What has been one of the most challenging things you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing?
“There’s been many. I’ve been through many different challenging stages of my life like a lot of people, but I would have to say one of the most challenging situations I’ve ever been through was when I was a teenager, living at home and feeling like I had no choices. I was a black sheep in my family, and there was a lot of emotional abuse, a lot of neglect—I guess—emotional harassment. I never really felt like I was cared for when I was growing up. I just felt my needs—my emotional needs—were never met. I never felt like I was protected.
“My mother’s boyfriend—later on she married him—was very racist. He was very abusive to my mother—very controlling, very misogynistic—and I was sort of like the scapegoat. And so, I always got blamed for everything. When somebody had a bad day, I just felt like I was always subject of their—I guess—projection—or just being dumped on. And I was dealing with normal teenage issues—trying to fit in, not feeling pretty enough, dealing with a little bit of racism, and you just feel like you have no choice. I was trying to reach out for help in many different ways.
“Also, one of my uncles who used to live with me would just say things to me on a daily basis—that my mother didn’t care about me, that I liked to fight, or would just say things to me to put me down. And then when I would—so he was a bit overweight—I would call him ‘fat’ or something, and then he would tell my mother and I would get punished and grounded. So there were just a lot of different things that were going on.
“Nobody ever asked me like, ‘How are you feeling?’ Or nobody ever validated my feelings. I did start going to counseling at a young age, on and off from the time I was ten. They’re the ones that would ask me like, ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘Talk about this.’ So I was made to feel like I was the problem—like it was always me—for whatever reason—I was the problem—I was the issue. And through going to counseling, they validated my feelings, and I guess, helped me realize that the problems going on at home weren’t actually because of me.
“But even then, I still felt trapped. And you know, when you’re fourteen/fifteen years old, you can’t really run away somewhere; you can’t really choose to go live somewhere else. So I would—I started cutting myself. It was just a way I internalized what was going on to sort of release the pain, to take the attention off the overriding emotions of feeling helpless, and really alone, and unloved. So I had overwhelming feelings of wanting to die, but I knew I really didn’t wanna die, but I didn’t know how to escape what was going on, and all the feelings.
“And even when I showed my mother, she would just say, ‘Oh, how can you do that to yourself?’ But she had an inappropriate response to uncomfortable feelings, and she had a smile on her face. It was just kind of ignored. You know? But my counselors eventually started asking me if I was able to keep myself safe and I said, ‘No.’ And so, I got put away into Brightside for Families and Children—it was basically a treatment center for kids and adolescents to go to have to have extensive one-on-one help and therapy. It was actually—I was very—I actually liked being there, because I got so much attention and people actually asked—people were concerned about me and how I was feeling.
“My family was supposed to come to the therapy, but I think maybe a couple times my mother came, and my mother’s boyfriend, but then they stopped. Eventually, after a month of being there I was able to leave, and I didn’t go right home—they gave me the choice of going back home, or going into foster care, or going to stay with my mother’s friend who—my mother’s friend who she met in college—and she offered to take me, so I lived with her for about three months. She was very strict, but she was very caring ,and we never really had any major issues—I was a good kid—and she was able to give me some love, and care, and guidance—and that’s exactly what I needed. That’s exactly what every kid needs. To this day I still consider her my maternal figure in my life. So I would say that was probably one of the most difficult times in my life.”
How would you describe your relationship with your mother?
“You know, as a child, I guess—like an animal—even though somebody may beat them or treat them badly, they’re still like, ‘Oh, I just love you so much,’ and I just showered my mom with gifts on her birthday and Mother’s Day. I guess I just had that unconditional love—not really realizing how neglectful she was, and how she really didn’t protect me. She was very—she would humiliate me, and she would sometimes have these outbursts—just start yelling and screaming. I really couldn’t make any mistakes. If I spilled something on the ground, I would get screamed at. So I think a lot of my anxiety came from that.
