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. 

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.

0116: Runner's Guilt

Content warning: The following story makes references to a survivor's experiences with an eating disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Runner's Guilt," Craig Bidiman

A very common phrase I utter is some variation on, "I'm gonna have to run a lot if I eat this." Sometimes it can refer to a large meal with lots of sodium, a dessert, some fast food, or a massive brunch. 

I run so that I don't feel guilty about eating. Anything. Almost any time I eat, my brain tells me, "you need to run now. You need to burn off whatever you just dumped into your body. You need to go now. Leave. Run! NOW!"

That sort of internal narrative can be pretty frustrating to live with on a daily basis. This has been my reality for the last eight years or so, when I really started to develop a distorted vision of my body, a condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Essentially, I don't view my body the others may view my body. I am hypercritical of every perceived curve, roll, stretch mark, even if they aren't really there. My mind often exaggerates these aspects of my body, and it makes me overcompensate by running. Or by under-eating, fasting, or harming myself when I don't feel good about my body.

My history with fasting is long, and certainly connected to how I was medicated as a child. It fucked me up. I was (and still am) a typical case of ADHD. Always running around, lots of energy, mind going a mile-a-minute, and lots of projects to keep me busy. Being medicated gave me a weird relationship with food—I hated it. I was scrawny until college, when I realized that food was great! So I started to eat a lot. And I began to gain weight for the first time in my life.

Me, after a recent 14 mile run.

Me, after a recent 14 mile run.

Slowly, I began to notice that I wasn’t really taking care of myself—I wasn’t eating food that was necessarily “good” for me. It was a lot of meat, fast food (Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr.), sugar (candy, soda), and sunflower seeds (which are just drenched in salt). I tried to balance a lot of my crappy eating habits with running. I ran a lot. I was able to consistently run about 35 miles/week, with an average long run of 10 miles.

I have a love/hate relationship with running.
I don’t actually like running that much.
But the endorphins I get from running have always helped with my depression and anxiety—some of which is caused by my eating habits.

Thus, I’ve also used running to make up for the way I eat/ate. I also use running to "allow" myself to eat certain foods or certain amounts of food. And the constant mental gymnastics I put myself through can be incredibly exhausting.
Which means I also use guilt to motivate myself to run.
And that sucks.

However, my early complicated relationship with running doesn’t mean I changed the way I ate in college. The complicated relationship led to me hating how stubborn I was being with food. I would do all of this running—great exercise, wonderful for my heart and mind—but ultimately, I wasn’t returning the love to myself. It sucked. I wasn’t losing weight; I wasn’t necessarily “fit.” I was just going through motions of somewhat self-destructive behaviors, and the running became how I masked my insecurities. 

One day, I had just come returned from a run, and a very good friend of mine said, “with all the running you do, I figured you would be in much better shape.” One of the worst things I could’ve ever heard. It sent me directly to food. And I ate a lot.

Those words have echoed in my brain.

During college, it got to the point where I would start fasting intermittently—sometimes for a day here and there, sometimes for multiple days, often for a week at a time. Fasting does have some benefits—restarting your system, flushing out crap from your body. But I wasn’t doing it for necessarily the best reasons.

I did it because I genuinely thought I was fat. And it hurt a lot.
It hurt my body, and it hurt my mind.

I don't like sharing images of myself without a shirt on, but this happens from time to time after I run.

I don't like sharing images of myself without a shirt on, but this happens from time to time after I run.

I know I’ve never been “fat,” but my anxiety about my body kept convincing my brain otherwise. It was an endless cycle of comparing myself to my other male friends, not feeling “fit” enough, not feeling JACKED enough. I’ve never really been a huge person, or one to pack on muscle, but I kept convincing myself that I was a complete mess.

I know much of this critique is due to a severe concern for my health, but it's also very much influenced by the way I interact with other men. Growing up in a hypermasculine society has been pretty detrimental to my mental health—constantly being in locker rooms with muscular dudes checking themselves out in the mirror. Me, wondering why muscles won’t appear on my body, resenting them as they flex and brag about their delts or tris or whatever muscle group they were working on that day. While I repress the urge to yell in their bro faces for being more attractive, stronger, and cooler than me.

Only within the last few years have I figured out what’s been going on with my brain and body—it’s all about insecurity.

