Originally posted Sept. 29, 2020.
Inherently being human means experiencing life and its full spectrum. We begin to die from birth, but we also start to grow, learn, and experience sight, taste, and sound on our own unique individualistic spectrums. It is our senses that drive our formulation of memory and our capacity to learn. Some of us decide to also dedicate our lives to keeping the most sacred temples of all; our bodies.
Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 2005
From an early age (three, to be precise), my Mother—a truly amazing woman—taught me to suck it up, keep going, be strong, and that you are just as capable as a cisgender male out there (I am cisgender female, my pronouns are she/her). In short, a woman can become just as physically strong, is as intellectually capable, and that I should never let a man make me feel less than. Growing up, I learned these lessons too quickly as my biological father hit my Mother and me. To say there was physical abuse, as well as verbal abuse, is an understatement. I found myself doing anything I could while my brilliant Mother was at work to avoid or keep my father from getting into one of his moods where he would reach for a belt or worse while she was at work being a #femaleboss at work.
Luckily, I realized that what had been happening for most of my young childhood was not “normal” or okay. I told my Mom as much on the steps of our Burns Park home in Ann Arbor that she needed to get a divorce to protect us. If she didn't, I told her that my biological father would soon start hurting my little sister the same way he hurt her and me. It was when I was that the protection order was filed and granted by a judge. Shortly after that, my father was hit head-on and killed by a drunk driver in a brand new Porche his “very important” dad had bought him. He was released from prison that night, even though he killed my dad.
This rocked me to the core. I had lost grandparents (my grandfather William Paul Stempien VP of Chrysler Foreign Relations and Gran); I had lost cousins. Yet, something changed when my biological father was killed regardless of the immense physical and psychological scars he left me with. Walking into my living room, my Mom and a second Mama waited to inform me that my dad was killed, that his body was so disfigured the only way they could identify the body was from the metal parts in his knees from surgery years past. As soon as the words came out, I sprinted to the front door. The door burst open, I flew out, I spread my wings, and let go. With every barefoot footfall, the immense anger that would fuel a professional athletic career for years to come surged through my body.
“The door burst open, I flew out, I spread my wings, and let go. With every barefoot footfall, the immense anger that would fuel a professional athletic career for years to come surged through my body.”
To say I ran for my past would be egregious; I ran because the pain became so encompassing that the only way I could cope, process, and think was in motion. I ran for what that criminal took from me—a chance to possibly have a father, a decent man that could apologize for years of hitting me, breaking my eardrum, abusing my Mom, and attempting to rape her. At the same time, we kept this quiet from our families and everyone in our lives. My Mom did not want to be judged; she didn't want my father to become enraged from my father's misuse of prescription, alcohol, and drug use to deal with his Bipolar Disorder. I ran for my Mother, who could no longer run due to a severe knee injury; I ran to let out my pain, to try to cry, which at that point for many years, was impossible because my father trained me to not cry by telling me he would hit me harder if I did.
I ran for my Mother, who could no longer run due to a severe knee injury; I ran to let out my pain, to try to cry, which at that point for many years, was impossible because my father trained me to not cry by telling me he would hit me harder if I did.
Originally, processing trauma was put into clay, ceramics, paint, and ballet. From the time I was three years old, I began to study ballet, visual arts and would take classes outside of school for years to come. This outlet was not just an outlet; you see, I am from a family of female artists. My Grandmother was a talented ceramics artist and painter. My Mother's chosen medium was sketching, ceramics, and paint. Some people come to art—whether it is music, dance, visual art, theatre, athletics, or cooking—at later points in their life due to natural skill or love of the medium. I was born to this. I was born to communicate with my body, my brain, and it is inexorably who I am. I am a female artist athlete. When I became blocked in one art, I use the others to problem solve, express myself, and connect to the world. The physicality and strength it takes to create my work are still how I continue to fly even when my legs, body, and mind may be grounded.
The physicality and strength it takes to create my work are still how I continue to fly even when my legs, body, and mind may be grounded.
