This SHERO story may catch you by surprise, to look at Courtney Kessenich’s picture, Mrs. DC International 2019, you would imagine that she has it all together and that life was probably easy growing up but that is the furthest from the truth. Life growing up as a young girl started out great until it took a very dark turn, and abuse came as a right hook that left Courtney grasping for answers. In an effort to help abused women around the world she shared her story in a recent interview shedding light on what it is like to live a life with anxiety disorders.
Me: Tell me Courtney, what was life like for you growing up as a child?
Courtney: Life started out pretty normal, my Mother was a stay at home Mom and my Father was a police officer. My parents were both very supportive and loving.
Me: So when did life start to take a turn for you?
Courtney: My mother had gotten sick with cervical cancer and died, I was 7 years old, that’s when things started to turn. While my Mom was sick and in the hospital my Father did the noble thing to support all the expenses, he added extra shifts to his schedule and since he was gone a lot I moved in with my Grandmother; it was just her and I. My Grandmother was very loving and supportive and my Dad would stop by every day to see me and at times would take me to the hospital to see my mother. The experience of losing my mother was very traumatic. There are triggers that remind me of that moment like when my 2 front teeth fell out it was while she was having her head shaved from chemotherapy. My mom was sick for about 2 years before she died. Although I was young I remember it like yesterday.
Me: Did you end up moving back in with your father after your Mom died?
Courtney: Yes, I moved back 6 months later when he retired from the police department. My Dad ended up getting remarried when I was 9 years old and that’s when life became dark. If you are familiar with the term Mommy Dearest that is the best way I can describe my stepmother. She was emotionally and physically abusive; everything had to be perfect from cleaning the house to how you put forks in the drawers and clothes on the hangers. If things weren’t positioned just right she would beat me and she called me every adult name in the book – cu**, bitch, etc. it was as if she went into an uncontrollable rage hitting me with extension cords and anything she could get her hands on. One time she grabbed me by my ponytail, pulled me to the ground, stood on my chest and spit in my face, I was 10 years old. My Dad never had a concept of what was going on, she never left marks on my face or anywhere visible so I hid it for almost 6 years before I spoke out.
Me: Why did you keep this a secret for so long?
Courtney: She would tell me that my Dad didn’t love me and manipulate and brainwash me. I was young and confused. She used to tell me, “You’ll never amount to anything and you’ll never go anywhere.” There were so many hurtful things said I have memory block on a lot of it. This of course triggered a lot of over compensation on my part. I felt like I had to be perfect in every way so I excelled in school and if I didn’t get an A+ on something I would cry. I graduated high school with a 4.0 and I was Valedictorian, I felt I had to be the best at everything.
Me: How did you cope with all of this? I wouldn’t have wanted to go home.
Courtney: Exactly, I didn’t want to go home! There were times when I would ask my friends every weekend if I could spend the night and I got in trouble a few times because people would go to my Dad and he would tell me, “You can’t ask people if you can spend the night at their house, that’s not appropriate.” But he didn’t know what was going on.
Me: So you were hypersensitive for 6 years, how did you eventually tell your Dad when you were locked in fear?
Courtney: I think I was 14 at the time, my step-mother slapped me in the face and I ran out of the house and my father was coming in the door from where he was working at the time and I had a red hand mark on my face, he said, “What just happened?” I said, “My step-mother hit me!” He said, “What? Stay here!” He went in and then he never left me alone with her again and then they got divorced just a short time later. I got very close with my Dad after that and I moved out when I was 19 to attend college. But the haunting of the abuse followed me as I have to this day severe anxiety. There are times when I still don’t feel that I am good enough.
Me: Describe what it is like to have severe anxiety.
Courtney: There are times when I didn’t sleep at all during a 24-hour period when I was in High School. I now know that’s classic anxiety. I experienced panic attacks to the point where when I was on the USA state stage confident and independent with a new job and a Masters degree, very quickly I became debilitated where I couldn’t even speak in a meeting, my turning point was when I had a sports injury and I needed to go to the emergency room and I had a panic attack, I crawled under the covers in my bed sobbing I couldn’t even take myself to the emergency room because I was too scared, I was 24 years old at the time. To top it all off my Dad passed away that same year. He died from alcoholism that took me by surprise; I would have never guessed this about my Dad. I remember there were times when he didn’t sleep all night but the signs were not apparent that it was due to him staying up drinking. He seemed fine on the outside but he wasn’t able to cope with everything that had happened on the inside, he hid his wounds from me well. I have been through so much trauma.
Me: So what are you doing today to help with the anxiety disorder?
Courtney: I found a physician when I was living in Houston and that’s when I was first diagnosed with the disorder. Prior to that I was living for 3 years with severe anxiety in silence. The monumental thing for me is when in that appointment he took a textbook off the shelf, sat on the couch with me, opened it and told me to read the definition. He said, “Look you are a text book, you are a normal person.” That really resonated with me. I no longer felt that I was crazy. Every since then I have been working to find what formula works best for me so I could find my way back. It took me about 9 years. I have been through all different kinds of medicine. I am now 35 years old and I no longer need a daily medication. I have taken a strong liking to spin class (like soul cycling) it helps me burn the extra energy in my body, it has made a huge difference in my life. I also read the book The Secret and that was life changing for me! My anxiety would cause me to focus on worst-case scenarios like; I’m getting into the car so I’m probably going to get in a wreck. In The Secret they talked about how 2 people who have the same cancer survive differently, the one with the positive mindset heals quicker. So I made a conscious decision to change the thoughts in my head. I still get anxious in stressful situations but that book changed my life as I now switch to positive thoughts in those stressful moments.
