161: I Still Have Nightmares



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“I Still Have Nightmares,” Amanda

I wished I had died. But I survived. Living had become a foreign concept. How did I do it, again? Had I even known what it meant? I held no joy, no peace. The path I had set up for myself in the before was pulling me along. My parents had so many concerns about my life in the after, but I didn’t move home, didn’t drop out. I stayed. I kept moving. Like a train stuck on the tracks that laid before it, unable to change direction.

I existed. That’s probably a better word for what I was doing. I watched too many shows that I used to care about to try and distract me from the monster of my nightmares, whose hands were just moments away from latching on to my throat once again. It was in this stupor that I found a light, a clarity. Julia, on the other side of the screen, had a goal. She had vengeance fueling her will to live while I sat on the couch with no purpose, no life. As I watched her struggle towards her objective, I felt something move inside me. Week to week, I would sit down and watch her story religiously. It was as if my only purpose was to witness her fight, her setbacks. I had started to look forward to something. Soon enough, I was doing that in other parts of my life. I felt something when I saw people, when I talked, interacted with them. The fear I had felt around others for so long had started to give way to something else, something lighter. I wouldn’t call it happiness, but it was like that. It took me two months to touch another human being of my own accord. But I had started to wake up from my daze of crushing emotion before then.

Julia inspired me to seek my own vengeance. I would chase after my own goal with the ferocity that she did hers. A piece of me had been taken that night – I couldn’t give up the rest. So, I looked over my plan from before and adjusted it to fit into my After. I turned my pain, my anger, my shame into fuel and funneled it into my goal. I started living in the ways I knew how. I focused on building relationships, albeit very superficial ones. I focused on school. Now that I could envision a future for myself, I had to make sure not to mess up the opportunities I had in front of me. I focused on my health. It was hard to eat, but I made sure I kept up with it. I am moving forward with a life, achieving goals I set up for myself with a singular purpose: whatever form it takes, however I have to, I will live as much as I can.

I still have nightmares.

They feel so real that even when I open my eyes, I have to turn on the lights just to be sure. I check my locks obsessively. My only line of defense to protect my home from the darkness outside. I can’t have anything touch my throat or be in large crowds for too long. I can’t have too much physical contact with people without having a full-on meltdown. But I learned what I can do as well. I can say when I’ve had enough. Who cares if it hurts someone else’s feelings? I’m protecting myself. No one has the right to tell me what to do with my time and energy. I’m taking back the control that was stolen from me.

What happened to me will always haunt me – I’ll never be free from it. My vengeance is to live. What’s important to my goal isn’t how much I can take before breaking. It’s what I come back from – how I come back from it. I am always one moment, one step away from drowning in the current of my own emotions. But I keep getting up through every setback, every trial. I keep living. And this is my greatest revenge.

0144: How I'm a Survivor


Content warning: The following story contains references to domestic violence, violence, depression, drug use, anxiety, and body dysmorphia, which may be triggering for some readers. 

"How I'm a Survivor," Morgan Murdza

I really am not sure where to start.

This has been a hard thing to write about, along with being super disorganized. There has been so much in my life that has shaped the way I look at the world. So, I guess I will try my best to explain to you how I’m a survivor. 

Murdzas:
My father has never been a good man. Before I was even born he was wicked. He tortured my mother. He would lock her up, he would isolate her from the world, he would beat her, try to push her out a window, and humiliate her. He even mentally abused my older brother. Now, I had no idea of this happening because I was just an idea. When I was born, things only grew worse for my mom and him. There were times of her leaving, only to have him harass and abuse her from the outside. One day, he almost broke my mom’s back with his fist. This was the end. Around the age of two, my mom met someone else. This is another story. My father wanted nothing to do with my until I was four years old, when my stepfather had wanted to adopt me. This created visitations every now and then. I liked it because I had two new sisters who were older than me. I loved them.

My mom and him were civil, but I could always feel a tense vibe from her. As I got older, I began to see his true colors. He was a cruel man. He belittled his workers, belittled practically everyone. My sisters had a different mom. He beat her too before he got with my mom. She wasn’t much better though because she abused her own daughters. Megan, the oldest, got the brunt of my father’s anger. He would belittle and even abuse her, right in front of my eyes. This was tormenting. We drifted when I was about 12 or 13. My sisters lost contact with him too after awhile. Megan, got pregnant when she was 18 years old. This strengthened our lost bond. I loved her and my unborn niece. We grew together.

She miscarried only weeks before being due. This was traumatizing for her. She then got into heavy drugs like heroin and heavy drinking. She got pregnant again. She had the baby. A perfect little boy. She used throughout her entire pregnancy and after, making her a horrible addict. She began to act like my father. I cut off ties with her. She lost custody of her son and the daughter she had years later. My mom had told me about what my father had done to her. I couldn’t believe the man who I had been around could do all of those horrible things.

We talked again when I was 16, forgiving and trying to move forward. He was still the same and lies would continue and eventually, I cut it off. My other sister, Ashley, was really nothing but a leach. She didn’t want anything to do with anyone unless they were useful to her, thus cutting off our relationship. They ruined me in a way.

My loving family:
As I had mentioned before, my mom moved on from my father. She then met the love of her life, Frank. I immediately fell in love with him. He was the greatest man to walk the planet. He loved me and my older brother as we were his own. I was so young when we met. He wanted to adopt me and make me officially his, but my father wouldn’t allow it. Oh well. My mom and Frank married, making him my stepdad, the closest I could get to him being legally my dad.

I loved having my family like this. We moved to a beautiful home in upstate New York and I couldn’t be happier. Not long after was I blessed with a baby brother! I was thrilled. It was finally perfect. I loved my life. I never thought anything bad could happen. Of course, I was wrong. As I was hitting my teen years, I began to watch my favorite love story crumble before my eyes. Frank and my mom were arguing and there was talk over divorce often. Well, it happened. It was ugly and sad, but eventually the friendship happened between the two. We all still saw Frank as our stepdad and saw him whenever we could. Not long after that did I lose my grandma.

My first death ever.

I never thought I would feel a pain like this. Again, I was wrong. In 2009, my stepdad was diagnosed with Stage 4 Small Cell Lung Cancer. I was devastated. He really didn’t get much time. How could I lose my best friend? We got a year with Frank. One last year. One last everything. I watched my hero deteriorate in front of me, one of the most traumatic times of my life.

The accident:
In 2013, my little brother and my uncle were going for a ride in Galway, NY. My mom and I got the call hours later hearing that a van double crossed the lines and hit them head on. My uncle was instantly killed and my little brother was flung to a near death experience. I had almost lost my then, nine year old, little brother. Months in the hospital, months in surgeries, months of watching my mom grieve what had happened to our family. How could I recover from this? How would we? Eventually, my little brother pulled through flawlessly. He can walk, talk, function, everything normally again. It’s a blessing. I, unfortunately, never really healed.

My own problems: 
Ever since I was little I had problems with anxiety. I was constantly a ball of worry. I always worried if people liked me, I always worried if I would do well in school, I always worried about everything. I would make myself physically sick at the constant worrying I had. I worried about people dying around me. I worried about the world ending. I felt that I was always in a crisis situation. As I got older, the anxiety didn’t help with my new found body image issues. This was a constant struggle from the time I was eight until today.

It didn’t matter.

I could have been average, skinny, overweight, anything, and I would still hate who I was. I never lifted myself up, ever. This created negative attention seeking. This created a girl who couldn’t love herself, so she sought it out in other ways. This tormented me and made me loath who I was. The anxiety worsened and I began to suffer from panic attacks and fits of depression. There were days where I wouldn’t want to get out of bed and days where I couldn’t release the negative energy, making me act recklessly. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me and today I still am not sure. 

I know these all seem like little things, but to me, they were never-ending. All of this has shaped me into who I am today. My mind has been molded into a mess of trauma, grief, and constant anxiety and self-hatred. Despite all of this, I pushed on. I tried my best to make something amazing of myself.

I made friends. I helped others.
I did amazingly in school and even went onto college. I am now entering my Senior year, ending my last semester with a 3.9 and a scholarship. I want to rejoice in all that I have accomplished, but my demons continue to haunt me. I am a survivor and I will continue to thrive for happiness and positivity. 

Thank you for reading my story. 


