Middle school was a pivotal traumatic time for Lorenzo Gomez. Fear, anxiety, and hopelessness are all words that come to mind when he describes the three years of his life that he spent at San Antonio’s Tafolla Middle School, which was located in one of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Now in his late 30s and in his new book Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear, Lorenzo looks back at this time in his life through a series of letters to his 12-year-old self. Through this, he demonstrates how we can all reclaim our minds and sense of worthiness by dealing with what is true and dismantling the lies we tell ourselves that lead to self-deception.
At the end of the day, this is a book about differentiating between mental health and mental illness and demonstrating to readers that mental health is an issue that affects not some, but all of us. It also serves as a reminder that mental health should always come at the top of our list and that everything else is contingent upon it.
Nikki Van Noy: Lorenzo, welcome.
Lorenzo Gomez: Thank you for having me, I’m so excited to be here.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m so excited to have you. You have such a unique story, let’s start by letting listeners know who you are and where you’re coming from.
Lorenzo Gomez: I’m a San Antonio native that sort of stumbled and fell into the tech world for about a decade and a half. Then I switched to working on the city and doing very civic-minded things and helping to start that ecosystem. And somewhere along the way, I decided to start writing the stories that have been really impactful to me. The book that we’re here talking about today has been especially important to me because it’s a topic that I feel like is finally going to have its moment and its day in the sun, which is mental health.
The book is called Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear and is basically a mental health book about my middle school years.
Taking a Chance
Nikki Van Noy: So, okay, there’s lots to unpack just there. First of all, your career didn’t exactly take what we think of as the natural trajectory. So, talk to me a little bit about how you got from point A to point B.
Lorenzo Gomez: Yeah, my first book, which is called the Cilantro Diaries: Business Lessons From the Most Unlikely Places, maps out what happened to me. I grew up in the inner city of San Antonio, very economically segregated, majority Hispanic, and I did not have anything that the business world valued.
I had no connections, I had no money, I had no skills. The first book I wrote was about how I acquired the tools to get into the professional world and then later the tools to make it and succeed. The summary of it is anything I did that was my own idea was an utter and complete disaster, and anything I did that worked was because someone more wise and generous saw my potential and said you, “Hey, you should probably do it this way.”
I went from bagging groceries at a grocery store here locally in Texas called HUB, and then my best friend, who I went to high school with, got me into the computer store. There we met our first professional sales guy who got us into this a really crazy startup, that was probably going to go out of business, called Rackspace. I was a receptionist at that computer store and I left to go be one of the first seven account managers and one of the first hundred employees at this “crazy company” that was probably going to go out of business and ended up being a publicly-traded company.
It was sold for two billion dollars and really changed my life. And that’s not hyperbole, it changed my life, put me on the second plane ride of my entire life to London. I ended up moving to the UK to work in their office. Rackspace was my BA, my bachelor’s degree, my MBA, and my Ph.D. because I never went to school.
I did one or two semesters at a community college and then I dropped out. Rackspace really gave me all the things that I didn’t have, it gave me a network, it gave me skills, it gave me experiences that I just could not have afforded by myself. And really, mentors and counselors. One of the big ideas in my first book is this notion that everybody needs a personal board of directors. I was very, very fortunate to stumble upon that and ran into people that really saw my potential and went out of their way to help me.
My first book was about how do I pay it back to all the people that invested in me so that more people can do more faster than I did.
Nikki Van Noy: This book is fascinating to me because, I have a two-year-old daughter and one of the first things I thought when I got pregnant was, “Oh my god, my kid’s going to have to go to middle school at some point.”
Lorenzo Gomez: Yeah, it’s treacherous.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m in my early 40s and yet, of all the things I could have thought of, that was one of the first ones. I’m a limited sample audience here, but you’ve hit upon something that’s really hot button because middle school seems to live on in terms of being important in our lives, and where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
Talk to me a little bit about why you landed on writing about this specific time period?
Mental Health Journey
Lorenzo Gomez: So, the journey in this book is really interesting because it started with getting divorced, a couple of years ago. But in the last two years of my marriage, like a lot of people, my ex-wife and I went to counseling. And like a lot of people, I experienced some counselors that were really terrible. I just didn’t find value in them at all.
Then I found a therapist that I loved and I remember sitting in this therapy session with my ex-wife and I thought to myself, “This guy’s so great, he’s so helpful that even if my marriage doesn’t work out, which I hope it does, even if it doesn’t work out, I’m still going to come to this guy because it’s so helpful.”
