Age 9. School.

I sit in my 3rd grade classroom, front row, close to the door. My head is curled up in my arms as I hide my crying face from everything that surrounds me. Peers next to me ignore me, paying more attention to the teacher presenting her lesson in front of the chalkboard. I have a stomach ache, and it makes me cry a lot. The stomach ache happens in the early years following my parents’ divorce, and this isn’t the first time at school.

Eventually, I was sent to the nurse’s office. Maybe my teacher had enough of the distraction from her lesson. Maybe my teacher didn’t know what to do. Maybe my teacher knew that something deeper was going on inside of her little girl in the front row.

Age 9. Therapy.

The room has a table, and I color some pictures. A nice woman with blond hair talks to me about my parents, and I talk with her, too. The building has big windows and is on a hill.

Age 10. Home.

My mom is at work. My brother and I are at home with my mom’s boyfriend. He lives with us. We watch tv in the living room, and he wants me to sit on his lap. I do because he’s the grownup in charge, and he asked me to do it. I feel something hard in his lap. I don’t know what it is, but it’s at my bottom, and it feels weird. He tries to lift my shirt, and I run away from him. I run to my bedroom upstairs.

Time passes. I write a letter to mom about what happened, and I am scared when I give it to her. I’m too afraid to tell her, so I’m writing to her. Will she believe me or think I’m lying to her?

She believed me. Her boyfriend packs his things and finds another place to live. I think that I really made my mom sad. She really liked her boyfriend. I wonder if they still talk to each other.

Age 12. Texas.

My brother and I are staying with my dad this summer and have been for a few years now. He lives in Texas because he’s in the army. I think he looks handsome in his army uniform. Dad started dating a woman who was also in the military. She grew up in Pennsylvania like all of us, but she lives in Texas, too. They are thinking about getting married. I’ll have a step-brother and a step-sister then.

Dad and his girlfriend took us to San Antonio and Mexico for a vacation. It was really cool to see stuff we learned about in school. Dad likes to plan educational trips. He wants to make sure that we are always doing well in school.

Age 14. Home.

Today we are going to have a food fight. We bought chocolate syrup, powdered sugar, and whipped cream. It’s my mom and my brother against her boyfriend and me. Her boyfriend likes me a lot. Sometimes he talks to me about sex stuff, and it’s weird. Like, why is my mom’s boyfriend telling me this stuff? He says things about me that make me really uncomfortable, but I don’t know what to say back.

Age 15. Home, in my bedroom.

Mom’s boyfriend’s daughter is spending the weekend at our house. She’s really fun to be around, and when we’re not together, we talk on the phone for hours. She plays soccer and has an older sister. We are like best friends. Sometimes when she stays at our house, we sneak her dad’s cigarettes and smoke them in my room. We open the window and set up a fan to blow the smoke out of my room. I don’t like the taste of the cigarettes, but I feel pretty badass smoking them with her.

Age 16. The local DOT.

I’m taking my driver’s test today. I’ve had my permit for a while, and I’m ready to get my license. I asked my gram if she could take me and use her car for the test. She said yes. I am nervous sitting in her car, but I pass the test. I can officially drive on my own!

My gram and I drive to my home, and then she goes back to her house. Mom and I are in the living room, and I’m showing her my new driver’s license. She flips out on me, and I get it. I never told her that I asked my gram to take me to get my driver’s license, and now here I am with it in my hand. Mom is worried about where we will come up with the car insurance money and how we will pay for the extra gas.

Age 18. College.

I fell in love with Boston in 9th grade when we went there on a family trip. I dreamed of living there and going to college all through high school. When I was a senior in high school, I decided to live at home and commute to a local college. Why? I am in a serious relationship with my high school boyfriend. I’m in love, and this guy treats me well. I don’t want to ruin our relationship by moving away. I work about 30 hours a week, commute to school, balance schoolwork, and then spend time with my boyfriend any time that I can. My family doesn’t really like him right now, but I don’t care.

Age 19. College.

I just had a meeting with my academic advisor. He’s an art professor. I have to declare a major. I started undeclared because I didn’t know what to do. I know that I want to teach, but I love art, music, and English all the same. They are my favorite. He told me what I needed to do to become a music teacher. I only have my singing voice – that’s my instrument. I felt so overwhelmed thinking of the workload of voice and instrument lessons, on top of regular classes, required ensembles, and my job at the grocery store.

I held back the tears most of the meeting. When I left my advisor’s office, I hurried to my car and started to cry. When I got into my car, I cried because I didn’t think I could do it. I cried because I love music and singing. I cried because I didn’t know how I could balance everything at once. I am so confused. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life.

Age 21. College Art Studio.

