Hi, I’m Erin Gallagher, Interim Executive Director of This is My Brave, and we’re so excited to present to you this season of Our Turn to Talk, a podcast series young people who are understand how importan tit is to talk about mental health. At This Is My Brave, we know that Storytelling Saves Lives. We hope that this podcast inspires you to Be Brave with us and to start brave conversations with your family and friends.
Anastasia: As a heads up, there will be talks of sexual assault and self harm throughout this episode. Please be advised.
[slowly fade music in]
Abi: [00:00:18] being able to say out loud that I was a victim of sexual assault, being able to say that out loud was definitely something that changed how I saw mental health and mental illness. For sure.
Anastasia: [00:00:36] This is Our Turn to Talk . A place where young people like me, heal through storytelling.
I'm Anastasia Vlasova, I'm 18 and a freshman in college.
All right, let's meet Abigail Scully.
Abi: [00:00:55] Hi guys.
Anastasia: [00:00:56] Abi just finished her freshman year of high school and already she's been through a lot. She lives in Slidell, Louisiana, a suburb of new Orleans, and she comes from a really big family, like super big.
[fade music out]
Abi: [00:01:09] it's 10 children. So five boys and five girls.
Anastasia: [00:01:12] She sent us a recording of what it sounds like when that many people sit down for dinner.
Add ins: [00:01:25] Sounds of family
[fade in music]
Anastasia: [00:01:26] When we did our interview, Abi was in her sunny living room. Every once in a while, one of her brothers or sisters would tiptoe behind her trying to give her some privacy, which isn't always easy. Like we just heard, there are a lot of kids in her house.
Today, I wanted to talk to Abi about how she found space for herself and for healing. And maybe some of her struggles will feel familiar to some of you guys listening right now.
Since my family is small. I was curious what it's like to grow up with nine brothers and sisters - that's wild. So I asked Abi if she felt like she got enough of her parents' attention.
[fade out music]
Abi: [00:02:15] Yes. Um, my parents have done such a good job at giving us equal attention, but there's definitely like chaos constantly. Everyone knows us, cause Slidell is such a small city. Everyone knows our family. And I think it's definitely had an effect on me growing up here. I'm a very outgoing person when we travel anywhere for dance competitions, or just for vacations as a family., I always want to get to know other people and what it's like to live in their city.
Anastasia: [00:02:45] Abi's a dancer and she travels a lot for competitions.
Abi: [00:02:50] I train seven days a week, probably I would say like two hours a day, the most three.
Anastasia: [00:02:55] Wow. That's a lot. So how did you get into dance in the first place?
Abi: [00:03:00] So I started dancing as soon as I could walk pretty much. and at the age of four, I was asked to audition to be on the competition team. So my mom was like, "well, I don't know. She's only four. That's a little young, kind of crazy." But she sent me to the audition and I ended up. Being like the star of the four year old little petite team. Most of us have been on the team together since we were probably about three or four. So we all are very sisterly. We have that bond.
Anastasia: [00:03:33] Abi found friends and her comfort zone dancing. Her dance studio became a safe place for her, but school was another issue. Abi switched schools in third grade and it was a really hard transition for her. It was a new place. And that's when she started to notice feelings of anxiety for the first time.
Now, I’ve dealt with anxiety too. For me, that started with difficulty sleeping because I had so many thoughts racing through my head.
And I was curious what Abi's anxiety felt like.
Abi: [00:04:10] It would kind of show up in the form of like presenting projects. I would get super nervous and my teacher would have to stand up in the front of the class with me and stand next to me. Just so someone was up there with me or, um, anytime just walking in the hall, she would have to send someone with me. I just, I guess I could never be alone.
So she had kind of talked to my mom about it. My mom and my dad. My mom has struggled her whole childhood with severe anxiety.
And my dad has struggled with addiction, alcoholism. And he definitely has the side of depression. Um, most of my siblings have anxiety. There's a couple of us that are on medications for it. So it's definitely a family thing.
[music cue - “reflecting”]
Growing up there was definitely just this kind of silence surrounding mental health. Like it wasn't really talked about. They definitely, I would say tried to hide it from us as kids. Just raising 10 kids in general is not easy at all. It's definitely hard on my mom and my dad. And I would say my mom probably was more recently, has been affected by it just after our last sibling. So her 10th child, she had postpartum depression.
And I think that was kind of like the kickoff. And so recently she's been very open about it. She's very willing to talk about it with all of us and she's super supportive. I would say that my dad is kind of the one who likes to shelter it and hide it and put on the perfect face. He doesn't like to show us that he's weak or that he needs help. So he's kind of, I would say more in denial about it and he hides the fact that he's struggling.