About the art:

Morgan shared this story with us months ago and I couldn't find the right place to share it. But now that we are moving away from topic-based months, this is a great story to encapsulate the complexities of the multiple forms of trauma that exist in some of our lives.

For everything that Morgan has been through, I wanted to create something that she wanted real bad. So I asked her what would make her happy everyday, and she suggested this quote from Grey's Anatomy - along with a desire for pastel colors like pink and purple. She also mentioned a love for glitter, so I used metallic paints in the background - which don't show through THAT well, but the pieces does shine when you pass by it or tilt it a little bit.

I hope this piece helps Morgan heal a little from her many traumas, and I hope her story helps our readers as well.

- Craig.

"Emo Music Kept Me Alive" (Community Post)


Content warning: The following community post contains references to suicide, depression, anxiety, and sexual assault - which may be triggering for some readers.

"Emo Music Kept Me Alive,"
Boston Emo/Pop Punk Community Post

Hello friends! Craig from Art of Survival here!

We're taking a break from our July vacation to share something very special we had the opportunity to participate in over the weekend!

But first, some context -

After the news broke of Chester Bennington's suicide on Thursday, we were shattered - as were many other people from our generation. The lead singer of Linkin Park - the band that spawned a reawakening of rock music in the late 90s/early 00s - had died by hanging.

I cried. A lot. I also sat in much confusion.
And I tried to grasp how we lost another great musician so young.

We've received a great bit of information concerning Chester's personal life over the last few days, and it's clear there was a lot we didn't know about him. I hate knowing he suffered so much in private, and yet, music is where he vented it all - even on the band's latest/most stripped away album, "One More Light." While I wasn't a fan of it musically, I went back through it the other day and truly, he poured himself into that album.

The signs were there.
And today, Linkin Park released a heart-breaking letter to its fans.

As a two-time suicide attempt survivor, I understand, to a degree, how difficult it can feel to live with varying levels of depression, anxiety, trauma, and a desire to live anymore. I came up with Linkin Park - from 2000-2005, I could be found screaming Chester's lyrics into my bathroom mirrors. So this loss really impacted me harder than any of the recent celebrity deaths.

That brings us to this weekend.

In Boston, the we have a booking collective called Coach and Sons Old Time Family Booking. These great human beings put on a near-monthly event called "Live Band Emo/Pop Punk Karaoke." It is exactly what it sounds like - there is a live band, filled with loads of talented humans from various Boston-based bands, and they play setlists like the ones below. And audience members all have the chance to perform their favorite emo/pop punk tracks of yesteryear.

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We were asked to table at the event and supply information on suicide prevention in our community, as well as collect donations for the night's special charity song, which was aptly chosen as "In the End," by Linkin Park.

We raised $309 for the Trevor Project through just this one song! And you can watch the performance that Francis threw down by visiting the event page - Click here.

Throughout the night, we asked people to share their stories of how emo/pop punk music impacted or saved their life - or, they could share specific bands or songs that got them through the hardest time of their life. We would then take their card and place it on the wall behind us so that people knew to add to the wall.

As you can see below, the wall filled up throughout the night, and it was beautiful. More and more stories were added and Katy and I were continuously holding back tears as we put a new piece on the wall. And it was even more powerful to watch folks in the crowd come over to read the cards as well.

There was an air of solidarity that evening.

These are their responses...

 

Some people shared how the emo and pop punk scenes have impacted their lives...

Lots of people shared specific bands that have meant a lot to them and/or have saved their lives...

Others shared the song or songs that has helped them through the difficult times in their lives...

...while many paid tribute to the band and man that helped many of us discover ourselves...

Ultimately, the theme of the night was perfectly summed up with one comment...

Throughout the night, we spoke with hundreds of people who had been impacted by this music scene in one way or another. We're used to fielding stories here - we've shared nearly 150 in just over a year, so you can imagine that we've heard a lot. And creating a space where complete strangers felt comfortable sharing these stories - and many others that were not written down - was amazing.

Our scene was still reeling, still in pain from this recent loss of Chester, but there was so much optimism in the air as well. So many people were willing to talk with each other that night and it was so inspiring.

We love doing this work, and a night like Saturday completely confirmed it. We paid homage to the music that has helped us heal over the years - the music that has kept us alive. We also paid homage to a man that made music that helped many of us discover ourselves.

We don't get paid to do this, we do it so that people know that they are not alone in the various struggles we all face and are often afraid to confront or discuss.

But that's how we saved ourselves and save our friends - we must be willing to discuss our mental health in order to destigmatize the taboo behind the issue.

I want to heal,
I want to feel,
What I thought was never real
I want to let go of the pain I felt so long

- "Somewhere I Belong," Linkin Park

The next Live Band Emo/Pop Punk Karaoke event will take place on August 26th at the Middle East Downstiars in Cambridge, Mass and we will be out there with information on sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention in the scene!

The next Live Band Emo/Pop Punk Karaoke event will take place on August 26th at the Middle East Downstiars in Cambridge, Mass and we will be out there with information on sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention in the scene!


About the Art of Survival:

We are a Boston-based nonprofit that serves to share the stories of trauma survivors in hopes that story-telling will help our community heal. We then make a unique piece of art for each survivors thanks to the generous work of our talented team of artists!

If you'd like to share a story with us, please visit SHARE YOUR STORY!

0138: Robbed from Me


Content warning: The following story contains references to a survivor's experience with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and sexual assault, which may be triggering for some readers.


"Robbed from Me," Elisabeth Rivera

I had everything going, ya know? Until it was all robbed from me. 

This is the reality of anxiety, depression and PTSD for me.

[Note: In case you missed Elisabeth's previous story, check it out here!]

I fear being raped again, reality is it can happen again, who is to promise me that it won't?To this day I face sexual harassment online also in person from cat-calling, sexualizing to men being creeps in the store. Behavior like that only provokes fear in me it triggers my anxiety, that behavior reminds me how vulnerable I am.

Sadly, I am very skeptic of all men rather I know or don't know them, even if I feel comfortable I still worry. I heard of a girl being raped at my brother's old job - a place where I thought of working - and that taunts my anxiety. And on top of sexual harassment & sexualizing I face, this makes it hard for me to get out there and not be paranoid, which is a reason I have been unemployed. I fear for myself in public and at work, anywhere that makes me feel vulnerable. But at the same time, I have this passion to conquer & rise, I want that future I had going for me, I can feel the rise in me trying to come out, because I'm so passionate about my goals, I want to inspire. I am so much more than what the eye sees & the minds of those who think I am just "bumming in life."

But, then some love to add more weight on my shoulders as I try to climb out this hole, by making me feel as I am the perpetrator in my story because we live in a world that is all about status, victimization, the belief that you have to be successful to be valued, and that what happened to me can be avoided. I have came across relatives, friends & men who made me feel like I wasn't good enough of a person or they were embarrassed to be with me cause of my mental baggage & my incident the fact I am not successful yet, sadly having a good heart & mind wasn't important, what happen to accepting someone & helping them be better? But I am thankful for those who accept me, don't make me feel hard to love, don't make me feel like the perpetrator in my life.

"Time to move on"
 "Can it really still be bothering?" 
"Try therapy?" 
"Can't let it control you" 
"You just need to get a job already"
"You're dressing like you weren't raped"
"You too pretty to be a bum in life"

It hurts. I don't mind being told "Elisabeth, you know you can do this, I know your mind may hold you back that's understandable, but I know you have so much to show for in the world, it's going unseen because your mind taunts you, I want you to conquer and rise, I believe in you" there is ways to encourage people & be supportive without the insensitive lack of understanding comments. Or narcissistic opinions on how I should look and act after enduring rape or how I should handle my situation when they can't relate. This is also why I don't do therapy.

I never really had that type of positive support from most, just some. I felt rushed to heal, I felt I was being unrealistic with my mental struggle, I can't say I 100% felt understood by most, let alone supported or believed.

When the world makes you feel like the perpetrator of your own story, you bounce back-and-forth in your fight "I can do this / No I can't." But my mental struggle doesn't just affect my success in life it affects me in so many ways sexually, socially, etc. 

People don't realize, how hard it is to be in a mental war, while trying to pull it together to get back on your feet, while battling my health, my case, the idea of going to trial, other personal issues. I am carrying a lot of weight, I am not always happy. I seem fine on social media, but I am not, especially when I feel I have to prove myself worthy to the world. I know many are watching me like "let's see if she got back on her feet," because society is so status-driven and has no understanding of trauma.

