We all have our own perspectives on what bravery looks like. Perhaps it’s standing up to a bully or facing your fears. Perhaps it’s going after your dreams, despite being told you will fail.
Bravery comes in all forms. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own bravery. I finally found gainful employment (meaning I was able to get health insurance). This was extremely important to me, as I take my health very seriously. I am adamant about annual exams and dentist visits. And as much as I encourage those around me to take care of their mental health, I’ll admit that I have not been practicing what I preach.
The last time I went to seek help from a mental health professional, I was in college. I started going to individual counseling at my university’s counseling center. Individual counseling was a bit difficult for me, as I never felt comfortable telling a stranger about myself and inner demons. A couple of friends of mine told me about group therapy, which was also offered at our counseling center. I was pretty skeptical, but figured I’d give it a try. Once I got off the waitlist for group therapy and into my first session, my perspective on therapy changed. Being in a group therapy session with other students, where we could talk in confidence and learn from one another, was one of my most life-changing experiences in undergrad. I connected with people who I would have never known. Despite our differences in upbringing and interests, we found a bond.
Fast forward to today. Four and a half years have passed since my last group therapy session. Every year since then, I’ve lived in a different place. I’ve moved back home to live with my family twice, thankfully, when I was unable to find work. I’ve experienced both successes and rejections. I’ve also experienced loss, the most painful losses being losing two loved ones, Jessica and Steven, to mental health challenges that I will never truly know or understand.
I now work with a mental health non-profit. The deeper I’ve moved into my career path, the more fearful I’ve become, as the mental health industry is a tricky one to maneuver. Finding the right therapist (and one that takes your health insurance) is an uphill climb. What’s worse is that I have struggled to find the courage to go back to therapy, for fear of being seen as “crazy”, unable to handle life’s trials on my own, or receiving a diagnosis I am not ready to come to terms with. One sunny Saturday afternoon, Jess, another friend of mine, told me to write a letter to a future therapist. She noted it would be a helpful tool for me. I filed the idea away, still uneasy about seeking a therapist.
A couple of weeks later, I signed up to audition for This Is My Brave, an incredible non-profit organization that provides a safe performance space for individuals affected by mental illness. They host live shows around the country and feature stories told through prose, poetry, music and dance. For anyone who knows me by my stage name, Real Talk, you know that I am a creative soul. Art has been such a power vessel for expression for me over the years. As a spoken word poet, I figured it was time for me to blend my interest in the arts with honesty about my fear in seeking a therapist.
So, I hand wrote a letter to my future therapist, but in poetry form. I spent a couple of days leading up to my audition refining my piece, still thinking it was too personal to divulge. With the support of my friend Daisy, who was my support system during my audition in early August, I performed my piece for the This Is My Brave DC Show producer, Melinda. Melinda, who is also the Executive Director of Our Door, called me a week later to tell me I was part of the cast for the show, which would be held in October. I couldn’t believe it; I was both excited and anxious. I’d be going on stage to be 100% open about my anxiety.
After the very first read-through with the cast in September, a light bulb went off. Sharing amongst others with similar experiences and emotions was powerful. It was also draining. There is so much suffering that comes along with mental illness. But there is also healing and hope. A thread connected each of us; some of the cast had lost a loved one to suicide, while others had been living with their diagnoses in silence. Some had gone through trying times, experiencing self-harm, anguish and debilitating depression. I felt for every single person on the cast; I could feel the pain from their stories in my bones. We sat together, wiping tears from our faces.
I’ve performed plenty of times before this week. In college, I’d read poetry at campus events, and more recently I’ve been taking the stage at Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) Open Mic Nights. But this time was different. Instead of performing something playful, comedic or sassy, I was performing a piece about my inner pain.
On October 10th and 11th, we took to the stage; both nights sold out. I didn’t expect the performances to be as visceral as that very first read-through in September, but it was just as intense. Still, my fellow cast members encouraged one another. Their loving and supportive words and hugs were perfect reminders for why we were there: to break the stigma surrounding mental illness. Both nights, I performed during the end of the second act. As you can imagine, I was beyond nervous. Once on stage, my heart beat a million times a minute, anticipating my turn to actually go up and speak at the microphone.
I had invited friends and former colleagues to attend as a way to keep me accountable. I knew that if there weren’t people I knew in the audience, I’d be more likely to not show up to either show. People expected me to be there, so I needed to muster the courage to actually get on stage. While on stage, I reminded myself to look out into the crowd, and saw friendly faces of guests I had invited. Seeing people I knew gave me reassurance that what I was doing was important. I’ve never felt so afraid and brave all at once. After our final performance, some of my guests came up to me on stage. They asked questions about my inspiration for my piece and motivation for participating for This Is My Brave in the first place. It was incredible that one poem could serve as the impetus for discussion on my own mental health amongst friends and former colleagues.
I’m still looking for the right therapist for me. I know that if I can stand in front of a live audience about my anxieties, I’m ready to do so once more with a mental health professional.
So, how do you define bravery? When was the last time you were brave?
If it wasn’t recently, I encourage you to stare fear in the face and do something brave today. It might just change your outlook on life.