“So when I was a kid, I would buy her cards that said, ‘You’re the best mom in the world.’ I guess I was just kind of unaware of the situation—trying to beg her to take care of me and to love me. She just didn’t. She just didn’t really worry about me growing up. I don’t know, she just wasn’t really interested in me what I was doing.”
How has that impacted you and your adult relationships, if at all? Were there times where you felt you were trying to convince others to show you love and affection?
“Actually, I think I adjusted pretty well to that. I’ve never really been one to chase after people. I mean, I may have had a couple unhealthy relationships where I did kind of chase after people, but for the most part, I didn’t. If people didn’t like me, they didn’t like me. I didn’t really date too much in high school, and as a young adult and teenager I never really had a father—or—never really looking for a—I just felt like it wasn’t—I guess it affected me in other ways. But I do feel like, as an adult, I tend to attract people towards me, or wanna have relationships with people who are unavailable to me emotionally and physically, whether that means they have their own emotional things going on in their life and they’re not really able to care for somebody, or they’re just not ready to settle down. I don’t really know if that stems from that situation or another reason, but I do see that that’s a pattern.
“I don’t really date too much, but when I do, it always appears as though the person is just not ready to make that commitment, or to really emotionally be there fully. And my relationships don’t last that long, because I quickly realize——after a few weeks, a month or so—and I’m like, ‘Okay, this person is not able to be there for me—or not ready to commit—or go deep in with somebody.’ So, I do notice that’s a pattern, for sure.”
When you were a child, during the times when you were cutting yourself, what was school like for you? Were there any friends or teachers around you that acknowledged that you were in a dark place?
“No, I didn’t show it to people. I think I might have shown it to one person, but I didn’t show it to anybody. I don’t really recall showing it. I think—and it’s probably true for a lot of children—they’re just—when you’re a child you’re not so open or forthcoming with your problems at home, and I think that I didn’t go to my friends or people that I—I think that people don’t really know what’s going on. I probably couldn’t really articulate what was going on, because I didn’t really realize what was going on.
“I mean, I did articulate, as a teenager, about my mother’s boyfriend. He just really treated me poorly. And I think a lot of that was—even as a ten-year-old child, I was strong—I was very strong-willed, and I wasn’t as afraid of him as my mother was. He just didn’t like anyone standing up to him—not that I was yelling and screaming at him—I just didn’t show so much fear and I think that he just didn’t like that.
“But, growing up, in my early, early teens, I really didn’t have any friends. It was very difficult for me, and I think a lot of that was because I was bullied a lot growing up. My self-esteem was really shattered by just—a lot of it from—my uncle used to just put me down all the time, on a daily basis—and just at home, being made to feel like—so I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t really know how to interact too well. It was just very difficult for me to—I don’t even know—I guess I had a lot of anxiety about—I guess it was just difficult for me to make friends and socialize.
“I mean, I did get close to some people, but it’s just difficult in middle school and high school. It’s like—dressing the right way or not. There’s so many different dynamics, and the issues I dealt with—I was too white to be black—people wanted to put me in a box—and I wasn’t—I didn’t. I may look like I’m black, but I didn’t act like I was black. I guess acted like I was more white, but didn’t look white. I think I kinda struggled with that a little bit. ‘Where do I fit in?’ And people just tried to put me in a box. I think that when you have a really low self-esteem, I think it takes several years to grow into your personality, because it becomes so hindered. And I think, I wasn’t able to really be myself and fully express myself and my gifts and my qualities, until I was in my late twenties/early thirties.”
How did you get through those difficult years? What were some of the tools that helped you?
“Well, when I was in my early teens I had a dog. I didn’t have a lot of friends—I mean I had a couple friends here and there—but she—this dog—I had begged my mother and my mother’s boyfriend for a dog, and I ended up getting this dog—Cocoa—and she really provided me with unconditional love, and I really cared about her, but I was only like thirteen/fourteen when I got her, so I didn’t really know much about training a dog, and she would shit everywhere and pee everywhere, and my mother’s boyfriend’s way of dealing with that would be to pick the dog up by the scruff of her neck, and throw her out on the cement stairs, which obviously made the issue even worse.
