Amy Oestreicher is an artist, writer, and influential speaker whose work is rooted in inspiration and built to be eclectic. From the visual arts to music to writing to education, she is foremost a storyteller.
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Read the transcript here:
Alice: Hi Amy.
Amy: Hey, how are you?
Alice: Good. Thank you so much for being on today.
Amy: It’s good to talk to you.
Alice: So hello everyone, I’m Alice the social media manager for Jubilance and today I’m talking with Amy Oestreicher. Amy is an artist, writer and influential speaker whose work is rooted in inspiration and built to be eclectic. From the visual arts to music to writing to education, she is foremost a story-teller and I first met Amy when we were working on a show together.
Amy: Yes. It’s great working with you. You directed a play inspired by my grandparents’ story so that’s where I know you from.
Alice: It’s amazing that we can talk today too then. I’m gonna go a little bit more into your bio because there’s so much there. So Amy overcame a decade of trauma to become a sought after PTSD specialist, artist, author, and writer for the Huffington Post. An international keynote speaker and health advocate. She’s given three TEDx talks on transforming trauma to creativity and her story has appeared on NBC’s Today, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and MSNBC among others. Amy has toured her autobiographical musical Gutless and Grateful to over 200 many venues from 54 below to Barrington Stage Company since its 2012 New York City debut as well as mental health program for colleges, conferences, and organizations. And you can read her new book out right now. My Beautiful Detour which chronicles her life. And Amy do you mind if I read what’s it about, the summary of your book?
Amy: Go ahead.
Alice: Okay. So My Beautiful Detour— Amy had ambitious plans for college and a Broadway career, until her stomach exploded the week before her senior prom. Months later, she awoke from a coma to learn that she might never be able to eat or drink again. After years on IV nutrition, her first bite of food awakened her senses to life’s ordinary miracles but also brought back memories of being sexually abused by a trusted mentor for months, just before the unexpected rush to the emergency room that fateful Passover night. With determination, imagination, relentless resilience, and an inner “hunger” for life, Amy created a roadmap where none existed. We’re so excited to have Amy on to talk with us today about how she’s overcome trauma, how her detour moved her on to this amazing path of creation that she’s on, and being a woman in the world!
Amy: Yeah. I’m excited.
Alice: We’re so happy to have you. So I just wanna start with some more fun questions. What’s your favorite tv show?
Amy: Oh my God. Favorite tv show. I mean is this bad that you’re talking about not being able to have food for years but I still love Chopped. I used to host Chopped parties. I’d have it like the real team and we would each get everyone a little mystery ingredient basket of like four foods, that you had to make a meal out of, for anyone that doesn’t know the show. When you open the basket it’s just a totally random combination, and the team have to put together like an entree, appetizer, dessert based on those items with a time limit. And so I mean the dishes didn’t come out as good as the tv show. I forgot why the tv show is a little more enjoyable to watch than eating what was made by us but– [inaudible]
Alice: That’s awesome. Okay. Lip gloss or lipstick?
Amy: Oh my God. It depends—Lipstick. I’m a container person. Aren’t people like that?
Alice: I feel like it depends on the–
Amy: It depends, right? People that are marketing lipstick keep that in mind.
Alice: Perfect. What’s your favorite random fact?
Amy: Oh, boy. Well, this is more of like a breaking news thing that’s just on my mind that made me really happy that New Jersey just became the first state to have arts education in all schools available for everyone. I mean, go New Jersey. I mean, I’m not from New Jersey and I don’t really go there, but yeah they are like on it. So that is a new fact that is very random and pertinent.
Alice: That’s so awesome. I feel like as a New Yorkers were always knocking on New Jersey. So go New Jersey!
Amy: I know. Yeah, go New Jersey! Yeah.
Alice: Perfect. And so we know you’re not from New Jersey but can you talk about where you’re from?
Amy: Yeah, I’m from Connecticut which is a cool place too, but I grew up in Connecticut and as I write about in my book I had a very suburban, happy kind of childhood. The day after I was discharged from the hospital, we moved into a brand new house and a brand new town. I’m still in Connecticut but that was kind of interesting. And then I’ve always been back and forth to New York my whole life because I love performing and doing New York things.
Alice: That’s awesome. Yeah. And what’s your favorite part about living near New York City?
