Over the weekend of November 4th, I attended the Embrace Your Body Gala hosted by Project Reveal. Project Reveal is a non-profit based in Evansville with a simple mission:

To inspire and support women by creating awareness about life issues and encourage honesty and authenticity to help them celebrate love and respect themselves and be the best women for herself, family and community.

You might be thinking, "Why should I care that you went to some Gala?" Well, let me tell you why.

Project Reveal's Embrace Your Body project has irrevocably changed my life. Let me say that again for those in the back. Project Reveal helped me heal some deep-seeded, lifelong painful wounds that I may have otherwise never been able to heal.

Mental illness is something our society consistently struggles to address. A diagnosis of it comes with it a social stigma. I hope that one day we may able to change that. Sharing our stories is a good way to start.

I suffer from an array of mental health issues that I struggle with every day of my life. My primary diagnosis is Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Disorder. I've had depression and agoraphobia, but neither of those has been debilitating for me. The anxiety is somewhat severe and can affect my ability to function from day to day. I will most likely live with it for the rest of my life. In 2013, I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Upon this diagnosis, my heart sank. 'Another crippling mental issue to deal with for the rest of my life. Fantastic!,' I thought.

The worst thing about the PTSD diagnosis, in the beginning, was that due to the misinformation that commonly spreads about mental health issues, I thought it was something only soldiers coming home from war acquired. No one really talks about PTSD outside of these parameters. People definitely don't talk about it when it occurs because of something joyous like childbirth. As it turns out, you can get PTSD from many things. It just so happens that I had PTSD from doing the very biological thing women are designed to do...have a baby.

In 2014, I unexpectedly became pregnant for the second time. At this news, I lost my mind. I had multiple panic attacks a day. Nightmares of the first pregnancy and birth plagued me. I cried every day for weeks. I couldn't function. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't do this again, not again.

The PTSD and anxiety forced their own agenda onto me, and with hormones constantly cycling up and down I felt powerless like I was on some kind of demented emotional rollercoaster that I couldn't get off of. I sought help from my doctor who diagnosed me with antenatal depression, which in simple terms means that you're depressed during pregnancy. At this time, I was just 6 weeks along.

The second pregnancy can only be described as hellish for varying reasons that would take too long to discuss, but through the combined help of medication and therapy, I calmed down enough to realize that I could at least survive the pregnancy and the birth process of another child. As the pregnancy progressed, I began more positive self-talk, read hundreds of articles about second births and to my surprise, many women with my condition were discussing it on the internet and saying one thing that I desperately needed to hear...that their second births had healed them. These women felt renewed! These women felt vindicated! These women felt almost normal again. It was during this time that I wholeheartedly believed that I would be one of these women in just a few short months. Just when I'd convinced myself that a second birth process would change my entire life and help me to heal, it didn't.

It was no one's fault. I did everything I could to bring my child safely into this world while attempting to renew my soul and it just didn't happen. Now that I had the baby and still felt hopeless, what do I do? How do you explain to someone that after having a brand new baby that you hate yourself? How do you adequately convey that you have so much anger trapped inside of you at your own body and mind that you can't look at yourself in a mirror? Why did my body fail me? Why did my mind betray me? I needed answers. Why was I such a failure at the most basic physical reason for being? The anger dissipated over time and I thought I had been healed in the absence of angry feelings. The truth of it was, the anger just shifted into something else more sinister; shame.

PTSD robbed me of my joy. Due to my unresolved self-hate, shame, and pain, I resented everyone. I resented my husband for being a part of it. Worst of all, I resented my own newborn child. Logically, I knew that he had nothing to do with it. I loved him from before the moment I even saw him. Still, I wanted someone else to blame because bearing all of the blame myself was too painful for me to bear. It's much easier to blame everyone else than to have to face cold, hard ugly truths.

