letters to a stranger us all | my depression story

August 13th, 2015

It’s been one year since Robin Williams’ death. Three hundred sixty-some days since the reality of depression rocked most to their core. For those of use who battle(d) depression, Robin’s passing elicited an all-too-familiar feeling. Some were discouraged, “if Robin can’t win this fight, what hope do I have?” was a phrase uttered by many. It’s really easy to succumb to depression. To let it envelop you wholly, pull you under it’s seductive, mysterious, alluring spell. It’s harder hardest to fight. It’s hardest to pull yourself out of bed and choose to live another day. To breathe another day. To not-die-today for one more day. To Carry on.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 9.21.54 AM

It’s easy for those who have never battled depression to tell us to “get over it” or “it’s not that bad” or brush off our feelings as if they’re nothing more than a distraction. A nuisance. But for us it’s visceral. It’s written on our bones and seeps through the marrow. It’s who we are. And it is who we are that helps one another. It’s our shared experiences that bond us all together, that remind us we are not alone. We are not islands. We are not abandoned souls clinging desperately to the cliffs of community, waiting for a hand up or an invitation in. We are already there. We are here. We are together. We can win this battle. All of us.

This is my story.

This is my fight song:

//

I was an awkward androgynous punk rock teenager who lived for Bjork and Beck, Ginsberg and Kerouac. For feeling and fleeting romance and unrequited everything. In the winter months I lived on ski slopes, my sanity teetering precariously on the edge of my snowboard, my cheeks a permanent shade of wind burnt pink, softened only by steaming strawberry lattes at the coffee house nearby. I spent the summers with friends; lazily dragging my nine-year-old-boy’s body alongside their fuller, more female forms, in tepid lake water – drying on docks in the last light of dusk. I drove to the middle of nowehere to write. Something. Nothing. Anything. I was always writing. I was overeducated and under taught. Stimulating but not stimulated. I was supposed to be thriving in the perfection of my idyllic, picturesque, quintessential midwestern town. But I wasn’t. I was barely surviving.

I was suffocating.

The day I lived was like any other; the warmth of summer was still clinging to the crisp, cooler breezes of fall as November blew across my mother’s apple trees, the overripe fruit kerplunking on the lawn, feeding and fattening the deer my dad would hunt in the weeks to follow. Election coverage droning on the nightly news, someone beating someone else, this state going blue, that one turning an unexpected shade of red. Crickets and frogs still chirped outside my window, the last reminder of a season ended. Ending. Everything was perfect.

Until suddenly it wasn’t.

There was something about a boy, or a your-ass-is-grounded-for-life sized long-distance phone bill. Something painfully insignificant but hugely earth shattering that led me to go Girl: Interrupted and chase a bottle of Tylenol with a box of Benadryl, as if it were the only solution to my woe. I tipped my head back to swallow a few more pills and realized I was out of water, so I headed out of my room, passing the bathroom without a pause, forgetting entirely that it was there. I walked into the kitchen where my mother was making dinner. She was cooking her usual faire, something wholesome and savory and stereotypically Middle American. The smell of chicken and thyme permeated the floorboards; sweat was beading on the glass over the sink, dripping down the window in perfect Morse Code dots and dashes. The sound of simmering sauce punctuated, with the most perfectly timed staccato rhythm, the yells from Wheel Of Fortune in the next room. Vanna White slayed me. All those dresses. Never wearing the same one twice. Episode after episode. Smiling. Happy.  My parents opting, yet again, for mind-numbing syndication over a meal together at a table. I added that to the heap of all-that-was-terrible and grabbed a glass. Maybe there was something about my stature, the way I was holding the glass, my bulbous, swollen eyes and dripping nose. Maybe she just had a sense. Maybe the timing was just perfect. But at that moment, before I turned to go upstairs, my mother looked over her shoulder and saw me. I stopped to look back at her, my eyes wild. Scared. The instant our eyes met I realized the gravity of what I was doing, what I had already done, and it hit me that my escape plan was faulty. In that instant I knew that mine would not be the only life that my death would claim.

