“For the last 5 ½ years I have been so used to talking about my son Wyatt’s story after he was shaken as a baby, about my fight for Wyatt’s Law, which would make child abuse offenders be registered just like sex offenders. I have been so focused on my son’s health as a shaken baby survivor that I have gotten away from talking about my own traumas I’ve overcome. I am leery to share this with you. This is out of my comfort zone. But if I can help someone, then it will be all worth it.
A lot of people tell me how strong I am, but I wasn’t always strong. I truly believe what helped me be so strong during what happened to Wyatt, were the obstacles life threw at me when I was a teenager. I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. My best friend was my mom. I literally remember telling my mom, ‘I would die if something happened to you.’ And she would always reassure me, ‘I’m not going anywhere Erica.’ I whole heartedly believed she would magically live forever…
The Thanksgiving after my 16th birthday, my mom began complaining of severe headaches. She had suffered from migraines all her life, so it wasn’t unusual for her to complain of this. But she said these were the worst headaches she ever experienced. My dad took her to the doctor. He ordered her an MRI. We then found out my mom had 2 massive brain tumors. I was scared to death, and my mind immediately went to the ‘c word’… cancer. She was sent to a neurosurgeon that determined her tumors were inoperable. She would still need a biopsy though. My mom had her biopsy done that first week of December in 2004. That same week, my mom’s mom, my Grannie, passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack. My Grannie was my other best friend, and I was so devastated. Selfishly, I thought, ‘Well if God took my Grannie, he can’t take my mom too.’ That thought gave me some hope. God wouldn’t do that to me, that’s just too harsh.
My mom quickly started not acting like herself. She didn’t even understand that her mother had just died. Then we got the call from my mom’s doctor. Her tumors were cancerous. She had brain cancer. I still held out hope though. The plan of attack was intense chemotherapy. She was to spend 7 days at a time in the hospital while getting the chemo. We spent that Christmas in the hospital with her. The hardest part of brain cancer in particular is the personality change you see with your loved one. Those tumors just put so much pressure on the brain. I had to help feed her, brush her hair, brush her teeth, etc. I didn’t mind though. I just imagined doing these things when I was a lot older, not at 16 years old. I wanted her to hold me and tell me everything was going to be okay, but she couldn’t. On January 16th, 2005, my mom passed away. The 24 hours before her death were horrifying to witness. The cancer had spread to her spine and she became paralyzed. We rushed her to the ER and I remember a doctor saying in the background, ‘She is the sickest patient we currently have.’ My mom laid in that hospital bed, shivering because she had a fever. The only thing we could give her was a sponge on stick and we could dip it in water so her mouth wasn’t dry. I then kissed my mom on the forehead and told her I loved her and she mumbled back, ‘I love you too.’ Several hours later, she passed. I was in total shock and disbelief.
The following months were tough. I finished out my junior year of high school pretty numb. The fall of 2005, I was starting my senior year. My grief began to really set in. I started to feel like I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t want to live another day without my mom. I confided this to my high school counselor and social worker who then contacted my Dad. It was suggested I get help at a mental health facility. I started attending an adolescent day hospital mental health program. It basically was my ‘school’ Monday to Friday. I was immediately diagnosed with depression, but also diagnosed with PTSD and put on meds. The hospital program definitely helped. It’s where I needed to be. I was lucky to have such an amazing high school staff would supported me and allowed me to slowly make up all my work so I could still graduate on time.
Something about me though, when I am depressed or nervous, I lose my appetite. As you can imagine, I wasn’t eating like I should. I was starting to lose weight. And I liked it. So I began to stop eating all together, and I kept losing more weight. I used my hunger pains as way to deflect the emotional pain I was feeling.
As I started to drop the weight quickly, the staff at the facility noticed right way. I remember them telling my Dad, ‘Your daughter has anorexia.’ I was like, ‘What? No I don’t. They are just trying to add another diagnosis to me.’ I immediately began being monitored and treated for anorexia. This meant being weighed regularly (backwards so I couldn’t see the scale), and I also had to be watched to make sure I ate. When I realized no one could physically FORCE me to actually eat, I was intrigued. I mean if I continued not to eat, they wouldn’t make me deal with the pain of losing my mother. So I continued not to eat. I became obsessed with ways to hide eating. I would pretend to swallow my food, but hide it in my cheek and then spit it in the toilet or garbage can when no one was looking. I began working out excessively to speed up the weight loss. My period stopped, my chest and face became sunken in, and I was silently killing myself. I can remember putting on a pair of size 00 shorts and they were too big. I still felt that wasn’t skinny enough.