I am, and perhaps, always have been pretty insecure about my body. Either I felt I was too skinny (especially when medicated, and during high school), or I was “too fat.” Again, my brain had a wonderful way of tricking me into believing both were the end of the world. I don’t feel there are many times where I’ve held a “comfort” weight. But I know where it is, and finding that level has been a constant struggle for me.

These insecurities have led me to unnecessarily project onto others—friends, colleagues, my partners. When I don’t feel comfortable about my body, I find myself being hypercritical and judgmental of those around me. And I think/say terrible things that I know are only my own projections of issues that I feel about myself. Hell, I say them to myself all the time as well.

Emotional self-harm is still self-harm.

The only true way I’ve found to cope with my body image issues, outside of running, is to get tattooed. I have many tattoos—a full sleeve, and another in progress. But I consciously and unconsciously use these tattoos to give me SOMETHING to appreciate about my body. It sucks that it needs to be tattoos, but there aren't many days when I feel good about my body

And on the days I do feel good about myself, my confidence is unfuckwithable. And when I look in the mirror, I think to myself, “I’m a badass.” The tattoos help me feel that. The tattoos help me feel anything. Even the action of being tattooed is enjoyable to me. The pain, the reality of it all, the experience—it’s all to capture a moment in my life and to add something new to my imperfect canvas.

I recently ran a half marathon in a snow storm. Very fun, but very stupid.

I recently ran a half marathon in a snow storm. Very fun, but very stupid.

A year ago today, I weighed the most I have ever weighed—after a year-long job search, months of depression, soda, sugar, and anger led me away from taking care of myself as I should have been. 

Today, I eat much better. I pay attention to virtually everything I put into my body. Now that I am a health educator, I have really doubled-down on my wellness. I haven’t eaten meat in over four years, I’ve cut caffeine almost completely from my diet, I avoid unnecessary processed sugars—fruits are always gonna be my jam. I’m even back down to my goal “comfort” weight, and I feel great.

Yet, recently while visiting home, another friend of mine uttered virtually the exact same words that stung me a few years ago—with all the running you do, I figured you would be in much better shape. It sucked because I know I am doing great right now.

So I chose to not care this time and I didn’t dive into food.

I am the healthiest I have ever been, and I still don’t really like running (even though I’m marathon training again), but I do it to keep myself sane. I use running as motivation to keep myself on the right path of mental and emotional wellness, as well as physical. Granted, I still find myself justifying the things I eat with how much I will need to run, but at least I am giving some sort of consideration to how what I put into my body these days.

I’m not sure I will ever conquer this disorder, but I have plans to start seeing a therapist about it and I cannot wait to see how and if it helps me. So here goes nothing!


About the art:

NOTE: I chose to use the art that Katy made for my self-love post in September 2016, click here to check that out! As such, I chose to use their same "about the art" because it is still fitting for this story.

Craig had me read his story, and work on this piece while he was gone at a concert. I wasn't really able to brainstorm with him, which gave me some silly creative freedom. Since we live together, I get to see the struggles Craig deals with on a daily basis.

I know he really struggles with his body image, and it was great to hear him talk a bit about what he does to stay positive when it comes to looking at himself in the mirror. I wanted to do something happy, cute and simple. I researched some self-love art pieces, and found something similar to this that inspired me to create a version of Craig giving himself positive affirmations.

His tattoos were a little too complicated to fit the aesthetic, so I just lightly drew some of them. I sent it to him, and his immediate response was laughter. I'm glad it was something that could make him smile and put something else positive in the force against his struggles.

- Katy

0115: Don't Forget to Bloom

Content warning: The following story contains references to a survivor's experience with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Don't Forget to Bloom," Sarah Cantu

The first time I remember realizing that I was fat (and that that’s a “bad thing”) was when I was 5 years old. I was on the playground with my cousin and one of her friends, and they wanted to role play the Little Mermaid. I think I volunteered to play one of Ariel’s sisters or maybe even Sebastian, but my cousin’s friend said I could only play if I was going to be Ursula because I was fat. Instead of saying “no, I won’t play Ursula” I burst into tears and refused to play at all. Although this encounter may sound fairly insignificant, most of my memories from elementary and middle school are a blur of similar interactions that ended with me crying or choosing to count myself out. 

