This article is a transcript of a speech given at a New Year's Brunch for the Chicago Women's Creative Collective. It has been modified for an online audience.
A lot of people ask me why I wear this key. A few say, “That’s so cute, where’d you buy it?”
I’m always taken aback by that.
To them, the necklace is an accessory; a fashion statement. But to me, it’s a reminder of the single most painful day of my life: the day another mother took my baby home.
In January 2015, I was ready for a better year. Three months after returning from the UK on a solo trip, I was secretly planning to get a one-way ticket back, and become a journalist on a remote Scottish island.
I’d felt trapped in Chicago for over a decade, stuck between a disabled, abusive mother, two younger sisters, and a father who was mostly absent or unemployed. My only real “break” from a hopeless family life, college, was punctuated by my first toxic relationship, and an armed sexual assault (you can read more about my attack and struggle with PTSD in my article “Traveling with Trauma”).
Luckily for me, the two were not related!
That winter, solitude was starting to sound really good. Then my mother attacked my baby sister during one of many fights. I packed a bag, and left our family home with her for the last time. For several days, my sisters and I stayed with friends, hopping from place to place. Once my dad heard the whole story, he moved us into a long-stay hotel.
Our family had finally broken for good.
It was that same month, believe it or not, that I started dating the love of my life.
Still caught up in the dream of leaving it all behind, and the reality of being homeless, I couldn’t have imagined worse timing. But, I fell hard. He was the one, and Scotland? Well...Scotland could wait.
Nearly three months later, I left my family to get my life back on track. All that came crashing down around my ears one sweltering July day as I sat hyperventilating in my car, counting the number of days since my last period.
I’d been dating my boyfriend about five months when we found out we were pregnant.
I won’t go into a lot of detail here, except to say that I was as thrilled, dreamy-eyed, and terrified as you can imagine. I was finally going to have a family; one that I loved, one that I had chosen and one that was mine alone. But then reality set in, as it does, and I realized that those daydreams were yet another symptom of my need for support and stability.
We decided to place our daughter for adoption.
I wish I could say that that decision was the worst part of my pregnancy, but I would also struggle with depression, anxiety, homelessness (again), unpaid medical bills, and telling my conservative parents that I was an unwed mother. I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl on March 15, 2016 and after two blissful and exhausting days as parents, we left the hospital without her.
Life has...not been easy since then. I was lucky enough to find a good support system early on with Chicago’s own On Your Feet Foundation for birthparents. The problem lay in the fact that I was treating this like every other time: push all the shit aside and move forward.
But grief doesn’t listen to work schedules, or calendars, and depression and anxiety aren’t just going to magically melt away when there’s a job to do.
Some things, a lot of things had to change.
Now it’s 2017 and, well, a lot has happened. I’ve quit jobs, been fired, been on welfare, learned what a food pantry was, asked family for help, found clients, lost clients, sold my car, and somewhere in all that mess, slowly and painfully took the first few steps towards my ideal life.
For me, the freelance lifestyle has always been about having room to move and breathe and go places. Then it became my excuse for staying indoors and meeting people as little as humanly possible. Some days, it still is. But I am slowly learning that if I use my work as a way to escape my problems...they’re just going to keep coming back.
Healing begins when you can acknowledge that though the choices you make and the circumstances that affect you will stay with you, they are over and done.
You cannot change them, you can only change how much of your future you let them control. And that’s where hope comes in.
Working a full-time career around my mental and emotional health is a challenge. I have to limit the projects and clients I work with, know when to unplug, and probably most importantly, be honest with myself and others when life gets overwhelming.
But also that means I can enjoy the good days to their fullest extent, and push myself to be extra productive, extra creative, extra passionate. I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished, and excited for the next challenge.
By accepting the past, facing the present head-on, and anticipating the future, I not only create a stronger business and brand, but a better one, and a better me.
I’m learning to thrive on hope, personally and professionally.
So I want to cap this off with a little exercise. I want to share 3 things I’m proud of that I’ve accomplished in the past year, 3 things I am doing well now, and 3 things I look forward to.
Things I am proud of:
-Applying to make my business official while having a baby (got the news a few days after labor!)
-My beautiful daughter who is nearly 11 months old and learning to walk!
-Being tenacious enough to not give up on a connection who has become my biggest client!
Things I am doing well now:
-Being more accountable to those who support me
-Actively taking care of my mind and body
-My passion and ideas for the projects I am a part of
Things I look forward to:
-Pursuing my love of adventure through a series of small and large trips this year
-Becoming more active as advocate in front of the camera
-Being part of bigger projects with more impact and possibility than ever before
When my daughter’s mother gave me this key, she said it had been passed on to her at a time when life seemed directionless. But she took the four little letters inscribed on the back, and lived by them, so that when they finally welcomed a new baby girl into their family, she was able to pass it on to me.
So now, I wear a key called “Hope”. And I carry it with me every day.