That was the official start of my mental health journey. I go to a nondenominational church and my pastor has always said this great line, which is, “Everybody’s in need of recovery to some degree.” I just really loved that because it levels the playing field. I went to this specific therapist I found, and he’s a psychotherapist and a practitioner of a specific form of psychotherapy called TA, Transactional Analysis.
In transactional analysis, there are three ego states–the parent, the adult, and the child. Really, the basics of it is that you need to figure out who is driving the bus at any moment, and who should be driving the bus. When I was going through therapy, I realized that most of my unhealthy attributes were my inner child, who was having a lot of dysfunction and feeling afraid.
Specifically, I realized that all of that fear came from this really condensed time period of my life, which was middle school. Working with a psychotherapist to unpack that has really changed me and I realized that “Oh, my gosh, mental health is like going to the gym. I need to work on this every day.”
I’ll give you an example. The first couple of times I met with this therapist, I would be talking, and he would stop me and say, “Hey, can I respond?” And he would say, “You know, you have a lot of negative self-talk and I would like you to repeat the sentence you just said. Only take the negative self-talk out.”
I would say, “You know what? I come from a big Hispanic family and we just have a temper. Hispanics have a temper.” And he would say, “You just put a lot of space between you and your problem, and you need to own it and you need to reframe it.” I would say, “Well, in the past, I’ve lost my temper, but today, I’ve decided that I need to work on not losing my temper, I need to work on having more patience.”
It happened so many times in the first two sessions that I went home, and I thought to myself, “Man Lorenzo, he just stopped you 10 times in a one-hour session. How many total words do I say in a given day? What percentage of those words are me talking trash to myself and really putting myself down?” It really bummed me out and I said, “You know what? This is so worth it because it is just like a trainer at the gym, who gives you exercises and stretches to do when they’re not there.” It was the same thing with this therapist, and he gave me tools to really rewire my brain.
It felt so great. The core of my therapy really centered around these three years in middle school. I had always wanted to write a book about it because I had disassociated it, and so I viewed it as a movie. I thought, “Man, you know, it’s really messed up but it’s a really great movie.”
Once I found therapy, I thought, “Actually, it can be helpful now because now I can turn it into tools that anybody that struggled with fear and anxiety can use because that’s what I struggled with.”
Three Years of Fear
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s sort of paint the sketch of what those three years looked like for you?
Lorenzo Gomez: The book is titled Tafolla Toro: Three Years of Fear. Tafolla is a school. It’s part of the inner-city district of San Antonio, it’s on the west side of San Antonio in a zip code numbered 78207, I believe. The reason I say that is that this zip code is one of the most economically segregated zip codes in the entire country.
I’m just going to paint a backdrop for 12-year-old Lorenzo. So, this middle school had this really special program, it was the first of his kind, and it was called the multilingual program. If you got accepted, you would get bussed in from the normal school you would go to, and you could learn a foreign language. I got accepted and I thought that I had gotten into Harvard.
The principle at the time used to refer to it as the Harvard for Middle Schools. That is not how I felt after the first day, let me tell you. I was bussed into the school and the school is on the west side of San Antonio, which has a 99% Hispanic population. You can walk across the street from the school to one of the oldest housing projects in the country. It’s called the Alazan Apache Courts.
It’s so old that Eleanor Roosevelt had to help get them built because there was a union dispute that she had to help solve. In addition to that, at the time that I went, which was the early 90s, the tallest building that you could see from anywhere on the west side was the county jail.
It wasn’t till in the late 90s when the University of Texas-San Antonio built a downtown campus. In the late 90s when they built that, that supplanted the county jail as the tallest building that anyone could see from the west side.
It had this eerie psychological effect on your brain when you could see the jail from anywhere you were. In addition to that, I once read a story that the Peace Corps used to send people to this area to simulate third-world conditions before they would send them abroad. So, this is the backdrop. Also, the year that I went to middle school was, I believe, the start or the second year of an eight-year period when San Antonio experienced the highest level of gang violence and drive by’s in its history.
All of that is really the backdrop for 12-year-old Lorenzo getting on the route five bus and stepping off the bus to enter middle school. I didn’t understand and I didn’t know any of these things. I was confronted with a whole bunch of violence and poverty and trauma, things that I saw that I just wasn’t prepared for, and I didn’t know how to process them.
Sorry, I felt like that was a little too intense.
