Healing a traumatic past

After decades of bad choices and relationships, Helen Neal-Ali realized only she could release herself from her troubled childhood.  Now she helps others do the same.

During Helen Neal-Ali’s childhood, Mondays through Thursdays were idyllic. The adored only child of a heavy equipment operator and a loving mother who often worked two jobs to provide for the family, she was given “everything I wanted” and showered with affection.

But on Fridays, Neal-Ali’s father – perpetuating a pattern his own father had modeled -- would cash his weekly paycheck not at a bank, but a liquor store. By the time he got home, the bottle of alcohol he’d purchased was half gone and he was primed for battle. The fights with his wife were physical, brutal and deeply upsetting to a daughter who cowered in her room, drawing pictures to distract herself.

“When I knew my Dad was about to come home on Friday, I would get all this anxiety and just start crying,” says Neal-Ali, 64, who grew up and still lives in Tampa, Florida. “I couldn’t control it. And it felt like something was crawling all over me. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t function. It was only when I took my mind off the situation that it would go away.”

Her mother made up endless excuses for the black eyes, bruises and broken bones she endured. Neal-Ali became “a good little actress,” never disclosing the family “secret” and pretending to others she had a charmed life. When Sunday night rolled around, the alcohol gone and the fighting over, she would clown around by dressing up in her father’s construction work overalls, trying to laugh her parents into a truce.

“At a very early age, I felt responsible for their happiness,” she said.

As a 17-year-old high school senior, she could tolerate the violence no more. She moved into an apartment with a friend and, as someone who’d always had an entrepreneurial bent, started working to support herself.  At 18, she was crushed when her high school boyfriend of four years, whom she’d anticipated marrying, “disappeared.” But mindful of her grandmother’s words that “if you don’t have a boyfriend, there’s something wrong with you,” she interpreted his departure as her own deficiency and rushed to find a replacement.

She fell in with a wild crowd, made a rash decision that put her in physical danger and ended up marrying the man who “rescued” her. Within three months the marriage, which almost immediately replicated the patterns of her parents’ behaviors, was over. A second marriage soon thereafter which produced her first son, was also short-lived; this time her husband’s infidelity was the cause.

 “The first husband was abusive, the second so handsome, but not so loyal, so I decided next one is going to be ugly, but nice,” says Neal-Ali, with characteristic wry humor.

For four years she resisted a growing friendship with a man she wasn’t especially attracted to, but who treated her well, until he convinced her the relationship should go to the next level. She almost immediately became pregnant and, just as quickly, he became verbally abusive, triggering her past symptoms. Once again Neal-Ali found herself sobbing uncontrollably, suffering sensory hallucinations and believing  his suggestions that she was “crazy.”

Recognizing that her mental state was deteriorating, she went to see her doctor. When he referred her to a psychiatrist, she was shocked.

“I said, ‘A psychiatrist? What?’” she recalls. “And he said, I think you’re having a nervous breakdown. And I said, ‘Oh no,  I’ve had plenty of these before. I just never had a name for them.’”

She was admitted to a Tampa hospital’s psychiatric ward, given a vague diagnosis of “panic attacks,” prescribed medications and told to expect a two-month stay. Never one to sit idle and having previously worked as a nurse’s aide, she looked at her fellow female patients and realized there was plenty of work for her to do right there.

Within days, she’d set up a beauty parlor, not only to deal with her peers “terrible, nappy hair,” but to minister to their disheveled thoughts. It wasn’t long before the women in the ward were admiring each others’ tresses, bopping along to songs on the radio and “feeling better because  we were looking better and feeling better about ourselves,” Neal-Ali says.

“That was my first experience of knowing that when I took my mind off my problems, I could feel better, that my mental illness was coming from thoughts that I had in my head about all the stuff I’d been through,” she recalls. “I still didn’t get it yet. But I had a glimpse.”

Within two weeks, she earned her release and “cleared the place out.” But after she returned to her husband, the relationship escalated to physical violence and she and her two children sought refuge at a battered women’s shelter.

She continued to work, to take her prescribed medications and to see her psychiatrist while living at the shelter. But she made little progress and kept switching psychiatrists “because they weren’t fixing me and I was always looking for them to fix me.” As far as she can recall there were at least seven.

“I realize today that the fixing had to come from within me,” she says. “It wasn’t them failing me. It was that there was nothing they could do until I could change the way I was thinking.”

But that realization was yet to come. After extricating herself from her third marriage, losing her job, being forced to move into a housing project and go on welfare, she fell into another dark period of anxiety. Her psychiatrist recommended another hospital stay, but wasn’t able to immediately procure a bed for her. In the meanwhile, she somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept the offer from a woman who’d encouraged her to take a four-day  “Health Realizations” and agreed to cover the $350 cost. Maybe it would get her through until the doctor could find her a hospital bed, she thought.

