Today, I interview Jami Carlacio whose mother died when Jami was an infant. An older sibling cared for her for a few months, and then her grandmother took over for a while. When Jami was five, the family was gathered in Spokane and her grandmother suddenly died while they were there. An already precarious little life had just gotten infinitely more difficult.
Jami was left behind to stay with family in Spokane until she was 21. During this time, Jami felt lost and alone. She began using drugs and alcohol at age 12 to ease the pain of feeling unlovable and unwanted. Jami struggled with alcohol addiction for the next 25 years, living in misery and experiencing suicidal thoughts.
She had hit a spiritual rock bottom. Then, she looked back on her grandmother. Her grandmother had cared for her when no one else would. She had planted the seed of love during those first crucial years of Jami’s life. Jami began to understand that she was lovable and that she had been very loved by someone. She saw that perhaps she was, in fact, still worthy of love. She realized that alcohol couldn’t fill the void in her life. It couldn’t heal her heart. Only love could do that.
Her grandmother’s sweet words came back to her, and this was the voice that empowered her to move forward and find value in herself. Jami then felt led to become a priest, but couldn’t do this as a woman. So she went to New Haven and studied theology, earning an MDiv. God was leading her toward her purpose, and her purpose was to facilitate powerful, meaningful change and healing. She became a successful writer, coach, and activist.
After experiencing so much loss, neglect, and trauma, Jami has come out so much stronger on the other side. She made it, and today she takes others by the hand to show them love and belonging. She has made it her life’s work to help others find validation, encouragement, wholeness, and self-esteem by harnessing the power of their own voices.
Jami Carlacio is a master-certified trauma-informed life coach, a writer, and a writing consultant. She has also consulted on gender equity in the workplace as well as on white privilege and anti-bias. Jami holds a PhD in rhetoric and composition and has taught writing and literature at various colleges and universities, including Cornell and Yale.
She is the author of numerous scholarly works that feature the rhetorical genius of religious Black women in the public sphere. She is the editor of a collection of essays designed to help educators teach the work of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Her most recent book is an edited collection entitled Activism in the Name of God: Religion and Black Feminist Public Intellectuals from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, due out in August of 2023 from the University Press of Mississippi.
After about 25 years in academia, Jami left to pursue her spiritual calling. Since June of this year, she has focused her attention on coaching women who struggle with trauma-informed self-sabotaging behavior, who are re-evaluating their career choices, and who want to develop the self-confidence to choose healthy, affirming personal and professional relationships.
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Transcript of Interview
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode # 93 Jami Carlacio
“The Voice that Empowered Me”
(00:35) Dr. Doreen Downing
Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing and I’m host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast, here today with a wonderful new friend. I’m so excited to introduce you to her and this is Jami Car—Your name is always a little hard for me to say but it’s, “Cariacio?”
(00:56) Jami Carlacio
(01:00) Dr. Doreen Downing
And the reason why I want to introduce you to Jami today is because on the internet, you don’t know who you’re meeting. Once in a while—I feel myself already that my heart is opening—you feel like, “There is a beautiful human being.” We’ve never met face to face. Well, face to face on the internet and zoom, but I’m really excited about you coming on today and sharing your story. I’ve heard bits about it. There’s been lots of trauma that you’ve experienced, but look at you today, who has gone and lived a life and found a way to—one of the things that we were talking about earlier—shining from within and letting the beauty. The magnificence and being in that and no matter what the surface is it you shine. Welcome, Jami.
(02:06) Jami Carlacio
Thank you so much, Doreen. It is a pleasure to be here with you. I thank you very much for asking me to be on your show.
(02:15) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, you sent me a bio. I’m going to read it because I think it gives us a sense of how accomplished you have become.
(02:27) Jami Carlacio
It’s a lot.
