Erin Mitsdarffer started suffering terrible pain and nausea in 2010. After many inconclusive tests and bad experiences with a series of doctors, she had surgery in early 2011. They discovered she had endometriosis, a disease that causes cells which are supposed to grow inside the uterus to grow on the outside. It is a very painful condition that can lead to many other complications. She had another surgery in April of this year where among other things, they found her uterus, ovaries and colon were stuck together and out of place. She had a hysterectomy at the end of August. She is 27 years old.
Erin struggled not only with her medically-related pain, but also with low self-esteem from being overweight and relationship problems. She felt she had sunk so low it was time to start rising.
“Near the end of last year,” she says, “I decided to make some changes. I was’t happy with the way I was externally. I was overweight. I’d been in a few emotionally abusive relationships. I would never leave the house without makeup on. Now I’ve changed my diet and lost 51 pounds.And since I met my husband, I almost never wear makeup. Being in a good relationship in which I’m not being told everyday that I’m a worthless piece of shit makes me feel so much stronger. Though I’m still a mess internally, I feel so much better about myself externally. I definitely have a lot more confidence than I used to.”
She still has to fight through a lot of physical pain, but she’s managed to turn it into more of buoy than an anchor.
“After all I’ve been through, I feel I need to celebrate the fact that I’ve been able to overcome so many of these problems. “
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Brenda Goodman went to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor in 2011 and worked there for a little over two years.
“I went to Afghanistan as a large woman,” says Brenda Goodman. “It was a struggle to be in a country where there aren’t a lot of large people. I worried about overcoming the stereotype that a lot of people have of large people. I worried about not being secure enough to work with people serving their country and that I wouldn’t be able to do what I needed to do to help them.”
But it turned out Brenda became more secure with who she is overseas than when ever was here in the States. She says that working in such a dangerous atmosphere made her less self-conscious and strengthened her self-esteem.
I found that everything that people think are important here were not important to me anymore,” she says. When you live everyday like it’s going to be your last, petty arguments and nasty gossip just don’t mean so much anymore. “
Working with others for the common good gave her a feeling of freedom from negative stereotypes she hadn’t felt before.
“I felt I had a purpose,” she says. “I was doing something worthwhile and my weight was not the focus. It was more about staying alive and helping people who were out there in the war zone. It was about living every day fully, not worrying about how I looked or whether or not people accepted me. I knew they did because we were a part of a team. We took cared for, and took care of, each other. It wasn’t about how much anyone weighed or what they were wearing.”
One of her colleagues along with his security team were recently killed in Afghanistan when they ran over an IED.
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“I was the good kid, the straight A student, I never did anything wrong, ” says Karen Fallowfield of her childhood and adolescence. “I wasn’t a bad looking kid, but I’d been bullied and didn’t think I was worth anything.”
Karen got pregnant at the beginning of her senior year in high school and had a church wedding three weeks later.
“He was basically the first guy I’d ever dated,” she says. “Then I found out he had a drug and alcohol problem. All of a sudden, I’m married to this guy who tells me everything I do is wrong. I figured it must be true.”
The verbal abuse was followed by social isolation.
“He cut me off from my family and friends,” she says. “I wasn’t allowed to visit them, not even during the holidays. I wasn’t allowed to go to the grocery store without the kids. Then it was ‘who did you see, did you say anything about me?’”
Then came violence and sexual abuse.
“There wasn’t so much physical violence,” she says, “though there was physical violence. He broke objects, he hit me a few times, but I was sexually abused on a daily basis.”
Karen tried to cope, but her lack of self-confidence kept her in check.
“I thought it would get better,” she says. I told myself it would get better. I thought it was my fault. I was always trying to figure out if there was something else I could do to make it better. I held out hope.Of course it never got better. I had no self confidence, which is why I stuck with him.“
And like many abusers, he was often apologetic, especially after doing something particularly heinous.
