I first met Nicole Javorsky at a coffee shop in New York City in early 2016. We became fast friends, bonding over a love of writing, nonprofits, and thinking deeply about the world around us. Nicole’s also been a long time fixture of The Smile Project family. In 2016, we wrote this piece with Nicole about service work she was doing providing hospitals, homeless shelters, and eating disorder treatment programs with handmade teddy bears. Two years later, in 2018 when we set off on the #SmileProjectRoadTrip, Nicole supported the endeavor by gifting us teddy bears to take to a women’s shelter in Pittsburgh, PA (our first kindness link).
Beyond that, Nicole has been instrumental as a voice of reason and logic, inspiration and heart, and talent and time as we’ve grown together as friends (and creative cheerleaders) in the past six years. I am so excited to bring her back to the Smile Project blog to share more of her work exploring the healing powers of art, music, and poetry. Please note that this post will contain topics related to sexual abuse, PTSD, eating disorders, etc. Please practice self care while reading. Without further ado, please welcome back Nicole Javorsky.
Liz: Let’s begin in traditional Smile Project fashion. What is bringing you joy right now?
Nicole: What's bringing me joy right now: Walking through Snug Harbor (a big park and botanical garden pretty close to where I live in Staten Island), my fiance's cooking, painting, singing, and making tea all cozy at home!
Liz: Tell me about your journey with music and art. How did you get started?
Nicole: I've known I wanted to be an artist since I was a kid, always drawing, collaging, experimenting, making messes! At first, I was most interested in drawing, especially people and trees. Several years ago, I enrolled in watercolor workshops and I fell in love with watercolors. And that led directly into painting with acrylics too. Color is very symbolic in my artwork. How I live my life is part of my art: walking through parks and city streets, writing and reflecting, singing, dancing, relishing sunsets and human connection, observing and sketching my surroundings. Most of the paintings I make today are abstract, but I see abstraction more as a spectrum. It's in line with how I sense the world around me.
Music is something that I wanted to try for a long time, but there was this block against trying it. Then, I think learning music corresponded to where I was at in healing. I started by playing guitar a few years ago, but I quickly became interested in singing and songwriting. Then, that led me to wanting to learn piano. Making music is a part of my life now—I can't imagine my life without singing anymore. My music is definitely connected to my artwork. Between painting, writing, and music, it's like they all inform and facilitate each other. Being able to say something in paint, with my physical voice, lyrics, melody, and instrumentation, and also just in plain words—these methods all help me express myself and help me move through different themes or concepts I grapple with.
Liz: Tell me about your book, Into the Light: Traveling between peace and pain.
Nicole: First, I just want to include some information about complex PTSD. This comes from a really great resource called Beauty after Bruises:
“Complex PTSD comes in response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or, more often, years. This can include emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuses, domestic violence, living in a war zone, being held captive, human trafficking and other organized rings of abuse, and more. While there are exceptional circumstances where adults develop C-PTSD, it is most often seen in those whose trauma occurred in childhood. For those who are older, being at the complete control of another person (often unable to meet their most basic needs without them), coupled with no foreseeable end in sight, can break down the psyche, the survivor's sense of self, and affect them on this deeper level. For those who go through this as children, because the brain is still developing and they're just beginning to learn who they are as an individual, understand the world around them, and build their first relationships—severe trauma interrupts the entire course of their psychologic and neurologic development.
When an adult experiences a traumatic event, they have more tools to understand what is happening to them, their place as a victim of that trauma, and know they should seek support even if they don't want to. Children don't possess most of these skills, or even the ability to separate themselves from another's unconscionable actions. The psychological and developmental implications of that become complexly woven and spun into who that child believes themselves to be—creating a messy web of core beliefs much harder to untangle than the flashbacks, nightmares, and other posttraumatic symptoms that come later.
Another important thing to know is that the trauma to children resulting in C-PTSD (as well as dissociative disorders) is usually deeply interpersonal within that child's caregiving system. Separate from both the traumatic events and the perpetrator, there is often an added component of neglect, hot-and-cold affections from a primary caregiver, or outright invalidation of the trauma if a child does try to speak up.”
My book is a collection of poetry, snippets of memoir, snippets of fiction, song lyrics, and reflections I've written over the past 5 years or so. The order I chose for these writings is intentional. The book is specifically ordered and formatted to reflect my process of reflecting in real time and coming to know my own story. Even for people without PTSD, our experience of memory is not so simple as, “this happened, then this, then this.” Often, it takes reflection, effort, learning, and growth over time to be able to look back and understand our pasts. Being able to tell our stories is, of course, centered on our memories of what has happened in our lives, but it's also about where we are today. It's filtered through our current sense of safety, what we've learned since the events we're describing, etc.