I also met my husband when we were working for the same company in Texas and I got the right support system in place. All of this has worked together for my greater good.
Me: How have you transformed your pain into your platform to positively impact the world today?
Courtney: I got healthy with spin class and mind set changes, I switched to eating Vegan and I entered pageants. By winning Mrs. DC International 2019, it has given me a platform to publicly share my story, when I first shared my story people came up to me and said, “I can’t believe someone as pretty as you would feel any sense of insecurity.” It was an opportunity to show people to not judge a book by the cover, just because I’m pretty doesn’t mean I am free of real life struggles. This gave me courage to share my story more as I realized I was helping others. I have launched my Hope For Invisible Wounds initiative, which is a campaign to promote resources for people that are suffering from anxiety due to trauma and I do story telling on my blog Spinning Through Life for other people so they can share their stories of healing. I have also partnered with World Federation For Mental Health and we are about to start an initiative to put a suicide prevention plan in every country in the world.
Me: Are there some final words of encouragement that you would like to leave readers with?
Courtney: People don’t think that I have a problem because of the way that I look on the outside because my illness and wounds are invisible. Just because I wear a crown and a sash doesn’t mean I don’t have my struggles. When you have anxiety, depression, bipolar, or PTSD you can be debilitated and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand. So be kind to others and remember that everyone has a story.
I would agree with Courtney’s closing statement, there are 40 million adults in the USA over the age of 18 that are suffering from anxiety disorders according to the American and Depression Association of America and they are the most common form of mental illness in the U.S. Although the disorder is highly treatable, “Only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.” As Courtney mentioned, “They are invisible wounds.” By keeping this at the forefront of our minds it’s a great reminder to open our hearts and spread extra love so the world becomes a brighter space one person at a time.
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The #SHEROproject will include stories of SHEROS from around the world. In an effort to support our thriving SHEROS, there is a panel that will be selecting the most inspirational story for the 2019 SHERO of the year award, which will be announced on 12/1/2019.
The SHERO of the year award winner will receive a 4-day/3-night retreat at 1440 Multiversity. An opportunity to explore their potential in an environment like no other; get away for rejuvenating downtime and immersion learning on their state-of-the-art campus in the redwoods of Scotts Valley, CA and experience the perfect blend of learning, vacation, and space for reflection.
1440 Multiversity is a place to experience time differently—exploring what matters, while surrounding yourself with fresh air, delicious food, many ways to unwind, and opportunities to connect with yourself and others. SHERO, during your stay, you can look forward to daily 1440 specialty classes such as yoga, meditation, qi gong and Pilates. Or enjoy hiking in the 75 acres of redwood forest surrounding the campus and finish off your day with a soak in their signature infinity tub.
The creation of 1440 Multiversity stemmed from a desire to establish a beautiful and nurturing physical location where people of all walks of life could come together in community—to explore, learn, reflect, connect, and reenergize.
Also, each SHERO featured will receive a relaxing mix of Nectar Bath Treats’ most popular bath and body treats. Nectar Bath Treats is a cruelty free bath & body company that creates bakery inspired treats for deliciously smooth skin. Their delightful handmade treats range from adorable cupcake soaps and milkshake inspired coconut milk bath soaks to stress blasting bath bombs, all natural sugar body scrubs, ice cream shaped bubble bath scoops and so much more. If you need to relax after a long day or give yourself smoother more kissable skin, Nectar Bath Treats has you covered head to toe. Each treat is handmade with love by their team of professional soap artisans and skin care specialists for skin so soft and smooth you’ll swear you just left a luxury spa treatment.
Each featured SHERO will also receive a Rustic Cuff representing Joy & Courage. Celebrities such as Miranda Lambert, Giuliana Rancic, Kristin Chenoweth and Gayle King to name a few, wear founder Jill Donovan’s designs. Her bracelets have been featured on a multitude of national talk shows and in magazines including Elle, People, In Style, etc. For Jill it’s all about the inspired connection that is made between two people.
The SHEROs will also receive a candle by Sugarboo and Co…Dealers in Whimsy, reminding them that they are a light in the world. Sugarboo believes in putting good out into the world whenever possible. Their hope is that each Sugarboo piece sent out into the world will add a little good! Rebecca Puig’s (artist and owner) inspirations are family, nature, animals, old things, children’s art and folk art. She loves juxtaposing old and new, light and dark, serious subject matter with fluff and anything with a message! Sugarboo’s Motto is “Put Good Things into the World”!
Each featured SHERO will receive a private invitation to The B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. Foundation annual Gala in Las Vegas 2/8/2020 where they will be interviewed on the red carpet. B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. foundation’s mission is to provide resources needed to support, sustain and empower young girls and women under the age of 25 who have been abused, abandoned, and exploited. We intend to accomplish this mission by bringing other agencies with similar missions together and being a resource center for these organizations.