October is Mental Health Awareness Month and Unconditionally Her is dedicated to sharing stories of those who deal daily with carrying the burdens of mental health issues. While stories like the one we are sharing today is desperately hard to read, sometimes words written or said must be heard to understand how those who live with mental health issues feel everyday. Their voices must be heard. We must understand so that we may learn how to help. Over the next year, Unconditionally Her will be sharing stories, like Maura’s, that hopefully will help the reader not just understand, but also recognize the signs within those fighting mental health issues. We believe in advocacy and we believe in love. Won’t you join us in our commitment to share and create awareness for those who need our help? Here’s our feature story written by Maura. (Photography by Lorna Dancey)
I’M STILL HERE.
I’ve always been a “big girl”. That doesn’t necessarily mean fat, though. It means I have broad shoulders, a long torso, and my thighs can crush for days. I have been a competitive swimmer, a competitive show-jumper, and the captain of my volleyball team. I have been first-chair saxophone, a school-newsletter story author (that means published, right?) and more recently, a podcast producer and writer.
And I’ve done ALL of this while being a Big Girl.
I have hated, loved, celebrated, and loathed my body. I have held it hostage, I have given in to the pure ecstasy of a lover’s touch. I have grown two human beings in a womb that was once thought to be unable to carry a baby, and I have pushed those babies in to a world that has shown me love, tenderness, cruelty and hatred. I have felt the hands of someone I did not give permission to. I have tried to scrub my skin off in the hopes of not feeling those hands…
Over the past two decades, I have lived with mental illness. When I was 16, I was diagnosed with moderate depression – but really, what 16 year old COULDN’T be diagnosed with that? The pressure to be beautiful and perfect (read: skinny) is heavy – far heavier than any weight I’ve tipped the scale at… and while I have become more comfortable in my own skin, I still battle those feelings of worthlessness EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
There was a time when the only relief I felt was watching a line of bright red blood appear on my arm, following the deep drag of a razor I had taken apart. Feeling the warmth of life trickle down my arms was a small embrace as the tears fell and mixed with the red lines. It was difficult to explain – it still is. But it’s been years since I’ve hidden myself away to cut… but the thought remains constant.
Of all these badges – these layers – that have been stitched together to create the me you see before you, I wear one that has nearly destroyed my life: victim AND survivor of sexual assault. I see it every time I look in a mirror; every time I look in my daughter’s eyes – the very real threat of being assaulted and harassed the minute you walk out your front door. I am terrified. I am anxious all the time. I have trouble sleeping at night because the images bombard my head as I try desperately to find peace in sleep.
I am not a peaceful soul.
Over the last four years, I have experienced my own traumas – both my parents have been on death’s door and survived; I had a spectacular fall at work which resulted in weeks in the hospital, and months in a bed in my living room, my broken leg immobilized like a giant boom. Following that, I was diagnosed with severe depression, acute anxiety and PTSD. I lost my job. My marriage fell apart. Someone I worked with and trusted assaulted me.
And yet… I pushed my anger down. Replaced it with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, darkness and the single thought that at any point, I could take my own life, end it all and find the sleep I so desperately need.
I pressed forward, pretending everything was all right – that the things I had experienced were not breaking me down, leaving me in a million little pieces on the bedroom floor. You see, I had to remain strong and confident – my children needed to see that no matter what, I was able to carry on. I was able to push through the darkness and find a lit path towards success and sustainability.
I am still not a peaceful soul.
In fact, I am a medicated soul. I am a storm-ridden soul. I am a shell of my former self. I have gained weight from the pills and the midnight trips to the drive-thru. I am a closet smoker. I have lost confidence in the world around me, and worse, in myself. I have been reduced to a pile of tears, anxiety, and tremors brought on by the slightest interference.
I am not me.
I AM STILL HERE.
And now… now, I have given myself permission to be angry. I have poked the tiniest little hole in the layers, and I feel the anger bubbling up. Now is the time to bring that to the surface. Now is the time to get mad, to yell, to throw a punch if needed. I was always taught that my words are more powerful than my fists. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’ve tried to soothe myself with words more than with ripping myself apart. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe, instead of talking myself through survival, it’s time to push myself through survival. It’s the time to punch holes in the world I see around me – the world that was created by the painful truths of my life. It’s time to punch holes in the wall I have built around myself, out of self-preservation and safety. And those walls will only get higher if I let them. If I break apart this body that has been broken, abused, taken advantage of, then I can rebuild it myself. With my hands.
And to hell with what I learned. To hell with what the books and the psychology industry tell me I need to do in order to “heal”. If healing is possible, then I will be the one to figure it out. That is my only hope of survival.
At the end of the day… I’m still here.