But for sure there was definitely this awkwardness surrounding the topic growing up. And I think after I went to like junior high, I would say like seventh grade year was kind of when I started talking about it with my mom and my dad. And I think that's when I kind of was able to break the silence around it and figure out for myself that it wasn't something that couldn't be talked about.
Anastasia: [00:06:44] So what happened in the seventh grade that broke that silence?
Abi: [00:06:48] I was a cheerleader in the seventh grade. Um, something that was super fun, something that I loved doing. The stereotypes surrounding cheerleaders - people can touch you in the hallway whenever they want.
If you're a cheerleader, anyone can do anything they want, any, anyone can touch you. Anyone can... literally anything they want to do to you.
So that for sure happened throughout my seventh and eighth grade years at junior high, I was followed into the bathroom and proceeded to... yeah, I would say that that was definitely the breaking point, [fade in music] but I think I didn't really tell my mom until the next year.
Anastasia: [00:07:44] So... it took you a while to tell people.
Abi: [00:07:48] Being around that stereotype , it was kind of as if no one really knew what they could report and what they couldn't, because we didn't want to be told that it was no big deal.
I would say there was about three of us it had happened to. We just kept to ourselves. We were kind of, I guess, naive to the fact that it wasn't something that just happened to people. Like I was kind of in the head space where I thought it was normal, I guess, for cheerleaders to experience this.
Anastasia: [00:08:22] To be sexually assaulted?
Abi: [00:08:24] Right.
Anastasia: [00:08:30] Let's just pause here for a second, because what Abi just said is really painful. She was just 12 years old…. She was in social studies class and asked to go to the bathroom. After she left, a boy told the teacher he had to go to the bathroom, too. At a time when everyone was in class, he walked into the girls’ room behind Abi, unnoticed...and sexually assaulted her right there - in the middle of the school day. In a place where Abi has to go every day to learn and supposedly be safe. And she's not alone.
There are studies that show that nearly half of all kids in grade seven to 12 report they've been the victim of sexual harassment at school. It happens all the time. And usually in places where there aren't many adults. Things like unwanted touching in the hallways, grabbing private parts on the school bus, text messages in the cafeteria, asking for sex acts or much worse. Like what happened to Abi in the bathroom.
[fade out music]
Abi: [00:09:39] I didn't really know how to ask for help, even though I wanted to. So instead of telling someone, obviously I kept it to myself and this is around the time that I would say I probably started self-harming. This is also around the time where my eating disorders developed.
The biggest thing for me was cutting, scratching and burning. Uh, that probably went on for two and a half years, almost three, probably. Um, I think that was definitely my coping, even though it was negative, that was kind of how I dealt with it.
Anastasia: [00:11:16] So you were dealing with such a traumatic experience on your own, not telling anyone, what were you feeling?
Abi: [00:11:25] Shame was the biggest feeling. Um, just not really knowing why it would happen to me. And I think shame is definitely the biggest feeling surrounding the whole experience. And I'm also a very, very religious person. This whole situation kind of made me question my faith for awhile. Usually I would have said, God has a purpose. He's going to do something for a reason, but then it started turning into, well, why would he do this to me? And I think my whole reason for starting self-harm was just not knowing why it had happened.
I didn't have control over anything in the situation. So I felt that I could control one thing.
Anastasia: [00:12:12] And what about the eating disorder? Was that also the way you were trying to deal with the shame of the sexual assault?
Abi: [00:12:18] the eating disorder kind of developed as a thought of like, well, if he was able to do this to me and he thought that I fit this stereotype of being skinny and pretty, then I would fit the stereotype even more. And that was kind of my way of, I guess, fighting back against the stereotype that had kind of put me into this situation.
Yeah. I was definitely a big restrictor. Um, and this past December I was diagnosed finally with anorexia nervosa.
[fade in music]
Anastasia: [00:13:23] Mental health experts say lots of teens who experienced sexual harassment and abuse struggle with eating disorders and self-harming. And when you think about it, it makes sense...something really traumatic happens and you look for a way to find control in your life. Restricting food or exercising too much becomes a solution, even though it's a really dangerous one.
Or maybe you want to disconnect from your body because of the sexual abuse, and cutting or burning is a way of handling the overwhelming emotions you're feeling. If you're like Abi, you're not alone, there is help. Thankfully, one of Abi's friends noticed that she was struggling.
Abi: [00:14:06] So I finally seeked out for help. Someone, actually the owner of the dance studio, that I still currently dance at, had noticed. Her daughter, which is my best friend. She definitely noticed scratching and cutting on my wrist.
