I want to tell you a story, it is a story I have touched on a little bit in my career but never really embraced openly.
In fact I have spent the last 9 years, keeping my own story and my career relatively separate. At first, I didn’t connect the importance of the two being interweaved, honestly I didn’t. I was laser focused on leaving my past behind and creating myself a future. I was intent on creating a family for myself, one that wasn’t overshadowed by my own childhood. On building a life for myself, to prove my own self-worth and to make a difference in the lives of others. I didn’t stop to look at my own story much, other than to convince myself that it wouldn’t impact my future.
That isn’t to say I have avoided my past by any means, in fact the opposite is true. I constantly aware of how my past informs my future and I regularly reflect on how the two link. I have learnt so much about how trauma, childhood and adversity can manifest in adulthood through my experience of it all, and it is often a supporting pillar behind a lot of my work. I have just never been brave enough to share that insight outwardly.
I have shared little snippets of my experiences in my training but in a way that I recognise now, kept me safe. Little scenarios helped me illustrate to teachers or carers how children might feel. So it felt important to share them. But, If I’m honest with myself, I still needed to keep my experiences at arms length. They are so interweaved in my soul, that it feels safer for me to be in control of them. Allowing them out in to the world, gives them a life beyond me and that is scary!
I also worry about what people will do with it, will they see me differently, weaker maybe? Less professional? Will they see my story before they see me and my achievements. Will they think I’ve got here by using my story to leverage my career? I can’t tell you the amount of times I have thought, “But other people have had it much much worse than me, it isn’t fair to them to share it” but slowly, very slowly, I am coming to realise that a story can be a very powerful agent for change and if there is anything I want, it is to cultivate change.
The thing is, no matter what our experiences, big or small, our stories are part of who we are. Every single experience a person has, is relevant and worthy of being shared. We must be braver to talk about the tough stuff, how else can we normalise difficult feelings and the importance of being self-aware? How can we teach children that what they go through matters and is worth sharing/ exploring and voicing if we are not brave enough to do it ourselves.
Our experiences weave together to form our perception of the world, our beliefs, thoughts and behaviours. They mould us in to the people we are and they stay with us. We all have a story and it is time I share mine a bit more.
"Hi guys, my name is Shahana Knight and I'm a childhood trauma specialist...."
That is how I start every talk, presentation or introduction. That is what is expected right? People want to know a little bit about me before I start my talk. So I introduce myself, and go on to talk about my achievements.
I discuss how I have dedicated my life to helping people understand childhood trauma. Helping them to redefine their perception of behaviour and make a tangible change in their approaches. I talk about how I have been featured on the BBC both on News Round and BBC Teach. How I write regularly for Head Teachers Update. I share my recent project transforming UK classrooms and highlight all the big stuff! For years, I thought that was me. but the truth is, that isn’t me.
This is me.
I’m 7 or 8 years old here, in my childhood home with my dad and my brother. I pulled my dad up to dance to Christmas songs and we sang and danced together. Our house was often full of silliness and playfulness like this. Christmas holds the greatest memories for me as a child.
My dad was the Head teacher of our local primary school, the school we went to as children. He was a wonderful man who was charismatic, loving and kind. He wanted the best for everyone and worked really hard to make a difference. He was the first Head Teacher in the area to prioritise additional needs and he opened a hearing impaired unit at his school and made it mandatory for the whole school to learn sign language! He focused on the wellbeing of his most vulnerable families and went above and beyond to support them. The local community adored him. They would come up to him in the street and thank him for what he did for their children.
He wasn’t afraid to be playful and silly- it didn’t matter who was looking. He brought so much magic to our lives. He played the guitar and the drums, he loved camping and bought us a caravan, we spent every summer holiday in France for a month. He always played music- mostly the Beatles or golden oldies! He was a beautiful human.
I adored my dad, and so much of my personality and my ideals reflect him. He inspired me to be my best self and helped me see so much magic in the world. Truth be told, he was beyond the expectation of what a father should be.
That made it all the harder for me. That video was filmed when I was about 7/8. It was around this time I began to realise that our perfect family, wasn’t so perfect. Dad was an alcoholic and suffered with depression. Around the time of this video, dad’s school was due a visit from Ofsted, I believe it was the first time. The pressure of that, and many other stressors he battled on a day to day basis, meant dad got unwell. He stopped going to work and would spend most days in bed. He would flip between being playful and kind, and angry and manipulative. I think he always had, we just didn’t see it. You don’t when you are little. You just accept things as they are.
Dad grew up with so much adversity. He never knew his dad, he was the only boy in a family of seven sisters. He lived in poverty and drank from jam jars. He was moved around as a child, living with different family members and never really settling. As an adult his first marriage broke down and as a result, he never saw his first child again. He struggled to find a place where he belonged, he struggled to feel loved unconditionally, he struggled with his self-belief and self-concept. His experiences over shadowed his life and although he managed to create a beautiful life for himself and his family, he was plagued by his past. Nobody ever taught him he was lovable, he was enough and that he was worthy. He spent his whole life looking for approval, believing he would be abandoned. It consumed him.