I don’t like it when we have studio time during class because I’m afraid of what others will think about my ideas and artwork. I think I’m going to pack up and leave, and then just do my artwork in the commuter lounge where it’s quiet or take it home and stay up late after class. Then nobody can see my ideas or my artwork and judge me. My professor already tears everyone’s work apart during class critiques; I don’t want him watching me over my shoulder while I’m working, too.

Age 22. Home.

There’s a voice message on my answering machine, and I bet it’s the school I interviewed with for the art teacher position. I’m so excited to start teaching art!

The message says that the school went with another candidate. I cried. I am not good enough.

Age 22. Work.

My store manager keeps saying things about his marriage like he’s not happy being married. Sometimes it makes me question if I’m with the right person, even though we are engaged. There are times when I have a weird feeling in my stomach when I hear my boss talking about it and it makes me think about my relationship, but I ignore it. He still treats me well. We don’t really have much in common. It drives me crazy that he doesn’t like my friends who are teachers or who want to be teachers. I wish that he would go to college, too. My dad made it such a point that he wanted my brother and me to go to college, and I think that’s important for who I spend my life with.

Age 28. In My Head.

I want a divorce, but I’m so afraid that I’ll end up alone. I have to be in a relationship, so even if I’m not happy, I’ll just deal with it. I’ve already been told that I’ll go to Hell if I get a divorce. I’m afraid of that. I imagined myself being in a loving marriage, with kids, a good-paying job, continuing my education, and a nice house. I don’t have any of that right now. I feel like I’m being held back and I don’t know what to do. I can’t live on my own. I’ll never survive. I don’t know how to live alone. I’ve never done that before. If I get a divorce, my family will never forgive me.

Age 29. Therapy.

My therapist invited my new boyfriend to therapy with me. He wants to buy a house, and I don’t know if I’m actually included in his plans. We sit talking – all three of us – and I start blaming my parents for my past, and my therapist stops me. She redirects me to reflect upon myself and my life, not what my parents did. I cry because I don’t think I’m included in the plans to buy a house. What is my future with this guy? My therapist and my boyfriend discover that I hold my thoughts and feelings to myself, like a secret. They work together to help me start talking more about what’s going on in my head.

Age 29. The Church.

It’s my wedding day: Round 2. I asked my brother to walk me down the aisle this time. It felt good to ask him to do this because we’ve gotten closer since my divorce. I didn’t ask my dad because I thought it would feel weird asking him to do it another time, but I also felt bad for not asking him. We are waiting in one of the Sunday School rooms when my pastor checks in with me. Five more minutes to go and my mom isn’t here yet. He wants to know if we should wait. I am frustrated and angry. I know that my family had to travel, but seriously, plan ahead, mom. It’s actually my mom, grandmother, and sister riding together. I tell my pastor we are not waiting. We start at 11am. Mom has already seen me get married once anyway.

Age 31. Living Room | The Doctor’s Office.

We are pregnant and haven’t shared it with anyone yet. My cousin is getting married today. I’m taking some pictures of the groomsmen getting ready. Today I feel good. I work out a little before getting ready to pack up my camera gear to take photos. While I work out, I feel a twinge in my body that gives me the strangest gut feeling – like something is wrong. Did I just do something I shouldn’t have?

A few days later: I am bleeding. I really screwed up the other day. I hope I didn’t miscarry because it’s all my fault if that’s what is happening. I overdid it. I’m not telling anyone.

At the doctor’s office: There’s no heartbeat. Did you actually have a pregnancy test? they ask. Yes, I did – a blood test confirmed, and that’s why I’m here, I told them. An ultrasound follows – nothing. Nothing is there. We already told everyone – family, friends – everyone – they all know we are pregnant. We took the test. We had the positive results. How will we tell them we lost it? Should I tell them that I felt something twinge and then I bled? I know that it was my fault. I worked out and I overdid it.

Age 34. Carpooling to School.

I am sitting in the backseat of my colleague’s car. It’s only a few days after discovering that our second child will be born with a heart problem. It’s Complete Heart Block, a result of antibodies in my blood that attacked my baby’s heart. Everything was fine, and then I was rushed to a children’s hospital hours away because my OBGYN couldn’t find the heartbeat during a routine visit. I am sobbing and trying to hide it from my carpool. They can hear me, and I apologize for making them feel uncomfortable having to listen to me cry.

I can’t even believe this is happening and I blame myself. It’s my body that did this. I have a complicated pregnancy, with multiple trips to the specialists each week. I’m missing a ton of school, so my students are missing out on instruction. I have blood clots all through my legs, and the doctor wants me to take off of work, but I’ll burn up all of my sick days way before my maternity leave starts. She told me to stay off of my feet, so I sit at my desk or with students at a table while they work. I feel like if my principal comes in, I’m going to get into trouble, but I’m just trying to follow doctor’s orders. I’m really screwing up everything – my kid’s heart, my body is messed up, and I’m not a good teacher.

