Joseph Barber Lightfoot insists, “There is no persuasiveness more effectual than the transparency of a sincere life.” But transparency also invites vulnerability. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, adds, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
I was recently asked to speak about core values at a large event. A woman on the planning committee leaned across the table and reached for my hand.
“Julie, I heard you speak years ago,” she said. “Share from your heart. Tell your story.”
I help others create goals. I was not eager to share personal experiences.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” Brené Brown explains. “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
I value truth and authenticity. I believe when we embrace hope as a guiding light and dig deep to blaze through our fear, we find that the same fire that melts butter hardens steel. We discover our courage.
I decided to test the waters of vulnerability. Intuition gnawed at me to connect my experiences with depression to promote understanding.
I began to experience dark periods of sadness when I was in junior high school. I was told to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” and “stop feeling sorry for myself.” I felt guilt and shame when I was depressed and anger without a means to share or express it.
In my twenties, depression was complicated with severe panic attacks. My father died of a heart attack and I was afraid each bout of anxiety would be fatal. Panic attacks exploded into full-blown agoraphobia. I was afraid to leave my home. I can speak with authority that thoughts of suicide have little to do with a desire to attract attention to one’s self and everything to do with an overwhelming desire to end the pain.
I was lucky. I was willing to do anything to get better. I just needed some direction. The direction came in the form of a phone call from a college with a graduate assistant opportunity. Terrified to drive, I got in my car and I cried throughout the 30 mile trek to the university. I was told to report to the director of the safety program. He explained the university would cover all costs of a master’s degree program and provide a stipend. All I had to do was agree to teach one class: driver’s education.
I defined the term, agoraphobia, to the head of the safety department. I explained that I was a good teacher, but I had panic attacks and was afraid to drive.
“I don’t understand the words you’re using,” said the safety department manager, “but if you commit to this program, we’ll teach you how to take care of yourself behind the wheel of a car.”
I agreed. Reluctantly.
One day after driving to the university during a severe thunderstorm, I found the counseling center on campus and asked for permission to stand in the lobby whenever I felt the onset of panic.
“I promise I won’t get in the way and I’ll be very quiet,” I pleaded. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
The receptionist asked, “Would you like to come back a little more often than that?”
She introduced me to Dr. Paul, a psychologist on the counseling staff.
Though hesitant at first, I explained to Dr. Paul that I was afraid I was psychotic and delusional. I was terrified I’d be labeled as “crazy,” locked into a straight jacket, and permanently confined in an institution. He almost laughed and I found his smile reassuring.
“Because I hear voices,” I explained.
“What do the voices say to you?”
I explained the voices were mean and scary. They said I was no good. And broken. And sick.
“Yes, those are scary voices,” Dr. Paul agreed. “But those voices are coming from inside of you.”
I did not know I had control over my own thoughts. Frightening voices of self-criticism are like an old hat: if they don’t fit, don’t wear it.
“So, I’m not crazy?”
“No, you’re not crazy. You’re neurotic.”
“Oh, thank God,” I said.
He advised me to come back to his office for weekly appointments. And he suggested short-term use of medication.
“You know, I’m very strong,” I said.
“Yes, I see how strong you are,” he agreed. “Are you trying to tell me that asthmatics who use an inhaler aren’t as strong as you? Are diabetics who use insulin weak?”
It was in that moment that I realized that depression was not a character defect, but an illness with physiological symptoms that could be treated.
For twelve months, I went to class early because I wanted to grab the first seat by the door. I needed to know I could escape the room without drawing attention to myself in the event of a panic attack. I attended classes in the morning and taught driver’s education classes to high school and international college students in the evening.
I met weekly with Dr. Paul and developed an arsenal of positive living strategies. I walked two miles every day with my dog. I read positive books about self-care. I practiced meditation. Someone gave me an old cassette tape labeled “Using the Body to Relax the Mind” on one side and “Using the Mind to Relax the Body” on the other side. I listened to that tape several times a day until it literally fell apart from overuse. By the time I threw the cassette away; the voice on the tape had become part of my inner self-talk.
As a course requirement for one of my psychology classes, I had to develop a behavior modification plan. Most of my graduate school classmates developed weight loss programs and plans to quit smoking. I developed a reward system to help reduce the number of times I stopped my car between the college and my home driving to and from school. When I felt bouts of panic, I typically pulled into a gas station to calm down. By the end of the semester, I was able to drive back and forth between my home and the college without getting out of my car. My professor invited me to share my story at a psychologists’ convention.
The following semester, I was invited to teach instructional courses in the education department. I lost my fear of driving and went on to work as an urban instructional coach and adjunct professor. I am now a speaker and inspire others to embrace their own stories.
I share my experiences because I believe I have a responsibility to all of those who supported me to pay it forward. Too many people needlessly drown in a sea of despondency. There is help. There is hope. I believe every time we dig deep within and share our experiences with someone else, two lives are potentially saved: theirs … and ours.
Do you have a story of hope to share with others?
Use these tips from Put the Positive in Your Affirmation to brighten your self-talk.
You have the power to change your thoughts with suggestions from Replace Old Tapes with New Messages.
Get inspired with wonderful words from 11 Inspiring Quotes When You Need Encouragement.
Are you ready to make a change in your life? Begin with these tips from What You Must Let Go to Move Forward.
Do you want to share your story? Use these suggestions to Craft a Story People Want to Hear.