Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing 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 been in front of an audience since the start of the pandemic. In a bright floral coat and sundress, she delivered a short stand-up comedy set and sang a number of songs, including 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 had always been in entertaining — she idolized daytime talk show hosts and did endless impressions of her favorite quotes from movies. However, her passion was sidelined for years because of persistent verbal abuse from her mother. To escape this home environment, she moved out after graduating from high school and ended up in a homeless shelter for a year and a half, an experience that led her to later nonprofit work as she found her footing in Bridgeport in her early 20s. 

After moving back to New Haven just months before the pandemic began, Sicilia, now 30 years old, has been in a process of “soul-searching” that led her to realize her identity as a transgender woman and come to terms with past trauma. As of last week, she has also been able to return to her love for performing.

“It was always in there, with nowhere to use it,” Sicilia said. “Imagine having all this energy, having all this drive and having nowhere to use it, not knowing how to access things, searching, searching, searching … this is still what I need to do, this is what I want to do and this is what has always driven me.”

Sicilia has spent the past decade working for a number of homelessness services providers and advocacy groups. She currently is a member of the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s CLIP cohort, a group of individuals who have lived experiences with homelessness and contribute to policy decisions. 

She shared that she gravitated toward nonprofit work because of her own experiences with homelessness — Sicilia moved into a shelter in Fairfield at the age of eighteen after escaping an abusive household, where she lived for almost a year and a half. 

“Because of my experience, because of all I learned from it, I learned so much from people I was with. That inspired me to give back,” Sicilia said. “I said, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to help in some way, contribute in some way 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 found in adulthood to be a grand theft auto charge.

She recalled stories that her grandfather would tell her about his early memories in New Haven, experiences in the Air Force and travels. “He would always try to speak in foreign languages to me because he believed in being as aware and as worldly as possible, he raised me to understand all of that.” 

After her grandparents’ deaths, at the age of around 12 or 13, Sicilia’s mother regained custody. Sicilia lived with her mother and stepfather for the following five years in Rockville, Connecticut.  

“Five years of living in an environment that was unexpected, but also filled with not only alcoholism in the home and the fighting that comes with that, but narcissism, secrets, yelling,” Sicilia said. “The constant moving every year, every other year … not going to the doctor for five years.” 

After years of reflection, Sicilia now believes that her mother was struggling with narcissistic personality disorder. During the pandemic, she began to research online about the characteristics of the disorder, watching videos about the experiences of children who grew up with a narcissistic parent — “everything I thought I had understood and had already gotten over all of a sudden came back to me, because now I had that perspective.” 

She shared that her mother would constantly shout and verbally “berate” her, sometimes escalating into physical violence. Her family had to move houses many times because her mother would refuse to pay rent and Sicilia was not permitted to have her own drivers’ license.

By her high school graduation in 2010, Sicilia said that she had “ambition and drive but no prospects.” A domestic violence incident with her stepfather had occurred earlier that year, while family and friends were encouraging her to move away from her mother. After a brief stay with an elderly aunt and uncle, she ended up in 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 getting me to a better place, but because of my trauma and because of how fresh it was, because of how everything I had just gone through, I was not in a place to accept kindness or advice.” 

Without understanding the ways in which her reactions were influenced by past trauma, Sicilia said, she would become “verbally aggressive and argumentative” towards others, stemming from anxieties of being berated in return. She had “fallen back into [her] shell,” hiding her emotions and past experiences from others. 

Despite these moments of tension, Sicilia said that her time in the shelter helped her move towards independence, as she eventually was connected to a housing voucher. While in the process of finding a unit on which to use the voucher, she returned to Rockville and stayed in a shelter for three months. There, she began to reconcile with the experiences of her teenage years.

Finally, 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 I intended to.” Once in a stable housing situation, Sicilia said, she was able to “start physically, emotionally letting go.” 

It was then that Sicilia began working with Bridge House, a group in Bridgeport providing supportive programming to those recovering from mental illness.

“I stayed in Bridgeport because it was working,” 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, no one was like standing over my shoulder, or no one was waiting for me to make a mistake, or no one was, you know, waiting to berate me.”

However, after a few years, she began to experience underlying feelings of “stagnation,” worsened by ongoing verbal harassment from certain neighbors. Sicilia suffered an extended mental health crisis in 2016 that culminated in her verbally and physically attacking a friend, “almost like I was taking all that energy and all that aggression out … and I had to pay the price for that socially, emotionally, mentally.” 

After this incident, Sicilia became a “recluse” for about four months. She recalls watching the news every morning and being deeply disturbed by the events of 2017, from Harvey Weinstein’s crimes to Donald Trump’s inauguration. 

Soon after, she acted in a political play about the Trump administration performed at the Klein Memorial Auditorium in Bridgeport, which she had come across by chance in an advertisement at a local library. 

When Sicilia was young, she “always had that desperation, that drive to be in acting or movies or music.” She would often get scolded for doing impressions of quotes from movies and TV shows, “but I would also make people laugh.”

Although she enjoyed the chance to act again, she continued to struggle in Bridgeport, followed by her behavior and unable to understand the root causes of it. She worked a number of jobs in her final years there — at a pizzeria, as a receptionist and with the youth empowerment nonprofit Public Allies Connecticut. 

Sicilia had always planned to return to New Haven. “I knew I wasn’t done with this area, there was that old sort of adolescent dream that I was going to come back,” she said. In early 2020, just a few months before the pandemic began to sweep the country, she made the move. 

It was during lockdown, however, that Sicilia finally had the time to process her past and realize her dreams for the future. “Lockdown sort of made us all realize ourselves a lot better,” she said.

Coming to terms with her mother’s abuse and narcissism, she cut off all contact from her mother “except for holidays and her birthday.” Sicilia also began to gain awareness of the ways in which 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 others.  

Although already out as bisexual prior to the pandemic, it was in these past two years that Sicilia was able to come to terms with her identity as a transgender woman. 

“I started asking myself these questions because I was like, there’s something deeper going on here,” Sicilia said. “I had a few ‘aha’ moments. … I had to unravel this and go back and look back at my childhood and be like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this was it.’ I didn’t realize this was it.”

Sicilia first came out as transgender in January of this year. She will be starting hormone replacement therapy next month and has “already started going shopping.”

Starting with last Thursday’s performance, Sicilia also hopes to return to her life-long love for entertaining and the arts. After the showcase, she had felt stronger than ever that “this is what I still need to do … this is what has always driven me.” She realized that in her years of volunteering and trying to contribute to others she was also “putting off so much of what [she] wanted to do.” 

She has plans to continue performing, begin writing again and create an artist’s page online. 

“There is this constant evolution, but I’m feeling so much better,” Sicilia said. “I just turned 30, and I started asking myself, where do I want to be, who do I want to be, what do I want to do? And so that’s what made me realize I had to separate from my mother again … as I’m becoming this new person, what do I want around me and who and so on. And so I don’t feel any regrets so far. Everything feels right.”

Lana Sicilia lives in the Edgewood neighborhood of New Haven. One day, she hopes to write her own memoirs. 

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.