Sarah sits cross-legged on the floor of her college dorm room. Three hundred jigsaw pieces lie face up in front of her on the industrial carpeted room. Completed animal puzzles hang proudly on her walls foreshadowing the unfinished jigsaw’s fate. Her swinging pigtails dance in unison with her hand and eyes as they scan over the top of each piece, one at a time. From the far side of the puzzle-mosaic she spots the elusive piece to her puzzle. She stretches, reaching for it, exposing 40 self-made three-inch cuts running the length of her forearm.
“I’m not the sweet little innocent blind girl that a lot of people think I am.” Appearances can be deceiving. Sarah can be seen smiling ear to ear throughout her day with a constant giggle, a reflection of her humor and playfulness. Fellow students have seen her breaking into random dance moves to spread some joy to the people around her. Sarah says she feels “people want to change her,” so she creates a jovial facade to guard herself. “I’m happy with who I am, I really don’t need other people’s opinions.”
Who is Sarah? The freshman Early Childhood Special Education major was born legally blind 19 years ago. Her mother committed suicide when she was six, which left Sarah and her sister alone with an abusive father until they were removed from his care when Sarah was 12. She has been diagnosed with clinical depression, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. “You see it in a lot of soldiers that are coming back from the war. I came back from a war, just not the one in Iraq.”
And yet, despite it all, Sarah is studying to become a schoolteacher. What keeps her going? Three things seem to help her cope with her past: puzzles, art and cutting slashes into her arm.
Sarah sees with one good eye and one prosthetic eye, the result of a disastrous surgery at age two that left her with no depth perception and around 20/500 sight. She sees through one-half inch thick lenses set in gold oval-rimmed frames that either sit high on her face or low on her nose. She doesn’t have much trouble reading normal print or text messages on her cell phone because she just slides the glasses down her nose and looks through them like a magnifying glass. This is also how she approaches her puzzle work.
As Sarah works the pieces on her floor, 14 various-sized puzzles ranging from a 60-piece hedgehog, to a poster-sized 1,000-piece abstract horse scene liven up her walls. Safari animals, vibrant seascapes and dolphins hang completed, glued and framed around the room. “I hang them on my wall because I don’t want to ever take them apart and put them back together again.”
Sarah could well say the same about her family. Child Protective Services (CPS) removed Sarah and her sister from their abusive father’s care seven years after their mother’s suicide. Six months later they were given a choice to live with their father or their grandparents. Sarah chose the latter but her sister went back home to their dad. Sarah continued to spend weekends with her grandparents while she continued her education at a state school for the blind. “My Grandpa and I really connected.” She says he is the only real father figure in her life. “We had a lot of grandpa-granddaughter connections.”
Sarah calls her grandparents once a week, but only speaks to her father on the few occasions he contacts her. After CPS’s removal, Sarah’s sister lived with a foster family for two years before returning home again to her father, where she currently lives.
“Broken hearts are the pain I feel for the loss of a family I never had,” Sarah says, describing one of her drawings. “I always wanted a mother’s love but I’ve never even had a mother.” She keeps an 8-by-10 inch black spiral art drawing book tucked away in a drawer of a desk. Inside the pages Sarah shares with almost no one are pencil drawings of simple yet powerful scenes. At first glance her pictures look like cheerful children’s book illustrations where pencil mark sketches have been softly colored in with crayons. But a closer look finds one page has “R.I.P.” etched on a lonely grey gravestone representing the death of her mom. On another, a dripping bloody knife represents Sarah. “I have a lot of really aggressive, really depressing pictures.”
Drawings are not the only art form Sarah uses for therapy. An inspirational music teacher helped her find a love for music at an early age. She enjoys playing the piano and continues to takes music classes even as an adult. Sarah feels “a lot of special needs children, especially early on, get cast aside, ”but this music teacher didn’t give up on me.”
Sarah carried that dedication over to her own students as a preschool teacher’s assistant at the school for the blind. Hanging on her wall is a hand-made laminated poster-board filled with photographs reminding her of the handicapped children she taught. “I enjoy these pictures, they make me smile. They make me feel good about myself. Telling me if they can do it so can I.” She worked with the young students on mobility and problem solving. “I liked watching them grow, I like watching their progress.” One of the girls she met was extremely limited in what she could do. When Sarah left for graduation the girl had progressed significantly. “I enjoy working with these children, and I want to help other children just like them.” Her time spent as a teacher’s assistant made an impact and guided her to make education her career. Significantly, she says it was also the only time in her life when she stopped cutting herself.
Sarah started performing a form of self-injury called “cutting” when she was in the 7th grade. Some males are cutters but it’s mostly young girls who start in their early teens. “The reason they cut is to feel something. A lot of them feel numb to the world.” Sarah isn’t sure the reason she started but she believes it was when her sister started her downward spiral battling bipolar disorder. When Sarah cuts, “it calms the demons, stops the voices, stops the pain…. the physical pain counteracts the emotional ones.”
During her first quarter at college, a student noticed five or six fresh cuts on her arm and reported Sarah to Student Affairs. “I had a lot of issues adjusting to college life, and there are things you can and cannot do here that I was not aware of.” Her college student handbook sates that anyone who is “recklessly engaging in conduct which creates a substantial risk of physical harm to any person” is in violation of the Student Conduct Code. She was brought in for a hearing and an evaluation. She had to forfeit the scissors in her room and was required to attend four mandatory counseling sessions. “You can’t do that here. You can get expelled for that, and I almost did.”
She has challenged herself not to cut herself anymore so she may graduate and become a special education teacher. “My past made me who I am. I want to make it so other people in my situation have a support system and have someone who understands and can help.” Sarah is optimistic about her future. She has even thought about writing a book to share her experiences with others. It would be about her “struggles being a visually impaired person, and how I worked through them, and became the successful person I want to be.” Sarah wears her mental and physical scars like a badge of honor from the battles she’s endured.
“I like to show my scars. It shows that I survived. It’s my past, it’s my present, it’s my future all in one.”
—Name and places have been generalize to protect identity—