Amy: Oh boy. I’ve been in so many places and I always say that this place would be great to move but I need to be close to New York. That’s where I’ll be– you know all the exciting things are — well I feel I could go on a train and do a food tour of the lower east side, I could run into an audition, I can perform my show, I mean there’s excitement around every corner. You can walk around the whole block and see a whole new world. So I’ve always needed that. I appreciate all of the- everything going on honestly and the diversity. That’s always been important to me since I was little so.
Alice: Can you talk to me about how you got to where you are? So we know from like your bio and your book. So you had this experience happened to you. Can you talk about that? And then how you got through that? And now you’re just like an artist producing, producing, producing.
Amy: Yeah. I’m not just saying this. It is a fact that I’m still the same person, which is crazy but I guess that’s what happens in life, we stay who we are and then we just have to use our circumstances to accent who we are. But how I got to where I am, I always love performing since as far back as I could remember. And I was always the girl in school that was like “okay she’s the theatre creative kid” I mean like getting my first detention in the third-grade cause when the teacher left the room I started tap dancing on the teacher’s desk. I was bringing around my– I was so obsessed with Les Mis growing up that that whole huge Victor Hugo book, I would bring in third grade every day just put on my desk. And I didn’t really read it but I wanted it to be there.
Alice: You bring that in third grade?
Amy: Yeah. I just wanna look like “oh she really knows the show.” For me, it was how I connected to the world and how I was connecting with myself. I would even look at my friends thinking “wow, do they really know where their lives can end up?” like at least I’m driven. Like I’m going right to Broadway.
Ironically enough, I started studying seriously with the vocal coach in New York that really became my mentor, because I also really loved philosophy and nature and learning about deep things and this person really seemed to understand that too. So you know at a time where you felt like “Yeah my teenage friends don’t really get me,” I felt like this person really did. And that turned into being sexually abused for almost a year which really threw me into another universe where now I know all about PTSD but at the time all I felt was “okay why am I suddenly numb?” and like I can’t access that place that I could always go to when I was like acting songs.
I didn’t realize that I was really– that was how I blocked out my emotions. And then, so those last few months were really difficult emotionally, and then to top it all off the April of my senior year, just 2 weeks after I told my mother, that’s when my stomach exploded. That’s literally what it was and then I was rushed to the emergency room. Then, talking about waking up in a totally new world. I was never really in a hospital– ever. And suddenly I was surrounded by people who said that I was suddenly looking much better now, whatever that meant.
And so yeah, then that started the many chapters of my book about recovering from the hospital and learning that I didn’t have a stomach anymore and suddenly I couldn’t eat or drink and doctors didn’t know if that would ever happen again. So now my life from being someone who applauded everything in our life, it was total uncertainty. I had gotten all of my college acceptance letters and now people were like– when I’m like “Okay what about college?” were like “Who’s gonna tell her?”
And so it was years and years of very uncertain circumstances while I was home not able to eat or drink anything and I was technically like healthy, meaning I wasn’t in a comatose situation anymore, but we couldn’t find a way or understand how to connect my digestive system again. So it took years till we could find a surgeon who could figure out what to do. Yeah but to get through that time where I was living in the real world with people who were eating and drinking and I had no guarantee of anything. I literally got through cause doctors thought I was okay cause, you know, I wasn’t dying. So my way of just surviving was through creativity. I got the lead in Oliver. I started a chocolate business because I love–
Alice: A chocolate business?
Amy: You know what I find that you’re obsessed with what you can’t have and because creativity was always kind of my safe connection, this totally happened as a surprise, but one day I was playing like with chocolates, which I shouldn’t have been doing, I couldn’t eat, and I just found that I loved designing them.
And I realized that was my first experience that wow when I created things I have control over something, and it’s not controlling my whole circumstance that I would like to control, but it feels good to have some kind of authority over something. I guess that was my instinctive way of kind of discovering the benefits of art therapy. You know having kind of control over a very uncontrollable situation.
And so, you know, many many– turned into 27 surgeries but it was many of you know “you’re finally surgically reconnected,” “Oh, your wound exploded,” “Oh, things are good,” “Oh, things are bad” which account for all the years having food taken away from me. And the book is all about the ups and downs but the important part was throughout– despite my circumstances, even if I couldn’t walk, if suddenly my voice was take away, I found other ways to access that creative energy. And I guess that creative energy was the fuel that forced me to go in different avenues, discover things I never would have discovered, like visual art painting, I never would have done that had I not been stuck in a hospital.
