Not only do I see this every day with my patients, but I also lived it. You see, I was the drug addict in my family. I started using drugs when I was about 15 years old, and by the time I was 18, I’d already attempted suicide twice.
Having suffered most of my life with mental health issues, I’d been in therapy from a young age, trying to cope with the trauma of my childhood. While neither of my parents had a substance problem, and I was not a product of abuse per se, I was still subjected to smaller, chronic, systemic trauma as a child. These “little T” traumas can take many forms — failure to teach children self-reliance or to nurture their self-worth, dismissing their thoughts, feelings or opinions, or making them feel inadequate, incapable or unworthy.
For me, it was living with the constant feeling of inadequacy and being an outsider. Growing up in West Texas, my brother and I were some of the only Black children in our community. There was no one around who looked or talked like me, and I felt isolated and unworthy. My mother had been a beauty queen in our native Jamaica and for many years she served as the director of the Ms. Lubbock USA beauty pageant. My grandmother had been a prominent fashion designer in Jamaica, so I grew up surrounded by beautiful women, none of whom looked like me.
I lived with a relentless pressure to look a certain way, to have a tiny waist, straight hair and to always look “put together,” no matter what the cost. My role models — my mother and grandmother — placed an extremely high value on appearance, and my natural hair and athletic build did not fit the bill. I felt inferior and less than.
In my home, like in so many others, these transgressions were unintentional — it was just part of the family dynamic. My mother was completely unaware of the damage these “little T” traumas were causing. My internal dialogue was completely dominated by my mother’s expectations and I couldn’t discern her voice from my own. I believed that if I could just change the way I looked that things would be so much better — I wanted so badly to disassociate from my vessel.
I eventually resorted to self-harm and substance use to cope with my pain. It wasn’t until after my third suicide attempt at age 20, when I finally entered a rehab program, that I began to discover how to love myself again for more than my appearance.