As a result, I grew up with two dads. My wonderful, loving superhero dad and scary dad who nobody talked about. We didn’t tell anyone what went on inside our house. No one ever knew. They didn’t see the ongoing emotional abuse, the insecure attachment we developed and the darkness that engulfed our home. We didn’t know which dad we would get from day to day. On the good days, we went on as normal – they were light and fun and full of happiness. I lived for those days. Sometimes they came right after a bad day. We never talked about the bad days. For a while, this was normal for me, but as I got older and we became more aware, it got harder and harder not to resent the life we had to live. To cope, I would write down everything that happened in a diary, and I told myself when I was a teenager I would publish it and become the youngest writer to share her experiences of trauma. Funny now, how I find it hard to share those stories. The constant flip between good and bad days was torture and felt like a twisted game. I was filled with resentment and sadness and I just wanted to escape what had become my silent nightmare.
Then, a few days before my final university exams, my dad died. It was sudden and came out of nowhere. I knew it was coming. Something inside me just knew and so I stayed up all night a few nights before painting him a picture of himself with his guitar. I wrote his favourite Eva Cassidy lyrics around the side and gave it to him one evening. At this point, nobody was talking to him, just me. I couldn’t shut him off like that, no matter what he did. That night, I wanted him to know he was loved. He was very drunk but gave me a hug and said “If I look like that, I must be very handsome indeed”. I took it upstairs with me, for fear of him ruining it in the night. I never saw him alive again.
The day after he died, I felt all the resentment and anger I wash away. It was as though I could see and think clearly again, and I had good memories rushing back that I didn’t have time to remember before. He was free and so was I. I had no need to publish that diary and no desire to. I spent the years after his death processing my experiences and over time, I find myself being so thankful for the experiences I had and so thankful for dad. He was beautiful in so many ways, and he taught me so much about life. I wouldn’t have this career if it wasn’t for him and I owe him thanks for that, as do the thousands of children and teachers I have helped so far because of him.
The whole thing was a tragic novel and one that still triggers me in many ways. Childhood trauma is not as black and white as we can assume it is. I had a wonderful childhood that glowed with love and abundance compared to most. But it was full of darkness and fear at the same time. The two realities lived alongside each other and despite the pain, I loved my parents. As most children do.
I recently shared this video of dad at a Head Teachers conference. I had told myself it was time I was a little more open about my ‘why’. It was really well received and I had so many teachers wanting to book our training after it. They resonated with the story and how it linked to so many of their children. It helped them to see why trauma informed approaches are vital. But it was the hardest thing I have ever done, I was shaking all the way through it (and I love being on stage!) When I got in the car, I cried for an hour. I felt like I had betrayed my dad in some way. My 8 year old beliefs came back with a vengeance – I can’t talk about what happened, it wouldn’t be fair to my dad. I was shocked that I could still have such an emotional response even now. But actually, I think he would be proud that his story is helping me to change lives and maybe it wasn’t all for nothing if it means that even in his death, he is making a difference in education.
How is this relevant?
My dad was an exceptional human being, we all knew it, but he didn’t. He lived through great trauma and adversity but he internalised those experiences and linked them to his own self-worth. Nobody ever helped him understand how his trauma impacted his behaviour and his mental health so he was under skilled in managing it. He didn’t know he could be in control of his thoughts and feelings, so instead he was a slave to them. He wasn’t given the strategies he needed to take care of his mental health and so it controlled him. He didn’t know that he pushed people away when he needed them most, because he feared they would reject him for needing them. He didn’t know he was loved for his whole self, including the broken bits and so he spent his life plagued with intrusive thoughts about not being good enough. He didn’t realise we adored him when he was fun and playful and when he was calm and thoughtful. So he measured his worth in how much we laughed, and when he couldn’t be funny, he felt like he failed.
If dad had someone in his life who guided him through his feelings, helped him identify how they linked to his behaviour and helped him to see that he did not have to be defined by his trauma. His life would have been different. All of that magic he has would could have burst in to the world. It was tragic that he never had that chance, for himself and the world.
Children are still struggling like this right now, in your schools and agencies.
It is time we helped them to see that they do not have to be defined by their trauma. It doesn’t need to plague them, instead it can be their super power! Mental health and wellbeing is not just something we have to be aware of. It is something we must embed in to our practices, responses and cultures to ensure that every child has the ability to flourish in their lives, and know that they are worthy, regardless of their experiences This means upskilling schools, teachers, foster carers and anyone else that works with children to work together to make that change.
I have no idea how many people will read this. How it will be received and whether you are even still reading. But if you are, thank you.