(02:28) Dr. Doreen Downing
It is a lot. There’s a short bio, a long bio, and I’ll read the medium one here. Jami Carlacio is a master certified life coach, writer, writing consultant, and international public speaker. After spending about 25 years in academia, as a scholar and professor of writing and literature, Jami left to pursue her spiritual calling. I have to take a big breath right there because that’s what speaks to me. I think spiritual calling is like there’s something inside of us but we’re also listening to the universe and something was calling you. Anyway, we’ll go back to that. She coaches women who struggle with self-sabotaging behavior, who are reevaluating their career choices and who wants to develop the self-confidence to choose healthy, affirming personal relationships. She also coaches clients who wish to use writing as a vehicle to express themselves more fully. All right. That’s the bio that says you are out there, having been in the world, moving yourself along, but it seems like all of us move ourselves along. Inside, there’s more. We don’t just leave behind what happened to us. We carry it with us, even though we’re out there pursuing and achieving. Jami, I think it’s always good to anchor in something about where you grew up, and something about your family situation early on. It gives us a sense of a beginning.
(04:30) Jami Carlacio
First of all, I would say that we can’t judge people by their outsides, because we don’t always know their insides. I say that because oftentimes we think that what’s outside is who they are and we forget that there’s this whole inside part that is what’s below the surface of an iceberg. There’s a little eighth above, then there’s seven eights below. I was born in Southern California and my mother died when I was an infant. This feeds into the story that’s about to come. After a few months of my older sister babysitting me while my dad went to work—I had three older siblings, and they were much older—My grandmother from Italy, immigrant from Italy, came to stay with me and take care of me. She was basically the one key piece of stability and love in my life. Then when we were visiting my family in Spokane, Washington, where pretty much all of my family lived, she died suddenly of a heart attack when I was five. Instead of bringing me back to California, my dad left me up in Spokane, and I stayed with an aunt and her kids, my cousins, and I ended up staying in Spokane till I was 21. It wasn’t very nice and easy. In fact, that’s why I live 3000 miles away from Spokane now. There’s a lot of pain there. I was physically abused and verbally abused. Then my dad ended up marrying someone who was a psychological and verbal abuser. That was how I grew up. I also experienced people trespassing against me physically and sexually. That was also part of my story but I kept it hidden. I was ashamed. I thought it was all my fault. I thought there was something wrong with me.
(06:42) Jami Carlacio
This started when I was nine. It was ongoing. I was abused so I was afraid to talk, because if I opened my mouth, that was bad news. I would get in more trouble or something else would happen. I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. If anything good happened, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. “This can’t be good,” because something else is going to happen that’s going to ruin it. I grew up afraid of people, afraid of people who were angry, and unable to really deal with conflict, because I didn’t have that voice. That’s why I’m here today. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have any way of standing up for myself. Because if I ever did attempt to do that, it ended up in repercussions that I didn’t want. I went through life like that for decades. I went through life like that. Even by the time I was twelve, I felt so worthless, unlovable that I started using alcohol and other drugs to assuage the pain and to feel like I fit in. If other people were drinking, then I would join in. If other people were doing another substance I would join in because it felt like if I did those things, then people would love me. I ended up using alcohol as a salve for 25 years. It was the thing that made the pain go away for a short while, but what it ended up doing was making the pain worse, because at some point, I couldn’t stop drinking. It was the only thing that felt like I had that made my life bearable, but at the same time, it made my life unbearable. I was fortunate enough to hit a bottom, a spiritual bottom. We often say there’s a God-shaped hole inside. We try to fill it with spirits that come in a bottle but ultimately, what really fills that hole is a spirit.