I looked up at her – my beautiful, flawed, crazy, wonderful, loving, hippie of a mother – and uttered quietly, with a calmness that surprises me still, for her to call 911. She didn’t ask why. She didn’t scream, but instead lurched forward, whizzing past me without missing a beat and dialed. I collapsed to the floor. My mother wrapped her small body around me and, while she rocked me with the gentle cadence of her sobs, I waited to die. I waited to be saved. I waited for sirens. I waited for absolution. For lightness. I waited for nothing.

The only thing I didn’t wait for was exactly what I needed most.

Life.

//

Fast-forward five years; I’m in college, sort of. I have a boyfriend, sort of. I know what I’m doing with my life and where I want to…shit. No. Scratch that. I can’t even write that with a straight face. I was clueless as fuck. No. Really. I had no idea what or where or when I was going or who I wanted to be. Typical early twenties-itis. Then two planes hit those two buildings and everything sort of got hurtled into perspective in a massive THWUMP.  Life bitch slapped me across the face and I wasn’t even old enough to drink. I was staring down the barrel of a gun with “What Do You Want To Do With Your Life, Girl” etched into the side of it, and it didn’t take long for that barrel to turn into a chasm. I dug my heels in and steeled my resolve. Which worked only momentarily. Before long I was losing control, I was slipping dangerously close to some invisible edge that I knew was sharp, too sharp, actually, so I started swallowing pills again. The kind of pills prescribed by a doctor (my doctor) that alter your brain chemistry and soften the blow of living a life so entrenched in feeling everything a little too intensely. Once they reached peak saturation in my bloodstream I didn’t feel anything. Not joy. Not sorrow. I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t cry. I had become comfortably numb. I was twenty years old and had turned into a goddamn Pink Floyd song.

//

Fast-forward a decade(ish); I’m in the twilight of my thirties. Married. A couple of wombfruits. A nice house and a good career and a great creative outlet (or two or three). Friends. An (okay maybe entirely unhealthy, albeit fun) infatuation with donuts. All the things I was supposed to go after in life were tidily arranged in a line of “here is why you’re happy.” Except I wasn’t. At first, I thought it was the winter. That Seasonal Affect Disorder had grabbed hold and the polar vortex was sucking the joy out of me. I waited for spring. For the ground and my mind to thaw. Then spring came, and turned slowly to summer. I thought I had beaten the winter blues. Tucked another depression victory neatly under my take-that-you-fucking-asshole-disease belt. The sun was shining. The weather was flawless. We had just moved into a new house in a great neighborhood. I had the best season of my business ahead of me. Then one morning, without the slightest hint of warning, I awoke in a cavern. My chest was tight. I couldn’t breathe. I knew. It took me longer that I anticipated to realize that it wasn’t the winter. It wasn’t a shortage of Vitamin D. It wasn’t short days and long nights and cold so intense it could crack your bones. All of that was gone and yet there was a gaping hole filling up what was once overflowing with happy. Depression had me under its spell again. By the time I knew what was happening, I was almost buried in blackness. I had patched and taped and covered and smiled over it too long, and the wave was upon me. I had lost myself in the blackness again, and I was hell bent on getting out.

I battled depression quietly all summer, and the spring and winter before that, if I’m being honest. I surrendered countless nights to insomnia. I lost my appetite on some days only to find it return, voracious and insatiable the next. I went through mood swings and anger and a heavy fucking case of the never-not-good-enoughs. But I battled. I journaled and I talked to others. I clawed and gnawed and kicked and screamed my way out, and now, in the throes of yet another winter, I’m sitting at my computer on a cold Tuesday evening, with the sound of my wombfruits and the smell of over-cooked tator-tots drifting through my home, writing to you. And I’m happy. Not in the contrived my-therapist-tells-me-to-use-positive-words way. Or in some patched up but still broken way (though, let’s face it, we’re all a little broken, aren’t we?). But in the real way. In the way that we convince ourselves doesn’t exist when depression grabs us and swallows us whole. This happiness is quiet. It’s knowing. It’s rooted in my marrow. Despite the straight-jacket-ness of a depressive-disordered person’s hardwired bio-chemistry, I have found happiness again.