Nikki Van Noy: No, it wasn’t intense at all, but I see what you’re saying. Let’s talk about how all of this continued to impact you beyond the three years where you were there?
Lorenzo Gomez: You know, when I went back and started writing this book, that’s when the idea of the letters came out. What happens in this book, is that the reader is going to read nine or ten chapters of just crazy movie-esque stories that middle school Lorenzo experienced.
What I do, as a hopefully helpful device, is I write a letter after every chapter from adult me to twelve-year-old me. Every letter contains at least two mental health principles. The reader won’t know it, but there is a lot of TA. Even the adult me to child me is pulled directly from Transactional Analysis.
So, it’s an adult ego state writing to a child ego state. The reader won’t know it. My goal is to be an example. I’m going to talk in a letter about negative self-talk, but I will not call it by its clinical name. I’ll say something like, “This letter is about the power of words and the story we tell ourselves. Let’s talk about that really traumatic thing you saw in this story, and let’s break it down. I’m going to give you a new frame about how to look at it.” For example, in the first letter of the book, I talk about the things that you can’t control, and one of them is your environment.
I go through a list to twelve-year-old Lorenzo and I say, “Hey, in life, there are a bunch of things you have no control over–you don’t control what year you’re born, who you’re born to, what environment you’re born in, and you have no control over the people that are in your surroundings. You experienced a lot of trauma on your first day of school but if you think that any of it was your fault, that is a lie that you have told yourself, and you need to tell yourself the truth. The truth is, you could not control those things. All you can control is how you react to those things.”
One of the lies that I told myself, in the first part of this book was that my parents shouldn’t have sent me there. I had a lot of resentment and bitterness towards my parents.
When I went to therapy, I realized that they were trying their best. I mean, when I think back, I said, “This was the most special school of its kind, at the time, they found it and got me in.” I think I have to reframe that and say, “Hey, that’s true. It is not true that they were trying to hurt me, it was not true that they wanted me to go experience all this trauma, the truth is, they found the most special school at the time and went out of their way to get me into it.”
I need to remind myself of that truth. When I am writing this letter to 12-year-old Lorenzo, I want someone else who struggled with that to read it and to put themselves in the chair and say, “You know what? Maybe I’ve been telling myself a lie too. Maybe I need to remind myself of what is true.”
That is one example. I want to have very helpful clinical psychotherapy skills and tactics in the book, but I do not want the reader to know that it’s happening. I want it to be a very pleasant experience of storytelling, and then almost like a big brother talking to a little brother.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. What strikes me that is so helpful about that is it’s part of the human experience when we’re parsing through our own lives and experiences and trying to make sense of them through a different lens, there does get to be this cognitive dissonance where you are talking about, when your parents were doing the best that they could, but it’s still easy because you were at a point in life where you didn’t have complete control, to place some of the blame there.
Lorenzo Gomez: I also think that I haven’t found a better term. It is really a marketing term, but the whole notion of reframing is important. In chapter one, there is a lot of really crazy stories. So, I got bullied in the cafeteria on the first day of school and I just dumped my tray and I never ate lunch again at school until I was a senior in high school. The first time I went into a public bathroom there, I was like, “Nope, never again.” So, there are all these kinds of things that happened on my first day.
In my first letter to chapter one, one of the reframes that I have to tell twelve-year-old Lorenzo is, “Hey, life is an adventure,” and part of being young is having a child-like curiosity to explore the world. You explored it, it scared you, and you stopped. I am here to tell you that you have to dare to be adventurous again. You have to keep exploring the world. I stunted myself by stopping the exploration of the world.
When I am writing that letter, I am writing to anyone else who has done that, saying that when you explore the world that is when learning happens. That’s when relationships are formed. You need to start doing it again, even if you explored it once and it bit you. That was another reframe that I do as an example in the story.
Telling Your Story
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about how the process of writing this book has impacted you.
Lorenzo Gomez: It was so therapeutic because these stories have always been hidden in the darkest parts of my heart. When I was two-thirds of the way done, I was so excited because I never thought in my entire life that I could take this trauma and say, “Actually, it is going to be used for good. These stories will now be used to help someone, at least one person.” That is so exciting to me and it’s been so great to work through these stories and pick which ones are the most helpful and pick the skills that I have learned the most through therapy.
I am very proud of the notion that there is an opportunity for a book like this to rebrand what it means to be mentally healthy. I think a lot of people out there, especially where I come from in my neighborhood, mental health is not a term I ever heard growing up, but if I did hear it, people would automatically assume that it was a mental illness. So, you would either be normal or crazy.
