The first bombing happened when I was one and a half years old. I was in a car with my Mom taking my older brother to kindergarten and we stopped to pick up my brother’s friend. He was walking towards the car and paused to tie his shoelace. While he was crouched down a few feet away from us, dynamite under the car exploded and the front passenger seat that he was about to sit on was torn to shreds. Miraculously no one was injured.
There were 4 more bombings over the next year and a half.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night to an explosion, walking out of my room and seeing shards of glass glistening across the floor – the explosion had shattered every piece of glassware in the house. I remember holding onto my mother for dear life and wailing in terror. I remember the moment that she had to put me down to call the police, and how unsafe I felt.
As a Clinical Psychologist, I have spent my career studying the human mind, and specifically the impacts of childhood trauma. I can now look back and see that what followed in my life after this series of bombings was a very logical response to intense, unpredictable, and unexplained terror. But at the time I was simply moving from one day to the next, as all little kids do.
In general I was a pretty happy kid, but there was also a continuous underlying sensation that the world was not safe.
My parents never found out who was bombing us, so we lived with the constant threat of an unknown enemy, who could strike again at any moment.
The human mind is incredible when faced with challenge. People survive in the most horrific environments – much worse than what I experienced – because the mind always figures out a way to adapt.
Here’s how my genius little mind learned to protect me. I got rid of everything about myself that made me soft and vulnerable.
At the age of 4, I convinced my parents to shave my head. Even at that young age, somehow I knew that I could will my scary feelings away and regain a sense of control in my life. For many years I refused to conform to anything feminine. It wasn’t until I was 25 that I started buying dresses or brushing my hair.
As I grew this also turned into an obsession with all things dangerous. I jumped out of airplanes and off of cliffs. I rode motorcycles. I travelled alone, I hitchhiked. I sailed with strangers across foreign seas. I read about serial killers for fun and dreamed of being a criminal profiler.
I did anything I could to prove to myself and to the world that I wasn’t scared. That I wasn’t vulnerable.
Somewhere along the way, I also figured out that if I pleased people they would be nice to me. Validation and connection drowned out my constant state of uneasiness and terror. So I started wanting to be around people all the time.
I became exceptionally good at making friends so that I never had to be alone. Because when I was alone, the feelings came back. They always came back.
To the outside world, I appeared happy, outgoing, adventurous, and surrounded by friends. I had learned to mask my fear so well even I didn’t know it was there.
When I was 16, I went away to a summer camp. My parents came to pick me up when it was over and took me and my brother to a park. They sat us down and told us:
“We’re getting a divorce, and Mom is moving to another country.”
And then they put me on a plane to fly home alone. When we had originally planned for me to spend a month at home without my family that summer, it sounded like a GREAT idea. I was 16, after all.
But then things changed…
I remember the night I arrived home to an empty house. Knowing I had another whole month there alone. I remember feeling SO lost and lonely and devastated. But most of all I remember feeling terrified of all these emotions.
My mind was frantic. I was desperate for something, anything to get me back to safety.
This is what we call complex trauma. One difficult experience we don’t know how to cope with layered on top of another one. But again, the mind is an incredibly adaptable tool. My mind looked for something even more intense to silence this new onslaught of unbearable and overwhelming feelings.
And that is when I discovered sex. Having sex accomplished two things for me – first, it filled me with intense feelings of excitement and pleasure that effectively masked this new depth of pain. And second, being in a romantic relationship with someone meant they were less likely to leave me, so the constant companionship that I craved was even more secure.
Relationships were very complicated for me because while I was desperately seeking connection, I was also terrified of the feeling of loss so each time I got close to someone, I would push them away so they couldn’t leave me.
And then of course I found alcohol. I learned that this magical substance could utterly obliterate all of my unwanted emotions for an entire night. So I drank. Heavily.
To the outside world, I was the life of the party.
I became what my friends like to refer to as “the Hailstorm”. Searching for fun, excitement, and rebellion around every corner. But what I was really searching for was an escape. I wasn’t just looking for fun – I NEEDED fun, because it was the only thing standing between me and my terrifying feelings of loss and loneliness.
I remember coming home on a number of occasions when the fun had worn off and imagining what would happen if I walked in front of a car, or jumped off a balcony.
Throughout all of these events I had no idea what was happening behind the scenes of my own mind, until life finally slapped me so hard that I simply had no other choice than to stop and notice.
I had just broken off an engagement – the last in a string of men I had left suddenly and with no explanation. I was out partying with my friends, my pain buried deep within me. I hadn’t eaten enough or gotten enough sleep – my mind was way too preoccupied for self-care.
I stumbled out of bed sometime in the early morning, and I fainted in my bathroom, crashing to the floor, smashing my teeth, and breaking my nose.
This was about when I finally started therapy. And for the first time, I was given the opportunity to STOP and FEEL. As I moved towards my feelings rather than away from them, I started to realise that every single struggle I had in my life came from my fear of my own emotions, because every time I felt anything I turned to bingeing, drinking, or obsessing over a relationship to distract myself. To protect myself.
What I learned is that when I embrace my feelings, I don’t have do those things any more. My mind becomes free to see what is beneath my emotions.