The point of this soliloquy, though, darlings, isn’t that I’m happy, though that is a topic we can get to another time. What matters today, right now, is that I am here. That I am not afraid to talk about where I’ve been or what I’ve been through. I’m not going to pussyfoot around it anymore, or avoid telling people that depression is a thing. It’s real and tangible and visceral and life-threatening. I’m not going to deny that it’s a part of my life. Like my big teeth or one squinty-eye, or wobbly bits, it’s with me now. It’s who I am, but it does not define me.

Since Robin Williams’ death it has become increasingly important for me to tell people that I battle depression. I want to decrease the stigma and get people talking about it. I want to answer their questions and let them know that it’s the wicked siren of disease, luring in any willing victim. Singing beautifully, hauntingly, desperately towards us, calling us home.

I hope that sharing my story can strengthen the resolve in others. In you. To fight like hell. To battle. To tell depression to FUCK OFF. I want to remind you that you’re here. You’re beautiful and alive and perfect. Sure, you feel broken and flawed but trust me, you’re flawless. I want you to know, I need you to know, to believe and breathe and become the truth that, more than anything, you are not your scars. You are not the lies you tell yourself. You are not what depression carves you up to be.

//

There’s a forest through the trees darlings. Contrived as it sounds and trite as a #soblessed humble brag, but true nonetheless, things do get better. Sometimes they get worse again for a while. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster. Sometimes the rollercoaster is exhilarating and perfect and everything-it-was-ever-meant-to-be-wahooooeeeee! Sometimes it sucks.

I can’t make you promises. I’m not going to pretend I can, or that I have all the answers. I have only a few. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are all made of stories. Some are linear, while others are jagged and rocky, a cacophony of sound of movement and imperfection. I know that whatever our paths, whatever our pasts, in this moment, we are all infinite. We are boundless. We have everything in front of us, even if it’s too dark at times to see it. I know that self-love and self-care is hard work. It’s the hardest work. But it’s the most important. I know that reaching out to others is the scariest thing ever. Being vulnerable is like being on the 50-yard line of the Superbowl and singing the National Anthem naked. But I know that asking for help, or someone to talk to or sit in a room with you while you watch Hoarding: Buried Alive or sketch or eat your feelings or do something, anything, that makes you feel saner than you’re feeling when you want to give in or give up or scream or cry, is crucial. We are not islands. We are tribal creatures. Find your tribe or lurch out towards the darkness where we all reside and call on them. Call on us.

If depression has taught me anything, it’s that the rules it writes for our lives aren’t etched in stone. They are malleable. Fragile. Tactile. Their existence depends on one simple, delicate and incredibly vulnerable caveat: our willingness to follow them. After fifteen years and three bouts of depression I think I’ve learned most of the rules.

I’m ready to start breaking them.

(join me.)

xo

//

Today marks three hundred and sixty some x’s in the “WIN” column for those of us still here. Three hundred plus times we’ve opted to get out of bed. To breathe. To keep going.

To carry on.

<3

And because sometimes we all need a little extra help:

To Write Love On Her Arms / Free And Above / Reciprocitea / National Suicide Prevention Lifeline / Contact ME / So Worth Loving / The Giving Keys / Link of Hearts

    

Letters To A Stranger | The Woman You Know

April 30th, 2015

DSC_0273

It’s been over a year since my first installment of Letters To A Stranger, a project that deep down I think I’ve wanted to do my entire life. In the last twelve months I’ve answered two letters, the only two that ever appeared in my inbox. Until a few days ago when this letter arrived:

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Dear Athena,
This letter is years in the making. Its first version was born when I was 18. It was amended when I was 22 or 23. Now I wish to add perspective only age and experience can bring.