“I didn’t get guidance from anyone—my mother or my mother’s boyfriend—I was the sole caretaker. My mother did warn me—‘If you don’t...’—and then me and my brother started fighting. My brother is seven-and-a-half years younger than me. He was getting jealous because I was close to the dog, and one time he started throwing bricks at the dog, so me and my brother were fighting and my mother basically was like, ‘Oh, well, the dog is the problem.’ She warned me, ‘Oh, I’m gonna get rid of the dog,’ and I didn’t believe her.
“Instead of buying me books or enrolling me, or doing something to provide me with some support, I came home from school and my dog was gone. I asked her, ‘Where’s the dog?’ She said, ‘I dropped it off at the shelter.’ I called the shelter, and they had put her to sleep, because she was too scared. So that was really painful. I carried a lot of guilt for a long time. I think now I realize that I was only a child, but it was difficult, for sure, because she was the only thing in my life that gave me unconditional love and support.
“So I guess, probably right after that was when I really started to self-mutilate. So yeah, I did unhealthy coping mechanisms, like self-mutilation. Then after I went to the treatment center, I learned more ways. I think I started writing in my journal around that time—writing diaries. I started writing poetry shortly after that. I think that being there, I probably gained a little self-worth. As I got older, I had more friends and I was driving and stuff like that, so that gave me more freedom to hit the road and run away a few times. Yeah, I don’t think I really went into great detail with my friends—I mean I did tell them a little bit. Music—also music—I would sit in my room and I would listen to music.”
Where did you find yourself as a young adult—entering your twenties and thirties? How did you find those experiences had impacted you?
“Well, one of the greatest lessons I learned through all of that was that I never wanted to have to depend on a man for money, because I felt like my mother was sacrificing herself and her children because she couldn’t really support herself. So I made the decision when I was thirteen/fourteen that I was gonna be self-sufficient. And so, I knew I needed a college education—or in mind that’s how I was gonna—I mean there’s other ways that you can be self-sufficient. I did really poorly in high school, for many different reasons—when you feel like nobody cares, then why should you care? I was more interested in skipping school and tryin’ to be popular, I guess.
“And when I wanted to get serious—I mean my grades were so bad that when I went to my counselors they said, ‘In order for you to graduate with your class, you’re gonna need to go to summer school for the next couple years,’—so I was like, ‘Screw that.’ I dropped out and got my GED a few months later, and then the next following semester I went to college—Holyoke Community College. It took me from 1999 to 2008—well, 2007—to be able to make enough money to support myself, but I guess—in 2007 I became an LPN , and then 2008 a registered nurse, and 2009 I got my Bachelors in Nursing.
“So that’s what I did for pretty much most of my twenties. I was basically trying to get that education. You know, I didn’t have anyone who was willing to support me, because it was like, ‘Well, you’re eighteen. You’re an adult. Support yourself, and pay for college, and pay for food, and pay for your car, and pay for books.’ So I took out student loans, and got financial aid, and I worked. During my undergrad, I worked fifty-something hours a week, and went to school part time, because—some semesters I went full time—and then when it started getting really heavy——algebra, chemistry, microbiology, and things—you can’t be taking a full load of those courses and be working full time.
“But for the most part, I worked like fifty-something hours, and then when I got my nursing permit, I worked like twenty-five hours a week. And part of nursing school. I actually had gone back to live with my mother, because there’s no way that I could’ve—before I got my license—my LPN—because before that I’m making only like twelve dollars an hour. But yeah, so my twenties was basically just working, and going to school, and trying to graduate.”
Have you noticed if anything good has come from any of the experiences that you had growing up?