So much of my healing as a survivor is retelling and re-exploring my story so I can keep shedding layers of shame, confusion, and self-blame while finding more acceptance, feelings of safety in the present, clarity, and compassion for myself. Acceptance doesn't mean what happened was okay. Rather finding acceptance is part of the grieving process, being able to acknowledge what's been lost, being able to sort out the memories so they can be part of my story instead of intruding in the present as flashbacks. Each time I dip into the darkness to process the traumas I've experienced, I come back up to the light with something new. My book reflects this complexity as well as the interconnectedness of peace and pain. At the beginning of the book, I write a letter to the reader that begins like this:
Dear lovely Reader,
I’ve been traveling between the lightness of peace and the heaviness of gut-wrenching pain. I’ve been taking long walks full of joy and wonder. I’ve been falling to my knees, pleading for relief.
I’ve been wondering which is more real: the darkness or the light? The pain or the peacefulness?
But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t feel the clarity I do in this moment if I didn’t allow myself to feel my confusion and doubt, to co-exist with my questions. In one sense, I didn’t choose my trauma or my pain. In another sense, I chose to heal. I took leaps of faith because I understood this was the only way for me to get the chance to live fully and authentically as myself. It’s very hard to choose the unknown and I did, and I do.
Almost 6 years ago, I had my most serious attempt at ending my life. Shortly after, the person who had been sexually assaulting and abusing me at the time stopped. Just after that, I had a moment of clarity: I needed change. One of my coping mechanisms from repeated abuse was anorexia. I said to myself: I want to live, just not like this, and so I must find a way. Still I had no clue even how to imagine what another way would be like. The roots of anorexia went back even earlier to abuse during my childhood.
I am very aware of my joy, love, and awe of living. And every time I dip into doubt and darkness, I come back into the light with something stronger, deeper, meaningful, or beautiful. The abuse was horrific. And still, it is all the more hopeful to know that I have found a way to trust, to believe, and to love despite the way I’ve been treated in the past.
And I will keep traveling into the darkness, knowing that I will return to the light. There is so much for me to learn. The sun cannot rise if it never goes down. And without sundown, there would be no glorious sunset, no nights. I don’t fully understand this, but I do sense that the existence of what I love is tied to the existence of what I fear.
Honoring the darkness, I travel into the light . . .
Liz: What is it that you're doing for your birthday?
Nicole: I am turning 27 on December 27. In honor of my birthday and still being alive, I am creating hard copies of my book. Each front and back cover is an original artwork, tied together with the pages of my book. This way, each copy is special and unique. Up until my birthday, for every book sold, I am donating $2.70 to Safe Horizon, an organization that helps survivors of abuse and violence find safety, support and connection. Each book costs $27. It’s an awesome way to get some of my original artwork on a smaller budget while supporting me and Safe Horizon.
Check out some of Nicole's art and then keep scrolling to read more.
Liz: Why Safe Horizon?
Nicole: Being a survivor of sexual abuse can be really isolating and it can be really hard to find the right kind of support. I know that from my own experience. The medical and psych professionals I had as a teenager further traumatized me and did not provide help or support that was trauma-informed. Instead of helping me understand that my feelings made sense and making me feel safe, they pathologized what were really survival strategies and confused me even further. Not getting the right support has real consequences. I was abused multiple times, which is a common experience for survivors. Being abused can lead to a dulled sense of alarm. Until getting the safety and support to sort through and process what's already happened, there are many like me who end up in these cycles of abuse.
My story shows how crucial Safe Horizon's services are. They provide support for people who've experienced domestic and intimate partner violence, child physical and sexual abuse, rape and sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, youth homelessness, and violent crimes committed against a family member and within communities. I needed someone to notice the signs and to help me find safety. It took me years to find that, but finding a trauma-informed therapist changed the course of my life.
Safe Horizon also advocates for policies on a local, state, and national level. They envision a society free of violence and abuse, all while providing resources for survivors to find safety, support, connection, and hope.
Liz: Where can people order a book, buy your art, support your writing, etc.?
Nicole: For ordering a hard copy of my book, please use this Google form or send me a direct message on Instagram @nicolieolieart. You can order my paintings and prints of my art at nicolesylvia.com. And please sign up for my newsletter, Chicken Doodle Soup, where I write about making art and the connection to healing at this link.