What I realize is there’s an opportunity to rebrand mental health and say, “No, mental health is the start actually.” Your nutrition, your fitness, your work, all stem from this first, actually. You know if you are not mentally healthy, your washboard abs are going to go away, because you are going to over-eat, or your work life is going to deteriorate if you don’t have your mental health game together.
What I’ve realized is as a society, we are now becoming more comfortable with talking about mental health. I am really excited that the book is coming out at this time. I think it might be perfectly timed to help take the stigma away.
Nikki Van Noy: What is your hope for readers? What do you want them to walk away from this with?
Lorenzo Gomez: When I was writing this I thought, “Oh, I just hope it’s a young person.” But actually, I found great value in therapy as a 36-year-old. I am 38 now. I think that if one person reads it that has struggled with fear and anxiety and they say, “I do not feel alone anymore. Someone understands how I feel,” to me that is the win number one.
Win number two for me would be if someone says, “You know what? I was embarrassed to say that I was thinking about therapy, or heck, even embarrassed to say I went to therapy,” and for someone to say, “You know what? It is worth it for me to invest in my mental health, and I am going to go start talking about these things and looking for a way to sort them out, and really work through them.” That would be the second win for me.
I think the third win for me would be if someone reads it and they think about someone in their life that they know they are struggling and they say, “Hey, this is a book I think can help you go through what you are going through.”
Removing the Stigma
Nikki Van Noy: You are a speaker at local schools. What do you want to say to kids who are in this right now? Obviously, your situation was extreme, but regardless of what their situation is if they are in that same age bracket and struggling?
Lorenzo Gomez: You’re right, I do a lot of public speaking, and I want someone to look at my story and say, “Hmm that neighborhood, that family, all of that just feels familiar to me. And if this guy can go get therapy and he’s functioning and he’s really happy with his job and he is investing in himself, then maybe I could do that too. Maybe it is not weird and maybe it is not crazy, but maybe it is something that I should consider putting into my everyday life.”
When I speak to kids, I think that all they’re going to remember is the story. I’ve found the stories are just so viral. They stick in someone’s head and so, I want someone to read the story and go, “Man, I remember that story and it made me feel understood. They made me feel like I was not alone in the world,” and that is really the price of admission for them to consider the next step, which is, “Maybe I should do the things that this person recommends.”
I can spend most of my time just hoping to get credibility enough for someone to consider doing the things that I talk about in the book. I think that the story is the Trojan Horse for me. That’s the way I am going to get in. Hopefully, the story is relatable enough, and I don’t want to say exciting, but attention-getting enough that they will consider what’s after it.
Nikki Van Noy: I think that it can be easy to think, on an individual basis, that our stories don’t matter, but it is really those glimpses into people’s lives that I think most powerfully convey these big topics. Where do you stand with therapy? Do you think that this will be an ongoing process for you? Is there an endpoint?
Lorenzo Gomez: You know I would not say that I am. I wouldn’t look at it as being cured or not cured, this very binary thing. I look at going to therapy like going to the gym and having a trainer. I went through a lot of really intense therapy where I spent a lot of time, especially after my divorce. But now, I really just check-in. I go in and for me, it is about using the tools. I have been very lucky to get tools from my therapist that I use every day.
It’s going in, just doing the tune-up, making sure that if I am struggling with something then I am thinking about it correctly. The last couple of times that I have been to therapy have really just been the check-in. I am very thankful that I have the tools in my toolbox now. It is very similar to going to the gym.
I do have a trainer and the first thing I realized was my form was wrong in so many things. It was like, “Oh my gosh, I am going to pull a muscle, I’ll hurt myself.” Now, I have great form on things, I am doing the exercise and the stretches, and I feel better. It is the same thing with therapy. There are so many things that I didn’t know, simple blocking and tackling. Things that did not require you to go through a course that you can do that really have a big impact.
In my friend group, one of the most common tools that has spread to my entire friend group is this phrase, “In the past, I have blah-blah-blah and today, I have decided.” It is so funny to me because I can name at least ten or fifteen people in my friend group that now have adopted this terminology, because of my therapist. But it is such a powerful tool, because as soon as you say in the past you have just put it on a boat, and you have let it sail into infinity.
It is in the past, but right now, I have decided to take action. Right now, I have decided to change my mindset. When my therapist was walking me through he said, “This is a tool that a lot of addicts or drug addicts use, because you might have relapsed five seconds ago, but if you decide right now to clean your house out, empty all the alcohol, and go for a walk, that is actual change.”
