Girls are taught to play nice and be quiet, so when bad things happened to me, I never said a word. Add to that, a mother who told me my voice hurt her ears when I sang, and you basically get your perfect little victim. Thankfully, this is not the end of my story.
Growing up in the military, we moved around so much I learned to be flexible and find the best in wherever we were at the time. I wrote stories and poems to process my feelings, especially since my neurodiverse family made some unusual choices, like joining a cult in Colorado that didn’t think girls needed an education beyond obeying their fathers and husbands and caring for their families. My seventh-grade school year began as free labor in the restaurant of one of the cult members. I considered it a rescue when when the Air Force transferred my father to Italy and we got to live near Venice. I even went to Carnevale. Un sognio magnifico!
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 back 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 learned that working really hard and putting in the time and effort pays off.
By Christmas, I was making progress, a solid C student. I could understand about seventy-five percent of the conversation. I finished the Italian middle school program, with a B average.
But I had a huge problem. I was eighteen years-old with only 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 and neither my parents nor I thought to correct them.
Several months later, we moved to a small town so my mom could open an international café. But our food was too different for a town that preferred barbeque and fries. By March, the restaurant was facing bankruptcy, but now that I wasn’t needed, my mother let me 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…”
Three months later, I had an American diploma. And I went to prom! (No proms in Italy.) I applied for tons of scholarships, practically 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 lived off of cereal, peanut butter, and Top Ramen, anything that was cheap.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a minor in International Business, Cum Laude. App State inducted me into the National Psychology Honor Society, Psi Chi, where I also served as president my senior year. I enjoyed studying abroad in Australia and China, because I’ll always have the heart of an explorer.
After that, I completed a Master’s of Science degree in Mental Health Counseling from Stetson University, which included a study abroad in Amsterdam, England, France, and Spain. Five days before taking off for Europe, I met the man who would become my husband. It was love at first sight, which I used to roll my eyes about, because, seriously? But three years after meeting, I still couldn’t imagine life without him so we tied the knot. He’s a wonderful partner, not perfect, but perfect for me. We work hard on our relationship and continue to grow together. I love how we recognize both our strengths and our flaws and are willing to make changes and evolve together.
My professional career began as a therapist at a boys ranch. My supervisor instructed me to double bill for services as if I was doing two counseling sessions at once, but I refused. Then, a while later, the boys ranch made the news for insurance fraud. Everyone was laid off, some people actually went to jail. I was out of a job.
Eventually, I got a new job at a large private psychological practice near Orlando. It was a great fit and I learned a lot. I enjoyed making a difference in people’s lives, but I still struggled with my own family of origin. I went on to earn a Ph.D. in Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy from Barry University. I was hoping that once I became a doctor, I’d learn the magic words to help my family make better choices.
I created my own private practice for children and families in a small developing town. There’s nothing better than helping people heal and grow, but I still couldn’t help my family of origin. It was so frustrating to watch them struggle with legal issues and institutionalization. My own body began to get very sick when I was around them. I had to make the difficult choice to separate myself and turn my healing inward.
All I wanted was a healthy family. But for all my trying, I couldn’t change their behaviors and I couldn’t get pregnant to start my own family. It took five years and help from the Center for Reproductive Medicine. I’d kiss Dr. Sejal Patel every day if she’d let me! I made her the beauty queen in one of my stories—she’ll always be a special person in my life.
When I finally welcomed my own little bundle of joy, I decided to close my practice. And nine months later, I had another life growing inside of me without even trying.
Being home with my babies was amazing, and very hard work, but I needed more intellectual stimulation. I felt boxed in at home, with my Ph.D. hanging over the changing table. I started writing stories. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and met tons of wonderfully talented and supportive people in the Florida chapter, like my writing coach, Joyce Sweeney. Even though writing had been a big part of my whole life, I never considered that I could become an author. Authors were magical creatures that lived among unicorns. I was delighted to find a group of supportive writerly folks who were generous with their time and encouragement. They showed me that writers are real people with brave souls. I felt like I had finally found my home.
Writing books is a team sport. Critique groups, workshops, conferences like SCBWI, and writing programs are vital to creating the best work possible. On TV, we see writers cranking out a novel overnight to smashing success and book deals. That isn’t how it works. It takes 5 to 10 years to get traditionally published. It’s hard to create a believable world and characters who feel like they could be your neighbors. Knowing I needed to grow my skills led me to the Writing for Children and Young Adults Master’s of Fine Arts program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Today, I happily dive into worlds of words as I write resilient stories for resilient readers. I make the kind of books that I needed when I was a kid. Stories of hope, resiliency and courage.
I also write songs, because nobody, not even your mother, is allowed to take your voice away. You have a voice and are allowed to use it. Now, I sing all the time. In the car, the park, in Target, and especially in the shower. I sing for me. Singing is healing and gives me a place to put all my passionate energy. Getting my voice back and gaining the courage to stand up for myself took a long time and a lot of therapy. But I am worth fighting for. So are you.
I’m far from perfect, but I’m perfectly me. That’s all you have to be, too.
Tori Leigh Kelley