Reading: Reinvent Yourself: How to Reimagine Yourself After Childhood Trauma

Podcast

Reinvent Yourself: How to Reimagine Yourself After Childhood Trauma

Professional dancer Antonia Deigan used ballet to distract herself from hard truths. Until a bike accident forced her to reexamine everything

with Antonia Deignan

TW: Sexual abuse of a child, eating disorders

“I became incredibly skilled at disassociating,” recalls dancer-turned-author, Antonia “Tunie” Deignan. With a lifelong passion for dance, Deignan used ballet to help herself cope with traumatic experiences at home and in school. She launched herself into a successful dance career despite trying to deal with her truama with substance abuse and an eating disorder. When Deignan became a mother her world was transformed. A bike accident forced a reinvention that made her look back at everything she had been through and find the threads to recovery. Read on  to hear Deignan’s phenomenal story of survival, how she navigated facing her traumas, and how she used writing to process her grief and heal her soul.

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LJS: I’m always interested in people who’ve had very different types of reinventions. That’s really what we’re after here, talking about different types of reinventions and what they mean. And so I would love to hear, where did you grow up and how did you start?

AD: Okay, so I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and I started as a very young girl, studying ballet and in a really nice cultural, academically forward household, but I experienced some trauma in the house. And as a very young girl, I turned to dance. Almost as a reinvention, honestly.

LJS: How old were you when you started dancing?

AD: Well, I started quite young. Five years old in that area. I became very serious by the time I was eight. My mother really wanted to be a professional ballerina, and my sisters and I were all made to study dance quite young.

LJS: Wow. But you did it. All of us did ballet class until  most of us figured out that we sucked at it.

AD: You know what? I had some natural talent, maybe, but I just loved it. I loved the escape. And it really became almost a dissociative kind of pastime. I troubleshooted the things that worried me, that confused me, through my body’s expression, through movement.

Dance Was a Way To Deal With My Childhood Trauma 

LJS: Do you want to talk at all about what the trauma was that you were trying to work out?

AD: Sure. It’s challenging to talk about it without trying to give a global perspective on it at this point. I know that my father never meant to harm me, and just had not a very good idea about what proper boundaries were. And so the hands just went to places that they shouldn’t have. The other part of that was that my mom actually was fully aware of his behavior and she was just incapable of stepping in and intervening. And that was, again – if you put a global perspective on it – she was raised a certain way to not confront authority, to not necessarily be someone that challenged her husband in any way. So it was a complicated situation and as a child, obviously, I didn’t have the perspective that I have now. But on the other hand, I didn’t necessarily understand that it was inappropriate either.

LJS: How would you know? Right.

AD: How would you know this? It went on for many years, [until I was] probably about 11 years old or so.

LJS: Very common. I’ll just say to you, I’ve been an editor in chief of many different magazines and done these stories. It’s very common. People just don’t talk about it. I know you’re lucky that you’re able to speak about it, and you obviously have worked through some of it, but it’s super common. Not that it makes it good. It’s just so you know you’re not alone. There are a lot more people with this kind of trauma than will talk about it.

AD: Lesley, I really appreciate you saying that. Going through this journey, when I first began to write about everything, it wasn’t with the intention of publishing. And once, I’m signing a contract, this is going to go to print all of those things, the thought didn’t occur to me that it would be challenging for a lot of people to reach the subject. And so that’s been an interesting part of this process because now I’m at the point where I want to talk about it. I want it to come out of the shadows. People make mistakes. People do things they don’t necessarily intend on, crushing a child’s spirit or whatever it happens to be. But if we don’t stop turning away from it, brushing it under the rug because we’re uncomfortable as adults, we’re never going to lessen the taboo, we’re never going to move the conversation where it needs to go.

LJS: Correct.Yeah, exactly. So that’s interesting. So you were a dancer, and you danced professionally.

AD: Yes. Well, at the ripe old age of 11, I was actually burned out on ballet. And so I ended up in a theater school for five years, which was awesome because I was learning acting and improv and vocal, singing, and voice work and all of those things. Unfortunately, because of my history, because of my history and the environment of this particular school, which was already known for its pedophilia within the ranks of the faculty and even the director of the school, who ended up actually being arrested. It was in a big FBI investigation, the whole nine yards. He was in jail, all of it. But I ended up also being molested while I was there. When it rains it pours, but we know that people that experience that kind of trauma, for lack of a better word, sometimes become a target in a way. Sometimes they just easily fall into similar situations.

LJS: Correct.

AD: So after that, I quit the school and returned to dance and had a rockin’ dance career.

