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Can you find support in unexpected places? How can you get your life back after abuse and manipulation? What can you do for yourself to create and enjoy a good and healthy life?
In the seventh podcast episode of the How I Got Through It series, Joe Sanok speaks about coping with the lies of a married man and an unexpected adoption with Valarie Harris.
In this Podcast:
- Finding support in surprising places
- Getting her life back
- Creating a good life
- Valarie’s advice to her past self
Finding support in surprising places
Valarie had been lied to by a man that she did not know was married. She subsequently had a relationship with him but suffered abuse. Upon finding out that he was married, she felt heartbroken at the idea that she may have been a “homewrecker”.
The moment that Valarie was talking with the attorney to track this man down, his wife was standing right there, and reached out to Valarie with compassion.
She knew about me and had been trying to get in touch with me … I went to her home that day in complete tears and distress, and she just said, “Oh no honey, this is not your fault. You were a victim.” (Valarie Harris)
This woman became Valarie’s first anchor of support in the trauma that she had faced.
There were a lot of tears on both sides … of women connecting [with] women and sharing about the woundedness of somebody who was sick and broken. (Valarie Harris)
Getting her life back
Valarie’s unexpected pregnancy and giving her daughter up for adoption had a big impact on her.
I thought, “What am I doing to do? I have to have something in my life besides my other child, to really start making movement … I’m just going to go back to where I started”. (Valarie Harris)
She moved back to her old home and reenrolled in school and kept telling herself that she would just focus on doing the next right thing.
Valarie practiced journaling and researched adoption and everything that it entailed to help her process the change.
Creating a good life
I just started trying to show up for myself and others in the ways that I wanted somebody to show up for me. (Valarie Harris)
At every point in time when something difficult happens, Valarie asks herself, “What is important at this moment?”
In parenting and in making life decisions, Valarie tries to decide based on what truly matters, what is genuinely important for her, and what she is passionate about.
Valarie’s advice to her past self
You do not have to sit in shame, because you are badass, and you can celebrate that.
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Meet Joe Sanok
Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.
Thanks For Listening!
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Just a warning before we get started, wanted to let you know some of the things we cover in this episode so you can be aware of who is around you. We cover adult themes, such as adoption, rape, infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, assault of minors and trauma. So just wanted to let you know that for yourself as well as those that might be around you while you listen to this episode. Thanks for joining us today.
This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok. Session number 742.
Well, I am Joe Sanok, your host, and welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. This series, we’re talking about all sorts of stuff that people have got through in their lives. So often on the show, we cover things around business and marketing and SEO and all that super important if we’re going to have a private practice but this last year of uncoupling and becoming an unexpected single dad, and a lot of those things that I’ve shared with you earlier on in this season I’m just like, I got to be around people that have been through some tough stuff and hear how they got through it and pick up little things here and there.
Even in the last episode with Emily Green, I wrote down “learn Chingong.” She was talking about Chingong as a practice that she really resonated with. So that’s on my list of things to start exploring. Hopefully as you’ve heard people’s stories, as you’ve heard how they’ve got through really tough things maybe you’ve picked up a couple things as well. I’m really excited today to talk with Valerie Harris. Valerie’s joining us and going to share some things from her life as well. Valerie, welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast.
Thank you so much. I am really excited to be doing this.
Well, thank you so much for volunteering to share your story. Tell us a little bit about who’s Valerie.
Well, I am a wife of 20 years and a mom to two sons. One is 22 and one is 18. Both of them will be residing in Florida in the next six months or so, one in Tampa and one in West Palm so I’m suddenly feeling like I need to find another venture in Florida. But I own a group practice here in Tennessee in between Fort Campbell, Kentucky and Nashville in a town called Clarksville and half about, I don’t remember how many, 12 therapists, maybe 14, 15, it just keeps growing. Then on the side I do some consulting work with growing a group practice interns, and then also do trauma consulting in trauma-informed supervision consulting.
You’re a busy person.
