AWI EXCLUSIVE: An Interview with Amy Oestreicher
By way of succinct, journalistic bio, Amy Oestreicher is a writer, singer, actress, motivational speaker, and self-described "general lover of life." But who is Amy Oestreicher…really?
Like most of us, Amy has a rich, behind-the-scenes journey that has brought her to her present life. Unlike most of us, Amy's journey has included severe medical trauma, a coma, 27 surgeries, and all the complications that come with them. Following a sudden medical emergency, Amy completely lost the use of her stomach…in that she no longer had a stomach at all. Amy–a high school senior at the time–was shuttled through surgery after surgery, spending years being unable to eat or drink anything. Having already been a survivor of sexual abuse, Amy now had another enormous mountain to overcome. Her spirit and determination persevered, however, and today Amy has used her "detour" to inform who she is as an artist, writer, and performer (and newlywed!). Among her many accomplishments in recent years has been her one-woman musical, Gutless & Grateful, which inspired audiences and earned Amy a Broadway World nomination for best cabaret debut.
AWI had a chance to talk to Amy about her compelling story and indestructible drive, and we are thrilled to share the conversation with you.
AWI: You have had a great deal of physical struggle in your life that obviously took up most of your focus. Were you prepared for how your physical health would impact your mental health? And did your doctors explain to you how you might struggle mentally with all you endured physically?
Amy Oestreicher: I literally awoke from a coma to find myself in an alternate universe. Unable to talk, sit up, or control my trembling hands, a doctor – who seemed to know me very well at this point – explained as gently as he could what on earth had happened to me. I had no stomach anymore, I couldn’t eat or drink, and it was not known when or if I would ever be able to again. What do you say to that? I was shocked – I had been too sleepy to be hungry, but now that I knew what the real circumstances were, I was devastated. I was confused, like I had woken up in someone else’s life – where was I? Who was I? I remember I was once so desperate for answers that I Googled “How do I find myself?”
I didn’t understand when I first woke up from my coma why my muscles had suddenly turned to jello. With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled, and how weak I was. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability. I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic "I don’t knows," sighs, shrugs, and awkward changing of the topic.
As my health improved, the doctors seemed to expect me to just be happy I was alive but I wanted a timetable of how long it would take to get my real life back again. Part of me wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear, part of me wanted to throw something. I was frustrated – I had just gotten my college acceptance letters – was I the victim of some cruel joke? My biggest goal in life was acting on the Broadway stage – and now I couldn’t even walk or talk. That’s when I made the conscious decision, that as long as this was my life right now, I would not let myself feel like a victim or hospital patient. My extremely supportive family and I found the humor and fun in everything, and made our ICU stay as pleasant as we could – whether it was setting up bowling pins in the hallway, serenading the doctors on guitars, or even my parents sneaking me out of the ICU in my hospital gown to go shopping, my attitude always remained to make the best of whatever circumstances I was dealt. Any kind of therapy was put on hold because what was most important was my physical survival. Even therapists thought it would be torture for me to sit in a room and talk about my feelings when I couldn’t even eat or drink.
AWI: You've talked about how, when a person endures trauma, a part of them becomes "wounded," and that it is important to listen to and learn from this wounded self. How have you learned to embrace your wounded self instead of hiding it or wishing it away?
Amy Oestreicher: I learned that although it was “easier” at times to repress my emotions and memories and run away from the part of me that became wounded, I had to listen to my “wounded bird,” as I called that part of me, in order to really heal. When you’ve been through a difficult, trying period in your life, a part of you becomes “wounded.” This wounded self will always be with you, even when the darkest times are over. If you are able to listen to this wounded part, honor its story and learn from what it has endured, your life will be deeper and richer.
I’ve had to deal with two separate yet related traumas, and my wounded self came from both of these. I was sexually abused starting at the end of my junior year. I was caught off guard in such shock that the abuse continued until the winter of my senior year. I was totally numb during that time as a result of the abuse stayed in this frozen state until April 2005. Then I was assaulted by a medical trauma before I even had time to heal from the first trauma.