“I think I learned a lot of lessons. I’m still processing what all those lessons were, but certainly I think one of my biggest lessons is forgiveness, and having compassion. It’s easy to have compassion for people who treat you nice and are kind to you—because everyone needs compassion—and certainly being independent—because I didn’t have anyone to guide me through a lot of things in my early twenties. My mother always said that I was independent anyway, but I just think that being alone—to have to deal with going through school. I’ve always had to do a lot of things on my own, so I think that I just really learned independence and relying on myself, knowing that I can do things. I can do whatever I wanna do. I guess I learned how I don’t want to be as a person and as a mother, if I ever become a mother—what I would have in place and what I wouldn’t have in place. I think those are probably it—learning to forgive, having compassion, and being independent—I think those are some big ones.”
You mentioned it being easy to have compassion for people who are kind to you. How do you practice having compassion for people who are not kind to you, and why is that important?
“Because I believe that reason why people hurt other people is because they are hurting themselves, and I think that love is really what can transcend that and help people heal. And I think that when people are really hurting inside and they’re full of a lot of pain, it really stems from a lack of love, and if I can somehow—for instance my mother—if I can still show her love—it’s easy to just say, ‘You know what, I don’t wanna talk to you ever again,’ and, ‘You deal with your stuff, I’m gonna be over here,’ but I just feel like that’s not really the answer.
“It’s really about creating boundaries, and making sure your own needs are met, and being there for other people when they need help, and showing them that you do love and care for them. You know, I think that it also come down to just forgiveness and really having a full realization of the issues, and realizing that it’s not about you, when somebody’s unkind to you, and really have that full realization. I think that once someone has that full realization, they become less affected by the other person, because really they’re hurting more than you are hurting. I have yet to get to that space. I don’t know if I’ll get to that space anytime soon, but I do want to. I don’t want my mother to think that I don’t love her, and I don’t care about her, and I don’t think about her, because that wouldn’t help her, and it’s certainly not going to help me to harbor feelings of resentment, and anger, and even sadness.”
How to you remain soft, compassionate, forgiving, and loving amid what could potentially harden you and make you more closed?
“Honestly, I don’t know. That’s one thing my mother always said: ‘You’re so compassionate.’ And I didn’t really know what that meant when I was younger, or how she saw that in me when I was younger, but—well, I did write a couple of essays that would convey that. It’s just part of who I am, and I consider myself grateful for not putting up all these walls and not being able to let people in, and becoming hard. I don’t know why I haven’t become hard, but I guess that’s the difference between somebody who has resiliency—whatever that comes from, I don’t know, but for someone who’s resilient, these situations just make you stronger and more wise.
“Also, back to one of the questions you asked me about lessons, I think because I’ve been through these many different experiences, I’m able to understand better, and understanding breeds compassion. If you don’t understand where somebody is coming from, you can’t have compassion for them, and I think one of the biggest things missing in this world is compassion. We just always wanna judge somebody, ‘Oh, they’re a drug addict,’ or, ‘They’re doing this—doing that,’—they’re doing something that you wouldn’t do, but if you can understand why they’re doing that—where they’re coming from—you’re more equipped to help them. And so many of us feel like we’re misunderstood and people don’t understand us, and one of the worst feelings is to be around people and to not have anybody really understand where you’re coming from—why you’re behaving and acting the way that you may be acting and behaving.”
How do you get to that place of being understood, if you don’t have anyone who’s necessarily showing an interest or expressing a curiosity in the why’s of your behavior? Perhaps they are just focusing on the impacts of your behavior and addressing that, but not the root or cause of the behavior itself.
“I think when I was in high school I was—I mean I wasn’t terrible in high school, but I would skip class and maybe talk back to a teacher—and I don’t really think they understood where I was coming from. I don’t really remember anyone reaching out to me and asking me, ‘Why don’t you care about this?’ I played basketball on and off from the time I was nine until—I think I quit when I was a sophomore—and I quit because I felt like no one cared, and I felt like it was so hard to get to my practices. I didn’t have a ride to my practices. It was embarrassing. Nobody—my family never went to any of my games. There was no one there encouraging me, and I just got to the point where I was like, ‘Nobody cares,’ and I was like really—I was a starter and one of the best players on my team. My coach never came to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to play this year?’ You know? I don’t know. I just—I gotta think how I would be, and if I see somebody or know somebody that is stressed out, or they’re irritated, or they’re acting out of character, then I am more likely to ask, ‘Okay, what’s wrong? What’s going on?’ You know? ‘Do you need to talk?’