“He had lying down to a fine art,” she says. “He was very believable. And when he was sober, he could be a great guy. That’s what kept me hanging on. It was always, ‘Im lucky to have you, you’re beautiful,’ but then he’d knock me around and say I was cheating on him, when he was the one who was cheating on me. That’s the way it usually goes. If they are the ones cheating, then they accuse you. Not that I was always innocent. After it went on so long, I figured as long as I was being accused, I might as well have some fun. But it wasn’t.”
She wanted to leave him for a long time, but found it’s never as easy as it sounds.
“I tried to leave him one time after he raped and beat me,” she says. “I went to my parents house, but he showed up with a gun and threatened to kill the kids.
Just when she thought it couldn’t get worse, it did.
“He raped our daughter when she was 10 years old,” says Karen. “I knew that something had happened, but she never told me until she was 15 or 16. She didn’t want to press charges and have to face him in court, she just wanted him gone.”
Meanwhile, Karen had become an EMT and was developing a support system outside the home. She says it was a miracle he let her out of the house to take the necessary classes, but he could never hold a job, so he gave up some measure of control for money to pay the rent. She finally found the courage to leave him.
“He threatened this and threatened that,” she says, “but I was one of the lucky ones. I know that when you leave them is the most dangerous time. It did get kind of weird and scary, but he was so afraid of going to jail, he didn’t hurt me. “
Years later he tried to get back into her life and threatened her. She had to get a restraining order, and it’s been a long time since she’s heard from him.
So that long ordeal is probably as over as it can be. Her daughter struggles with anger issues and has physical problems such as stomach pain and migraines. She sometimes has trouble getting out of bed for long stretches.
“I’ve been away from him for 29 years,” she says, “and I still feel repercussions.”
As is not unusual, Karen Fallowfield and her daughter are victims of a cycle of sexual abuse.
“I was molested by a family member when I was little,” says Karen. “He was an upstanding guy that nobody would ever expect. I didn’t remember it until it happened to my daughter. Back then you were just told to stay away from that person, you weren’t supposed to call the police. Nobody would have done anything, even if I had called the police.”
Karen got to a place where she was able to reflect on her experiences and relate them to the world around her.
“I realized that at least one in four women I know were abused,” she says, “and they are my age, so that happened in the 50s and 60’s. I hate to think about how bad it must be today.”
But she did think about how bad it must be today.
“Over a year ago I had this feeling that I just had to do something,” she says. “God doesn’t give us our experiences and force us to sit on them and not help somebody. That was the message I was getting over and over again – I am not hiding this, I’m using it. So I got a bunch of women together at church, and you wouldn’t believe the number of stories they had about violence and sexual abuse. You have no clue.”
No she is helping others.
“I want to show teenage girls that they don’t have to stick with the guy that they know in their heart is not right,” she says. “You see all these red flags, don’t ignore them.”
4 / 12
Jocelyne Boumba is a native of Gabon, a small country located on the equator in Central Africa. Her father was a provincial governor and cabinet minister. Her brother is an economist who represented their country at the world trade talks. Her sisters are successful lawyers and businesspeople. She is a native French speaker with a college degree in Computer Science who has traveled extensively and lived in the U.S. for close to 30 years.
Moving to a small town in southern Indiana from New York City was a bit of a shock.
“People stare,” she says. “At first it’s a shock. In New York, where there are all types of people, you kind of just disappear in the crowd. Then you come here and you stand out. It takes some getting used to. You don’t see a lot of Africans, or even African-American people around here. Maybe they’re just curious when they stare. You don’t know. I don’t think about it much any more.”
But sometimes living in an African body brings more than stares.
“Sometimes people judge you without knowing you because they have a preconceived idea,” she says. “When I go shopping, security follows me around. If I return something, they ask me more questions than he next customer. When I pay with a credit card, I am always asked to show an ID, though that rarely happens to other people in line. I can tell people feel a little on edge around me. They assume I’m poor and uneducated. They think I’m an angry black woman. When they know I’m from Africa, they think that’s a bad thing. They assume I’m here to escape poverty or violence. I understand why they make those assumptions, but for me that’s not the case. Sometimes you sense they are expecting an angry black woman. it’s not only with white people, it’s with Black people too.”