Then again, people can't understand what they've never experienced. But I know one of these days I will conquer and rise. Yeah, I will still have fear. I will always be affected, but I won't let it get to the point of consuming me from living the life I had robbed from me. Time isn't promised; I don't want to keep letting it pass me by, I did try giving up on life but I haven't yet. I'm struggling, yes, but I really do want to live & be happy. I'm trying.

I am greater than my past, that's why God makes sure I keep pushing. Life is beautiful even through the bad. Even through the bad, I never let it change my spirit for the worse. I hope my story changes perspective on mental illness - let alone how affecting and consuming sexual assault can be. People in my life need to stop making me feel like my worth lays in success. I'm worthy without status, I am a good soul without status. Stop making me feel like the perpetrator in my life. Don't judge what you haven't been through. And even if you have, understand everyone is affected differently and mental illnesses can affect everyone differently. 


About the art:

Today's story is a follow up from Elisabeth's story last month, so it's nice to have her explore how her mental health has been challenged due to being sexually assaulted. Her tenacity for survival is inspiring and I was glad that I could make her art based on both her story and a song that she finds central to her survival.

So I took the words from "Phantom Bride," by Deftones, and put them in the background as usual, and went with some brighter colors that are inspired by the Deftones' album art for Gore, it's recent album from 2016. I then took some of Elisabeth's words from her closing paragraphs and formed the two lines that stand out on the front. I toyed with used some of the lines from the song, but I felt her words were strong enough for the piece.

So thankful for Elisabeth sharing two important stories with us over the last two months, we hope it inspires more folks to share their stories with us!

-Craig.

0137: Keeping Small Promises


Content warning: The following story contains references to someone's experience surviving with depression and anxiety.

“Keeping Small Promises," Ryan Ribeiro

I’ve spent the last couple days reading through some of the brutally honest and unbelievably brave stories that have been shared at The Art of Survival. My friends Katy and Craig have built a truly inspiring and breathtaking project that allows folx to tell their stories and begin the arduous, but necessary work that survival often is.

When Craig hit me up to suggest that I write something after talking with them about recent bouts of depression, I initially said sure, but within minutes I was sweating it. I was unsure of how my story would stack up with these other ones. These are brave people, I thought (and think) to myself, I am nothing in comparison. 

What have I done? What can I share? Who could possibly learn from me?

Depression is a condition that, for me, thrives on doubt. Years ago, I unknowingly built an ideal environment that it needs in order to exist. Using self-deprecation and distraction as the ultimate defense mechanism, I deflected the ever-loving shit out of anything that could come close to affecting me. One of the problems with deflection, is that ultimately, it’s not an effective strategy to overcome anything because you are always on the defensive. I’ve trained myself to assume that near everything is an affront to me and my existence, and as a result, I’ve hunkered down and become a trampoline; everything bounces off me.

For some of my friends that struggle with depression, this might begin to sound familiar. But for those that are still not following where I’m going with this, let me get down to it:

I’ve turned self-preservation into an art, to the point where I am fearful of anyone and everyone, treating all of you (yes, you) as a threat. I have terminated endless relationships, both platonic and romantic, because of my unwillingness to be vulnerable and authentic. Despite my natural proclivity to crowds and performance, I put up countless walls and I remove myself from potential social situations because it’s so much easier to hole up in my apartment and watch The X-Files. I’ve doubted the actions of those who reach out to me with kind words and actions because I’m suspicious of their motives. Worst of all, I’ve begun catastrophizing every, single, possible thing that crosses my path; to the point where I don’t know where to turn or what to do.

This is a waste of time and energy. Who would possibly want to read this? These are cool people and you’re embarrassing yourself. Make room for someone who has something more meaningful to share. YOU’RE TAKING UP SPACE.

Here’s the thing: my depression has been a relatively recent diagnosis. Within the last three years. But it was present long before that, and it’s honestly a miracle I was able to get through college and graduate school (and everything else) without disaster. And when you start learning a crucial fact about yourself and your mental health, you start understanding your behavior a little more as well.

You start understanding that your constant need for napping wasn’t laziness; it was a combination of undiagnosed sleep apnea and depression. You realize that when you were lashing out at your romantic partners over the course of the past few years; it was because you weren’t being honest with them, fearful that they won’t understand and will leave you. You learn a little bit more that the reason you are feeling more and more isolated isn’t because people don’t like you or are avoiding you, but that you are heading them off before that even happens; opting instead for another night, bored and alone. You hate yourself and call yourself names because if you do it, than it hurts just a little less when someone else does.

And that’s overwhelming. It’s almost too much. You realize just how much you have been fucking your life up, and you don’t know how to control it, and even worse you don’t know what to do about it.

Look at what you’ve done. You piece of shit, you’re nothing. GIVE UP.

I’m gonna be honest with you, because you deserve it. I don’t have an answer for you, and while The Art of Survival is as much a place for inspiration and affirmation; it is also a place for authenticity and honesty. Depression is fucking stupid and terrible and unbearable and awful. 

And I’m still going to struggle with it, because although this parasite has tricked me into thinking that I’m stupid and terrible and unbearable and awful; I’ve found a therapist who has worked with me to find a way to cope. Almost in spite of myself, I’ve reached out to old friends and I’ve made new ones because I know that the more I’m alone, the closer it becomes a death sentence. I’m learning to take solace in small victories, and to tell myself that patience when working on yourself is the path to meaningful change. But most importantly, at least for now, I didn’t back out when I told Craig that I’d “try to nd put something together.”

SUNDAY, 1:45 AM: Maybe I can try to put something down.

So, is this a story of survival? No, not really. It’s more of a stream of consciousness/essay of survival. I think maybe my struggle with depression has gotten in the way of being able to create meaningful stories … But, fuck … I love stories. Stories, especially ones like those featured in this project, are narratives that display the growth, change, and strength of those who have worked hard to survive the stupid shit that they didn’t deserve. That no one deserves. Stories are proof that we fucking did it, that we’re still here, and that we’re going to continue to be awesome and continue to survive with the help of storytelling, art, companionship, inspiration, etc. 

I went to college originally to become a better storyteller. Perhaps writing this and submitting it is an opportunity for me to make some stories and taking the time to share them. I haven’t been doing much of that lately. This, though, this is a start.
 


About the art:

So my buddy Ryan is one of the best dudes that I know. He is full of ideas, energy, and knowledge. When I saw him sharing his mental health stuff on social media, I asked him to share his story with us! This wonderful and honest stream-of-consciousness piece is the result!

For the art, I wanted to infuse Ryan's love for Jeff Rosenstock's music into the painting. I asked him which song would be best for this piece and he sent me "Teenager," a wistfully sardonic track that encapsulates Rosenstock's brand of dynamic punk tunes.

So I wrote out all of the lyrics on the back of this piece, like I often do with song paintings. And combined two of the lines that get to the heart of both the song and Ryan's story - "I Know I Have Too Many Feelings" (perfect line), and "I Know, I Don't Care." Putting these together created a wonderful juxtaposition on the painting.

I'm so incredibly proud of Ryan for sharing this story with us and I know that it was therapeutic for him and I hope that it helps other people!

-Craig.

0133: Subhuman


Content warning: The following story contains references to a person's experiences with depression and drug use, which may be triggering for some readers.


"Subhuman," Michael Maluk

I've always struggled with what is normal. Since the beginning of highschool I've always wondered how everyone else seemed to be able to seem so well put together. I never realized that I was different or struggled, but always just assumed everyone else was just better at dealing with the day to day. It wasn't really until after I enlisted in the military that I realized something was wrong. 

It started out with huge bouts of depression, worse than I've ever really experienced before, typically followed by periods of energy. I'm not talking red bull wired, either. I felt on fire. Everything was beautiful. I could do anything and help everyone. All I wanted to do was share this gift. I'd go days without sleep, without even noticing it. Then, I'd crash. Hard. The contrast made the depression unbearable.

After a few years of this, I managed to get into drugs to get out of my head. Nothing incredibly hard, or that would show up on a drug test. But, it did help. I was able to take vacations from my head. Was it healthy? Probably not, but it worked for a little while. 

