Mental Health Expert Uses Profession To Craft Uplifting Coming-Of-Age Story

In her debut novel, ‘All I Know’ (Buckberg Mountain Books, June 11, 2024), Holly C. LaBarbera deftly tells the story of a young woman who overcomes childhood trauma and tragedy to try and build a life with the boy she’s always loved. As a psychotherapist and professor, Holly uses her extensive knowledge and experience to explore the complexities of romantic relationships as well as those within families and among friends, showing that love comes in many forms, including choosing to love oneself.

About the book: Kai Martin sees her life as a series of concentric circles—her twin brother Kade occupying the center sphere with her, their parents surrounding them in the next, and the Tyler family in the outer loop–a connection Kai plans to make official by someday marrying Josh Tyler. The Martins and Tylers share memorable times together, but under the surface, they are two dysfunctional families struggling with alcoholism, depression, and abuse, all of which leads to a devastating event that knocks Kai off her axis and makes her doubt everything she thought she knew.

Josh is there through it all, and Kai eventually gets the romance she dreamed of, embarking on a life of travel and adventure with the boy she always loved. Yet reality is more complicated than any childhood fantasy, and when painful family patterns are reenacted between them, Kai must decide how much of herself she is willing to sacrifice for Josh. Ultimately, she must confront the heartbreaking truth that as much as we try to help the people we love, we can only truly save ourselves. Read on below for a compelling guest post from Holly about how she drew on her professional experience to create her novel.

Holly C. LaBarbera

‘All I Know’ started as a simple love story, but I should have known better. In all my years as a psychotherapist, working with individuals and couples, and in all my years of life, hearing stories from friends and family, I have yet to hear a simple love story. Every true, realistic love story I know of is messy and complex and puts people through the ringer, and a lot of that tension comes from our early attachment experiences.

We all come from imperfect parents doing their best. We were all born into complicated families. Some of us have relatively benign baggage, perhaps a few simple disappointments or a parent who was misaligned with our personality or temperament. Some are more serious challenges, like those I tend to see in my therapy office and those I created for the Martin and Tyler families in my novel. My expertise with depression, grief, trauma and addiction helped me craft a tale that realistically portrays these struggles and how they can be carried forward in relationships.

Based on my training and experience with the developmental model of couples therapy, Imago therapy, emotionally focused therapy and attachment theory, it is clear to me that couples are commonly (if not always) impacted by their childhood experiences. The ways in which our parents related to us and to each other leave wounds and unfulfilled needs that are reenacted with our adult romantic partners. The ways in which we moved through our own development or got stuck in one stage or another influence how deeply and well we can connect with a partner. 

When I start working with a new couple in therapy, they often they tell me that they don’t want to talk about their childhoods and their parents; they just want to fix their current problem with their partner without all that casting backward. And so we start there, although more often than not, their problems as a couple are directly linked to unmet needs and unhealed wounds from childhood, just like Kai’s and Josh’s are in ‘All I Know’.

Kai’s father is an alcoholic, and the common assumption about someone with an addict parent is that they end up with a partner who is similarly problematic as a way of reenacting their dysfunctional patterns as a form of unconscious self-sabotage. In actuality, this choice is an attempt to heal. The unconscious mind is actually selecting someone who will similarly wound them in the hopes that their partner will do something different that might end up healing them.

I have seen this happen many times in therapy, yet it only happens when both partners want and work toward change. I have also seen these types of pairings intensify the damage to one’s psyche, which happens when the selection is so spot-on that a partner does exactly what one’s parent did. In those cases, a person must look within themselves for healing. Let’s look at another example.

Suppose Sam had a father who was emotionally distant and unavailable. They might unconsciously find an adult romantic partner who ends up also being emotionally unavailable, even though Sam didn’t recognize that initially. And let’s suppose that their partner, Jordan, had a mother who was highly anxious and demanding and perhaps Jordan felt invaded by too much attention and reactivity growing up. Jordan may have unconsciously been drawn to Sam because they have that similar pressured desire for attention.

Both Sam and Jordan have chosen partners to perfectly reenact early relationship patterns but also perfect partners to provide a corrective experience. If Sam can learn to calm themself from worrying about Jordan disappearing and give them the space they need, and if Jordan can move toward Sam and give them the emotional connection they need, then they can heal each other’s wounds and find security and deep intimacy together.

Every day, I witness people making risky choices to change their lives and relationships. I see people’s courage in opening up and being vulnerable with a loved one who has hurt them. I see people allow and accept healing and forgiveness.

I hope those experiences have helped me create authentic characters in Kai and Josh and the rest of the Martin and Tyler families and to tell a story that is both difficult and triumphant, heartbreaking and uplifting. Ultimately, I hope that ‘All I Know’ provides a sense of hope, inspiration, and empowerment that it is possible to overcome our imperfect pasts and work toward healing in our current relationships.

Holly LaBarbera began her creative writing career with a lightning bolt of inspiration for her first book, the as-yet-unpublished Five Days, followed by All I Know, and is currently revising her third novel. Holly is a psychotherapist and an adjunct professor at Santa Clara University’s School of Counseling Psychology, guiding graduate students in becoming licensed therapists. Holly was born in Hawaii, grew up just north of New York City, and now lives outside of San Francisco. You can follow Holly on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.


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