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Dianne's Story ~ How I came to do this work

"Dianne's story is one of resilience and discovery, it is a true hero's journey." ~ AFM

Growing up in a family with strong traditional roots (I've got Italian in me from both my Mother and Father's sides) and being the only daughter as a child, with one older sibling, I felt like our roles were assigned to us when we were very little. The impression I had was that I was to be the sweet one, accommodating, and valued for beauty. Meanwhile, I had a very active mind and wanted to be known for my mind, but there was little room for that, it seemed to me.

My parents also worked a lot, so I often felt left to my own devices. I remember being 10 and asking my Mom and Dad about problems I was experiencing, and how often they would respond that they didn't know what I should do. So I would try and figure things out for myself. It is a hard thing to say, as I love my parents and know that they were doing their best and wanted to do what they could to improve our lives, so I don't want to discount that but rather just reveal my experience. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Walker says that children who grow up in similar conditions tend to become quite creative and resourceful out of necessity. And because they know what suffering feels like, they want to help relieve it in others if they can.

By the time I was 14 and in high school, I started rebelling: drinking and hanging out with the punk rock kids and other rebellious kids who were tired of having to conform to assorted groups, wanting more freedom and creative expression. When I was 15, I accidentally met the homeless when walking through our hometown with two friends. We stumbled across an encampment hidden in the middle of the woods. I remember being surprised and taken aback at first, as I didn't know there were any homeless people in our small town at the time and I didn't know what to expect. So I watched as my friends talked with them, and as I listened, I could see how similar they were to my friends parents, but they seemed to have more compounded problems which landed them there. And yet, something in me was transfixed by them and I wanted to get to know them, so I would visit them nearly everyday after school without anyone else knowing about it and we became friends. And being a helper, I would bring things with me that I thought might help, like food.

Also, when I was 15, a friend of mine, who I talked to everyday after school on the phone, committed suicide in a time when it was quite rare. I found my troubles compounded by the fact that no one seemed to know how to respond to us, his friends. While crying in homeroom soon after I found out, I heard an announcement saying that his friends could go across the street to the crisis center and counselors would be waiting for us. I was the first one to arrive there and was greeted by a young counselor who looked fresh out of college. Seeing me looking disheveled and distressed, she asked me what was wrong and I said, "I just found out that a friend of mine died," and she asked how. When I responded, "of suicide," she literally said to me, "You're hanging around the wrong kinds of people," to which I replied, "Really? They pay you guys to say this kind of sh** to people? Other people will be coming and you're going to have to do better than that!" And I grabbed my bookbag and left. I walked the rest of the day, not knowing where to go or who to turn to.  

In the evening, I walked home and told my Mom and she told me she wanted me to go to the church program for teens and I begged her not to make me go and said, "You don't know how they are," and she said, "I really want you to go, maybe they could help." So ignoring my intuition and better judgment, I went inside when she dropped me off.

While waiting for the teacher, I could hear kids muttering under their breath and speculating, "He must've been strung out on drugs..." Finally when I couldn't take anymore, I said, "How would you know, you never even talked with him!" And then the teacher walked in and asked what was going on. When I told her, she said, "They're right you know, people who commit suicide go to hell," and I said in dismay, "Well, if that's your idea of love and compassion, then who needs it!" And I went to wait outside for my Mom to pick me up.

The kids at school were no better, looking at us and speculating about everyone and if they were on drugs or what. Meanwhile, I watched as friends fell into addictions and other maladaptive coping strategies, while I fell into heavy drinking at the time. Little did I know then that when we sacrifice our values (mine was to stay on the best course I could) to meet our needs (mine was to find relief from suffering), that we end up suffering even more. I would run away every Friday, trying out different options -- staying at a friend's house one night, and in an abandoned house another night -- wondering if there was any way I could survive if I did run away fully, but I never could figure out any options so I would come home Sunday night. I often told my parents that I was staying at a friend's house.

I was well aware what happened to kids who ran away, as I would read stories about the kids in Covenant House in NYC when booklets came to my Mom in a charitable appeal. And even though most of the homeless I met were my parents age, I contemplated running away and dropping out of society to be with them. Something about that was very appealing to me. It was as if you could leave the world and your troubles behind to hide in a lost world, but I was so young and had my whole life ahead of me and knew I had to get my life together. I could see how if I did take that road, I would have lost everything in the process and so though I would have gained my freedom, it would have come with a heavy cost and another set of challenges. But I danced with the idea for months.

