Hey! I’m Erika, an intimate portrait photographer based out of Regina, SK. If you’re new here – welcome! For those of you that have been following me for a while (maybe you’re in my VIP Boudoir Group?), I’m so glad you’re here. This post is a little more on the personal side and if you’re not into that, we’re cool! No hard feelings, really. I’ll be back with more client shoots in the next blog post. I’m really just here to warn you that this post is the first (gasp!) NSFW post on my blog, so if you’re at work, maybe save this one for later if you work with a bunch of prudes. 😉
Having an intimate portrait session, being photographed by a stranger – it’s really an incredible experience. I had the opportunity this summer to be photographed by intimate portrait photographer Teri Hofford. At my image reveal, Teri showed me that one thing I had never seen – how a complete stranger saw me. I wasn’t seeing myself in a mirror through the lens of my own self-doubt. I didn’t see all the put-downs and lies from my past. I didn’t see the loose skin on my stomach, or the fact that one of my eyes sits higher on the face than the other. I didn’t see the weird veins on the backs of my hands. I saw myself through Teri’s lens. I saw my beautiful skin glitter (freckles – thanks for that one Teri!!), and the femininity and confidence I thought I’d lost. I saw a woman that had survived.
It wasn’t easy getting there.
I touch on this topic a little bit over on the boudoir section of my website, but I’ve only ever really alluded to vague details about my past. I was married once. I was young (probably too young) and blindly in love, and couldn’t see the truth for what it was. Despite all my good intentions, all my “that will never happen to me”s, I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship.
I’ll be honest, that this isn’t really an easy subject for me to talk about. For more reasons than that it’s hard to talk about – but because my memory of it all at this point is fuzzy at best. I was gaslit as a manipulation tactic, and there are still things I question the legitimacy of. While there are certain events that stick out to me still, a lot of my memories of that time in my life have disappeared. Brains have a funny way of dealing with trauma, I guess. I find myself wondering if I’ll ever get those memories back, but I’m secretly grateful I can’t recall a lot of it.
Afraid of my own reflection.
I listened too closely to the negative voices, my own, and from my ex – let’s call her Brenda. In my worst days, I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror because I had such a low opinion of myself. Brenda had ensured of that, for me. Criticisms disguised as compliments. Comments on everything from the way I looked, to the way I smelled, to the way I acted in public. Judgements that slowly eroded at the already low amount of self-esteem and self-worth that I had. Commentary spiralled into anxiety, I was afraid of any tiny misstep.
In an effort to take control over my life when I felt like it was spiralling out of control, I chopped my hair off. Brenda told me she only liked women with long hair, and that by chopping my hair off she didn’t find me attractive anymore. Meanwhile, she continued to cheat on me with a man. Did I mention, our whole six year relationship was long-distance? Yes, legally wed and all.
I was devastated when I found the proof that I’d been convincing myself wasn’t there. I was just crazy and my mind was playing tricks on me (correction, I was being gaslit). Brenda was only being distant because she was busy with EMT school (did she even actually go back to school or was that another lie?). My texts would go unanswered for hours upon hours at a time (sometimes days). Yet I’d still convinced myself everything was fine. It’s hard to see manipulation and abuse when you’re in it, and even harder to make the needed changes to your life to end it.
I didn’t fully understand the extent of my emotional abuse until months after I decided to go no-contact with my ex-wife. After some time and perspective I understood the extent of what had happened. I’d already been diagnosed with anxiety and depression in the months previous to ceasing contact, and as I dug a little deeper I understood that I was suffering from PTSD as well. Vivid flashbacks, mostly back to the night that I made The Discovery and the ensuing panic attack, alone in her roommate’s living room. I couldn’t sleep at night, and couldn’t stay awake during the day because I was so exhausted. I couldn’t concentrate on tasks, and as a result my work suffered. Dishes piled up beside my sink. It was an effort to even dress myself in the morning, let alone cook anything other than Kraft Dinner.
It’s literally impossible to fully explain the lengths I’d gone for this woman I’d married. The financial burden I took upon myself to make sure we were able to see each other every four months was insane. During my divorce proceedings I added up the entire number and… it made my stomach drop. It was a sickening number. We’ll just say that I’m still working my ass off trying to rid that debt from my life.
I supported her when she came out to me as transgender. I supported her when her family disowned her because they’d raised a son, not a daughter. I watched her drown her sorrows in an ocean of alcohol. I put my entire career on hold to hold her hand through her transition, to be her support. I watched her body change when she started hormone therapy. I cried myself to sleep when her hormone therapy changed her personality into someone completely different. A stranger. I mourned the loss of what had I thought was the beginnings of a loving relationship with an unnaturally beautiful man. I continued to wish things would get better.
They would, eventually, get better…
So, to say that I was utterly devastated when I found proof she was cheating on me is an understatement. Yet, I clung to our relationship for another year. Brenda told me that I should “quit photography, go back to school, and get a real career“. Those words cut me to my core. I suffered through a very deep depression. (To be honest with you, I am SO GOD DAMNED PROUD of myself for making it through that. There were days were I didn’t think I was going to make it. If you’ve experienced depression, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.) I finally built up the courage to say I’d had enough. I told Brenda I wanted a divorce.
Why am I telling you all of this?
I spent a lot of years terrified of vulnerability. The history of abuse in my past coupled with my anxiety caused me to build walls higher and thicker than I’d ever built before. To survive my divorce, I built a disguise that everything was OK. My best friend at the time once commented on how nothing ever seemed to rock me. I always seemed like I had everything under control. The reality was, I was hiding it all inside and internally screaming. I was so afraid of being vulnerable that not even my best friend understood what I was going through.
Intimate portrait sessions are all ABOUT being vulnerable.
As an intimate portrait photographer, I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have the experience of being photographed by a complete stranger. Teri is an intimate portrait photographer whom I’d been admiring from afar for quite some time, and a complete stranger. Being vulnerable in front of a stranger feels a lot different. It had taken me months (hell, maybe even closer to a year) to truly be vulnerable in front of my fiancé Shawn. To immediately shed that barrier with a stranger was an experience that changed me. Now, here I am, being vulnerable with the entire internet.
Just for me.
I chose to do this session with Teri for many reasons. The main reason, though? I just wanted these photos for ME. Of course Shawn got to see the images (and loved them, duh!!), but this one was a gift to myself. The kindest gift I could have given myself – was the reminder that none of the things in my past matter. What matters is that I’m here, now. I smiled at myself in the mirror this morning. I’m happy. I survived.