[Music fades out in here]
Anastasia: [00:14:32] So when your friends came to you and said, look, we think you have a problem. Did you push them away? Or did you realize you had a problem?
Abi: [00:14:41] I, for sure, pushed them all away. I probably hurt some of the people who mean the most to me. I never wanted to accept that I needed help and I never wanted to accept any diagnosis that I was given. It never seemed real. So I kind of would just stare at the paper and hand it to my mom. And I was like, whatever, add it to the list.
Anastasia: [00:16:06] By the time Abi told her parents, nearly two years had passed since the assault..and her descent into self-harm.
Abi: [00:16:23]it was a little crazy, you know, my mom kind of, she started screaming, crying. She really wasn't sure how to, how to handle it. And she thought that it was just, like sort of attention-like self harm. Um, so that was really difficult to know that she thought that, I guess you could say that she thought that it was for attention. That was probably the biggest conflict that came out of the whole situation.
Jill: [00:17:16] She would go to school in the morning. I don't even think she would tell me goodbye. Or that she loved me or anything. She never would answer back when I said it to her.
Anastasia: [00:17:37] That's Jill Scully, Abi's mom.
Jill: Um, she would just get up, go off to school. She would go straight from school to the studio. She was at the studio till after dark. She would come in, and go straight to her room.
Jill: [00:17:39] She just, she just existed, but she wasn't. She wasn't a part of the family. She definitely sheltered herself, and chose isolation.
I just passed it off that it was teenage girls. Um, you know, moms, aren't always best friends with their teenage girls and you know, I didn't know anything was seriously wrong at that point.
Add ins: [00:18:06] MUSIC
Anastasia: [00:18:06] Then Jill got that call from Abi's dance instructor
Jill: [00:18:10] He made her take off her sweater and showed me her arms. and her arms were all cut up and bloody and raw.
And I felt horrible that I didn't know that any of that was on her, but she always wore sweat shirts and sweaters and had always covered it up. And I had never, ever seen it.
In my mind, I just kept thinking, why, why, why is my child hurting herself? Why is my child sad? And I, I. I couldn't come up with anything, but regardless I was going to get her whatever type of help she needed.
Anastasia: [00:18:47] Once Abi confided in her mom about the sexual assault, her mom finally understood how much pain Abi was in. And at Abi’s request, Jill didn’t tell anyone about her daughter’s struggles... including Abi's dad... Rhett.
Rhett: [00:19:40] Just as a dad, and a gun owner, it was not a good recipe for me.
Rhett: [00:19:47] In my younger years I was very temperamental, but, it was just very frustrating because you want your daughters to flourish in a, in a healthy and safe environment. And you trust your school system to provide that. And in this case it was an epic failure, I think. So that was, devastating, if you will. Um, and your immediate reaction is you want to seek out revenge, but that doesn't help anything.
Anastasia: [00:20:17] What did help was seeking justice.
Jill: [00:20:19] I just felt like I had to do something else to help her put closure to it. And that she needed to go share her story. And, the young boy was served, with sexual assault papers from the police department. And even though he denies, I know in my heart that my daughter's not lying.
[music fade in]
Anastasia: [00:20:41] Getting the authorities involved felt good to Abi. But that was just the beginning of her path toward healing from this horrible event.
Anastasia: [00:21:45] So tell me about your treatment and recovery. How's it going?
[music fade out]
Abi: [00:21:48] So I have been in therapy for almost two years now. I was definitely resistant at first. My mom kind of surprised me with it. We had talked about it before she checked me out of school one day and I had no clue where we were going. And little did I know…
Anastasia: [00:22:05] Oh, my God, that must've been scary.
Abi: [00:22:08] Awful.
Anastasia: [00:22:08] To all of a sudden have to sit down with someone you've never met before and tell them your problems.
Abi: [00:22:14] Exactly. So I saw my therapist, Ms. Anna for the first time, literally fell in love with her. She's amazing.
And the first day she kind of had to sit down with my mom and me and say like, okay, you have two options. You can tell me the truth. And we can actually work towards recovery, or you can just tell me half of the truth and we can work on a couple of things and then you can never recover from the stuff that's actually inside your head. And I was like, okay, well, I guess I'll tell the truth. I was like, I still didn't want to be there, but over time, me and Ms. Anna got super close, she for sure makes it easier.
She's definitely one of the brightest people I know. And she just makes it so easy to talk about. It was kind of just always this tightness in my chest of just knowing that one day it was gonna all come out, but I was just holding it all in and I think after a while when someone, it was just like a flowing river, like it just all came out at once.
