By MANDI Ingo
Trigger warnings: Sexual abuse, eating disorder, pregnancy trauma
“The mind is a powerful thing,” as the phrase goes. The words we hear and compose about the world and ourselves shape our beliefs and inner worlds. They create perceptions and ultimately what we feel is the reality we are living. Beliefs can be helpful, hopeful or harmful. They can impact a brief moment or echo from the depth of our soul with a gripping hold steering our future.
I first learned this lesson as a very young child, although developmentally unaware at the time of this concept. It was a brisk and bright day outside and my parents headed out for the evening. Being only seven years old, I was bursting with excitement that my favorite babysitter was coming to watch my brother and me. She was the type of person who made every moment an imaginary adventure. She brought out the most infectious giggles from my brother and me.
This time, though, was different. Painfully so.
She picked me up and gently placed me on the couch. The silence was loud and I only heard the slow swish of the curtains shutting. She sat down and started descriptively telling me about things she had learned in her health class that day. I was so intrigued and enamored by how teenagers get to live that I was gripping on to what she had to say as if I was waiting for some miracle to be spoken. But instead of words, sensations of physical touch that I had never experienced before were forced on me. Questions and worries and wants consumed my mind. I didn’t know at the time, but the core of my life was building on a rugged foundation of turmoil from sexual abuse I would endure for years to come.
I trusted her. I adored her. I looked up to her. I cared for her and I, in my little body, did all I could to protect her. I kept my mouth shut. I never spoke of it. I had so many questions. I was hurting but believed she loved me. I was scared of her yet wanted to please her and care for her at the same time. It was all so confusing. Being hurt and forced to do things and then aggressively threatened to keep it all hidden by someone who I was supposed to trust was beyond my comprehension. I started to believe that is how love works. The worst part were the words that began to compose my skewed self-image and the crippling guilt that accompanied those experiences.
Defective, dysfunctional, unlovable. Surely something must be so wrong with me if someone would hurt me, use me and eventually abandon me lying helpless and paralyzed in confusion and fear. And despite my parent’s well-intended efforts, a parenting approach trained in negativity, doubt and constant yelling only compounded what I already felt.
The years went by and those thoughts spread like an invasive weed into all areas of my life. Victims respond in a myriad of ways. I pursued a game of trying to outperform everyone, including myself, to prove my worth and value. I wanted to prove my mind wrong because I knew the harmful power it had over me. Successes, awards, compliments and the like were the ultimate validation of self-acceptance, but every time I viewed something as a failure, I was right back to my worthless, hopeless self again.
I had no way to cope and honestly I didn’t even know at the time that I was trying to numb my pain. I hated my body and what it had experienced. I hated myself because on a biological level, it felt good even though at this point, I knew it shouldn’t. I hated myself because I was forced to do things to those even younger than me. How could I be such an awful person? “Why’s” swarmed rapidly in my mind and I had to do something. I began to punish myself and try to control the aspects of my life through that I could with one of the only substances available to a young teen; food.
Eating disorders are like any other addiction. You do not realize, nor often care, about the damage done to yourself or others. You minimize the severity; you get your highs and feel invincible. You feel as if you have a handle on it, but really it is controlling you. With eating disorders, you cannot eliminate the substance. You need it to survive. Every meal, or its withholding, became a dangerous fix. I tried various counselors and methods to get help but in reality, the stone cold fact was I was nowhere near ready to face my inner demons and workings of my mind. Depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsions ruled my life. I became a master at hiding those burdens from the outside world.
College came and I craved the chance to shed my “goodie goodie” performance. I was so tired of the toll perfection had taken on my spirit and heart. I needed release. I desperately wanted to escape the guilty grip I placed on myself. I had a whole new world of freedom at the tip of my fingers. I finally could find some sweet release. I drank, partied, danced, laughed, sought adventures, and lived recklessly - all while trying to keep the illusion of a well, put-together young woman in tact.
Somewhere in the midst of this blurry mess, I started not feeling well. Simple scents made me extremely nauseous. I had no appetite. Something in my body felt different. I was scared, but dragged myself into the nearest convenience store with one of my best friends. I repositioned the dingy costume jewelry ring from my right hand to my left out of embarrassment as I checked out with a pregnancy test in hand. I took the test and begged my friend to tell me there weren’t two pink lines; however the grin she had on her face immediately let me know my life was changing.
My boyfriend and I headed to the doctor shortly thereafter. I couldn’t even function. I had to change this. I didn’t want kids and I couldn’t even love myself, how on earth was I supposed to care for a child? Fear followed my somber steps into the ultrasound appointment. My doctor knew the options I was considering and simply said, “Before you decide anything, I want you to see something.” Glancing to the right where his bulky finger was pointed, I saw a rapid flicker on the screen. My doctor sternly said, “That flicker is its heartbeat.” The second I saw life growing inside me, maternal instincts flooded my heart along with thousands of tears of confusion, anxiety and doubt. I left the office with joyous nurses’ “new mom” gifts and a horrible aching in my heart. Life had changed. Now what?
During this time I began to feel a bigger purpose. I was ambitiously set on making this baby’s life great, even though it was going to be a bit backwards and nontraditional. I started taking care of myself. It was a way of caring for him. It has always been easier for me to care for others. To feel another human kicking inside of you is one of the most miraculous things we can experience and for once in my life, I was genuinely happy and grateful. My mind started to shift and I began to see a life of love instead of hate, hurt and anger.
The years went by and we grew our life building the family we cherished so much. However, there was always a shaky ground of trust. To be honest, I never trusted my son’s dad. He always seemed up to something, but with a sly manipulation scheme had me believe that I was untrusting because of my past. Honestly, there was enough truth to his contention that it haunted me as the years passed.
News came that we were pregnant with our second and we were so excited to expand our little army. Sometimes with great joy, comes great pain. Ever get a call that completely floors you? Two days after finding out I was going to be a mom again, these words sent sorrow through my heart, “Amanda, we have to tell you that you have cervical cancer and should consider aborting the baby because we do not know what the cancer will do during your pregnancy to you or the baby.” I was in shock. How did this happen? I took care of myself, well mostly. But they didn’t need to know about the eating disorder, binge drinking and all that, right? They stated that it had been transmitted through the HPV virus and while there are over one hundred strands, only a few cause cancer. I had one of those strands. But I had only been with one man for three years at this point. How could I have it transmitted to me, unless…?
I was angry and confronted my fiancé at the time. He denied any infidelity and being too scared as what to do with the baby and so desperately wanting to be loved, I hung on. I hung on to naïve faith and the highest hopes that no matter what, the baby would be ok. That I would be ok. That it all would be ok, because sometimes that is the simplest phrase we need to hear and believe. My mind was made up so I focused on giving it the best shot I could.
That pregnancy was full of ups and downs and my body had completely exhausted itself trying to fight to survive what was going on underneath the surface. This new baby inside me was much more active than our first and I could tell he had a fighter spirit. There was a resonating faith inside me that knew we were both going to make it just fine. I made it all the way through that pregnancy and went into labor fast. I noticed my finance’s stare of concern as he watched the heart rate monitor during delivery; our baby was not getting any oxygen during contractions. I was so scared and as our child entered the world his body was infused with a deep color purple. He wasn’t breathing. The cord was wrapped around his neck, and I was helpless to do anything as I watched the doctor try and contain nerves while frantically reviving him. My new brave little warrior had also given me a miracle other than himself. During that pregnancy, most of my cancer cells cleared because my healthy cells overtook the space. I required minimal treatments to clear the rest and thankfully have not had a recurrence .
Though I was cancer free, I was not free from life’s burdens and the games it can play on the mind. I had gotten really good at burying and masking things, especially things that hurt the most. I knew my fiancé was having an affair. I could feel it. It hurt, not just because of the infidelity, but because I could hear those words again. You are unlovable, defective, and worthless. Something is wrong with you, that’s why he doesn’t want you. My mind shifted again to hurtful words and I believed everything it told me.
A few days after our wedding, I received a call that my now husband was having an affair with my best friend. Of course he denied it, but it tore me apart. As most hurtful situations do, it spiraled me down a dark hole but I knew I needed to be there for my children. Within that dark hole, I eventually found a glimmer of hope and started to get help from the right counselor. I was finally ready to face what happened so long ago. I was scared to let it all go because I felt like I would let myself go, but it had to be done. I had reached my breaking point.
Therapy and focusing on my marriage stabilized life again and we were about to have another baby. This pregnancy was the most challenging of all three. I was constantly in the hospital with severe dehydration from daily vomiting for almost forty weeks. No one could tell me nor explain what was wrong. The day I delivered her I was not only grateful to have her in our life, but thankful to have my own body back. I wanted to get well again. But I didn’t. I got worse.
I put on weight and suddenly was eighty pounds overweight. I had crippling pain and horrible vertigo. I felt like I was ninety years old and had the flu and that my body was on fire. Colds continued to turn into pneumonia. I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t take care of my kids. I was helpless again and paralyzed with fear and anger. Years of testing and guinea pig type trials were exhausting and depressing. I had reached an all time low.
Everything I had identified with—my health, my career, my family, my skills—were gone. Again I felt worthless. My body betrayed me. I hated my life. I cried and so desperately wanted life to go back to the way it was. It was a few dark years until one day I looked in the mirror and refused to accept life this way. I fiercely declared that I was no longer going to listen to limitations and that all of my experiences were for a purpose. I started to believe that just because my life hadn’t gone as planned, that it didn’t mean it had to suck. My hope was back. I started focusing on the “can.” I took baby steps each day to find the tiny incremental progress that gave me the motivation to keep moving forward. Years of abuse, both from others and myself and ruining my body had caught up with me. But I was finally learning the basics of genuine self-care.
This gave me strength, joy, awareness, love and happiness again, and little did I know that I was really going to need it. After trying for two more years to have another baby, we finally conceived again. I was so excited! We were so excited! And then we lost the baby. I was so tired of feeling loss and pain. But this time I felt the pain and also took care of myself instead of punishing myself during this kind of loss. Our marriage took another downward slope and months later I lay on the kitchen floor, all movie-type dramatic, crying in devastation knowing my husband had left me for another woman but didn’t have the heart to tell me.
Months of dysfunction and chaos went by. The money was gone and pulled from the accounts, the house was in shambles, and the kids were sad and confused. The father they knew was gone. He was no longer active in their lives and barely came around. His own family and friends would no longer speak with him because of his bizarre behaviors and lying. It was surreal seeing the man you loved or the dad you loved in the physical form, but something inside was so off - almost as if somebody completely different encompassed his body. A complete stranger wearing a familiar face is deeply confusing for the subconscious.
I was broke, losing my house and car, and still battling my autoimmune condition. I had to move back in with my family after being independent for so long. I was devastated at having to detach from the family life I had known and loved so much. My kids were in pain and sad from their loss. Still, through it all, we stayed centered on the good and miracles that came along while we mourned our losses. One can preach these things all one wants, but lessons seem to resonate and retain strongest when experienced in action.. As much pain and dismay as we were enduring, we were all growing a love and strength that could carry us through any storm.
And, for once, I was finally strong enough to face my ultimate fear. It was time to have a meeting with my mind. It was time to face those horrible stories I had built in my head that I believed were accurate. It was time to forgive. I had forgiven my sitter (and those there after) for the abuse I endured, but I never could forgive myself until I was forced to stand up for myself and discover on my own that I was lovable. There is nothing wrong with me. I have every right to love myself and believe in a better future.
My ex treated me and our life together like a piece of trash easily disposed and forgotten. He ignored me, avoided me and would say things like “you’re a deadbeat piece of shit mother” and “I will do whatever I can to ruin your life you worthless bitch” right in front of our children. It was the ultimate test of self-love. Here you are telling yourself these phrases for decades and then the person you love the most for almost fifteen years actually voices them. But I chose not to believe them anymore, out of his mouth or mine.
It also gave me even more insight as to how much people who are hurting often hurt others. I have always been an empathetic soul but understood it even more so now. I had to learn to balance compassion for someone I knew was hurting and repeating their cycle just like my abusers from so long ago. I held my grace, did the right thing and helped where I could. I maintained character and integrity through the worst of the storms because I knew that I deserved it and my kids needed to see it in action.
Things have been on the up and even my roughest relationships have slowly inched to a happier contentment, bringing more peace to my kids and to me. My ex has gradually become more involved again, and my many close friends and family created a much needed support system to help me during periods of darkness. While I had to experience much of it on my own, we are truly all in this together.
Each important life experience built me for the next. These experiences grew me in a way that nothing else could, as all challenging things do. It is why I see unity and not division between all of our stories and experiences. It is the hope that threads through the “what could be” out of the “what was” that inspires me to help others. It is why I never want to see anyone suffer or feel unlovable, even when their own actions contribute to their pain. It is why I can see the good and gifts in people and the immense beauty in the world. It is why I believe in amazing human potential and the infinite possibilities this life can provide.
My mind, words and beliefs had to change in order for my life to change. My thoughts, my actions, my behaviors, everything is still a work in progress. The path to positive change is never linear. There are peaks and setbacks, and lots of exploration like any other valuable journey in life. But it is one worth taking and, while we each are unique, it is one that must be taken together.
The very first step to take is to give yourself hope. Reframe life using the power of your mind to identify help and hope, rather than allowing yourself to be consumed in self- or other harm. It will be ok, though not easily so. It does hurt and it is painful to be vulnerable and scared. But we are all worthy, we are all lovable, we are in this together and we heal best through this hope.