I was born and raised on the Jersey shore, about an hour south of New York City, the youngest of four daughters.
My childhood was a cultural melding of my mother's Colombian heritage and my father's Italian-American upbringing. Their "old world" values of faith, family, and hard work were the pillars of our home. We laughed hard and loud, but when we fought, we fought hard and loud too. Traditions, stories, recipes, and trauma were passed down from one generation to the next. The problem wasn't a lack of love; it was a lack of emotional depth. We didn't talk about our emotions, so we didn't learn how to manage them. We coped suppression, denial, acting out through explosions and drama, and/or escaping emotional pain through alcohol, drugs, romantic relationships, the fantasy of an ideal life, and religion.
I did what all children do: I accepted the family legacy= and took it with me to New York University to study theater. Professional success came quickly. The world perceived a promising, young talent, and I accepted the "role." My life was a performance of "The Exuberant Young Woman Who Wrangles Life by the Horns." I had everyone convinced.
Everyone except me.
The reward of success and the drug of praise weren’t enough to quell the pain I felt inside. While professional victories mounted, personal failures accrued. I knew how to play a role, on stage and off, but I didn’t know how to have healthy relationships. I was functioning with open wounds, passed down to me by loving but unhealed parents, and I was creating more. Coping mechanisms, developed to survive dysfunction and trauma, were now habits. People-pleasing, lying, burning the candle at both ends, ignoring the voice of my heart, silencing my gut's intuition, conflict avoidance, and trying desperately to appear tougher than I truly was were my life skills. I was rarely authentic, and when I was, I was scared to death. Vulnerability and integrity were noble ideas I read about, not values I upheld. These habits were creating painful patterns in my life and relationships, and I didn’t know how to stop any of it. A split had occurred sometime during my childhood. There was the "me" that garnered the attention and approval of my parents and community - the strong, talented, impressive, secure me - and the "me" that I pushed down deep inside - hurt, afraid, confused, angry, and ashamed. My True Self and my False Self were two different people inhabiting one body. The pain was deep, dull, and unrelenting. It was the alarm that kept me awake at night and eventually led to an awakening.
At twenty-three, I sought help. A desperate call to a therapist in midtown Manhattan was returned within minutes, and with that first meeting, a new path emerged before me. The work of my life changed from the pursuit of success to the pursuit of wholeness. I began exercising regularly. I changed my eating habits. Therapy, which had started as emotional triage, became a powerful tool of healing. I recall one session so well...
“Nothing about me feels real. I feel like a Hollywood set: painted to look like something on the outside, but I’m really just flimsy plywood held up by 2x4s.”
“Does anything feel real, Vanessa?”
A long moment, then tears…
“The pain,” I whispered.
“Then that’s where you start.”
This was the beginning of my work. I learned that my tears worked like cleansing water, washing away the mud and debris that covered who I truly was. I learned that there was a child inside me that had never changed. She was still pure, creative, playful, authentic, and brave. As we pulled back the layers of my life, I discovered a human being underneath I had somehow always known: me. Talking about the events of my past and how they created and contributed to my present changed my relationship with pain. Before, I ran from pain. I numbed it with constant activity, relationships, alcohol, and the pursuit of perfection. I didn’t realize that by running from my own pain, I was effectively running from myself. I had to learn to listen to my pain and value the human being feeling it (me), though I didn't enjoy it. I learned how to mine it, and remarkably, ironically... I discovered diamonds.
My relationship with myself changed. Instead of holding myself to impossibly high standards, I began the sacred and world-changing journey of unconditional self-love. Self-condemnation was replaced with self-compassion. Unrelenting pressure gave way to gentle self-understanding. My mistakes were no longer viewed through a perfectionistic lens of shame; rather, they were earnest but unsuccessful attempts at happiness. I was trying. I needed healthy tools for living. As the chains of dysfunction were breaking apart, freeing me to become myself, a professional shift took place. The adage says that we go from hurting to healing to helping. My passion for inner healing became my profession in 2013. For me, this has never been a strictly clinical or "professional" venture. Although I'm professionally licensed, psychotherapy is much, much more than a job. It is sharing in the process of becoming whole, and it's ongoing.