(WSAW) -- “The next thing I knew, my chest was closing, and my anxiety just hit...and I couldn’t. I didn’t know which direction to go.”
Heidi Wolfe was vacationing with her family in North Carolina. She was trying to write a letter to herself, to “little Heidi”: an 8-year-old girl who had suffered sexual assault at the hands of her step-grandfather.
But last month, when she sat down and tried to send a message to her past, the words wouldn’t come. Instead, she suffered a panic attack.
“I never wrote the letter.”
Little Heidi would grow up, having only told her mother of the assault, who said if it happened again they’d go to police.
It did—years later when she was 41.
“The second time, it was like an explosion and I couldn’t seal it, couldn’t hold it back anymore,” she reflected. The very next day, she took off from work.
“I was in the shower with a foot scrub, scrubbing my chest. Anxiety—a lot of anxiety.”
Heidi would live through four years of an ongoing court case—not for herself, because her case was cut off by the statute of limitations, but for the other victims in the family who Edward Heckendorf had perpetrated on.
She would listen as 12 jurors found 91-year-old Heckendorf guilty, and she would watch as he was sentenced to finish his life behind bars—the oldest man in a Wisconsin prison.
7 Investigates first told her story when that court case was finishing. This month, Heidi shared with us what happened not long after his sentencing.
“To this day, I don’t go to the mailbox.”
A letter arrived from her grandfather, the first she’d heard from him since his incarceration.
“I thought this was my apology. This was going to be him reaching out to me to help make it better.”
But instead of an apology, the letter scolded Heidi, blaming her for his sentence.
“At one point I was told, ‘If he had put an innocent person in prison, he wouldn’t be able to sleep either.’”
“That night, my skin started crawling. I was questioning… ‘What did I miss?’” Her body started itching, the same way it happened when she was assaulted years ago. She said that was when she knew: “I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
For Heidi, healing hasn’t been an uninterrupted process. At some points, she told us, she was self-medicating with alcohol.
“There were days I couldn’t get up and go to...work,” she said. “I could barely take care of myself at times.”
The court process itself took its own toll, robbing her of both sleep and time with her family.
“It was endless nights of trying to sleep. At some points, I was in and out of being on the cusp of...the stat,” she said, referring to the statute of limitations.
“I also lost four years with my kids.”
And even when the guilty verdict was handed down to her perpetrator, it couldn’t wipe away the trauma of the past.
“That ‘aha!’ kind of dissipated. Because at the end, it didn’t change anything. It didn’t change the effect that I thought it would in the end. I still had to deal with what had happened. The ‘guilty’ didn’t wipe that away.”
But Heidi’s story is one of triumph as well, a triumph best seen in the photos of her three children--and in a moment last autumn when she knew she had broken the cycle for her daughters.
“I got to walk the basketball court during homecoming pep rally. And I got to crown my daughter homecoming queen. And in that moment, I had protected and kept things intact for her,” she said.
And it wasn't Heidi’s trauma that brought the tears as she spoke with us—it’s describing her children, and the adults they’re becoming. One daughter is almost off to college nearby, the other daughter she tells us is tough and adventurous. Her son? “He’s been more the one that’s been laid back, easy going.”
Because for her, her children represent what she’s proudest of.
“The biggest thing I did was to protect my kids.”
Today, she’s been able to move past focusing on the man who assaulted her. “Just let him go,” she said. Healing isn’t a “light switch moment”, it’s a journey that she’s now endeavoring to write into a book.
And in text messages since the interview, as Heidi followed the ‘Cycle of Abuse’ series, she tells us the stories brought back memories of post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
But it also brought back memories of her survival.
“But now I can truly survive within myself and my kids… that is truly the best justice," she wrote. "[You're] right, sometimes even a life sentence isn’t long enough, because it will never change what happened but...I know he can’t affect our community anymore.”
Heidi says that healing has been the hardest thing she’s ever done. But she has a message for other survivors.
“Stay strong. And stay the course. There are going to be delays. There’s going to be hard times. But just stay the course. And in the end, you’ll find the justice that you want.”