Editor’s Note: We love to showcase work of people in the TLA Network and broader community. This is the TEDx talk given by one of our members and presenters, Amy Oestreicher. Amy has also written for the blog, here.
Editor’s Note: Amy has written for us before, and her story is a powerful one. With the Power of Words Conference coming in two weeks, we asked her to share more. We will also post her TEDx talk within the next week.
Bringing Gutless & Grateful to the Transformative Language Arts Network Conference last year was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I couldn’t be happier to be presenting again this year! In my workshop, I’m sharing my near death experience and unique personal story with humor, hunger and heart, and helping others realize their potential as storytellers who can heal through their own word and powerful personal stories.
I’ve presented this workshop on college campus, at conferences, theatres, hospitals, and many other audiences from Hawaii to Pennsylvania, to survivors of sexual assault to business entrepreneurs, medical professionals to law students. Everyone has a story to tell – some of us just don’t know it yet! Once we discover this, it’s incredibly empowering, and my greatest joy is watching people realize this for themselves.
From the time I could remember, I have always possessed an intense passion for the world of words and music. All my life, I had dreamed of pursuing a career in theatre. However, at 18, I was rushed to the ER, and to summarize very briefly, my stomach exploded, I was in a coma for six months, and I was unable to eat or drink a drop of water for over three years. After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconnected with whatever I had left. However, to persevere through those tumultuous years took great inner and outer strength. I relied on my creativity to get through. My therapy was purely based in the world of theatre, art, writing, dance, music, and whatever else I felt was an area that I could express myself appropriately. The arts were a way for me to express whatever felt too painful and overwhelming to put into words. They also helped me process what I was feeling. But most importantly, they served to be the greatest reward acting as a medium where I could still engage with my community, reach out to others, and make a difference in this world while utilizing my passion. Arts were my way of connecting with the world, sharing my story, and spreading my message of hope, strength, and finding beauty in whatever life brings you.
I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world. But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell. Until I could put into words what had happened to me, I couldn’t fully heal. Telling my story is the magic push I needed to move forward, and that is what inspired me to bring my workshop to TLAN for the second year in a row: to help others bring out the story burgeoning inside of them.
As actors, writers, creators, humans, we tell stories constantly. I first told mine over four years ago. Not only to myself, but to complete strangers and New York theatre-goers. Fresh out of my 27th surgery, I performed words from journal entries I wrote years ago as a way to pass the time between the endless series of medical interventions. Every time I “perform” what happened to me, I find myself somehow transformed in the process. Theatre has the power to change lives, both for those directly involved and those who watch. Theatre teaches us we’re capable of anything – and usually tells us this at times we need it most.
I’m truly touched by how my story has affected so many people and it only serves to spur on my creativity more and more. Even on the more difficult days, knowing I can have an impact is just one extra nudge to get me going in the morning.
It’s really the ability to give back, and to have my work serve as a lens, a mirror, a window that others can look through, or look into, and see themselves or whatever they need to see at that moment. To feel whatever they need to feel. That’s how I connect with my world – that is my aliveness. As a member of this human race, it’s how I can contribute. Isn’t all we ever want: to make a mark on the world?
“Gutless & Grateful,” the honest one-woman musical story of my life. It’s my story, shared through a medium I’m passionate about. I was finally able to heal and move on once I was able to share, and now I’m so excited to help others share the story within them in whatever medium that they feel most comfortable in.
Why share at all? It takes “guts” to talk — and sing — about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience. I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours,” we see that our detours are not detours at all. Every road leads somewhere — we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our stories, the more we realize we’re not alone.
Through the transformative power of words, we can all share our stories. I can’t wait to hear yours!
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright, sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.
As the creator of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses.
To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others thrive through difficulties.
As Eastern Regional Recipient of Convatec’s Great Comebacks Award, she’s contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others.
She has devised workshops for conferences nationwide, and is this year’s keynote speaker for the Hawaii Pacific Rim International Conference on Diversity and Disability. Learn more: amyoes.com.
Trauma affects every individual differently. In the face of adversity, drama therapy makes healing possible for all, re-anchoring us in our soul’s dream.
For me, that dream was musical theatre.
Let me rephrase that. I grew up assuming my life was a musical. Call it the “theatre bug”, call me a “drama queen” or a great big ham – I lived for the world of the stage. For me, singing and acting were ways I could connect with the world around me. When I took a deep, grounded breath from my gut, I sang what my heart longed to express. I found comfort in the words of my favorite composers. I read scripts like they were novels. I would play with my playbills from various shows I had seen like they were my Barbie dolls. Through theatre, I had a place in this world. I could make believe by inserting myself into characters from every era, situation and mindset, while still expressing my own individuality.
I was the kid who got sent to the principal’s office because when the teacher left the room, I would jump on her desk and start tap-dancing. I was the girl who forced every unwilling classmate to join me in a Les Miserables medley, assigning them their designated parts to pass the 30-minute school bus ride.
Even all the way up to high school, I was the theatre-girl. It was my identity, my passion, my livelihood. I sacrificed my social life and gave up many opportunities to immerse myself in what I loved.
I’ve always been warned not to put all of my eggs in one basket, but theatre ran through my veins – it was all I thought about, lived and dreamed. I’d write songs in my assignment notebook as I waited for the school bell to ring, then hop on the train to the next open call I’d read about in Backstage. When I fought with my brothers, I could only debate with them if we could do in the spirit of a musical theatre duet. They weren’t so keen on that.
