Find your FIERCE

Mother discovers five steps that transformed a history of abuse into success

Carolyn Colleen discovers five steps that transformed a history of abuse into success.

Posted 3:06 p.m. Friday, July 29, 2022

The moment Carolyn Colleen knew she needed to leave was clear. It was as clear as those deep, dark brown eyes looking up at her.  

Colleen was exhausted and “teetering on the edge of sanity” at 4:30 a.m. after her two-month-old baby had been crying all night. Both were on edge, nerves unsettled from the constant adrenalin buzz of a house filled with anger, badgering and bullying. 

As the morning sun streamed through the window, Colleen said a prayer, “If anyone can hear me, please send me a sign.” The prayer was met with silence in the room and a widening of those eyes looking up at her.  

“She was looking into my soul. My baby was saying to me, ‘I’m your sign,’” recalls Colleen. “I knew I had to do something. That lit a fire for me.”  

At that time, Colleen could not think of what would be best for her. She was in autopilot mode, plugging away at life in a lifeless way, drained of her self-confidence, alienated from her circle of friends and family, and experiencing what she later learned was anxiety, depression and PTSD.  

But, as she rocked with baby Eve by the window that morning, she was feeling something bubbling up inside. And she knew she needed to make changes or Eve would have the same fate as her — a childhood of abuse and then a relationship with an abuser. 

Colleen is often asked how she transformed from desperation to a dreamer and thinker. Soon to earn a doctorate, she has launched two successful non-profit organizations, including a local STEM school, wrote a book on her life- transforming steps, and has given presentations and workshops worldwide. 

The UWL and Viterbo University alumna says the changes in her life didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow intentional evolution. She was able to heal through therapy, personal development and being away from a toxic environment and relationships.  

A key to her evolution was a survival strategy she created — a series of steps that make up the acronym F.I.E.R.C.E.  

  • Focused breath 
  • Identify one goal
  • Examine barriers to the goal
  • Reflect and visualize your truths
  • Courage
  • Engage  

At first getting through an entire day of anxiety, depression and paralyzing fear felt unimaginable. But Colleen knew she could use FIERCE as a roadmap, taking each struggle five minutes at a time.

Being FIERCE 

Colleen could use those FIERCE five minutes to stop, refocus on her big goals and make progress toward them instead turning her negative energy into drinking or other addictive behaviors. Through this method, she empowered herself to leave her abuser and get her and Eve into low-income housing. 

Colleen eventually moved into better housing, found multiple jobs and re-enrolled in college at UWL. She says it wasn’t easy. At times she was managing up to six part time jobs at a time from cleaning houses to bus driving. She was up late studying too — all while raising her daughter as a single mom. 

Sometimes just a smell would take her back through a flashback. She would return to a scene in her old house like the time she came home to find her cat gasping for air, near death from an attempted drowning by her abuser. Each time a flashback would come, Colleen would use her five-minute technique — navigating the emotions from fight and flight to a conscious choice to move forward.  

Academics & adversity 

Colleen came to UWL in 1998 while she was still married to her husband, but she soon dropped out. His efforts to derail her educational goals and lower her self-confidence had worked. But after leaving, Colleen found her way back to school at UWL where she continued until 2002 when she transferred to Viterbo to complete her bachelor’s degree in business. 

While navigating college, raising a child and working multiple jobs was a struggle, Colleen says mentors were important. One of those was retired UWL Management Professor John Betton. He checked in with her regularly and noticed more in her than she had the ability to see. 

“Sometimes you have to borrow the light that another sees in you until your light ignites,” she says.  

Today Colleen’s light is burning bright. She serves as a mentor and guide to many women in La Crosse and throughout the country. She makes dreams and hopes a reality everyday through her interactions, the Fierce Network she founded, her book “F.I.E.R.C.E,” her nationwide public speaking, her non-profit, and her new school.   

UW students also hear her message as she shares her experience, hope and business knowhow as a UWL adjunct instructor of management for University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium

About Carolyn Colleen 

Non-profit: Personalized one-on-one coaching and professional guidance, online and in-person motivational seminars, A FIERCE network of women. See: www.carolyncolleen.com/ 

Books: In her book, F.I.E.R.C.E., Colleen shares her personal model of resilience, and how to approach becoming resilient five minutes at a time. She also authored a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Educational and Academic Entrepreneurship: Foundations in Theory and Lessons from Practice.” 

STEM school: Acton Midwest is an entrepreneurial school that started in September 2021. In fall 2022 it will be open in Onalaska for students ages 4K-high school. See: www.actonmidwest.org