Well let’s go back to college. You and I talked a little bit before we got rolling as to where to start, and it seems, tell people about what was going on in college, what were you majoring in and what happened?
Sure. So I was a double major in musical theater. I had a scholarship in big dreams to be on Broadway in New York and I had a wise dad who came from the music industry himself and always said, you got to have a backup plan. My backup plan was social work because adolescence was really not lovely. So I felt like, well, if all else fails, I’ll go into social work and help teenagers, so it was in college, things were going well and then I met a guy which I feel like is that the famous last words. That happened, I ended up pregnant at 18, dropped out of college, lost that scholarship, had some hopes of being married to the guy and he found more interest in not being a parent at that time and in other women, so that didn’t really pan out.
In an attempt to stabilize, I took some classes on the side, worked multiple jobs and partied a lot. Then I met another guy and dated him for about a year and traveled with him, met his mother, his friends, even talked about marriage. He had a job offer with a really big healthcare company in Nashville to move to a different part of the United States and we were going to talk about that move together and then I never heard from him again, well, not for several months. So in that time I was a single mom with one on the way and a shame spiral, not able to use my coping skill of choice, which was partying and so I basically just started looking for lifelines in different places.
I had always been a believer spiritually in God and grew up in church, so I listened to this helpline counseling line, whatever you want to call it. I just prayed and said, okay, God, I’m going to call them. I’m going to tell them what’s going on and whatever they tell me to do, I’m going to do it. I’m just going to use it like a fleece moment, lay it out there and see what they tell me. So they said I think you need to consider putting this baby for adoption. You already have one and you’ve got another, it’s not fair to that baby. It’s not fair to this one. I thought, I think they’re right so I’m going to do that.
My parents were against it, the whole world was against it but I felt sure that that’s what I needed to do. As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, trying to navigate that throughout the process of adoption, especially in the state of Tennessee, you have to do everything you can to try to contact the father and give him the options. So going through an attorney, we went through those processes and they were able to find him and I found out in an attorney’s office around eight months pregnant, that he had not left the state and gone to this other job, but he was in jail for nine counts of statutory rape against one of his family members. He was also married and I had no idea about any of that. So I think that was the first time I probably dissociated and had a real out-of-body experience in that moment.
You were so young, I mean, like your early twenties?
21, yes, I was 21.
I mean, to just think about how new into the adult world you were to be dealing with such heavy things.
Absolutely. I don’t even know that I realize that then the way I do now, because I look back now and I go, wow, I can’t even believe I did that or got through that. I think when I think back of what was the worst part in that moment, I don’t even know that it was the abandonment or the rejection as much as it was the idea that I had potentially become somebody’s home wrecker. That was the part that was most devastating for me yet I can see a spiritual thread through it all because when the attorney called to chase the guy down, because I gave her the number of a friend of his who wouldn’t give me information, it just so happened his wife was standing there and she knew about me, had been trying to get in touch with me and invited me and my mother over to their home that day. I went to her home that day in complete tears, in distress and she just said, oh, no, honey, this is not your fault. You were a victim. I think that was that first anchor too, of support because in trauma we look for a safe other, and the safe other became the very person that I thought I created trauma for.
I mean, what was that like, as you’re walking up to this person’s house and I mean, going into their, I couldn’t imagine that scene, how that would feel?
Yes, I was, I mean, I was just flooded for sure and very vulnerable and raw. I do remember, I’ll never forget looking around the house and seeing pictures of this man that I thought I was going to marry in wedding photos with this other woman. Then seeing this child run around the house who looked just like him, this little girl, knowing that I was also pregnant with his daughter and it just was very surreal to say the least, but having my mother with me was so powerful. Then she had her mother with her and so there was just a lot of tears on both sides of things, of just women connecting to women and just sharing about the woundedness of somebody who was really sick and broken.
What happened next?
