With a long road of obstacles behind her, one that included sexual abuse, nearly 30 surgeries, a coma, and seven years unable to eat or drink, Amy Oestreicher has an incredibly inspiring story to tell. She’ll be sharing her wisdom at Mercy College’s Dobbs Ferry Campus on March 3 from 2-3 p.m. The event is part of Mercy’s Student Success Series, and it is free and open to the public.
Her story has brought her onstage to give three Tedx Talks, speaking on topics relating to mental health, sexual abuse, resilience, PTSD, and women’s issues. Beyond that, Oestreicher is a RAINN representative, writer at The Huffington Post, Audie award nominated playwright, PTSD specialist, and singer, among many other accomplishments.
Amy spoke to us about staying inspired, how she survived her most traumatic years, and her best advice for current, and future, college students.
Your story is incredibly inspiring, but I can imagine it may become overwhelming to tell it repeatedly. Do you feel like you are reliving those memories, or by sharing them with others, giving them a different light?
It took me years before I was able to share my story. For a long time, I was overwhelmed with emotions that felt too complicated for words. Then, I felt like I “had” to get something out, but couldn’t even articulate the turmoil that was rattling around inside of me.
To find those words, it took various forms of creative expression. I discovered safe ways to explore those memories through art, music, dance, theatre, writing, and then ultimately the power of words.
Sharing your story is not a static, “set” program, like reading a book report. Telling my story, I’m always influenced by the environment — the people I’m talking to, the feel of the room, the questions, even the energy I feel from those who are listening. It was only when I started bringing these stories into communities that I was able to discover new aspects, and now, even, I walk away feeling like I’ve gained some kind of lesson.
I’ve always felt like even though what I’ve experienced was “unique” the emotions I faced on my detour were things we all experience. Sharing these stories now, I feel I learn as much from the people I speak to as they learn from me.
I had no idea my story would have such an impact, but it was just a very honest and raw — yet humorous — expression of what I was going through at the time, which really resonated with people.
I love how words and writing can be such a transformative tool — it changes me while I’m writing or creating — but also, it’s a mirror, where I look into it and see what I was going through, yet someone else can approach it and come away with some lesson in their own life.
During the obstacles you have faced (and conquered), there were years where you could not eat or drink. What gave you strength to continue during that time?
I like to say there were four “secrets to resilience” that got me through, but creativity came first. Creativity is a way we can own all of the energy inside us — we can take whatever we’re feeling, whether it’s excitement, anger, fear, loneliness, or thoughts we don’t understand, and get it out of us, in a healthy way.
I discovered that creativity is a mindset, a way of seeing the world. It was tempting to try to stay numb when I couldn’t eat, because if I actually let myself feel anything, I was petrified that I might feel the most lethal feeling of all — hunger. Creativity gave me a safe way to feel part of the world while being denied that basic human “right” of feeding myself.
For example, I starred in local musicals when I couldn’t drink so I could still find a way to be with people and do what I love. Creativity put the magic back in life, so I could still find ways to feel inspired, present, empowered, and — dare I say it — happy.
I found when I couldn’t eat, that you become obsessed with the things you can’t have. I collaged with cooking magazines, discovered the art of cooking gourmet meals for my family, and even started a chocolate business so I could paint chocolate designs on candies – having’ that creative container for my hunger helped get me through. It helped me express myself and it helped me feel part of the world.
Equally important was my amazing support system. I have the best family that never stopped believing in me.
Mental health is a constant battle for many people. Unfortunately, many people do not seek treatment. What positive impacts do you see treatment having on those who need it?
Treatment is a very big term. There are multiple pathways to recovery, but I believe the biggest positive impact is serving as the bridge back into the world.
From my own decade of medical isolation, I learned that nobody can heal in a vacuum. True healing of the mind, body and spirit happens in community. Treatment should provide the tools, strategies and life skills we need to feel empowered with who our detours have made us, with a positive light to shine onto society as we come back into the open.
Treatment empowers us by illuminating the people we’ve always been, and also, how adversity has contributed to our character. Treatment helps us reclaim our voice and feel proud of our journeys.
On March 3, you will be speaking at Mercy College. The four years spent at college can be very formative on young people. As they begin to enter this chapter of life, or are nearing the end of it, what would be the best advice you can give them?
By the time I had been discharged from my 27th surgery at age 24, I thought I had had enough life experience as an education, and college was just not a part of my story. I fell into a coma a week before I had to decide what college I would go to.
So waking up in the hospital, and realizing that I had just recovered from a near death situation — and going off to college with the rest of my senior year class was out of the question, I was ready to give up on college all together. I thought year after year I would be ready, but more medical setbacks kept coming up, and before I knew it, 2005 had turned to 2013, and all of my high school friends had seemed to go on to lead “normal” lives — or what I had always assumed was “normal.”
I had spent so many years mastering “survival 101” that I felt like I didn’t need college — I had gotten enough “life experience.” But, what I didn’t expect was that, going back to college at 25 gave me an even wider array of colors to paint my life’s path with. I reawakened my thirst for knowledge, and learning about the world beyond just getting through. The new subjects were only a small aspect of what college taught me.
I learned I was capable of being independent. I was able to make choices, I could learn material that wasn’t just about survival. And I think most important for me, especially since I felt very young for a 25-year old, since my life took a pause at 18, is that I was capable of pursuing my passions and being able to launch some kind of career and business by doing what I loved.
College taught me that I was not only capable of being an inspiring survivor, but really having a life in the real world. I learned the important skills I needed to know, especially social cues — it had been a long time since I had had to talk to other people except my parents and doctor! I had to learn how to make friends again, be a “person,” and learn how to take care of myself on the inside and outside.
So my best advice is — college is filled with transitions and detours. Doors become open to us that we ever knew existed, and choices can present both obstacles and opportunities for us. I love Hampshire’s philosophy, “to know is not enough.” Learn what you can about everything and be open to where those roads may lead.
There are many ways in which art is part of your life. How do you approach new projects?
With a beginner’s mind. No expectations, fearlessness, a sense of humor and an eagerness to play. Art is just a great tool to teach you how to live. When I come to a canvas, I’m just improvising with brushstrokes. If that paint goes in a direction that surprises me, or that I don’t like, I have no choice but to keep playing with that paint until something comes from it.
That’s how you can find the “happy accidents” in the unexpected. It’s a philosophy that has helped me find the beauty in whatever detour I face. So when I have a new project I’m working on, whether it’s art, theatre, writing, music, or a new chapter of my life, I try to let go of any preconceived notions of what my art should be “about,” and just start with where I am.
Given your history with trauma, what are your favorite ways to take care of yourself and recharge?
Nature and the outdoors. I love taking walks outside, especially with my dogs, and trees have always been my true ‘mentors’ ‘ since I was a child.
Now that I can eat, I also love celebrating holidays with family and friends — and cooking for family meals, of course. And creativity has, and always will be the best way for me to revitalize and recharge myself through the good and the bad.
There are a few leaks and wounds from surgeries that never healed properly, and I am still traveling to various hospitals to find answers. But I learned a long time ago, that if you wait to be “completely healthy” or feel “normal” — whatever that means, then you’ll spend your entire life waiting.
The important thing is that I can eat and drink now. I don’t need to be reliant on machines. If there is something I’ve learned is that the human body is amazing, and everything can heal with time, patience, and some good old TLC. Doctors can help fix things, but self-care is really what is going to keep us strong in the long term.