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Overcoming Trauma: McKinney Is Determined to Shatter the Stigma

Pictured following her delivery of a compelling speech at Saturday’s State of the Child Forum at Watauga High School, Mary McKinney, second from left, is joined by her daughter Seleste Penley, at left, Mary’s husband, Jody Prevette, and her daughter, Brooke Penley, far right.

By Sherrie Norris

Watauga High School was filled with expectancy on Saturday morning, May 4, as nearly 600 individuals came together for the Third Annual State of the Child, State of the Community Forum.

From the morning’s guest speaker — through multiple breakout sessions and classes offered on various topics — to the final speaker of the day, expectations were not only met, but easily surpassed.

Making a lasting impact on the crowd was the strength and courage of two local women who shared their stories of how their early lives were filled with pain and suffering — and how they’ve been able to not only overcome, but to also survive and thrive. It was all about trauma and resiliency, the core of the conference, and how they bridged the gap from one to the other.
Even more so, it answered loud and clear the question in the event’s theme: “What’s Strong in You?”

From Darkness to Light

Despite her fear of public speaking and months of preparing to address a large crowd, Mary McKinney, a local licensed family therapist who endured years of trauma, seemed perfectly at ease as she shared her story on Saturday. Using descriptions of “dark and light magic,” McKinney painted a picture of how she rose above life’s most difficult years to become strong for others. She wore a shirt that helps define her determination to “shatter the stigma.” It is her hope that her story will do just that.

McKinney challenged her audience not to accept surface appearances of others without knowing their stories. “You cannot know what a person has gone through just by how they seem on the outside,” she said.

“Some of you will hear my story today and even doubt my trauma, because I appear to be successful. The scars left by dark magic are usually kept away from view – masked in so many ways as we try to get through the day. Masks can help us survive. But, under some masks are scars. Stigma tells us that these scars are signs that we aren’t good enough. We internalize this stigma and feel shame that keeps our deepest needs – and our greatest strength – hidden.”

Speaking our truth, she said – when we allow another person to see and hear our truth — we heal ourselves, and we open possibilities for the healing of another person. “When we listen with curiosity to someone else’s story, we open to a chance for new understanding of others and of ourselves.”

That was one of three points that McKinney hoped her audience would take away on Saturday.

Additionally, she said, “We connect to hope and possibility through light magic. We each have to identify what is light magic in our own lives. We have to actively notice and practice it, connect with it.”

She also encouraged her audience to pay attention to the differences between wounds and scars.

“When you have a wound, I echo the advice Mr. Rogers passed along to us from his mother: ‘Look for the helpers.’ The range of helpers is wide. Be sure to match the level of ‘help’ to the severity of the wound. That is, just as it is best to seek emergency medical and surgical care for a severed limb – or physical therapy to rehabilitate from injury — it is often wise to work with mental health professionals to heal the emotional, psychological and relational wounds inflicted by trauma. As Matshona Dhliwayo rightly noted: ‘Scars are a warrior’s beauty marks.’”

Persistent exposure to light magic in McKinney’s life, she said, saved her from an early death by suicide and pulled her from the depths of cutting, bulimia and repeated victimization.

“As I engage with light magic, I connect to hope and to my own inherent value. As I put that hope and worth into action, I connect to power.”

Identifying ACES

Referring to Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that happen to people under the age of 18, (also known as developmental trauma), McKinney said learning that her score of seven out of 10 was eye-opening.

“This and other research have shown that the higher the ACE score, the higher the risk for chronic health conditions, future violence victimization and perpetration, risky health behaviors and early death,” she explained.

McKinney’s years of trauma have resulted in conditions including complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD. Developmental trauma, she explained, may include abuse, addiction, mental illness, medical trauma, or other experiences, and can feel something like being in a war zone —”dealing with repeated catastrophe and remaining braced for the next terrible thing.”

Dark and light magic

For McKinney, “dark magic,” for the first three decades of her life, left her terrified, ashamed and desperate, she shared — spells cast by repetitive abuse and lasting poverty.

“The light magic provided me with some protection, as I was able to glimpse hope and imagine possibility. It has also marked my life with spells cast by unconditional love, hope, faith and imagination.”

Despite the damage sustained early in life, McKinney said, she has navigated through it all to heal and build a happy and productive life.

“It is also about the stigma that I experienced – especially the kind that I internalized and which nearly killed me. I tell my story because I know it is the most powerful way for me – for any of us — to participate in shattering stigma.”

It was hard for her to talk about some of her dark history, “Because I love the person who scared me the most.” Even though he also brought light magic to her life . . . terror sliced into the light magic in my life and left me deeply wounded. “

It is also hard, she said, because as a mountain girl, she was raised to be a good girl. “Good girls, good women, protect the people they love– even if they are the ones causing the pain.”

Some of the things she sometimes saw weren’t discussed outside of her childhood home, she said. “And the way we talked about it to one another was very confusing.”

As a result, it was exceedingly difficult for her to trust herself.

“As all children do, I watched my adults for cues as they were dealing with their own mixture of dark and light magic,” she shared. “We mistakenly believed that ‘good people’ only have good things happen to them’ and that we can ‘fix’ darkness for another person by loving them ‘enough.’ These beliefs cultivated stigma and left me isolated. I didn’t even know that it was possible for me to ask for help.”