I ended up opening up to my mother about what I had going on mentally and how I wasn't sure it waa sustainable. I think this scared her as she gave me the ultimatum of getting help or she'd call my supervision herself. A few months of psych drugs later and I was lower than I'd ever been. Seroquel, zyprexa, abilify... All these drugs managed to do was steal my sense of self. There was no color in my life. Everything was flat. I didn't feel happy or sad. I just didn't feel.

That's when I decided to take my life. I was home alone on leave. I spent the last week lying face down on the couch. I remember the moment when I decided I had had enough. I rummaged through the medicine cabinet and found a bottle of Percocet and took as many as I could manage and washed them down with a beer. The next memory I had was waking up in a hospital bed. I was apparently conscious before this, but I don't really remember it.

Then came the inpatient care. I've never felt as helpless and hopeless as I did in the days that followed my failed suicide attempt. I remember being put in a psych ward and watched 24 hours a day. They took my shoelaces and drawstrings from my clothes. I felt subhuman. There was very little empathy given and I felt extremely alone. It was hard.

Fast forward a few years and I'm about to separate from the military and go back to school to study music. I'm moving to a great area in KC and I honestly can't remember a time I've been this excited. Things get better. There are people that love you. Ask for help, it's not a sign of weakness. 


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About the art:

Michael submitted this story us WAY back in October, and also threw a kind donation our way. But I held onto this piece for May because it fit the mold of Mental Health Awareness so well.

Michael's story is all-too-common among men in American culture. Seeking out all other sorts of comfort and coping strategies beyond reaching out for help. I know I struggled with drinking due to my depression, so it brought back some of my own memories to read Michael discuss his drug habits like this.

For the art, I was given free reign. I wanted this piece to be a bright reminder for Michael. So I used some vibrant blues and pinks, and for the quote, I altered the last line of Michael's story. I hate that we had to hold onto this story for so long, but it was worth it in the end!

-Craig.

Tattoosday 018: Trains & Sewing Machines


Content warning: The following ink story makes references to anxiety and depersonalization disorder, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Trains & Sewing Machines," Xavier Pastrano

Back in 2014, my wife and I had an amazing, music inspired opportunity: we would travel to London, England to meet Imogen Heap, in person, at her home/studio to receive a limited edition box set of her album Sparks. Let me back up a bit...

My wife and I both love music. It has served many purposes in our lives, both before we met and while married. My wife's all-time favorite artist is Imogen Heap, so when I saw that Imogen was releasing a limited edition box set of Sparks with a ticket to a release party at her home,I thought to myself, "When will this kind of opportunity ever present itself again? This needs to happen." So I pulled the trigger without hesitation, and surprised my wife with the news as an early birthday/anniversary gift. To say she was excited is an understatement. However, we were unaware at the time that my dormant, psychological disorder would rear it's ugly head during the trip.

Prior to leaving for London, I had been feeling "off." It was a sensation I had experienced numerous times before, but I never talked about it because I was afraid people would think I was crazy. When it happened, it felt like things weren't real; it was as if everything looked and felt like a dream. I tried to shove the thoughts and feelings out of my head, but that was easier said than done. So, I just tried my best to keep it together and off we went to London.

Despite some jet lag, I was okay the first day there. However, on the second day, I experienced a full blown panic attack while waiting for a train in the Underground. I saw a white male wearing a backpack on his stomach, actively "checking out" everyone around him, and making awkward comments to bystanders. I glanced over and we made eye contact. He then walked straight over to me and stood beside me. It was at that moment that I just couldn't take it. I told my wife, "We need to go...now." I was convinced that he was going to blow up the train or something. My wife kept her cool and walked me over to a nearby bench where we sat down and she talked me through my attack. Meanwhile, the passengers boarded the train and left...and we missed our train to see Stone Henge: something I had been dying to see since I was a kid.

The following days were absolute hell. I felt stranded and de-tethered, and the unfamiliarity of a foreign city only made things worse. The night before the party, I barely slept. I experienced one of the worst "dream-like" episodes I've ever had. I literally felt like I was losing my mind and about to derail. The only thing that kept me together was a phrase I kept repeating: "You're not alone. You're with you're wife and you're a team. You're a team."

The next day we went to the party and I was trying my best to keep my shit together. On the outside I was all smiles, but on the inside, I felt like a large, complex machine being held together by loose rubber bands and tooth picks. However, once my wife and I met some other fans from Wisconsin, things started to get better. My anxiety started to loosen it's grip and I was able to relax a bit. 

Once the party was over and we headed back to our hotel, my wife and I decided to go back to the states early. We changed our plane tickets and forfeited our opportunity to check out the Harry Potter Universal Studio Tour and a few other adventures, which I was really bummed about. Once we got back home, my wife just said, "I really think you would benefit from talking to somebody about what you experienced." I agreed, and a few weeks later I had my first meeting with my counselor/therapist. After several sessions and diagnostics, I was diagnosed with Anxiety and Depersonalization Disorder. *Oddly enough, when I explained how I felt during my "episodes", my counselor said it was incredibly similar to the list of side effects in the DSM-5, which I had never read before.

What was amazing was that by simply opening up and talking about what I was experiencing, the grip of my depersonalization began to loosen. Once I realized that it was a real thing, I felt utter relief. The talking helped a lot, but there was still a decent amount of work to be done. Upon our return to the states, I couldn't even go for a car ride by myself to a nearby city (25 miles) without nearly having an attack, so I took baby steps. Eventually, after 6-8 months, I was feeling like my old self again and doing things I never thought possible, like riding my bike as a means of transportation for a weekend in an unfamiliar city.

Eventually, I wanted to get a tattoo that spoke of my journey. Stylistically, I've always loved minimalist artwork and sketchy line drawings, so I opted for a train in this style. However, the train itself has a couple meanings: 1. It's a nod to the line "Trains and sewing machines" from Imogen Heap's song "Hide and Seek" and 2. It's a reminder of what my wife has done for me. She kept me "on track" during a time when I thought I was going to "derail." Without her, I honestly don't know what I would have done. She's my rock, and I love her dearly. 

It's been about three years since all of this has happened, and since then, I have taken on a much more vocal role in promoting the social acceptance of mental disorders and putting to rest societal stereotypes and misconceptions. It has been an incredible journey, and although it was insanely difficult at times, I wouldn't trade it for anything.


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

Tattoosday 012: Fight & Win


Content warning: The following story contains references to suicidality and mental health, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Fight & Win," Sylvester Gaskin

For most of my life, I’ve always felt out of place. I’ve never really felt like I had a community to connect with. I moved around a lot as a kid, so it was hard to keep friends. I’m a multiracial dude with a bad anxiety disorder, so trying to talk about both wasn’t a great conversation starter. However, the one thing that made me feel like I had a place in this world was with the faithful of the Seattle Sounders FC.

I heard about the Emerald City Supporters during one of my cohort meetings for my Doctorate program in Seattle. A colleague of mine went to a match, was warmly welcomed by the ECS, and told me “go…just do it and you won’t regret it”. So, during my last cohort weekend, I got two tickets for my old roommate and went to a match. Seattle vs. Portland. MLS Playoffs. I marched with the crowd from Occidental Park to CenturyLink Field, bought my first scarf, learned the chants, and just enjoyed the whole experience.

The one chant that stuck in my mind was “COME ON SEATTLE! FIGHT AND WIN!” For some reason, “fight and win” moved me. Maybe it was because I was struggling with my program and wondering if I could actually earn my degree. Or it was because my anxiety disorder had taken over my life and I was questioning my existence. Earlier that week I had contemplated suicide, however the thought of attending my first Sounders match gave me the strength to keep moving forward.

Once I sat with the Royal Brougham Faithful and felt like I had a family. I didn’t know any of the chants but some ECS members taught me. They were jazzed that a guy from Iowa would come all the way to the Pacific Northwest to drink Hefeweizen and take part in an amazing sports experience. Pretty soon after we scored our first goal, I’m high-fiving people, drinking beer and screaming at the top of my lungs. I felt at home.

Last summer, I was left in charge of my office during our busy season. I had little support from my superiors and was told by colleagues that they didn’t care for my opinions or ideas because I was just filling a seat until someone else took over. I was doing whatever I could to maintain a high standard of work and I was struggling. I had never felt so alone and my suicidal thoughts came roaring back with a vengeance. However, I took a trip to see Seattle play New York City FC in the Bronx with my partner. Once again, I was with my ECS family. I was a member of the faithful, yelling, cheering, singing “Roll on Columbia” and having a great time watching us win. That victory had me on a high for the rest of the summer. And I kept telling myself “fight and win” through that busy time.