I woke up vomiting down the front of my shirt. Tequila. To-kill-ya. Dammit. The people I was drinking with in a dorm room yelled at me to get out. I had just moved into my freshman dorm and wasn’t adjusting well. I was looking for something to do, and as usual, drinking was the most appealing option. I hadn’t known the people I was with for more than a few months if I had to guess, and there were some friends visiting at this “party,” too. I recall stumbling down the stairs and back to my dorm. A guy walked me to my building. When I came to he was raping me. I do not know his name, nor do I recall his face. My body still remembers his crime.

Fast forward. I’m 22 or 23 – same difference to me. I had been out to the bars and went to someone’s house for an “afterbar.” I was excited to be spending time with a particularly attractive guy that I’d met a few times. I never would have taken him for a rapist. I got very drunk and at one point was forced to my knees. This man’s penis was forced down my thrown as tears ran down my face while gagging racked my body. My body still remembers his crime.

Here I sit, heart pounding. No one – NO ONE – I am close to knows both of these events happened to me. No one knows that twice in my life my body was treated like a carnival ride – free to anyone with access. No one knows the shame and disgust that rise in my throat now, many years later, as I recall these events. No one knows how angry I am that they occurred. No one knows.

Society would have me believe that I’m making this shit up. I was drunk and stupid, and I should have made better choices. With our paltry prosecution rates of rapists, society would have me believe these men did nothing wrong. They did nothing more than take what was in front of them. They were “being boys.” But Society is SO FUCKING WRONG!

I am a woman you know. I have a successful career. I have incredible people I get to call family. I enjoy loving, fulfilling relationships with female and male friends. And this is my secret. Our sick society wants this to be my secret. I just can’t let this letter live within me any longer. It has festered alone too long. And my body is ready to be rid of these crimes perpetrated against it.

I might believe these criminals were the reason I couldn’t tell you how many men I’ve slept with. I might tell you these criminals were the reason I have an STD that I will have for life or the reason I had several others over the years. I might believe these criminals were the reason I kept drinking for so long. I might try to tell you these criminals weren’t at fault for assaulting me. I might try to admit that it was my fault for being a dumb, drunk girl trusting the world wouldn’t trample her genitals and sexuality into submission. I might… But I don’t believe that for a moment.

The truth is I pushed. I screamed. I cried. I FOUGHT. I did not submit. And I will not submit today. Today I am sending this letter as a battle cry for those of us who have been wounded by others’ violent crimes. Today I am owning my survivorship and grieving for the years I kept this secret. But I will not lie down. I will not play dead. I am alive and vital and beautiful and powerful beyond even my belief.

So – those criminals took nothing from me. They are the reason for NOTHING! They do not, and will not, have any power in my life. I claim full responsibility for any mistake I’ve made since those criminals tried to defile me as long as they get zero credit for any piece of my life.

I do not write this letter for condolences or pity or any weird hero worship so many survivors receive. I write this letter as a testament to survival and a flourishing spirit that would not be taken down by those criminals. I write this letter to unburden my soul. I write this letter to encourage people to understand they likely know someone with emotional weight of sexual assault in his or her past.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
Dear Woman,

I’ve read and re-read this letter a million times, it seems, waiting for the perfect words to form in my brain and spill out onto this screen, my fingers flicking these keys with fervor, prose pouring out of me in waves, washing you clean. Though you didn’t ask for a response in your letter, you didn’t cry out in need for absolution or advice, I can’t not offer you this:

When I was in middle school one of my friends did 500 sit-ups a day. Every. Single Day. 500! I asked her if it was hard and she simply looked at me, not missing a single beat, and replied matter-of-factly without a hint of condescension or annoyance, “of course it’s hard. But it get’s easier, you know.” We were twelve, maybe thirteen, but her wisdom has stuck with me for the two decades since and came to me in a dream the night after receiving your letter. Suddenly, as I wrote this story out on a piece of paper to another young woman who was, in fact, looking for advice, what I needed you to know became wonderfully clear.

