Taylor Swift’s pop hit “Shake It Off” has become my new mantra. The theme of shirking haters, liars, and cheats while getting down to “this. sick. beat.” totally sums up how I survived growing up in my small rural hometown. Even though I endured endless discrimination for being poor and never, ever fitting in, I endured by knowing the day would come when I would move to the city and become an academic…which was exactly how I ended up moving to Boston and becoming a research scientist.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this song resonates so strongly with me. T. Swift was born in Wyomisisng, PA which is 90 minutes from where I grew up. In interviews she talks about how she didn’t belong there either, and how she followed her dreams of being a singer/songwriter, eventually moving to Nashville at the start of high school. She felt part of something bigger and followed her dream.
But taking such risks can come with a personal price. For instance, one of my most cherished childhood friendships started to unravel after I spent a decade confronting and healing from my history of child sexual abuse and family-controlled child sex trafficking. I was becoming an empowered survivor and transplanted New Englander, but our friendship was predicated on me being a homesick victim.
Our friendship ended after I stood up to her for the first time. She believed a rumor she heard about me while drinking in a hometown bar that I was currently “stalking” a guy I used to really like. Instead of telling the guy’s stoned friend who was talking trash to zip it, she called to yell at me. Her version of me included a pining, heartbroken sap. She was not able to accept the truth that all I had done was reached out to this person when his loving grandfather had recently passed. To her, I needed to be wounded.
After a few years of grieving the loss of this friendship, I realized the need for me to be the victim had nothing to do with me. Writer, producer, comedian, and actress Mindy Kaling sums it up best in her recent book Why Not Me?
People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. That’s why the show Intervention is a hit and everyone loves ‘worrying about’ Amanda Bynes. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.
I had done it. I had taken the plunge and moved away and rebooted my life. I struggled a lot at first, which did include tremendous bouts of homesickness for the place I could not get away from fast enough. I wish I had just made a clean break and not relied so much on my hometown friends to feel “known” as I endured loneliness in my new city. All of these friends were addicts – much like my biological family – which was familiar, but certainly not healthy.
But, in all honesty, the limited contact I had with them through letters, phone calls, and emails helped to keep me alive as I slogged through healing from my traumatic past. Isolation is physically and emotionally painful, and I experienced tremendous pain as I unearthed so many memories and realizations that had needed to be buried until I was safely away from my family. I was “in the gloaming,” which is an Old English phrase for twilight. The sun had set on that horrific time of my life and I was letting go of the past.
I much prefer that phrase to the ever popular “healing your inner child.” This term has always made my stomach turn. The words insinuate that you have the emotional capacity of a toddler and if you only worked a little harder you could join the rest of the well-adjusted world at the adult’s table.
What’s worse, this phrase can be used to discriminate against people who have experienced tremendous childhood trauma. While trauma lessens over time, PTSD is a chronic clinical condition that never truly goes away. Learning to manage triggers and symptoms is a life-long process that can be tedious and disheartening. While you can certainly move on, the trauma remains.
What can heal, though, is the shame and grief from instances of childhood trauma like not being protected from violence or having to grow up in poverty. As adults, we have the capacity to re-write the script that we were powerless to change as children. We can re-imagine what we wanted our lives to look like and our hearts to feel like so we can heal.
This reclaiming is exactly why I begged my 10 year-old son to go with me to see Taylor Swift last month during her 1989 tour. I wanted to sing and dance to “Shake It Off” with him and 60,000+ New Englanders at Gillette Stadium (where my husband spends an inordinate amount of time – he covers the Patriots for WEEI.com). I wanted to give the eternally teenage girl part of me the experience of being “normal” and belonging in an arena full of kids, tweens, teens (and their parents) who struggle with the same feelings.
Before the show started, I realized 1989 was my first full year of “freedom.” I graduated from high school in 1988 and quickly moved to Philadelphia. Funny to think that while that year was the beginning of my new life, in that same year, 90 minutes away, Taylor Swift was, literally, being born. And I am grateful she came into this world and wrote “Shake It Off.” This song is a mantra…a healing…a glimpse of holding on to what I know to be authentic and true in my heart despite others wanting me to stay small.