Jocelyne mostly takes it all in stride.
“Sometimes you feel bad and it’s hard not to feel bad about yourself,” she says. “You’re like ‘why?’ But most people turn around pretty quickly when they get to know you. So you have to let your guard down. At this point in my life, I don’t take it personally anymore. I don’t have the time or energy any more to care about other people’s negativity. It’s my body. It’s my skin. What can I do?”
Jocelyne is far from being what people expect in a black activist, but she is one in her own way.
“I don’t go out and protest,” she says. “but I think we all are activists at some level. I try to set an example for young black people in the workplace. I try to set a very good example with my work habits and professionalism.I tell them what I know and try to guide them about proper workplace etiquette and professionalism.”
5 / 12
Caitlin Crisp was always smart and beautiful, but she had to suffer an unhappy childhood and adolescence before she , and the world could see it.
Caitlin has a learning disability, but instead of teaching, and allowing, her to learn in a manner suited to her, the school system just shoved her into special education classes that were far below her intellectual capabilities. Her home life was rough as well. She was bullied both at home and at school for being in special ed and having an artistic bent. In her junior year of high school, she had a sever choking incident in front of a packed cafeteria. Worse than the humiliation, her esophagus was torn. They had to make a long incision along her side, crack her ribs and collapse her lung in order to patch the esophagus. She ended up spending 22 days in the hospital and had to eat from a feeding tube in her stomach for two months.
All of that trauma resulted in drug use, self harm and eating disorders, as is not uncommon; but Caitlin turned her life around. She became the first in her family to get a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree (in art). She travels the world, runs half marathons and helps get abused women and children into shelters through her job at the YWCA. She is currently working on a second Master’s degree in Art therapy.
“I went from being the ugly duckling to being the Golden Child,” she says. “And I struggle with that, because I was always who I am now. It was just that other people could not see it, and their negative expectations brought me down.”
She still struggles with negative thoughts resulting from her past experiences. She struggles to consistently practice the good habits that she has learned will help with her recovery. She struggles with trust.
Caitlin struggles, but she is winning those struggles, leaving the old junk from her past behind.
6 / 12
As a child, Kylee Katterjohn was abandoned by her father and as an adolescent had a horribly strained relationship with an overbearing step father. During one year in high school, three of her friends committed suicide by hanging themselves. She reacted and rebelled in the usual destructive ways: drinking, drugs and blowing off school. As many young women do, she unconsciously tried to work out the emotional pain by inflicting physical pain on the body by cutting herself.
“It was horrible losing my friends like that,” she says. “I think that’s where my deep rooted love for pain as therapy came from.”
After high school, she replaced the cutting with tattoos and piercings.
“ I rebelled against anything and everything,” she says. “I hated any kind of conformity, especially when it was about the way I was supposed to look.
Through the tattoos and the accompanying pain, Kylee’s body became both a billboard for non-conformity and a therapeutical device. She embraced her body by inflicting pain on it.
“They say pain is weakness leaving the body,” she says. “Getting tattoos and the pain that goes with it is a great stress relief, she says. It really helps me to deal with the emotional pain. Every time I get a tattoo, I feel 100 percent better when I walk out of there. It’s a lot cheaper than going to a therapist, and a lot more effective, too.”
7 / 12
“Growing up in school I was always the fat girl,” says Hannah Whitfield. “I was always overweight. Kids were cruel, hateful and mean. I was depressed all the time and got into drinking and drugs. I had very low self esteem, did terrible in school and was always very angry and constantly fighting.”
The birth of one son and the death of another helped her turn her life around and put her on a path to greater spirituality.
“Once I got pregnant with my son, I decided it was time to be responsible” she says. “It was a tough pregnancy. I lost my son’s twin brother at five months and he was born weighing only 4 pounds and three ounces. As I watched him struggle for his life in the Neonatal Care Unit, I began to search for whatever spirituality or God I could find, just to give me hope.”