(08:54) Dr. Doreen Downing
What you just said about the spirits and the irony of alcohol being called spirits, I never really saw that until you described. First, let me respond because that was a lot of life that you pointed to, that listeners are going to say, “Yeah—” I’m sure that so many people have found themselves in a life that they didn’t choose. That’s part of what I hear what happened for you. What a lot of loss so early. I think that in our early years is when we start to develop our inner sense of self and that didn’t happen. Obviously not all the time but moms are usually a good source of nourishment and feeding us our goodness early on, so even just being wrapped, held by people who love us, feels like that helps our brains realize the world is a safe place. My goodness, Jami, I didn’t realize that there was so much that has happened so early in your life. The idea of what you pointed to, not having a voice, because that would be jeopardizing you. It would be endangering you if you had a voice.
(10:24) Jami Carlacio
Yes, absolutely. Funnily enough, the work I do now is about giving people voice. It’s about amplifying voices that have been silenced because mine was. Writing has been a vehicle for me. Speaking about my scholarship has been a vehicle for me. It has been a long, long journey. It wasn’t an easy journey at all. I finally felt like— When I was filling out some forms for you, one of the things I wrote was, this is the first time I’m really going public with a lot of things that have happened to me. This is the first time I’m actually really divulging to the public, some of the events in my life that have made me who I am today.
(11:19) Dr. Doreen Downing
I love that sense of, “made me who I am.” I think that’s what you do as a coach, and what this whole podcast is about. Saying, “Hey, folks, if you have suffered it, that it doesn’t mean that life is not yours for the taking somewhere down the line,” because all of what we experience is something that gives us something. What would you say these challenges, and these abuses, these places where you weren’t valued and you weren’t loved—how did that make you more of who you can be?
(12:06) Jami Carlacio
I’ll tell you. there were definitely a lot of times in my life where I was asking God, what’s going on? Why is this happening to me? I need help. I can’t bear it anymore. But what happened is, and this is Jami Carlacio’s philosophy, and it may be other people’s, but this is what makes sense to me. Somewhere along the line, the things that happened to me had to happen, or I wouldn’t be able to help the people I help. In other words, there’s no way I could be a life coach. I was a chaplain. I was a professor. I mentored students. I help women who are recovering from addiction. I used to volunteer in prisons and jails to work with women. none of that would have been possible, had I not had the same experience. I have training in suicide prevention, mental health, first aid, sexual assault, crisis counseling, because those things enabled me to hold my hand out to people who— People held their hand out to me and I felt like I traveled over some hot coals, but there were women holding their hand out to me, and so I felt compelled and called to hold my hand out for the next woman or women who need that.
(13:28) Dr. Doreen Downing
The trust. They talk about, “Know, like, and trust.” I think that knowing somebody has had the same experience or has had violations that you can trust, especially if they’re a light, like a beacon. You’re like a beacon ahead of a lot of people who are saying, “I want out of this,” or, “I want to move away,” and, “How?” You mentioned bottom, that there was a spiritual bottom. Say a little bit more about that.
(14:08) Jami Carlacio
I wanted to take my life. I was miserable. I was horrible. The only way I thought I could do it was if I just kept drinking. I drank more, and I drank more. What happened was when I was at that really dark night, I saw a pinprick of light and light always pierces the darkness. Darkness can never overcome light. I think that pinprick of light was love. I think it was my grandmother, my Italian grandmother, who took care of me for five years. I think that saved me and I also attribute it to my higher power, which I call God, because the way I understand God, “God is love.” There was love there that saved me. That love was the thing that ultimately I found myself able to do for myself because I couldn’t love myself. I didn’t love myself. I didn’t think anyone else loved me but my higher power loved me enough to save me. That’s how I continued to stay sober. It’s the kind of life I want to give to other people who don’t feel loved.
(15:23) Dr. Doreen Downing
Thank you. That’s really beautiful, amazing kind of learning. The kind of commitment you have comes from your deep life experience plus a higher power. What you just said about your grandmother because I’m thinking about voice, and that voice is more than just the sound, or words, that voice I think is from the soul or voice comes from love. Don’t you think that there’s a sense that your grandmother represented some voice for you to hear?