From her own experiences, as well as those she’s learned from her daughters and clients, McKinney said that stigma kills and destroys —”as surely as bullets, fists and terrible words.”

Surviving at best

McKinney remembers happy days playing with her brother in the neighbor’s cow pastures, where her imagination came to life. And, after moving near the library, spending countless hours escaping reality through developing a love for reading — and for words, in general.

“At the time, I didn’t realize that the words and characters in these books and TV shows we watched were sprinkling my life with light magic spells, but they were. My imagination carried me to safe worlds. Facts and definitions grounded me. I found joy, connection and calming in opening the dictionary to find a new word and then use it in conversation at home.”

The power of words have always been significant for McKinney, she said, but the dark words cut her, nearly draining the life from her many times.

“I hear some of them in my head now, telling me that if I was just good enough no one would have to get hurt and no one would have to drink too much. If I was smart enough, I could fix it for everyone. If I was just strong enough, I could handle it all better.”

“This stigma became a refrain playing as a soundtrack when the faces of people I most loved —and on whom I most depended — became dark and scary.”

Dark words and scary events cast spells that manifested self-loathing and shame in her, she said, “And I joined in singing the too-familiar refrain. Self-loathing, shame, acute self-consciousness, relentless self-doubt, and fear took turns with Pippi Longstocking, and my other light companions, to direct me — the dark and light magic alternately gaining my focus. “

During her youth and young adulthood, McKinney often worried that she was “too much” or “not enough” for other people. It still nags at her today, but no longer devastates her.

Feeling unworthy to live, It was her mother’s love, through her adolescence and into young adulthood, that kept her from acting upon suicidal thoughts.

“My mother and two grandmothers were my heroines,” she said. “Their love was unequivocal and sure. Their opinion that I was important, special, loved and smart permeated my life! Their words were powerful light magic, casting a spell that bound me to this earth. Although they are no longer bound to this earth, the magic they cast is even more powerful now because I have healed enough to agree with their belief in my value!”

Still, her self-loathing, shame, acute self-consciousness, and fear led her to punishing herself.

“Additionally, I became quite adept at giving away my light in misguided efforts to ‘save’ other people from dark magic spells in their lives. I ignored my own hurt with the belief that my blind loyalty could cause any person to be healed from trauma and darkness so he could be happy and treat me well. I repeated this pattern in a few relationships.”

Seeking Transformation

Believing in change and transformation kept her strong, as well, and today, as a psychotherapist, McKinney has been a part of that process with many people.

“But, no person can give away their light to end the dark for another person. Transformation is a result of a lot of intentional work and healthy connection. But, for a long time, I believed my failures in ending darkness for other people were more evidence of my unworthiness.”

Her trauma continued into an early marriage, she said. “After nearly a decade of efforts to right what was wrong in my marriage by being ‘good enough,’ I slowly began to recognize that it doesn’t work that way.”

When her daughters were very young, McKinney started graduate school, during which she learned a lot about herself and others.

Pursuing a career as a marriage and family therapist, her life was being filled with abundant light magic about facilitating healing, change, and healthy relationships, she said. “As my life was illuminated with these new possibilities, I realized I had to end my marriage. I got busy healing and growing myself through my own therapy and education, determined to make a safe home for my daughters and me.”

She’s thankful, she said, to still be on the journey, with her daughters, to wellness and happiness — and also, for the last 20 years, with her second husband who offers “steady incantations of light magic.”

“It’s been years since dark wizards were part of my inner circle,” McKinney said. “It’s been a long while since I have sacrificed my light —naively believing that I could love someone ‘enough’ to save them from darkness. It has been many years since I have wished I was dead, cut myself or suffered bulimia. I now know that some of the most powerful light magic is honest connection and steadfastly acting on truths – such as an unshakeable believe in the inherent worth of every human — and that includes me.”

Still, there are occasional lingering symptoms of PTSD as well as ways in which she is surviving, healing and thriving.

McKinney said she has had to work extremely hard to remember that it “doesn’t work” to sacrifice her own light in an attempt to save someone else from darkness – even her own children.

“My daughters experienced developmental trauma as they witnessed domestic violence as young children,” she said. Her older daughter, born three months premature and suffering intrusive medical care for the first few years of her life, struggles with chronic medical conditions, including debilitating anxiety developed in her late adolescence and early adulthood.

“My younger daughter experienced a decade of severe addiction and countless experiences of sexual assault, domestic violence, and other physical assaults. She also has PTSD.”

Being unable to pull either of them out of the grip of dark magic was the worst pain and fear she has ever felt, McKinney said. “Thankfully, they are both recovering — healing and completing their educations. Their strength, wisdom and courage are simply breathtaking, truly awe-inspiring. They are my favorite she-roes!”

Mary’s story, and that of her daughters, she said, are redemption stories. “But honest redemption stories include all the muck and mire of dragging through multiple layers of reclamation, reformation and restoration – as many times as it takes. It ain’t pretty. But, oh, it is so beautiful!”

For more information, contact McKinney Marriage and Family Therapy at 805 State Farm Rd #304, Boone, NC 28607

Phone: (828) 263-4113