I don’t remember when it first started. I often wonder if it happened slowly over time or if it was more like a light switch–one specific moment packed away somewhere in my memory that changed everything.
Perhaps it was third grade, when my classmate Andrew called me Bucktooth. Or maybe it was the first time I was laughed at without wanting to laugh too. Maybe it happened when I made my mother cry and felt nothing.
I try to picture the very moment: the first time I stopped loving myself. I am small, barely five, dancing barefoot in the yard the way only children dance—fearlessly and full of joy. I stop my silly movements just long enough to look up and realize people are watching. I instantly become aware of how stupid I must look, how childish. I stop dancing.
Depression is a spiteful, cyclical creature. It wants all of your attention. It holds you close, even tenderly, before it smothers you. I began self-injuring as a teenager. I thought, somehow, that this was just, that this was all I was worth. I grew up starving myself of love. My need for self-harm eventually evolved into abusive relationships, unhealthy habits, and chronic self-punishment. Why get better when I don’t deserve better?
In college, I discovered poetry. I wrote a spoken-word poem called “Werewolf” about my struggles with self-abuse. Eventually, a performance of “Werewolf” was posted, unbeknownst to me, on YouTube. At first, this made me incredibly uncomfortable. I felt for so long that my depression was my dirty, little secret, and now it was out there for the world to discover with one mouse click. It was one thing to consciously consent to perform to a room of strangers, but to let my poem wander freely on the open, cruel range of the Internet? Terrifying.
As my success in the slam poetry world grew and my work became more popular, I contemplated taking the video down. After telling coworkers I was a poet, I would silently pray they wouldn’t Google me. It was even awkward with close friends, partners, and family. How do you bring something like that up? How long can I postpone them seeing this? It was too uncomfortable. It was too vulnerable.
And then something really miraculous started to happen.
I began to receive messages from people across the country, strangers who saw my poem online. These people, who I had never met, shared deep, personal secrets. They wrote about their own struggles with depression, self-injury, abuse, eating disorders, sexual trauma, or even their relationships with their parents. They shared things they admittedly didn’t tell their loved ones. They thanked me for telling my story and my struggles because it made them feel like they weren’t alone in theirs.
This is one of the things I love about poetry: it shows us we are all connected. We suffer the same, and we triumph the same. When we tell our stories, when we choose to use our voices, we empower others as well as ourselves. We join in the chorus of human experience. Serendipitously, every time I felt the urge to take down the video of my poem I would receive the most powerful emails. Each letter was a gift, a promise, one more reason to keep going.
Now, I am 28 years old, and I would be lying if I said I am done growing. Self-love is a long and arduous road, but it is beautiful one, I promise. I don’t pretend to know it all. Everyone is on a unique path, and I am by no means claiming I have the antidote to depression. But I do know this:
There isn’t a day I don’t wake up and physically have to decide that I am more good than I am bad.
This is not a chore; this is a gift.
My mother once told me something I will never forget: “When you have a negative thought about yourself, imagine yourself as a baby. A source of awe and wonder. Joyful, blameless, full of love. This is who you are at all times, Sierra. This is your true self.”
When we are babies, we are showered with affection. We bring joy and happiness into everyone’s lives, even strangers. As toddlers, we love so freely. We touch and kiss and hug and want to receive love in return. As children, we somehow know we are worthy of this.
So picture yourself as a baby. We are always the children we once were, but with the intelligence and power that comes from experience. We are all worthy of the love, forgiveness, and patience we show others. The practice of self-denial isn’t easy to unlearn, and honestly, it isn’t what gets better. You get better. You get better at saying Yes to love. You get better at saying No, I won’t let you hurt me like that. I might not be perfect but I made it – to today, to this very moment – and right now that is enough. It takes a lot of tears and laughter and mistakes and even more patience and forgiveness. It takes a lot of work, but I know now recovery isn’t a finish line or a destination. It’s the music we listen to on our journey.
These days, I spend a lot time thinking about what leads us to self-loathing—why, specifically, love isn’t the first thing we choose. I wonder why we are so willing to forgive and affirm others, yet withhold those same gifts from ourselves. When does this start? What triggers it?
I wonder when my 8-year-old niece will realize that people watch her when she dances.
I wrote “Werewolf” more than 7 years ago. With the letters from strangers still rolling in, I realized that I had a very specific platform to speak from, and most importantly, something genuine to say. To everyone who has ever found solace in my poem, to anyone who has ever felt numb or like they were drowning, to anyone who has ever questioned their worth, who has felt the need to punish themselves for existing, for those who have seen the dark nights and broken mornings — all of you, I wrote this poem for you. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. We made it, to this very moment.
Here. Today. Amen.
Sierra DeMulder is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, a 2014 McKnight fellow, and the author of “Bones Below” and “New Shoes On A Dead Horse” (Write Bloody Publishing 2010, 2012). She currently lives in Minneapolis with her dog, Fidelis.