My story of resiliency:

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.  

I was raped in a church nursery at four. And then by someone else (the son of my mother's friend) from ages five to seven, right in my own home as my mother visited with her friend. She never came to check my room. She never asked why I didn’t want to go to their house. Later she apologized, saying she just really wanted a friend, and didn’t want anything to mess that up. My take away from that was that I didn’t matter much as a person, that I was on this earth to please others. I had trouble feeling safe. I never felt safe.  

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 single year, and my dad 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 dad’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. It was in Italian, so 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 Miss Alexander County pageant for the scholarship money and I won!  

Appalachian State University offered me an academic scholarship and an invitation into their honors program. As a quasi-gypsy child, App State will always be my home. 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.  

I met my husband five days before having to leave for Europe. It was at love at first sight - which seemed completely insane to me, but it’s how we felt. I didn’t get married right away though, just to be safe. The best part was, with him, I finally did feel safe.  

My professional career began as a therapist at a boys ranch, where 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. The road to becoming a doctor was a ziggidy-zaggedy one, but once I arrived, it was so worth it.  

I did all of this to learn the magic words to make my family act normal. After becoming a doctor, I helped hundreds of people heal, but I couldn’t help my family. They didn’t want to change. I turned my attention toward healing myself.  

After three years of dating, I got married, and we moved to a small, developing town. I created Central Florida Mental Health, a private practice for children and families.  

Things were going great until we decided to start a family of our own. It turned out I was infertile, but still made every attempt as if I was chained to a terrible hope/failure rollercoaster. It was a very dark time in my life; consumed from the inside out by the jaws of infertility.  

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

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

I loved being home with my babies, 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. After querying two hundred literary agents, I was offered representation by Tina Purcell Schwartz of the Purcell Agency. She is actively submitting my debut manuscript, HEADBANGER (a fictionalized account of my life):  

Forced by her con artist parents to participate in illegal activities, from simple cons to grand larceny, seventeen-year-old Elton dreams of escaping criminal life and going to college. Her new school sponsors a scholarship pageant, and her parents go along for the prizes. At the new school, Elton meets a nice boy, and might even be falling in love with him, but when her parents find out he’s rich, they make his family their next mark. Elton has to choose between her loyalty to her family and doing what’s right. But if she saves the boy, she could lose her family forever.   It’s been on submission for almost three years. I love my agent for not giving up!  

I rewrote Headbanger's manuscript sixteen times! It’s three-hundred-and-fifty pages!

And during that time, I realized something: my body was getting sick each time I had contact with my parents and sister. I had to act or deteriorate. So I acted. I broke up with my family of origin. I rewrote my manuscript one more time, this time with the main character doing something really brave. (No spoilers!)  

That is the version that earned a publishing contract!  

And HEADBANGER earned a SCBWI FL Rising Kite Award (YA) in 2016.  

It takes many, many years to get a book out into the world.  

In the meantime, something weird happened: One day, I wrote a song, Headbanger. The lyrics and melody just came to me. It was produced at G&M Studios in Groveland, Florida by two very talented people who helped me bring it to life with instruments and a professional recording. Thank you so much, Manny Gomez and Thai Tristan McGrath! The reason it was so weird was that I wasn’t a singer on the account of my mother thought I sucked. But the only way to get Headbanger out there was to sing. So I sang - for two professional musicians, feeling stupid the whole time. And guess what, they didn’t think I sucked. They agreed to help me produce Headbanger!  

Since then, I’ve been back in the studio, writing and working to put out more songs and books about my life’s trauma. I’m not special, if I can overcome so can you. I hope these stories help you along your journey, and if you like my work, please tell a friend.  

Yours Truly,  

Tori Kelley                              

Resilient Stories for Resilient Readers.  

Headbanger MP3