So I guess I should thank my biological father. I should thank him for the pain, for the loss of childhood when it was just us at home away from prying us of public or family because it added more fuel to my fire. You see, my whole life, I have dedicated myself to physical, intellectual, and psychological growth. I did this to honor my Mother, it was all I knew, I did this to honor myself and other women as she had taught me. A true feminist my Mother was. Her immense strength to stay, but to leave immediately as soon as I could tell her when I was eleven that “it wasn't okay”, and never look back. You see, most abuse survivors feel they can't leave because the abuser won't let them, for fear of death, for fear of retribution, the hope there is still good in the abuser who was once kind to them, and my Mother had the immense strength to leave as soon as my sister and I were summering with our Italian family in New York. Mom taught me to commit to something and give everything I have when I did commit, it is how she lived her own life, and how I still live mine. I always pushed myself to be better than boys/men; this drive in the weight room and in the crew boat enabled me to erg a 10k holding a 158/500m (Olympic crew boat finishing time when I was 17). It is this drive I still use today in my art, in my business, working for others, and learning with a growth mindset. Due to this drive, dedication, and this deep desire to crush, I was nationally recruited to row crew even after breaking my back twice because we had coaches that didn't know crap about keeping your core (your entire core front/back/sides) super strong. I signed with the NCAA. I was going away to row crew in college, then the day before I was supposed to leave, I found my Mother, dead in her bed, and had to try to perform CPR on her cold purple and blue body. This was the worst day of my life, or so I thought.
Stating that my Mother was a girl boss is an understatement. While she (Dr. Sandra Ellen Colombo) was working on her Ph.D. at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor was approached by Steve Jobs when he formed his company, Next; Jobs wanted her to come and work with him. At the time, my Mom was pregnant with me, really wanted to finish her Ph.D., as such she thanked him graciously but ultimately turned him down. She set up M-Pathways (the ethernet for The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,) and ran the IT department at U of M for over two decades until her death suddenly happened when I was 18.
After the death of my Mother occurred, I decided to defer for a semester from my NCAA-signed-university. I wanted to be near my little sister, manage everything that goes on with someone's passing, and try to stay close to my little sister and those I loved at the same time. It became so hard for me to deal with emotion (at the time, I didn't know this; it has taken years of therapy to come to these truths and grow). I kept people at arm's length. I couldn't see my friends. I couldn't bear to hug anyone. Two months after my Mom's passing, to honor her and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I decided to run my first Marathon (the Nike 26.2 original course in San Fransisco, CA, and did finishing well). I was numb. The only time I could feel anything was when I ran. Certain people said I was running away when I ran, and the truth was when I ran, I was running head-on into emotion. For some reason, when in motion, I connected with my body, heart, and mind. When running, this was the only time I could cry; I could cry with every breathe, with every step, and I could even feel Her. I felt my Mother with me as my feet would cross miles and miles of diverse terrain. For miles, I would have to wait as I searched for her. Searched for a feeling. When it hit it, this feeling enabled me to reconnect with my humanity and escape my daily life's numbness that was dominated by the inability to tell loved ones how much I loved them.
Certain people said I was running away when I ran, and the truth was when I ran, I was running head-on into emotion. For some reason, when in motion, I connected with my body, heart, and mind. When running, this was the only time I could cry;...
I spread my Mothers ashes with some of my family in Costa Ríca in the summer of 2005, a year after her passing. We spread her ashes into the ocean at Playa Grande, where I learned to surf with her wings guiding me across the lip and down into the barrel of what seemed like endless volumes of water. I experienced a numb quietness there I had never experienced before and later recognized it as peace. The type of peace that only follows the tremendous loss of someone cherished.
We spread her ashes into the ocean at Playa Grande, where I learned to surf with her wings guiding me across the lip and down into the barrel of what seemed like endless volumes of water.