I told myself that I was going to get “fight and win” on my arm so I could look at it and remind myself that I’ve got the inner strength to fight whatever anxious or suicidal thoughts come into my head. I purposely asked the tattoo artist to get as close to the blue and rave green of the team colors. I also had the semicolons replace the “I” in both words to represent the fact that I can keep going. I can honestly tell everyone that since I got the tattoo it’s saved me many times from all the negative thoughts that run through my mind. I stare at it at the gym when I need motivation to lift more and get my body right. I rub it before meetings where I know I’m going to be ignored. I read it before I sit down to my thesis and I prepare to defend my proposal and submit my research paperwork.

I can’t wait to go to my next match. It will be another chance to sing, to drink, to feel like I’m a part of something, and to yell “FIGHT AND WIN!” at the top of my lungs with so much meaning.


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

091: Keep Fighting


Content warning: The following post contains references to self-harm (including hanging), suicidality, anxiety, and depression, which may be triggering to some readers.

"Keep Fighting," Brady Turner

I don’t really know where to start. For me I had always had a tumultuous childhood. My biological father left my mother and I when I was a toddler. When I was told this I was seven and my life changed from that moment. Who would want me if my own father didn’t? Why am I not worthy of love? From that moment I had trust issues and have always been concerned with people leaving me. Of being abandoned by those who promise to cherish my life.

Fast-forward to my teenage years. I was highly anxious and engaged in self-harm habits of hitting myself, rocks, and believing that I was worth nothing. I watched as my mother’s second and third marriage dissolved and felt torn apart by my family. That following summer I met, whom I believed at the time, was my soulmate.

She was my first girlfriend the first person who I thought really cared about me and wasn’t forced into it. However, she threatened to kill herself if I ever left her. That she would self-harm if I made her too nervous. This exacerbated my anxiety as I felt that I had a human life in my hands. Eventually the relationship deteriorated and I broke up with her and in part because I had tried ending my life.

As I looked up on the ceiling the broken belt in my hands, bruises around my neck, I felt utterly hopeless. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I felt that my family wouldn’t care. I was wrong about that. I told an aunt who got in touch with my parents who made sure I got treatment where I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

Near the end of being an undergraduate student I felt the happiest I’d ever been. I was in a committed relationship and things were going well. However, my past demons soon reemerged as her feelings changed. Having the conversation was incredibly difficult as I did not know where we stood or how I would live my life.

For me this brought back on the feelings that I thought I had under control. Looking back upon my experience I realize I had kept busy. Avoided addressing my feelings and had stopped seeing a counselor. I wept uncontrollably whenever I wasn’t at work. I felt so lethargic and my thoughts drifted back to that belt. About how it shouldn’t have broke. How I deserve to hurt and that nobody would ever want to be with me. People were commenting how I wasn’t being “normal” and for those I did confide in they said “think happy thoughts.”

I pulled away. Isolated myself even further. Why would I want to burden others with my depression and anxiety? When I get like this I know it’s wrong. That there are those that care and support me. My anxiety and depression are like demons in my ear pulling me away from what I know is true.

I fought for a long time by myself falling further into depression. I found some solace in working out, my mind and muscles being able to focus on something else. Exhausted I would go to bed after barely eating anything. I wrote a suicide note planning to go through with it. Not immediately, but in my head I knew it would be soon. Finally, I looked in the mirror one day and saw myself. I saw how exhausted I was. I was one person going to war and I was losing. I couldn’t keep the war up by myself. I knew what would happen if I did. So I reached out. Not to a relative, but to friends who are as close as family. They listened and didn’t judge. They offered to be a shoulder a cry on or to be someone who I could yell to the world my frustrations. 

My mind is my own enemy taunting me begging me to an endless war that has no end in sight. For far too long I’ve been fighting this war on my own, not utilizing the support that I have around me. Friends and family have shown me that while I may be in a war I’m not alone.

I struggle with depression and anxiety every day. It’s a battle which I lose some days. I cry immobilized in bed my anxiety and depression pulling me in two different directions. Sometimes I look at myself ready to strike to beat the battle inside of me. I think about giving in and just giving up on the war. I stop and I look in the mirror at the demons taunting me to give up, to lay down my life. 

I think about who I would hurt by doing so, and how I can work to make the world a better place. Suicide is something that I think about on a daily basis. When things get bad I reach out now so I’m not alone. Being alone in your own thoughts can be the worst torture. I’m writing this story so that others can know they aren’t alone. That their biggest enemy isn’t out wandering the world. It’s themselves. I’m writing so that those who haven’t struggled with suicide can understand the pain we endure. 

You can help those fighting suicide. Don’t just say you’ll be someone they can talk to. Be there and be present. You don’t have to say anything your presence will make all the difference. People can’t fight this war alone. Don’t ignore the soldier on the ground. They just need someone to help pick them back up.

Keep fighting.


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About the art:

This painting is for Brady. Brady had a vision in mind for his piece of hills and mountains with a path in the middle and the quote "Sometimes even to live is an act of courage."

This quote is perfect for his story because it really speaks to the strength of his character. Some days it takes it takes a lot of energy and courage just to make it to the end of the day. The starry sky I painted to represent the endless possibilities that are out in the universe for each of us. The winding road signifies that no path through life is straight and easy.

There will be bumps and unexpected turns and even forks in the road. Sometimes it is necessary to stop and take a breath once in a while. I hope Brady loves his artwork and it inspires him through tough times.

- Emily

Tattoosday 004: I'm Only Human;


Content warning: The following post contains discussion of anxiety and depression, which may be triggering for some readers.

"I'm Only Human, pt. 2" Rachel

If you were to ask my 18-year-old self what I thought about tattoos, I probably would have said, “That’s not for me." Interestingly enough, several years later, I now have three tattoos, with a few others in mind. The idea of wanting a tattoo solidified when the band Switchfoot saved me from the deep recesses of my mind during my junior year of college.

My school had transferred from the quarter system to semesters, and I was struggling with a lot of things that caused chaos: I had a crush on a guy who I worked with but felt that people like him never date people like me, I didn’t get the job I wanted (at the time, I got it later the following semester), I was working around 2 or 3 jobs at the time since I felt the pressures of having a financial arrangement with my parents if I didn’t get a 4.0 GPA, and I had just found out I failed a prerequisite course to my major. All of these thoughts of self-loathing turned into depression, and that is when I experienced my first major anxiety attack.

The band Switchfoot, which I would classify as alternative rock, saved me from the deep, dark thoughts that would haunt my mind at times when I least expected it. My roommates, of course, had no idea that I was struggling so much. I had reached out to very few people, because my 20-year-old naïve self believed that I was invincible and I did not have any issues with my mental health. It wasn’t until a couple weeks after I graduated that I got my first tattoo, much to my parents’ dismay, and I was immediately hooked. Self-expression is so important, that the ink that penetrates my skin each time I got my tattoos slowly became a part of me, as if I was born with them. The most recent tattoo, however, gives me hope that I can overcome the anxiety and depression I have been officially diagnosed with while I was completing my second and final year of grad school.

I can’t explain the shift I felt inside my head, but I know that something changed inside of me that makes it hard to explain what it feels like to have both anxiety and depression. The best way I can describe it is like a light switch, where it turns on and off whenever my brain decides it’s the best time to cry over something. Grad school was rough as it was, being that the culture was not the best for someone like me and there are some people that caused me to doubt myself in ways I never thought possible. I cried almost all the damn time. I blamed other people for how I felt because I was too insecure about myself. I was sick of it, so goddamn tired of all the bullshit I put myself through and how my brain operated, that when I reached my breaking point, it was right when I was trying to find a job in Higher Education.

When I didn’t find a job, I hated myself. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror each morning as I got ready for work, and it got to the point where I didn’t understand why I getting up each day to help my own students. I had reached an all time low when everyone else was getting on campuses and I had nothing. The anxiety and depression told me I was a piece of shit, and I believed it to be true. No one could console me, not the love of my life, who even now when I experience an anxiety attack, he still tells me I’m beautiful, to my best friends who have been there for me since the very beginning. I couldn’t even tell my family how much I hated myself, until my boyfriend told me I needed to call them after avoiding them for weeks.