Of course it’s hard. Of course the things that have happened to you and the crimes committed to you have made things hard. Of course dealing with society’s treatment of victims and seeming tolerance of their oppressors is hard. Of course fighting like hell to have a semblance of resolution or forgiveness or normalcy following your assaults is hard. It’s the hardest thing and I’m so proud of you for battling. For pushing and persevering and believing that, absofuckinglutely, you are powerful and beautiful beyond measure. Even more so, I’m proud as hell of you for sharing your story with me, with my readers, with any who may stumble upon this post so that they may have a beacon to turn to when things get hard.

Those criminals did take something from you, though, Woman. They took something from every single one of us when they preyed upon you, and your beautiful and brave fight back is what saves each of us a little more. It is our collective salve, the balm to wounds that are otherwise untended. Aching, deep, raw. Keep talking. Keep lifting up others through the power of your story. Be ready to hear thanks and have people look to you as a pillar. Not because they worship or pity you, but because there is so much strength in having the courage to LIVE YOUR TRUTH OUT LOUD, and everyone wants to touch that. To put their hands on the belly of your bravery and feel it kick. It’s not hero worship to thank a beacon for casting it’s light upon the stony shore so that we may better see the dangers that lie before us.

It’s gratitude.

xo
athena

    

relentlessly beautiful | on self love and redefining beauty

March 13th, 2015

DSC_1037

I speak a lot about beauty; on this blog, on Instagram, in real life. A few years ago I launched a portrait project aimed at changing the way we see ourselves – and our flaws – and helping us to re-examine our own definitions of beauty. I carry the principles of the Beauty Collective with me daily and often talk about them with women during – or after – photo shoots. And yet. AND YET. Here I am, the lifter-upper-of others, the champion for self worth and self love, struggling with who I think I am based on what I look like. Not daily, but often enough. I am a walking contradiction. While I’m relentlessly championing others and helping to propel women to a place of acceptance – a place where they can honor their imperfections and put away their insecurities – I am here, quietly putting way too much value on my exterior. My cover. My dust-jacket. I place a pretty significant portion of my self worth on what my scale and my mirror collectively tell me, and as such the shape or softness of my body often leaves me feeling less than. Inadequate. Not enough.

A year ago I hired a fitness coach and embarked on a whirlwind, intense, life-changing fitness journey. My body changed. My mind changed. My self worth was on a roller-coaster of crazy and, despite my amazing coach, supportive friends and family, and my own best intentions, I lost control of what matters. Of what’s most important. Of the ability to see beyond my exterior – shiny or otherwise. I fell into a shame spiral and I’m finally – finally!– coming out the other side of it. In the process of doing so, I was presented with an incredible opportunity to collaborate with my dear friend Joanne and her friends over at BiffIt Gear to design a tank that reminds us all that we are beautiful.

RBTee

#RelentlesslyBeautiful is a call to action for women to rise up and challenge society’s definition(s) of beauty. Joanne, BiffIt Gear, and I believe that it is our responsibility to continuously challenge one another as individuals, to push each other towards a better life, and to share our journeys with one another. The purpose of #relentlesslybeautiful is to continue a movement we have all been fighting – even though some of us maybe didn’t know or recognize it. It’s to become stronger – together – so that we can uplift, elevate, and empower each other. It isn’t just for – or about – grown women, but also for the generations we lead. It’s for the little women in our lives.

For those of you who know me, you know I’ve struggled – and still struggle – with depression, and it’s a story that is close to my girl, Joanne, too. Which is why I’m extra excited to announce that all proceeds from the sale of these shirts will be donated to the incredible movement and organization that is To Write Love On Her Arms. TWLOHA is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the place where self love and acceptance are easy, natural, and real. Where it is so much a part of me that it’s visceral. But I do know that I’m on that path. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and I am learning how to see myself differently, and to treat myself with grace and kindness. I’m a work in progress, but it’s work worth doing.

It’s true that through self-discovery we often  uncover parts of ourselves we didn’t want to see – or believe – existed, and upon unearthing them we must face the challenges they bring. Some are more easily overcome than others, but there isn’t a mountain out there that isn’t worth climbing. The landscapes of our lives – and our bodies – are beautiful, and it’s up to us – it’s up to me, too – to embrace them. To tie our shoes and walk on. Forward.

Together.