For This Mental Health Advocate, The Internet Is A Safe Space

Welcome to The Floor Is Yours, where we spotlight the creators behind the meaningful content on your FYP — because it’s not just about who they are, but the message in what they’re creating.

On the social media-sharing spectrum — from the super-private, posts-once-a-year digital introvert to the must-post-every-passing-thought internet savant — 27-year-old Erin Garnes, who’s better known by her social media moniker Esperanza Maria, most definitively falls in the oversharing camp. In her words, she’s “always been an open book.” And it’s for this reason that she has no qualms about sharing her innermost thoughts and struggles to virtually thousands of strangers on a daily basis.

Garnes’ first taste of digital documentation started in 2015 when she was struck with the idea to create an online diary. A year later, she launched a now-defunct site called The Sunflower Experience, a safe space in which she could post photos and write intimately about herself, her life, and her experiences with mental health. The goal: to inspire, encourage, and to relate to others. And now, with more 50,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok combined, the platform from which she posts her content may look a tad different, but her mission ultimately remains the same.

“I wanted to create a space that feels good and healthy, and no matter where you’re coming from and what struggles you’ve dealt with, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” says the Maryland-based mental health advocate and digital creator. “My therapist and I have talked about ‘trauma bonding’ — for me, when I used to overshare, especially in my early adulthood years, it was with the hope I could find connections with people through trauma versus presenting myself as who I am. Even now, I’m grappling with how to live my life outside of my trauma, because it’s hard to show up as a whole person when the only thing you connect with other people is through trauma and sadness.”

A lot of Garnes’ trauma can be traced back to her childhood, to her tumultuous relationship with her mother. When she was 12, she began facing issues with eating, not being able to focus, having random outbursts, and generally feeling overwhelmed. Eventually, she was brought in by her mother to see a psychiatrist and was formally diagnosed with depression and anxiety. But her diagnosis was swept under the rug (by her mother), and she never received treatment. Without an outlet or a way to express herself, Garnes resorted to self-harming. And it wasn’t until she began working on The Sunflower Experience, along with seeking therapy, and truly focusing on herself that, for the first time, she “felt whole or conscious of what was going on with myself.”

“I became okay by telling my story, people relating to my story, and finding a community of people who understood where I was coming from.”

“I wanted to let other people know that I came from a very crappy place in terms of my well-being,” Garnes says. “I was not okay at all, but I became okay by telling my story, people relating to my story, and finding a community of people who understood where I was coming from. I wasn’t alone in what I was dealing with — and neither were they.”

As much as Garnes pours her soul out on social media, she also recognizes that it’s okay to take a break from it, to take a step back. Prioritizing mental wellness and reassessing the content she’s putting forth and whether it aligns with her values would only beget better content. That’s precisely what happened in 2021, when she was feeling utterly lost.

“Last year, I was focused on finding my purpose with social media and using my platform to get back to myself,” Garnes says. “I used my platform to be super vulnerable about that and how I’m not perfect. I’m not trying to create an image of perfection. I’m not trying to curate my life. I’m living it and sharing it along the way, and sometimes that means I’m going to lose inspiration. I’m not always going to be able to create content on a schedule, and that’s okay. I want to encourage people to live in their truth.”

She confesses that she’s felt both uplifted by social media and drained by it. But she’s developed defense mechanisms for both: to remind herself that social media shouldn’t be her only source of happiness, and to put down the phone and turn on a movie as soon as she feels like she’s comparing herself to others. Another boundary she sets is adding disclaimers to social media captions or her YouTube videos, asking her followers to be respectful. And when it comes to trolls, she admits that they do affect her, and in those cases, she’s quick to block them — but for the most part, she prides herself on welcoming different perspectives, exchanging ideas, and hearing others out.

“People are allowed to have their opinions and express themselves, and I try to open my space up for that, whether that be positive or negative, because a lot of the times when people are projecting their negativity onto others, they have underlying issues going on with themselves,” Garnes explains. “It’s happened before: Someone came to my page being negative, we had a conversation within the comments, and by the end of it, we were kiki-ing and finding different perspectives from each other.”

Garnes has since expanded into other areas, like beauty and fashion, while offering her followers a voyeuristic look into various aspects of her life, which includes the acceptance of her natural curls (she had her hair relaxed since the age of six until she decided to go natural — which neatly coincided with The Sunflower Experience in 2015 — and chopped off all her damaged strands in a move that Garnes describes as a “spiritual experience”), and most recently, her fitness journey. Still, mental wellness takes precedence.

“I hope to continue to grow my community and my platform, and to continue to inspire,” she says. “All in all, over this entire journey, I’ve been trying to show my audience — show the world — that we’re all human. We’re all living life, trying to figure it out, and trying our best.”

If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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