Fast forward to April 2016. Around my birthday, I decided that I had wanted another tattoo. I had heard the song “Human” by Christina Perri a while back, and fell in love with it. She got it. She had sung all the pain I was going through. It was a few months earlier when I had stumbled upon Project Semicolon.

While I have never been someone with suicide ideation, I did get diagnosed with depression by my therapist this past year after I had something said to me that caused my anxiety to shift into something darker. After reading testimonies and crying from relief that I had finally been diagnosed with something that made sense as to what I was feeling, I made the decision to get the tattoo inspired by Christina Perri: “I can fake a smile. I can force a laugh... I can hold the weight of worlds if that’s what you need. Be your everything. I can do it. I can do it. I’ll get through it, but I’m only human.”

The concept of humanity proves that I can make mistakes. I am not perfect, even though I am desperate to be the perfect friend, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect daughter, and the perfect employee. I set myself up for failure. The anxiety and depression turn into self-loathing, which turns into despair. I will be fine one minute, talking to you about whatever topic comes up, then BAM! I get self-conscious, I think I’ve said the wrong thing, or feel like you’ve taken too long to respond, and I fully believe that I’m unworthy and unlovable.

The anxiety tells me that my boyfriend, whom I love with my entire being, is going to leave me because I cry too much and I am the ugliest human being in the world, and who the hell would want to be with someone who looks like me? Who would want a daughter who couldn’t manage to get a decent GPA as an undergrad? Who would want a friend who is always self conscious about the way she looks, and knows that every goddamn time we go out, men will always notice the friends and not her? Humanity is tricky, because I have to admit that I have faults, and understand that I am not perfect, even though I try my hardest to be so.

Self-expression and music saved my life. It saved my sanity. Do I still get anxiety attacks and depressive episodes? Absolutely. It can take up to 4 hours for me to calm down from an anxiety attack, and even after it happens, numbness kicks in and I can’t even get the energy to get up off the floor. The light at the end of the tunnel is seeing my tattoos. Particularly I’m only human;. It gives me strength, even when people tell me that “Everyone gets depressed” or “Why are you getting anxious about this? It’s no big deal.” You do not have to tell me about my flaws. I can do that all by myself, courtesy of the anxiety and depression. What I want you to acknowledge is I’m human. I am far from perfect. But by accepting my humanity, I am one step closer into realizing that I was put on this earth for something great. I just haven’t found what that is, yet.


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About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

087: I'm Only Human


Content warning: The following story contains references to anxiety and depression, which may be triggering for some readers


“I’m Only Human,” Rachel

When I was a kid, I would always be labeled as “the worrier." I always worried about the future, my friends, my family, and typically things that were out of my control. As I got older and went to college, the worry turned into anxiety, and adding the factors of never feeling good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, and feeling unworthy and unlovable, the anxiety turned into depression, and the depression turned into self loathing and despair.

I experienced my first major anxiety attack during my junior year of college. I was working 2 to 3 jobs, trying to figure out whether or not Student Affairs was the right field for me when those closest to me made it known they didn’t understand the field and thought I could do better, and I had just found out that I had failed a prerequisite course for my major. I couldn’t handle it. I broke down for hours in my room in an apartment I shared with two of my friends. I don’t think they ever knew how much I hated myself back then. Even now, not many people know how much I struggle with anxiety and hating myself.

Now, I’m about to graduate with my Master’s while trying to find a job. As I type this post, I am in the airport waiting to go to an interview. What the schools and most people don’t know is that the job search caused a major shift in my anxiety. For Student Affairs professionals, there is an annual conference that people attend to try to get a job. I call it Higher Education speed dating to those who don’t understand the purpose of the conference.

What no one knows is that this conference I attended made me feel like the most unworthy person in the world. My peers were getting second round interviews and offers on the spot. I had over 20 interviews, and only one school offered a second round the next day after the first. The worst part was trying to fake it by being content with not having any prospects. It was a façade, which failed miserably because I would cry every day after we got back from the conference. Anxiety attacks happened every day when I didn’t hear back from schools, causing me to cry for hours. No one could console me. Who would want to, when I hated myself so much that I pushed everyone away?

Those who do not have anxiety, allow me to tell you what I experience: it comes on suddenly, like turning on a light switch. My heart rate goes up, and my chest hurts so bad it feels like my heart is going to explode. The tears start coming, and they don’t stop. I hyperventilate while sobbing. This can last for hours. Then, it stops. I become numb all over. I hate myself for allowing this to happen. The thought of “No one can love someone who is broken” frequents my mind. All of the doubt I have about never being good enough poisons my mind until that is all I can think about and I become so debilitated I can’t do anything for the rest of the day, or it keeps me up all night. Then come the thoughts of “Why does this happen to me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I never good enough?” 

The worst thing a person can say to me is that I need to get over it. Anxiety does not allow me to get over it. It plagues my heart, body and mind. It does not help when I hate myself for feeling this way. I have never felt good enough for anyone, even though I put on the face of enduring through the tough stuff a lot of people my age go through. The self-loathing I have affects all of my relationships.

It’s hard to have faith in myself when I feel like I am not worth anything to anyone.

This mentality seeps into my everyday life, including having my best friends and my boyfriend comfort me what feels like all the time. How can they love me like this, when the anxiety and depression cause me to think I’m unlovable, that I’m not good enough to be in their lives? This has caused me to push them away at times, and not only do I hurt them, but I hurt myself in this twisted process.

I would be lying if I said things are better now that I am in the midst of my job search and am about to graduate. These feelings come and go. With all the lightning going on in my head, it’s a miracle I have made it this far. I have been seeing a therapist for almost 3 months now. He gets it, but he also tells me I need to love myself. Easier said than done when you feel like you screw everything up in your life.

This blog isn’t meant for pity, but for you all to understand that often times there is much more than what meets the eye. I can fake it until I make it. Much like with the recent tattoo I have that is inspired by Christina Perri, “I can fake a smile. I can force a laugh. I can dance and play the part if that’s what you ask. Give you all I am. I can do it, but I’m only human.” I’m only human. It’s a small statement, yet powerful beyond words. I never knew how much my identity would be stripped away with the self-hate I have for myself.

The pain is excruciating. I can only hope that one day, the self-hate will transform into self-love. After all, this is my story. What better way to end one chapter by beginning another with acceptance? It starts with hope.


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About the art:

Reading this story was especially powerful for me, as I was also in the middle of a job search, and empathized with a lot of the feelings and anxieties expressed.  For whatever strange reason, as soon as I thought about "anxiety in the job search," the first image that came to my mind was the endless row of mailboxes at the Placement Exchange (former attendees can understand what I mean).  As a candidate, nothing encapsulates that feeling more than waiting for a silly slip of paper that potentially holds your future employment.

As we discussed different images of stress from the search that could be helpful in planning the art, this survivor shared how music was an important part of their survival journey, and how it inspired a tattoo.  We talked about favorite songs and Christina Perri's "Human" was shared (as it was the inspiration for the title of the story).

I took a leaf out of Craig's book of style (thanks CB!) and wrote some of the lyrics to "Human" underneath the painting of the clouds and sky.  We decided on a quote from a wonderful organization, To Write Love on Her Arms, as a focus for the top layer.  Here's what the survivor had to say about the meaning of those lyrics and words:

"I think with the words of "Human" by Christina Perri painted behind the To Write Love On Her Arms quote represents the darkness and shame I have had for over 10 years. Adding the color blue into the mix portrays the sensitivity I feel all the time, while also attempting to hide the shame. The painting itself is a representation of how much my soul and heart explode each time I have an anxiety attack, and have to pick myself back up again." 

If you haven't checked out To Write Love On Her Arms, it's a perfect match for our project's theme, with a much stronger focus on training, advocacy, and outreach into the fields that most often interact with survivors.  

I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to connect with this survivor and share this experience.

- Beth Paris

085: Nothing is Easy


"Nothing is Easy," Anonymous

Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.

 

A large, grainy black and white photo with a fading scrawl across it is taped the back wall of my office and every day, it keeps me alive.

On Sept. 20, 1964, quarterback Y.A. Tittle dropped back to pass when he was leveled by John Baker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a defender intercepted the errant pass and returned it for a touchdown, Tittle managed to pull himself to his knees as photographer Morris Berman snapped the immortal image.

