Starting at the End: Owning the Remnant of Our Trauma

I am really glad to share the words and work of mental health professional and fellow blogger, Hannah Siller. She and I share some common life experiences: traumatic childhoods, addicted parents, fractured sibling relationships. Coming from trauma doesn’t sentence us to sitting in pain, though. There is, in everyone’s story, an opportunity for redemption, for repair, for reclaiming who we are in our very deepest souls. I hope you’ll be encouraged by Hannah’s story:

To start at the beginning is too complex. This isn’t a bedtime story that can begin with a “Once upon a time” and end with an “And they lived happily ever after”. Trauma is messy, living in an abusive and toxic environment is messy. Those who have been allowed to glimpse these less pretty parts of my life often say it would make a great movie or book. I guess in some ways they would be right, but it’s not that simple. To know the past I endured doesn’t get anyone any closer in knowing the me that I am now. For a person that has experienced prolonged types of trauma such as childhood abuse, there is this permanent change that happens. We are our past, but at the same time, we are also our journey to heal. This is a process that is continuous and is lifelong. But if that is the case then where would one consider to be the end of their story? Where would I set the last chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie? Searching for this answer kept me from really telling my story. But then it found me. So instead I’m going to start at the end, or at least what I consider to be the end of my trauma story. 

The summer of 2018 was kind of a big-time in my life. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and crisis and was figuring out what my next steps would be. A lot of defining moments would come from this summer, but for this entry, we will focus on just one, Jess. Jess had been the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend for a good part of my younger years. The four of us lived together, Jess and I were raised as sisters. Our parents’ relationship was problematic, as they were both drug dealers and users. With a relationship like that comes many issues of violence and potential legal problems. It ended in epic fashion with her mother in jail and my father not. Emotions in both families were high, for obvious reasons, and Jess and I were separated and kept apart, forcibly at times.

Given that this was far before the internet was commonplace and social media was yet to exist, there was little I could do to connect. Once I reached adulthood, even with these means, so much time had passed it was near impossible to even know where to look. But it was Jess, and I had to try. Every few months I would spend a late-night scrolling through Facebook for a lead, occasionally messaging someone who looked similar to her mother or who had her name. For years I did this with no luck. Then on August 19th, 2018, I tried one last time. The next morning, I received a response. After almost 30 years I had found Jess and she was once again in my life.

Our relationship wouldn’t be the forever I had wanted, but that is a story for another time. At the moment I had found a missing piece of my life. It’s impossible to completely explain all of the emotions I experienced during this reunion, but what I can say with certainty is that the experience changed me. Suddenly I found a connection between my past and my present that I never had before. Growing up in an abusive environment like I had, there is this question you tend to ask yourself, who would I be if I had never had to endure such pain? Being around Jess answered that for me. There were these times she would comment “oh that’s my Hannah” as if she almost expected me to do or say exactly what I just did. It would take me by surprise that this person who had been so long removed from my life still knew me so well. Somehow through all of the bad stuff I still at my core retained who I really was. Maybe in a different environment, I would have had more opportunities or chosen a different career path, but as far as the root of my being I was always this person.

I gained closure from this relationship. Jess set straight things about myself and my life that no one else could. She had experienced so much of the same things I did in those early years. She could confirm the memories of events I had and allow me to discuss the pain of these events with complete understanding. But most importantly I found that the love I had carried for her was the same she had carried for me. Through everything, I went through there was one person out there that loved me and thought of me and to whom I was important. By finding Jess I was finally able to find an ending of my trauma story. My past will always have a degree of influence over me but the story and the pain from that part of my life is officially over.  

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*Names are modified to protect the identity of the individuals discussed. Please respect the privacy of these individuals and refrain from posting additional information.

* I have worked hard to heal from my past through professional therapy and personal growth. Over the years I have become comfortable enough to start using this story in public speaking events and as a major part of my writing. Writing about personal trauma can be very triggering and is not recommended for those still working through trauma unless instructed to do so by a mental health professional.

About the Author

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After pursuing a career as a clinical counselor for at-risk youth, I made the important decision to go back to school. I am currently working towards my Doctorate in psychology, which I hope to find better trauma preventions and PTSD treatments. My spare time is devoted to my business Serene Life Consulting, which provides life coaching, public speaking survives, and is home to home to my blog. Like in all areas of my life, the purpose of my writing is to bring mental health education and an inspirational message to others. My dream is to continue this message throughout my life in everything I do. From teaching to publishing a book to research, I just want to make everything I lived through count. 