LJS: And what did you do, specifically? Just give us an idea.

AD: Yes. I joined a jazz dance company when I was 15, and after graduating high school was asked to move to Chicago and join another company there, and for the next 15 years toured all across the country, performed in different dance companies, and had side jobs because we didn’t make a lot of money in those days, but I had a really wonderful career with dance.

LJS: And then what happened?

AD: And then I blew out my knee. And so it’s funny because when I think about reinvention, I feel like I had just one reinvention after the next. Once my knee blew out, I basically went to massage therapy school. I was always so drawn to the body and the magic of the body that anything having to do with the body seemed like a good thing for me. But then I became a mama. So I have five grown children.

LJS: Oh, my goodness. That’s great.

Motherhood Was a Balm for My Childhood Trauma

AD: Yeah. And to be honest, that was one of the first major turns in my growing up, was becoming a mom. And suddenly seeing how I could now own that kind of a bond between a mother and child and have it be very different from how I was raised.

LJS: I hear you. I had the same thing. And when you learn that you can do it your way, I mean, that was the big shocker for me. And, you’ll probably relate: my very first therapist said to me, “Do you want to have children?” I was like, “No. Why would you do that to somebody?” He said, “You don’t have to do it their way.”

AD: 100% I relate to that.

LJS: And I was shocked, like, when you’ve been through that kind of thing where I just had, incredibly, both of my parents were nuts. That’s enough. Unstable, complete nut jobs. And when you realize you can do it your own way, it’s a shocker.

AD: Yeah. Not only that, for me, I really took all my cues from my children.

LJS: Yes, me too. That’s what I did. I did it backwards.

AD: Yes, same, exactly. I feel like, what’s that term when you back-engineer something? Right? And honestly, to this day I feel that way. My oldest is 31 years old, my youngest is 19. And every day I’m learning something from them.

LJS: It’s wonderful. Right. And it reintegrates you in many ways. So talk about your reinvention again, which was after a bike accident.

AD: Yes. So again, it was a confluence of many things. Like that perfect storm. I had one kid left at home, so I was really teetering, like anticipating the empty nest period. I had just moved to Indiana following my husband’s job around, like I had done throughout our marriage. So I was always transitioning from one community to another. And this bike accident happened in a place where I didn’t know anyone. And it literally took my physical abilities off the table. So I’m 55 years old. I have been a mover and shaker my entire life. It is so ingrained in my identity. And I was bedridden. I was on a lot of narcotics for many months. And I literally was thinking, “Who the heck am I?” I had a complete kind of breakdown, I guess. But what ended up happening was because so many things were off the table and I was left with this, just hours and hours of trying to figure out how to move forward, I turned to writing because it was the only thing I could do. And as I mentioned earlier, it was obvious that, even with years and years of therapy, I still hadn’t come to a point where I understood how my childhood affected all of my decisions, for better or worse. And I started to change my perspective in the sense that, like you said earlier, it’s everywhere. Everyone has these things that happen in their youth, whether it’s from a very young age or middle school age. But we all encounter these things when we’re not necessarily ready to see it in a less reactive way.

LJS: Right.

Learning to Write as a Way to Deal with My Childhood Trauma

AD: And that’s where I started my writing. I wanted to take things apart in a way that wasn’t a blaming lens. It wasn’t a “poor me” lens. It was, “What was going on here?”

LJS: And so what kind of writing did you do?

AD: It was really memoir-esque. It was going back to those days when I was five, when I was six, when I was 12, and trying to understand all of these experiences, not only from my perspective, but from the other people involved and the situation involved. And it just couldn’t be that I was a victim. I refused to accept that that was who I was.

LJS: Yeah, I understand that.. Interesting that your picture here that I’m looking at – when we go off camera on Zoom – that looks like you when you were about six.

AD: Yeah, I think I’m probably almost five years old in that picture.

LJS: And you’re dancing, and you’re dancing with somebody else. You’re in a little leotard, so that must be very personal to you.

AD: It is. Because at the time, like I said, things were going on at that time that were inappropriate for a young girl to experience. And I became incredibly skilled at dissociating and removing myself from my present environment and basically soaring, becoming so linked to my way of expressing my body. And it wasn’t just a physical expression, it was a spiritual expression as a young girl, even though there was a part of me that knew something was amiss, something wasn’t right. But that picture really captures where I went to, how I was able to avoid just complete sorrow all the time.

LJS: So what did it take for you to get over that trauma? What did you do? Did you go into therapy? What kind of therapy did you do? You sound like somebody who’s definitely worked through a lot of this, so I’m sure it wasn’t just sitting home and journaling, right?