Tittle was helmetless and bloody as he gasped for air, having suffered a cracked sternum and a concussion on the play.

The league’s most valuable player just the year before, Tittle finished the game and the 1964 season with some of the worst statistics of his career. He would later say that no one remembered any of his records, but only that photograph: An image of a broken man who looked like he had nothing left to give.

Years ago, my father procured my copy of the Tittle photograph for me at some sports show somewhere. Adding a rare personalized flourish to the image, Tittle signed it for me with a simple phrase:

“Nothing is easy. –Y.A. Tittle”

--

I didn’t know that what I had came with a formal title or a real diagnosis. The common words associated with various aspects of my feelings seemed to come close but never quite nail it down: anxiety, depression, moodiness, despair… It was like I was a walking Zoloft commercial.

Certain phrases or stories came close to what I felt. I read once about a college hockey coach whose team had won a national championship. While his players celebrated in the locker room, a friend found him quietly sitting in a hallway, completely drained.

“They had succeeded,” the author explained. “He had avoided failure.”

Years later during a doctoral seminar, a faculty member explained that many of us would have a moment in our careers where we fell down or couldn’t meet expectations. She said that a “moment of doubt” would creep into us, giving us this feeling that someone finally figured out that we aren’t as smart as we were thought to be and that we would basically feel like death. I remembered that because I was feeling like that every single day during that program.

Who the hell am I? I don’t belong here with all these better, stronger, smarter people.

How am I going to survive after school? I won’t have faculty to help me research or teach and I’ll just fail.

What will people think about me when they see me, broken and battered? Will they think, “A tragic tale of wasted potential?” Will they laugh?

About six years ago, I found the term that helped me understand why these thoughts rattled through my head while other people constantly looked at me and my work with amazement:

Imposter Syndrome

--

The hardest part about living life in fear like this is to know that any little thing can knock me on my ass. I read 28 course evaluations today, of which 27 were incredibly positive. One kid essentially told me I needed to get another job and that “anyone who can read a book” could have taught this class.

I can’t remember anything the other 27 said. This one sucks up all the space in my mind.

The kid knows…

I don’t belong here. I’m not good enough. I’m not strong enough. I’m a failure.

It gets worse when there are real issues, such as a colleague with a vendetta or a group of students calling for my ouster.  This year has been nothing but that, leading to sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days.

Years ago, I was placed on medication to “level me” with this stuff. This year, the dosages got higher and the number of pills grew as the beatings continued, both from outside and within.

How I feel is almost indescribable.

It’s the feeling that I’m going to fail people who are counting on me.

It’s the feeling that I will lose.

It’s a feeling like I am encircled by a group of violent, angry people who are kicking and beating on me. It’s not physical violence, but it feels the same to me.

I always feel like I’ve fallen to one knee, gasping for air, reaching out for an invisible hand of support, only to be knocked back. It’s something where I can’t curl up and protect myself because I’ll just die if I do. It’s something where I can’t try to escape because the beating will kill me.

It’s that feeling that I have no goddamned hope at all.

--

Just like any other condition of this type, there’s no pinpointed cause and no true cure. It’s management as opposed to repair.

The thing that makes this difficult for me is that I value solution and completion. I take on a task, I work through the task and I complete the task.

Find the problem, fix the problem.

Even more, the condition lends itself to undercut the most basic security blanket that others can use to help themselves thrive: Prior success.

I have written about a half-dozen books and dozens of other publications. I have a wall full of awards and a curriculum vita that most people would give anything to possess.

Imposter Syndrome tells me none of that matters.

A normal person would see a challenge like writing a book or running a marathon and think, “I have done this before. I have succeeded. If I do what I did last time, I should be in pretty good shape.”

I think, “I got lucky last time. It will never happen again. I’m going to fail and people will be upset with me.”

The beatings will return.

--

The most incredible thing about Y.A. Tittle was that he played the entire 1964 season. He took an incredible beating, but he kept getting up.

His career was essentially over.

He couldn’t lead his team to a title.

He couldn’t win another MVP.

And yet, he got up.

After each sack, each hit, each violent condemnation of his diminishing skill set, he got up.

He stood again and again and again.

Every time I look at that photo, I think about what courage really is: Getting back up one more time, knowing that is all you can control.

I don’t know if the next day will be better or worse.

I don’t know if I will be able to withstand the next beating.

What I do know is that I will stand up again, spit the blood out of my mouth and tell whatever is tormenting me that day, “You don’t get the best of me, no matter what, because you’re not strong enough to kill me today.”

Each day, I look at that photo and I start again with the simple thought that drives me:

“Nothing is easy.”


nothingiseasy.JPG

About the art:

For this piece, I took the phrase that already keeps this storyteller afloat, and created another reminder for them to keep getting back up and fighting every day. 

I connected in a special way with this story, and shared that in writing on the back of the canvas, and I'd like to keep that message just for them. I'm so proud of this person for sharing their experience, and bringing to light what those with imposter syndrome truly deal with each day.

-Katy

Tattoosday 001: It's Okay


Content warning: The following story contains references to self-harm, anxiety, and drug use, which may be triggering to some survivors.

“It’s Okay,” Kait Darling

I recently got "IT'S OKAY" tattooed across the insides of my fingers. Out of all of my tattoos (which cover about 70% of my body at this point) this is by far the most meaningful one.

I got this for ME.

It's a constant and permanent reminder that no matter how bad things may seem, that at the end of it all, it's okay. I've suffered from anxiety since I was a small child and my depression set in as I got older.

Coming from a family with an alcoholic father and a heroin addicted sister, my childhood and teenage years weren't exactly ideal. All while they were struggling with addiction, I was battling some pretty serious demons of my own.

The end of middle school was when I really hit rock bottom. I resorted to cutting myself on an almost daily basis in order to deal with my feelings and my home life. High school got even worse for me when my anxiety became absolutely crippling and going to school every day was a fight.

An eating disorder also grabbed hold of me, adding more fuel to the fire. Three high schools and a drop out later, I finally started to gain some control over my emotions, along with the help of some medication. Suicide always seemed like a good option to me, and after a few attempts but to no avail, I figure there must be a reason that I'm still alive.

Here I am, all these years later, almost 25 years old and soon to be married. Every day is still a struggle but I refuse to stop fighting.

I hate to see that there are other people that have to deal with this stuff as well but I'm glad that my trials and tribulations can be used in a positive way to help others get through their dark times. If I had to go through the hell that I went through in order to help even just one person, then it all will have been worth it.


About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

078: Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist


Content Warning: This story contains some language pertaining to violent experiences that might be upsetting or triggering for some survivors. 


"Dealing with Traumatic Loss as an Atheist," Katy Hamm

So, I’m an atheist. I always have been. But in high school I went to a Christian youth group with my best friend from school, Emily. Mostly because many of the kids in the group were into the alternative music scene. We became close with a few of them, and a group of us even went to our first Warped Tour together. 

When a new group leader came along, I didn’t think much of it. I walked in wearing my black winged eyeliner, Silverstein hoodie, ripped jeans, and Avenged Sevenfold shoes as always ready to hang out with my friends. Instead I was sat down, and told that the skulls on my shoe were a sign of my sin, and that I would go to hell if I didn’t change my ways.

I left with a bitter taste for religion in my mouth, and never came back. 

On July 11th, 2008, I received a phone call from one of our friends from youth group. He asked if Emily’s parents had called me yet. I said no, and thought something might have been wrong with her mom. I told him I’d call Emily and find out what was going on. He said, “it’s Emily.” I stayed silent in confusion. “She was in a head on collision last night,” Adam said, “She didn’t make it.”

I lost focus and everything started buzzing.

Life was never going to be the same. 

After her funeral, I watched as so many found peace in God, and felt it was His decision to "bring her home." But I was angry. There was no reason for me. There was no higher power in which to look. There was just an end to a life that had been really important in mine.

I spent years grieving. My depression and anxiety spiraled out of control. I spent countless hours in therapy, suffered from panic attacks so intense I would be incapacitated any time I couldn't get in touch with a loved one. I felt a spot of emptiness in my heart that could never again be filled.

Luckily, I found my a wonderful sense of self and purpose while on my college programming board planning concerts featuring local musicians. Things were tough, but life was looking up. I found life-long friends, and someone I wanted to spend my life with in my partner Jon. We had started a clothing company together, and I was about to head into my fifth year of college.