My mom put me on my first diet when I was 8 years old. After that, diets became a staple, a cycle, and a marker for the passing of time in my life. 4th grade was a nutritionist-curated meal plan, 7th grade was low-carb, 10th grade was Weight Watchers, 11th grade was Jenny Craig, 12th grade was the juice cleanse. Every time I started a new diet, I’d lose 10-20 pounds or so, but eventually, I’d get lazy or bored and gain back the weight and then some. I also endured a seemingly endless list of exercise classes on top of that (swimming, tap dancing, hip hop dancing, Folklorico, cheerleading camp, etc.), but I never felt at home in any of them. I just wanted to be reading books or memorizing Fall Out Boy lyrics or hanging out with kids who didn’t whisper about me behind my back. I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t taking up so much space. 

When I was 16, things got even fuzzier. I started throwing up my meals. At first it was only when I’d eaten something “bad.” But it eventually became once or twice a day, and I started to associate the act of vomiting with a strange sense of control. I’d get headaches and almost regularly end up in tears on the bathroom floor. I didn’t just not lose weight, I also found myself feeling more out of control in other areas of my life. I was increasingly jealous of my thin friends and would say things I didn’t really mean. I wasn’t dealing well with stress or sleeping enough and I would sometimes find myself unable to hold back tears in the middle of class.

Maybe most disturbingly, I attributed most everything negative in my life to my body and my size. Boys didn’t like me? It’s because I was too fat. I didn’t get invited to do something? It’s because people are embarrassed to be seen with me. Friends haven’t answered my call or text? They’d rather talk to their prettier, thinner friends. My thoughts and self-image were a strange and bitter web of things I projected onto others and their interactions with me, but thankfully it didn’t last forever. 

Although it may sound silly, I think the internet saved me. I’ve always loved to write, so I found something of a home in Tumblr. Even though I wasted a lot of time scrolling through my dashboard, it was also through Tumblr that I first discovered plus-size bloggers and body positivity. I remember being in awe of bloggers like Gabi Gregg and Nicolette Mason who seemed to take up space so beautifully and unapologetically.

When I discovered the body-positivity community, it was a genuine revelation in my life. It was the first time I’d ever heard someone say that being fat is not a bad thing, your body is not a bad thing. It was the first time I realized being pretty and being fat are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that I realized that prettiness isn’t something anyone has to aspire to. 

It took me a long time to realize that I had put years of time and energy into trying to cut myself into smaller versions of me, instead of letting myself bloom. Taking up space, literally and figuratively, is a difficult thing for women to do. Especially for a queer, fat, woman of color like myself, it takes so much time and energy to be okay with just being. But the thing is, even if we don’t have complete control over how much and what kind of space we take up, we do have control over how we choose to occupy it and navigate the world.

The thing is, being fat, I felt like I never had the option to hide. That frightened me and it still frightens me most days. But as I get older, I draw more and more strength from that thought. On top of that or maybe even because of that, I’ve come to terms with the fact that many of my identities or attributes are not “supposed” to coexist, and yet they do. I’m not supposed to be fat and not trying to change my body. I’m not supposed to be decidedly feminine and interested in dating other women. I’m not supposed to be a woman of color forging my own professional path, and yet here I am. It’s not perfect, and it’s not always fun, and it’s definitely not always easy, but here I am. I think of the many people whose visibility and whose stories have impacted me, and I take comfort in knowing that there are others like me and unlike me, who have forged homes for themselves in a world that tells them they don’t belong.

To anyone who worries that they’re too fat, too thin, too ugly, too broken, too loud, too much, I wish I had the answer for you. I wish I could give you detailed instructions for loving yourself and for uplifting others. I wish I could pull you out of the way that you see yourself, buy you a cup of coffee, and make you snort-laugh or ugly cry until you feel better. 

But until I find a way to do that, I’ll leave you with a quiet intention that helps guide me. As often as you can, seek, show, and surrender to grace. It really is all around, and it never quite looks the same way. Sometimes it’s a pillow fight with your friend while “I’m Not Okay” plays in the background. Sometimes it’s gently pushing back when someone you love engages in negative self-talk. Sometimes it’s admitting to yourself that you look hella cute today. Whatever it is for you, and however it is you need it in your life, surrender to grace, and don’t forget to bloom.