But the moment Neal-Ali walked into the classroom, she was sure she’d made a big mistake.

“I was the only Black in there,” she remembers. “I was thinking, ‘OK, this is white people’s thinking. I don’t know what this is going to do for me.”

Instead, the class proved to be her turning point. In it, she learned that while she couldn’t change what had happened to her in the past, nor dictate the future, she did have the power to control what feelings she attached to thoughts about her past. No one had ever told her that before.

She went back through all the “bad” decisions she’d made in her life and concluded they’d all been based on negative thoughts she was pouring energy into. Contrarily, by choosing the thoughts she entertained, she could be more responsible in the choices she was making in her present.

“I don’t know why, but it made sense. It gave me a greater sense of control,” she says. “Because I thought everything that happened to me was the only reality, all of the past was all I was. But none of that was happening now. This taught me to live in the present and that was the key that really opened that door to let go of my traumatic past.”

The day after the class concluded, the doctor told her he’d found her a bed. Neal-Ali said thanks, but no thanks. So charged was she by the information she’d just learned, she was determined to immediately begin sharing it with others.

She began buying refreshments with her food stamps and hosting gatherings with other women in the projects to share what she’d discovered. Eventually that landed her an interview on a television program about women, which in turn drew the attention of an investor from the Three Principles Foundation (formerly the Health Realization Foundation) who helped her set up the foundation of the business she operates today, Life Changing Consulting and Associates.

That was in 1996, and while Neal-Ali admits it took her more than a decade to “fully walk this truth,” she has never wavered in her commitment to  its teachings. For the past 20 years she has traveled around the country, sharing with others the message that was so instrumental in her own recovery. Several years ago, at an annual women’s conference, she was approached by a women from the nonprofit Center for Religious Tolerance, who commended her on her “trauma healing” work and offered to help with her “ministry.”

“Trauma?” Neal-Ali thought. “What does trauma have to do with me telling my story about my life? I had never heard the word trauma used in that way and I didn’t even know I had a ministry. I knew about domestic violence and mental illness, but I had never put the two together.”

The woman explained about the body of research that has been done linking trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACES) such as her own, with mental and physical health difficulties later in life. Committed to learning more, Neal-Ali attended classes at the University of South Florida to become certified as a Level II Trauma Trainer. She now offers her “Healing from a Traumatic Past” classes without charge through the grassroots trauma-informed community organization, Sarasota Strong.

Many of those classes are offered in local churches in Newtown, Sarasota’s historically African American community, and to participants of color who are reticent to discuss or acknowledge mental health challenges or family dysfunction. Neal-Ali knew how that attitude had prevailed in her own family. Mental health was simply never discussed.

To her parents, “mental Illness” meant their relative who suffered from epileptic fits and “domestic violence” was some academic’s high-fallutin’ term.  In fact, after her father stopped drinking and she asked his permission to allow her to tell the family’s story as part of her work, he asked her “Why you have to say domestic violence? Why you don’t just say fighting? That’s what it was.”

“In my own family we got a ton of undiagnosed mental illness that’s never been diagnosed and they are not ever going to go anywhere for it to be diagnosed,” Neal-Ali says. “That’s true in many Black families. If you start feeling something is wrong with you, as I did, you put up a wall immediately.”

 So when Neal-Ali teaches in communities of color, she selects her words carefully, avoids using psychiatric terms and presents everything from the perspective of healthy life choices rather than mental illnesse.

 “I just call it healthy living because I don’t want to push them away,” she says. “So I don’t really use those words, even though that’s what we’re talking about. I will talk about mental wellness, but never mental illness.”

After radically remaking her own thinking, Neal-Ali did, at last, find the loving relationship she had found so elusive. She jokes about the name of her fifth husband and “the love of my life” -- an immigrant from Egypt named Muhammad Ali – but their marriage was what she had always wanted, harmonious, respectful and fulfilling. But when, six years ago, her husband’s mother, living in Egypt, became extremely ill, he felt obligated as the only son to return to care for her. At the time, Neal-Ali’s father was also dying of cancer and she felt an equal pull to remain in the U.S. So they reluctantly agreed to get “happily divorced.”

“We loved each other, but we knew it was best to part,” she says. “We didn’t want to, we cried as we were signing the papers, but we both knew it was best for us. But I did finally get to have the experience of a healthy, loving relationship.”

Today, Neal-Ali likes to tell those who attend her classes that “you are only one thought away from changing your life.” She knows it’s not quite that simple, but she also knows that it is the only place to start.

“It’s their responsibility to decide if they want to change their thoughts or stay stuck,” she says. “I always share with people that they have that choice, because it’s something I never knew I had. When they realize they have that power – even if you still need medication to calm you or focus you enough to give you that control – then you can be all that you can be.”

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