[fade in music]
It was definitely one of the hardest parts about it was just telling all of the secrets at once and just saying everything that I had been keeping to myself. But I think it was also just relief knowing that it was finally out there and it wasn't just inside of my head anymore and that other people had known about it that made it a lot easier.
Anastasia: [00:24:08] Abi's first brave step was accepting help. And that's huge because 60% of kids, 12 to 17 who are depressed or anxious, never see a therapist. And as Abi said, it was a huge relief to be able to talk about her problems. But even though she was feeling really good about therapy, Abi was still cutting and burning herself sometimes. Because healing isn't like a light switch, right? It doesn't happen overnight. Abi's journey to self-love would take awhile.
More in a minute
Hi, Erin Gallagher from This Is My Brave again.
Whenever I meet young people who are sharing their stories, I feel even more empowered to do the work that I do.
If this inspires you, too, I want to tell you how you can get involved with us at This is My Brave.
Are you a college student? Our Brave Ambassador program is a student-led movement to create a safe space for yourself and your peers to talk about mental health and to break down barriers on your campus.
Are teens, if you’re feeling like this is your turn to talk, check out our website for opportunities to share your story… including how to participate in our next National Teen Show: Go to Thisismybrave.org for more information.
Anastasia: [00:25:39] So Abi, I want to dig a bit more into the treatment you've received. You're seeing a therapist, Ms. Anna, and she sounds really cool. But I was curious about what other forms of treatment you’ve done.
Abi: [00:25:53] So I currently see another therapist for EMDR, and that was really exciting, um, because I was able to ask for that help on my own and I hadn't been previously. So that was a big milestone.
Anastasia: [00:26:17] EMDR is a type of trauma therapy. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Abi: [00:26:20] So basically she uses eye movement or hand motions to study into the trauma and the movement of your eyes when talking about trauma and it's supposed to rewire the way that your brain thinks. And when you think of something negative, like associating with trauma, your brain can take a different pathway instead of the down spiraling.
You know, we try to figure out, well, why did my brain remember the spider on the wall? Or why did my brain remember the paint chipping. It's little things like that, that you don't realize kind of play a role in your mental illness and how it develops as far as like trauma, but it's actually really interesting. The little things that your brain picks up on.
Anastasia: [00:27:07] Abi stressed that EMDR has really helped in her mental health journey, but for something that has been so beneficial, I was surprised that this was the first I’d heard of it! So to get a better understanding of what it is, we talked to Dr. Uri Bergmann EMDR specialist.
Uri:One of the things that many of us have learned is how prevalent trauma is. What the world struggles with is that the largest epidemic on this planet is PTSD.
Anastasia: He explains the treatment as a neurological therapy that works quite differently than typical one-on-one talking sessions with a therapist.
Uri: So for a century and a half, we focused on feelings. Even you see the stereotype - every movie about therapy. How do you feel about this? And what we've learned is that we really should be a focus focusing on the body itself, which is the raw emotion. And that's one of the things that many of us have integrated into EMDR to make it much more consistent with our understanding of the brain
Anastasia: EMDR has proven to be so powerful that the World Health Organization has officially recognized it as an effective form of treatment for trauma and PTSD. Bergmann said because it is such a radically different approach to standard talk therapy, it’s been hard for the psychology community to grasp, and hasn’t become mainstream quite yet.
Uri: there shouldn't be the resistance that there is, It's recognized by every health system on the planet.There are scores of studies. There was one study, for instance, that was done early two thousands. …where they treated all the time full spectrum of post-traumatic stress disorder in eight sessions. And it was EMDR versus pro. Uh, and what they found interestingly was that the EMDR was much more effective than the Prozac, which on some level wasn't surprising because Prozac is not designed for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But what was interesting is, and then the treatment stopped when these patients were followed up three months later, eight months, later, They had actually shown a continual improvement,
Anastasia: What we’ve learned here from Dr. Bergmann is that EMDR is a really effective form of trauma therapy. Because Trauma was at the root of Abi’s mental health challenges after her sexual assault and caused her to experience things like night terrors, EMDR was huge part of her healing path.
But Abbi’s healing isn’t just about therapy either.
Anastasia: [00:28:30] Aside from treatment, do you have any other coping mechanisms? Is dance still that safe space for you?
Abi: [00:28:37] Um, dance is my freedom. [fade in dance ambi quietly in background] It's the one place that I can go and get away from my head. You know, I actually feel like a completely different person when I'm there. It is such a relief to be in that room with those girls and those teachers. It's an out of this world experience.
So that's definitely a positive influence on me. And then just me personally dancing, I just, I forget about everything. You know, my head kind of goes like blank, if that makes sense, but it's like, there's no worry in the world, except just being present in that room and giving it all.
