Secret Garden Team Member’ s Journey to Healing
The following article will appear in Barrier Free Living’s annual newsletter (Nov. 2013) Breaking Barriers. To learn more, or receive the free newsletter, contact [email protected]
Antoinette Calabretta, a Case Manager at Barrier Free Living’s Secret Garden Program, shares her personal journey dealing with a disability and becoming a powerful force of change in the lives of the people she works with. Of note: Alejandrina Cruz, who Antoinette works with at the Secret Garden, was featured in a New York Times story in 2013, focusing on her transformative journey.
I was born in 1946 after World War II in the town of Riposto, a comune in the Province of Catania in the Italian region of Sicily. Riposto sits at the feet of the majestic volcano Mount Etna.
I grew up with parents who dictated many restrictions. I was not pretty as the definition of the social expectation was at the time. I was forced to say “yes” when I wanted to say “no”; to stay home when I wanted to go out with my friends during the summer time. I was looked at as if I would not be good for anything; often I was compared with my cousins, who were considered to be much more beautiful than I and who also appeared to be smarter than I was. I felt like the “ugly duck” and trouble-maker of the family.
Suddenly at the age of fifteen, I inexplicably lost the vision in my right eye. The pain was excruciating. I stayed locked in a dark room for days because the minimum light coming from the window would hurt my eyes like a sharp knife. Simultaneously, the left eye (the good one) developed uveitis, a form of chronic inflammation, causing pain and loss of vision. Part of the eye treatment was to inject cortisone inside of the eye. Heavy hands of eye doctors stuck those thick needles inside my eyes; “sta ferma” “non ti muovere” (be still” “don’t move”) the doctor and nurse would say to me with a harsh attitude.
Literature has always been my passion. As a teenager, before my eye troubles, I read a lot of English, French and Italian authors such as Alberto Moravia, Flaubert, Maupassant, Luigi Pirandello and so on. After my eye troubles, not being able to read with my own eyes was something I struggled to accept. I could not handle the idea that someone would have to read for me during my college years.
My youth was spent between hospitals, five operations, and blindness, along with the risk of losing the only eye I was able to see with. Then, at the age of twenty I came to the United States where my visual impairment Odyssey continued. The severity of the right eye was so that at one point it had to be removed and replaced with a prosthetic one. At first, I worked in a stuffed toy factory in Brooklyn, New York. While I was working I went to school at night to learn English. Once I was able to put an English sentence together, I left the factory and started to work for the American Paper Institute as a statistical clerk on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
I found a studio in Brooklyn Heights by the promenade for $254 monthly. My eye doctor kept telling me to apply for a seeing-eye dog. At the time, I could not accept the fact that I would be completely blind and not be able to see my surroundings, or read poetry. I thought it would be like been buried alive in the darkness.
Finally, after years of blindness, the last operation in my left eye gave me my sight back. I don’t have twenty-twenty vision from this eye, but I have enough sight to allow me to be independent; to read books. I remember the first thing I saw after the eye surgery at New York University hospital. It was the sight of the East River at night with the golden light contrasting with the dark of the evening.
In 1987 I graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Literature. Subsequently I got a Master’s Degree in Liberal Art with a concentration in English Literature.
In 2000 I was introduced to the four-year Helix Counseling Training Program geared toward multiple disciplines of psychology, religion, philosophy and major healing modalities from East and West traditions. During these years I published a collection of Italian poetry called Aria Autunnale (Autumn Air), published by the Circolo Socio-Culturale, “Il Faro”—Riposto, Italy. Another collection of poetry is in the process of being published.
I am currently working as a case manager at Barrier Free Living’s secret garden Non-residential Domestic Violence Program for individuals with disabilities. I love the work I do, and I am grateful to Barrier Free Living for providing a safe environment where our clients can reach a level of self-empowerment that gradually helps them realize that it is not their fault if they have been abused, and to learn that no one deserves to be abused.
I want say to all those who read this: pay attention to that little “ugly duck” inside of you and you will see that the “ugly duck” is really the Royal Swan that emerged from the clumsy adventurous and pain endured throughout his/her journey of personal transformation.