(16:03) Jami Carlacio
Yes, absolutely. I believe she was there to implant that seed. Even though it got covered up with a lot of dirt over the years, that seed was there like a mustard seed. It’s small, it’s very tiny, but it grows big. Eventually, the dirt started to come away. The little mustard seed was able to grow. I attribute the fact that I am here today to that grandmother. I called her “gama” rhymes with Mama. I attribute that I was able to survive because that was still in there somewhere. It was just buried.
(16:46) Dr. Doreen Downing
In terms of what voice means to me, we listened to it. Even though it wasn’t something that you hear, and it’s a sound, it’s a sense. I think this deeper idea about voice being more of a, like you said, there was a spiritual calling. That means that’s a voice, isn’t it?
(17:10) Jami Carlacio
Yes, I hear it. I hear it today. I hear it all the time. I meditate every day. I try to just quiet the crazies in my head, to hear that voice, and that voice is the thing that tells me, “Go here. Go to this place. Do this thing.” I definitely hear it. That is the voice that empowered me. I still remember all the little songs that my grandmother taught me. The things that she said to me, and hugging me, and playing on her lap, and “Donne-moi un baiser.” It’s “Give me a kiss.” It’s very idiomatic, Southern Italy, not perfect Italian, but those loving phrases have always stayed with me. I have a child. I want him to know that he’s loved no matter what, anytime, any day, that it doesn’t matter if he makes a mistake, or if he’s in a grouchy mood. I will always love him. I will always tell him that.
(18:20) Jami Carlacio
Yes. That spiritual awakening, what happened next?
(18:27) Jami Carlacio
Well, when I was eight, I wanted to be a priest. I was a Catholic. I ended up leaving the Catholic church and becoming an Episcopalian in my 50s. But I felt really called to be a priest and you can’t be a priest if you’re a woman in the Catholic Church. I always had these incipient feminist sentiments but I ended up staying as a Catholic. I went to a Catholic University, and I always befriended people who were religious or spiritual. I always knew in the back of my head, I wanted to do that, but I never thought it was truly possible. In my 20s, I read a book. The main character in the book was a professor at a divinity school, and I thought, “I want to go to divinity school,” but I never quite believed it would ever happen. Then I moved from New York City to the New Haven area in Connecticut. I realized Yale Divinity School was right down the road. I applied and got in. I realized finally that I was home. I was finally home. That is where all of my spiritual calling finally coalesced in earning a Master of Divinity degree and then becoming a chaplain for a while. I didn’t get ordained in the end, but I did do chaplaincy work. I’m also doing certificate in spiritual direction with the Spiritual Life Center in West Hartford, Connecticut now because I feel like I still have the calling. The Holy Spirit said, Jami, you don’t need a caller to do what you’re going to do for me. I used to have to have a caller. I had to be a priest and the Holy Spirit said, “No, you don’t need that. You have what I gave you, so use it.”
(20:25) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, let’s talk about how you are using it nowadays, where we’d like to have people be able to contact you and to hear more if they need to. What’s happening nowadays? If there’s something you want to move towards, if there’s something else about the story and finding your voice, and being who you are today, let me know that too.
(20:52) Jami Carlacio
Okay, I will, because this is very important. I taught writing for many years from the early 90s. Until 2018, I was either a professor or lecturer in colleges and universities. By teaching writing, I was helping other people to have a voice and to express that. I did an edited collection on Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison was a Nobel Laureate. She’s very famous, and she passed away a few years ago, but her books were all about giving voice to all of the people who had suffered the effects of enslavement in history. I managed to bring out a book that helped other people teach her work, because it’s very difficult. Then most recently, I completed an edited collection entitled, “Activism In The Name Of God: Religion And Black Feminist Public Intellectuals From The 19th Century To The Present.” There are 12 chapters giving voice to black women throughout history from the 19th century to the present, who spoke up, who sang, who marched, who wrote poetry, who opened schools, and they use their voice to lift up black women, lift up black men, call out racism, and call out injustice. A lot of these people have been marginalized and forgotten. I guess I use my work to amplify other voices. I still write and I still help people use their writing to tell their stories. I have a YouTube channel and I have a LinkedIn page. it’s easy to get a hold of me there. I have a website, it’s empoweredlifecoaching.me. I want to also help people. Besides the life coaching, I want to help people who want to use writing to find their voice as a healing way. A lot of people who have trauma need to be able to find an outlet. Writing is often that kind of cathartic outlet.
