The Peace in Your Violence

Recognize that title? It’s part of a line from the song Silence by Marshmallow ft. Khalid.

It’s a line that catches my soul every time. Like, you know when words just hit home so hard it feels gentle?

And you’re like woah, that was exactly it.

Yeah, that feeling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that I see the world, and how lost I’ve felt over the past two years…

I’ve been thinking about what matters to me, why I love the silent gentle moments and why I am so deeply defensive of peoples’ right to feel their own sadness.

I keep coming back to thoughts of things adults told me when I was a child.

I received SO very many mixed messages as a kid- from my mom drinking and being on drugs in the midst of abusive relationships, to the step-family self-righteous and in deep denial of the abuse in their family… to the side of my family I hardly knew because my mom was 16 when she had me and all the familystuff that happens- who really knows the truth, but I got loud and clear messages from the Respectable Side of the Family quite often.

And then there was a time where my dad’s house felt perfect- where my step-mom put her all into being an absolutely perfect mom, and I believed that the life we had and her opinions and perspectives were Right and everything else I’d ever known was Wrong.

There are so many examples of this, and in childhood I think those small everyday interactions tend to stick when you least expect it as an adult… Like, on one hand, I had someone telling me at 13 that the way I wore my makeup looked so mature and responsible. On the other, I had a family member I deeply respected tell me that her husband “would say you look like a you-know-what.”

I had my abusive stepdad telling me weed was the devil, while he got high and drank beer and beat my mom like I didn’t know what was happening. On the other hand, I had my dad tell me I could try any drug I wanted (or drinking or sex or whatever else I wanted to get up to- not that he advised it- but if I was going to do it, he asked me to do it this way.) He said I could try anything and he’d always love me- and he made sure I knew I could always call him, no matter what, and he’d come get me- and that he hoped I would talk with him first and consider trying whatever at home where I’d be safe. Not that it ever happened- I hardly had my first sip of alcohol before college, and even in college I never saw the point.

I’ve always been that person who is happiest alone or one-on-one.

Rather than noisy overwhelming recess, I liked to stay in and read books- in 3rd grade I cried begging my teacher to let me practice my times tables during recess because I wanted to get better at them (I distinctly remember feeling mortified by how bad I was at multiplication- I was a tiny little type A monster in the making lol).

My mom was 16 when she had me, and I don’t remember anyone ever outright telling me not to make the same mistakes- I just kinda made it my life’s mission, from like nine years old, to not make the same mistakes my parents did.

They were always open with me about their mistakes (except while in denial about them as they were actively making them), and I took lots of notes. Literally. I had notebooks full of lists of things not to do and what I wanted to do differently in my life.

This thoughtfulness and intention with my life was all just my inner dialogue and notebooks…Until I made this massive life decision from a pamphlet I read in the fifth grade… Meridian Medical Arts Charter High School

At eleven years old, I learned about this medical arts charter high school that was opening the next year. I lived an hour away with my mom and I remember telling her I was going to go to that school. My dad lived about 20 minutes from the school and they were in about to get to the worst of the custody battle.

Around the time I was 14, my dad got custody, and I worked so hard in school to keep my grades up so I could go to that fancy high school. In my last year of middle school, we ended up moving to the city where the school was- and I applied. I was accepted, but on the waitlist. And it wasn’t promising- I was near the end and the school only had room for 200 students.

We finally hit the last day to register for the regular high school, and I still hadn’t come up on the charter school waiting list. I got ready for the regular high school registration in and out of tears… and right as we were about to walk out the door, the charter school called. I remember my dad answering, and I heard the lady on the other side say the name of the school. I just burst into tears.

I don’t think it hit me how important that whole journey was, from eleven years old telling my mom, basically, I wasn’t going to live with her much longer because I wanted to go to a better school than the poor little town we lived in could offer.

To working SO hard to get to the school, and nearly be denied. And all along the way?

