When it comes to teaching her three children the importance of resilience, Sarah Shahi has quite the experience.
In an exclusive essay in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, the actress, who is best known for her roles in television shows like The L Word, Fairly Legal and most recently her role on Showtime’s City on a Hill, opens up about her childhood growing up in Texas as the daughter of immigrants from Iran, and her exposure to addiction from a young age.
“One night, when I was about 5, my father was drunk and passed out, and I remember my mom dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night,” she writes. “‘We have to leave. We have to leave now,’ she whispered. She was scared. I didn’t pack anything; I just had my pajamas. It was January, and it was cold as we headed to a women’s shelter in nearby Arlington, Texas. That shelter helped keep my mother and me safe and alive—and I now feel a sense of responsibility to share my story and highlight the necessity of such places.”
Shahi says her father, who was addicted to “alcohol, prescription drugs and gambling” and “was abusive both physically and verbally to my mother.”
“That’s what led my mom and me that January night to the shelter, where we stayed for nearly five months and returned several times in the months that followed,” she says.
Shahi describes the shelter as “dark and kind of prison-like,” with very little for children to do. “The only ‘activity’ I recall was a sort of women’s circle, where the women would get together and talk. I would sit in my mother’s lap, and she just listened. I couldn’t really understand why I was there, but I remember feeling so alone and so helpless. I wish there had been books for me to read or that someone would’ve at least checked in with me to see how I was feeling.”
To read Sarah Shahi’s full essay, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Still, one moment of kindness she experienced in the shelter is seared in her memory.
“At night my mom and I slept in a bunk bed in a room with another woman with multiple kids. I was too shy to talk to anybody, but one little boy, probably 7 years old, gave me his jacket. That selfless act was so unexpected, so grand and so full of care, it has really stuck with me.”
“That shelter was so important,” she recalls. “It saved my mother’s life. It saved my life.”
“We returned to the house after my mother filed for a restraining order and my father left,” Shahi continues. “As women we feel a pressure to keep the family unit together, so after a couple months of sobriety, my mom took him back. And the cycle continued. We would go back to the shelter for a week or a few days here and there, but then we’d leave and go home.”
Shahi’s parents divorced when she was 10, and her mother has since found love.
“She’s able to live a much better lifestyle,” Shahi says. “She’s remarried and managing a medical building with my stepdad in Texas.”
Shahi’s father died four years ago. And while the actress has endured a lifetime of hurt, she maintains a positive outlook on her life.
“I took where I came from and was able to let it fuel me into a much bigger place,” she says. “I’m able to channel the darkness I got from him into my acting, but when I go home, that’s gone. I married an incredibly loving husband and father [actor Steve Howey] who wants to be there for his children.
“My kids are very close to my mother. Her love is ferocious — and she is truly my hero.”
If you suspect domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
For more information on women’s shelters, or to make a donation, visit SafeHorizon.org.
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