A nonprofit organization invited me to join them for breakfast several years ago. They wanted me to deliver a keynote presentation about core values at an upcoming event.
A woman on the planning committee leaned across the table and said, “Julie, I heard you speak years ago,” she said. “Be transparent. Share from your heart. Tell us your story.”
I was prepared to discuss core values and choices. I was not ready to share my personal experiences.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it,” Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, explains. “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
When we are willing to do whatever work is necessary to face our fears and make changes in our lives, we discover that the same fire that melts butter hardens steel. We discover something we had all along: courage.
The same fire that melts butter hardens steel.
I reluctantly chose to test the waters of vulnerability when I agreed to speak at their event.
I began to experience dark periods of sadness and anxiety when I was in elementary school. I was told to “stop feeling sorry for myself.” I felt guilt and shame when I was depressed. I had no skills or tools 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 panic would be fatal. Anxiety 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 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. They offered me a graduate assistantship. 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. The program director 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 told the director I understood curriculum development and I was a good teacher, but I had a panic disorder and was afraid to drive. I was afraid of crowds. I admitted I was agoraphobic.
“I don’t understand the words you’re using,” said the safety department director, “but if you commit to our program, we’ll teach you how to take care of yourself behind the wheel of a car.”
I accepted the position.
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 locked in an institution.
“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. Negative thoughts and self-criticism are like old hats: if you don’t like them, don’t wear them.
He advised me to come back to his office for weekly appointments. And he suggested a 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 dogs. 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. I learned how to replace old tapes with new messages.
As a course requirement for a graduate psychology class, I had to develop a behavior modification plan. Most of my graduate school colleagues developed weight loss programs and plans to quit smoking. I developed a reward system to help me reduce the number of times I stopped my car driving to and from school. When I felt bouts of panic, I typically pulled into a gas station to calm down. Sometimes I pulled into unknown driveways and waited for the attacks to pass. 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.
The following semester, I was invited to teach instructional courses in the education department.
Over time, my fear of driving – and of being in crowds, elevators, and public speaking – gradually diminished. I refused to be crippled or controlled by fear. I am not fearless, but I am brave.
The purpose of sharing our stories is never about us – our stories invite others to find their own stories in our experiences. 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.
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?
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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.
Don’t be controlled by fear. Stop Thinking About Lack and Focus on Abundance and discover the power of confidence.
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 know someone at work who is struggling with mental illness? Use these tips from Mental Illness at Work: Tips for Employers & Employees.