Not all of us can identify what we want to do in life at the age of five.
For Aria, it was easy.
“I wanted to be a performer.”
“Performing arts was my life. I didn’t have anything else that gave me that feeling of home, of acceptance, of this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Whether it was acting, dancing, ballet or playing music, it didn’t matter.
But what 27-year old Aria knows that 5-year old Aria didn’t is that it’s never just been about performing.
For the best part of those 22 years, the stage has been an escape.
Casting her mind back, Aria can’t identify a time when she didn’t feel anxious.
“Anxiety didn’t seem like anything unusual,” she says. “It just seemed like my normal life.”
“I was four when I first remember pulling my hair out, from my head, eyebrows and eyelashes. You have to have control some way and that was the only way I knew how.”
What Aria describes is a condition known as Trichotillomania. It brings an urge to pull hair out and is associated with heightened levels of anxiety.
When primary school began, it didn’t take Aria long to realise she was a little different.
“I liked old-school musicals and I dressed alternatively,” she says. “I just never followed the norm. When I tried, I didn't feel like myself.”
The bullying started in grade two, on Valentine's Day. Aria remembers it like it was yesterday.
"We all got someone's name out of a hat and you had to write a card to them," she says.
"I remember receiving my card and I opened it, and the person had written a Jenny Craig voucher."
"It's something I'll never forget. I'm 27 and Valentine's Day still sucks."
With her entry to high school came hopes for a fresh start. They didn’t last long.
“That’s when the physical bullying started,” Aria says.
And, for the next five years, it never really stopped. Some 15 years on, tears still fill Aria’s eyes when she recalls the start and finish to each school day.
“Every morning and every afternoon, it was a 45-minute bus trip,” she says. “That was hell.”
“There’s no escape on a bus. You have to sit with these people who hate you and would do anything to see you cry.”
She found it nearly impossible to fall asleep at night. She’d lie awake, replaying the events of that day, overwhelmed by the helpless feeling that tomorrow would be the same.
“I was starting to lose all my eyelashes, eyebrows and most of the hair on the back of my head. Every day before school I was in the mirror having to draw my eyebrows on, as I’d pulled every single hair out.”
Fortunately, she had two pillars of support at home – her mum and her nan.
With them by her side, and the escape that performing arts provided, she managed to push through the ordeal of high school.
Until eventually, it became too much.
In the final weeks of year 10, the bullying had reached a point where Aria no longer felt safe at school. Her family moved her to a different school, only for her to find that the physical threats followed.
“There’s a part of that time that I actually don’t remember, because I just felt so numb,” she says.
Aria and her family made what felt like the only decision available – dropping out of school entirely.
The years that followed were the hardest for Aria.
While the trauma of attending school had been removed, so too had the opportunity to perform.
“My purpose up until that point was school and performing arts,” she says. “I had no reason to get up in the morning.”
And so she isolated herself, barely leaving the house. Her anxiety became a most constant companion, always on hand to highlight her shortcomings.
A year after leaving school, Aria became suicidal.
“I really did believe that the world, my family and other loved ones would have just been better without the burden of my life around them.”
Sometimes a turning point can spring in the most unlikely of moments. In this case, it came in the form of a question. Feeling as low as she ever had, Aria went to leave the house only to be stopped by her nan.
“She asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I broke.”
Her nan didn’t have any answers, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that she was there.
In her grandmother’s arms, Aria didn’t feel so alone.
“She held me for hours. She saved me.” With the help of her nan and mum, Aria saw a GP and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Hearing those two words came as no great surprise. But it did start her on a pathway to recovery.
She was also diagnosed with dyslexia, which came as both a relief and a sense of loss, as her schooling years had already passed by. For years she had felt that her inability to concentrate at school was her own fault.
“I felt like I had been cheated at a chance of being able to cope at school,” she says.
The next few years were focused on understanding her triggers and implementing ways to address them. There was the gym. Walks with mum. Meditation. Eating better. Sleeping better.
And eventually, she felt ready to return to what she had always felt she was supposed to be doing – performing.
Growing up, Aria had always loved watching wrestling on TV. Her favourite wrestler was Edge. He had a presence in and out of the ring that exuded a confidence Aria wished she had herself.
It was Aria’s mum who suggested she give wrestling a go. So she went down to a local wrestling gym and began training.
“It was physically and mentally the hardest but most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
It wasn’t just the training that kept Aria coming back. In the wrestling community she had found a sense of belonging that she’d never felt at school.
“You have to be a bit of an oddball to wrestle,” she says. “Being a wrestler is wearing spandex on a weekend and that’s not a normal Saturday night.”
"It’s a safe space for you to be yourself without judgement.”
Aria had her first professional match in 2017 and has been competing ever since.
The stage might be different to her early years. But the feeling is the same. The ring has become her sanctuary.
“The feeling of walking through the curtain erases the rest of your life,” she says. “In that moment it doesn’t matter. It feels breathtaking.”
“I get to be the real me.”
Aria accepts that she will need to manage mental health issues for the rest of her life.
“It is a constant in my life, but it is not who I am,” she says.
“That’s the best part about this crazy life journey. You can be and do unbelievable things and mental health doesn’t need to stop you from any of it.”
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