So what do you do when you’ve invested everything into your passion and you can’t follow it anymore? I’ve always thought about what would a world-concert pianist would do if he injured his hand, or a dancer breaking a leg…
…but sprains heal and wounds can eventually mend. Dire circumstances felt much more long lasting; when at 18 I awoke from a coma. Although the medical staff—that suddenly became everyday faces—was more concerned about keeping my organs and me alive, I was still trying to grapple with one frightening new concern:
Would I ever be able to sing and dance on stage again?
With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. From months of bed-rest, the first time I was able to stand up, I was alarmed at how they trembled, as if my legs were Jell-O. I lost the energy to even think about what I loved, and being unable to eat or drink in these new medical circumstances turned my once-steady focus to mush and irritability.
I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic “I don’t knows”, sighs, shrugs, and awkward changing of the topic. However, I remember one occupational therapist gave me words that to her, felt like words of encouragement. She looked at me compassionately, and said, “You never know – the human body is amazing. I had one patient who showed no signs of hope, and a year later, when he was discharged, he only needed a wheelchair!” (These were not exactly the words of encouragement I was looking for.)
With time, patience, and dogged determination, I was eventually discharged from the hospital. What I’m glossing over are the multitudes of surgeries, setbacks and frustrations, because what was the most important was my passion – I never forgot how I missed the stage. Even not being able to talk or stand up on my own, I still visualized me singing and dancing. Without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that’s not always the prettiest or easiest way. It was an extremely difficult journey, yet when I started to put together a musical of my life, things felt like they had happened for a reason. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.
My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs—some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
With no formal diagnosis, roadmap, or reason to have hope at all, creativity became my lifeline and what allowed me to thrive. Devising theatre from within helped me find words for the loss, grief, and frustration I felt, and words led to gratitude. To cope with not being able to eat or drink for years, I typed thousands of journal entries to to prove that I was still alive, kicking, and breathing – isolated from the entire world and from my entire former life, but still here, and still desperate to live some kind of substantial, meaningful life.
I called it my “world in a binder”. My parents called it “Amy’s little play.” It was no surprise when I had many looks of concern and gentle warnings when I decided to book a theatre in New York for my world premiere!
I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything – the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating – with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and moved by my own struggles.
My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical – the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die. Although my circumstances were unexpected, a nuisance, difficult, hard to grapple with, and frustrating, by reenacting my story for others, I rewrote my own narrative.
We are instinctively creative beings. Through the transformative power of dramatherapy, we gain adaptability and create a positive, empowered attitude toward obstacles, physical or mental struggles, hardships, and trauma. Our vision is a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings.
As we enter the new millennium, the world is faced with massive challenges as well as opportunities to solve them. Communication is a very powerful tool. Words have the power to engage, to move ideas from the fuzzy margins to the focused center of our attention, and to inspire us to think in new ways. Theatre, arts, expressive communication, language, and learning can move us to the center of life’s stage. Gutless & Grateful empowered me to move forward and spark a sense of rejuvenation, renewal, and hope from within.
When I started sharing my own story, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Other people were struggling with what I had faced in isolation for years – shame, fear, PTSD, anxiety, depression, loneliness- I wanted to encourage people to start speaking up, and bring marginalized voices into the spotlight. I traveled to theatres, hospitals, classrooms, old friends and leaped at any opportunity to speak my truth and feel it resonate within my body, reintegrating the pre-coma and post-coma halves of myself, and reuniting them with aliveness. When I realized how combining theatre with powerful firsthand experience could transform lives, I developed my little-show-that-could into a mental health advocacy and sexual assault prevention program for students. Nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives.
Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my show – if we can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we can’t learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive – that just as trees grow, change and evolve with every season, I can too. Through Gutless & Grateful, I’m sharing my story and helping others find the gifts and the gratitude in the hardships. And in healing other people, I heal my own self a bit more every day. I’m not there yet, but just like my show – I’m on the road.
As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. That is the power of theatre – stirring you to see things differently. Doing what I love, my passion once again can freely flow through my veins, and I’m a person now, not just a patient or a medical miracle.
Passion may not heal 27 surgeries, but passion has healed my heart. Theatre has re-anchored me in that passion. And for that, I am Gutlessly Grateful.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, speaker for RAINN, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright, eagerly sharing the lessons learned from trauma through her writing, performance, art and speaking. As the writer, director and star of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres across the country, earning rave reviews and accolades since it’s BroadwayWorld Award-nominated NYC debut.
As a visual artist, her works have been featured in esteemed galleries and solo exhibitions, and her mixed media workshops emphasize creativity as an essential mindset.
Amy’s “beautiful detour” inspired her to create the #LoveMyDetour movement, a campaign inspiring people to flourish because of, rather than in spite of challenges. As the Eastern Regional Recipient of the Great Comebacks Award, Amy has spoken to hundreds of WOCN nurses on behalf of ostomates nationwide. She is a regular lifestyle, wellness, and arts contributor for several notable online and print publications, and has written for over 50 online magazines and blogs. on Her story has appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, among others.
Amy’s passion for the arts as a means of healing and expression led her to devise storytelling workshops for the Transformative Language Arts Network National Conference, the Eating Recovery Center Foundation, and The League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling.
Determined to bridge the gap of communication between wellness resources on college campuses and students, Amy is currently touring college campuses with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre.
More info at amyoes.com