Those alternately horrible and happy experiences helped her embrace her body and made her a stronger person.
“After it was clear my son was going to live, I realized that life could be amazing if you make it amazing,” she says. “Over the years I’ve learned to accept my body for what it is and love myself no matter what.”
She’s been clean of drugs and alcohol for 11 years, and her spirituality has grown over all those years.
“I just want to be who I am,” she says. “I want to be happy and find my own spirituality, whether it’s with God or the earth or whatever people want to call it. The Goddesses I have tattooed on me are from my Tarot Cards. They represent being true to who I am and my own beliefs despite, how society wants me to think and behave. I specifically designed each of my tattoos to fit my own personality, my own spirituality, my passion, my life and the things I love and my family.”
Hannah gets some societal blowback about her tattoos and Tarot cards, but the strength she gained see’s her through those experiences as well.
“A lot of people look down on my Tarot cards, or even think they are evil,” she says. ”Most people think that Tarot cards are for telling the future, but nothing can. do that. For me, they are just a different way of telling people’s stories, or finding out where you are in life. The cards give you little pictures to create your own storyline. The future is in constant flux. If you think it, you can become it. We’re constantly changing the way we think about things, so our futures are constantly changing.”
Hannah suggested a cemetery as the place to make her portrait.
“I’ve always peaceful and calm in cemeteries,” she says. “If I’m in a bad mood or unhappy, I’ve always found that if I go to a cemetery, I can better mediate and pray and overcome whatever it is that’s made me upset.”
8 / 12
Cheryl Woolsey Jenny and Nancy Chandler Patrick were high school friends who became obese in middle age and eventually had gastric bypass surgery on the same day.
“I knew I couldn’t cope with the weight,” says Cheryl. “I weighed 357 pounds at the time of the surgery. It was going to kill me. I had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. I was borderline diabetic. All the things that go along with obesity. I didn’t want to go anyplace, I didn’t like the way I looked. I had to have the surgery. I was trying to prevent myself from killing myself from the weight. I’d feel like more of a failure if I died because I was too heavy than if I died while trying to do something about it. Today I’ve got it down to 193 and feel good about my body again.”
“I feel much better about myself and my body now that I’ve lost all that weight,” says Nancy. I still feel I’ve got a long ways to go, but I feel better mentally, I still catch myself going to the plus sized clothes, even though i don’t wear those sizes any more.“
Before the surgery, Cheryl and Nancy were doing water aerobics to escape the the crippling weight of their obesity.
“When we were in then water we could do any exercise much easier,” says Nancy. “But when you are obese and get out, it’s like picking up a heavy laundry basket full of wet clothes. Losing all that weight was like stepping up out of the water.”
“Movements in my daily life now are like how I was in the water before the surgery,” says Cheryl. “It’s not a chore to sit in a chair and put my feet up like it was before. I feel now in the air like I used to feel in the water. Back then, the water gave me freedom. Now losing so much weight has given me the same freedom outside of it.”
Cheryl and Nancy hope their experiences can have a positive impact on others suffering from obesity.’’
“If I can help other obese people feel what I feel now,” says Cheryl, “it’s definitely worth it.”
9 / 12
Mary Neale has been overweight all her life and suffered severe illnesses that caused her to go on disability. Although she has suffered both barbs and discrimination for being overweight, she’s not the type to let anyone put her down or mistreat her. She’s currently the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Posey County’s Black Township Trustee for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“I almost died last year,” says Mary. “I had three aneurisms. The doctor said just rolling over in the bed could kill me. I couldn’t stoop, I had to be careful lying down. I had to watch every movement. I went through a real hard time. And I’d been prescribed steroids which caused my weight to go up to almost 500 pounds. I was in a lot of pain and really needed help. The Trustee’s office showed an utter lack of compassion. I thought, somebody has to speak up, somebody has to take a stand. So I contacted the ACLU and we’re fighting for everyone’s rights, not just my own.”