That is actual good behavior and it doesn’t matter if it was five seconds ago, what you decide in the moment is so powerful. That was such a fascinating, liberating notion for me to go, “Oh, my gosh, I can feel a bunch of guilt and shame about things, but if I decide right now and declare it and go do anything else, I am actually moving forward.” I think that these are the things, these are the little nuggets that I hope to pass out through these stories.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. That is such an empowering point that you just made. I think it is easy to get stuck in our past or feel like we are obligated to it in certain ways.
Lorenzo Gomez: That’s exactly right.
The Power of Music
Nikki Van Noy: Lorenzo, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to be sure listeners hear?
Lorenzo Gomez: Hmm, let me think about that. Well, I’ll just touch on a couple of things. So, one of the devices that I use in the book, and it has nothing to do with therapy, but it is just about storytelling. It was funny because there are a lot of stories that I had hidden in my mind, and it was hard for me to recall them. And so, what I did is I made a playlist of all the songs I listened to back then and when I would listen to it on my Spotify playlist, it would bring back all the memories.
I realized how important music was to me in that timeframe in middle school, but I also realized that nothing’s changed. Kids still listen to music, and so it was a device that I had deployed hopefully so that they could relate to it and if I encouraged one kid to start listening to Social Distortion or New Order, I will feel like that is the ultimate price for me.
It was something that was very important to me because music is a place of refuge for me where I felt safe and where I could go into my own world. You’ll see a lot of music, movie references, and comic book references and I feel like those things have come alive again in today’s age.
Nikki Van Noy: That to me seems particularly poignant in this book because I think so many of us come online to music around that time and if that music sticks with you forever.
Lorenzo Gomez: I think what I will do probably later whenever I put them in the right order is I will publish my Spotify playlist if anybody wants to see the soundtrack to the book.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, very cool and listeners can also do that for themselves too. I mean I feel like that is a great exercise to take away.
Lorenzo Gomez: It is a great exercise because it is almost like watching your movie, but also it gives you your soundtrack to go through at your own pace and remember these things. And I think that we know that it is very important for people to go through their story and really find the places where they need to go in and put everything in its right place.
All of us are telling ourselves a story and some of the things are technically true, the facts are true, but the story isn’t true, like what I was saying about my parents. I think it is a great exercise for everybody to go through and say, “Hey, what was the story I was telling myself and is it, in fact, true, or was there some nuance I need to go back and reframe?”
Nikki Van Noy: Love it. Lorenzo, you are a delight. I’ve taken so many things away from this conversation that I can’t wait to think more about or apply. This sounds very powerful to me.
Lorenzo Gomez: I am so honored. Thank you so much and I am just so honored to be on the podcast because this is probably the most sensitive I have ever been writing something. It is very vulnerable for me and these are the skeletons in my closet. I think that being on your show and having an opportunity with the book to get the ideas out there is so worth it, so I am so thankful for the opportunity.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that sounds like freedom to me, in the long run.
Lorenzo Gomez: It is. Yes, I hope so.
Nikki Van Noy: That was exceptional. You are just such a light voice and I always love it when there is a light voice to accompany topics that can be a little bit heavier, which is so powerful.
Lorenzo Gomez: That is one of the worries with the book and I think Barbara really helped me identify where the humor needed to go in. I do have a lot of funny stories in there. Hopefully, funny stories that will break it up, but, yeah, I am so excited about. You know it is funny, I sent the draft to a woman who works for the district that I went to that Tafolla is in, and she works for a charter network that’s part of the district now. She texted me a couple of days later and said, “Oh my God, I love this book. It is the number one topic everybody is talking about, and we want to buy a thousand copies, and do an event for you.” And I was like, “What?”
It’s been really well received just by the couple of strategic beta readers that I have sent it. Also what is happened is everybody that I send it to, they call me and they immediately start telling me their story. I think that’s also really interesting how people crave and want permission to tell their stories. It is really rewarding.
I try not to get too excited about it, but I will tell you the greatest obstacle has already been overcome because my mom demanded to read it and I was super worried. I was really worried that she was going to think that some of the things that happened were her fault. I was really worried about that and she loved it. One of my beta readers came back and said actually, of course, she loved it. She is one of the heroes of the book.
I thought and I said, “You know what? You’re totally right.” So now that it is Mama Gomez approved, I actually feel really good about it.