To check out more of Hannah’s work including Life Coaching Services and her current blogging project “Diary of a Trauma Survivor” see her website:

https://sillercounseling.com/

serenelifeconsulting.com  

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She Was A Voice: A Review of “The Book of Longings”

“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings

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The reclamation and rediscovery of my voice have been the driving throughline of my life since 2011 when my vocal cords were damaged resulting in a year of silence. I already felt pretty invisible in my daily life, as though I was seen and heard only by my husband and kids. Though I regained my voice through the miracle of a silicone implant, the trauma of the muteness has never fully left the deep recesses of my heart and soul. Those who have known me in an up-close way, or who read my work know this truth about me.

In her latest and most audacious work, inspirational author Sue Monk Kidd imagines another invisible and unheard woman, telling a life of her creation, a wife of Jesus during the period of unknowing: the years between his temple conversations with the rabbis and the day he stepped into the river Jordan to be immersed by John the doomed prophet. Only an undiluted curiosity undergirded with a fertile and open mind will be able to read this beautiful fiction unthreatened.

We meet Anna as a teen, full of restless joy and enormous dreams of writing, a voracious reader who had begged her father unrelentingly to be taught how to read and write. Anna is a young woman of expansive ideas trapped in an ancient patriarchal culture. I recognized her heart-cry immediately, I too was once a young bookworm with a passion for justice and a tendency toward the favoring the underdog.

The Hebraic culture of the New Testament era comes vividly alive in the author’s adept hands. Ms. Kidd revealed in an interview with researcher Brene’ Brown that she spent 14 months of eight-hour days immersed in history and religious study, joking that she was smitten by Roman aqueducts in Galilee; her daughter finally intervening with an exhortation to get on with the writing. Her dynamic descriptions of the terrain, the architecture, the food, the daily life are so real I expected to see dust on my sandals and to smell olives on the breeze upon lifting my eyes from the page.

Anna is to be married to an old man in a play for power by her father, a wealthy, landless scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who would eventually see Jesus in his court. Events twist and turn, and Anna is instead married to young Jesus, a man so full of compassion and the spark of joy that he is utterly captivating. I have wondered since I was young enough to watch Sunday School stories be told by puppets and felt board cutouts what the young man Jesus might have been like, and this imagining feels completely credible.

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Ms. Kidd is careful to craft a plot that is fully supportive of the sparse details of Jesus’s life that are written in the Biblical gospels, she doesn’t rewrite or recreate Jesus and his ministry, she simply attempts to create a fictional idea of what might have been, and in doing so, she provides a feminine window into the early Christian world that has not often been seen. Anna is, in truth, a proxy for all the women who have ever felt absent in the Jesus story, who have been unheard in the power plays and overlooked in the histories executed by men. “The deeper we go into our own experience, our own journey, the more likely we are to hit the universal,” says Ms. Kidd.

As a companion read to The Book of Longings, Ms. Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, is a remarkable deep dive into the fracturing and rebuilding of feminine faith; it too is universal. I have been working through it for some time. I say “working,” because the truth of what Brene’ Brown calls her “mid-life unraveling” is unfolding in my own life, and has been for a period of long years. It was only in the last three that I began to tiptoe from the desert created by church trauma to embark upon newer vistas of grace on my way back to verdant faith. Reading the final chapters of Dissident Daughter simultaneously with Longings scored the truths of both deeply into my heart in the same way that Anna inscribed her prayers into a bowl: women are deeply, tenderly, radically loved by God.

If a reader can access her imagination and be unafraid to ask “What if?” there is abundant grace, wit, and courage in this gorgeous novel. What a bold, yet humble gift is Sue Monk Kidd. I encourage all to read, and to listen to her episode on Unlocking Us. Its radical, gentle message is both balm and benediction.

Brené with Sue Monk Kidd and Jen Hatmaker on Longing, Belonging and Faith

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Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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“Everything Becomes Magical.”

That’s what life coach extraordinaire Martha Beck says. She says when you find your purpose, when you listen to your heart, everything becomes magical.

What I am learning this minute, this second is that finding your purpose is a winding road; purpose can evolve; at least it has for me. I am surrounded by theatre teachers today, sitting in the exhibit hall of a hotel while gregarious, committed women and men equip themselves for a new school year of inspiring kids to create, perform, and design. These educators are full of joy and intention.

