FARMINGTON — At 64, Cecilia Tsosie has found hope.
Tsosie has endured a life that would make most people cringe: abandonment at age two, recurring bouts of alcoholism, parental neglect, boarding school rape and beatings, 17-year marriage of battery and abuse, homelessness with the anguish of depression and despair.
Tsosie has just self-published a memoir, Out of the Darkness: Into the Light, under the name Sophia C. Begay, that chronicles her life's journey from her sorrowful beginnings in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, to her present life in Farmington as an active member of the Oasis Church on Dustin Street.
"My mother intentionally abandoned me at the trading post in Teec Non Pos when I was just two years old," Tsosie said, a cold fact that elicits a haunting chill for her. "I had always carried an emptiness around inside of me because of that, a yearning, a cry, for a love to give me greater strength to live."
Books became an early source of strength for Tsosie.
Shipped off at 14 to Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Okla., Tsosie discovered the library as a haven from the bullies.
"I took every chance to bury myself in a book, to escape my own daily life," she says.
That daily life took a ugly turn one day.
She was gang raped at the school, the hardest part of her story to write, she said.
She said she never received justice.
She said she went back to her dorm after the rape and has concluded that some of the other girls there reported it.
Tsosie said she was taken to the main office where a woman had lined up some boys.
She said the woman, whom she called the Matron, directed her to tell her that the rape did not occur.
"I lost my mind after that and went on to face one abusive situation after another," she said. "I spent too many years in a cave I retreated to for protection, but I am getting too old now to hold back anymore. I have had to learn to forgive them, to let go."
Helping her deal with her pain came years later.
The earliest drafts of her book began during her second time working as a cook in 2003 at Shiprock Correctional Facility.
Her closest friend there, Corrections Supervisor Lorraine Lee, sat her down at a computer and showed her how to get started.
Soon, Tsosie began to realize a voice that could help begin the healing.
"Cecilia is an amazing person, someone I consider a dear friend," Lee said in a telephone interview. "She has also touched a lot inmates here who have similar stories of neglect and abuse. Her ability to laugh is infectious."
Tsosie, whose hearing and eyesight is limited because of the physical blows she sustained during a toxic 17-year marriage, feels a new calling to help others, aided by the support of her friends, family, and her faith.
"I can hear with my spiritual ear, not so well with my physical ear," she said.
Tsosie recently took Lee a copy of her book and spent time visiting with some of the inmates at Shiprock.
"My goal is to reach people who, like me, need someone to help, someone who understands," Tsosie said, sitting in the living room of the Farmington home she shares with her son, Christopher Yazzie, 41, with whom she reunited in 2006.
"My book is possible only because others extended themselves to me," she said.
One lending hand came in the early 2000s when Tsosie was in the depths of alcoholism, stumbling around Farmington after being fired from her earlier cook position at Shiprock correctional facility. It was her son, Chris, who had just gone through his own bouts with alcoholism who proved to be an unexpected inspiration for change.
Before he earned a degree in nursing at San Juan College last August and turned his own life around, Chris had battled with his own demons.
"I was quickly drinking myself to death like my step-father before me," he said. The support of a Christian church gave him the help he needed.
"When I reconnected with Chris in 2001," Tsosie said. "I was at a very low point, but he had quit drinking and offered me a place to stay. I guess you can say that I have been scared of change but also drawn to it."
One morning, standing on the porch of her son's home, Tsosie said she had an epiphany: If Chris could change from a years-long drinking addiction, then why couldn't his mom?
"I stopped smoking cigarettes without much realizing it," she said. "Instead of just throwing dishes in a messy pile, I began to take care to clean and care for things. A heaviness suddenly felt like it was sliding off of my back."
Tsosie returned to cook at Shiprock jail at the invitation of Lee and soon she realized how many of the inmates had similar paths of pain and disconnection. All they needed was someone to connect to, something to believe in.
""I know where you're coming from,' I told the inmates," Tsosie said. "Before that, I was too blind to others' pain. I was layer-upon-layer locked in my own."
Getting to where she is today took fortitude she doubted she had.
"I draw from a new inner strength," Tsosie said, proud to have the book completed and published. "We don't need a book on how to be bad. We're already experts there. We need more books to learn how to love, to be good to each other," she said.
For Tsosie, hope has lifted her up, something she seeks to now do, in turn, for others.