It was the fall 2005 semester at Stamps when I decided to work a semester abroad. I would fly back down before term started at The University of Michigan, Penny Stamps School of Art and Design. I wanted to create a surfing movie and document the Ticos living a surfing life in Northern Costa Rica. Luckily, Stamps gave me permission to develop a body of work that was exhibited up on my return in the School of Art and Architecture Winter 2006 term. I did all of this right after the death of a woman I would still need in my life for most of its entirety. I did all of this in immense pain with the added pain of being sexually assaulted in Costa Rica while on a run in the jungle. After making a wrong turn and, as a result, coming off the jungle trail at sunset, I was irreparably shaken to the core again.
I was pushed to my face. Having my dignity all but stripped from my body, kicking, not being able to breathe, not being able to rotate enough to free myself from my attacker, and run for my life. Somehow, as he adjusted himself, I was able to kick hard, push my body off the ground, and sprint faster than I ever imagined my legs could carry me. Yet, my dignity was squashed on more by the police that was supposed to help me. I walked into town to file a police report in Tamarindo Costa Ríca. In the police shack (yes, an open-air hut under dried banana leaves), to my great surprise, I had to file this with a ballpoint pen on a carbon copy. The three male officers looked at me like it was my fault for not understanding my broken Spanish from intense anxiety or English.
I felt a sudden drop in my stomach as I realized that these men didn't see me as a survivor who needed to be helped or protected… but instead, they looked at me like it was my fault. Upon turning to leave, I knew that nothing would be done to catch the man that hurt me in a way I could have never grasped until well after the incident. All I wanted to do was reach out to my chosen family. It took me a few days because I didn't quite grasp what had happened to me; it was as if my brain made the area where the memory of the attack was stored go black, and then it hit me. It hit me hard. I called my chosen family for help, they told me they didn't believe me and needed to stay there. Again, I felt whatever dignity I had left was being torn away from my body. My Mother would have been on a plane in a heartbeat if she had been alive. Yet, these people I chose to be second parents told someone they considered their child that they didn't believe her and that I had to stay there.
I bet you are thinking that no “good” parent would do this, no decent human being would do this, and this is beyond revolting. You are right. Rape has a way of doing this. It breaks you if you don't have the people you need—who you love, who believe you, and it does this regardless but is much worse without support. It's worse because the sickening recognition follows that those people think you that you could make up something so utterly egregious, and or their response is because they don’t want to comprehend due to their own fear what happened to someone they loved who is thousands of miles away living in a foreign country. After being raped you begin to feel like your life is worthless, that you are worthless, that there is no point in the daily monotony of living, and this leads to wanting to take your own life. Rape shreds reality to the point where you can't connect or even recognize the person you are. You become a shell of yourself and begin a life of just surviving with a side of inability to truly open yourself up to others. Rape disables you from having access to the ability to allow love in your world. It disables you from recognizing it and destroys the amygdala's ability to properly process emotion. I felt stranded in a world that could never genuinely grasp my intellect let alone be able to understand the vast amount of knowledge that it takes most almost a lifetime to learn. Some lead such privileged lives that they can never understand; instead, they avoid and fear you because of this gifted ignorance. I say gifted because having the privilege of not experiencing the things I have survived is a gift. It is a gifted ignorance.
Rape shreds reality to the point where you can’t connect or even recognize the person you are. You become a shell of yourself and begin a life of just surviving with a side of inability to truly open yourself up to others.
I was a kid. I was 19. I had knowledge well beyond my years, and I was utterly alone in the world without the Mother, who had been my best friend. I had shit guidance. I had trusted the wrong people who never took the time to explain why I should try seeing a therapist to process my Mom's loss, the other severe trauma, loss, or the rape I survived. My chosen family didn't make me or tell me that I needed to get a financial planner to figure out to handle an immense amount of money I just inherited. I had no idea I had to file taxes or how to get college paid for. Basically, I didn't know shit. I needed my Mom and was alone. My mind was blank from just trying to survive.