AD: Well, it depends on when we’re talking. I mean, in my twenties I did what a lot of people do, which is a lot of dysfunctional behavior. I became bulimic for years. I abused drugs, I abused alcohol, I became extremely promiscuous. And it was almost a way of just kind of solidifying the messages that I had already been receiving and just burying everything. That first turn in the corner, like I said earlier, was becoming a mom and understanding immediately that if I couldn’t be my best self, I would never be able to be a good mother. And I stopped on a dime when I found out I was pregnant. I stopped sticking my finger down my throat, I stopped smoking, I stopped drinking. And all I could do was try to every day become the person that was going to be able to really care for these eventual five children.

LJS: It’s so interesting. I’ve heard this story before where very similar to you, another woman who was, I mean, she was on the street and she got pregnant by accident. But she decided she wasn’t going to be the mother that she was left with. And she stopped everything. She’s an extraordinary person right now. It’s interesting how children can turn it around when you decide that you don’t want to do that to your kids.

AD: Well, I also think, related to that, is if you’re talking about reinventing yourself. I think as adults, if we bring ourselves back to that place, that innocent place, before you start to experience the don’ts, the no’s, the inappropriate, the things you don’t understand as a young child, you almost can see that bright spot, that place that you can actually be as an adult if you stop the messages that you learned at such a young age, if you just go back to that innocent place and think, wow, I used to be so linked to my purpose, to my passion, to my “Yes.”

LJS: And so did you get any particular kind of help or what did you do? Was there anything structural that you did?

Taking Care of My Mother– and Learning to Heal

AD: I did therapy intermittently. It was never the specific sort of somatic kinds of therapies people employ, the eye movement or the tapping. I think one therapist at one point did do a little hypnotism on me. But the other thing that the accident did was that it also coincided with, at that point, my father had already passed away, and my mom was in her eighties and her health was deteriorating. And I moved her, actually, to Indiana, which was where we had just moved to when that accident occurred. So this coincided with, all of a sudden, I’m writing, all of a sudden, I’m not a very physical person. And of course, that was a really hard cross to bear, but it coincided with this reversal in roles, and I became this 24/7 caretaker for my mom. Once I started to be mobile enough and I could perform all my daily activities, I became her caregiver. And that was the final passage for me to be able to show her that no matter what, I could care for her like I do my children, like she didn’t do for me. But I knew that she had wanted to. And so it really brought us to the best place I could have ever imagined. And that was kind of the final link for me, the final turn. As for me, I could say, we’re all doing our best. We’ve all experienced the suffering, the pain, the not being seen, the not being heard. And when we can just forgive – and I have to be really clear about the word forgive, because that doesn’t mean you’re not accountable. What it means is you understand that you can make a mistake, but you’re accountable. But we can move on. We can all move on. We can all be better.

LJS: Did you ever have an open discussion with your mom about what happened?

AD: Well, spoiler alert. In my memoir that eventually got published, I did bring my parents to therapy at one point in my twenties and everything was on the table. That one session did not go very far. My father was extremely remorseful. And you could see he never really came out with the words, but his body language, his facial expressions, his demeanor was so incredibly sad and remorseful. And I understood in that session where he was. And I knew that I would get to a place where I could forgive him. I would never again not hold him accountable. My mom couldn’t get there at that point. She was just so bitter and had so much unresolved pain from her own upbringing. But in our time together. I had conversations with her in the last year of her life. I would say, “Mom, do you have any regrets?” And she would almost get there, but in a way where I could see she wanted to say it, but she just had so much unresolved pain of her own that she still held on to that. But it was enough. It was enough. We had enough moments that it was almost just that silent nod of, “Yes, I see you. Yes, I know. I could have done better.”

LJS: Well, you know, there’s no handbook for when you have children. I know this is a hard thing. No one understands. I remember when they handed us my son and we pulled the car up and we had the little seat in the back and we were living in New York City and the nurse came out and helped us buckle him into the car and I was like, oh, so you’re not coming with us? You’re going to trust us with this little thing by ourselves? I don’t know what I’m doing. Terrifying, right? And you just stumble through. You stumble through, you make all kinds of mistakes. Each one of us is starting over.

AD: Terrifying. Yes.

LJS: And you can read all the books you want and you’re still going to make mistakes.

AD: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. That’s why, too, all of the self help that’s out there, there’s therapy, all of those things, they’re amazing. But until you decide you want to do the work, that’s only something you can do. You just have to sit your ass down. And whether it’s a writing implement in your hand or a paintbrush or composing a song that no one’s going to hear, I don’t care what it is. There has to be that conversation with yourself where you’re just unearthing and figuring stuff out. And sometimes it’s the kids that help you get there too.

LJS: Yeah, I found that incredibly healing, even though I was stumbling my way through. And I would sometimes have to call my sister and go, “What do I do now? I have no idea what’s going on.” And you call other friends and go, “Does your kid do this to you?” And they’d be like, “Yeah. Ah, they’re all horrible at this age.” You’d be like, “I thought it was just me really screwing things up.” It’s like, no, it’s just a bad age.

AD: And are your kids now older?

LJS: Yeah, same age as you. I have a 32 and a 27, so, yeah. And they tell me I did a pretty good job. Not perfect, but pretty good.

AD: Yeah. I’m happy with that, too.

LJS: Yeah, me too. I’ll take that.

AD: Me too.

LJS: It’s never too late to confront this stuff. So, Tuni, listening to you, if there are people out there who have been through what you’ve been through, and there are a lot, what are a couple of tips and tricks that you would give them if they wanted to reinvent themselves? We talk mostly to women 40, 50, 60 plus. It’s never too late to confront this stuff and find out what your true self is. But what would you suggest?

It’s Never Too Late to Reinvent Yourself

AD: Well, you’re right, Lesley. It’s never too late. And I think we have been conditioned on so many levels to believe certain things, and it’s hard to strip those “isms” away, whether it’s deferring to the male person or the authority person in your life or to other people in general. So a number one thing for me is just to understand that what we tell ourselves is what we believe. And just flipping that conversation, using our own self-talk as feedback instead of as the law of the land. Understand that, yes, you’re going to experience pain, you’re going to experience disappointment, but that doesn’t mean you have to then settle right there. You can use that as feedback information and then decide where you want to go with that. So, understanding that what you tell yourselves as you navigate difficult situations is what you’re going to believe about yourself. I would say the second thing I tell people is to practice radical right. One quote I heard from Sonya Renee Taylor’s book, The Body is Not an Apology, where she really is speaking more about body issues, but she quotes Marianne Williamson as saying, “An acorn does not have to say, ‘I intend to become an oak tree.’” And if we’re the acorn, we are exactly what we’re meant to be if we just stay out of the way and let ourselves become what we’re supposed to be. It’s sort of this riff on natural intelligence, intending that every living thing becomes the highest form of itself and designs according to that. And I really love that.

LJS: Beautiful.

AD: Yeah. The third thing I would say is that, for me personally, writing was an incredible tool, and it’s just a way to slow yourself down. It’s like meditation, which I also do every day.

LJS: Yeah, me too.

AD: Yeah. And I mean, at this point in my life, I cannot not meditate daily.

LJS: Oh, I know. I can’t function without it. I’m such a crabster if I don’t have my meditation.

AD: Exactly. But just that moment of stillness, of alone, of not responding to all, just the cacophony of stimulation around us at all times, we have got to be able to unplug and to listen deeply to our own silence. And if we can take that creatively, positively forward somehow, yay for us.

LJS: Well, Antonia, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your honesty. And I’m also so glad that you figured all this out so that you can help other people figure it out as well.

AD: Lesley, can I just say, as we were speaking earlier, thank you so much for not turning away from a really tough topic.

LJS: We go running into tough topics at CoveyClub. Because if we don’t talk about these things, Antonia, who will?

AD: Exactly.

LJS: And frankly, by the time you get into your forties and fifties and sixties, this kind of stuff can deter you from getting to where you need to be. And I’m a firm believer that it’s harder to confront the truth, it’s more scary to confront the truth than it is to bury it and hide from it. So we have to be brave. We have to have courage. And, I jokingly tell my kids that once they turn 30, the time where you can blame your parents for anything is over. So you better get all your therapy done before 30, because the statute of limitations runs out on all the things we did wrong, and then you’ve got to blame yourself. I think you have to do this whenever it occurs to you. And, that’s how you will get to that next reinvention in your life.

AD: Yeah. And just to tag on to that, not only does the conversation need to happen, but as role models, if we’re not having those conversations for ourselves so that we can reinvent ourselves, our children and the people that we mentor are still picking up on our body language. And if we haven’t taken this step, our inability to speak beyond what happened to us. Our actions are still going to implant themselves, embed themselves in our children. So we have to move this conversation forward.


Antonia Deignan is a mother of five children by choice, a dancer by calling, and a writer by necessity. She was born on the East Coast but spent most of her life in the Midwest, where she danced with multiple dance companies and raised her children. She opened her own dance studio and directed a pre-professional dance company before a bike accident wish-boned her path, and her identity. Website

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