I went through with the adoption. I was able to find someone in our community who was unable to have children. Every time she would get pregnant, her body would spontaneously abort the baby. I believe she shared with me that she had some trauma at some point where someone had kicked her in the stomach, like a child at daycare, she used to work at daycare and now all these years later as a trauma therapist, and like, of course your body was aborting that baby, because that was a likely a trauma response. She would go to doctor’s appointments with me. It was interesting because the community around her was saying things like, are you sure you want to get somebody else’s baby? What if it’s got issues? Then people were saying to me, are you sure you want to give someone a baby? If they can’t have a baby on their own, maybe they weren’t supposed to. I’m like, wow, people really, they’ve got different levels of irk when they don’t know what to say or how to process things.
Seems to be a common theme in this series of people saying, I wish you just wouldn’t talk. Like, come on people.
It’s okay to not know what to say. It’s it is. It’s really okay to say that’s a lot and I don’t know what to do with it. I’m just here to say, I’m sorry and I validate. I feel like counselors do that really well in our groups for the most part. But it just was interesting. I’m like, this is a human life we’re talking of, and these are two women in pain. Let’s just roll it back a minute, just so you don’t know what to say. It’s okay. So when I went to deliver her, I will say the hospital was amazing, they did an outstanding job and actually the wife of this man who was then his ex-wife and her mother, or they were in a separation at the time, and her mother, they were at the hospital the day after I had the baby, because their daughter who was the one who had been assaulted had also had a baby.
So my daughter and her daughter were one day, one year, and one day apart. So this man had three daughters by these three different women and two of them were sisters and one of them was very young at the time. So they were there to support me. They even gave me this figurine that I’ve always kept, and it was Moses’ mom putting Moses in the basket and in the river. It was like saying, it’s going to be okay, you’re not alone. We’re in this club together. Oddly enough, the most interesting thing about it all was when I had my daughter in January of 2002, I then met my husband who was active-duty military in March of 2002, we went on to get married in April of 2002, had a wedding in September and it was this woman, the ex-wife who did all of our photography as a gift to us.
Tell me about the emotions during that time of all, like what helped you begin to be healthier or grounded? I mean, at that age, there’s just so much that, I mean, your brain’s still forming and you have, a lot of times our own abilities are fostered only by the people that are around us at that age. What were you doing that you would say was healthy that helped you get on a strong path? Maybe there were things that you did that weren’t healthy as you gave this child up for adoption.
Sure. Throughout my pregnancy, I was terrified to be quite honest. I think the thing that I was most terrified about was not getting past it. For a little disclosure I’m an Enneagram seven, so for a seven to be trapped in pain is like a death threat. So there was this period of time where I was probably right around that eight month mark and figured all those things out and I thought, what am I going to do post here? Like, I have to have something in my life besides just my other child to really start making movement. I thought, I’m just going to go back to where I started. I’m going to go back to where I started. So I moved back to the Clarks area to this little apartment complex and re-enrolled in school and I just kept telling myself I have to do the next right thing.
I cannot see far enough out to know what all the things are going to be, but I know this is where I started and this is where everything went off the rails. So I need to come back to the place where it went off the rails and restart there and just keep doing the next right thing. So when I had my daughter two days after that, I restarted at college and that was a humbling experience because I was still a freshman or maybe barely a sophomore. By then the people that I started with there were seniors or close to it. Of course, they didn’t all know I’d just had a baby so imagine walking across campus, when you’ve got postpartum, all the postpartum things happening to your body.
Yet I had a sense of peace that this is just what I need to do and I just kept telling myself, I don’t know how I’m going to get through this, or if I’m ever going to get through this, but I have options and I can’t go back and undo things. So that only thing I can do is keep putting one step, like one foot in front of the other and just keep trying to do the next right thing. That’s been a very big stabilizer. I also journaled a lot during pregnancy, wrote a lot of letters to my daughter, read a lot of things online about adoption and what goes along with that and things to be aware of. I feel like having information and then having an outlet or a process to put my thoughts down. Those were also really powerful for me because to be quite honest, I shut out most of the social connections around me. I had one, maybe two
When you were most tired being a single parent, going to school, it’s hard to be a parent in general, and to be a single parent and to be going to school, what got you through that exhausting time?
