Wendy Chisholm

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

Surviving trauma: reclaiming my voice

with 14 comments

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

14 Responses to 'Surviving trauma: reclaiming my voice'

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  1. Wendy,

    I have admired you since we met, because you are so, so smart, have interesting hobbies and friends (some of which we share), and you’re easy to talk to.

    Now I admire you even more for your immense courage and vulnerability. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to experience the kind of trauma you’ve described, but I can imagine a little bit what it must feel like to share these experiences, and how you’ve coped with them, with others. I imagine it must be a weird mixture of terror and strength.
    For anyone who has gone through anything similar or their own personal trauma, your words are a source of comfort and strength. They are a beacon sending this powerful message: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

    Thank you for sharing.

    I’m honored to be your friend, and I’m sending you a big wave of the feels.


    Rebecca S

    15 Jul 16 at 4:17 pm

  2. <3 Thank you, Rebecca.


    15 Jul 16 at 7:57 pm

  3. Thanks for opening up and sharing. Sending you love and hugs. <3

    Denis Boudreau

    15 Jul 16 at 4:49 pm

  4. <3 Thank you, Denis.


    15 Jul 16 at 7:58 pm

  5. That had to be so difficult to write, to share that piece of you with us. And I’m honored to know the person who could do that.

    PS Keep screaming. Keep wailing. Keep saying “no” (when it’s the right answer). Keep learning about your body, and listen to what it tells you. It knows what you need, even though you won’t always believe it. And contact me if you ever need someone who will just listen. (Or talk. I’m good at talking, too ;-).)


    Char James-Tanny

    16 Jul 16 at 10:39 am

  6. Thank you, Char. <3 I look forward to catching up someday soon. {{{hugs}}}


    16 Jul 16 at 4:25 pm

  7. This is brave and awesome. Just like you! I hope many people are able to find solace in your words and sharing of your experience. XO


    16 Jul 16 at 10:42 pm

  8. <3 Thank you, Jessica.


    20 Jul 16 at 8:53 am

  9. Wendy,

    We’ve never met (though we have mutual friends), and yet you know me. Some stories are hard to tell, and it takes years for us to find our voice. Many of us never find the courage to say what we need to say. Thank you for sharing your voice, for reminding those of us who recognize the words we need to hear that we are not alone, and for showing us that you can find your way out of the darkness and reclaim yourself and your story.



    18 Jul 16 at 3:26 am

  10. So beautiful. Thank you, Robin2go. <3


    20 Jul 16 at 8:54 am

  11. Thanks for sharing, Wendy! Dysfunction in families often results in creative expressions…me thinks…and I see reflected in your journey. Miss u


    21 Jul 16 at 6:36 am

  12. Thank you, Alice. I’m incredibly lucky that my experiences have made me stronger/creative. Miss you, too! <3


    16 Aug 16 at 11:35 am

  13. Dear Wendy. Who knew? And I know that this was a part of the problem. To know is to perhaps not want to know, but to really have to know in order to work things through. I have learned something in the last two years which I knew, but I definitely know it more now. I almost lost my hearing, and it is still not back to where it should be. I say this, not to turn this conversation to me, but to tell you about the things I re-learned. Live in the moment. If I can make the moment I am living in at this very moment the best it can be, then I know I will survive. Yes, the next moment may be harder, but there is something about breaking each moment down into the moment that is currently in the present and tuning that moment as best you can, that helps make hard things in life a bit less difficult. I also remember my Dad’s truth. Life is a puzzle, You work to make the pieces fit. It is not always easy, but eventually, it becomes whole again. May your life become whole again. May you find your voice, and may you know that my love and respect for you is there with you. I applaud your strength. You give us hope that broken can be fixed and that what is fixed far surpasses what was there before. Peace to you, my dear friend, and love.


    21 Jul 16 at 8:53 am

  14. Thank you so much, Neal! It is so great to hear from you. Peace and love to you, dear friend.


    16 Aug 16 at 11:31 am

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