I learned something recently that kind of blew my mind. There is an argument [backed up with some pretty solid research] that suggests that the trauma we experience in our first five years of life significantly impacts not just the rest of our youthful years, but our adult life as well.
To push this even further, after a rather in-depth conversation with Dr Alexis of Wit and Reason yesterday on Facebook: I learned that, while our first 5 years are key to our mental and emotional wellness - our first four months might be even more important when it comes to our adult-mental health.
I mean, think about it: the more adversity one is exposed to as a young person, the more likely that young person is to develop:
an anxiety disorder - especially separation anxiety
mental health disorder
an attraction to unhealthy relationships
forgetting chunks of childhood experiences
a lack of ability to function in social situations
chronic illness such as diabetes, obesity or autoimmune disease
and so much more [click here to read about the biological effects of childhood trauma]
For me, personally, this hit a chord.
I was four months old when I was first diagnosed with hydrocephalus and had to undergo my first brain surgery.
Between the ages of birth and just nine years: I'd undergone 10 brain surgeries, and 23 surgeries in total.
I'm not throwing shade at my mother at all - quite the opposite - but given that she couldn't be with me in hospital as much as she would have liked could be part of the reason why I myself developed a bit of separation anxiety as a teenager, and young adult.
Of course, not all children have brain surgery, so why am I bringing this up? Because all too often: it's easy to shrug off the adverse situations young children experience by claiming our kids are resilient, because while it may be true: I believe it's important to recognize that these early childhood experiences may be the root cause of some of the negative behaviors they may start to exhibit as they hit adolescence and early-adulthood.
Let's break it down.
When I presented my very first TEDx Talk [How Songwriting and Music Saved Me After Ten Brain Surgeries] earlier this year, I was acutely aware that 99% of my audience wouldn't be able to relate to having had neurosurgery [thank goodness... it's not fun. Would not recommend]. However, as my career in teaching and youth work has evolved over the past seventeen years, I have come to realize that we all experience and wear trauma differently, and while my personal trauma arguably started at the age of four months through having had my first brain surgery: the adverse experiences that I had as a child continued to show up in a multitude of ways that are probably more relatable - especially to Millennials, Zillenials, and Gen Z-ers.
First sexually abused at age five, which - according to the CDC- about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience
First diagnosed with depression at age 11, which - according to the National Institute of Mental Health - 17.0% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17 experience
Developed an addiction at age 14, which - according to the American Addiction Center - 1 in 13 young adults has developed
We can look at and blame a number of external factors: social media, lack of support for teachers, animosity towards therapy - especially in minority communities etc for reasons behind these behaviors, but the fact is simply this:
Life is hard for everyone, but especially for teenagers, and - I believe - we need to take a step back, stop looking purely at the symptoms, and start addressing the root causes.
After smell: music is the most powerful trigger to our memories.
Back in February of 2021 - a year into COVID19: I spent 30 days writing a song a day. Quite often, I would sit at my piano, or pick up my guitar, and start playing - with no idea of what would come up for me, or come out of me. I wasn't prepared for the emotional and mental health journey that this exercise would take me on.
Of course, the pandemic forced everyone - including myself - into exploring some pretty dark spaces of ourselves. What are we like when we're alone? Who are we without the distraction of work or after-work drinks? How do we show up when we're forced to stay home and watch the news everyday, and are confronted by some uncomfortable truths like systemic racism, or political unrest?
Giving myself permission to be still and write songs gave me a moment to not just take pause, but to actually look beneath the symptoms, at the root cause of my own anxiety, stress and overwhelm. Writing music triggered my mind into remembering, confronting, and - ultimately - beginning the process of healing, when it came to my own personal struggles and trauma when it came to:
By writing these songs, I was tapping into parts of my brain, my memory, and my healing that I'd never even dared to acknowledge, let alone explore or heal before.
It was wild.
But to take it even one step further: each song became a testament of overcoming that I can come back to again and again.
It was almost as if I was able to take the life lessons, experiences and hardships, and turn them into something powerful and positive that could - and would - [and this is the best part] continue to serve me - every time I listened back to the song lyrics.
Music is Alchemy.
Wayne Dyer alluded to the importance of recognizing the lessons and subsequent blessings in each experience.
A friend recently told me the importance of recognizing that your message is your message.
However you want to frame it, however, I discovered at the early age of four how empowering it is to use music to not just communicate my thoughts, feelings and ideas, but be able to focus on the silver lining of each negative experience, and turn it into something I can learn and grow from.
- Instead of focusing on whatever experiences of domestic abuse I'd either witnessed or experienced: I was able to dig deep into my own strength, recognize that every [s]hero has a story, and my power comes from that story.
- Instead of focusing on the negative repercussions of having hydrocephalus - including the brain surgeries and misunderstandings surrounding the illness: I learned at an early age how to dance in the rain, and turn bullshit into fertilizer to nourish my metaphorical garden of emotional and mental health and wellness.
- Instead of focusing on the bullying I received as a child for being too loud, proud and positive: recognizing the importance of Marianne Williamson's words that "our playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you... [and that] as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same".
- Instead of focusing on the pain and regret that often comes from losing loved ones, that my father merely left this realm in body, but that his spirit is still with me everyday - proud of who I am, and who I'm becoming.
- Instead of focusing on the frustrations of systemic racism [which I'm still continuing to learn about everyday - but that's a whole other topic], challenging the United States to recognize their inner superhero to use love, empathy and compassion as superpowers against bigotry.
- Instead of focusing on the reasons why I might be led to feeling suicidal, recognizing the importance of my existence - and how much my future self loves and needs me.
Our inner children need us - and music helps us to tap into that inner anxious child. Music helps us to connect with that inner child and adolescent in a way that is loving, empowering and healing.
If we let it.
This is why I continue to write and create - and why it's so important to me to help your teenaged children when it comes to tapping into their inner child, and helping your teenage child manage whatever adversities they either experienced as a five year old or younger, or that they're experiencing currently.
Can you even imagine how empowering it must be to turn previous or current disempowering events into anthems of resilience, power and strength?
That is literally what songwriting can be, and do.
I've been doing this work for decades - and I can't wait to help you and your child do the same.