And that’s how I ended up calling this a beautiful detour. I didn’t always feel that way especially when certain things were happening, but at the end of the day, I realize “wow if this didn’t happen I would have never discovered that. I wouldn’t ever met this person. I wouldn’t ever done this.” And I would never have known about all these things, and so I couldn’t even tell you what I would be doing if I was still 15 and had a stomach and all that.
So I think once I was really able to compare what I thought my life was going to be and what ended up. That’s how I was able to call it my beautiful detour and that’s what the book is about. Showing that– because now I do all these inspiring talks and TEDx talks could have been about finding your flowers on my detour but I was going through things there was no certainty or no– just putting a smile on and telling myself it’ll be good in the end. It was really just trusting “Okay. All I have is this moment. What can I do right now?” And a lot of times of no guarantee and you’re not always gonna get like a sunny guarantee for a lot of things but at least for creativity that put me on– I call them a little like safe islands that got me to just point to point until I have finally reached the shore.
Alice: Yeah. And you’re still– and you got to still create. You went from like wanting to be a Broadway actress to getting there. You’re still– you’re putting on all of these shows everywhere in the country, really. I was telling Amy before the start that every time I open my Facebook it’s like ” Amy is here, here, here, here, here” which is amazing.
Amy: Thank you but you know again like that’s how you know detours if we allow them to, they can expand our world. I mean I never would have gotten into playwriting or– I really thought as a teenager “Okay if you wanna be an actress you have to study these monologues and learn these musicals and wait in line 9 am for these auditions.”
I think sometimes we have to be forced into those avenues to discover the joy that can come from it and Gutless and Grateful was the first one-woman musical that I wrote and that was really my first experience. And even talking about my story to the public. I had never even mentioned the sexual abuse. At that time, I thought, “Okay this is something that you don’t talk about.”
And I write about how the first review I got on that show was a great review but then there is one line that was like she says something about her sexual abuse like linking to her stomach exploding but that’s a bit of stretch and then I started doing all these research about “Oh the body and mind connection.” We can have like physical reactions to like emotional trauma and it set me on this kind of journey and I credit Gutless and Grateful, performing that show so many times and talking about it, I think that’s really when I started getting comfortable. Realizing it wasn’t my fault, like learning about what sexual abuse can do to the survivors, but I think theatre is really a safe container for me to kind of confront all that. Theatre did a lot for me in many ways.
Alice: And how did Gutless and Grateful moved into My Beautiful Detour? Are they– I know they’re separate entities but can you talk about that?
Amy: Oh yeah yeah yeah. Well yeah so Gutless and Grateful— doing the show was just again another unexpected flower I found from my detour. That was the first time I had really been on stage, sharing my story. And that really– I felt brought me out into the world where I could finally feel comfortable about everything that had happened.
I talked about in my book like 4 days after that, I tried to do one surgery that was really supposed to fix some leftover like open wounds and things like that that turned into a big disaster and led me on a new set of detours, but because of that detour that’s how I met my husband, that was another detour when the divorce happened, but that’s how I start in college again.
So every triumph and setback led me to something else, and it wasn’t until I gave my first TED talk that I was able to recognize all of these detours as something to be grateful for. So that’s how the beautiful detour thought came into my head. And then once I shared my story in my first TED talk, a bunch of people started reaching out to me saying like, “Oh. I’ve had this detour. I’ve had that detour.” And then I’m like “Oh wow.” like no matter what it is, whether it’s a big medical thing or like what we think of a small, or even like moving to a new job or something. Every little change has the power to shape us.
So that’s when I wanted to like get people to start talking about it, cause I realize sometimes even just the process of talking about it is transformative. So that’s how I started the love my detour hashtag. Just to get people saying like, “Hey. If you’ve been through a detour you know to use that hashtag.” And that really opened up a ton– People started sending me those stories. I started a detour column on my website where once a week someone just writes about any detour and how it shaped them. Then I realized there was a need that people really needed to write this out, just so they can trace that path out themselves that led into like detour workshops, just to get people to stop it and see where this detour led them. It was nice to know that one detour in my life could open up a lot of things for other people too.