After coming back from Costa Rica to U of M, I walked on the University of Michigan Track & Field as a Multi for a hot second. I shortly realized that I needed to be as close to my Mom and be with her as possible, plus at the time Stamps had no Graphic Design program. So I transferred to do a minor at a small college in San Diego, rented a room in a widow's home on Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, CA, and was able to surf Black's beach every morning before heading into school and feel her with me. Yet, I felt again less lost. I felt home for the first time in the United States, and well, California has that magic. You connect with nature via the sea, land, and mountains. It was where I began to climb. It was where I first mountain biked, and well, it is still where home is located in my heart.
I felt home for the first time in the United States, and well, California has that magic. You connect with nature via sea, land, and mountains.
Midwest Final Match, The University of Michigan Women’s Rugby vs. Michigan State University Women’s Rugby, Fall 2008
I finished a year and a half degree (minor in graphic design) in a little over a year. I returned to Stamps Winter at U of M, Ann Arbor, MI, in the winter of 2008, an utter mess and ready to be asexual for the rest of my life. Then, I met some of the University of Michigan Women's Rugby girls at the Y. They recruited me because of my crazy cut upper body strength, and I joined the Women's Rugby team, dominated, and was in the A-Side starting line up. I finally found a sport that allowed me to tackle, crush, and release an immense amount of anger and trauma that I survived in a healthy manner via athletics. With every sprint into a ruck, into a try, I was able to feel again, and it was shortly after I started playing during a late-night practice in the Oosterbon Football Field building that I met my person. My partner, my other half, and the human being that would be my wing person in adventure for the rest of my life. He played on the University of Michigan Men's rugby team. He was as driven to express and feel via physical movement just as much as I was. He taught me that love does exist, that your person does exist, and that when you find your person, you go all in no matter how terrified you are. A year later, the women's team did the same. We dominated at USA Rugby Nationals (the last match has serious foul play, but that is for another blog post). Two years later, we were married. One more year later, my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Severe Anxiety and Panic Attack disorder triggered. These conditions triggered after years of believing running, blankly talking about what I survived was enough, as well as not seeing a therapist or having the bravery to allow myself to cry and hurt how your brain needs to process what you have survived. This was partly because of how I was raised by a family that didn’t go to therapists to talk, but I soon realized real courage is letting yourself feel all the emotions, to cry, be terrified, angry, and once you do it is only then you can heal and become stronger than ever before.
Right after my PTSD triggered, we moved back from Colorado to Ann Arbor Michigan for a year while my partner applied to Ph.D. programs, struggled to get his Depression under control, and for us to regroup. This was when I started to run 50-mile ultra-marathons at 23 years of age (I say this like it was forever ago when it was only some years ago). I also began to pick up a camera for the first time since the high school darkroom. Soon, the mountains, trails, and water in Colorado, open spaces in Michigan became my solace. I have always been like a wild Arabian stallion my whole life, but after losing my Mother, surviving brutal rape, something unthinkable was taken from me—my ability to create and connect with my body through the physicality of my work. I stopped for almost four years, then behind the lens, and in nature, I began my journey into finding my new normal post PTSD triggering. This was a future that I would have to continue to navigate without my Mom. Still, luckily, my maternal Grandma was there as much as she was able late in her life, and for this, I will ever cherish and be thankful.
Unfortunately, I face/d a future without the woman who taught me how to survive. A future to learn; to dance; to laugh. To apologize for being an asshat teenager that sometimes could not give hugs because of what her father did to her. A chance to get pregnant and an opportunity to have my Mom with me when I gave birth. A future without my Mom to be there when I finished a graduate degree. A future without her help with all I had to grapple with as I completed two graduate degrees within six months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I earned my graduate degrees not just for myself to continue down my cathartic journey into healing from my PTSD through the physicality of my visual artwork, but also to honor her, to honor the years of money/time she spent on me taking all the visual art, music and dance courses, and athletics to help train myself into a life of dedication and study just as she had. She was there at every regatta even though she was a single full-time working Mother girl boss. To be at such turning points in my life again now, to finally know how I want to continue to honor her through my Visual Art that you see on this website