(23:12) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes, I would say that it’s healing. Writing is healing. You’re right. The process of first listening to yourself, and then being able to find that what’s inside the truth and then be able to put it out and moving it out onto paper is still not public, and that’s scary for people. But I think that, at least that first step of finding the voice and then I guess writing it is a way of actually moving it out from inside to at least put it outside in paper.
(23:54) Jami Carlacio
Sometimes people can’t verbalize, because the pain is there, or just for whatever it means, the work you do is helping people, giving voice to people, giving them that encouragement and that strength and saying, “Here, find your voice, change your life.” Sometimes the voice has to come out in writing and maybe it can come out later verbally.
(24:22) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes, so I was just doing a keynote at a Writers Conference. It was about helping people who have found their voice in writing. But when the book is out and do not have to, but in order to move it even further out into the world, they need to speak about it in advance or sometimes at stores or whatever is being asked of them. That was a fun process to teach people about taking their writing and being comfortable in the same way that they are about finding their voice in terms of what the truth is that they want to say, but how do you use the word verbalize. How to verbalize and where do you need to be inside of yourself if you’re speaking about pain. In a way, you modeled it today, Jami. There is unspeakable things that have happened yet you can speak about them.
(25:24) Jami Carlacio
I think that’s the thing. I feel like I’m giving permission. Other people gave me permission through their writing or through their speaking and you give permission. I don’t mean that it’s about allowing, but if I say something out loud that exposes my vulnerability or exposes some kind of trauma that I’ve had, that I’ve overcome through a lot of help, a lot of therapy. I did not do this alone. It took a real village to get me where I am today. But me exposing myself may make it easier for somebody else to do the same in a way that I can now speak my truth. I’m hoping other people can say, “Yes, she said something. That resonated with me.” Brené Brown does this all the time. She is the person who gives people permission and encourages people to be vulnerable.
(26:21) Dr. Doreen Downing
One more that I think about you and what you do for people to give them permission, is that there’s a safety. The listening and love that comes from you feels like that it’s an environment in which people feel like there isn’t judgment, it’s safe to finally have a listener that knows.
(26:47) Jami Carlacio
Yes, you’re right. It is listening and not judging. In chaplaincy, we call it a ministry of presence. Sometimes we go to a room, listen to a patient, and we don’t have to have any answers. We are just present with them. We listen, and we hear their story. Oftentimes, people just need to be heard.
(27:11) Dr. Doreen Downing
Yes. It’s beyond therapy. It’s life-giving.
(27:16) Jami Carlacio
Yes, it is.
(27:18) Dr. Doreen Downing
Well, we’re coming to the end. I know you gave people how to get a hold of you. Was that empowered life coaching dot me?
(27:25) Jami Carlacio
(27:30) Dr. Doreen Downing
Great. I’m going to give you one last moment here to see what you might want to be said to close this time together today.
(27:42) Jami Carlacio
Thank you. I think the main thing is it’s hard, but it can be done. If we dig deep down, we are all made for love, we are created in love, we are created by love. If we can just hold on to that, remember that all there really is, is love, all the other stuff is noise. But if we can hang on to the fact that we were created in love, and that’s the source of our being, then I think we have the answer to a life worth living.
(28:22) Dr. Doreen Downing
Thank you so much, Jami.
(28:25) Jami Carlacio
Thank you. Thank you again for having me. I appreciate it.
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Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.