Sylvan Lebrun, collaborating photographer
Last Thursday night, New Haven resident Lana Sicilia performed at a talent show at the New Haven Free Public Library, the first time she had performed in front of an audience since the pandemic began. Dressed in a floral coat and sundress, she delivered a short stand-up comedy set and sang a number of songs, including the Broadway song ‘Le Jazz Hot’, ‘Kiss the Girl’. from “The Little Mermaid” and the country hit “What Mattered Most.
As a child, Sicilia’s heart was always to entertain – she idolized daytime talk show hosts and did endless printouts of her favorite movie quotes. However, her passion was sidelined for years due to her mother’s persistent verbal abuse. To escape this family environment, she moved away after graduating from high school and ended up in a homeless shelter for a year and a half, an experience that later led her to a job at nonprofit when she found her home in Bridgeport in her early twenties.
After returning to New Haven just months before the pandemic hit, Sicilia, now 30, embarked on a process of “introspection” that led her to realize her identity as a transgender woman. and come to terms with past traumas. Since last week, she has also been able to rediscover her love for the stage.
“He was always in there, with nowhere to use him,” Sicilia said. “Imagine having all this energy, having all this drive and having nowhere to use it, not knowing how to access things, search, search, search… that’s always what I have to do, it’s is what I want to do and that’s what has always motivated me.
Sicilia has spent the past decade working for a number of homelessness service providers and advocacy groups. She is currently a member of the CLIP cohort of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a group of people who have lived experiences of homelessness and contribute to policy decisions.
She shared that she turned to non-profit work because of her own experiences of homelessness – Sicilia moved into a shelter in Fairfield aged eighteen after escaping a foster violent, where she lived for nearly a year and a half.
“Through my experience, through everything I learned from it, I learned so much from the people I was with. It inspired me to give back,” Sicilia said. “I said, I I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to help somehow, contribute somehow to make the system a bit better.”
Sicilia grew up just outside of New Haven in the town of Wallingford, raised by her grandparents. Her parents had lost custody and were in jail for what she discovered as an adult was a grand theft auto charge.
She remembered the stories her grandfather told her about his early memories in New Haven, his experiences in the Air Force, and his travels. “He always tried to speak to me in foreign languages because he believed in being as aware and as worldly as possible, he raised me to understand all of that.”
After her grandparents died, around the age of 12 or 13, Sicilia’s mother regained custody. Sicilia lived with her mother and stepfather for the next five years in Rockville, Connecticut.
“Five years of living in an environment that was unexpected, but also filled not only with alcoholism at home and the struggles that come with it, but also with narcissism, secrets, screams,” Sicilia said. “The constant moving every year, every two years… not going to the doctor for five years.”
After years of thinking, Sicilia now believes her mother struggled with narcissistic personality disorder. During the pandemic, she began researching the characteristics of the disorder online, watching videos of the experiences of children growing up with a narcissistic parent — “everything I thought I understood and had already overcome all of a sudden came back to me, because now I had this perspective.
She shared that her mother constantly yelled and verbally “scolded” her, sometimes escalating into physical abuse. Her family had to move several times because her mother refused to pay the rent and Sicilia was not allowed to have her own driver’s license.
Upon graduating from high school in 2010, Sicilia said she had “ambition and drive, but no perspective”. A domestic violence incident with his stepfather had occurred earlier that year as his family and friends encouraged him to get away from his mother. After a brief stay with an elderly aunt and uncle, she ended up at the Operation Hope homeless shelter in Fairfield.
“I hadn’t even started to recover,” Sicilia said. “[The shelter] was better than where I had been and it was taking me to a better place, but because of my trauma and because of the freshness of everything, because of everything I had just been through, I was not able to accept kindness or advice.”
Without understanding how her reactions were influenced by past trauma, Sicilia said, she would become “verbally aggressive and argumentative” towards others, due to the anxiety of being reprimanded in return. She had “fallen back into [her] shell”, hiding his emotions and past experiences from others.
