On speaking out: How sharing your story can erase stigma and shame

This weekend, I celebrated my 23rd birthday. Saturday was beautiful – the sun was shining, the frisbees were flying and I was locked in the library deciding which of my four essays due this week I would start writing first. My birthday is always bittersweet in this way; it signifies the coming of spring, the coming of a new year, and yet never leaves any opportunity to soak it in amidst the avalanche of midterms.

Three years ago, on my 20th birthday, I was driving home from my Tuesday night shift at Mezze Bistro, thinking about the cookies my coworkers baked me, thinking about the stack of course packets I hadn’t read, thinking about the lack of friends I could count on and I was overcome with the temptation to run my car off the road. When I realized what I was thinking, I started crying, my breath shaky, and pulled my car over to wait out the anxiety attack. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a suicide attempt. I’ve never told anyone this. Three years ago, my birthday signified how alone I was in the world.

The week before that night, ironically, I was a keynote speaker at You Are Not Alone. I stood in front of three hundred people, told all my darkest secrets and my hidden struggles and tried to welcome the crowd into my most lonesome memories. The night of March 6 felt like redemption. On March 12, there on the side of the road, it felt like lying. How could I make others feel solidarity if I didn’t feel any? How could I speak on mental health recovery if this was my rock bottom? I felt ashamed, and that feeling made me think that I deserved to be alone. In the weeks afterward, I avoided conversations whenever people reached out to tell me how much they appreciated my speech at You Are Not Alone. After my birthday, it felt dishonest to tell anyone else they weren’t alone, when I still felt like I was fighting alone, and losing.

A year and a half later, I got the chance to rewrite my story and speak again as a keynote speaker at You Are Not Alone. A lot had changed in the year and a half since hitting rock bottom, and my story was completely different. It still felt a little bit like lying, but I felt a little less alone because I didn’t feel ashamed. I owned my story, I owned my feelings and I owned my mental illness. After speaking, I went to snack bar with my suitemates, and then went back to my room by myself. I still ended up alone, but this time I didn’t feel like I deserved to be.

On my birthday this weekend, I still felt alone. My pile of papers is largely a result of yet another depressive episode, and a lot of people still don’t get that. But my birthday no longer signifies how alone I am; today, my birthday signifies how my story gets to continue on for another year. My birthday reminds me that every day I wake up, I have the chance to rewrite my story, be a little more honest with myself and speak my truth a little louder.

This semester’s You Are Not Alone will be Thursday, April 7. You all have the opportunity to be keynote speakers; you all have the strength to share your most lonesome memories, your deepest anxieties and most difficult struggles. I promise you that upon hearing your story, the audience will feel a little less alone. But that’s not why I’m suggesting that you speak. By challenging stigma, by speaking out, by signing your name onto your story, you address your shame. Your story will always feel a little incomplete, and its incompleteness will always feel a little bit like lying. But this is not your only chance to speak your truth. You can speak at You Are Not Alone, but that will not be the end of your story. Speak out now, and commit to waking up tomorrow and continuing to rewrite your story every day; commit to telling a bit more of your story everyday. Commit to learning once and for all that you don’t deserve to be alone.

Sally Waters ’17 is an economics major and an Africana studies concentrator from Bedford, Mass. She lives in Fitch.

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