August 04, 2023

By Ziona

I often refer to myself as a “wallflower child” — someone who was desensitized by childhood trauma and exposure to adult behavior. Most parents try to prevent this kind of upbringing; it’s why they tell their children not to “grow up too fast.”

My experience was different. In my community and home, I witnessed addiction, gang violence, prostitution, self-harm and crime. My mother, even throughout her academic and professional success, battled addiction, which I was exposed to frequently. She took me everywhere with her: her university lectures (where I learned about psychology, writing and literature), recovery meetings and even when she was getting high at parties.

When I was a child, I absorbed all the pain, anger, resentment, sorrows, grief and stress of the adults and family members around me. I spent many nights replaying the stories I overheard in my mind, like a movie. This inevitably had an impact on my mental health.

The Family Curse

We always called our struggles the “family curse.” My older sister became a victim of this curse at an early age. She had a promising future ahead — she was talented in the arts of writing, dancing, music and education. She became pregnant at 14 years old, and she and the child’s father did their best to manage taking care of my nephew. But at 16, my sister started using crack cocaine. She was months away from walking across the stage for high school graduation when she decided to drop out.

When I noticed my sister staying out late more, abandoning my nephew and other erratic behavior, I asked my family what was wrong with her; they responded, “It’s the family curse.”

In the beginning, we tried to get her help through the church, then my family tried to help her through institutions, such as rehab. We tried everything, but drugs had a grip on her existence. It has been 25 years and my sister has never gotten clean.

My Mental Health Journey

The family curse took its toll on me as well. I attempted suicide several times, and eventually, when I hit my teen years, I was institutionalized from the severe trauma I’d internalized.

Sadly, treatment also exposed me to others’ trauma. The horrifying stories I heard in treatment have never left me.

The first time I was institutionalized, my mother signed her parenting rights over to the state. I was so confused and heartbroken. While there, I made friends with the other patients, and we kept each other entertained. We would play video games, laugh at silly things and learn intimate secrets about each other.

I had a friend on one of the adolescent units in a program, and she would always talk about how she was adopted. She lived in an old house that was infested with rats and roaches. This friend had four siblings, and they had to fight over food. She also told me how a few times her eldest brother would trade her his share of food if she would let him touch her; and because she was hungry, she would let him touch her. But for some reason, she looked forward to going home.

As I absorbed even more pain, I knew I needed to find an outlet for all the trauma I was holding.


My childhood experiences helped me to become humble, understanding, sensitive and wise. Hearing stories of other recovering addicts — how addiction broke them, stripped them of dignity, love, life, finances, spiritual awareness, home and family — I absorbed their pain and triumph. 

I became inspired to relate through writing poetry and short stories. I respected their strength and courage to share and speak up about their recovery or struggles with addictions. I couldn’t get these experiences out of my head! They haunted me, but I wasn’t afraid; I was enraptured by the strength they had, the miracles of survival and the triumphs.

I also watched their dysfunction improve with self-help; like recovery meetings, spirituality, detoxing, rehabilitation, therapy, harm reduction, education and understanding these things had to end. Today, I can gratefully say that a lot of the dysfunction has ended and some healed. My mother is now in recovery and has B.A. in Psychology from Harvard University.

My healing process continues as I channel my past into my art and storytelling.


Ziona is a first generation American, born and raised in Boston, Mass. She identifies as Afro-Latina Americana. Using her wits and creativity, Ziona molded her talent for creative writing and began sharing her story in her community, and now the nation, through documentaries, books and speaking publicly about her experience. Ziona feels her purpose is to use creativity to persevere through trauma and raise awareness about suicide, mental health and recovery in the fight against global stigma.

Submit To The NAMI Blog

We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.


NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).