Mary says that being comfortable with her body gave her the strength to fight for others in similar situations.
“I accept myself for who I am,” she says. “I love myself no matter what. I was teased in school, the kids were always making fun of me for being overweight. Now people look at you when you go places like you’re lazy, or don’t care about yourself. But I’ve dieted all my life and it always comes back. I’ve worked all my life and done the same things as other people. I try to improve myself everyday. I’ve come a long ways since I was sick last year. I’ve lost 128 pounds, so I think I’m doing all right.”
Mary is feeling much better now and hopes to return to work, at least part time. She was a caregiver for the elderly for many years and greatly misses being able to help people. Here, she’s pictured with Norma Bodkins, one of her former clients with whom she’s stayed close.
“I took care of Norma after she had eye surgeries,” says Mary. “We became and remain friends. I loved my job. I loved working. I met a lot of interesting people and felt really good about helping them.”
10 / 12
As our bodies age, many of us find that it’s increasingly difficult to get around and do all the things we used to do. These ladies from the Cloverleaf Housing for the Elderly and Disabled in Mount Vernon, Indiana, struggle to cope with these changes.
“Having limited ability can be frustrating,” says Yvonne Boyer (2nd from right). “We are unable to participate in anything physical, such as sports, long walks, etc. We ned help cleaning our homes, carrying our grocery, changing light bulbs, and many other daily activities people with full mobility take for granted.”
“One way we cope with these changes,” says Kathleen Cape, “is to pace ourselves. It takes longer to do most activities, but we still love to do them.
In addition to coping with changes in their bodies, they also have to cope with a society in which many people show lack of compassion for the elderly when they feel they get in their way by driving slowly, using handicap spaces or motorized scooters in shopping centers.
“A lot of people are just assholes,” says Yvonne. “They think we should just stay in our apartments all the time. Sometimes it hurts.”
“Although our bodies have limitations and usually hurt in one way or another,” says Kathleen, “We still enjoy being with one another and doing things.”
11 / 12
Twenty-four year old Brooke Weisling had neck surgery when she was six and two spinal fusion operations when she was 13 and 14, leaving her with big, long scars all the way down her back.
For many years, she was ashamed of the scars, and it was a big struggle for her to wear a bathing suit or go to a swimming pool.
“I was very self-conscious,” she says. “But, I realized that even though I was born with this condition, it did not define me. I want to show people that you can be happy with yourself, despite the scars, or whatever else you may have that society tells you isn’t beautiful. Now I embrace it. I can’t change it, so I might as well be happy with it.”
Now she enjoys going to the pool and realizes that she is beautiful because of her scars, not in spite of them.
“I’ve had people look at my scars and say, that’s so cool, or that’s really awesome,” she says, “when I thought they’d say something more like, that’s really disgusting.”
12 / 12
Into the Light
I met wonderful man, says Cathy Schmidt. He told me everything I wanted to hear. He told me I was wonderful. Then he married me. I was about six months pregnant when the controlling started. I was about seven months pregnant the first time he slammed me through a wall.
I told myself it was the stress of the pregnancy and all the other things we were going through. Money was tight. I thought if we got out of the city it might change things. We moved, but it changed for the worse. We were isolated. I was left with nobody but him.
He controlled everything I did. I couldn’t go to the grocery store by myself, I couldn’t even go outside by myself. There was no way out. I knew that no matter what I did, I was stuck with him. I couldn’t even die, because I couldn’t leave my kids.
I finally found a little freedom when he became a truck driver and was away much of the time. One day missionaries from our church came by. I didn’t care what we talked about, I was just happy to talk to somebody. But as we talked, for the first time, I saw a way out. I saw a light.
I followed the light, but still, getting away from that man was the hardest thing I’ve ever taken in my whole life. I was terrified. He went on the road for a week, so I went to court and got a restraining order. He came back, and it was not good. He slammed me through a wall, then knocked the crap out of me. The police came and took him. He came back. He punched a hole through my car window while I was driving with my babies. They didn’t get him that time.
