When Danielle Clark was younger, she would not have described her childhood, which was peppered with parental addictive behavior and mental illness, as dysfunctional. In fact, it all seemed perfectly ordinary.
“My chaotic home life never felt uncomfortable, because it was all I knew. My parents slept on separate floors, my mom on the living room couch, and my Dad in his bedroom. Not once did I ever see them kiss, or share a special moment. Disparaging comments were commonplace. ‘She’s a fat pig’ Dad would say, and Mom would say ‘Don’t talk to me. You’re on his side, not mine.’ It didn’t dawn on me until I was older that true love and healthy families didn’t look like that,” she said.
Danielle’s parents called it quits just before she entered middle school. Her mother assumed custody of her and her two siblings, moving the family into a trailer park a few towns away. The loss of her father’s presence proved difficult.
“I always considered myself a daddy’s girl. Though he suffered from alcoholism and was rarely home, I could sense my father was a broken man with a big heart. When he was around, we’d play cards, or go to the bank or post office together. I felt special and connected to him in a way that I didn’t toward my mother. We didn’t talk about much, but shared an unspoken connection,” she said, adding, “When I was young, I couldn’t sense my mother’s heart. She suffered from deep depression and took comfort in having others sit with her in that space, and that never felt right to me.”
Life with her mother grew increasingly confusing. As early as 12-years old, cigarette smoking and truancy were encouraged. An inner voice was beginning to niggle at her, telling her there were reasons for her behavior and feelings, but it would not yet gain her attention.
“After the divorce, I felt like my life was spinning out of control. I couldn’t figure out why my dad didn’t fight for me, why he didn’t want to live with me, and why my mom was so disengaged. I became a perfectionist, which didn’t bode well in a loud smoke-filled trailer loaded with emotions I couldn’t articulate. Unable to be perfect, especially with my homework, I coped by doing the exact opposite. I avoided the sting of not being loved the way I needed to be by making the decision that I was going to be nothing at all. I intentionally started to waste my life away,” she said.
Danielle immersed herself in a string of self-sabotaging behaviors; smoking, dark music, hanging with a toxic crowd, and promiscuity. Her actions, she states, felt comforting.
“I was getting attention from boys and was home as little as possible. I experimented with drugs, not because I liked the way they felt, but because I relied heavily on outside validation and acceptance. I wanted to be cool,” she said.
To feed her cigarette addiction, Danielle stole and sold her mother’s painkillers at her school.
And right here is where the angelic hammer dropped.
Caught with the painkillers, deemed a drug dealer, and expelled from all Massachusetts public schools, Danielle was sent to court, and given probation. Friends either chose not to visit, or weren’t allowed to.
“I never understood the level of my transgression, she said, “My mom kept her many pain pills scattered around the house. Too many unnormal things in my life were normal.”
Danielle found a sense of purpose when she began working full-time at a family-owned sub shop. The daily responsibility of working in a fast-paced environment sparked the 14-year old’s confidence. Completing a task or receiving verbal praise from a customer or her boss left Danielle with an emotional high and birthed an unfamiliar sense of pride, hope, and appreciation. By the age of 15, she was promoted to supervisor.
“As great as it was, a lack of socialization with kids my own age started to take its toll. The experience of missing proms and other high school events left me feeling incredibly lonely and sad, so I decided to channel that feeling into a positive; at 17, I decided to get my GED. I was going to create a better life for myself, one with a higher purpose,” she said.
Danielle was as nervous as she was excited to attend classes, and questioned her intelligence.
“I passed everything but the math portion. A part of me wanted to call myself a failure and live in that I’m a loser place, but this inner voice said, Bullshit, keep trying. You owe yourself to keep trying, so I did. I received my GED at 18,” she smiled.
The milestone sparked Danielle’s desire to further her education. She took out a loan and applied to cosmetology school, surprising herself by exceeding in the requisites of safety standards, and anatomy and biology. She bonded with other women and began dating a special someone. For the first time in her life, she considered herself on the right path and in healthy relationships.
