“Less and Damaged, Like Me: a story of transformation.”
I am just beginning to share my story of over coming trauma, being raised in poverty, expelled from school, and a life of uncertainty and violence —witnessing my father hitting my mother — to becoming a physician, a psychiatrist. My dad infrequently worked, hustled for money, and had a 7th grade education. My mother completed the 8th grade, dropping out in the 9th grade. They had my oldest sister when they were 19 or 20. I too flunked out of 8th grade, was expelled from 9th and 1/2 of 10th grade.
Before the age of 10, I’m told, we moved from about 7 or 8 different apartments, a motel, and briefly lived in the projects in Portland, Maine. I was a troubled teen with little opportunity for success. I had a complex trauma history, depression, and started drinking at the age of 13. I was suicidal as a teenager, a girlfriend that was pregnant in my late teens, and a life that wasn’t worth living. I was tried on antidepressants and a mood stabilizer in my early 20s — told that I had a “Chemical Imbalance.” My extended family suffered the most, I had two cousins that ended up in jail for manslaughter and an aunt selling prescription drugs in her 70s.
Then, at 20, a close friend of mine was murdered and my world was falling apart, and that is when I became determined to change me life.
I share this for I know that other people are living lives that leave them feeling trapped in a prison. I know that these prisons are often the product of our minds. I know that we can be free in a jail or imprisoned on a beach. The mind is what holds us. And that small initial belief that we can be more is the place where change begins — so nurture it, feed it, and let that belief grow and change your life. You must see it in your mind before you can live it in this world.
Today, I am a Vice Chair of a Hospital, an educator, a father, and a husband. I graduated with Highest Honors from Rutgers University where I was a Paul Robeson Scholar. I completed my Masters in Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, my MD at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. I also completed my Adult Psychiatry Residency at Duke University where I was the Durham VA Chief Resident. Yet, in spite of this outward success, I remained depressed until recently.
I had two more things that I had to learn, to cultivate — mindfulness and compassion — to find peace. I dealt with the trauma, but I had more work to do.
I had spent years thinking that I would prove to the world that I’m not “White Trash, damaged, and less.” Eventually, I realized that I was trying to prove it to myself. I had thought a high school diploma, a college degree or a nice car would help me find peace and happiness. I thought I’d be content once I graduated from medical school, got married, and had children — nope, just fleeting moments of joy; because, I kept sliding the goal post further and further back.
So, what changed? I finally realized, I have only now— this moment. I have now to be with my friends, my family, my wife, my boys. I have now to write this essay. I have now to heal. I have now to love. I have now to laugh. I have now to cry. I have now. I know that my life will end one day. My choice to live now matters. I commit my time to my family, to raising my boys, and helping others find freedom too. I am damn good at my job because I’ve lived it — leaned into it and changed.
So, ask yourself these questions: How much longer are you willing to hurt? To settle? When will you give up the stuff that keeps you small, less? When will you change if not now? Stop hiding. Stop waiting. It’s now.
Change your story — expand your world. Face your fears. Take responsibility for your life. Delay gratification. Allow all feelings to arise and flow through you. Have a commitment to truth. Process trauma. Grieve. Let go. Finding healing. Know that you’re amazing. And live a life filled with love. But live now. Cultivate a mindfulness based practice. Meditate. Paint. Yoga. Follow your breath while washing dishes. Pray if that’s your tradition. But Just be present. And ultimately learn to quiet that machine — that three pounds of grey and white matter that keeps you from living now.
And my final freedom came in the form of learning compassion. I look back upon my childhood and my father with compassion. I love my father for the man that he wanted to be. I love him for the man he never got to be. Today, I have great memories of that man. I know that he was limited. I know that he was hurt by a world of trauma and a brain that was limited. But I know that he did love me. So, I love him deeply with compassion. He died many years ago but my relationship with him lives in my mind and heart with deep compassion. Today, he is the father that I needed. And tonight, he is with me as I write this.
Finally, I invite you to practice compassion for yourself, your past, and every other creature on this Earth. Life is difficult. You will hurt. You will fail. You will grow. You will look silly and foolish and flawed in this life. And you will learn. And you will lose all that you’re attached to in this world, including your own life and the lives of those that you love. One life. Please don’t hide from this. Don’t deny this. Face it. Embrace it. Lean into it. Do not let fear capture you. Be courageous. Be honest. And live with compassion for all creatures on this Earth — even the ones that we think are “less and damaged, like me.”
If this resonates with you, then like this article and share it. One life guys. One life.
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