I would remind myself that my son did not ask to be in that situation and that he was my motivator. I often think that now from a trauma-informed standpoint, I’m like it’s not really his job to carry me through. We’ve worked on all of that and cleared a lot of that but I think in so many ways it was what grounded me and kept me going forward when I did not want to go forward, because I knew that he didn’t deserve that. But I also think the other part of that was, is deep down I always knew and had hopes and had tried to set it up where my daughter could have access to me. I did not want to be doing the same things that I was doing when she came into the world. I wanted it to be, I wanted to make it to where I was going to take my story back and it was not going to be just a place of shame, but a place of power and something that I could be proud of, even, even the icky parts. So I think that’s how I kept that focus.
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Now I’m sure some people would say, like you said, how you and your husband got married in the timeline there, I’m sure somebody said, well, that seems too fast. I can’t believe you’re jumping into that. For you, did that feel too fast? Did it feel like now, as you look back on it, did that seem like it was just right or what are your thoughts on that?
Yes, so I’d always prayed for a husband. I was that girl who said, if I could just see the color of his eyes so I could rule out all the other guys with those, without those color guys, I always wanted that happy little family. I will now say that happy little families aren’t always really a thing. I wish one had told me that, that would’ve been a little more helpful in the early years of my marriage to understand that family is hard. Parenting is hard, adulting is hard, it’s all hard. That would’ve been helpful, but what stuck out for me was, I think of Aaron Brockovich in that movie where she comes out to the guy on the porch and she’s like, you want numbers? I’ll give you numbers. She gives him all her bank account numbers and all the things and he’s like, yes, I’m here for it.
In the first few moments that I met, my husband, I gave them all the stuff, all of it, whole trauma timeline, most of it anyway, and I thought this will run this guy off in a heartbeat. It did not. He did not, he was a soldier, but he didn’t act like a soldier in the ways that others had. Most importantly of all he did not judge me for my story. He found it to be inspiring. He was empathic about it. He wasn’t ashamed of it. He didn’t mind that I had a son. He didn’t mind that, hey, I’m not going to going to marry anybody unless they’re going to adopt him and be his dad. He didn’t mind that I said, hey, no man will ever keep me from school again. By the way, I’m going to get a master’s and I’m going to have a practice one day and no man will stop that. He was like, I’m here for it. That was the first time anyone had ever been in relationship with me, I feel like, at least in many, many years that wasn’t there for their own benefit. So that made all the difference.
Yes. Well, and as you grew up what were things that you found that were really helped you be healthier and grow and become your own person with such a history?
I think I just started trying to show up for myself and others in the same, in the ways that I wanted somebody to show up for me. So in parenting, for instance, when our kids would get into trouble I would think about what’s most important in this moment? Is it that they’re disciplined and that they get the message or is it that they feel like it’s okay, that they can make a mistake and that is it more important that they feel fearful of me or is it more important that they know that they can come to me no matter what? So I’ve always told my children, I love you, no matter what. There’s nothing you can do to make me love you anymore, or any less than I already do.
I’ve extended that into even building my practice. I really supervise from a very trauma informed attachment-based lens. So there are times where I have leadership coaches going, you’re really accommodating too much. This is your business and you need, but the other side of me says, no, because that’s not what I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about showing up for others in the way that I needed somebody there for me so that at least I know that I’m taking in that experience and I’m molding it into something that’s going to affect change in other places and that’s really important to me. When we bought a building this last year during a pandemic, it’s interesting because that little apartment complex that I lived in, it had this consignment store right down the street from it and s as a single mom and newly married mom, I would go and buy things for my kids there because I couldn’t afford it any other way.
As it turns out, that’s the same building that I was able to actually purchase for our practice. So that feeds into our tagline, this is where your story matters, because it does matter and you can come full circle and it’s really powerful to be able to tell people I’ve used every drug, but heroin, and yes, I think that’s the only one I haven’t used. And I’ve done this and I’ve had this happen and I’ve had this happen. So I didn’t get where I am now because I have this squeaky clean past and all of these handouts or things. I’m here now because it was hard and I struggled and I just didn’t quit.
