I grew up in a home that was both loving and chaotic. I had supportive parents, was engaged in school, grew up in a safe community and had few worries as a child. Yet, I would describe my childhood as ‘unpredictable,’ and ‘traumatic.’ I was often fearful, sad and felt powerless over my environment. This experience continued through my adolescence and into my early adulthood.
From all accounts, I continued to be successful in all areas of my life... except one. I excelled at school and had a full social and extra-curricular life. I went to college early and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Though, the patterns of ‘unpredictability,’ and ‘trauma,’ continued within my romantic relationships. I developed a pattern of relating to others in which I would be powerless, anxious and fearful.
Paradoxically, I developed an unwavering desire to empower others to overcome their own adversities. Without a second thought, in 2010, I moved to Chicago to pursue my Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, and a year later made the decision to specialize in trauma therapy. Most psychology professionals would agree, the commonalities between my childhood experiences and my chosen career path are no coincidence.
Chaos, unpredictability, and trauma became my “comfort zone,” ... my “normal.” I was subconsciously drawn to environments and people that ignited my inner schemas and mimicked the familiar trauma of my childhood. Though, with the academic and employment skills I had developed, and the resources I had been afforded, I channeled this subconscious desire, to be immersed in the familiar, toward a respected and valued career in healing others who have experienced trauma. It is my belief that my own life experiences have contributed to my ability to accurately empathize with the individuals I work with and to understand their life experiences from a holistic view.
In Chicago, I grew in ways I had never anticipated. I no longer felt powerless, anxious and fearful. Unavoidably, I began developing a deep awareness of the human experience of trauma and connection, and the ways in which my own personality, identity, life choices had been shaped by my early childhood experiences (both positive and negative). Through my education, internship and work experience, I encountered individuals whose adverse life experiences were unparalleled by anything I had previously encountered. I learned about environmental trauma vs. human inflicted trauma. I witnessed the ways in which trauma reactions manifested immediately and decades later. Most significantly, I saw first-hand the manifestation of multi-generational trauma and complex trauma. These experiences changed my world-view.
Finally... after three years of processing and re-experiencing my own traumas, reading, listening and learning about trauma, working with marginalized children, adolescent, and adult individuals experiencing EVERY type of trauma, I truly understood what ‘they’ meant by ‘vicarious trauma.’ Vicarious trauma is a common experience of those in the helping profession in which they themselves begin to experience symptoms of trauma (intrusion, avoidance, hyper-arousal) as a result of ongoing exposure to the traumatic experiences of others.
To cope, I began writing poetry. "One." was a poem that emerged, out of the loss of a relationship, the beginning of my career, and an overwhelming desire to find meaning in the painful and often horrific experiences of the physically and sexually abused children I had been blessed to work with in my graduate internship. At the same time, I began to develop a new world view, an ideology, a new identity, a spirituality, and a purpose.
Over time, the idea of ‘the one’ took on several different meanings: the "one in four," or “one in six,” girls and boys (respectively) who experience childhood sexual abuse, finding (or not finding) "the one," a soul mate, and being "the (chosen) one," possessing a talent, passion or gift that could change the world. It became my vision that each and every person I encountered personally and through my work would begin to see themselves as ‘the one.’ Not as a statistic or a number, but rather, as a unique individual with limitless potential and immeasurable value.
Later, for many reasons, I returned to Alberta, Canada. What came next, not surprisingly, more trauma, loss and grief, and then a period of rest, healing and self-reflection. There is a quote (that I cannot remember now and I can't recall who said it...just trust me on this one.) that refers to creativity being born out of darkness... (or something like that) that perfectly depicts that moment for me. I was unemployed, had given up the life I had worked hard to build in Chicago to move back in with my parents (for the second time), was healing from a serious medical condition, and was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and loss. It was at this time, when I had the space, time and calmness of the dark, when I was truly able to quietly reflect and identify what this cumulative experience and personal growth meant to me... and what I was going to do with it.
A simple idea... giving a voice to the youth who have been neglected, abused, and more or less, forgotten by the larger society. Through the power of writing, empathy, and listening, I believed I could begin to heal individuals while facilitating a connection with others. Further, through recognizing the unique individual and respecting their innate value and worth as a human being, I believed I could empower individuals to re-develop their identities without reducing them to a statistic or defining them by their choices. This simple idea developed out of everything I know about trauma and believe about the power of human connection.
The result... I began writing to young individuals who had been arrested as juveniles and convicted and sentenced as adults. I searched the adult inmate database and found 10 individuals (9 male, 1 female) all of the age 19 with sentences of 14 years or more (up to 85 years) in prison. In my search, I eliminated only those with sex offender status or those out on parole. And I simply asked them if they would be willing to share their life story with me and eventually with other young people who share their experiences and the world. To date, of the 10 only 4 have written back. With respect for their individual growth and the process of telling your life story, I assured them I would only share their story when they were ready and when they felt their work was complete. In every aspect, I have aimed to give them control and self-determination in this process.
My only goal was to give these young people a voice. I understood the healing power of writing, being validated through listening, and I had faith that, through sharing their stories and having a positive impact on the outside world, these young individuals would begin to see themselves as valuable human beings with the potential to create extraordinary change in their communities. To see themselves as 'the one.' It was my hope that through this process the rest of the world would see them in this way too. To see them as whole people, and as children and youth, rather than hardened criminals and "thugs."
Here, you will find the life stories of these individuals. The focus is not on the crime itself, but rather, the significant moments, people, and experience that shaped their identities, choices and lives. In addition to their stories, you may read my thoughts about the experience and development of ‘the one.’, and personal take on related research, news and events, here in 'the blog.'
'the one.' is continually evolving... Looking forward, 'the one.' aims to continue this effort and bring opportunities for you to contribute to our endeavors through the purchase of products and participation in advocacy and charity events. As well, we will be introducing new efforts (currently in the works) to continue to create opportunities for vulnerable youth to become leaders of change. I will keep you posted on all our plans and upcoming events in 'the future.'
Thank you to those that take the time to read and share the stories you find here. To listen is to give these young people a voice. Please share your comments and feedback with respect for the courage and strength of the individuals who have agreed to open themselves up and be vulnerable for no other purpose than to empower and inspire others who share their life experiences.
“‘the one.' is what defines us as individuals and connects us as humans." - Dallis Westin, Founder