When you undergo any kind of trauma it causes a disturbance in your energy flow which makes you unable to feel those emotions that once came so naturally at a time. My body stopped breathing the same way it used to – a big knot of tension evolved in my chest and remained there like a cocoon. My thoughts became corrupted – I couldn’t think in my naturally poetic way. Suddenly my world became rigidly controlled by numbers and mechanical, compulsive thinking. It becomes difficult to deal with everyday life because you have hid your soul in a dark corner so it doesn’t have to face the dangerous world of the Trauma. Without your soul, you are only half a person, a machine who is constantly running from reality. I put up a daze like four safe walls that protected me from being consciously present in the abuse, and that daze stayed with me with or without him. I lived in a world separate from everyone else.
To heal, you have to tell your story – the story of your wounded self. By telling it and remembering, you literally re-member: you re-assemble yourself, and your body is able to realize that it is no longer in the world of the trauma, and you can flow back into life.
It’s not that I’ve I lost that vivacious, zealous energy within me, it is just in a world of it’s own. Just like I didn’t lose myself, it’s just that Thriving Amy is in another world right now, frozen in the shock of trauma. To get her back, I have to unfreeze her energy, I have to redirect the whirlpool’s current with a healing vortex of your own which I will expand upon in later chapters. You come up with healthier coping mechanisms.
After writing, directing and starring in a musical about my life, Gutless & Grateful, I wanted to use my skills as a playwright to create a piece that was more honest, raw & conceptual. Ten years of sexual and medical trauma had left me with the severe symptoms of PTSD, including intrusive memories, flashbacks and dissociation. For years, I grappled with two halves of me, desperate to rediscover wholeness and comfort in my own body. I came to know these two polarities as Wounded Amy & Thriving Amy, and learned that only when these opposing halves of myself acknowledged the other, could I really move forward, attain wholeness and heal. While my musical Gutless & Grateful emphasizes the inspirational message of hope, gratitude and resilience, I want my three-act play to show the pain, the losses and ultimately the gift of transformation and growth that stem from trauma. Traumatic memories are nonlinear, felt sensations. Rather than a chronological accurate sequence of events, trauma memories are experienced in intricate tapestries of sounds, images and sensations.
This play, Imprints, strives to recreate the numbness I felt after being sexually abused, mirroring the numbness and frozen quality I felt during my coma. I hypothesized that through accepting my abuse, healing physically, and accepting my forever-changed life, the two halves of me could make amends and I could move forward into my future, fully feeling my new self. Creating this play has been therapy in itself, and a way to prompt the two halves of me to engage in a meaningful dialogue, as well as my visual art, music, choreography and writing, which all come from a place of healing.
The traumas shattered me in a sense into two different parts and as of this day, I am still trying to figure out the pieces. I wanted a way to reassemble the two halves, to Re-Member them as one once again. I also just wanted to explore each side in more depth and get to know them better. I have made myself numb to a lot in order to cope and to protect myself, and I needed to know who I was, and who I am. And who I am to be with all of the parts of me that I now know I have.
I also went back into my notes with my EMDR therapist Rita, who I worked with extensively in a creative, art-therapy fashion. We did not talk in terms of psychology and how I was feeling, but rather in colors, myths, imaginary creatures, warriors, fantasy and adventures. She helped me discover my own “hero’s journey," as I was always fascinated by Joseph Campbell’s “way of the spiritual warrior” and archetypal hero’s journal philosophy. She played along with me and got me in touch with that wounded bird inside, and my inner child. Basically, creativity has been my lifeline throughout all of this!
AWI: You describe yourself as a "detourist." What does that mean?
Amy Oestreicher: A detour is many things – unexpected, a nuisance, difficult, hard to grapple with, frustrating, – but it can be beautiful. By sharing our stories, we rewrite our own narratives, rediscover our true identities, foster compassionate communities, and become travel partners on these journeys with no straight path. Through this, we gain adaptability and create a positive, empowered attitude toward obstacles, physical or mental struggles, hardships, and trauma. Our vision is a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings.
Now I want to inspire people to flourish because of, rather than in spite of challenges. #LoveMyDetour aims to encourage growth and healing by sharing our stories; to transform communities by inspiring people to open their minds and reframe their view of “detours” into a new direction for life.