It’s not like I only managed my grades and worked through the stress of moving homes after a horrendous custody battle- moving town and leaving behind friends who had literally saved my life.

I had a lot going on, even at fourteen years old. I have cystic fibrosis and I was rebuilding my health every day- as I started high school my health was the best it had ever been thanks to my stepmom and I working hard every single day. I wasn’t always compliant with my meds, but I did something for my body every day. I loved healthy food and my stepmom loved making us delightful meals from scratch. I liked to stretch and exercise and journal and read. I loved to go for long, quiet walks.

From the time I moved to my dad’s til my junior year of high school, I kept nearly perfect grades.
I also…

  • wrote the most powerful and healing essay I’ve ever written- Seventy Times Seven Times (now the intro to my next book)

  • found healing and strength, dealing with traumatic bloody nightmares about my baby half-brother who didn’t move with us. I woke up screaming nearly every night- I may have been a child but he was like my child. I’d cared for him for so long, and I knew he was in danger. It weighed on me every single day.

  • tended to my health, mostly complying with cystic fibrosis treatment, transitioning to a vegetarian lifestyle and exploring ideals of peace and non-violence

  • experienced a breakup, found out I was pregnant, and had my first miscarriage

  • volunteered over 200 hours caring for the elderly, and the friendships, love, grief, and healing that come with that work

  • built a relationship with my dad

  • opened up to healing my relationship with my mom while exploring who I was

I spent a lot of time alone… but looking back at what I was working through in my own heart, I think it makes a lot more sense now.

It’s not that I was #superdepressed like others might have thought. I have struggled with my mental health, but I think much of these times weren’t about depression. I was actually at peace through most of these times. It was just that there was genuinely a lot of heavy, powerful healing happening. And for me, healing happens mainly in solitude.

My family teases me for being a hermit, and they always have, but it’s not like I actually never leave the house. I love being outside. I just prefer to be alone sometimes. I prefer one-on-one and room to breathe. Comfortable silences. The breeze and the moon and stars.

Between eleven and sixteen years old, I accomplished quite a bit.

I explored so much in myself and didn’t even know it was valuable. I learned to apply makeup without my aunt thinking I looked like a you-know-what. I learned to laugh, to make friends even when I was scared. I learned to believe in myself and meet and exceed my goals even in the midst of kids from wealthy and healthy families. I overcame some insecurities around being the abused and broken little girl in rags- learning to not just release resentment and judgement around my wealthier peers, but to build lasting and powerful friendships.

I was vulnerable and strong. I was kind, and I never valued that in myself as much as I should have.

I befriended old people. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but none of my old people ever minded being called old people, so I stand by it. I became best friends with people at the end of their lives. While my high school friends partied, went to conferences, worked their asses off for those 104% in AP classes… I spent hours each night in nursing homes and the homes of my elderly best friends. I held hands with dying men and women, I laughed and cried and listened to their stories and told them stories. I prayed with them. I heard their rants and their pains, I shared my own. I fed their cats and brushed their dogs.

I loved it. And it’s not that my peers were wrong, their path was respectable. It’s just that I always thought I was doing it wrong because I didn’t do it like they did and I never felt like I was missing out. I felt fulfilled and so deeply at peace.

But then… I’d tell my unofficial foster mom or my aunt or a friends’ parent about my last weekend, and they’d give me this look of such pity. They’d tell me I needed to be a kid while I could. I could see their hearts aching for me, and it made me feel like I’d let them down. Like I was a burden for being the way I was. I was told that I shouldn’t wear black or gray, that there would be plenty of time for that when I wasn’t really supposed to wear colors as an older woman, but that now was my time to be bright.

I was constantly given feedback that my love for the silence, the intimacy, the peace and serenity, the end of life and the strange sense of companionship and eternity and presence… it was a burden to others or something to pity.

As if I was sacrificing my life to be present with these moments that meant so much.

All this to say that I just wish I’d understood and appreciated my unique perspective before now. I wish I hadn’t spent so long trying to fit in, to figure out how “less broken people” could enjoy the raves and the crowded festivals and group projects.

