How Telling (and Writing) the Truth Has Saved My Life
by Leif E. Greenz
I thought I would be dead by 27.
I said it over and over again: “I won’t make it past next year — I feel it.”
The feeling started shortly after I fled one abusive relationship only to end in bed with an abuser on the other side of the country. And once I had the thought of death, I couldn’t quell it. Weeks after I was assaulted in my Phoenix, Arizona apartment, I flew to my friend’s house in Minneapolis to recover. There, I sat at her ugly Ikea table with my knees to my neck, sobbing and speaking in the faraway voice of my child-self.
“I’m dying, Coco, I feel it. If I don’t kill myself, someone else will.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be dead, but death felt like an inevitability. No matter what I did or who I turned to, things just seemed to get worse. Every move, friendship, and partnership I attempted ended in failure. I always ended up back with an abuser, back to booze, or trapped on my back like a turtle.
To my family, I was an embarrassment. To my friends, I was overwhelming. No one understood why I kept falling. No one really asked.To my family, I was an embarrassment. To my friends, I was overwhelming. No one understood why I kept falling. No one really asked. Click To Tweet
Once I reached my bottom and realized I could either come up for air or suffocate, I started telling my truth anyway, not caring who chose to listen. I did it because I knew the only way to save myself would be to spit out the poison that had built in my body, running through my veins like black ooze.
In the wake of abuse, I felt hardened, hopeless, and vacant. I didn’t trust my family. I’d lost most of my friends. And then, after scrambling to peel myself off Arizona’s scalding cement, I moved back to Minneapolis to be closer to the people who claimed to care about me, only to find myself alone again. My friends didn’t realize what they’d set themselves up for. My presence was too intense.
When I lost my loved ones, I lost my fear of offending them.
Shortly after moving back, I went on an online vengeance spree. Over the course of two days, I took to Facebook and posted the names and photos of all the men who had ever assaulted, emotionally abused, or raped me. I didn’t do it consciously. My hands did the typing. My fingers were guilty. It was an automatic thing, like a bubbling over of something that had long been ready to spill out of me.
When you come as close as I felt to death, things sometimes burst forth from you like fireworks, no matter who’s watching.When you come as close as I felt to death, things sometimes burst forth from you like fireworks, no matter who’s watching. Click To Tweet
So one by one, I revealed the names and faces of my abusers over Facebook, thereby freeing myself from a suffocating silence I’d been stuck in for two decades. I learned early on that people wouldn’t help me if I was abused — quite the opposite actually.
Whenever I called my mom to tell her about an assault, she’d either blame or hang up on me; usually both. But then, almost a decade after establishing my independence from my parents, I stopped giving a shit what they think of me.
I stopped trying so hard to cater to toxic people and instead presented myself and my truth as I wanted them to be known. My doxxing spree was an enormous purging of rage that had built up in me across two-and-a-half decades. In the process, I uncovered abuses I had never spoken about, instances I’d let slide, out of fear no one would listen. Maybe no one did, but I still said it.
I went hard with anti-rape activism for another month and started getting closer to other survivors, listening to their stories, and trying to help tell them.
Suddenly, I found myself struggling to juggle my own story on top of the stories of women around me, plus the eventual addition of celebrity stories that would come out during the #metoo movement, which started one month after my doxxing spree.
One night, after an acquaintance told me a two-hour rape story, I had a breakdown that brought me to the floor and under a table, where I started spitting and speaking in tongues. It took me two full days to recover from the emotional exhaustion. Once again, I’d gone too far.
Both my extremely patient boyfriend and my therapist agreed that I’d gone off the deep end and needed to reel myself back in. I had to take a break from public truth-telling, they said. I’d gotten to a point where I was retraumatizing myself through other people’s stories instead of focusing on healing my own. I was creating new wounds on top of unhealed scar tissue.
I took a few months off from telling the truth, but the rage never left me. In fact, I was angrier than ever. Without an outlet, I turned to food to quell the pain. I started gaining weight. I stopped leaving the house. What I needed was a way to speak my truth.
In December, four months after moving back to Minneapolis, I picked up the draft of my memoir that I’d put away almost a year prior, shortly after leaving my earlier abuser. After two months of angry silence, I was ready to reclaim the book in my new life. I finished the rough draft within a few weeks, then the second, then the third. I felt more connected to my teenage self than ever like I was finally starting to heal her.
And then things went to shit.
Our tiny studio apartment had a mold problem and a landlord problem and at the end of March, we had to move out. The work I’d been putting into my book was replaced with frantic apartment hunting, then packing, then a month of floating around from friends houses to hotels, with plenty of explosions along the way. I lost two friends in the whirlwind of stress, which was an enormous blow to the feelings of stability I felt I had established.
I was back to repeating my mantra from the year prior.
“I’ll be dead by 27. There’s literally nothing left for me.”
I tried picking up my memoir draft a few weeks after the move, but it didn’t feel right. I even got color-coded folders to divide the various parts of my drafts, but it wasn’t enough to entice me. My book was unfamiliar and cold, as though the words weren’t really mine. Whoever they belonged to, I didn’t like them.
I was back at the low end of my cycle.
In May, after a month of floating from North Minneapolis to Richfield, we moved to a cabin on a hobby farm 45 minutes outside of Minneapolis. It took me months to feel human again. I was lonely and deeply ashamed of my failures and lost friendships. I felt I’d lost everything: my home, my family, my friends, my creative outlet, my sanity. For a long time, I couldn’t produce anything.