Years after his birth, I still struggle with PTSD but not nearly like I used too. I take precautions to make sure that pregnancy isn't a possibility for me. My youngest child is now three years old and I had felt like I'd reconciled with my PTSD by this point. For the most part, I had - but there was still this lingering self-hatred and resentment I had for my body just lingering under the surface. Anytime I saw a new baby and a happy birth story I'd think, "Why couldn't that have been me?" Then I'd silently berate myself with a barrage of negative thoughts. Why was I robbed of my happiness? Why haven't I lost my baby weight? Why didn't my body rebound? Why wasn't my body normal? Then, one day, a unique opportunity presented itself.

Over the summer, I heard that Project Reveal was looking for Embrace Your Body models. I was browsing online at the time and decided to check out what the Embrace Your Body thing was all about through their website. I stumbled upon more than I ever bargained for. The 2016 participant stories were on the website and I started to read one and then another. They were all about women who'd overcome some great adversity in life and posted it for all to see unapologetically. It was almost as if this was their big opportunity for personal redemption. After reading several stories, I applied. To my surprise, I was selected to be a model for 2017.

The process itself was effortless. I've never been averse to sharing my story so that within itself wasn't hard for me. I had a wonderful photographer, Shillawna Ruffner, who made me feel comfortable and beautiful. The photo was taken, my story was submitted, and yet something still didn't feel quite right. I thought that after I had done all of that, I would suddenly feel renewed and instead I felt disappointed. Even after taking the photo and talking about my story, the inner renewal that I was longing for didn't happen. Hopelessness began sinking in.

Finally, the time came for me to attend the Embrace Your Body Gala. My husband accompanied me and I unexpectedly found that I was incredibly nervous. I still didn't feel that feeling of redemption I'd been longing for and wasn't sure I ever would. We made our way around the room and came across my photo. My very first reaction was to start to criticize everything about my body that I didn't like, but I stopped myself. I had to remind myself that this was not the reason that I participated in this project. I was supposed to be learning to embrace my body. After staring at the photo for a little while I began to think deeply about my story. What I'd accomplished in spite of my mental health issues has truly been phenomenal. I realized then that I am resilient. Suddenly, something happened that I did not expect.

Project Reveal 2017 Embrace Your Body model Sunny Richardson
Project Reveal 2017 Embrace Your Body model Sunny Richardson. Photo by Shillawna Ruffner Photography, owned by Project Reveal.

A group of women spoke about their photos, stories, and their experience with Project Reveal. The stories were truly riveting, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking. Listening to these women speak about vastly different experiences and wide ranges of emotions impacted me in ways I never anticipated. Tears streaming down my face, it was then that I realized that my story wasn't for me; it was for those who needed to hear it, just as the other women's stories had been for me. I read each and every story that night. I hugged a number of body models who I'd met. I finally felt the renewal I was longing for. If these other strong, courageous women could come forward and love their bodies after everything that they'd been through, I could too. If I couldn't love myself for me, I could do it for these women, to honor them. I could do it for my children. One day, I could do it for my own benefit, even if that day is not today.

After connecting with these other women, I've continued to follow their lives. I've watched what this experience has done for them. I also look to them to remain inspired when I'm feeling defeated. None of them have any idea how much their stories have impacted me. They have no idea that their stories not only helped them to heal their scars, but they also helped to heal mine.

If it wasn't for Project Reveal and the Embrace Your Body Gala, I would have never had the opportunity to meet these incredible women and come to the realizations that I have about myself. I would never have reconciled these long-standing feelings of anger, shame, and self-hate. I would never have had the chance to feel my spirit renewed. So to Project Reveal, thank you for this opportunity. To Shillawna Ruffner, thank you for being my encouraging and amazingly talented photographer. Last but not least, I'd like to thank each and every body model for helping me gain the courage to face myself. Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for sharing the most difficult and painful parts of you. Without you, I never could have accomplished what I have today; I could never have learned to truly love and appreciate myself as I do right now. Thank you all. I'll never forget this experience as long as I live.

To conclude, if you're ever feeling alone, stuck in the trap of self-degradation, remind yourself that there are others out there who understand. There are others just like you. You are resilient. You can heal too.

To experience the photos and stories from this powerful project, visit projectreveal.org.

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