By 16, I was driving myself to support groups and creating some distance from the kids I used to hang out with, so I could get myself on a better track. I didn't know it at the time, but later would learn that this is a central and necessary part of the Hero's Journey. I also needed healthier outlets and I found that by writing in my journal, especially writing poems. I found I could say things that I couldn't otherwise say to anyone, especially to those who had no context for understanding. And I found refuge in music. I would listen to sad songs by myself and I could cry and let out all the utter dismay that I was experiencing and seeing all around me in what felt like a no man's land and waste land.

I found songs that echoed my pain, sadness, or anger, and that they created space for me, could contain my feelings, and offer me empathy. After my friend died, I felt so vulnerable and no longer wanted anyone to see me cry, so I needed healthy outlets for expression and I found a deep sense of relief in each of these, so I knew that I was on to something. Later, when I would study music therapy formally, I would come to find that I had used music intuitively in ways that actually coincided with music therapy principles and techniques.

At the time, I didn't really understand why these worked so well, I just knew that they did. I recovered my grades, no longer needed alcohol or desired to drink at all, and was college-bound with a plan! I wanted to become a social worker and work with the homeless. I had made such a major and noticeable turnaround, in fact, that a teacher who just a year earlier had looked at me like I was going to fail out of school and said, "Dianne, what happened to you?" while scratching his head, was now saying, "I can't believe how you've turned things around," clearly relieved and impressed.

What I didn't know then was that each of these outlets had multiple therapeutic benefits built into them! Walking had a rhythm just like music did, which I would find out many years later actually regulates the brain and helps people to heal from trauma. And writing also had a therapeutic effect. After high school, I wanted to learn why these techniques worked so well, so I went to school to study them. I started out in social work school, but to my dismay, I couldn't find any integrated program that taught anything like this. Disenchanted, I decided to go another route and left.

I went to great lengths to study therapeutic healing and expressive arts from Eastern and Western traditions. Locally, I studied Qigong and breathwork with long-time teachers, and for other subjects like Journal Therapy, I traveled to Colorado and other states. As I gained understanding and more practical tools, I thought about the homeless who I knew who could most use these techniques and so I took them to the local homeless shelter and began teaching classes. It was a long road of learning and synthesizing what I had learned and putting it into a practical and useful application for others. Along the way, I earned a Bachelor's and Master's degree in branches of the Holistic Health Sciences, and more than ten certificates in the Healing and Expressive Arts. I started as a volunteer and taught for many years in that fashion, on the side of my other work and continuing studies, before finally founding a non-profit project in 2013 called Friends of the Homeless National Resource Center.

After successfully teaching the homeless and getting good results for years, my colleagues, the social workers were impressed and suggested I get my program approved for Continuing Education. So I began teaching mental health professionals this synthesis of research-based techniques I'd learned, tested, and refined in the field while working with others, that stem from the healing and expressive arts, and that I call RESET for Wellness. Now I have two avenues through which I share my programs: the nonprofit, and HEALS Education, LLC -- HEALS stands for Healing and Expressive Arts for Life Skills.

As a colleague friend said to me, "My, what self-awareness you had at such a young age!" Indeed, a good fortune I had was that I could see what was missing in my youth and life experience, so I could see what I needed to seek out to correct it and expand my opportunities. I sought to learn and also studied communication skills, conflict resolution, decision making, relationship skills of successful marriages, success principles and more, and incorporate them into my work as well.

When I was 15, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted for my life when I grew up -- I thought I would have a boyfriend who I was very connected to, that I would help the homeless and others I met in unique ways that I could, and I thought that I would help kids who were already here and who have parents, but need more support due to our modern culture's reliance on a nuclear family system, rather than an extended one. Since I grew up with people outside of my family, like teachers and mentors being great role models and support for me, I believe that it actually does take a village. I'm happy to say that I have lived very true to this vision throughout my entire life! The only thing I didn't anticipate was how I would also end up becoming a mentor myself in addition to an educator and trainer.

My work is centered on helping people to build their essential life skills in creative, engaging ways for integrative learning. I've also created a therapeutic game, and other books and programs. As I've continued, I've learned how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma impact us and affect our development. Having recovered a great deal of my own potential, I use everything I've learned to help others do the same. It is my belief that each of us has something unique inside of us that is seeking expression -- a gift to share with the world -- and it is my intention to help bring about the flowering of this potential in all the ways that I can.

So if I say to you, "I believe in you," you'll know why and where this comes from, for I genuinely believe that if I can do it, meaning overcoming significant life challenges, I know that you can too!

To your growth and with blessings,


Dianne Fanti, MS, CPC

Baltimore, MD