Angela Lagano says that everyone has a story worth sharing and her own is no different.
“My life growing up was not normal by any means,” she said. “I was abused as a child and up until I was kicked out at 18 from my house, and I didn’t really have a relationship with my mom until after I got into college. I didn’t have anyone, but I had myself and I was determined to get out of that, which a lot of people aren’t.”
It was this determination that led Lagano to start USF’s chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a student organization for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicidal thoughts. Its mission is to provide hope and support to others, she said, while building a community to help members through their own struggles.
Since its inception in January 2010, the club has gained 160 members, Lagano said, though weekly meetings and events draw anywhere from 20 to 60 students. While Lagano graduated earlier this month with a double major in psychology and criminology, her work with the club is far from finished. Now, she said she is starting an internship with the TWLOHA headquarters in Cocoa, where she will help others begin their own chapters of the organization.
And she will continue to tell her own story to those who need to hear it, a story she spent most of her life trying to keep secret.
Lagano’s earliest memory is not a happy one. Her parents were divorced, her father had remarried and she was in pre-kindergarten in a Christmas play.
“I think I was an angel, because I just remember little stars in my hair and a halo … My mom had come to see me. She lived like an hour away, so we saw each other but not often, and my stepmom brought me home and kept my mom away from me.”
Growing up in Melbourne, her relationship with her father and stepmother, one of her mother’s friends, was strained at best, she said, and there was “a lot of tension” between her and her three brothers. Her mother, she said, has remarried three times and often had “her own little family” — one that did not always include her only daughter.
“I didn’t really have a mom,” she said. “My father was the one who abused me. He got angry and I was easiest to take it out on. I love him, but there were times when I hated him. He was good when he was away from my stepmom.”
Lagano said one of her first instances of abuse came when she was 10 years old. She had gotten into a fight with her stepmother and didn’t want to eat dinner.
“My dad just got angry and dragged me across the kitchen by my hair,” she said. “I ended up running away and calling the cops.”
Yet, nothing was ever done to stop the abuse, and Lagano said she never spoke of it to friends or family members. Her escape was her private Catholic school, where she said she had lots of friends and got good grades.
Until she was 16 she said she never told anyone of her issues at home because “I didn’t know that I could.” Yet in the eighth grade she wrote a story about her mother, which Lagano said she’s “pretty sure was about how she didn’t love me because she had gone away and … was never around.” Counselors at her school administered a depression-screening test, asking her questions such as “Do you feel tired all the time?” “Do you feel sad?” and “Do you like animals?”
“I was just wondering why they were asking me all this,” Lagano said, yet her answers pointed to depression. She said counselors would talk to her every once in a while to “make sure I was OK,” but she was months away from her eighth grade graduation, when she would leave the school, and things were about to take a turn for the worse.
Lagano had developed ways to deal with her depression, from spending long hours reading “Harry Potter,” John Grisham and “Sweet Valley High” books in the library a mile away from her home, to learning every word of rapper Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” because her “stepmom hated Eminem.”
The summer before her freshman year of high school, Lagano moved in with her mother after her father punched her in the face during a fight, leaving her mouth bloodied.
“After it happened, I went to the bathroom because I needed to clean up and my stepmother came in and said, ‘You just bit your lip … Stop trying to blame it on everybody else.’ I went next door to call the police … but they never did anything. The next day I called my mom.”
With a short phone call to her father, Lagano moved to Titusville with her mother. Lagano said the hour-long car ride to her mother’s house was not filled with a recanting of the instances of abuse, which the two have yet to discuss, but the excitement of finally getting to live with her mother and the promise of a fresh start.
Though she had originally planned to stay for the summer, Lagano said she decided to start high school in Titusville, where her mother was “not just a mom, but a friend.” It was the only year she had been in a public school, and after dealing with the death of a friend, the loneliness of her new school and a failed relationship with an older boy, Lagano’s depression began to worsen.
“I was a teenager and I was depressed, and she was a mom who wasn’t used to a teenage depressed girl,” she said. Lagano began cutting herself, and though she could hide the scars externally, she soon found that the internal damage was harder to mask.
When she was 14, she attempted to commit suicide.