After nine months of making things work with the distance, he left me, citing not being over his ex of 7 years. My soul felt crushed, but I still wanted him in my life - so we continued running the clothing company together, with my hopes that eventually we would be together and things would be perfect. 

Then on April 4, 2011, I received another phone call. This time it was 4:00 a.m., and I just missed answering it. “Lori Kwiatkowski,” my phone read right before the screen turned dark. I picked up the phone and began to text Jon, “why is your mother calling me?” Halfway through that message, it hit. This was THAT call. It was happening again.

No. No. No.

I called back, and I was met with my worst nightmare. Jon had been murdered. He had been stabbed in the neck by a monster of a man who lived a few houses down from their family right in front of their eyes.

There it was again. The buzzing. Everything was spinning, and I fell to the floor. 

The years following were some of the hardest years of my life. I developed Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which was amplified after attending the trial. I feel like I remember every detail. The size and shape of the knife. The angle and place of which it entered and left his body. The sound of Jon's voice on the 911 call yelling, "he slit my throat!" The way his mother, father, and brother looked when they had to relive each horrifying moment with the monster who did it in the room. The explosion of anger I felt watching the lies and fake tears pouring out of the murderer to try and escape his punishment.

I found myself angry and frustrated daily as I was told by family and friends that Emily and Jon were in heaven meeting each other, and playing with their dogs again. That, “everything happens for a reason,” and it was their time to go. 

It SUCKS to deal with loss and trauma as an atheist. That comfort that others find in believing their loved ones are in a better place doesn’t exist. The comfort found in knowing your life is only the first adventure isn’t there. So what do you do?

Here’s what has worked (for the most part) for me.

-------

 
FUCKING BREATHE.

When you have lost someone, especially through senseless violence – you will often find yourself encountered with people who will think they are helping, but are in fact doing the exact opposite.

Maybe it’s a co-worker who says, “Oh no honey, my sister’s best friend’s cousin once knew a guy whose wife died from cancer. I feel you. So tragic.”  Or an acquaintance on Facebook who says, “Thoughts & prayers to you. She is in a better place now.”  Or even worse, a friend hits you square in the face with a big, “He’s in heaven now, and everything God does is for a reason.”

No. Your sister’s best friend’s cousin’s guy’s wife’s death from cancer is absolutely NOTHING like the murder of my partner. 

No. She isn’t in a better place. She’s in an urn because some irresponsible mess decided to get plastered before 9PM and drive home taking my best friend away from her family, friends, and a job she loved taking care of young adults with disabilities.
 
No. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. If it did, why is this so called God giving me, and so many other marginalized folks the short end of the stick? 

Muscles tensing up. Heartbeat increasing. Hands shaking. 
 
FUCKING BREATHE ALREADY. 

You need to do this to live. 

It seems silly and simple, but concentrated breathing is the only way I kept myself from unloading a ton of anger and swear words on anyone who said these things to me. They are trying to empathize, trying to give you comfort, trying to assure you that you’ll be okay.

They aren’t doing any of those things, and may very well be actively hurting you by trying.

Just breathe, and if and when you find it in yourself - share with that person how those things affect you. They will most likely understand.

 
Stop asking yourself “What If” questions

Yes. They are tempting. I’ve spent my fair share of time with them.
 
What if he hadn’t broken up with me? He would still be alive. He wouldn’t have been coming home from her house. He wouldn’t have been out that late. He probably would have been across the state with me.

What if he had just stayed in the house when he called the police? He’d still be alive.  His family wouldn’t have had to see their son killed in front of them. I wouldn’t have the ringing in my ear of his voice on the 911 call.

What if they hadn’t given up their big dog just a few days earlier? He would still be alive. The dog could have attacked the guy. He could have saved him.
 
What if I had been there? He’d still be alive. I would have convinced him to not interact with the guy. I could have told him to stay inside the house.  I could have saved him.
 
What if he was still alive?

What if.

 
Give up your what ifs. Don’t let them haunt you. It just causes more pain, more flashbacks, more panic. 

Maybe each time you find yourself thinking, “What if…” – instead, think of one thing the person you lost was really passionate about, and share that thing with someone. Think of something that made you smile each time you were with them. 

One thing I like to think about is  when Jon and I would listen to The Devil Wears Prada's Zombie EP, and each time the music paused for the "Oh my god, they're everywhere," line, he would instead yell, "Oh my god, Pokémon cards," while miming a motion for making it rain. Makes me smile every time.
 

Cry all the cries.

Self-explanatory. Don’t hold back those tears. Even if you have to be the weird kid crying on the train, or in the bathroom, or on the sidewalk, or in the park, or under your desk at work, or in class, or in an elevator, or at the printer when you can’t get it to work, or any number of other places I have found myself crying over the years. 

I know there is stigma with certain identities about showing sadness, depression, and anxiety. Do your best to not worry about what others think. Crying is good for you. 

I’m with you. You’re not alone. 


Therapy.

If you are lucky enough to have access and funding to go to therapy, go. I'm not going to lie, it sucks sometimes, because you’re reliving moments of your past you would rather keep buried, but doing so can help you process and have lasting benefits. 

There is a type of therapy called EMDR. I swear it is witchcraft, because it did wonders for my PTSD. I was only able to go once, but it helped immensely. I held these two vibrating things in my hand as I retold the traumatic event I wanted help reprocessing. My therapist would alternate the vibrations frequency and intensity throughout the story, and I guess it somehow helps rewire what parts of your brain fire when you recall that memory. Or something along those lines. I’m not a therapist. 

Either way. It can help.

Stigma is stupid. If you think you’re weaker because you go to therapy or take medication for your mental health, I’m happy to tell you that you’re wrong. It takes a strong person to take control of their health. This shit isn’t easy! Let’s be real, continuing to live after experiencing trauma is one of the strongest things you can do. 

And if you don’t have access to a therapist. Talk it out with someone. Find resources online for survivors of trauma. Never stop searching for something that could help improve your life.


Advocate for others.

Triggers are THE WORST. Those words, phrases or actions that send you spiraling into panic attacks, flashbacks, and tears. Those things that rip all the light from your eyes, and the energy from your body.

Don’t be silent. Don’t suffer to keep others comfortable. Tell those who use your triggers what they do to you. Anyone who cares about you as a person will quickly change their behavior. You’d be surprised at how willing people are to change, especially when they were doing something they didn’t even know was harmful.

Now that you’ve got the power to advocate for yourself, do it for others. Make the world a safer place for those who have experienced trauma. 

When you don’t believe in a higher power, karma, the good of the human race, or anything else; believe in yourself.

I believe in you.


-------


Things are honestly still tough. July is such a hard month for me with Jon’s birthday, the anniversary of losing Emily, and Emily’s birthday. It’s been years, but I still cry thinking about how Emily and I will never draw comic book notes to each other again, or how Jon and I will never smile at each other again. Or how neither will ever get to see their niece/nephew is as they grow up. 

In my victim impact statement for Jon’s trial, I wrote, “I feel as though I’ve had my one chance at lifelong happiness taken from me.” For years, I thought that was true. 

I’m really thankful it wasn’t. I’ve worked my butt off to make sure it didn’t. I made sure I surrounded myself with genuinely caring human beings. I’ve found a partner in someone who makes me a better person, and will never ever pressure me to do something I don’t want to. I made sure I landed a job that felt less like a job, and more like a calling. I made sure I discovered myself, and learned to be comfortable in my identities. I made sure to stay creative, and find an outlet for my expression. I've made sure to accept and embrace my mental health.

Happiness in the wake of trauma is not easy, but I promise it is worth it.
You are resilient. You are worthy.


katy breathe.jpg

About the art:

Nevan made this piece of art for Katy using massive amounts of sorcery and probably a computer because the man is an absolute wizard. No one truly understands the source of his craft, but we know that when he shares his magic with the world, we are meant to stare and take it in with awe and not question the methods by which it was created.

This image reads, "Breathe," which Nevan says was a reminder he needed more so now than ever. If you remember, he shared his coming out story last month. And he joined our artist team shortly thereafter. Since sharing the story, his life has been a bit chaotic, so Nevan said that this piece was actually incredibly therapeutic to create because needs this reminder when his brain gets all tangled up in itself.

And as you can tell from reading Katy's story, this is a perfect reminder for Katy as well.

- Craig & Nevan