What do you think that grit does for you in your approach to life? Because I feel like for myself, when I see people that have had a little bit different path than other folks or maybe have a little more alternative point of view, like I’m drawn to those people more than those that have had everything work out for them. How does that grit inform just you personally in life?
I just try to think about the same question that I ask a lot of clients, especially adolescents, how do you want to be remembered, or what is that legacy for you and what’s important about that. I’ve had some challenge me on the idea of do I respond to the traumas in my own life in the way I carry out that grit? Is that in and of itself a trauma response? I think for some people it could be. For me, I don’t think it is. It really is about trying to just send, I am in control of my story and I can’t help all the parts of it, but I’m in charge with what I do with it. To me, I don’t want the narrative to be dictated by someone else. So the grit part of that comes in and helps me dig deep to remember that there’s a purpose in this and that I have some autonomy around that, and it’s not a compulsion to do it, but it’s more of a choice, but also mirroring for other people because I want them to know that that’s an option for them. Not that they have to do it that way, but that if they want to, it’s possible.
What, you could pick any age to go back to, but what would you tell yourself earlier in life when you were going through one part of this? I there something that comes to mind if you could just go back and give yourself some advice at a specific age?
Ooh, I think about that a lot. I would probably tell my 21-year-old self that she doesn’t have to sit in shame because she’s pretty badass and it’s okay to celebrate that. Even if there’s a lot of ick around her and there’s a lot of things that maybe she did or contributed to that were harmful to her and got her off course that that’s not a reason to feel ashamed and that she can still celebrate the hard things, just as much as she can celebrate the wins.
That’s so good. Well, Valerie, thank you so much for sharing your story and how you’ve got through it and how you’re getting through it and the life that you have now and all the work you do with clinicians and clients. I mean, it’s so amazing to have someone that’s been through so much to then also say, I want to give back to the world. I want to help improve the world, I’m not going to just sit as a victim, but I’m going to take it on. I mean, it’s just so amazing the work that you’re doing. Thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
Yes, thank you so much. I appreciate it. As somebody who’s listened to you for, I don’t know, eight years now, it’s a pretty big deal, so I really appreciate it.
And Valerie, if people want to connect with your work, read your website, connect with you as a consultant, where is the best place for them to connect with you?
Our website is traumatherapytn.com, TN as in Tennessee. We also have a Facebook page and an Instagram page by the same name. Then I’ve also got a Facebook group, Trauma Informed Clinical Supervisors where supervisors can connect.
Awesome. We’ll have links to all of that in the show notes. Valerie, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
Thank you so much.
It’s so helpful for me to just hear these stories and how so often things are just so messy, so crazy. And there’s just ways that whether it’s the universe, the Dow, God, whatever you want to use as your own term, things come back together. On the other side, even just thinking about the photographer at Valerie’s wedding was the wife of the man that she thought she was going to marry. Like you can’t write that stuff. I mean, that’s just amazing to just think about life unfolding. Over this last year there’s been so many ups and downs in regards to my life but recently I really started to think about how, as I tell the full story to my closest friends, I haven’t really shared a lot of that publicly and I’m not sure if I will, they’re like, this is like a fricking movie.
And to just think, yes, I get to watch a crazy movie in front of myself from the main character’s lens, like how, how lucky am I, even when things are really tough? For me that mindset, I don’t remember if I’ve said this, the movie, the Truman show where there’s these producers upstairs, I had this sense of those producers, they just want to get me all worked up whenever something crazy would happen and I’d be like, I’m not going to let the producers win. Like it’s just interesting to think through when things are really crazy, if we can step back and just say, wow, look at what’s happening, how that’s one way to get through it. Well, Valerie has been awesome to be on the show, share all of that.
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Thank you so much for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have an amazing day. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.
Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for that intro music. This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is given with the understanding that neither the host, the producers, the publishers or guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical, or other professional information. If you want a professional, you should find one.