About the Art:

Sarah's story resonated with me tremendously, as someone with body image issues/body dysmorphia. It's hard to view yourself in any sort of good light when your brain is fighting you constantly about your appearance. So, I wanted to create a piece that would make Sarah feel valued and enough.

This is a quote she supplied me, as one she looks to for inspiration, and I think it perfectly fit this story. The colors were tangentially suggested by Sarah, but I went with this scheme because I found it both aesthetically pleasing and different from the palette I usually use. The lines were a fun addition and I think it gives the piece a real pop!

Thanks to Sarah for sharing this story! I hope it inspires others to share theirs as well.

- Craig

032: This Thing Called Loving My Body

Content Warning: This post contains information about depression and anxiety caused body image, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"This Thing Called Loving my Body," Danielle Johnson

Recently my father came to me and told me he was sorry. He told me he regretted not being the father I needed and for the things that he had said to me (I would never have a boyfriend unless I lost weight, wouldn’t get the lead in the school play, wouldn’t make it in the music industry because of my image, and more). He told me he now understood that he needed to just love me for who I am. He wanted things to be different. This was not a conversation I ever anticipated having, nor did I know how to respond to it.

I know that I am lucky, because this is not a conversation many people get to have with their parents. They do not get the chance to “start over,” to acknowledge the things that have gone wrong. The problem is, his saying “sorry” doesn’t erase all of the things I heard him say. It doesn’t dispel all of the things I have come to believe about myself because of him and because of what I have heard society tell me about my body. I forgive him, and we’re working on our relationship…but the damage has been done.

This thing called loving my body, this radical notion in a world that tells me my body, and therefore I, am not lovable, is really hard. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And for whatever reason, it’s not getting any easier. Even after months of counseling and the revelation from my father, I am still struggling, and struggling a lot.

I’ve tried so hard, believe me I’ve tried. I have tried wearing what I want, eating what I want, trying not to care about what other people think about me, but it’s difficult. I find myself thinking the same things, fearing my old fears. I have tried to accept myself and love myself for who I am, but some days I think it would all just be easier if I looked differently.

And trust me, I know I’m awesome.
I’m smart, I’m funny, and I’m a positive person.

I care so much about other people. I work hard for the students that I give my all for. I like my hair, and I have nice eyes. I am nicely proportioned. I laugh loud and long. I’ve got a good fashion sense. But I’m afraid my body and people’s ideas about my own body is holding me back and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m afraid that people’s perceptions will forever be in my way. 

I wish that more body positive people in the spotlight would talk more about this. How it is a battle, day after day after day, to tell yourself what the media and what others think is not true. There’s a lot of stuff to wade through, and it’s more than just telling yourself that you’re great. I know I’m great.

So why do I still feel ashamed?
Why do I still feel discouraged?
Why do I still wish I was in someone else’s body?

I feel like most of the people I look up to and most of the people who talk about body positivity don’t talk about their struggles. They just say “Nope screw it! Screw what everyone thinks! I’m awesome! And it doesn’t matter what anyone else says!”

…Okay, but don’t you ever still have bad days? Don’t you still find yourself thinking negatively about your body? Some of them do mention things, but rarely go into details. Well, I need to hear it. I need to hear that I’m not alone, and that while I’m trying to believe I’m awesome, it’s okay to not be quite there yet. And it will be okay years from now when I still struggle, because by now I know this will be a life-long battle. 

There is so much for me to unlearn. I need to know that it’s a process. I need to know that this is a journey, that even though I wake up and say “I’m awesome”, and that I’m still going to think these things because I’ve been programmed to. And that it’s okay. It’s normal. I have hope that one day I’ll be able to be comfortable with who I am and what I look like. Until then, I’ll be wading through, hoping the darkness will turn into light. 


About the art:

This painting is for Danielle.

It is inspired by a song that means a lot to her. "Last Hope" by Paramore. If you haven't heard it yet, I definitely recommend you give it a listen. It is an incredibly moving song and I can see why it means so much to Danielle.

This painting is of a sunset over a city skyline with stars peeking out to represent the infinite possibilities in her future. The dancer pictured in the bottom center is her free spirit with the bright colors bursting forth representing light, love, and happiness.

Danielle is an incredibly sweet person and I am so glad she shared her story and that I could make this for her.

- Emily Lopez