No one knows what happened to you as a child like you do.
Our childhoods are intensely private. Much of what happened to us took place behind closed doors. Even our own family members don’t know everything that happened to us.
For most of us, those childhood memories fade away as adult concerns take their place. We leave the past behind us. We don’t think about being 6 years old again.
But author Lisa Zarcone can’t forget.
At 6 years old, her life turned upside down. The death of her brother sparked her mother’s journey into madness. Her happy childhood turned terrifying as she dealt with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.
In this week’s YBTV interview, she talks about what it was like to survive a harrowing childhood, why the adults around her didn’t step in, and what we can do today to make sure no child has to go through the same thing she did.
Child abuse is “more common than people want to think about,” she says. It’s up to us to notice the signs and ask the questions.
What You’ll Learn
If you see something, say something.”
Once upon a time, Lisa Zarcone was an ordinary 6-year-old girl with a father, a mother, and a brother.
Then her brother died of leukemia, and her world fell apart.
“My dad always said the day that my brother died, we lost my mom,” she says.
Her mother had always struggled with mental health issues, but losing Lisa’s brother tipped her over the edge. “She fell apart; our world fell apart,” Lisa says.
Lisa became “a very sad, lonely little girl.” Her dad was unable to cope and eventually left, leaving her alone with her mother.
Their home was “a very disturbing and a very frightening place to be as a child.” Not only was there physical, emotional and verbal abuse, but her mother brought unsafe people into the home. “I lived in a very toxic, disturbing world for a very long time,” Lisa says.
She had nowhere to go. “I even thought about suicide at the age of 13, because I just couldn’t take the abuse anymore.”
But there was something in Lisa that was more resilient than she knew. She calls it “that power inside of you, that passion to be able to help yourself.”
She grew up and left home, finally free to live life on her terms. “My drive was always to do better, make things better for myself, find better ways to live my life and be free of the abuse.” She had a passion for helping others. She went on to work with children, disabled adults, even teens in lockup.
“I worked for teen girls in a locked facility,” Lisa says. “We did a lot of journaling and therapeutic work together. I always knew, in the back of my mind, one day I would share my story as another avenue to help people and overcome abuse.”
That story came to fruition in her 2016 memoir The Unspoken Truth, in which she wrote about her childhood experiences through the eyes of the child she used to be.
Today, she feels that her past was a gift, as difficult as it was. It helped her understand other people’s problems and issues. She can spot people who are struggling.
“The more I speak to adult survivors, the more I find we have so much in common,” she says. “We were all going through many of the same things at the same time, but never knew because we were taught to be silent.”
Why No One Noticed
Child abuse is “more common than people want to think about,” Lisa says. “There are children every day going through what I had gone through.”
Yet often these children go unnoticed.
No one stepped in to help Lisa all those years ago. “I know people saw, and I know people realized that there were things happening,” she says. “From family to friends to doctors to teachers I had … all the signs were there.”
Doctors and family members saw the bruises. They knew her mother could be violent when she was off her medications. “People saw, but nobody spoke up.”
The adults in her life brushed off what she tried to tell them, assuming she was acting out because of other reasons: the loss of her brother, her parents’ divorce, or her mother’s mental illness. “There was always some type of other label put on what really was happening there.”
At school, she was called a daydreamer. “Though now, if you look at that, in reality I wasn’t lost in thought; I was traumatized.”
She wishes someone would have stepped up and helped her. If she could go back in time, she would have asked for help and found an adult she could trust to listen.
How Adults Can Step Up for Children
Today, she wants adults to know that the most important thing they can do is ask questions.
If you see something you feel is not right, ask the question. What is it going to hurt to ask the questions? It hurts more not to.”
But people are afraid to ask. Maybe they don’t think it’s their place, or they worry their hunch might be right.
What they don’t realize is that listening means more to a child than they could imagine.
“As a child, your mind is not fully developed,” Lisa says. “You’re processing in a very different way. So you’re confused; you’re clouded.
“I remember feeling that way and saying, ‘What’s happening here? Why is nobody understanding? Am I saying things wrong? Am I not saying enough? Is this really happening to me?'”
That’s why it’s so important to listen and let a child know you believe them.
“I wrote my story through the eyes of the child for that reason,” Lisa says. “I want people to understand the child’s perspective, not the adult’s looking back.”
The Healing Process
The process of healing from abuse takes time.
Lisa is an ambassador for NAASCA, the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. She gains a lot by listening to the stories of other survivors.
“Healing is messy; you have to take it in stages,” she says. “In the beginning I wanted to do it all at once, and of course I failed because it’s too overwhelming.”
She encourages people to “start at the beginning and break it into pieces.” She’s found therapy and journaling to be helpful. “I encourage everybody to write. You don’t have to be a writer to write. Journaling is just your personal feelings and thoughts.”
She found writing her book “hugely therapeutic, because I was able to tap into those memories … and work through them one piece at a time.”
She encourages survivors to get support on their healing journey. “It’s so hard to go it alone.”
She was raising three young children and dealing with her mom’s mental health issues at the same time as she was having flashbacks and nightmares. Life doesn’t stop to give you the space to process the past.
What Schools Can Do
As much as awareness of child abuse has grown, “a lot still needs to be done,” Lisa says.
She would like to see schools offer programs educating about mental health. Not all the work should fall on the teachers’ shoulders. More therapists could be brought in. A buddy system could be put into place.
“If a child is struggling, have a room where they can go … where they can take downtime and talk about what’s happening,” Lisa suggests.
“The more we do things like that, the more children feel secure and safe, the more they will open up. Children want to talk. That is the key right there. They do want to share, they do want to talk, but they’re scared.”
She’d like to see us ask ourselves: “If a child is struggling, what can we do as a community to help that child?”
It always goes back to the child, because it’s easier to help the child in the moment than it is to fix that broken adult.”
Lisa’s Life Today
Lisa’s mother passed away five years ago at the age of 75.
“My mom and I had a very complex relationship. I always supported my mother, and I was her best advocate … but we really did have a very difficult relationship because of her illness,” she says.
She’s currently writing a book about her mother. “It really is an amazing story, on how we were able to hold our bond together through that madness.”
Find out more about what Lisa is doing and when her next book will be released at her website.
To stay silent is definitely not the answer.”
Jump to Topics of Interest
2:16 Lisa’s work
3:16 The past is a gift
3:58 Lisa’s story
6:10 Is child abuse common?
6:58 Why no one stepped up to help her
8:19 The support she wished she’d had
9:25 The importance of believing children
10:23 What if the child is taken into care?
11:19 How her experiences changed her
12:23 The healing process
13:31 The need for support
14:22 Lisa’s relationship with her mom now
15:43 How schools can support kids better
18:36 Embrace the journey
Lisa Zarcone is an author, public speaker, and child & mental health advocate. Her memoir The Unspoken Truth lifts the silence about child abuse. Lisa has a passion for working with those who have mental illness. What her past has taught her about mental illness cannot be read in a textbook. Learn more about Lisa’s work.