That’s why I’m spreading #LoveMyDetour around the world. I’m trying to start a whole movement to show that we all have things come up in life that may surprise us, but they don’t have to derail us. I’m proof of that myself! And what I’ve experienced is, the more stories we hear about turning an obstacle into an opportunity, the more empowered we are to transform our own lives and have confidence that when life DOES surprise us, we’re capable of getting through anything.
AWI: How do you manage your post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on a daily basis? What would you tell someone who is at the beginning of their journey with PTSD?
Amy Oestreicher: The PTSD term for finding healthy coping skills is “self-soothing.” To live a healthy thriving life, I’ve had to befriend my past, embrace my experience, and express what had happened to me. I needed to tell my story in order to heal. But first, I had to hear my story for myself, rather than avoid it.. Once I learned how to hear my own heart-shattering story, and feel the pain, the frustration, the anger, and ultimately, the gratitude, I was able to speak to it. I was able to gently teach myself how to live in the present moment rather than in the world of the trauma.
Healing didn’t come all at once. Every day I tried to face a memory a bit more. I called it “dipping my toes” in my trauma. Finally, I could put words to my grief. I was able to write, “I am hurting.”
As soon as I was able to write words like "sadness" and "pain," I allowed myself to explore them. Soon, I couldn’t stop the words that flowed out of me. My memories started to empower me, and I wrote with feverish purpose. I started to journal compulsively for hours as every memory appeared in my mind. Soon, the words couldn’t do justice to my traumatic experience – I needed a bigger container. I turned to art, drawing, scribbling. I filled pages with teardrops, lightening bolts and broken hearts. For me, creativity became a lifeline – a release. It was a way to express things that were too overwhelming for words. Expression was my way of self-soothing.
Once expression helped me face my own story, I was able to share it. And the day I first shared my story with someone else, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others that had been through trauma and life-shattering events. And there were also people who had been through the twists and turns of every day life. Being able to share my story emboldened me with a newfound strength and the knowledge that terrible things happen, and if other people can bounce back, then so can I.
AWI: Through all you've endured over the past decade, how has your view of mental health changed?
Amy Oestreicher: The body and mind are related, so take care of everything an remember that everything is connected! Life has many obstacles, many challenges, many blessings, many triumphs – but you only have one body. If you want it to experience the good, you’ve got to stand the bad as well. My perspective on illness has changed since my days of "croup," and it’s also changed since my last surgical intervention. I’ve learned that illness isn’t always in the physical scars. I’ve learned that some wounds aren’t visible, and some wounds even we don’t know we have, until we choose to take care of them. But I’ve also learned that I’m resilient, strong, broken and put together again, differently, yet even more beautiful – like a mosaic.
Also, no healing happens in a vacuum. You need a support system. Start talking, sharing, reaching out, asking for help – trust me – it saved my life.
AWI: What exciting projects and events do you have coming up?
Amy Oestreicher: Way too busy for my own good!
Touring the country with Gutless & Grateful to theatres, conferences, colleges and organizations as a one-woman show and also as a mental health/sexual assault advocacy program. I’m leading workshops based on creative expression, theatre and art, linking resiliency to empowerment and positive change. Working on my book, finishing my play “Imprints," TEDx talk April 16, Keynote speaker at pacific rim international conference on diversity and disability.
- Performing Gutless & Grateful at Haverford College on March 25th
- Performing Gutless & Grateful on March 15th at Fulton Montgomery Community College
- Storytelling at Sharing the Fire in MA on April 2nd
- Presenting at the NEOA Conference on Sexual Assault and PTSD on College Campuses April 6th
- Performing Gutless & Grateful at Russell Sage College on April 12th
- Giving a TEDx Talk at Syracuse University on April 16!
- Presenting at the International Conference on Diversity and Disability in Hawaii on April 25th
- Performing Gutless & Grateful at Central Penn College on May 11th
- Performing Gutless & Grateful at Berkley College on May 7th
- Performing Gutless & Grateful at Mental Health American National Conference on June 8th
Oh, and I'm at Hampshire college as a full time student, 3rd year
And I’m a newlywed
In between, I stuff my face with pizza ☺
Thank you, Amy, for sharing your amazing and inspiring story!
You can learn more about Amy and her work here.
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