“I wanted to watch TV,” she said. She had gotten into a fight with her mother and had moved back to her father’s house, where she slept in the living room for the remainder of her high school career. “My older brother wanted to watch something on TV one night and my stepmom told me just to let him watch it … It just got to the point where it was so overwhelming it was like, ‘Why? Why can’t I just watch TV this one time, this one show?'”
Lagano said she then tried to slit her wrists in her bathroom, where she was later discovered by her older brother. She was taken to the hospital, where she said the damage was only “superficial” and admitted to a mental hospital for five days per the hospital’s policy.
“It was really mundane,” she said. “I remember not being able to wear drawstrings in my pants and this girl had brought in a razorblade. It was kind of scary, but at the same time you really didn’t have anything else to do.”
Afterward, “no one would really talk to me,” she said, and her father and stepmother “thought it was just for attention.” Lagano said she eventually stopped taking antidepressants and talking to her therapists because her parents would find out what she said.
The abuse continued and she remained silent, she said, until one night, at the age of 16, she “fought back.”
She had gotten into a fight with her stepmother when her father picked up a handsaw and hit her over the head with it. “I flipped out and she tackled me, so I pushed her off of me and I called the cops. I just remember talking really fast and asking if I was going to get in trouble.”
Yet, after the police came and talked to her stepmother, they arrested Lagano for assault and loaded her into the back of their car.
“I just remember asking the cops what was going on, ‘What’s wrong?'” she said. “I was in handcuffs and it was really uncomfortable. The (police) were really nice to me … but I spent the night in the jail. I just remember there were a bunch of girls getting their hair braided, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘I am not going to be in here long enough to get my hair braided.'”
The next day her father picked her up from the jail and brought her back home. She was angry, she said, yet the abuse “pretty much stopped.” It was her junior year of high school and she began to stay out more to “make it hard to get into fights.”
When it came time to apply for college, Lagano applied and was accepted to every university in Florida. With a Bright Futures scholarship, loans and up to six jobs at one time, Lagano paid for her USF tuition, the only school that wait-listed her. Yet, without the confidence to talk about her depression, and a fight before she left for college that prompted her father to kick her out of her house, she found herself reverting to old habits.
“For my first two years of school, I didn’t have anyone,” she said. “I didn’t do much. I went to school. I went to class. I was dating a boy at home. I kind of secluded myself, which was not good.”
Lagano said she gained 60 pounds and entered into a relationship with a boy she later found out was cheating on her. When she was 20, she attempted suicide for the second time by overdosing on sleeping pills.
“As soon as I took them I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ I made myself throw up and thankfully I was OK,” she said. “I started dieting, exercising, lost those 60 pounds and decided overall that my life is my life and not anyone else’s and I can do whatever I put my mind to.
“Eventually I went to this leadership conference in 2009 at (the Marshall Student Center) when I decided to create the TWLOHA club after I went to a TWLOHA conference in Canada. My life kind of came together. I focused less on, ‘Why is my life like this? Why did I go through this?’ and focused more on, ‘What can I do to make it better, to make sure that my life doesn’t go downhill and to enjoy it?'”
Her organization, she said, became her family, where she organized multiple events per week while juggling her work and school schedule. For Michelle Weller, a junior majoring in health science and psychology and the new TWLOHA chapter president, watching Lagano’s commitment to helping club members with not only personal issues, but also homework assignments is nothing short of “inspiring.”
“She’s done a lot in a short amount of time to bring hope to this campus,” she said. “From her, I really learned how to be both compassionate and a leader. Just by being there for people, they’re more inclined to trust you … and Angela shows that. She has started something that has the potential to make a very big impact on our campus.”
This year Lagano’s father “went missing” she said, and despite her tumultuous childhood, which never included birthday parties or fun family outings, she “can’t help but love him.” Though she didn’t have much growing up, she has always had faith that life will work itself out.
“I pray for peace,” she said. “A lot of it is just strength and peace and courage. I pray for my family, but I think I’ve learned through prayer and through my faith that there is no point in going back to the past. I can sit there and depress myself by thinking about everything I’ve ever gone through … but now I thank God that I got through it and survived through it and now I live my life to make sure I don’t put my kids through that and if I ever see something like that to stop it, to give help to people that are struggling with issues I’ve dealt with.
“A lot of people call it strength, but I just call it survival.”