“I think I’m very in tune with energies of people and people’s facial expressions. And so, honestly, I don’t know how—it was a joke with the nurses at New York Presbyterian. They would say, ‘Give Tiana five minutes, she’ll get the story,’ because people would just open up to me and just tell me their deepest darkest secrets. I don’t know why, but I mean when I was in India, I had guys tell me about their sex lives—the problems that they had in the bedroom with their wives. You know? I don’t know. I don’t know, but—the question about being understood, can you say it again?”
Yeah. How would you go about being understood, if no one’s really inquiring?
“Yeah, I think I craved that as a teenager, and I think that as an adult—as a child you have fewer resources, but as an adult you just basically—I’m always misunderstood, because I don’t live a very conventional life, and I’m often called a conspiracy theorist, extremist, hippie—so you basically just have to find your tribe. You just have to find people who share your beliefs, and they’re out there. There are people out there like you, and maybe you need to move to a different city—there are different communities that share a different range of beliefs, and you just have to seek your tribe. You know, blood doesn’t always equal family. If you don’t feel like you have a very supportive family, then you can find a new family.”
It sounds like finding a sense of belonging in a community is an important part of the equation.
“Yeah. Definitely. You know, I watched the documentary about happiness. They traveled all around the world to find the secret to happiness, and one of them was having community—having family that were close—and it doesn’t always have to be blood. You just find those people who can support you, who you can laugh with and share ideas with, because it can be very lonely, but you have to make the effort.”
Are there any things that you practice daily that help to keep you centered, grounded, more balanced, or help you deal with feelings of anger, anxiety, or depression?
“Yeah. I would say yoga, and practicing meditation, and affirmations. Yoga actually changed my life. I’m not so good at it every day. I go through periods where I’m doing it every day, but yoga was actually the only thing—yoga and meditation were actually the only things that pretty much changed my life into a positive, because I was very jaded, and angry, and—Why me? Why me?’ Then it got to this point where there’s no person, no place, no thing, that was gonna make me happy, and the only way that I was going to relieve my suffering was to work on myself.
“I came up with that realization, and then a few months later I started practicing yoga and meditation. I started practicing meditation when I was eighteen, and I was on and off practicing it. When I was I was twenty-nine/thirty, I think, I got back into meditation and yoga. It really changed my life. It changed my perception. I really started letting things go, and having a new outlook on life, and really getting to know who I was as a person—what my passions were—and just realizing that these—my past shaped me as a person, but it’s not me. These experiences are not me; they are just memories.
“A lot of it was just unconscious—it was unconscious, and I just shifted. My family and friends noticed. But I’m a big believer in meditation and yoga. It’s backed up by research and science. It’s been practiced for thousands and thousands of years. It’s definitely a medicine that I have to take. It’s definitely part of my lifestyle. Now I’m getting more into affirmations and sending positive energy, getting away from negative thinking and negative talk.”
What advice would you offer to someone else who may be stuck in some of the places that you described?
“Well, recently I worked at a camp where there were many children in similar places to where I was, and basically I told them, ‘It may seem like you have no choice right now, and that it’s not gonna get better, but it is gonna get better.’ You just have to believe in yourself, but you have to do the work. You have to really do the work and healing—healing comes from action, it doesn’t come from—I mean you really have to find your practice. It doesn’t have to be yoga or meditation. It can be tai chi. There are many different ways that people overcome trauma and change their lives, but you have to work on yourself, and it has to be a daily practice. There’s only one person who can change your life for the better, and that’s you. You have to be courageous, and you have to believe in yourself, and know that you can have a better life. You can be happier, you just have to make the choice to do it, and realize that you have to do the work.”
Where or how does practicing self-love fall into that? What does self-love look like?
