I was a carefree little girl who made friends with everyone and anyone. My parents always said I came home with a new friend every day, no matter where we were. I remember being happy, never thinking I was different.

At ten, I started fifth grade. I had previously attended a Catholic school; this year, I started public school. New teachers, kids and schedule. I was terrified but with my neighborhood friends with me, I somehow felt safe. I remember getting to school; huge in my eyes, with kids everywhere. In that moment, I became a target. And in the same moment, my self-worth died.

Gym class; running on a track. “Ba-boom. Ba-boom.” Two boys chanting as I ran by. The weight of my body was enough, in their eyes, to cause an earthquake. I was called Megaton; teased and bullied relentlessly. Daily. By kids I thought were my friends. My “best friend” told me I would be prettier if I lost weight. When I tried to talk about my feelings, I was told I complained too much. So I stopped talking, and avoided going to school. I faked illnesses. My mom let me stay home for days. My parents told me to ignore what the bullies said but the bullies, my peers, spoke louder than my parents. I was so worried about what I looked like. I made myself throw up, stopped eating in front of people, binged and then starved myself for days. It went on until the day I graduated. A day that’s supposed to be full of excitement. Instead, I cried.

After that those bullies became my negative voices inside my head. They were with me in college, after college, during my first real relationship; they never left and I never talked about it. I met my true friends in college. They loved and accepted me as I was. Flaws and all. But it wasn’t enough to stop voices. I still wasn’t good enough and was desperate for the attention my friends were getting. So I took what I could get. The men I dated were abusive in one way or another. Telling me I wasn’t good enough or wasn’t thin enough or couldn’t hide my rolls enough.

2011. Another abusive relationship; emotionally, mentally and financially. But I had to make it work, no matter the cost. I put myself aside and lost who I was, unrecognizable to myself. I’d been diagnosed with major depressive disorder in college, prescribed medication, but never went counseling and hid my feelings instead. My money went to him, to make him happy, to appease him so he’d stay. I had a good job but couldn’t afford my meds. I was a mess, crying at work, not able to concentrate, and missed days at a time. I’d been upfront; my employer knew I was struggling and couldn’t afford my medications.

The week of my 35th birthday began a downward spiral. Monday I was having lunch with my colleagues and by Friday I was walked out the door. I’d been let go. I drove to my parents’ house, explained what had happened and that I’d have to move home. I was told I couldn’t be alone, so I opted to go to my sisters for the day. She offered to drive, but I decided to follow her. At the end of my parents’ street is the Mississippi River. I sat at the stop sign staring at the water. It would be so easy to end it. Drive straight into the river and it would all be over.

In that moment, one picture stuck with me. My beautiful 6-month-old niece. She was innocent and loved me unconditionally. With her, my own troubles melted away. I thought of her, and what my sister would have to tell her as she grew up about why her aunt was no longer there and it stopped me. I thought she deserved a fight. So I made a right turn that forever changed my life. I couldn’t fight for me because I was worthless in my eyes: another failed relationship, practically homeless and penniless. I had nothing left but I decided to fight for her.