My story of resiliency:

Girls are taught to be quiet and play nice, so when I was raped by the babysitter of our church nursery at four, and again, from ages five to seven, by my mother's friend's son, I never said a word. 

My dad’s military career moved us around a lot. We lived in Italy for much of my childhood. Growing up with a bipolar family member made me collateral damage to a brain disorder that doesn’t care how nice you are. Besides the mood swings, a big marker of the disorder is poor judgment and impulsivity. My mom placed me in a different school every year, and my father, who I believe has autism, went along with her.

In ninth grade, my mom thought it would be a good idea to put me into an Italian public school. I was fourteen, but they put me in sixth grade. Why? I didn’t speak Italian. The Italian administrators thought I’d have an easier time learning the language if I started at the beginning of their middle school program. At first it was all, “Ciao, ciao, ciao,” the only word I knew. I had no idea what was going on and failed every class for about a month or two, but I continued to study my butt off.  

By Christmas, I was making real progress, a solid C student, and I could understand about seventy-five percent of the conversation. I finished the middle school program, in a different Italian school than when I started, with a B average.

But I had a huge problem: I was seventeen years-old with an eighth-grade education and we were moving back to the United States for my father’s retirement.  

Panicked, I went into an American high school with my ‘Scuola Media’ diploma and they turned me away. Overcrowded schools were not open to someone who already had a diploma. Because it was in Italian, it was unclear to them that it was a diploma for middle school.

Several months later, we moved to a small town so my mom could open, The International Café. By March, the restaurant was facing bankruptcy, but now that I wasn’t needed, I was free to go back to school.  

This time I left my diploma at home. Told the guidance counselor that I was eighteen, new in town, and needed to do twelfth grade. She blinked at my transcripts, “No one here speaks Italian. You’ll have to translate these…”  

A few months later, I had an American diploma. And I went to Prom! (No proms in Italy.) I applied for tons of scholarships, camping out in the guidance office. The counselor encouraged me to enter the county level Miss America Pageant for the scholarship money and I won! 

Appalachian State University offered me an academic scholarship and an invitation into their honors program. I worked three jobs and had to take out a student loan to make ends meet. I ate lots of cereal and Top Ramen; God bless those cheap, wavy noodles!  

I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a minor in International Business, which allowed me to study abroad in Australia and China. Next, I completed a Master’s of Science degree in Mental Health Counseling from Stetson University, which included a study abroad tour in Europe.  

Five days before taking off, I met my husband. It was at love at first sight - which is completely insane. We waited a few years before we got married, just to be sure.

My professional career began as a therapist at a boys ranch. My supervisor told me to double bill for services. I refused. The following week, the boys ranch made the front page for insurance fraud. Everyone was laid off, some went to jail. Not a great career start. My new job was at a private psychological practice. It was a great fit and I learned a lot.

I pursued a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy, from Barry University. I needed to become a doctor to learn the magic words to make my family act normal. My husband and I moved to a small developing town where I created a private practice for children and families. I helped hundreds of people heal, but even after earning my doctorate in marriage and family therapy, I couldn't help my family of origin. They didn’t want to change. I turned my attention toward healing myself and strengthening our marriage.  

Things were going great until we decided to start a family of our own. After many tests, we learned I was infertile. During five years of treatments and surgeries, it seemed like I was chained to a terrible hope/failure rollercoaster. It was a very dark time in my life, consumed by the jaws of infertility.

Five years later, I got pregnant thanks to the Center for Reproductive Medicine in Orlando. I'd kiss Dr. Sejal Patel every day if she’d let me!  

I decided to close my practice so I could stay home with my baby. And nine months later, I had another life growing inside of me without even trying.  

Being home with my babies was amazing, but I needed to do more. I started writing young adult novels (after trying and failing at picture book - they seem simple but are the most difficult to write!) I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and met many wonderfully talented and supportive people in the Florida chapter, like my writing coach, Joyce Sweeney

After querying two hundred literary agents, I was offered representation by Tina Purcell Schwartz of the Purcell Agency. She and her associate, Taylor Thompson, are actively submitting my debut manuscript. I write resilient stories for resilient readers, drawing on my fabulously dysfunctional childhood with mentally ill parents. My psychology degrees help me sift through my personal experiences for truth and healing.

Over the years of writing and learning, I discovered something about my health. My body got sick each time I had contact with my parents and sister. It felt like tumors were growing in my body. Doctors were diagnosing me with all sorts of illnesses. When a friend of mine told me her mother was diagnosed with cancer, it suddenly became clear. I could not be healthy if I kept my family of origin in my life. A line was drawn and distance kept.

With all this new space for health, cool things started to happen. I earned a SCBWI FL Rising Kite Award for Young Adult Novels.

I went to New York City and after witnessing the magic that is CATS on Broadway, I wrote a song, HEADBANGER, titled after one of my stories.

As a child, I used to bang my head against a wall. My parents took me to a military doctor about it. He told my parents, "Don't worry, if she hits it hard enough to pass out, at least you'll have some peace." Clearly, I had many reasons to be frustrated and no way to cope. Anywho, after this song popped out of me, I needed a way to bring it into the world.

The challenge once I found G&M Studios near my home was singing HEADBANGER out loud. All those memories of Mother holding her ear, convinced me my voice was bad. The producers, Manny Gomez and Thai McGrath, encouraged me to sing it. "How else can we make this thing if we can't hear how it goes?" Manny said.

As a small child my mother used to tell me to stop singing. She’d hold her good ear (she was deaf in the other) and say, “You’re hurting my ear! I can’t help it if I have perfect pitch.” I learned that my voice was bad and I needed to be quiet. 

With acid burning my throat, tears pricking my eyes, and a stomach about to boil over, I released the first few lines of the song, staring at the vacuum tracks in the rug, prepared to be kicked out of the studio.

Manny picked up his guitar and followed along. I stopped and peeked up at him. "Keep going," he said.

Armed with that compliment, I proceeded. When I finished, we made a plan to produce HEADBANGER. I couldn't believe it.

One of the best things I've done is enroll in voice lessons. It taught me that I have a voice and I'm allowed to use it.

Two years later, I'm wrapping up a debut album, BEAUTIFUL PAIN, releasing under the name, Tori. Because even though I'm Tori Kelley, I'm not her. The first thing the producers told me was, "Your name is already taken." Which is hilarious. At least Tori Kelly is a beautifully talented singer-songwriter. I don't mind sharing a name with someone so magnificent. Maybe one day, the Tori Kellies will sing together. How awesome would that be?

My story of resiliency might be unique in details, but not in experience. We’re all overcoming something or other. It’s important to brave through the lows to get to the highs.

“Please be kind, we are all travelers,

Searching for love since the day we were born.

I know it’s hard. I know you’re hurting

But there can’t be rainbows without some rain.

Press against the storm.”

-From PRESS AGAINST THE STORM

by Tori Kelley/BEAUTIFUL PAIN

If I can overcome, so can you. I hope these stories help you along your journey.

If you like my work, please tell a friend.

All the best,

Tori Kelley

Coming soon...BEAUTIFUL PAIN, the album

"Don't regret and don't forget.

Be grateful for your truth,

because all that's happened in your life

makes a more beautiful you."

-BEAUTIFUL PAIN

by Tori Kelley