"Warning: this post discusses death, depression, drug use and suicidal thoughts. If those are challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
What have you experienced/are you experiencing?
A strong, loving, and fierce single mother, who had her fair share of demons to fight, raised me. She was my best friend, my safe haven, and my home. However, she got connected to the wrong man, the father of my two brothers, who eventually introduced her to drugs. By my senior year, she had been in and out of rehab until eventually, her body started getting sick from all of the wear and tear of the drugs. In 2010, due to bronchial asthma, we found her dead on our couch.
My birth father never wanted me, and had no problem expressing it, so I could not turn to him for support. I had become a parentless seventeen year old. Luckily I had amazing grandparents that helped raise me and my brother, Nick. Two years later, we lost my brother, Sean, to a drug overdose.
At this point, I felt empty. We were still grieving our mom; I didn’t even know how to process another loss. I started having dark thoughts and thinking of ways that I could end all of my suffering and pain. I started comparing myself to everyone who had “perfect” families. I would let envy take over and act out because of it. As if it were anyone’s fault for what I went through. To this day, I still have an off day where a bad thought will creep in. However, I have learned how to deal with my depression/negative thoughts through my community of loved ones and through dance.
How has this impacted your life? How about your career?
Due to the trauma of my mother’s death, I started developing post-traumatic stress symptoms. All of a sudden, all of my fears had heightened. My emotions became so much more intense and often irrational. I started having panic attacks and losing control of my emotional responses to certain situations. It affected how I dealt with negative situations. Rejection would turn into severe sadness and self-deprecation. This, specifically, has carried over into my career.
It has taken me a long time to be able to handle rejection...I think it is because my whole life, I was never desired by a father figure. My birth father never wanted me, and expressed it. My brother’s father loved me in the beginning, but I was never his and he had no problem showing it as I grew up. So a part of me has always been seeking affirmation, approval, and acceptance from people. So when I face rejection, whether it be romantically, or professionally, I would tend to immediately receive it as something being wrong with me.
How have you managed it/are you managing it?
I didn’t manage it.
I pushed it all to the back of my mind. I chose not to face my pain, for I just started my senior year of high school and had a little brother to look out for. I had to be strong for him. I had to be strong for my family. Then before we knew it, we lost my brother and I just did the exact same thing. I repressed it. I turned my grief into anger.
I honestly didn’t even start to truly grieve until about 4-5 years after her death. Dance has helped me, in that respect. It provided me with something to funnel my grief into, to turn it into a form of expression, and an outlet to find a better meaning to life.
Have you always been open about speaking out on this issue? What has kept you from opening up about it in the past?
I think I still struggle to be open about what I went through because I know there are others who have been through much worse. I don’t want to be viewed as whiny or weak by people because after my mom and brother died, I was painted as this “strong” individual, and I think part of me was afraid of letting people down and letting others see that I wasn’t as strong as they had perceived me to be… Nowadays, however, I am trying to be as transparent and as open as possible about my mental health, and my past.
Why do you think there is still stigma surrounding the issue in our society/dance community?
I honestly still have so many questions surrounding why there is such stigma. I also think that the dance world, right now, is so much about immediate gratification. A lot of people only care about the affirmation of thousands of people they don’t even know (i.e. instagram).
I feel like there is stigma because everyone is always trying to prove how great their lives are. God forbid someone ever said “I’m actually really struggling with life right now”. I’ve been guilty of this pretty much since my mother and brother died. Always trying to prove to everyone how okay I was when really, I was miserable. I think it’s about time we started a dialogue about mental health and stop acting like it’s just a bunch of sensitive people being dramatic. It’s life-threatening, for some, and it’s time to talk about it.
What have you learned throughout your journey?
Whether it is negative or positive, everything that has happened in your life is merely a thread that is woven into the life you are living now. Sometimes, it harder to accept the more traumatic parts of life, especially when you see so many people not even coming close to living the life you have to endure. But we must remember that how we respond dictates our future. How we see, and love, ourselves affects how others see us and how we walk through life.
I have learned that just because terrible things have happened to me, that does not mean that I have to be this tough, emotionless person. It is okay to feel. It is okay to cry. It is okay to grieve. I have learned that community is an integral part of healing. It is because of the support of my family and friends that I found joy in life. It is because of dance, and the community that dance brought me, that I found reasons to live.
I have learned that we are not our pasts, and that there is nothing wrong with seeking help and guidance. We don’t have all the answers, but we can seek help. We can make an effort to find enjoyment and light in this world.