“I used to perceive other girls as competition. In cosmetology school, I learned what it meant to be female, and how to develop close and rewarding friendships. I also became involved with someone and was able to explore my sexuality in a healthy and loving way,” she said.
Danielle’s career as a hairdresser was short-lived. As grateful as she was for that time in her life, she felt the nudge to move on.
“I absolutely sucked at hair,” she laughed. “So much in fact, that I was only allowed to sweep and shampoo at my job. Part of me felt like a failure, but another part knew that staying at a job that made me feel small was equally harmful.”
Danielle left the hairdressing business at 19. She also called it quits with her then boyfriend.
“I loved him, but certain things didn’t feel right. There were signs that the relationship wasn’t what I needed. There was something better out there for me,” she said.
And right here is where a karmic nudge and synchronicities took off.
Danielle met the love of her life shortly after leaving her boyfriend. She also began working as a medical dispatcher in a corporate environment, discovering she was incredibly good at business and customer service.
After dating for three months, the couple moved in together. By the time she was 21 years old, Danielle had given birth to a son and gotten married. That same year, a coworker approached her about going to night school. Danielle tried to explain that she wasn’t smart enough for college, but went along for the ride.
“The dispatching company offered tuition reimbursement, and my friend, who didn’t want to go alone, begged me to go with her. On the very first night, I was raising my hand. I loved the high of learning and began to accept that I deserved to be there,” she said.
Within 4 years, Danielle earned her bachelors in business, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. One year later, she returned to college to earn a double master’s degree in business management and organizational leadership.
“Once I believed I was smart enough, I felt driven to continue on my academic path. It was like I had a superpower and couldn’t let it go to waste,” she said.
Danielle set a goal to be a business adjunct college professor, and went to work building her portfolio. Her effort proved successful; she received two offers to work as a part time adjunct and accepted them both. After a few years of juggling all of her responsibilities, Danielle left her corporate job and set off to earn her doctorate. She was offered and accepted a full-time job as professor while earning her degree, and in 2019, at the age of 34, became the youngest person / woman to ever graduate from the program.
“I wholeheartedly believe the pain I’ve experienced was part of my life’s work, given to me as a gift. For so long, I labeled myself - ‘bad’, ‘stupid’, ‘slut’. Once I learned to forgive myself, the universe rewarded me. I just kept taking baby steps and the right people and opportunities found their way to me,” she said.
When asked what she thought her path was on this earth, Danielle replied, “I envision myself stepping more into the spiritual side of teaching to offer support, tools and resources that help people connect with the universe and their intuition. I want to show them that it’s possible to overcome limiting beliefs, to become better versions of themselves.”
Danielle stepped into her story instead of running away from it, and continues to do so. A few years ago, the loss of her first job as a professor plunged her into a ‘dark night of the soul’. Without work as a distraction, she was forced to look at herself with fresh eyes. Despite the fact that she was doing amazing things, there was much of herself still wrapped up in ego, perfectionism, and validation seeking behaviors. It was time to face the traumatic experiences of her past. Choosing forgiveness and self-love over shame, resentment and fear, she made amends to herself, her dad in heaven, and she strengthened her relationship with her mother, who has also made tremendous forward progress in her own life.
Danielle found the confidence to start sharing her story for her own healing and for others. It became clear that the intent of doing good isn’t to be perfect or to seek outside validation; instead, it’s to have the best intention and be at peace with imperfection. Once she let go, space was made for her life to become fuller with family, friends, and colleagues.
*Dark Night of the Soul describes a life changing spiritual crises.
Dr. Danielle Clark is a life/spirituality teacher and coach who focuses on how transformation happens when we break judgement habits. A business instructor at Hillsborough Community College and a part-time lecturer at Northeastern University, Danielle teaches her students that they are not their past, and that they are smart enough. She’s working on her debut memoir focused on her ‘dark night of the soul’ and how that dark time (and others in her life) gave her a beautiful opportunity to see the light.
To learn more about Danielle, you can visit her website here