I had very little support. I love my mother, but she said things like “you need to make things work, it will be better for you.” She came from the same kind of relationship, so it was just normal for her. But the people from my church helped. They surrounded me and stayed with me. We called the police so many times,
I never thought I’d get out alive. One day I was driving and couldn’t get the brakes to work like they were supposed to. A cop pulled me over and found gas in my brake line. I was driving with my kids. Oh my God, I thought, he’s going to kill me. I can’t get away, I though.Then I got a job in a different city where he couldn’t find me. Finally, he disappeared for awhile, so I filed for divorce.
The divorce was terrible. He got visitation, but never used it. They ordered him to anger management, but he never went. Then he decided he was going to beat me and take my kids. The police came and put him in jail for three days. We went to court to redo the restraining order. In the actual courtroom, he lost his mind and tried to strangle me. The judge granted my order to make him stay completely away. He didn’t like jail, so he stayed away. But I still look over my shoulder sometimes. Over the years, he’s tried many times to barge back into our lives.
Candy learned from her experiences and moved on to a better place.
I understood the physical abuse, she says. He beat the crap out of me. That was physical. But I didn’t understand the mental abuse part of it and how i carried that through to my next relationship. I was afraid to argue. I never wanted a conflict, I’d always back down, no matter what. Whatever you say, whatever you want. I was that person.
But once I figured it out, I was able to start standing up for myself, and then to start healing myself. For the first time in my life, I found the strength to know what kind of relationship I wanted, and how I wanted my kids to be raised, and what I wanted them to believe. I’d always made sure they knew the physical part of an abusive relationship, now I wanted to be sure they understood the mental abuse part of it. You don’t realize how much words have an impact on you. Above all, I wanted them to know that they were strong inside.I taught them that nobody has the right to talk down to them, or to hurt them.
Now, I have a strength inside of me. I believe in myself. Nobody can ever do what he did to me again. Nobody can ever talk down to me. Nobody can ever hurt me. I have strength inside of me. I have overcome it. I believe in myself. I’ve found that place that I never thought I’d get to, I’m not afraid to back down, I’m not afraid to argue, I’m not afraid of conflict. It took me years to get to that point, but you can get to that point. When you haven’t had a job for four years and he’s the only support you have. You think you can’t get out, but you can. You just have to find the light. You just have to find yourself.
It doesn’t mater how big the mountain is or how hard to climb or how many holes you fall in, you can do it.
My "Survivors" project is an attempt to let women who face difficult challenges tell their stories of how they cope. I try to stay as much out of the way as possible.
The process is this: First, we meet and the woman tells me her story. Then, we discuss how we might be able to communicate that story, or an important part of it, in a photgraph. Some women are very precise in what they want to do. But with most, it takes a bit of discussion before she discovers her photograph. Usually, I notice a theme that keeps emerging as they tell their story and we use that as a starting point for ideas. But, not always. The important thing is to come up with a visual idea that is deep and true to the woman. It should have nothing to do with me.
As a photographer, I've found this to be by far my most challenging project. It's challenging to find subjects. So far, I've had more agree to do it and changed their mind than have completed the process. It's emotionally challenging because the stories I hear are so heart-wrenching. Almost all of these women have gone through intense physical and/or emotional suffering and many of the details are grisly. I really do not enjoy thinking deeply about it and the act of writing it up can be excruciating. It's technically challenging because some of the women come up with very difficult to photograph scenarios. I've really had to raise my skill level to get some of these shots.
So far, "Survivors" has not only been my most challenging project, but my most rewarding as well. It's hard to come up with a non-kumbaya way of phasing it, but the strength and bravery these women demonstrate is inspiring, and on many levels. Although I always have grave doubts that any photo project is going to have positive results in the larger world, I know that these photographs, and everything that went into them, have been a positive in the life of these women.