Age 37. Church.

We are trying so hard to keep our kids quiet during the church service, but they are noisy, playing loudly, and escaping our pew. I can’t focus on anything being said, and my husband is having a difficult time, too. We both remember going to church with our grandparents growing up, and recall that everyone was silent. No fooling around, period. This is our expectation, and because of it, we are really struggling. We think that everyone is watching us, our unruly children, and are distracted by our kids. Most times I take the kids downstairs, but even then I am so paranoid that everyone upstairs can hear everything that we are doing.

During this particular service, our son got away from me and I had to chase my toddler to the front of the church. Everyone’s eyes were on me. They probably thought that I was an awful mother, who can’t even control her kids. I raced both kids downstairs to flee from my embarrassment. While the kids played with the toys, I cried because I felt like I had just ruined church for everyone. We snuck out before the service ended to avoid talking with anyone about what had happened.

Our church family members shared with us over and over again that they didn’t care. They love having little children in the church and delight in all of it. We just didn’t see that.

Age 38. My Car. | My Head. | Mom’s House.

I just dropped off my kids and am heading to work, which is almost an hour away. It’s snowing, and my car is sliding around the road. I pull off at a nearby car wash and am flooded with tears. It’s too late to call off, but I am an emotional wreck. I get in touch with both of my principals, tell them I can’t come to work and apologize profusely for the late notice. I even elaborate on what is actually going on.

The previous weekend, my family spent time at my mom’s house. Her pipes froze and burst, and when my uncle went to the house to help, she refused to let him and his friend inside to help and fix the problem. Once inside, the reason for the hesitation was revealed. Mom’s house was a disaster. To compare it to an episode of that hoarder’s show would be relatable. After seeing it, my aunt and uncle held a family meeting with my siblings and me, and we made a plan to help.

The following weeks involved dumpsters, face masks, shovels, a frontloader, tears, and tough love. My uncle, cousins, brother, sister, and I worked for hours clearing the house and making some presentable changes to the living conditions of mom’s house. The work was not only physical, but mental and emotional. Sorting through our childhood, my siblings and I made decisions to throw out memories that were tarnished and in no way recoverable. Luckily, they were material things, but pieces of our family history nonetheless.

At one point, as I was working in the basement, I heard a familiar voice coming from upstairs. My heart nearly stopped. Oh no, someone is going to see this mess. It was my uncle, my dad’s brother, and he stopped to let us know that he and my other uncle wanted to help. I hugged him and cried. I cried out of love and appreciation, but also because I felt shame and guilt that this part of me was being seen.

There are so many layers to this story, and as I sat in my car that snowy morning with tears streaming down my face, I knew that my time with my mother was starting to come to an end. I knew that feeling I had let me know that time was running out. In true Jess fashion, I ignored it and carried on with my life.

Age 38. School. | Home. | Life in General.

This school year has been challenging. I was so excited to begin the new school year with a new philosophy of Choice-Based Art Education at my fingertips, and I couldn’t wait to introduce this more meaningful approach to my students. I had done the work, research, preparation, and I was ready to go. That excitement waned over the initial months because of other circumstances. It was the perfect storm that sent me into a downward spiral of self-doubt and self-sabotage.

Without going into specifics, I am now feeling more like a babysitter than a highly qualified instructor of art. After some quick calculations, I am monitoring student behavior (which is not favorable behavior) during unstructured time for a third of my workday. I despise unstructured time, and it makes me anxious. The entire school building schedule changed, and every teacher’s courseload doubled, adding confusion and extra work to the already strained workload. In my personal life, changes out of my control are happening around my neighborhood that makes me unhappy. I feel so alone as a mother, and I don’t have any more friends. Well, I do have friends, but since becoming a mother, I have isolated myself because I have been so focused on my children. The stuff at my mom’s house is too much to handle, but I have to deal with it anyway.

In an effort to control something in my life and feel like I matter somewhere, I enroll in another MAEd program through my favorite art education university. I know that I will be of value to my classmates in the graduate program.

It is my second studyhall of the day, and something just happened with students that sent me into a full-blown anxiety attack. My thoughts arere out of control. I attack myself in my mind, putting myself down over and over again. I am crying uncontrollably. Some of my art students come to my rescue to calm me, but I am too emotional as I report to my next class.

Similar situations began happening during my school day. One time I had to leave a faculty meeting because I had an anxiety attack, another time the school counselor tried to calm me, and another time I had to leave school because I couldn’t function. At one point, I knew that it was time to seek support. I took off school that Friday and called a list of local therapists and my doctor. Something had to change, and it had to happen immediately.

Can you see what this girl was blinded to in her own life?

How do you internalize your struggles or overcome them?