PHOTOGRAPHY WAS CREATED BY LEILANI SUGUITAN AND IS THE SOLE PROPERTY OF THE ARTIST. IT MAY NOT BE USED OR REPRODUCED WITHOUT THE ARTIST'S PERMISSION.
Trigger warnings: Abuse, Self-Harm, Addiction, Rape, Loss
As a child, I was seen and never heard. I was a concept of a person, a duty my parents performed to God, a contract signed by their union. I grew up in typical Christian Middle Class America. I was a statistic. I was the 2 in the 2.5 family of America - my unborn twin the .5. 3 out of 5 women in America are victims of sexual abuse. At the age of 7, I filled that statistic, too. I was being abused by a family member, but my parents were so blinded by the heavenly kingdom to even take notice. Early on, my parents made me aware that their pursuit of God came before their children. They loved me in the best way they knew how, but keeping with the theme of blind devotion, we never talked about the imperfect things in our family dynamic, our emotions, our histories, and entire people. I inherited their beliefs of shame and sin, and I learned to leave pieces of myself buried away.
In junior high, I was sent to a religious school associated with their church group. It was one of those schools you hear about in stories. We prayed in the morning and the afternoon. We were told about how everyone out there in the world wanted to hurt us because they were sinners and they had no choice but to. Every week would bring lectures about the evils of rock music. They played those YouTube videos of records playing backwards, conjuring up images of the devil whispering right into the music of the Beatles. When I was 13, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I was 14 when he died. It sounded so simple, but they never tell you what it's like to watch a man wither and die, especially the strongest man you knew.
After his death, my home became a battlefront. Just my mother and I left, I refused to be told anything. I decided I would be a fashion designer in Paris as the ultimate rebellion to the child of chemists and engineers. I also knew I needed to leave. I refused to get out of the bed in the morning until I was transferred to public school of my choice. When I moved to public high school, I started drinking. It helped me connect with people in a way I never felt able to. I needed it. The first time I fell in love, it was with a drug. I became a raver in the time between high school and moving to Paris. From the first roll, I began to escalate, a pattern which became all too familiar. I was on drugs the first time I told anyone about my abuse in 17 years, the words tripped over themselves running out of my mouth. Tears pouring down my face, I finally felt the purifying light of truth. However, I couldn't just take drugs occasionally, from once a week to twice a week, to every other evening. I added another polarity to my repertoire, from sinner to saint, from night to day.
At 18, I moved to Paris and I thought my dreams had come true. I thought I would never worry about anything again. In Paris, I had the freedom drink freely. I remember the first time something happened that I didn’t know how to deal with the emotions involved. I bought a bottle of vodka at the store and drank half. I spent the rest of the night vomiting up said vodka. I barely made it to school, but somehow I had managed to get into the school of my dreams: a French fashion design school. I had a great group of girlfriends and an amazing social life. I was home. Outwardly it seemed like I had hit the jackpot, except I still had so much fear, panic, anxiety and no way to deal with it. I drank and I did drugs, and I continued to escalate, searching for feeling. When the shame and emotion of a destructive evening would hit home, I started self harming. I began to drop out of my fashion classes for hangovers. The risky behaviors in pursuit of drugs and alcohol and stories to tell worked hand and hand with my neglect for my own personal safety. One night, I was raped, and my Paris delusion started to crumble. I traded in day time sobriety for drinking and panic attacks. My evenings were blacked out horrors fueled by rage, and the morning became a time of sobbing apologies to friends. Eventually, my best friend, a strong woman with a good head on her shoulders, told me I needed to move back home. I trusted her, but I knew my home wasn’t a place for me, so I moved to her home, New York City.
I thought I could again fix it all by simply moving. My first apartment was a huge apartment for transient models. Not a model, I felt like I was able to reap the rewards of the lifestyle with none of the work. There was always someone to drink or smoke with. Smoking became a daily habit. Somehow, I managed to get into Parsons only to drop out later. I eventually moved into my own place with some friends. We all liked to get fucked up and we did. We would take uppers to wake up, downers to relax, and never stayed sober for very long. Soon my friends moved out to places of their own, and I was left alone in this apartment I could barely afford, far away from everything and with no ability to do anything for myself. I would spend most of my time smoking weed, and I started listen to my neighbors on the street. Their voices just out of comprehension started being strung together into sentences about me that included the most vile commentary, as well as just a general chatter about my daily life. I started to feel like I was losing my my mind. It felt so real, but I couldn’t decipher my reality. My mind accepted this idea that I was the star of some website, people were just videoing my daily life, and everyone was just watching me do things all day and laughing at me. I felt unsafe everywhere. I had panic attacks on the train. I felt like everyone was staring and laughing at me. I started to have anxious body spasms, like shivering and twitching when you’re cold, uncontrollably. I thought I was losing my mind. That finally got me into therapy. It was at that point the third or fourth time I had dropped out of school at this point and I was aimless and afraid.
My first therapist wasn't right for me. He put me on anti-psychotics, which made the twitching so much worse. After some searching, I found a therapist that worked well with me. He held space for me and helped me pick up the shambles of my life. I was able to hold down a job. I went back to school and started to pass some of my classes. There was something still seriously wrong, but I started to be in a safe enough place to start to look at parts of myself. A couple years down the road, I still couldn’t quite put my life on the right track. I still couldn’t handle much. I still was unable to accomplish any of my goals, and at the same time, I didn't know what I wanted or who I was. I was listless and full of fear. Last year, I went to a treatment center that my therapist had been recommending for years because I had finally ran out of excuses.
In the treatment center, I felt superior to the addicts and alcoholics. They told me to look at my drinking. At that point, I was drinking a bottle of wine a night, but I still told them they were crazy. I refused to come out of that place with yet another problem. However, they told me that in order to treat the trauma effectively, it would be best for me to quit. I agreed to a hiatus.
A year later, I’m still sober and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. Being at that treatment center, I got to know the others around me who struggled with addiction, and I realized that there is no separation between me and them - trauma and addiction go hand in hand. I also realized that my perceived separation from others has always been part of my problem. I started EMDR, which is the other best thing I’ve ever done for myself. This past year has been the most beautiful and amazing part of my journey. I’ve lived through many seasons of self loathing, shame, and fear and finally, today I feel as though I’m moving into self acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness for myself and others.
I still struggle today with my paranoia. I haven’t quite accepted that it isn’t real - I still hear people talking about me. It is hard to accept that a part of me just isn't on the right reality. I work on it every day, to let it not effect my day, self esteem, and actions. Although I have not yet accepted that it is not happening, I'm starting to accept that others' opinions of me do not affect who I am as a person. This paranoia has really made me deal with my crippling people pleasing, the feeling like I need others' acceptance to live, that I need everyone to like me, and that I am a great failure or that I am unsafe. I still have this paralyzing fear around other people, mostly large groups. It goes hand and hand with my paranoia; they feed each other until theres a giant elephant in the room and I am mute and uncomfortable, inching toward the exit. Some days, my nervous system is just switched ON (para-sympathetically). I can turn beet red at the drop of a pin and my mind is screaming that I'm going to die. However, I've learned that although I have to still work on these things every day, it's not unbearable, because there has been progress, and because there are other beautiful things in my life today because of that progress. It's also become meaningful because I suddenly matter to myself, because I finally care about my well being. I am able to do the difficult things in the moment for long term benefit. I've learned sometimes the beneficial thing is not do it, to allow myself to rest. Right now, I'm still finding that balance.
Dealing with difficult emotions has changed so much in just the past year. Before I used to drink to avoid, repress, and eventually burst out with resentments I'd held for onto for years. Today I am able to reach out and lean on close friends for love and support, good advice, or a firm talking to. I have realized so much about myself in relation to others. I have gotten so much from relationships and trusting people. As a human cactus, I never realized that giving up small amounts of yourself to others can help you heal or find yourself. Taking time for myself (at an appropriate time) to process emotion and sit with the difficult feelings helps me to find longer periods of stability, instead of bouncing from emotion to emotion in a whirlwind of feelings. Part of my self care and dealing with emotions is meditation, which I practice daily for sanity. I used to run from feeling and emotions, but learning that they won't kill me and if I just listen quietly without judgement to what they have to say, the emotions usually quiet right down. Sometimes, they really do have something important to say. I am able to deal with emotion by staying present in my body, by paying attention to how my body feels and the surrounding feel to my body. I definitely can let myself get swept up in emotion, panic, fear, and paranoia, but having a good self care routine can put me back into balance. Taking baths and connecting with friends are my main sources of self care.
I never dreamed of having the support system that I have today. I never thought I would be able to have honest deep and caring relationships where I was able to give as equally as take. I have gotten to a place of self awareness and I now have the ability to engage with all aspects of human connection (not just the great stuff) with another human being, which I didn't even know could exist. I have an amazing group of women who keep me balanced, supported, and in reality. I never knew I needed to be open and honest with my emotions and feelings with another person and now I can't stop. It's great I tell you.
I finally might actually be coming to place of spirituality and self love - which is not to say that all my days are perfect. I still have to work very hard sometimes for stability and safety. Which has come through a right relationship with my body. Being able to be in my body and not just my head has been this complex and rewarding path. For so long, my body was an extension of my dysfunction. It would be triggered all the time, and I would resent that weakness. In developing a knowledge of my body, I have come to understand more of myself, and in that find my identity and purpose. Although, I don't know much of what the future holds for me, just finally being someone, being myself is enough.
I tell this story in detail, I share with you because I believe in the power of stories, the power of stories that we tell each other and we tell ourselves. I believe stories can heal, telling you healed me and maybe it can heal you. I think we don’t talk about rape enough, we don’t talk about loss, sexual abuse and trauma. We don’t talk about our addictions and we certainly don’t talk about the people who suffer in silence, those who are suffering now and the ones who have suffered, survived and thrived. Because healing needs those bitter and painful parts of ourselves and experiences, and that where our beauty and strength grows from. And I am telling this story because I am like you. I am a person who eats, breathes, shits, cries, and laughs and I’ve suffered, both in silence and out loud.
Now I am here in a place where I can speak, and I want to speak up for anyone who can’t. Rape is not okay, sexual abuse of any kind is not okay, and we need to make the world a place where people can feel safe to speak up and subsequently heal. We need to protect the victims, we need to stop victim blaming. Depression happens, anxiety happens, paranoia happens, we need to stop blaming ourselves. There is no "other", it’s me, you, your friends, your parents, or your spouse, its your cousin, your brother, your sister, there are those who are suffering around us and enough is enough. We find cures to physical diseases daily, but we haven’t quite figured out how immensely even just the negative stigma around mental health hurts all of us. That's is why starting this website holds great importance to me. This is the next step in my journey.