Alice: And can you talk about what being a detourist is? And are we all detourist or do we have to become one? What does that mean?
Amy: We have to choose to be.
Amy: So this is my thing. Yeah, open to interpretation, but in my opinion, we all have unexpected changes in life but a detourist chooses not to just put on a happy face and say “Okay. I’m grateful for this detour,” but it just takes a presence to say “I’m going to trust this very spot, and just go to the next spot, and then the next spot.” And then a detourist keeps following that path until you’re able, whenever that time is, to look back and see all those flowers that made you who you are.
And it is easy to say, a detourist just like– is present and like can just trust where they are, but I realize that it’s not too easy. So looking back on my journey I discovered– I call them my forced hardcore skills to resilience that I write about and those are kind of the outline for my workshops, that using these four survival mindsets, those are really how a detourist is able to trust each step at a time.
So in my book, I talked about how I came across the strategies, and that they really work. I gotta say, at that time– I had no path, I wasn’t even like eligible for a therapy because I write about– as soon as I was out in the hospital, my parents took me to a therapist, cause they thought it would help to talk about all this, but the therapist said to my parents– she was like listen, “She can’t eat and she can’t drink. It would be a real torture for me to stick her in a room and make her talk about her feeling like she’s hungry.” And so after that, I was like “Alright so now I’m getting kicked out of therapy. What the heck do I do?”
So these were really things I had to discover on my own. I would stop at that time but the good part is I realized because there were things I had to discover for my own resources. I realized that like anyone can find them. Anyone, anywhere. And I think that’s what makes this so relatable for other people. When they read the back of the book and like “Okay this is gonna be really extreme,” but I was just a girl that had weird things happen to her and had to use my own internal resources, which I think we all have. Sometimes we just have to be a little forced to find out.
Alice: Yeah. And like you just talking about like being a girl. Can you talk about that? What do you think it means to have been a female going through this as suppose to male, we’re really talking about with weekly woman our interpretations of womanhood and gender and the taboos that kind of go with it at the same time.
Amy: Well, it’s interesting because if you think about when all this happened, I was sexually abused at 17, and then all of this happened right after the hospital and I woke up into a totally new body, covered in like tubes and drains and bags. And then from 18 till you know age 21, that was my first bite of food, only to have a setback, and then it was taken away for a couple more years.
So that whole growing up period, where people might go to college or like discover who they are, I never really had that. Everything was very stalled, like I had to stay in a very machine mode for those kind of important years. I mean even before that, when I was sexually abused and I had to stay numb. So it was interesting because I write about in my book a lot that I don’t even get to the woman part yet. I quote journal entries; I had a time where I’m like “I just don’t feel like a person”
What’s so interesting walking around and seeing people being able to have sips of water and thinking like I don’t get that. So like a part of healing for me was just getting to a point where I could be like “Oh I deserve to just be a person.” And then once I could get that, then the whole woman thing had to come. So everything was very late. And you know another, you know, where I was able to discover another beautiful detour, is I talk about how after this 27th surgery, that was a total disaster, I just wanted to do like more creative writing, and so for the first time I set-up an online dating profile, and the good part is even though that ended in a very strained divorce, that’s really where I was really able to– I’d never had a real relationship in my life. I was able to figure out all, even with all these medical circumstances like I am a woman and I’m capable of feelings and I’m capable of a relationship. So when that ended like I still have that.
So it’s always been interesting because I’ve always had to deal in this post– coma life with dealing with the body I didn’t anticipate that still has bags and wires and things. And I talk about the– when I finally had to figure out a wedding dress situation. I’m like, “How do I do that?” So everything’s kind of a wearing process.
So at this point, you know, I think again like detourism really comes in handy with feeling like this is the woman that I am, and these are my circumstances and yeah, just especially when I’m hearing everything in the news now about women fighting for their rights that they should have. And I think I’ve always felt that fight within me, just because I’ve always had to fight to kind of feel like a person. So I think that’s why for me like feeling like a woman is really just feeling who I am right now. That I am a living, breathing person on an equal level with anyone. Women, men, anyone.
