WE can never judge another person’s journey, and we can never, ever guess what kind of lives each of us are living, because they are all so different to how they seem from the outside.”
Johanna Thea speaks from personal experience.
Growing up in Limerick, the mixed-race girl – she has Indian, Swiss, English and Jamaican heritage – with the model good looks, appeared, from the outside, to have been winning at life.
However, beneath the luminous olive skin and gorgeous corkscrew curls lurked the unspoken demons.
The 30-year-old has just published her own book entitled, If Only You Knew – an autobiography in 21 short stories.
Over the 200 pages Johanna offers her insight into dealing with an eating disorder, abuse, falling in love, sexual exploration and coming to terms with who you are.
“It was important to me to reach out and share my truth because, over the years, I have met so many other people with similar stories, and I wanted others to know that they are not alone, in anything,” says Johanna who grew up in Lower Grange and Hospital and spent a year living in Limerick city.
“We all go through similar trials and tribulations, even if one person’s experience doesn’t seem as extreme as yours, the effect of it upon them might be.”
During her childhood, Johanna attended a number of schools in Limerick, including Milford NS and Knockainey NS, before attending John the Baptist Community School in Hospital, and later the Presentation Secondary School on Sexton Street in the city.
“There were many reasons for relocating, among them when mum got a new job, or found us a new better home to rent. She was a single parent and had to work hard to try to provide us with the best possible homes, school and upbringing.”
At 16 Johanna was scouted in Aubars on Thomas Street in Limerick city. She was signed by Celtic Talent Modelling Agency in Clonmel, and later modelled for the Holman Lee Agency, taking part in fashion shows all over the country.
However, Johanna suffered for many years with bulimia, and had been abused in many ways in her past; mentally, emotionally and physically.
“In some ways, you might say the bulimia was an escape from all that, an act of rebellion, yet in others it was also a form of agreement. I think that when you get very badly hurt, sometimes the hardest thing is to be kind to yourself. This is a lesson which I am still learning, and as time goes by it does get easier, as your friendships grow stronger with others and with yourself. It’s important to learn how to befriend yourself, even when you’re being difficult.”
Johanna went to UCC to study social science but in her heart of hearts wanted to do psychology. “I was scared of attempting psychology as everyone said it was hard. I was quite impressionable and also desperately afraid of failure, so I took a course which had psychology in it.”
One of the hardest things for Johanna was coming to terms with the acknowledgement that she is a lesbian.
She was severely bulimic while in UCC and often wouldn’t make university due to getting sick or sleeping as a result of exhaustion. A close friend of hers came out at that time as bisexual and Johanna accepted it without a thought, yet it never occurred to her that she might be gay.
“I was simply dealing with too much,” she points out. “I had so many other things happening in my life, and was so wounded by experiences, I really never thought to question my sexuality, it was the last thing on my mind.”
Broken relationships and misunderstandings with men only added to her confusion, and in the end she figured that maybe she was just not good at relationships. There was even a time when she considered becoming a nun, or a Buddhist monk as she has always been drawn to Buddhism. “I thought that gay men were cool and lesbians were strange. It never occurred to me that it doesn’t matter who you love - that regardless of their gender, it’s about how you feel with them and how they make you feel. Yet, I was so scared of love anyway that in a sense how I was in relationships was just another thing to add to the list of things to avoid doing.
“I think I avoided intimacy effectively most of the time, for, although I craved it, the trust you require of your partner and they of you, was something I couldn’t handle. I had a few great boyfriends and I always left them confused or startled by how we broke up. I was pretty much a party girl for my year or so in Cork city, and while I made amazing friends, I was everything but a friend to myself.”
Johanna doesn’t recall the first person she confided in about her sexuality. At first she came out as bisexual. Apparently this is the route lots of lesbian women who are “late bloomers” take. “To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure that I was truly attracted to women,” she admits, “I simply didn’t know, but there were so many men I had run away from, and relationships with men, and I just found myself in this funny space where I realised I enjoyed women in a more special way than men. Men have always been attracted to me, but I always felt that women inspired me and lifted me up. In retrospect, it seems obvious because now I am so self aware, but back then, during my voyage of self discovery, it was just utter confusion”.
The process of realising that she is a lesbian rather than bisexual, or bi-curious, happened over a four year period. The first three years were filled with puzzles, during which she was with some men. “The reason I realised that this felt wrong was not because of any sorrow, or leftover effects of trauma from my youth, but because I literally do not enjoy men in that way,” she asserts. “They are just all like friends to me, even those whom really draw me to them are nothing compared to a crush I felt for a girl, or love I feel for a woman. That’s just how it is. To get that far along in my own self awareness took the absolutely wonderful support of some of my best friends, as well as the ability to not listen to that voice in my head saying I was weird, unworthy of love or that everyone would hate, judge and ostracise me.
“It took a lot of support and courage and it took me wanting to be happy above all else. I can honestly say that the suffering which I endured was worth it.”
Johanna has experienced judgement from some of her friends’ parents who would never accept that it is OK for a girl to be a lesbian. “They are from a generation where it simply was not accepted, and I guess they still carry that animosity, ignorance and conditioning within them. I have also got friends who can’t come out through fear of what their parents and communities will think which is such a shame because how can anyone ever find happiness when they are pretending to be someone who they aren’t? Surely this is the most important role of any parent - to accept, embrace and love their children as they are and for whoever they are. I don’t know but I hope that should I ever have children I will always do just that - life’s too short to suffer.”
Johanna, who left Ireland for London at the age of 19 - primarily to work on her relationship with her mother who was living there - said it was the best thing for her at that time “because in London you are anonymous. You are free to make as many mistakes as you need to on your journey, and I did, and eventually it led to me accepting who I am and how I am as an individual.”
As a child, Johanna wanted to be an actress, a scientist, doctor or lawyer. She is now a professional actress and model and has also faced her fear of failure by signing up for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology which she attained from University of London.
She is also currently signed with DKModels.
“The person who you see now is the result of so many different events and yet the most important part of my life is the love, support and acceptance which I received from others. I guess that’s really what the book is about. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, you can love yourself and find others who will love, accept and celebrate you as you are. This is why I was driven to write it, for those who suffer or have suffered like I did, and for anyone who’s ready to embrace who they are.”
If Only You Knew is available online from www.amazon.co.uk