Anastasia: [00:29:27] The same way her dance studio has had a big impact on Abi, she's had a huge impact on the studio. It's like a second home to her, and the younger dancers are like an extension of her family. Her mom is really proud of her.
Jill: [00:29:43] Not only is she a role model to the little dancers, but she choreographs stuff with them. She teaches them. She - they adore her. The way that they look up to her is unbelievable. And I think she knew that in the past, but she sees it more now and realizes how important that is.
One of the little dancers that dances with her, her mom is putting her in counseling and she wasn't too happy about it. And her mom said, "Abi does counseling!"" And her mom said her face lit up. Like she just could not believe that and was so excited now to, to try it out. And just for Abigail to make it known, Hey, look, I do counseling too. It's fine. It's helpful." Because I know that's what she wants to do. She wants to help others, not holding secrets like she did for so long and to be able to deal with them much sooner than what she was able to... to do.
Rhett: [00:30:43] She's got a strong will. Stronger than most anyone I've ever met. And I'm very proud of her for not just staying in her shell. I know she went through that period of time, but, uh, flip the script on that scenario and to look outward in love to try to help other people is just, I couldn't be more proud. You know, she makes me proud when, when I realized she's maturing and becoming a beautiful young lady, you know, I love that.
Abi: After I was able to recover from self-harm, I think that was kind of how I coped was using dance to let out those emotions, instead of hurting myself with those emotions still stuck inside.
If I could describe how it makes me feel, the one word I can put to it is free. I just, I never wanted to let go of that feeling.
Add ins: [00:31:17] beat
Anastasia: Abi has had an incredible journey so far. She's happier, more confident and able to help those around her. And she's surrounded by an amazing support system… her parents.. Her nine siblings… her dance family... and her therapist..
Anastasia: [00:33:00] So is there a piece of advice that someone gave you that you try to live by every day?
Abi: [00:33:05] Someone very important in my life who also severely struggles with mental health. She sat me down and she looked me in the eyes and she said, "No matter what comes your way, you're always stronger than the storm." ... You have to want to be stronger than the storm.
You have to want recovery for yourself. Like other people can't just want it for you, but hearing her say that... just knowing that she had come out on the other side of all of this and that I would too eventually.
Anastasia: [00:36:10] Abigail Scully is 16 years old and lives in Slidell, Louisiana with her family.
I think a lot of us can relate to what Abi said about coming out the other side, that the struggle, or the “storm” can force us to question our own strength. But when the storm centers around our relationships at home, that struggle can be extremely isolating. Next time we take you to a small conservative town in North Carolina, and hear about how one family handled the transition from a son to a daughter.
Ryver: When I first came out to my dad, he would call me things like, faggot, fairy. We would always get into like fights and we'd like yell and scream. And then we started getting into fist fights and I remember the cops ended up being called twice.
Anastasia: If you’re a young person, we’d love to hear from you. What’s your story? You can go to ourturntotalk.com to share.
Ok, so maybe you're not ready to share your story, but maybe you have a question for us. We will be answering your questions in an upcoming Our Turn to Talk episode. No filters, no shame here. Submit your question on our website ourturntotalk.com
Our Turn to Talk is a production of Principle Pictures. We believe in the power and impact of storytelling through podcasts and films to build empathy and inspire change. Season One is a partnership with This is My Brave, an organization using performing arts to fight the stigma around mental health challenges and addiction. I’ve been very proud to intern there for the past two years. A very special thanks to Executive Director Erin Gallagher and Program Manager Katie Grana. Check out This Is My Brave at thisismybrave.org.
This episode includes content courtesy of the WETA WellBeings Youth Mental Health Project. Learn more at WellBeings.org and join the conversation with #WellBeings.
This episode of Our Turn to Talk was produced and edited by Megan Botel. Mixing by Mitch Hanley.
Beth Murphy and Jennifer Marshall are our Executive Producers. Additional support in the field and in the studio from Patrice Howard, Hannah McEachern, Ed Kashi and Ben Kolak.
Support for Our Turn to Talk is provided by The Hollister Confidence FUND, The Hershey Company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Rose-Marie van Otterloo and the Risa Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Washington.
I’m Anastasia Vlasova and I’m so excited to be on this journey with you. And don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.
Hello everyone, Erin Gallagheragain. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of Our Turn to Talk. Are you inspired by what you heard today? Are you ready to share your own story about your mental health journey? If yes, here’s how you can do it.
Go to ThisisMyBrave.org and select Share Your Story. We can’t wait to hear your Brave!