My story is also featured in the 2017 documentary, The S Word.
I am a survivor of many things. I am a trauma survivor. I have survived multiple adverse childhood experiences, suicide attempts, profound losses. I have survived.
I was born to a single mother, a creative artist with a powerful spirit who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mama cycled in and out of state hospitals, wandering the streets, hearing voices. She died at the age of 46, a brilliant light that was lost far too soon.
My father, a sensitive and beautiful man with an encyclopedic memory, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his youth. He died suddenly at age 63, another devastating blow to my family.
I witnessed firsthand how poor quality treatment, discrimination, and lack of hope led to both of my parents' untimely deaths. I would later find out that people with serious mental health diagnoses die much earlier than the general population, and my parents sadly fell into that category. But they will never be a statistic to me.
All my life, the doctors said that I would likely end up like my parents, a sort of genetically-based fatalism. I believed them, and "patient" became my primary identity.
As an adolescent, I struggled from the devastating effects of all I had experienced in my short life. No one ever acknowledged the trauma I had experienced. I entered mental health treatment for depression, and was traumatized by systems that did not seek to understand and support me, but to blame me, label me, and heavily medicate me.
Sometimes I wonder which was more traumatic: my turbulent early childhood years, or five years of scary experiences in incompetent treatment settings. I witnessed many instances of brutality of staff against minors; I was warehoused in institutions for months on end; heavily medicated; given no less than five psychiatric diagnoses; denied a meaningful education; denied dreams; denied a real life. Being treated like a mental patient is inherently damaging to the human spirit.
I almost gave up hope at the tender age of eighteen.
My adulthood began by rotting in a decrepit, filthy group home, instead of with my loved ones in my community, because the treatment team said "I belonged there" for my own good.
I was intensely suicidal in that awful place. I managed to convince my family to let me leave; they agreed to defy doctor's orders.
I began to complete the high school education that I had missed while I was institutionalized. Supportive teachers met me where I was at.
That was the small beginning of hope returning to my life.
When I was in my mid twenties, I joined up with "survivors and ex-patients," a international human rights and social justice movement that has existed largely on the margins of mainstream attention. For the first time, I met a group of people who understood my experience and shared their own version. I finally felt a part of something larger than myself, a movement for change. This broke down the shame and silence that I lived with, and was the beginning of reclaiming my voice.
Our movement has worked tirelessly for over four decades to end the perpetuation of harmful practices and attitudes in mental health. At the same time, we are seeking to create alternatives to the system, including non-traumatizing, healing, voluntary, respectful, community-based services and grassroots supports for people in distress and crisis.
Our approach emphasizes the the importance of people retaining dignity, personhood, and the right to self-determination, central values of the human rights and cross-disability rights movements.
From my peers in the movement, I learned about trauma. I discovered that trauma lives not only in the mind, but in the body. That it's not so easy just to "get over" things that have happened to us in the past. And for many of us, the trauma is ongoing. I realized that so often, what is labeled as "mental illness" is actually the consequence of trauma unaddressed and unacknowledged in our lives. And the ways we learn to cope and survive in an unjust world.
This discovery set me on a journey of nearly twenty years to discover everything I could about trauma and the various mind-body pathways to healing. Trauma awareness has been life-changing for me, and I am devoted to sharing what I’ve learned with others. There is no one-size-fits-all to healing. Some wounds may never heal. And I’m committed to supporting others along their unique route to survival, freedom, and yes, joy.
The other cornerstone of my healing has been creative expression: telling my story using various expressive arts approaches. Using words to “speak truth to power” and to illuminate possibilities of what could be in a more just, liberatory, and caring world. Folks in the movement encouraged me to tell my story as a young woman, and I have never stopped telling it. It is my sincere wish to support others to find and use their voice in the way that I was supported to do so.
What I know is this: while relationships have deeply harmed me at times in my life, they have also been my portals and passageways to healing. To be seen, to be validated, to be affirmed, just as I am, to do the same for others: this is some of the most potent medicine I know of.
A few other things about me:
I’ve been a single mama to one delightful young human for over a decade. (Shout out to solo parents.)
I lived in Cairo, Egypt for two years and traveled pretty extensively in the Middle East.
I put up these You are Beautiful stickers everywhere I possibly can. Because we can all use a reminder of this in unexpected places.