In the absence of creating my own art, I listened to music. I especially loved a Swedish rapper named Yung Lean, whose story involved a severe drug-induced breakdown that led him to move to the countryside for two months to recover. I listened to his music as I plodded around the pasture in my mud boots, planting little seeds and starters in my first adulthood attempt at gardening.
“When I’m afraid I lose my mind. It’s fine, it happens all the time,” he’d sing through my back pocket.
Listening to his music, I remembered how cathartic and how necessary it was for me to channel my truth through something creative.
I tried a few different outlets. I wrote a handful of stories for the local alt-weekly about goat yoga and my missing boot, but fluff writing wasn’t cutting it. I tried restarting my retired blog, but that didn’t feel right either. I was back to the drawing board.
For the past couple of years, I’ve dedicated most of my free evenings to watching YouTube videos. When I was trapped in a trauma bond, I turned to beauty gurus to ease my mind. I watched their makeup tutorials to fall asleep and practiced their techniques during the day, locking myself in the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to interact with my abusive boyfriend.
A year into my YouTube journey, I landed on what can only be described as a cross between vlogging and reality TV — content by creators like Shane Dawson, Jenna Marbles, Emilia Fart, and Safiya Nygaard. Emilia and Shane, especially, showed me the potential in being vulnerable and flawed on camera. Despite, or perhaps because of, their imperfections, people were watching their videos. Shane and Emilia aren’t LA plastic — they’re weird, inappropriate, and unconventionally attractive — and that’s exactly why fans love them.
“What?” I thought. “There’s a place — a platform, even — for loud, uncensored, and mentally confused people? This is exactly what I need.”
But I didn’t know a thing about making videos. I knew how to talk to myself, sure — I’d been narrating my own private cooking shows since the dawn of time. But I’d never worked with cameras or editing software or lights or literally anything pertaining to video. YouTube still felt like a far cry from my capabilities.
In July 2018, a year after I was assaulted in my Phoenix apartment, I woke up and thought, once again: “I’m not going to make it past my 20s.” But instead of doing what I would normally do — wallowing in the feelings and ignoring my responsibilities — I got my ass out of bed, marched to my office, and dug through my set of plastic drawers.
There, I found the Logitech webcam I’d bought on Amazon a year prior in another moment of desperation. I’d failed at my corporate job after just three months of work. Certain that my only option was to return to prostitution, I bought the webcam for Chaturbate, a popular camming site. I used it just a few times before realizing that the amount of anxiety and self-hatred it generated wasn’t worth the few bucks I made in exchange for exploiting myself.I used it just a few times before realizing that the amount of anxiety and self-hatred it generated wasn’t worth the few bucks I made in exchange for exploiting myself. Click To Tweet
I put the camera away.
But then a year later, I found myself mounting it to my laptop again for different reasons. I opened Photobooth and filmed my first video, called “PTSD is ruining my life,” at my desk, not even bothering to put pants on. I sat in my swivel chair wearing an oversized t-shirt and underwear, no makeup, no hairbrush through my hair.
With bruised-looking eyes and faded orange hair, I rambled for ten minutes about an assortment of things like life in the country, mental health diagnoses, and the general awfulness of PTSD. I didn’t edit the video, just posted it on my channel in its pantsless glory. And then people started responding. . . relating . . . reviving me.
I kept making videos. I developed a schedule: two videos per week, posted at 2 pm on Tuesday and Thursdays I got better at editing. I still use an iPhone and iMovie with some vintage lamps for lighting, but my setup is proficient. The point is that I have a forum to the tell the truth openly, in ways I haven’t been able to before. I’m able to address my audience face-to-face, to make eye contact and to reveal the reality of my mental health diagnoses in a more tangible way than ever before.
In my videos, I reveal everything. I show myself sobbing, maniacally laughing, dumping water on my head to revive myself from dissociative episodes. I talk about my mental breakdowns, trauma anniversaries, and that time I was a total slut in Europe. It’s like writing with less hiding. I can’t conceal my pain in poetry when people are watching. YouTube has forced me to be completely real with myself and with those around me.
My videos have also helped me reconnect with people who haven’t seen me since my mental health started deteriorating in 2015. I think many assumed I’d gone batshit crazy and couldn’t conduct myself properly. When I started making videos, I found I was able to articulate myself in ways I can’t do in person. I go into a trance when I’m recording and the truth falls out of me like tears at a wedding, much like when my hands did the typing during my doxxing spree. And once I finish recording, I feel like a massive sense of relief, like I’ve (sometimes quite literally) sweated all the negativity out of me.
Over and over again, telling the truth saves my life. Whether it’s on camera, in writing, or to a close friend, the relief of vulnerability is crucial to my survival and recovery. When we let poison build within us, it will eventually spill out or destroy us. I choose to spit it out and my hope with my channel is that it gives others a safe place to do the same.Over and over again, telling the truth saves my life. Whether it’s on camera, in writing, or to a close friend, the relief of vulnerability is crucial to my survival and recovery. Click To Tweet
I encourage everyone to find some way to tell the truth, to purge it rather than allowing it to consume you. Write in a journal, take notes on your phone, record videos, write songs, make art, make out — just let it go, somewhere, somehow. In doing so, you’ll realize you never had anything to be ashamed of; we’ve all been perfectly flawed this whole time.
The truth may not fully free you, but it can damn well save your life.
Find Leif on YouTube for more great content…