Because… in trying to understand, trying to “do it right” and act my age and be a kid and let myself be happy… I rejected the peace I felt in my soul. And I’ve been in so much pain, not realizing I was searching for exactly what I had all along.

It wasn’t all just a comfort zone, as I ate up from life coaches’ implications. It was my peace, my faith, my purpose, and the place my kind soul longed to live, always.

I’m not the kind of person who gets stuck and stays there. I think I was born doing mindset work. I was born exploring, playing, challenging myself, looking for love and adventure.

I’ve learned the value of community and connection along the way, and I have a deeper appreciation for groups and crowds. I’ve felt one in the hazy beat of a neon rave, I’ve laughed and delighted in the high vibes of a networking conference where dancing with millionaires was no big deal (it was a huge deal). I’ve checked off boxes (surprisingly in the “right order”) of the typical life I felt I had to follow back at fourteen years old.

And still, I come back to finding peace in the violence.

I’ve realized through my healing and this more recent appreciation for who I am and who I always come back to that… I didn’t just find peace in my ex-step-dad’s violence.

I found peace in the violence of a busy, buzzing world. I found serenity. I was like a heat-seeking missile for moments that mattered, for the most precious and fleeting parts of life. And I felt calm and safe and at peace in them. Death didn’t frighten me, and when my best friends’ died I celebrated their lives and the end of their pain. I delighted in the chance to know them as they were. I honored the lessons and stories and laughter they shared with me.

Those friendships were not sacrifice. The heartache and missing them was not a sacrifice in the least. Because grief in life is inevitable and all things are temporary- both the abusive horrific violence and the most vibrant, heart-breakingly precious, beautiful moments in life.

Maybe this is crazy, I don’t know.
But if it is, it’s my crazy and I love it.

I love me. I love that these instincts were so strong in me as a child. I love that I am able to find peace in the violence.

When I’m not trying to prove to others that I’m doing just fine, and I release the urge to fight for my right to enjoy the silence and most precious moments of life, there’s a beautiful balance and a glow that just radiates through me.

These past couple years, I’ve tried so hard to understand the world outside of my own head and the importance of things I don’t love… and I’ve come to the conclusion that what is real and beautiful to me is just fine. That I’m allowed to be fascinated by outside perspectives, and to also love what I love (both! It’s not an either/or kind of thing!) And I’ve learned that there’s nothing wrong with the way that I choose to present myself, to spend my time, to love and live in this life.

Enough worrying about trying not to be my mom. My mom is wonderful and I love her. I’m proud of her, and I’m not her. I am me.

Enough worrying about how to make my dad proud. My dad is amazing and I love him. And I’m proud of me, and I don’t need for him to be. (I know he is. But I don’t need to worry about it. I can just be me.)

Enough worrying about cystic fibrosis and depression and anxiety and any number of other things people think I need to do mindset work around. Screw it. I love me.

Enough worrying about being a burden because I delight in things that others never notice or intentionally avoid in life. They’re allowed to be who they are, but also… I’m allowed to experience life the way I desire it. I’m allowed to feel peace in the silence, to create love from a mess of violence and chaos.

I love my natural inclination to dig deeper, to live deeply, to think and explore and play and evaluate and reflect. I love that I find my way to the answers that I need. I don’t need to prove to anyone that I don’t have certain issues or that I’m doing the Right work to get better myself. My natural instincts are lovely. And I am always doing my best. And I’m allowed to rest and I’m allowed to play within my soul. I’m allowed to pray and live and love in my own way. And it is enough.

And I am enough.

And you are enough.

And this was all about me and a deep look inside my head, but if you’ve bothered to read it all, I hope it helps you too.

With love,


P.S. Wondering about the other person in that picture? This photo was from a field trip in high school and that’s me with Himani, one of my best friends in the whole world and someone who has been such a special part of my healing and adventures in life.

Jessica PenaComment