Discover more from Sarah Fay
Stories of Healing: Aquarius Ester
How we heal
This post is part of the accompanying tips, resources, interviews with experts, and stories of mental health recovery included in the exclusive serialization of Cured: The Memoir. Become a free subscriber and spread the word to make recovery the focus of our mental health system.
The idea that we never recover, or only a lucky few who land a TED Talk do, simply isn’t the case. There are so many stories to tell and be heard. To give a sense of how different recovery can look, I ask each person the same questions—with a few others thrown in.
Aquarius Ester is an experimental artist, Peer Support Specialist, clinical massage therapist, and Afro-Surrealist filmmaker from the Roseland/West Pullman neighborhoods of Chicago. I met Aquarius in the Mental Health Peer Support Specialist training offered by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). Aquarius is pure light. She exudes joy but also a certain grit.
Her devotion to helping others is palpable. Aquarius served as a Community Support at the Restorative Justice Community Court in North Lawndale and as a Street-Law-Corps member at First Defense Legal Aid. She’s taught the arts, police accountability, and community organizing workshops at several CPS locations. Her mission is to organize community programming that integrates the creative arts, harm reduction, plant medicine, movement therapy and clinical massage for individualized mental and physical healthcare options for Black and Brown Chicagoans.
Currently, she’s continuing her training as a Certified Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS) with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). As the founder of One of Many Healing Collective, a not-for-profit organization that offers creatively holistic harm reduction services to Chicago’s South and West sides, she merges her peer support, community advocacy, and artistic experience.
Read on to hear her story of recovery.
What started you on the road to recovery?
When I began having mental health difficulties, I never knew recovery was possible. No doctor ever mentioned the word to me, so I thought blackouts, panic attacks, mania, and depression were my life.
I began my road to recovery after attending one of many mandatory outpatient group sessions. I was prompted to write my feelings in a journal. Though I thought it was pointless and silly, I filled journal after journal with whatever intrusive poem, sketch, story or thought came to mind.
After a while, I began taking my writing more seriously and during a three-month manic phase, I wrote a fiction novel about a suicide-obsessed woman who frequents the psych ward due to child custody issues. It felt great to express my thoughts clearly. I felt so proud that I was able to publish the work. I have yet to read the book since proofing my final edit twelve years ago, but that experience thrust me into a beautiful life of journalism, visual artistry, acting, dance, special effects makeup, scriptwriting, producing, and directing.
I learned to use the insights I gained in therapy sessions to develop effective techniques for change all while making art. I learned that recovery is attainable and though hard, it can be creative, spiritual, and fun.
What does recovery look like for you?
Recovery looks like being faced with triggers and being able to take a breath, check in with my body, give my body what it needs, and use the appropriate tools needed to handle those triggers. Recovery is knowing when to ask for help, knowing when certain tools are no longer working, and how to find or develop new ones for the moment.
How have culture, identity, and trauma played a role in your recovery?
My identity as a sexually fluid, Black woman living in a systemically oppressive society made the beginning of my recovery journey hard and lonely. I faced many clinicians who simply saw me as a demographic and warned me how difficult my life would be after diagnosis. I experienced a psychiatrist using the N-word during my sessions, I was nearly coerced into accepting electroshock therapy and was shamed many times for sexual trauma. It took a lot of digging, internally and externally, to find loving, culturally specific care. I found myself wearing trauma like a shroud, and it was weighing me down.
Thankfully, I began to express myself through art and writing, leading me to find support from peers. And importantly, doing community service helped me to work towards creating change in my community, lessening the effects of systemic injustices.
What is one tool, resource, or tip that was fundamental to your healing?
Try as many *safe* things as possible. No matter how corny or silly. Try them all. You never know what will work for you unless you give it a go. Even your failures can be helpful for you or a peer later down the line.
Read the prequel to Cured!
Pathological (HarperCollins 2022) was an Apple Best Books pick, hailed in The New York Times as a “fiery manifesto of a memoir,” and named one of the sixteen best mental health memoirs to read by Parade Magazine. It was featured on NPR, Oprah Daily, Salon, Forbes, The Los Angeles Times, and more.
Read all available chapters of Cured.