“Self-love is something that many people lack—at times myself included. Self-love to me is basically finding yourself worthy enough to actually give yourself the time to take care of yourself—caring about yourself enough to realize the positive and negative relationships in your life. Self-love is realizing your worth, that you are worth keeping healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually. Self-love is having confidence and the belief that you can do whatever you want to do, and there’s no one that can hold you back except yourself.”
Do you have a favorite quote, mantra, or lyric that resonates with you which you’d like to share?
“There are many quotes off the top of my head. This one that comes to mind is from Gandhi: ‘Be the change you wish to see.’”
What does that mean to you personally?
“To me it means that change happens through changing yourself and improving. You first have to improve yourself, and that’s when you can start making—I truly believe the best thing that we can offer ourselves and the world is basically improving ourselves to be the best people that we can be, because we affect everything. We affect each other, and it’s like a ripple effect. If you’re filled with anger, hate, and resentment, that’s just getting passed along, and you’re just passing negative thoughts and energy to people around you. But if you’re positive, and inspiring, and you’re working through your traumas, and you’re developing self-love and more compassion and creativity, you can use that to help the world. It starts with yourself, and then you’ve helped yourself and you inspire other people to help themselves, and then they can inspire other people, and it just becomes a ripple effect. You can choose to be negative, and angry, and hateful, and spread that out into the world—to your loved ones and family—or you can choose to be proactive, and positive, and loving, and send that out.”
How has it felt to talk about these thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas with me?
“I was a little scared and a little nervous about being so open, but it feels good to have somebody genuinely wanting to know and to learn more about you, and learn from you.”
Do you think that it’s possible, if we are willing to open up and share who we are on the inside with each other, that we could potentially inspire or give courage to someone else to do the same—creating a ripple effect of more authenticity, vulnerability, compassion, empathy, and more meaningful connections?
“Oh, absolutely. I think that especially in today’s world we’re taught to not be honest—we’re not even taught to be honest about our own feelings. A lot of people feel a certain way, but they don’t wanna admit it. We’re not really taught to kinda self-reflect, and to look inside. If you’re not able to be honest with yourself, you’re not gonna be able to be honest with anybody else. We’re opposite from a lot of different tribes, cultures, or spiritual communities that existed thousands of years ago. Then, it was all about being open, and authentic, and sharing, and caring for each other, and now we’ve become so apathetic, and it’s all about pretending to be somebody we’re not, and hiding ourselves from people.”
What the cost of doing that?
“We’re not able to really get to know who we are—even ourselves—if we’re always hiding from ourselves and other people. I think that one of the greatest sources of unhappiness is basically not knowing who you are, and what your passions are. If you’re not able fully self-reflect and soul-search, there’s no transparency. You don’t know who you are, so how can you be happy when you don’t even know what is gonna make you happy, or what your passions are? I think when you’re in a closed society like this, it doesn’t breed compassion and understanding, because everyone becomes afraid to be honest with each other, and then there’s so much judgment. Then when somebody is being honest, there’s all this judgment. People become very lonely. I’ve been around communities like that where people are pretending to be someone they’re not, they’re not able to be honest with their friends, and then once somebody is honest there’s all this judgment, and everyone is very lonely, and then they might have to start lying to each other to hold onto these secrets. So, it’s not a very loving, compassionate community.”
In other words, it seems like it creates a lot of disconnection.
Is there anything else you’d like people to take away from what you’ve shared?
“I guess I would like people to let go of their belief systems and to kinda step outside of the box. I feel like people are suffering unnecessarily, and I think in this society we’ve become so conditioned to immediately reject certain thoughts. And these very thoughts and ideas can actually be the idea that can really help you. I want people to know that if there’s a will, there’s a way. If you wanna get through something, if you wanna get somewhere, you can get there. But sometimes that means we have to let go of old belief systems, and try something new, try something scary, try something you never heard of before. Also, make time for yourself. You know, people are running around crazy, going here, going there, and they’re not really taking care of themselves. We all deserve a few minutes a day to really connect with ourselves. Even if it’s just five or ten minutes a day, we need to give that to ourselves.”
Listen to or Download Xavier's Interview