Wendy Chisholm

Stairs make the building inaccessible, not the wheelchair. Co-author of Universal Design for Web Applications. Strategist for Microsoft. @wendyabc at twitter.

Archive for July, 2016

Surviving trauma: reclaiming my voice

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I haven’t blogged in a while. For the last seven years, I’ve been on an inward journey. Healing, evolving, growing. This may be me reemerging, I don’t know. I do know that I’ve survived trauma and the world is so full of it right now. And for some reason, I feel moved to talk about my own experience of surviving trauma and healing.

I have PTSD. Below I sketch some of the events that caused it. Given all that is happening in the world, so many people are coping with trauma. Invisible injuries need care just as physical ones do. How many people will get the care and resources that they need?

Many people will not even realize they need help. I didn’t. Not for decades.

Yet, one of the best things we can do for trauma is share our stories and for that, social media is amazing. I’ve been reading stories related to #YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter, #CripTheVote, #LoveIsLove. This is how change happens.

Here’s my story. It’s about how I was brainwashed into silence, how music gave me a voice when I couldn’t speak and how I’m exploring sign language and music as a technique for reclaiming my voice.

If you or someone you know is struggling, you are not alone. There are many supports, services and treatment options that may help. A change in behavior or mood may be the early warning signs of a mental health condition and should never be ignored. There are many different types of mental illness, and it isn’t easy to simplify the range of challenges people face.  – See more at: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support#sthash.U6TfXHfP.dpuf


Speak up. You don’t have to share it with every one on social media, share with one other person. Just don’t be silent. <3


Trigger warning: discussion of sexual abuse and sexual predators



In summer 1977 my dad, mom and I moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Idaho Falls, Idaho. That autumn, my brother was born. My dad was getting up and out the door early every day to catch the (6 a.m.?) bus for the long trip out to “The Site”–the experimental nuclear reactor in the Idaho desert where he worked. My dad…wasn’t the most patient nor the most forgiving person…My mom was exhausted from being a homemaker and the sole caretaker of an infant and a kindergartner.

New job, new house, new city, new child. An isolated, dysfunctional family with a young daughter. The perfect target.

My dad became friends with a man, we’ll call him “Dave.” He was a charismatic mountain man. He introduced my dad to a network of vibrant, cool outdoorsy people. We started going on climbing and camping trips with them. We spent a lot of time with Dave and he was one of our main conduits to a sense of community. Dave had a bunch of interests and skills that made him very cool…and my dad admired him.

Two years later, I’m 8, and Dave and I have a “special” relationship, one that I was taught not to share with anyone.

At 9, I was adamant that I wanted to play the oboe. I’d heard it in a Mannheim Steamroller album that Dave gave to my dad. It was haunting and sad. It was my voice. That was my tone. And the only safe way to express the anguish that I was feeling. It was the beginning of my relationship with music and a variety of instruments: piano, bassoon, hand bells, xylophone, vibraphone, marching band bells.

At 11, I’m spending evenings with Dave and his friends. One evening, broke me. I fought but it was 3 grown men against me, an 11 year old child.

Around 14?, I performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor from memory. I practiced so much that my fingers still remember the opening stanzas.

At 16, my family imploded. A nasty divorce, 2 year legal battle, my dad moved to Chicago with my brother, my mom was in the hospital close to death and Dave vanished. I was alone. I drank A LOT. I often blacked out.

Somehow, I was broken but not shattered. I excelled in college (while continuing to black out regularly and discovering weed). I stopped playing music. My friends were musicians, not me. Instead, I danced. I listened. I wrote poetry.

I lucked into an amazing career, I married and travelled the world (blacking out on four continents). I found yoga and running.

Then I got pregnant. And I couldn’t numb the pain anymore with alcohol or marijuana. I felt overwhelmed–a flood of emotions and I had lost the only coping mechanisms that I knew–drinking and intense exercise. I stopped working full-time. I wrote a book. I started working with a life coach.

But something had changed. All the anger that I had been suppressing wanted out. I would throw glass or ceramics and watch them shatter. It felt like a visual representation of the energy in me that needed a way to get out, to dissipate. A pressure valve with very visible results. I felt ashamed. I scared the shit out of myself.

I had an infant. A beautiful child. I knew that I would never hurt him. I needed to stop hurting myself. Thankfully, parenting classes were teaching me about emotions, how to name them, how to talk about them. Becoming a parent started to give me the tools that I needed.

Then my marriage fell apart, suddenly. I was blindsided. Given the conditioning that I received, it was finally ok to seek help from a therapist and medication.

I started talking about Dave, my family. I was diagnosed with PTSD and so many things in my life made sense.

I realized that I had been groomed–brain washed–to be silent. To not express emotion–that I turned off emotions to survive. I learned how to disassociate, to numb my body because what it was telling me was too big, too confusing. I was not allowed to say “no.”

For the last seven years, I’ve been undoing the grooming, reprogramming my brain.

I learned to cry. To WAIL.

I learned not to be silent.

I learned to ask for what I want.

I learned how to say “no.” (I still have trouble.)

I learned how to be in my body. (I still want to numb it and often do–with video games and the internet.)

I learned how to trust my body–I’m still learning.


I took singing lessons–to reclaim my voice. But learning to speak, much less sing, after having been brainwashed to be silent is terrifying. Luckily, my voice teacher also has PTSD and I learned to trust her, I learned to sing. I started making playlists of musics about specific emotions or ideas that I was exploring. Spotify allows me to share those lists.

I wanted to sing in front of people but I was frozen, I couldn’t. I decided to try signing instead because it felt powerful to use my BODY to SPEAK. It felt more comfortable–in a large crowd–to sign than to sing. The great thing, was that I ended up singing also.

How therapeutic would it be for trauma survivors to learn sign language? To have our bodies tell the stories our voices can’t find the words for?

This week’s playlist is called solidarity. You can listen to it on spotify. <3

Written by wendy

July 15th, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Posted in musings