Since my first year, when I heard about Oxy from the Inside (OFTI), I knew I wanted to speak at the event. I shared my mental health journey at multiple retreats in high school, so I was familiar with the nerves that come with speaking in front of my peers and the emotions that go into telling my story. But for some reason I was overcome with fear — fear of being judged. Would my story make sense? Would people be receptive? Would I even have anything to say?
This year, my senior year, I filled out the speaker application and began the process of drafting a speech. I was filled with emotions. I wanted to speak for all the unheard people suffering from my mental illness, touch the hearts of intolerant individuals and change the way others thought about me. But I realized that I should be giving this talk for myself, to free myself from the stigma of silence that our society creates. That spurred me to write the majority of my talk. I wrote about my horrible experience losing friends due to my mental illness my first year at Oxy and the way my mental illness makes participating in sports challenging. Most importantly, I shared a part of myself I had kept silent for most of my life. I realized I was afraid not only because I was concerned about others’ reactions, but because I didn’t know how I’d react to speaking my own truth.
Speaking at OFTI brought a whole new wave of emotions. I sat in Choi, listening to seven other brave souls share their stories before it was my turn. I second-guessed myself again. Why did I deserve to share my story, and why did I deserve to close the event? But I walked up to the podium, knowing my friends were there to support me, and began to read from my paper. I was shaky and sweating, and I cried at one point, but I made it through.
After I finished reading and the Active Minds e-board closed the event with a thank you, I had so many people come up to me and thank me for sharing my story. It was overwhelming and honestly shocking. The fact that other people could resonate with things I had said or felt was astounding, especially since I had been made to feel so otherized for the majority of my time at Oxy. That is what I took away most from my experience speaking at OFTI: staying silent creates a lonely and isolating environment, but sharing my story allowed me to see that I am not alone in my struggles. It was so hard for me to share my story in college because I had to tell people what was “wrong” all over again, whereas in high school everyone knew and was supportive. I am a bit sad I waited so long to speak out, as the affirmations and support I received after OFTI made me feel more connected to my community than ever. Vulnerability plays a big part in uniting a community, and I’m proud I found the strength to do it this year.
Authors for this piece are Paige Waters and the Active Minds e-board, a chapter of the organization at Occidental College. Active Minds is a national organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding illness and promote good mental health.