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That’s me on the left, directing my high school vampires to attack Harker in “Dracula,” 2007

I was once like them. This is my umpteenth conference, but I used to attend as a teacher. Attending my first convention in 2001,  I was starry-eyed, thrilled to be teaching in a field that so closely mirrored my own passion for storytelling. I attended workshops without stopping for food, from the first class in the early morning until the last one after dinner. I took everything I learned about improv and projection and creating special effect makeup back to my junior high and then high school classrooms and stages, and there were days I’d say to my students as we started rehearsal, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” I knew my purpose. It was clear: to teach theatre and equip students for creativity, yes, but more it was to be someone who loved kids. But I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t go the distance. The grind of the schedule, the needs of the adolescent students, and the antagonism of a new administrator wore me down until I was a shadow of myself. So I fled to the world of the Renaissance Festival, where I’d been a seasonal entertainer for a long time. In that office, my purpose became to provide support for teachers who were creating learning opportunities and to advocate for the artists who show their wares at the festival. For five years I have navigated the unexpectedly turbulent waters and now the job where I first found respite seems no longer to be the right place to be. My spirit began to nudge me to look afield for a new place to work. I am a person whose spirit needs to feel called to what she does to earn her keep. I know not everyone is wired that way, but I am.

I recently finished an unexpected series of interviews with the Disney Corporation for the second September in a row; though it ultimately did not pan out, it did get me thinking: to work in a magical place, a Magic Kingdom that embraces and sets the standard for best practices, seemed the perfect place for my spirit. Creativity, stability, excellence, and magic call me.

When I was young, I sensed it sometimes. Even in the household where I struggled to feel safe and nurtured, my introverted little dreaming heart searched for magic and longed for purpose.

I donned it in the form of a green tulle prom dress that I bought with good behavior coupons in Mrs. Hoover’s second-grade classroom. When I wore that gown, nothing ugly or lonely could touch me. I was beautiful, I sang and danced. I was fully myself.

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I felt it in my grandmother’s June’s attic in New Mexico, my own wishing place, just like Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. I played dress-up and danced, wrote stories and read books while the sun streamed in the dormer window.

I stitched it when sitting on the daybed in my grandmother Juanita’s bedroom, I cut and sewed scraps of fabric to make clothing for dolls while she hummed hymns and made garments for the women of west Texas. More, I carried it in every stitch of clothing she ever made me.

I earned it with every report card A and spelling bee trophy, and there were many, evidence of my commitment to be better, to excel.

I became it when I walked down the aisle with my father, the Sound of Music wedding march ringing all around me as I married my husband.

I birthed it each time I pushed a child out of my body then held him or her close.

I created it when I realized that solitude is a gift, that being alone can be healing.

And yet … and yet. Amid all those moments of magic tucked away in my heart, I still feel lost. Without a clear purpose. Recently, I had thought it might be to return to the theatre classroom, but multiple applications around the area didn’t provide a teaching contract. So that’s not it. Nor was Disney, to my great disappointment. I love to write, but there is an infinite number of moments when I find myself debating whether my writing merits a broader reach beyond sweet family and supportive friends. What is the why of my writing? Who is it for?  Who even bothers to read? And here’s a secret revealed: I want to find a purpose that is beyond caring for my grandkids or being the wife of an admittedly great guy. I yearn for an identity and a purpose that is solely my own. I  love my husband, my kids, my grandbaby. But I want work that is my own. In that, I am a true woman of my generation. Our mothers didn’t question that family was all and enough. Our daughters don’t doubt that they can do both or neither.

Waiting is hard. Stillness is excruciating. Hitting the pause button on the deep inner heart while still going through all the busy motions of earning a living, doing dishes, and nurturing relationships feels nigh impossible, even and especially when you deeply and truly love the ones you are surrounded by. To love family well is its own purpose, its own commitment. It’s just that for me, it’s not enough.

Waiting is what I must do. I don’t believe I am the only one living this quandary. Many people in my little sphere seem to be fully confident of where they are and where they’re headed. And for some of them, it’s true. They do know. But I bet others are faking it, just like I am. In the musical Little Women, Jo March, she of shared attic magic, sings of her need to find her purpose, her way:

“There’s a life
That I am meant to lead
A life like nothing I have known
I can feel it
And it’s far from here
I’ve got to find it on my own
Even now I feel its heat upon my skin.
A life of passion that pulls me from within,
A life that I am aching to begin.
There must be somewhere I can be
Astonishing.”

Though I am unclear whether the life I need will take me any farther than the literal road between Houston and Austin, I am certain that something will call to me soon. Some purpose is going to make itself known; so I am going stay soft and spiritually open, to keep listening to the breezes that just might bring a little whispering hint of what I need to do and where I need to go. I think the Divine One has things to tell me. I just hope I recognize when She does.

Do you know your purpose? I would love to know what yours is!

I found this wonderfully helpful article about tools and strategies for finding one’s own unique purpose:

How to Find Your Purpose

 

 

 

Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

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For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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