Katherina Ambrosio – Finding Myself After Being Raised by a Stranger

September 14th, 1994, a date with no meaning perhaps to most. It was, however, a night changing everything about who I thought I was and introducing me to a person I was never prepared to meet.

Growing up with depression/anxiety, a bad side effect was the fear of night and falling asleep. I was only ten at the time and my father became the only remedy to my illness and I grew attached to the comfort of his presence when night broke. He held me and promised me that he would always protect our family; that no one would ever harm us. According to him, I had nothing to be scared about, nothing to cry about. He always knew just the right words to speak to ease my fears brought on by the vulnerable state nighttime caused me to endure.

This night started out like every other, watching late night movies until I finally grew tired in my father’s arms. When it got really late he would carry me to bed, and any worries or tears cried were washed away by his reassurance and love. Before he would leave my room he would brush hair out of my eyes to kiss my forehead goodnight. Closing my bedroom door halfway allowed some hallway light shine in and he stuck his head in and asked, “How much do you love Papa?” in which I whispered in Italian, “I would die for you!” Those were the last words spoken to my papa.

I took one last look around the room and closed my eyes. I told myself I would be okay, I was a fighter just like my father said. Within seconds my eyes were reopened by a startling knock on our front door. It was so loud that it appeared unfeasible that it came from a human hand. Quickly jumping out of bed thinking the worst possible, I ran into my mother in our hallway, also running to make sense of the noise. We watched as the man I once recognized as my father became a stranger, moving lifelessly towards the door ignoring my mother’s screams to know who was behind the door. Within seconds our small living room was crowded with multiplying amounts of FBI agents wearing bulletproof vests and shotguns in hand.

The words “drug smuggler”, “money laundering” and “mob relations” were used multiple times during the three-hour long house search. Among the many different emotions we felt and horrifying things we saw, we all agreed that my father’s arrest was a horrible mistake; a tragedy falling upon the wrong family. Before the FBI left, they reassured us that not only did they have the right man but that they three years worth of surveillance tapes to back up how well he hid his double life from us. September 14th left me without my father, a family unit and my sense of self. I no longer knew who I was or what was unfolding before my eyes. If my father wasn’t the man I thought he was then who was I? How could the one man I turned to to ease my depression be the one to also worsen it? The only thing I did know was that my life would never be the same, nothing was what it seemed.

The following day the story broke in all local, national and international news medias. My father’s Manhattan pizzeria was used as a meetup point for what was penned the “second pizza connection”. My hero was anything but, according to everyone else. David Letterman did a skit mocking my father and the hidden business he ran. News reporters joked that he was serving much more than pepperoni with his pizza and my heartache became a public comedy skit which I prayed would be over soon. Any hope that school would be an outlet from the hell at home was erased when a classmate did current events on the story. School became an overwhelming interrogation from classmates who felt it was their right to know details of the poverty, heartache, and incarceration that my father and family endured. Many children teased as they so often do and they made it very clear that my sister and I were not wanted in the wealthy predominantly Jewish Hewlett, New York school district. Trying to be strong and ignore the taunts and teases I struggled to complete school but became homeschooled when it got to be too much.

Family members stopped bringing my cousins around, friends stopped calling and I started to feel as though I were diseased. My father’s mistakes were now reflecting upon my sister and me, and we were viewed poorly because of them. I believed that maybe I wasn’t worth that much because everyone around me told me so. My depression got worse and I eventually never got out of bed and did things other teenagers did. I had no energy to survive and overate to fill the void and emptiness inside of me. I reached a very dark place and ballooned well over 200 lbs by my 15th birthday. I couldn’t even look in the mirror; I had become the disgusting mess everyone told me I was. I awaited my sixteenth birthday to legally drop out of school and prayed for my death. In my eyes, there was no hope and no future for me.

My sister took me aside one day and painted my future for me if I continued on the road I was on.  She helped me see that, yes, we had a tragedy, but that we could still triumph by holding on tightly to one another. We had a wonderful mother who sacrificed everything she had to keep us fed, a grandmother who was also working with us to keep us stable, and most of all we had unconditional love for one another. Those who walked out of our life so easily were never meant to maybe be there and my sister helped me to see that that was okay. My father made a horrible mistake with a debt we were paying for but we didn’t have room for failure, that’s what everyone wanted. We had to be stronger and I wanted to be—for her and my mother. I admired her strength to not give up and I wanted to prove to everyone that I could make something positive with my life and that I deserved it also, despite my name being labeled “dirty”. So I sat and I thought what I needed to do to make this possible.

Going to therapy to work on my illness, heartache and to build upon my lack of self-esteem was the first step.  I doubled up on all my classes during my senior year of high school in order to graduate on time. I kept my head down while walking in public and ignored any ridicule classmates sent my way. I focused mainly on the goal of succeeding in life and getting my family out of the mess my father left us in. Working out and eating healthy helped me to shed over 80 lbs. When I got accepted into C.W. Post Long Island University I took that as an invitation to finally discover who I was and what I wanted people to know me as. I needed to let others see I was much more than the daughter of a criminal. With the weight loss and a chance at a future, all the ugliness painted on me inside out began to slowly fade away. My depression was still a daily struggle but the more goals I accomplished the more confident I got and the higher I set the next ones.

I studied Journalism with a bigger purpose than learning the art of reporting in mind. I sat in class taking notes on students also in the room with me. I wanted to know every in and out of how a reporter comes to be. How some become so ruthless for the sake of a story. I needed to understand what makes another human being leave ethics behind in order to fully recognize the humility I had faced a decade earlier. My story, my heartache was the biggest story at the time and thus made headlines. After taking classes, my publicized story was no longer a personal attack from society and I accepted it as what it was: news.

With a degree in hand and a new relationship with my father in the works, I have now taken back my name Katherina Ambrosio.  I’m not the little girl scared and lost with no future. I’m not the daughter of a convicted criminal. Everything I have in my life I worked hard and fought for. I’m a college graduate who carefully covered a wound needing to be healed. If it wasn’t for the people especially awaiting my failure, I could never have found the strength to do as much as I have. There is nothing like being face to face with someone who doubted you, them not recognizing the new you and you putting out your hand.

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