I experienced my first panic attack at 13 years old. In the following years, I cut a lot of class due to having panic attacks. Usually, the symptoms were dizziness, clamming of my palms and feet, and feeling sick to my stomach. The butterflies were so intense that I often found myself gagging or on the verge of throwing up. What I didn’t know then was that my intense anxiety was a manifestation of unprocessed trauma.
As a child, I faced emotional, physical and verbal abuse, as well as sexual assault, at the hands of family members. Like most abusers, they told me that I “deserved” their abuse. And, at the time, I believed them. I was ashamed of my struggles and didn’t tell anyone about them.
Addressing the “elephant in the room” was something I struggled with, considering my mindset was more focused on, “But I am too young to panic/people my age don’t have anxiety.” I made excuses to myself, terrified to acknowledge that even a child could experience pain, grief and fear.
Recently, I learned in therapy that many children of addicts and abuse write of pain, and even of the perpetrators, in a third-person perspective. When my therapist first told me that, I rejected the idea. However, that is exactly what I did while writing my young adult novel, “Elephant.”
It was a project that started as a fifth-grade assignment, where students had to write and create a short story and then read it to the other students. The assignment was the project that would forever change my life.
At the time, the assignment nearly traumatized me as I struggled with reading and writing, two subjects I thought were unnecessary. Yet, in the following weeks leading up to completing the assignment, I had a blast working on it. Every day after school, I ran home to work on the project. It was the first time I looked forward to working on something for school.
From day one, the project was always focused on four childhood best friends named Matthew “Matty” Smith, Jamie, Derek and Lisa and the family secret they discovered the summer before starting their freshman year of high school.
As Matty hurt, so did I. As Matty found his peace, so did I. When Matty relapsed and struggled with his well-being, so did I. For the longest time, and what readers see with Matty, I felt insignificant and like a waste of space in this world. Especially when it came to years and years of learning to find and take hold of my voice. And it all started with addressing the “elephant in my room.”
In the years to come, writing was the one thing that felt necessary to have as part of my life.
The “Elephant” books are all about finding your voice and never feeling ashamed in using it, even if it is toward family and friends. Matty’s journey has always been about speaking your truth and doing everything you can to protect your energy and, most of all, yourself. One of the most positive outcomes of writing the book was that it encouraged me to seek help through therapy and counseling, which has been an essential part of processing my trauma and healing.
No one should truly ever feel alone or that all hope is lost because we all have a story to tell. Everyone has experienced grief, loss, anger, rage, pain and so much more. “Elephant” is a reminder that it is okay to not be okay. The books are not just about my battles and fears, but also the representation of having hope.
Regardless of what has happened to you, or to someone you love, it is possible to move forward in life and continue to achieve your dreams and aspirations. All you have to do is use your voice and use it every day.
Natalie Rodriguez is an award-winning director, screenwriter and author in Southern California. Her work has been featured in the HuffPost Blog, Thrive Global, The Mighty and more. You can find her films streaming in the U.S. and internationally. For previous and forthcoming projects, visit her website: https://linktr.ee/extraordpictures