Strangers no More
The small group of young adults squeezed together inside the tiny café. Most of them knew each other, some clung to their safe clicks, a few other looked uncomfortably displaced, but everyone was there for the birthday girl. It was a very different kind of birthday celebration. She had organised performing acts from amongst her friends, and told her guests she wanted no presents. Instead, she set up a 'Give a Little' page and ask them to donate to a charitable organisation - the one I work at.
This was my very first speaking engagement for Changing Minds. The MC told jokes as he introduced the performers, who were young, talented and at ease in the hipster/bohemian environment. The audience, snapped their fingers and clapped in support of their mates. While more people were arriving and filling the already crowded space while I, trying to calm my racing heart, stood at the back of the room beside my colleague.
I am no stranger to public speaking. I’ve done it for many years while working in YWAM to smaller and to much larger crowds than this one. I have always loved the opportunity to connect with an audience. But this would not only be my first time speaking on behalf of Changing Minds, it would also be the first time I spoke about my grief and mental distress to a group of strangers.
A young woman was called to perform her item just before my turn to speak. She opened her mouth and started to sing a beautiful rendition of an old song:
"Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can't help falling in love with you…”
I felt a knot at the base of my throat and my eyes burned with hot tears as a clear image formed in my mind of Jason rocking our babies to sleep in his arms, singing that very same song. It was one of the sweetest memories of him I’ve recalled since he died. So tender, so loving, so heartbreakingly beautiful. I squeezed my notes trying to focus on my breathing and on holding back the tears. I knew I had to let that memory go because if I stayed with it, and if I allowed myself to cry at that moment, I may not be able to deliver my speech.
Whispering a "Thank you" to God for the gift of that memory, for having lived and witnessed my beautiful husband lullabying my babies so many times, for having had a loving father for my children, I then let that memory go so I could be present in my present and do what I had committed myself to do.
I decided there and then to speak from my heart, to be as authentic and as vulnerable with these strangers as I would in the pages of my journal. But it's one thing to write about one's struggles, it's another thing to look at the faces of people as you speak about it out loud.
As I spoke I drifted away from my notes, allowing my heart to express the despair that followed after Jason’s death, the importance of nourishing relationships and creating connections that will celebrate our times of joy and support us in the times of pain. I encouraged them to learn to be the kind people who will withstand the storms of life with one another with empathy and kindness. I shared about my own journey through grief, depression and anxiety, and my belief that grief and mental distress are human experiences - all of us have or will experience mental distress of various degrees at one point or another in our lives.
I went longer than I intended, but the small audience was right there with me. I laughed and made them laugh, I saw tears, smiles, and nods as I shared about the hardships, and about the hope I have found through friendships that are helping me to rebuild my life again. I encourage them to seek help because no one can do it alone, to trust that darkness don’t last forever, and to be aware of their own pre-conceived judgments and discriminations against themselves and others. To look after their own wellbeing and to show compassion and validation for those who struggle with mental health.
With every word I uttered, I hoped they may come to believe that recovery and flouring truly is possible, because at that every instant, seeing where I have been and where I am now, I believed it too.
Six months ago I wouldn’t be able to speak about any of this to a group of complete strangers. But there I was, opening myself up and offering connection through exposing my brokenness. Many of those strangers stepped into the threshold of discomfort and accepted my offering, opening themselves up to me in return, sharing their struggles with mental health and the grief they've tried to muffle for too long. And then we were strangers no more.
As I laid in my bed my heart was full. I felt content and elated. "I should be paid to talk”, I foolishly though to myself. And as smile crossed my face I became aware of the familiar sadness tugging inside my chest, for I wished Jay was here for me to share this small win with him, to tell him all the details of my talk, to receive his praise and approval, which is the only praise and approval I truly crave. A crave that will go on unfulfilled even as I’m learning to find fulfilment in other ways.
I drifted off to sleep. Happy-sad once again...