Despite these tense moments, Sicilia said her time at the shelter helped her progress towards independence, as she was eventually connected to a housing voucher. While she was in the process of finding a unit to use the voucher on, she returned to Rockville and stayed in a shelter for three months. There she began to come to terms with the experiences of her adolescence.
Eventually, Sicilia was able to move into her own apartment in Bridgeport, where she ended up living for seven and a half years, “six years longer than expected”. Once in a stable housing situation, Sicilia said, she was able to “begin to let go physically and emotionally.”
It was then that Sicilia began working with Bridge House, a group in Bridgeport offering support programs for people recovering from mental illness.
“I stayed in Bridgeport because it worked,” Sicilia said. “I had money in my pocket. I had savings, I had something to do every day, I had friends. … For the first time in many years, nobody was like standing over my shoulder, or nobody was waiting for me to make a mistake, or nobody was waiting, you know, to scold me.
However, after a few years, she began to experience underlying feelings of “stagnation”, compounded by continued verbal harassment from some neighbors. Sicilia suffered a protracted mental health crisis in 2016 that culminated in verbally and physically attacking a friend, “almost as if I was taking all that energy and all that aggression…and I had to pay the price socially.” , emotionally, mentally.”
After this incident, Sicilia became a “recluse” for about four months. She remembers watching the news every morning and being deeply disturbed by the events of 2017, from the crimes of Harvey Weinstein to the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Shortly after, she starred in a political play about the Trump administration performed at the Klein Memorial Auditorium in Bridgeport, which she had come across in an advertisement at a local library.
When Sicilia was young, she “always had this desperation, this desire to be in theatre, films or music”. She often got scolded for doing printouts of quotes from movies and TV shows, “but I would also make people laugh.”
Although she appreciated the chance to act again, she continued to struggle in Bridgeport, being tracked by her behavior and unable to understand the root causes. She held several jobs in her final years there — at a pizza place, as a receptionist, and with the nonprofit Public Allies Connecticut for youth empowerment.
Sicilia had always planned to return to New Haven. “I knew I wasn’t done with this field, there was this old teenage dream that I was going to come back,” she said. In early 2020, just months before the pandemic began to sweep the country, she made the move.
It was during the lockdown, however, that Sicilia finally had time to process her past and pursue her dreams for the future. “Lockdown has kind of made us all realize ourselves a lot better,” she said.
Accepting her mother’s abuse and narcissism, she cut off all contact with her mother “except for holidays and her birthday”. Sicilia also began to realize how the trauma had impacted her past behavior and relationships, as she realized how memories of verbal and physical abuse had resurfaced to shape her reactions to the others.
Although already bisexual before the pandemic, it is during these last two years that Sicilia has been able to accept her identity as a transgender woman.
“I started asking myself these questions because I thought there was something deeper going on here,” Sicilia said. “I had a few ‘aha’ moments. … I had to sort that out and go back and look back at my childhood and be like, ‘Oh wait a minute, that was it.’ I didn’t realize that was it.
Sicilia first came out as transgender in January this year. She will start hormone replacement therapy next month and has “already started shopping”.
Starting with last Thursday’s performance, Sicilia also hopes to recapture her lifelong love for entertainment and the arts. After the showcase, she felt stronger than ever that “this is what I still have to do…this is what has always driven me.” She found that in her years of volunteering and trying to contribute to others, she was “putting off so much.” [she] wanted to do.”
She plans to continue performing, start writing again, and create an online artist page.
“There’s this constant evolution, but I feel so much better,” Sicilia said. “I just turned 30 and I started thinking, where do I want to be, who do I want to be, what do I want to do? which made me realize that I had to separate myself from my mother again…as I become this new person, what do I want around me and who and so on.And so I feel no regrets so far. Everything feels good.
Lana Sicilia lives in the Edgewood neighborhood of New Haven. One day, she hopes to write her own memoir.