Feature interview: Jessica Lea Mayfield

Joel Oliphint

Until recently, Jessica Lea Mayfield found herself apologizing constantly. It was almost like a nervous tic. “I'm sorry my stuff is everywhere,” she'd say. If someone bumped into her, she'd take the blame: “I'm so sorry.”

“A lot of women are taught to apologize for themselves and for their existence. I realized that my whole life I was apologizing for everything and always feeling like a burden,” Mayfield said recently by phone.

On the title track to the Ohio-raised, Nashville-based songwriter's new album,Sorry Is Gone, Mayfield turns a corner in regards to saying sorry. “I deserve to occupy this space without feeling like I don't belong/I'm done excusing myself/I'm sorry, the sorry, the sorry is gone,” she sings.

This new outlook and transformation stemmed from a prolonged, traumatic experience with domestic violence that Mayfield revealed in a July 10 note on Instagram. “Last week, I had a surgery for a broken shoulder related to a domestic violence incident,” she wrote. “I want to tell anyone who is protecting their abuser that it's not worth it. … My silence helps no one except the person who did this to me.”

Mayfield dealt with the shoulder injury for three years. “Every time I would move my right arm it would pop out of place and cause extreme pain. I wasn't allowed to go to the doctor because the person who injured me didn't want to get arrested,” Mayfield said. “When I finally started going to the doctor and told them how I got injured, they didn't believe me. I said, ‘I was injured in a domestic violence incident,' and they wouldn't get X-rays or anything. … They would say, ‘There's nothing wrong with you,' or, ‘You're not that injured, c'mon. Are you sure it's not an exercise injury or a sports injury?' I'm like, ‘No, I remember when I got injured. I remember the incident. Why don't you believe me?'”

Finally, a surgeon ordered an MRI. “He freaked out. He was like, ‘How have you been living with this for so long?'” she said. “He was almost in tears.”

Some of the songs fromSorry Is Gone were written while Mayfield was still suffering through the hell of the abusive relationship. “Any tips on how to feel more human?” she sings on “Safe 2 Connect 2,” her deadpan delivery mimicking the robotic way the abuse made her feel.

“When you go through a situation like that, it's dehumanizing. You feel like you've been taken from your body,” she said. “With [‘Safe 2 Connect 2'], it was like, ‘Will I ever come back to feeling human again?'”

From the time she was 8 years old, Mayfield has often played the role of advice-giver, offering honest, wise-beyond-her-years takes on difficult situations. But she couldn't always apply the same insight to herself.

“I wanted to believe that maybe I was wrong and things weren't as bad as they were, when really things were horrific and terrible,” she said. “I would leave and come back, and leave and come back. I didn't have a good support system. I was isolated. I didn't really have any friends. I would leave and not have anyone to talk to, and I would end up going back out of loneliness.”

Eventually, Mayfield went to therapy and found community in support groups. “I had new friends and people that were just like, ‘I'll help you. I'll be here for you,'” she said. “And the more I learned to love myself and respect myself, the less I started putting up with mistreatment. Then it became this thing where I was like, ‘Ihave to leave. This is toxic and awful, and I can't let this eat away at me any longer.'”

Mayfield initially struggled to go public with everything that happened to her, butSorry Is Gone, the follow-up to her last album of original material, 2014'sMake My Head Sing…, provided an opportunity to tell her story. “Everyone was going to ask me what these songs were about. I didn't want to lie, and I didn't want other people's words to be there instead of my own,” she said. “I also felt like I had to because people aren't talking about domestic violence in this way. Everyone is afraid to talk about it. People are afraid to get their injuries treated. If people don't talk about it, nothing happens.”

“I need to be the person who wasn't there for me,” she continued. “I'm going to speak up for myself and for other people. I had this strong urge, and I still do. I want to advocate. Domestic violence resources are so slim, and they need to get better. Things need to change, and I want to yell from the rooftops until it does. I hope my little voice can chip away at some part of this and make it better.”

Mayfield is still undergoing physical therapy for her shoulder, and she said there are other injuries that will require surgery in the future. But she's doing better, and she no longer feels like her existence is a burden. “Instead of trying to please everyone and saying, ‘I'm so sorry; please don't hurt me,' I'm going to help people and help myself,” she said. “I'm going to do whatever I can to make something good come out of these horrific events.”

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