Theater Was My Therapy At My Darkest Times

Trigger warning: self harm, cutting, rape

I remember my first anxiety attack. It was my freshman year of high school. Right before bed, it felt like I was having a heart attack. My chest felt as if it was going to collapse in on itself, and my back felt like it was going to be snapped in half. I told my mom about my back pain, and we went to the doctor. They diagnosed me with scoliosis.

The pain happened more frequently when my brother and step dad would fight and when I would have busy schedules, which was probably the first clue it wasn’t just scoliosis.

Throughout middle school and high school, my mom sent me to therapy. The fighting in the house, among other things, was making me feel helpless. I would take my pain out on my wrists and the top of my feet. I tried so many times to stop. Therapy only made things worse. My family was against putting me on medication. I felt lost. Stuck. They wanted me to try to battle this darkness on my own. I tried so hard for as long as I could for them. 

When a relative was struggling with mental illness when I was in high school, I thought, “Maybe this is genetic throughout my family.” It made me feel less crazy and alone. It made me realize what mental illness is and what it can do to people, and how people react to how they’re feeling. I wasn’t alone when it came to taking the guilt and inflicting it on myself. 

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I decided to put myself on medication. I was having anxiety attacks over the smallest things, and it got to the point where I thought I needed to go to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe. I was put on anxiety medication and an antidepressant. For the next four years, my doctor and I would try new combinations to find what worked for me. 

Sophomore year of college was one of the hardest years of my life. I was raped. Raped by a guy who I thought was one of my best friends. I told everyone he would do anything for me, to protect me. Yet he was the one who took everything from me. The pain was overbearing.

That moment has affected my everyday life since then. How I’m intimate with my boyfriend. How anxious I get when I’m around guys who have had too much to drink. How I react to movies and shows with no trigger warnings. I feel broken. I feel like I’m just another person who needs trigger warnings and gets attention out of it. I didn’t want that attention. I felt dirty, useless, and used. It’s taken time, but I know that’s not true.

It’s funny how one night, one moment in time, can change a person’s characteristics. I’m still the girl who’s laugh echoes outside of a classroom, and I’m still the girl who will put her heart and soul into a project to be performed on stage. But this girl has a dark decade to herself, too. 

Theatre and singing were always my escape. The performing arts were my safe space. Performing on stage was my therapy. It kept my mind busy on memorizing scripts, poems, and monologues instead of my mind busy on nightmares and heartaches I couldn’t fix. 

I was tired of staying quiet. I wanted to show that I was more than the stigma and suffering. I wanted to prove that I could have a mental illness, go through profound moments that almost ruined me, and come out stronger on the other side — even with chronic depression, a chronic illness, and anxiety. 

That’s why my capstone last spring at the University of Maine was a collection of monologues called “22.” I wrote about significant moments in my life that have created who I was up until age 22. I had a lot to reflect on, and I used that pain and my capstone as an outlet. I put myself in a vulnerable position and trusted friends and strangers to perform monologues in this mental health showcase. 

Mental health is something we need to talk about more. I want kids to know that if they have panic attacks or thoughts of harming themselves, they’re not alone. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and I wish my family saw that when I was younger. I wish I was on medication earlier, even though I feel like I have carried myself the best that I could without meds for as long as I could. 

I’m as stable as I’ve ever been in years. I’m helplessly in love with a boy — the one I’m going to marry one day. I have a good job, and I live close enough to home that I can be close with my family. My family doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. If anything, they’re proud of me and my independence. 

If you’re reading this and you have been in a familiar boat, I want you to know it’s okay to be scared. There really is something at the end of the darkness. It might not be light, but it could be moments and memories you’ll carry for the rest of your life. Those moments make the fight worth it. And you’re worth the fight. You’re worthy of taking care of yourself, getting help, and having someone help you.

Callaghan Carter

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