There was a time when I couldn’t look in the mirror. I would avoid them at all costs. Accidentally catching my reflection in a shop window would reduce me to tears. For years I refused to have my photograph taken. I didn’t want there to be any evidence that I’d ever existed. I wanted nothing more than to quietly starve myself out of this life, to fade away as if I had never even been here.
And yet here I am, photographed; evidence that I exist. My life, my story, documented for the entire world to see. It’s a transformation that has taken many years and a mind-set that if I’m honest, I still struggle with from time to time; that I am worthy of being here, that my life has purpose and that I do belong. My eating disorders and self-harming behaviours kept me on the peripheral for so long that being ‘part of’ things rather than just a stranger on the edge still at times feels alien- it’s a risk, to belong. But it also feels like coming home.
In her book Braving the Wilderness Brené Brown describes true belonging as something that only happens ‘when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world’. I used to think that the only way in which I’d ever be accepted- and therefore would feel as though I belonged- was to pretend to the world that I was something I wasn’t. The stain of my childhood sexual abuse was something I desperately wanted to wash away and I hid behind perfectionism, anxious that the truth of my pain should never be exposed. But my silence only had me moving away from people rather than towards them. Rather than bringing connection, my silence only fuelled my sense of shame- shame being the culprit of my continual feelings of unworthiness and isolation. I couldn’t find real connection- true belonging- because my deep rooted sense of shame about who I was kept me from presenting my authentic, imperfect self to the world. Instead, I remained trapped by a character I felt I had no choice but to play.
In collating The Silent Scream anthology I finally understood Brené’s words- not just superficially, but profoundly. I experienced first- hand the healing power of sharing our stories- not the fictitious ones we tell through social media or the ones we tell from behind masks- but the honest stories of who we really are. In finally finding my voice and the courage to read aloud my own unread chapters, I found myself amongst a supportive community of people willing to do the same. A community of people willing to make themselves vulnerable and exposed, the truth of who they are out there for all the world to see. And through that shared vulnerability we found connection. And connection, I’ve discovered is a huge catalyst for healing, growth and change.
By nature we are pack animals. We have an innate desire to be part of something larger than us, but in this consumer world in which we live, it is hard to reach the level of self -acceptance required to transcend the material world and find those deeper and more meaningful connections. We spend so much of our lives trapped in the fear that we are not enough, busying ourselves trying to change who we are, altering what we see in the mirror to reflect a perfectly honed version of who we think we should be, that we lose sight of our shared humanity; despite our ideological, political and religious differences, we all share in the same need to be loved and accepted. But we will never be accepted by others beyond the point at which we accept and love ourselves.
I spent most of my life a lone wolf, consumed by my desire to be anyone but me. I hated myself and detested the stain of carrying around inside of me that used and un-loveable girl. I remained trapped in the paradox of my need to both hide my shame, but also my need to belong; my need to feel loved and accepted. But shame and belonging are not compatible co-habitors. Shame prevents us from showing up as our authentic and honest selves. I spent so long denying and running from the truth of my pain, the truth of me. I didn’t want to belong in my body, let alone in my own story, and so I withdrew from my body, my story and everything else that connected me to my humanity; food, love, family, friendships, community. I spent many years addicted to self-destructive habits, conflicted by a primal yearning to return to the pack, to belong, and my illness which wanted to separate me from all that I loved so that it could destroy me.
When my anorexia developed into bulimia the mirror and the camera- they reflected back to me an ever growing body, a body I was even more ashamed of and a body I could no longer hide. My shame and therefore my feelings of isolation grew with my ever increasing weight, and whilst everyone else thought I was recovering and finding my place, I couldn’t have felt lonelier, trapped in my secret; that I was bingeing and purging, sometimes multiple times a day. Feelings of uncontrollable rage surfaced as I began experiencing flashbacks of my abuse. I felt worthless, un-loveable and lost all hope of ever feeling part of life.
I remained trapped in this cycle for years, silently screaming, wanting the pain to stop but not knowing how, afraid of judgement and rejection. But pain is unrelenting and at some point our need to end the loneliness, the isolation and the shame outweighs the risk to be vulnerable. It has to. I stared at the alternative a few times. We have to make it easier as a society for people to take the risk to step back into their humanity, to reach out and seek true belonging, for them to know that their story, their voice and their pain matters too, and to know that they are ‘not the only ones’ feeling this way.
It took a long time. The changes were incremental. Feeling connected didn’t happen overnight. But I am here. I exist. More than that- I am alive. I belong. I am part of. Working with Flo was a major stepping stone at the beginning of this journey. The first time she photographed me with my family, was the first time I’d looked at photos of myself and not cried. I didn’t find fault in my appearance or tear myself to pieces by attaching negative attributes to the woman in the image before me. I didn’t look out of place or wish I wasn’t there. I didn’t feel ashamed. I looked at the photos and I thought, wow- I look happy.
I’d never considered myself a happy person until that moment. But there I was, with my husband and kids. Smiling. Happy. Belonging. Of course it might seem obvious that I’d belong in my family photo, but it hasn’t always felt this way. I’ve struggled with feelings of belonging within my own family unit- not that I felt disconnected from my kids, my bond with them has always been incredibly strong- but because I was anxious that I was undeserving of being a mum to these four incredibly wonderful children. But in that moment, captured through Flo’s lens, I belonged because I was presenting my authentic self; I wasn’t thinking about posing, whether my ‘best side’ was being captured. Whether I was thin enough. Pretty enough. Worthy enough. I wasn’t pretending that I am a mother who has her shit together or that I’m a perfect wife. Flo captured us in the moment as we were; she captured me warts and all goofing about with my husband and kids. Being me. No shame. And it was liberating. Flo was able to help me reframe how I saw myself. All I’d ever seen before were the shadow parts of me- the parts I wanted to hide and deny, and now I could see the good parts, as if Flo had shone a torch through to my soul and pulled out the gold I had long thought just wasn’t there. For so long I thought I had only darkness inside- that my childhood experiences meant that I was rotten to the core- but I began to see this as a lie; I am light as well as dark, love as well as fear.
I started to use various sets of family photographs to further reflect upon these good parts. And the more I unravelled these, the better connected I felt. I stopped worrying so much about what others thought because I felt less ashamed of the person I was. And the less shame I felt, the more empowered I became. I started to try new things and began to step into situations that made me feel vulnerable, pushing through my discomfort. And that was when I learnt that sometimes true belonging- belonging to ourselves- also means having the courage to stand alone, sometimes against the crowd. Belonging isn’t always about being the same as everybody else, but being solid in the foundation of who we are and owning our truth.
We only belong in our own lives when we give ourselves permission to be the protagonist of our own narrative; when we are vulnerable enough to own our story and tell it without fear or shame- that is true belonging. It is something you feel in your heart. I can’t tell you that when I look in the mirror or at photographs now that I always like what I see. But at least when I do look, I don’t see a woman still cloaked in the shame of her past- I accept what I see (for the most part!) I own my story as much as I can rather than trying to erase it from the page. Denying the truth of my experiences, of who I truly am only fuelled my feelings of shame and isolation- stepping into vulnerability and finding the courage to present myself to the world authentically was where I found I was no longer always the outsider looking in. Of course I still have those moments, but I no longer need to hide. I’m no longer afraid to be seen, to exist, to belong.
I am so grateful to all the collaborators of The Silent Scream anthology for taking this journey with me, for being courageous enough to step into this with me and for sharing their stories with rawness and honesty. I couldn’t have pulled this project together without their bravery. I struggled to find meaning and purpose in my life when I was trapped in my self-destructive behaviours, which at the time I thought kept me safe from the world. Now I see those behaviours- the fear and the shame- were the very things that kept me from interacting with the world and the missing piece was the courage to show up just as I am.
The Silent Scream: An Anthology of Despair, Struggle and Hope is a collaboration of raw, honest and inspirational stories and anecdotes about struggles with mental and emotional wellbeing, ranging from eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-harm, drug addiction, PTSD, cancer recovery, parenting, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and general feelings of unworthiness in a world demanding conformity and accomplishment.
The Silent Scream anthology is an offer of a hand in your darkest moments to pull you up and pull you out of your self-destructive thought processes, patterns and behaviours; a reminder that whatever you’re going through, others are going through it too, have been through it too and that life does get better. Our experiences won’t be exactly the same, but as human beings we are all subject to fear, shame, pain and suffering, which is only heightened by our feelings of isolation. The Silent Scream will pull you out of that isolation and into the community offered to you by this anthology, creating a sense of belonging and connection in a world in which we are so disconnected from each other. The Silent Scream is a friend, a hold in the hand companion, a book to dip in and out of, ready to reassure you that normal does not exist. As collaborators we make our mess our message: you are not alone.
Together, let’s navigate the pages of our lives to become the authors of new chapters yet to be written.
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Photographs by Flora Westbrook. Words by Maria Alfieri - February 2020
Article originally published on: Flora Westbrook Flimic and Atmospheric