom, who shared their cozy condo in Port Charlotte.
As a child, Shawana had admired how her mother raised five kids through struggles with mental health. Growing older, Shawana had come to fear her own mind - the trauma locked away from things she had endured in her youth. Better to keep it all pushed down, she thought, keep leaning on her faith.
God always got them through, Shawana felt, even now calming her as she prayed through her fears since the start of the pandemic. She was doing well in her career, even setting money aside to save. Her mother had always been there to help, babysitting through the years and covering a few of the bills. More than that, her mother was her best friend - a rock and confidante throughout her adult life.
Drifting off to sleep, Shawana was jarred awake by the sound of someone at her bedroom door.
It was her mother, calling her name in the dark, telling her, "I can't breathe."
Shutting out trauma
Growing up in Arcadia, Shawana was around 13 when her mother was sent away for a month.
Family was always there to help during her mother's breakdowns - an aunt swooping in to care for her and her siblings while their mother was hospitalized.
And there was her grandma, dragging them to church, something young Shawana could take or leave at the time.
The teen was growing up fast, not understanding what was happening - seeing how hard her mother worked to keep it all together but desperately needing more from her mom.
Shawana rebelled, dropped out of school at 16 and roamed the streets, hanging with tough crowds. It was around then that she was violently attacked, raped by several neighborhood men.
In the aftermath of the trauma, Shawana never talked about it, turning to her faith to help herself heal.
But mostly she shut the trauma into the back of her mind. She tried to move forward, seeking to escape the poverty and dead-end jobs around her. She wanted something better, she thought, by now growing close with her mom.
"I would push my way through, I promised myself," Shawana said. "I would fight. I wanted to make my mother proud, so she could see that the sacrifices that she made for me were not in vain."
She went for a GED and at 18 met a man who encouraged her education and goals. By 20, she was married and pregnant with her first child.
Her mother babysat while Shawana became a mental health technician. Inspired by her mother's journey, Shawana worked at a facility for people with mental health disabilities.
Later she and her husband took jobs in corrections - their finances improving as he flipped houses.
By the time they divorced, Shawana was working in a rehabilitation facility, where she was attacked by an inmate. She needed a clean slate and left Arcadia for Port Charlotte.
Now as a single mom - with her oldest, Amberyania, a young teen, and Rihayania, her youngest daughter from a new relationship, still a toddler - she was starting over from scratch.
"When we divorced, I walked away with absolutely nothing," she said. "I had to scramble to get myself together."
A lot of positive
And scramble she did, finding jobs as a caregiver in assisted living facilities. She went back to school to get a certificate as a medical assistant - ascending to positions in urgent care clinics and doctor's offices.
Her mother was with her through it all, through moves between apartments and homes in Charlotte and South Sarasota County, living with them and babysitting the girls.
By now Shawana had developed great compassion for her mother's mental health struggles
"She literally fought the devil off every day," she'd recall. But Shawana still wasn't dealing with her own.
"I pushed it back because I had two children to raise. I didn't want that to get in the way. I was so afraid of a breakdown. I'd seen my mom break down," she said.
What would happen to her kids if she did, too?
"I always prayed to God to help me keep a sane mind."
Sometimes she cried seemingly out of nowhere, feeling no sense of self-worth. But she shut it out, determined to focus on the positive in life.
And there was a lot of positive, leading up to the pandemic. The three-bedroom condo in Port Charlotte cost only $800 a month, letting Shawana build up her savings while Amberyania attended college to be a school teacher and Rihayania was thriving in middle school.
In the weeks before Thanksgiving, Shawana's mother had been complaining of shortness of breath, but she didn't have a cough or other symptoms of the coronavirus. She'd been a smoker, Shawana knew, thinking that was the cause. Until the night her mother couldn't breathe.
Shawana's life began to spiral in the months after her mother passed away from COVID-19.
She moved out of the condo, unable to remain there in her sorrow, and lived with her brother for a few months in 2021, before finding an apartment for $1,100 a month.
Shawana was once more starting from scratch - this time completely on her own. Not only did she not have her mother's bit of financial help covering a few bills, Shawana was despondent without her emotional support. And then her grandma died, too.
Shawana feared letting herself linger too long in her grief.
"If I stay, I am so afraid I am going to lose it," she said. "I don't stop myself from crying. But I grieve and then I stand up."
It was harder than ever to face down her challenges, as rents soared in the housing crisis. Working in doctor's offices, she found herself "robbing Peter to pay Paul" to cover all the bills.
With Amberyania by then a school teacher living with a fiancé, Shawana and her youngest moved in with them for a time, then to a North Port efficiency before the owner needed it back.
Several nights they slept in the car before Shawana sent Rihayania to live with her sister while she stayed on the couches of friends.
"I was in a dark place for a while, trying to cope with everything, trying to figure out how I was going to make it," she said.
Things couldn't keep going on like this, Shawana thought. Unable to afford high rental deposits and move-in costs, she didn't know what to do. Since escaping her traumatic teens and the poverty of her youth, she'd always been determined to go it alone, to never rely on "the system."
But now, she realized, she needed to swallow her pride and ask for help.
This summer, a friend spotted a North Port apartment for $1,500 a month, something Shawana could swing. She just had to find a way over the hurdle of deposits.
She turned to North Port Social Services, whose caseworkers tapped Season of Sharing to cover the first month's rent. Shawana borrowed $3,000 from friends and family for the remaining amount to get in the door.
Since then, her life has been rolling on a new track.
Several months ago she started as a housing specialist with Sarasota's CASL - which is Community Supported & Assisted Living for residents with developmental and mental health disabilities.
Her job is a blessing, she says, filling her with purpose, where she can connect people to resources or offer encouragement to others wrestling with hopelessness. Someday she'd like to work with young women who are walking a path she once tread.
At home, given the hardships of the last few years, she takes time to deepen her bond with Rihayania, now 15 and an aspiring veterinarian. After school and work, Shawana turns off the TV and puts away the phones so they can talk, laugh, play games or read the Bible. She's open with her girls about her past struggles, including those of her mom.
They tell her they are proud of her. She has finally allowed herself to feel the same way.
"At this stage of my life, I am grateful that I made it this far," she said, crediting her "faith walk with Christ."
"There were plenty of times you just want to lie down, but the Holy Spirit doesn't allow you to give up."
This Thanksgiving, she and the girls will celebrate together - with Shawana cooking for them all in her home. But there's one more step she has recently taken, now that her housing is stable.
After years of running from the past that haunted her - of staying in motion for the sake of her girls - she has entered therapy, deciding to pause and focus on herself.
She thinks her mom would want that, too.
"My past doesn't stop my later days from being greater," she said. "I'm able now to conquer things that I was afraid to conquer, and that is the trauma. I'm at a place now to be at peace - and do what I can to take care of me."
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at email@example.com
How to help
You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to cfsarasota.org or calling 941-556-2399. You can also mail a check to Season of Sharing, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237.