I just found out I am getting laid off in May. My inner child is worried. Teaching has never been my true calling, but the security has been important to me. I was good at it, so I stayed in education for practical reasons – like health insurance. The life I had as a child has taken a heavy toll. The toxic stress of 17 years in foster care, the emotional neglect, the abuse, the racism, feeling like a burden every single day. I went to 12 different schools. All the moving around meant I missed out on big chunks of math and science. I was so smart nobody noticed.
Nobody but my body, that is. I was 16 when I was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. You can read about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) scores and the intersectionality of trauma and health. I live it. Every day. The burden of chronic illness, in my case born of the child welfare system, includes paying money. The best insulin for me is too expensive, I make do with the one I can afford. I bought a new insulin pump, which is much better, but I am still paying off the old one that cost $13,000!
So, losing my job is a worry, yes. But also… a relief. The work wasn’t tapping into my skills, especially the ones I have learned about trauma and holistic healing. About the divine alignment that can lead to mental and emotional health and well-being. I think I am going to be okay. I think I can help others be okay, too. I am a person who is meant to be excited, and charting a new path is so thrilling.
I am an artist. I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a dual degree in Africana Studies and English Literature with a minor in Theatre Arts. Poetry, acting, painting, music, and fashion – every art I practice is a form of healing. In my life, art has also stood in for the parenting I never had. In fact, every child is an artist. They doodle in their books and in school hallways, bathroom stalls. They style their daily dress and hair and makeup as a form of art
Art is a powerful way to communicate, teach, and reach people. My plan is to blend my art with my advocacy. To speak to, and to articulate, my lived experience as a way to show a path to something better. I have just the right ingredients to do that: poetry, performance art, and a knowledge of policy as a means of making change.
My mother, herself a gifted artist, suffers from extreme mental illness. That was the reason I shuttled through foster care all those years. I just read about a study where scientists altered aspects of the genetic footprint of mice through fear-based scenarios. Did you know that one traumatic event can create an epigenetic trauma response across 17 generations?!?
I’m no scientist, but my own generational story compels me to create, to advocate, and to speak. My mother’s mental illness, her mother’s depression and trauma – she was raped by the KKK in front of her children – and the little sister I found as an adult on Ancestry.com after years of living, heartbreakingly, just blocks away from each other.
I want to help break down the destructive generational structures that children in foster care inherit. But also celebrate memory and ancestry – including my own ancestors, who have been right there with me for 32 hard years.
I have some ideas about what needs to change. I have a big imagination and my creativity has allowed me to survive. Medicaid is the baseline for addressing health disparities. But other nontraditional forms of support have also helped me. It might sound like a luxury, but massage therapy can be effective for healing people who have lived through what I have. A good book about this is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. Also, stretching, body movement, vagus nerve healing, yoga, and breathing therapy rewire your brain. Even with the years of acting and public speaking I have done, I still hold my breath a lot… too much, actually.
I was a well-behaved little girl. I was quiet. I cooked. I cleaned. But no love trickled down to me (except for a little time when I lived with my grandmother). When I got sick, I had never been in the hospital before. My foster parent left me alone there overnight. I saw a kid bleeding; he was sick with cancer and had decided to rip out his IV and run away – the endocrinology and oncology wards shared the same space. It changed my life.
After my T1D diagnosis, I was mostly on my own figuring it out. It wasn’t until college that I met my community of “diabesties.” I met dozens of people just like me. By helping me they put a little drop in my reserve tank. I no longer felt like an outcast. I have come through a lot. I knew myself well enough to have made lots of good choices that allowed me to be safe. Now, it is my hope that through a sincere sharing of my story – one that is very much still in the making – I can give hope, healing, and light to others.
Ivory Bennett is a published author, poet, teacher, coach, and child welfare advocate. The excerpts in this piece are taken from Body, a poem Bennett wrote as a love story to her body as she works to accept and cope with Type I Diabetes.
On Thursday, April 20, Bennett will do a reading of Body on Children’s Rights Instagram.