What I have found at the core of my being, a place I ran from for so long – is not the never-ending chasm of loneliness I assumed was there – but an unshakeable mountain of love, of joy, and of purpose.
A profound understanding that I have something to offer the world, and that nothing is going to stop me from offering it.
I have been working with teenagers for the past 15 years all over the world, building programs to help heal the patterns I see in them, that are such a mirror for my own experiences.
And what I have come to realise is that youth mental health is not as complicated as we make it out to be.
Yes we are in a mental health crisis. Teenagers are killing themselves. They are walking into classrooms with guns. But this is not because there is something wrong with them. We can’t find all the crazy ones and fix them. Because there is nothing to “fix”.
The only thing that can stop this downward spiral is for us to acknowledge what is really going on for these kids. They have experienced something hard. They are feeling things they don’t know how to cope with. Their minds are trying to avoid these feelings, and like me – they are doing things that make no logical sense…
Because a mind avoiding pain is not in the business of making sense. It is in the business of avoiding pain.
As a culture, the reason we haven’t solved our youth mental health crisis is because we are coming at it from entirely the wrong perspective.
Humans feel. And feelings are truly miraculous things. We want to label some feelings as good and some as bad, but our difficult feelings are what guide us in knowing what is true and not true for us. When we are lying, we feel uncomfortable. This is normal.
I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a world where people feel uncomfortable when they lie so they start telling the truth.
We are creating a world where we are losing touch with ourselves because we are pushing away our feelings. Someone asks us how we are and we automatically say fine no matter what the truth is. We’re invited somewhere and we accept not because we want to, but because we don’t want to deal with the feelings of guilt that will arise if we say no. When we’re sad we take a pill or have a drink, when we are bored we reach for technology, and when we are scared we cling to whatever we think will make us safe, regardless of the consequences. When this constant cycle of avoidance causes havoc in our lives we think we are a failure because we just can’t get it together.
It’s as if a tree held up an umbrella every time it rained and then sat there thinking there was something wrong with it because it wasn’t growing.
Science is now showing that the relationship we have to feelings is far more complex than we had assumed. Recent research by Joseph LeDoux at NYU shows that the experience of emotions involves a complex web of factors, including both our past and present experiences and our sense of who we are.
What makes us feel a certain way is a combination of layers upon layers of experiences that we need to delve INTO, not avoid in order to get to the bottom of what is really going on in our lives.
So how do we change this paradigm? How do we learn to move towards our difficult feelings when our entire culture is built around avoiding them?
By learning that what we are feeling is NORMAL, and seeing that everyone else feels it too.
I spent the last few years travelling around the world filming interviews with teenagers about their experiences of overcoming trauma and the stories they shared were incredible.
I interviewed teenagers like Sarah who was severely bullied and hid her pain by harming herself and hating her bullies.
When she learned to face her feelings, her sadness helped her realise that that her bullies were also sad, and she wasn’t to blame for the way she had been treated.
I interviewed teenagers like Nadia who felt so ashamed because one of her classmates sexually assaulted her in the hallway at school.
She thought like most of us do that if we talk about these experiences openly, people will judge us. She was raised in a society that believes that if we bring up these topics in schools we might upset people. But not talking about feelings keeps kids like Nadia isolated and without support. When she was finally able express her feelings, her shame helped her find strength she never knew she had.
I interviewed young Hero’s like Dyami who thought there was something wrong with him because he experienced horrific racism.
He was suicidal until he learned to lean into his feelings and now he leads an incredible life where his devastation allows him to help other teens like him find hope.
We have an assumption in our culture that people who struggle are weaker or there is something wrong with them. But the opposite is true.
People who struggle are often the strongest because the courage it takes to embrace their feelings grows that strength.
Facing our feelings is hard. It’s often terrifying. When I first started this process I thought I would absolutely fall apart if I let all my feelings in. And in many ways I did. But then I learned the purpose of my pain.
I am so grateful for everything I went through.
Because of my trauma, and all the ways I reacted to it, because of the journey of self-discovery it put me on, I had the tools, the knowledge, and most importantly the motivation to create a mental health program that is based on documentary stories of young people like Sarah, Nadia and Dyami that is being used in schools globally to help an entire generation of teenagers learn practical skills for facing their own challenges and coming out the other side as hero’s in their own lives.
My personality and my struggles are a tapestry of all the things I have been through. I can choose to feel bad about myself because of them, or I can choose recognise that my complexities don’t make me crazy, they make me human. Just like all the beautiful and gritty layers that make up each and every one of you.
What you might think of as your flaws are actually the pathway to the best version of you because in embracing these hidden parts of yourself you will find your greatest strength.
So I would like to leave you with this offering. Look for one place in your life where you are avoiding difficult feelings. Let yourself feel into it. Know that these feelings don’t mean there is something wrong with you – they mean you have experienced something hard. Resist the urge for just a moment to reach for a phone or a treat. Tell someone about your pain. Focus on what you can learn from this feeling, and how this feeling can guide you in your life.
When someone else is hurting, let their pain be ok too. You don’t need to do anything else but listen.
If we all open to feelings in this way, we will be changing the way we think, the way we act, and the way we treat each other.
Together as a collective, we can feel our way to a better world.
Watch my TEDx Talk here: