To be a woman.
To have experience to say,
I am here.
With or without you.
Even without you.
No matter what.
2020 has been a hell of a year for everyone. I don’t need to explain to anyone the impact a year of fear, restriction, civil unrest, and constant uncertainty has brought. But I’m not here to talk about covid. I’m not even here to talk about photography really.
This time I’m here to talk about me, unafraid and unfiltered, in an attempt to release my experience to the universe. I’ve been doing my “To Be” project off and on for 3 years now (you can find links to other incredible stories at the bottom of this blog) and I always struggled to figure out how to frame my own post. I still find myself at a loss as to how to start, but this year has been unbelievably transformative in so many ways, so I guess I’ll begin at the beginning and break open the pieces of my soul one small bit at a time. Buckle up friends, because it’s a long one.
*Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicidal ideation, women’s health issues, talk of death.
There is no authenticity without brutal honesty, and this truth has been due to be shared for some time. In the Spring of 2018 I married my absolute best friend and partner of 8 years. In 2020 we got divorced.
I could talk about the pain; the clean clear break of your heart when you’re mourning the loss of something intangible. I could talk about toxicity; about neglect and codependency and the pain we cause others when we’re already hurting. I could talk about loneliness, the likes of which I’ve never experienced, that sucked my heart dry and left me free floating in a universe I didn’t belong to. The old me, my old life, and my seemingly obvious future is dead and I’m filled with unimaginable grief.
But all of that doesn’t seem right to touch more on, because that’s no longer my focus. My goal this year was not to stay in that space, but to expand from it, escape from it, and emerge a new and wholly different woman. Accepting a new path and rising from your proverbial grave is a bittersweet adventure. I can’t say it was easy to go through, but I can say it was the best thing for me.
Being a wedding photographer is my greatest passion. After our split, I worried constantly how I would handle my first wedding back post-separation. I was told I would cry. I was told it would be painful. I was told I might even get angry or resentful at my couples. I prepared for all of it, but when that day came, I found I felt something different from what everyone said and yet completely ordinary in the moment: I found love. I loved picking up my camera, I loved watching the groom cry during his first look, I loved hearing the beautiful personal vows and taking intimate romantic photos, I loved being around people who were so head over heels for one another, I loved it all. Everything for me had changed, and yet none of this had. I was shocked to find there was a part of me that wasn’t broken and I clung to it like a life raft. If I could still find joy in love and photography, perhaps I could find or create it in other places as well.
I started embracing alone time. I found that, although I had been a certain version of myself for so long, I kind of liked the new independent me. I wanted to spend time with her and get to know her deeply, to a level I don’t know if I ever had. I dreamed of a truly authentic self, one with no question as to who was the priority in her own life. I dreamed of a woman who apologized to no one for the space she takes up. I dreamed of a woman I knew inside and out, full of confidence and determination and flames. I dreamed of a woman that I loved and that required love from no one but herself. After nearly 6 months of my earth constantly shifting beneath me, I can say with certainty that I’m beginning to feel the fire inside me again and it’s burning steadily hotter every day.
Amidst a whirlwind of changes, I was determined to take care of my physical and mental health. It’s so easy to numb pain with alcohol or food or oversleeping, but I had neither the time nor the interest in making my issues worse in that way. I wanted to stay focused, stay busy, and give myself the space and time to experience all of my feelings. I’m glad I committed to this as best I could because my journey to where I am right now would have looked much different had I not made those changes.
So, I’ve dealt with diagnosed and medicated anxiety for the past 2 years, but have felt the effects of it for much longer. I know my triggers and I know my coping mechanisms, I have a good grip on it. I have the love and support of my family and friends, my dog who acts as my bestie and emotional support pup, and I have medication for panic attacks in case of emergency. The feelings of anxiety are familiar to me and, while not pleasant, they are relatively average during my day-to-day.
Depression is not normal for me, not even elongated bouts of situational depression. I am, overall, an incredibly joyful person with a pretty good attitude. Suicidal ideation is not normal for me either, which is why I made an emergency call to my doctor in mid-October. All of a sudden, I was seeing that person slip away, months after my initial breakup. It felt wrong and confusing and very very scary. I was terrified at both my physical symptoms and my deteriorating mental state. I was having panic attacks almost daily, I was having morbid thoughts to rival an Arri Astor movie, and I could not make either of them stop. As I sat in the car on the side of the freeway after having an untriggered panic attack on the way to work, I texted my best friends Melanie and Da Karai and pleaded for them to help me. They were stunned and worried and had no way of making things better for me. It was one of the hardest days of my entire life and I absolutely knew I needed to get some help.
Over that weekend I was kept busy by photo sessions, but I felt like garbage. My stomach was in knots, presumably from the anxiety, I had no appetite, I had no interest in my sessions, though I tried very hard to manufacture some positivity. I got out of bed to go shoot and climbed back in when I got home. I was in so much pain, physically and mentally, and all I could do was wait for my doctor’s appointment that was scheduled for that upcoming Wednesday, but the universe had other plans and I didn’t quite make it that far.
I woke up that Monday around 4:00 am with an excruciating pain in my right side. My true crime-loving brain immediately thought I was being stabbed, but (thankfully) there was no one in my apartment. I got out of bed and went to the bathroom to figure out what was going on and when I turned on the light I was so shocked the blood drained from my face. My entire right hip and pelvis area was a rich red/purple/black bruise. I looked further down my legs and I saw blood. A lot of blood.
I immediately went into emergency mode. “I need to call an uber, I need to put on pants (DUH), where is my Kaiser card, where are my pads”. When I arrived at the hospital I was admitted immediately and doctors were under the assumption that my appendix had burst and I needed emergency surgery. However, when they did an ultrasound and I told them about my other bleeding, they realized it was something entirely different.
Your ovaries are usually about the size of a grape, my right one was the size of a golf ball and full of fluid. There was also a mass, nearly 4cm in diameter, directly next to my ovary that looked to the doctors to be solid. I was awestruck. Here I am, 32 years old, 4:30am, alone and bleeding, laying on an exam table hearing a nurse say words like “cancer” and “hemorrhaging” and “partial hysterectomy”. I was in such shock I laughed out loud, I’m certain the nurse thought I was losing it. I laid back while they used a massive needle to remove fluid from my ovary and went in through my cervix to get a tissue sample of the mass. And then that was it. Two hours and “we’ll call you with results in 72 hours” later and I was out on the sidewalk with a bottle of vicodin for the pain, one pill each for the next three days. I felt like I was in the Truman Show and this was a drama heavy episode.
Much to my loyal audiences shagrin, I went home and did nothing. Because what. THE FUCK. Was I supposed to do? I called no one. I told no one. I felt nothing. It was just a quiet day off, I genuinely did not process anything. I didn’t even read the informational literature they gave me.
Here’s the thing… when you’re faced with your own mortality, a lot of other things start to look a lot more manageable. Feeling lonely? At least I’m not dead. Crushing anxiety when I have to talk with my ex over splitting finances? It probably won’t kill me. Running a photography business and shooting all the events while my boss and his wife enjoy their newborn son? Somewhat overwhelming, but no imminent chance of death, and that’s a plus. Priorities fall into place when your life is laid bare in front of you. It’s humbling and terrifying and unbelievably grounding. I feel extremely lucky to say I have never experienced it before and hopefully won’t again for a long long time. I wouldn’t wish that hurricane of emotional garbage on anyone.
Fast forward three exhausting days and I get a phone call. Not cancer, she says. For now the slow and painful death card is off the table. But it is bad, something they need to speak to me about in person. When can I come in? I arrive to a concerned looking doctor and a very sympathetic nurse. They proceed to tell me that my lady bits decided to royally screw the pooch, thereby fucking my existence over in the process. What had started as a bacterial infection inside my fallopian tube near my ovary has snowballed into buildup of cells and tissue as my ovary tried to pump the infection away. Once the tube was blocked, my ovary filled up like a water balloon, causing more stress to the mass of infection on my tube. When the mass got large enough, it started pushing against my ovary causing a split in my tube at the base of the ovary. It was a large tear causing me to bleed out internally as well as explaining the massive amount of vaginal bleeding. They said I was lucky I was in pain that Monday because occasionally there are no symptoms of fallopian bleeding and it can become life threatening if it’s not dealt with properly. They said I was lucky I’m generally healthy because I immediately knew something was wrong. Apparently all the trouble that took me to the ER was worth it. It’s weird to think that being in pain can sometimes be the best thing for us.
Oh! And remember those massive mood swings and extreme depressive episodes I was dealing with? They were a side effect of the dumpster fire inside my ovary. My body was losing its mind trying to heal itself while thinking I was possibly pregnant while thinking I was going through menopause while just overall not knowing what was going on. Hormones were running rampant. My bits and my brain were in communication, basically plotting against me to see how far I could be pushed. I was grateful for answers, but I have to say, was pretty upset with my body for treating me this way.
The final step to sort all this out was a treatment plan. There was a good chance there was permanent damage to my tube which meant it might not be able to carry eggs down and out if the scar tissue thickened after doctors removed the buildup. I may need to have the entire ovary and tube removed. I may have trouble having kids. It’s funny, you’d think I would have been more upset about that, but escaping death has similar effects to facing it head on; you line up those priorities real quick. I would still have one ovary. I could still adopt or foster or just get 100 dogs. I would face that road when I got there because right now, I was just thrilled to be alive.
The procedures I had done to fix the damage were painful and emotional. I won’t go into detail, but I will admit that they shook me a bit more than I had thought they would. At this point I had told my closest friends so, after a VERY long morning in the ER, I texted everyone my status and went home to sleep it off. I spent the day home and in bed. I texted David to ask for Tuesday (Election day) off. I took care of me and, while I was exhausted, I felt strong and powerful and so appreciative to be here.
This whole ordeal gave me a newfound appreciation for my overall health and assumed ability to potentially create life. As I lay in bed, tears running down my cheeks and a smile on my face, I felt like an injured bird, ready to heal and fly back into the world with newfound hope and abundance. Though I may hurt and I may bleed, I am always the wholest version of myself, even if some parts of me are removed. I will face those challenges when I get there, and I’ll face them with the strength of survival in my veins.