Alice: That’s awesome, Amy. And I’m curious too about all of the stuff that’s in the news now, I mean, we can talk about Me Too or things that are happening. I’m curious cause you’ve been telling your story for so long. Has the Me Too– has that e affected how you’re able to share or has it just amplified it? or–
Amy: It hasn’t affected because I’ve always kind of been– interesting, I think a lot about what would have happened if this was out there at the time of the abuse. Because I still haven’t mentioned you-know-who this, just to my close circle, but the time I was 17, so it was like was it the age of consent or whatever, and I tried seeing one therapist and even asked me like were you in love with your voice teacher.
And for many, many years, I just didn’t talk about it because the medical stuff seemed more important to share. This seemed like a side thing. It took my own– really I credit the discovery of like art where I could actually do my own therapy and discover the connection without words that I could feel empowered like, “Oh wow. This should not have happened to me and this is what happened once it did.”
So it would be interesting if I had also that outside media like confirming that for me, but it always feels like something I shouldn’t really talk about, and I think that creativity made me feel safe doing that. My concern– I’m glad that the Me Too Movement is helping people feel more comfortable sharing it, but my concern is– I talked about this when I talked about sexual assault on college campuses. But it took me 10 years before I felt comfortable sharing my story, but for all those years I needed to write about it for myself. I needed to process and understand. I felt like if I just come right out and started talking about it, that would have been in the aftermath, it would have had a more traumatizing effect on me.
And so I’m worried with this pressure now that people feel like a lot of– because I’m listed as a sexual assault representative, I get a lot of phone calls from actually high schoolers and colleges asking if I can comment on a terrible thing that was done by a professor and things like that. And I always say like we need to be a little easier on survivors for not reporting right away, because we really do need time to process and heal like ourselves before we start talking about it.
So that is my concern that people will start sharing or testifying or whatever before they’re ready to, because it is a very vulnerable process and it needs to be, I think for ourselves, a little bit first, at least it needed to be for me.
Alice: That’s good to hear and good for our viewers and listeners to hear too, and how you’re able to help all these women. And I was curious to– so if a woman were to walk up to you and you just had like a minute to give them your best piece of advice about really anything, what would you say?
Amy: Oh anything? Oh Boy. Well I mean if it’s about this– Oh my God so much. Well, okay. This is what I would say.
Alice: Your detour–
Amy: Well you don’t always have to love your detour but you do have to trust it. You’re not– you might not get the happy answer you want right away but I think trusting our detour is really important and that’s just– even in the midst of uncertainty like I trust if I’m right here, right now. Moving like– If I stand on the head of this needle right now, it will somehow get me to where I’m supposed to be. I think that’s it. I think that’s something we all have to say.
Alice: That’s amazing, Amy. What’s next for you? And also how do we read your book? Please give us some plugs.
Amy: Oh yeaaah.
Alice: Where can we buy it?
Amy: Yeah. So first of all my book is available on Amazon, but also through my website where I’m signing copies and also doing a little artsy surprise if you order through my website. It’s also available on Kindle and ebook and all that, but also with all the events I’m doing. So I’m doing a few bookstores and galleries and fun stuff in Connecticut.
I’m looking to come to colleges and speak like I’ve been doing. So reach out if you’re interested in having me come. And what’s next. So book stuff and I’m actually working on a new play about the story of my grandmother called More Than Ever Now, which just had a reading, and I’m hoping to do more than that. And last thing, Passageways is the new one-woman musical that I just premiered in New York, last month, which uses my original songs and artwork and story and I’m hoping to take that to a few more places.
Alice: Amazing. Just conquering the world.
Amy: Including my first year of grad school but–
Alice: That’s amazing.
Amy: But it’s fun.
Alice: That’s great. That’s so much, Amy. That’s awesome.
Amy: We like to keep it interesting around here.
Alice: That’s great. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Amy: Yeah. Well, it is so transformative even if you don’t know like how your detour shaped who you are today to just even start writing about it and you’ll be surprised, and if you wanna share every Wednesday I post someone’s story that I call “Why not Wednesday” where you just have to write about any little detour in your life and maybe how it turned you to some little thing. It doesn’t have to be a huge transformation but the stories are so different and they’re so inspiring to read. So, definitely reach out cause I think it’s helpful to just write about.
Alice: Oh wow that’s awesome. Thank you so much, Amy.
Amy: Thank you.
To learn more about Amy, check out her website here: https://www.amyoes.com/
And be sure to check out her book here: https://www.amyoes.com/mbd