Compelled to share her personal story so that she could help others heal from trauma, Tonya McKenzie is a mother of four, trauma coach, entrepreneur, and the author of a self-published memoir, “A Child’s Memories of Cartoons & Murder.” Tonya’s memoir is a straight-forward play by play of her life before and after she witnessed the murder of her mother’s boyfriend and the near death of her own mother at the age of four.
When I met Tonya over 23 years ago, I knew, without ever going into detail that we, like kindred spirits, had both, in our own ways, traveled on unpaved roads that tested our endurance. Even though we never spoke of our individual traumas, I always felt “it” in her fierce hugs, her straight-forward “tell it like it is” advice, and her caring, mentoring energy. That “it” always seems to linger in our backgrounds, either serving as the challenge upon which we tested our resilience and gathered our strength or as a reminder that there are others in the world that stills struggle where we once were.
To this day, we’ve never sat down and talked about “it.” That “it” that you wish you could compress into a simple two letter word – that “it” that describes all that you went through in your life that dictated the challenges, and at times, the opportunities that were presented to you in life. That “it” that can’t possibly be encompassed over coffee, over dinner, over a single chat but that takes a life’s journey to describe and explain.
In Tonya’s memoir, however, her personal enigmatic trauma is laid out in matter-of-fact detail as if you were having a dinner conversation with her, nursing a glass of wine. Her words lift up from the pages of her book as if she were hunched by your side, having a conversation with you – talking you out of whatever terrible idea you’ve got planned – sharing with you her own private story in her matter-of-fact tone, nudging you towards transformation.
I made a decision long ago to never be a victim. I am a survivor. I’m raising survivors! The family dysfunction ends here!
In this tight 129 page read, Tonya unfolds a child’s understanding of the tumultuous family dynamics around her and the violence that it all culminated in one night when she was four years old when her mother and her boyfriend were shot. That is just the beginning of Tonya’s journey as she chronicles how she processed this event growing up, embroiled within the love and trauma of her family.
Family is the word that they used as a weapon to hurt and Family is the word that they used as an excuse for bad behavior.
What stood out to me the most about Tonya’s story is how her family stuck together no matter the strife.
Every birthday party, anniversary, holiday party, or random BBQ ended in arguments, threats, physical harm, bloodshed or even a police officer visit. However, it never stopped anybody from planning the next one. In this family, it was considered normal behavior.
But there is no doubt that Tonya has suffered from PTSD from witnessing multiple incidents or chronic violence throughout her childhood. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is no joke. It lingers in the background, sometimes dormant, always watchful, slipping into the passages of your life calmly and cooly like an unwanted stowaway merging with our new experiences, our new memories – discoloring them. Anything can tug at them, my husband’s kiss on the nape of my neck, the whispers of children on a playground, the sound of a magazine emptying in the dead of night in East Oakland, Christmas presents lined under a tree and Christmas songs. These things hurt for inexplicable reasons and for those of us that struggle with PTSD, it is a never-ending struggle to separate the trauma from the new, the happy, the beautiful – to disengage the brain’s natural and evolutionary response to connect our old haunts and harms to our present.
Its a survival technique. In the wild, it makes sense. The smell of ripe unwashed human sweat may mean danger. In our modern lives, these vestiges of memory and the hyper-vigilant responses they trigger may not always make sense. Sunday morning cartoons should not trigger violence and murder.
Tonya’s memoir is a testament to her desire to break the abuse and violence she had witnessed and that had been inflicted upon her. The book itself is a resistance to the notion to keep all secrets and all dysfunctions inside and in the dark.
I decided even before I gave birth that the type of violence that I saw growing up would be absent from my son’s life….It’s almost humorous the way that we are expected to keep family secrets. Even my mother used to say things like, “What happens in this house stays in this house!” Is that really what should’ve happened? Should I have kept the family secrets and just continued this lineage of abuse and dysfunctional behavior?
With her book, her motivational talks, building and raising a healthy stable family, Tonya is creating a new pathway for herself and those newest members of her family, her children. It is a pathway of health and healing – and healing work. A longtime child advocate and supporter of children’s rights, she co-authored the first F.I.T. Kids Manual in use by the Pittsburg School District and currently holds herself out as a trauma-coach.
She does amazing work every single day raising strong children in a “safe and drama free” household with her husband, Ray. And she’s taken that mantle another step by serving as a mentor and support for others who are have also experienced similar traumas and are seeking to rise above them.
Tonya’s book, her life’s work, her essence embodies her own Dedication for her memoir:
This book is dedicated to my Grandfather, James Charles Watts. He made me believe there are real heroes on earth. You can either be one or need one.
Tune in to read more about Tonya as I interview her about her life, her memoir, and her tips for soldiering on.