I felt guilty to live every day without my mom. I lost control of my life, my emotions, and respect for my body. My eating disorder was the one thing (I thought) I had control over. That was what my ED was all about, control. A big misconception about eating disorders is that they are 100% fueled by body image issues, and that isn’t always the case. It most cases it is about the control. What trauma are you using your ED to hide behind?
Once I finished treatment, I returned back to school to finish my senior year. I had worked really hard on my grades and had gotten into Michigan State University. I was so excited to get into a Big 10 school. I had some teachers show concern that maybe I wasn’t ready to attend such a big school away. And deep down, I wasn’t. I was just starting to put weight back on and get healthy again. I thought though if I went away to college, my depression would just go away and I would thrive. In the fall of 2006 I started at Michigan State University. I had the best roommate and the best floor of girls. But I was not the best on the inside. I soon realized that coming to this college was a big mistake. It overwhelmed me, and I called my dad crying to come home. So I did. I needed my mom so badly. Leaving MSU was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. I felt like a failure. I began putting myself down and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I just wanted my mom. My Dad didn’t know how to help me and we butted heads. I was spiraling out of control again. The next part of my story is something not many know. I’m sure I will have family and friends reading this that will be completely in shock. But again, I’m sharing to hopefully help others.
When I came home from MSU, I met a guy who wasn’t a great influence on me. But when you have low self-esteem and feel alone, you’ll take any form of comfort/attention. This guy I met took me to a party where there was lots of drinking and drug use. I was immediately uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to show it. I wanted to be cool and feel included. Later into the night after everyone left, I noticed the guy who brought me to the party was passed out drunk. I tried waking him up, but he just waved his hand at me. I should have just left him there, but I’m a loyal person and decided to just wait it out and lay on the couch until he sobered up. I fell asleep on the couch and was awoken by a large man’s body on top of mine. His fingers were inside of me. I couldn’t move and when I told this man to get off of me, he refused. The guy who I came to party with was still passed out. I started yelling for help. The large man got off me quickly, my friend then woke up and we immediately left the house. It didn’t hit me that I had just been sexually assaulted. I was not a sexually experienced 18-year-old, so I really wasn’t sure what had just happened to me and that it wasn’t okay. The next day I went to a regularly scheduled appointment with my therapist. I told her what happened. We called my dad in her office and my dad immediately took me down to the police department to make a report. In the end, nothing happened because it was my word against his. This led me into an even deeper depression. On January 24th, 2007, I attempted suicide by taking a whole bottle of my anxiety medication. My dad found me unresponsive and called 911. I remember vaguely being woken up in the ER because they were pumping my stomach, but the next thing I remembered was waking up in a mental health facility.
I don’t know what clicked about that last time I was in treatment. Maybe it was the guilt I felt about putting my dad through that. Maybe I was just tired of not having control on my life. But for the first time, I truly wanted to get better. Still struggling with the grief of my mother, my therapist suggested I needed to be around people who had been through similar grief. I found a grief support retreat camp. It was in Arizona and it was only for a few days. I decided to book the flight and attend. This retreat was life changing. There are 3 people who significantly changed my life and my way of thinking. There were 2 kids (around 8-9 years old) who had lost both their parents in a car accident. Then there was a lady in her 40’s whose father had been dead for 10 years and she was sitting there crying like it just happened. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really blessed to still have my Dad alive and that I didn’t lose both my parents so young.’ The woman in her 40’s taught me that losing a parent is hard at any age. And it’s okay if it still hurts 10 years later. It’s been over 14 years since my mom died and I still have my moments where I break down and cry. Bottom line, for the first time, I felt not alone. I felt hope. And I truly felt the best way to honor my mom, was to live my best life.
I have tattooed on my inner arm, ‘Grow through what you go through.’ And I certainly have. Every hardship in my life has shaped me into who I am today. Mental illness is nothing to ignore or joke about. I still take medication and see a therapist. I don’t own a scale. I started kick boxing 5 years ago and now also do Krav Maga. I love it and I also love to eat! One thing I’ve learned is that YOU are in charge of YOUR own happiness. And to be the best version of yourself, you have to work at it.
Being a mother, especially a mother of a special needs child, I need to be the best version of myself both physically and mentally. I want to be strong vs. being skinny. I want live life to the fullest vs. just existing. I thank God for every day I wake up because I know it’s not promised. And even though my mom isn’t physically here anymore, she is with me everywhere. I feel her presence constantly. And I know she’d be proud of me.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Erica Hammel. You can you follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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