Through all of this, the main thing that brought me joy was photography. For a while I tried to embrace other hobbies. I got into gardening, I started baking, a dabbled in stamp carving and embroidery, but every time I had a free moment I found myself wanting to watch a class on photoshop or read about off camera lighting or do a fun shoot with my friends. I know it might sound cliche, but photography is my profession as well as my passion, and I just want to do it all the time.
I realized recently that 2020 marks the tenth year that I’ve officially been in business. Obviously, that fact passed through the year with more of a whisper than a bang, but I’m still so pleased with all I’ve accomplished. From being “that girl with the camera” at college who took graduation portraits for my friends to doing photography part-time while teaching to now running my own LGBT+-centered international photography business and partnering with David to create our brick-and-mortar family studio, I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to where I’m at. Sometimes I forget how difficult it was and all I gave up to make it work. I’m often looking to what’s next as opposed to what has already been done, but I’m realizing that kind of thinking is the thief of pride, and I am extremely proud of all I’ve done.
I’ve taken a lot of time to be reflective lately. Through meditation, journaling, neural plasticity coaching, and therapy I’ve been very focused on what’s happening in the present and how my past successes have led to it. I’m setting goals for the future, but I’m not skipping over what I have in front of my right now. I have stopped saying I’m lucky to do what I do, because very little of my journey to this moment was based on luck. I’m grateful to do what I do and I’m proud to do it, but this didn’t happen by accident and it’s ok for me to be stoked about my own successes.
Along with being successful (i.e. – paying the bills and making people happy) with my wedding and family work, I’ve been slowly making a list of creative projects I want to embark on. Expanding my skills and pushing myself makes me feel SO accomplished and lord knows we all need to feel a sense of deeper purpose, especially in 2020. I’m seeking to use photography as a medium of expression, an artistic venture that doesn’t just serve others but brings me joy. I purchased an awesome Pentax film camera, I’ve invested in classes dedicated to the skills I want to improve upon, and I’ve learned to embrace the journey of creating my projects, not just the outcome.
Creativity and openness, in all areas of my life, are a top priority for me. The photos in this series are some of many shoots going forward that will reflect my personal interests, my inner thoughts, and my deeper emotions. I’m looking forward to committing to work that deeply excites me and I’m looking forward to sharing it.
After reading all that you’re probably wondering; “MA’AM, ARE YOU OK?” and the answer is a resounding MAYBE. (I’m kidding, I’m actually doing great! lol) It’s definitely been a wild year because, as you heard, I had not been doing well until recently. All of a sudden I’m settled into a version of myself and of my new life that I feel extremely comfortable with. I live closer to my best friends and my amazing family, I have a quiet cozy space that’s completely my own, my ex and I have become quite good friends (which has been one of my greatest joys all year), and I feel confident that 2020 will be a fantastic year for business and personal growth. As my BFF Da Karai and I like to say, WE’RE ALL JUST DOING OUR BEST.
I’ve recently been considering the definition and impact of personal strength. Strength can mean a million different things. Some days it means doing back-to-back photo shoots, being a videographer on the fly, successfully selling prints to clients, delivering galleries, and driving home to fall into be way to late and over exhausted. Some days it means making sure I at least have a glass of water while I struggle to get out of bed. These experiences are equal, they require the same thing of me.
I think one of the main takeaways of 2020 has been learning to give myself (and others) more grace. Some days I’m a boss bitch and some days I’m a trash panda, but regardless of my day-to-day fluctuations, I’m still full of fire and power and passion and love. The person that I am building is not discounted because of the difficult days. Even when I’m crying, I am still full of virtue. My bad moments do not define me. I have survived 100% of them at this point, so my stats are looking pretty good.
Lately, I’ve been feeling powerful on a more regular basis. After settling into my new version of reality I feel independent, determined, confident, energetic, excited; all things that I’ve struggled to feel for the past few years. I feel more like me than I have in a long time and I’m loving it.
The idea for this photo series started as a more subtle and subdued concept. I was going to call it “Tears of a Broken Goddess” and use it as a way to express my darker emotions. I sat with the idea for a long time wondering what to do and by the time I was ready to shoot, the idea had transformed. I didn’t want to portray myself as a victim of circumstance. I didn’t want to portray myself as fragmented when I’ve done so much to make myself whole. I didn’t want to project that negativity which, in turn, would manifest it into reality. The way we speak to and about ourselves is monumental in the way we see ourselves.
I am not overly emotional, I’m open and vulnerable.
I’m not obsessed with my craft, I am passionate about it.
I’m not a struggling starving artist (anymore), I’m a successful entrepreneur with a knack for creativity.
I am not needy or codependent, but deeply romantic and in search of a twin soul to reciprocate all I have to give.
In these photos, I made myself into the goddess I seek to be; the way I see myself as I continue to build my kingdom around me.
I am no longer broken, I am not ruined.
I am whole, I am strong, I am me.
To read more of my TO BE series and get to know some other incredible humans, follow the links below: