Interview Transcripts

1. Shannon Van Uden Rook

My name is Shannon, and I am a resilient survivor. And this is what I want you to know. Basically, my story began the latter part of my senior year of high school. I just wanted to drop a few pounds for senior prom. And I did so, but it kind of just spiraled out of control from there.

I went to be a freshman in college and lost a chance to pursue a volleyball scholarship because I was so underweight and fragile and pretty weak at that time. I was the typical perfectionist, 4.0, tried to look really nice and really watch what I ate, kind of a little bit OCD with everything having to be in a particular place in order. But I think deep down, maybe subconsciously, it was a way for me to have some sort of control over my situation at the time.

I had the anorexia where I just would completely over exercise. I had no fat in my diet whatsoever. Even if it had .5 grams of fat, I wouldn't eat it. It can really turn into something pretty ugly pretty fast. It's not just something that affects females. I don't know if there was a certain person, per se, that really struck me and made me realize that something needed to give. I think it was more so my own body that told me.

I, all of a sudden, had a bout where I literally went blind, and that was a very scary moment for me. I would say that that was my wake-up call. I knew I had some issues, but I wasn't willing to change my ways radically until that moment. And I don't think that had that not happened, or me going back and just looking at myself in the mirror, and just looking at my face, and how I looked in particular, and my hair that wasn't there, just saying to myself in my little mirror in my dorm room, "You've got to do something or you're gonna die."

And, I mean, it obviously affects your body tremendously. It affects your mind tremendously in itself. But then when you know people are talking behind your back about it, knowing that it's because they care, but you don't really know that at the time.

It took me 10 years before I finally decided that it was nothing to be ashamed of. And actually by telling my story and reaching out more it could benefit people instead of just hiding it behind closed doors. It is really an illness, for those bystanders that don't really understand the situation or what is going through a loved one's mind, that may be going through this, and just different ways that, maybe, how they can help.

My advice to families was to usually kind of get into support groups or just try to seek out people that have been through it, just to have that support system, just being empathetic, at first, to bring that wall down a little bit. And if they wanna talk about it, I mean, you just can't force them to do it but just trying to get them to open up asking questions.

I don't think I could have, first of all, gotten through it without my faith. And absolutely, the lesson that I took away was coping skills and being stronger. Like, "I went through this. It wasn't easy. It was the worst time of my life by far, and I got through it." I've gone through some things since then that haven't been easy at all, but at least deep, deep down I know that I am a resilient survivor.

I just want them to know that there's gonna be people out there that don't understand. That's just the way it is. But I don't want them to ever feel like they're alone. But I also want them to try so very hard to recognize what is going on, what it's really, truly doing to them and just a way to get them to look past the whole body dysmorphic disorder, which is hard.

It's a hard thing to get people to envision themselves the way that they truly are, 'cause there's always gonna be someone that you wanna be like, or that you think is prettier, or skinnier, has better hair, or something like that. And one of the things that I had to learn was not to compare myself to others. That was a big lesson for me, because I think that that's almost where it stems from. Everybody has their own crosses to bear. And everyone has their own roads to recovery. But I think the key word is recovery.

 
 

2. Kristi Hay

My name is Kristi Hay Merfeld and this is my story.

I went from planning a wedding in about five months to having to fly home and plan a funeral. I'd call him for the longest time, and finally got ahold of his brother. He went to the house and found him dead. 26 years old, brain aneurism. So, I was all the way down in New Orleans when I found out, and I was actually on the call with him when he found him. So, one of the things that I heard was his brother thudding on my fiance's chest, trying to revive him.

So, something that you never wanna hear but then there was this emotional thing that you go through being that far away and not able to do anything. And I'm the type of person that I always want to fix everything. I wanna be responsible for everything because I know I can fix it. I know I can do it right. This is one of those things that you can't fix. And that was a completely new revelation, new emotion for me. There was no way I could get back that night. I had to call my mom, and all I remember saying was, "Kenny's dead, go get my dog." That's all. That's all I could say.

House was under investigation, because as the police of chief told us, 26-year-olds don't just fall over and die. It must have been suicide, he must have been killed, they must have been poisoned. Something. They don't just fall over and die. Yeah. Tell me that about two hours ago and I would have said the same thing. But, that was my new reality.

There's a weird thing that goes along with losing someone when you're not married, even though you're basically married. You just don't have the paperwork. You are expected to get over it a lot quicker, even though it's almost, in my opinion, a little bit harder because you had all of this hope for the future that was just ripped away in one phone call when I was in an elevator. Coming back, planning the funeral, I don't remember half of it. I don't remember saying yes, do this, don't do this, because everything was left in my hands. 'Cause I thought that giving me something else to plan would take my mind off that he was not there anymore. But, to lose somebody that had such a short life and you had no idea that it was gonna happen, it's a little bit different. And when they say life as you know ends, that's what happened. The life that I knew was done. 'Cause I was the type of person that his happiness meant my happiness. If he wasn't happy, I wasn't happy and I was gonna do whatever it took.

So, I didn't know how to rearrange my life. What did that look like now? Who was I? And just realizing that I'm not in control of this crazy journey. I can have a lot of fun on it. I can learn a lot from it, but it's all about trust and belief. And then doing a little good along the way. I'm a better person, because I've learned that gaging your happiness on how happy you make somebody else isn't the best way to live your life. The happier that I am the happier my husband's gonna be.

That's huge.

It is huge, and it took a while to realize that. When you've lived your entire life trying to make somebody else happy or trying to be enough and then figuring out that, as long as you're happy yourself and you know how to make yourself happy, you are going to be enough.

3. David Bryon

My name is David and this is my story.

Coming out, probably the hardest thing I've ever done, and one thing that I regret is that I waited so long. I didn't come out until I was 30. Looking back, definitely wish I would've come out in college. 2000 is still 2000, but we're in South Dakota, so it was kind of hard still back then. I didn't know anyone that was gay in college, or who was out anyway, and I was just scared of what other people ... Their reactions were going to be.

I almost feel guilty for not giving my close friends and my family the credit of them accepting me because I knew they probably would, but I could care less of what some stranger or an acquaintance thinks, but when your family and friends reject you, that's what hurts the most. And I felt bad for not giving them credit for letting them accept me.

I always knew I was gay. Probably high school. You kind of are in denial, but kind of knew. Once I graduated from college, I obviously knew. I'm like, "Oh, this guilt will go away. This feeling will go away," and it just kept building up and building up. And then once I moved to Sioux Falls, I'm like, "I have to do this. I have to come out."

My family always knew, but no one approached me because I don't know if they didn't think they would offend me, or make me upset. It was just time.

The people who I thought most wouldn't accept me, or who I was scared to tell, they're the ones who are like, "We don't care." That's what I mentioned earlier. I regret not giving them enough credit.

I was just sick of lying to them, and letting them know who I was, and maybe that did bring us closer I guess just because then I was able to bring a part of my life to them that I hadn't before.

It may be cliché, but it was a weight lifted off. I did not have to lie anymore. I was able to tell the truth, who I was. They're asking me what I was doing last weekend. "Oh, I was on a date with a man." I didn't have to lie about that anymore, and sneak around. "Who's Mark?" Or this kind of like ... Just being honest and being able to be real.

The day after I told my mom and my sisters ... I told my mom first, and then I told my sisters a week or two later or whatever. After that, it was just instant relief. I just wanted them to know. Even if they didn't accept me, at least I told them and I wasn't lying anymore. The ball was in their court, I guess. That must feel like part of my life was stolen from me, but ... You know. Late's better than never.

Be proud of yourself, of who you are. You only know who you are, and once you accept yourself for who you are, nothing else matters. The people that will love you will not give a damn if you're gay or straight or bi. It just doesn't matter.

 

4. Zarah Crago

My name is Zarah Crago and this is my story. So CODA is Child Of Deaf Adult. There's a lot of CODAs out there. Small club, but cool club. For me, it was kind of about reframing my mind really. Instead of thinking about it as a negative, like, "I'm different, I have these deaf parents, it's so embarrassing." Kind of reframing it into a positive, like, "I'm different, different doesn't have to be negative, different is cool, different is unique and it makes you who you are."

Embracing it is a lot easier than trying to push it away, that is for sure, and it's a lot more fun too. I feel like you develop and grow as a person when you just embrace what makes you different, than try to suppress it.

Originally as a kid I'm like, "Oh gosh!" Like being embarrassed of my deaf parents, or not really embarrassed of them, but things that I would have to do for them. Now, yeah, complete opposite, I want to know more and be more involved, just because, it's like I said before, it's what makes me who I am, like I have this deafness in me and I would love to continue to learn and develop a relationship with that part of me. So yeah, it's completely flipped, and I think, in a good way. You know, I would much rather be at terms with something than embarrassed and try to push it off. Because being deaf is nothing to be embarrassed about and neither is being a CODA or having to interpret for your parents. But when I think about it I'm like, "Why was I so embarrassed? Why was I so afraid to let people know who I am?" Because what I've come to find out is that people agree that it's cool or that it's interesting.

Yeah, when I was younger, if someone asked me, "How do you sign this?" I'd be like, "Oh, I don't know." And I wouldn't tell them, you know, just like whatever, brush it off. Because I just didn't want to get into it, I just, again, didn't want people to know me for having deaf parents or just ask me about it all the time. But now I'm the complete opposite. I love when people ask me how to sign something, and I am more than willing to talk about deafness, my perspective of deafness.

If I had to go back and give my younger self some piece of advice, it would be say, "Don't worry so much about what other people think about you, because chances are, they aren't thinking about you, first of all, and second of all, who cares?" At the end of the day, you're with yourself and if you're at peace with yourself then that's just the best thing that you can hope for, so don't be so hard on yourself, don't take what is different and beat yourself up with it, don't be so negative. Maybe that's normal for kids to go through, but it doesn't have to be, it doesn't have to be like that.

 

5. Loni Swaney

My name is Loni. I'm a miscarried survivor and this is what I want you to know.

I started spotting and clotting a little bit and went to the ER. And it was definitely the worse night of my life. We sat in the ER and waited and waited, and finally were brought in. They did an ultrasound and everything. It was an ultrasound technician and so she wasn't allowed to say anything, or confirm or deny anything. So it was really quiet. And she said that the doctor would be in within like an hour or so and let us know. And I panicked the whole time, obviously. Like I have no idea what's going on.

Later, the doctor came in, and I could just see it on his face. And that's ... just like a movie, it was like slow-mo, and it was surreal, and the time [inaudible 00:00:51] still. It was just me and Robert. We both took like a week off of work, because it was the whole process too of like our baby actually needing to pass because we didn't actually fulfill the miscarriage until I gave birth. It took about a week. She said, it will either happen naturally on its own and just you'll either know or sometimes, as awful as it is, you won't know, cause it will just be pieces. She said, "We'll give you til like Thursday." That was a Monday morning. "We'll give you to like Thursday and then you'll take some medicine to help pass. And, if that doesn't work, then we do a D and C," which is like a surgical procedure, which is awful.

So we took the medicine, and it was totally meant to be, we were in [inaudible 00:01:41] visiting his family and everyone was actually gone at an event, and so we were home, at their home alone when everything happened because, as things progressed I just slowly and slowly, which at the time I didn't know. Again, the whole stigma thing. No one knew. No one told me what to expect. I just started having these awful pains and went to the ER again, because I didn't know what they were, and they just told me they were contractions. And so we just slowly, it was just totally like a natural birth, where there is contractions every five, ten minutes. And then it got closer and closer and closer, and more painful, more painful. And then finally, it just happened.

Grief is not something you get over, but it's like a new definition of self. Grief is something everyone goes through in some capacity or another, and it's not about getting over, but it's about pushing through, and finding your people ... just a new part of you. I try and think back about how my life was before, and it was not as great because I think that children completely, I mean, obviously change your life, but it's in a capacity I never imagined. That somehow, I don't know how, but having a child and knowing that I'm a mom, somehow changed my outlook on everything.

Yeah, I think that's part of the stigma too, in today's age that, if you like physically don't have a child with you, you're not a mom. I went through labor and then I held my baby, all of those things are the same exact if I was full-term. It was unlike any loss I've ever experienced because it was our baby, and you're saying good-bye to not only a life but like a whole future, and like hopes and dreams, and birthdays, and everything. Like you're saying good-bye to a whole life and future, and plans.

I mean, we've experienced death at a whole new level together now. And we both have a child. I mean, we both reacted differently to things now. We grieve differently now. And we love differently now but in a totally better way. Like it sucks that it happened but, at the same time, I'm glad that it did because I am a mom now and Robert is a dad now, and that won't ever change even if we're not ever able to have kids again, or whatever. We'll still forever be parents, and I wouldn't change that for the world.

 

6. Chris Wevik

My name is Chris Weavik, and I survived hair loss. And I'm happy.

When I was first diagnosed, it was just a little bare spot in the back, about the size of a dime, on the back of my head, and it was real smooth. And so, it grew back, and then when it happened again a year or two later, then I went to the doctor and he said, "Well, you have alopecia." And I said, "Okay, well, what's the cure? Just give me the pills." And he said, "Well, there isn't any cure for it."

And then I went through a particularly difficult divorce and my ex-husband tried to shoot me, and from that, I think that gave me PTSD. And then in '93, I went into the hospital for depression and lost all of my hair and it never came back after that. And I did get therapy for it, which is a godsend. I would not be where I'm at today with my therapist.

I grew up with long hair, and I was known in high school for my hair. And it's so ironic that now I ended up without it. I kind of got used to pretending that I was a woman. I felt like a guy sometimes, just because I didn't have any hair, and penciling my makeup on didn't make me feel pretty.

I could easily go out without my hair. It doesn't bother me. But for me, I just feel more confident and more pretty and more feminine with my hair on. When I get up in the morning, I didn't have eyelashes, I didn't have eyebrows, and other than my eyeballs, I looked like I'd just been dipped in skin. I felt like a big skin cookie.

The second I could laugh at my hair loss, I took charge. I decided that it wasn't gonna hold me down any more, control me. We have to find a way to put ourselves first, prioritize, because it's kind of like the masks on the airplane. You put yours on first before you help anyone else, because you can't help anyone else if you're not taking care of yourself first.

Taking care of yourself can be anything from personal time in the morning, which is something I demand — I need my hour or two in the morning to journal, have my coffee, read, be left alone. It can be time to have makeup done, pampering yourself, writing, whatever makes you happy. I think we have to make that a priority. And I think that doing things for yourself is what makes you feel beautiful.

So much of how we feel about ourselves comes from the outside word. It's kind of sad that we have to put so much emphasis on what someone else thinks is beautiful. And for me personally, baldness is not a big deal. Living and coping with baldness or whatever you're going through can be a big deal. I know of a woman who chose to forgo cancer treatment because she didn't wanna lose her hair. That should tell you how important it was to her. And I'm sure she wouldn't want someone telling her, "Your hair's not important." It was important to her. You're the only one that can decide how you're coping.

If you can wake up every morning and still look forward to life and whatever it is you're dealing with is not what defines you, then you're coping. You have to do whatever makes you happy. So I think it's however you can get through the day. That's coping.

My motto became, "I don't have to worry about tomorrow. I don't have to worry about next week or next year. I just have to worry about today. Today, I'm okay." So that's what I would tell myself every morning when I'd wake up and look at my bald head in the mirror. "Today I'm okay." The more often you can say that, the easier it is to look at tomorrow and next year.

There's always a worse-case scenario. But whatever place we're in, that's the place we need to deal with, not shaming ourselves into feeling guilty that we're feeling badly about something that could be worse — because everybody's got a story, everybody's got something they're going through.

The one thing that I think is kind of important is that whatever it is we've been through, we can allow ourselves the time to get through it. Nobody else can decide how fast you need to get over it or how much you get over it or how you're coping with it.

Having alopecia has made me a little more cognizant of what other people might be going through. It could be something like, "Is everything okay?" "Are you all right?" Those words can go so far. Just a little compassion at the right moment goes a long way.

I just want people to try and find the brighter side of whatever it is they're going through and to know that it doesn't last. When you hang on to those things too tightly, they just ... you give them power. And whatever it is you're going through, if it's not something you enjoy, why keep giving it power? Why keep allowing it to control you or define you? The longer you hang on to something that's happened to you or the longer you allow yourself to be victimized by it or paralyzed by it, you're giving it power. And the second you let go of that and you take that first step of faith, that's when you're going to grow and that's when you're gonna start living your own life and not letting that thing control you.

 

7. Jackie Webb

My name is Jackie, and this is what I want you to know.

My little brother committed suicide the end of September. That following April, end of April, I had a step-sister and her name was Stephanie. She was into drugs and other things, and on the death certificate it says, "Cause of death: unknown", but my family and I agree that it was an overdose.

I kept telling myself that I could've prevented my brother's suicide and then when Stephanie passed, I just wanted to forget things. So what I would do I would take Xanax, which was prescribed to me at the time. I wouldn't take them at all, and then I would take them in a big lump for about a week. Then I had to have a moment where I was like, "You can't do this to yourself. You can't go through life all drugged out basically. There was a direct message from my step-sister's passing that I couldn't put on to myself either. Why would I replicate anything that had just happened? Why would I need to forget? A lot of those feelings and emotions sucked, but I had to face them head on.

I was so upset with Maxwell taking his own life because of how selfish that feels. Because suicide, in the act, you are thinking about yourself. Whether you were thinking about other people around you and how maybe their lives would be better without you, so on and so forth. You are still ... It is a selfish act. You are thinking about yourself. That kind of hurts me to say because I was very conflicted for a long time. My thoughts on suicide.

He was also a teenager. He was 16. We're all so selfish when we're that young. We're only thinking in the moment about our own little world. There are moments growing up where I felt like I wanted to commit suicide and I wanted to do this, but there were definitely little things that would hold me back. I can very confidently say now and after Maxwell took his own life, I knew then that I would never do that to my family, to my friends, to anyone in this world.

Feeling guilty is okay. Just know that you're not guilty. That will pass. That moments going to pass. That was their choice, and whether you would've done something or not in a certain moment that you are thinking about over and over or having ... Whether to see them a certain day or asking them do something or whatever you are thinking about that you are feeling so guilty over, even if you would have done that or not done that thing, it wouldn't have mattered because whatever is sitting in that person's soul would've come out later. It's not something that you could've personally prevented, and it's really easy to tell ourselves that to try to get through it in a way. But there's nothing that you could've done.

Everyone says, "It's going to get better." They're right. They're absolutely right. I know you're going to get really tired of hearing that, but it will. It really will, and it gets easier for a lot of reasons. You do forget a lot of things, which is sad in a way because you want to remember everything. But that's what makes it really hard is remembering everything. You will go through every stage of grief you can image, but you're going to be okay. You're going to live the life that they wanted you to live and live the life that they wanted as well.

If you are dealing with a loss or a loss to suicide, know that they weren't thinking clearly, know that they weren't thinking about hurting you. Just forgive them.

 

8. Nate Kenyon

My name is Nate Kenion, and this is a glimpse into my journey.

I mean, it's real cliché, but you really aren't alone. You aren't the only one that feels in a way that you can't even fathom the next day. You can't get your feet out of bed, and you do, but you know everything inside you doesn't want to. You don't wanna see anybody, you don't wanna see the sun, you don't wanna do your favorite activities. You don't wanna even be here. It feels like it would be more of a service to the people that you know if you weren't around. You'd be less of a burden at that point.

But that's not the case. It's just something that's got a hold of you, something that you can't put a finger on at this moment. But you can. You can understand it. You can overcome it. You can make peace it. And you can have the life that you know you can. That you just at this moment won't allow yourself to.

Depression isn't a thing. It's not something you can put that "This is what it is." It reaches so many people on so many different levels and so many different ways. Everybody, I think, kind of deals with it probably on some level. It's a story, I guess, that I've dealt with as long as I can remember.

For the longest time, I almost felt like I was in a haze or like a dream, to be honest. And you get to this point where you just kind of float through day-to-day. "What is the point? What are we doing?" People want an understanding of themselves in the world, not just "I need this, and I need that, and I need the perfect wife, and I need the perfect house, and I need the perfect this." But like, "What is this about? Why am I here? What do I have to offer?"

I think that was the cycle through most of my life, was just trying to kind of run from it. It has a lot to do with wanting to understand it. So for me, it was more really coming over a gradual hill, where I started going, "Okay, we have to face this thing. This is a real thing. It's gonna be there. What are those triggers that are causing it? What are the warning signs? What are those things you start thinking of?" It's a slow, progressive getting over that hill, I guess. You're able to go, "Okay, I know what that is. I'm okay with it. I can be open about it," and let it be it for an hour or two or whatever it might be.

There were kind of those ups and downs, and even the little bit of up, if you can go, "Okay, what can I do about this? I just want help." People can sit around all day and say, "You need help," but until you feel it for yourself, you're not gonna do it. If you let it, it will absolutely control you.

The one thing that really opened the door was just being honest about it, was telling people and being able to open up this way about it. It's kind of that bringing it into the light type of thing, and just saying that I'm not afraid of it any more. I'm not afraid to have this thing. As I've wanted to wanted to, not embrace it but become part of it and understand it and get through it, get past it, I've ran into people and things and experiences that have made understand it. And I think once you're able to, within yourself, accept it, then you're able to let it out.

It's really just, I think, being around specific people that uplift you in a different way, just people you can really connect with on that level and you know that they've had issues, they have things that they're going through and they're open about it. And that allows you to be open about it. And having conversation that isn't surface-level, you find yourself in those groups of people that are more able, I think, to guide you a little bit. "Listen to this podcast," or "Read this book."

The people that I have found myself around because of this thing, it turned out to kind of be a blessing on some level. So yeah, having this, having this thing that I'm really struggling, that has maybe held me back — has held me back — on a lot of levels has allowed me the opportunity for happiness outside of the physical world. It allowed me happiness that I could know this, become better because of it, find happiness within myself and then just be happy with I have.

It's a journey. It's not a moment. It's a journey. But if you take the right steps, you can find yourself at the end.

 

9. Mariah Brunz

My name is Mariah, and this is how I found my strength. I was married to an abusive person for eight years who was also a sex addict. Over the course of those years, we had five children together. I was a stay at home mom, and while I was in those years, it took me a really long time to identify the abuse that I was going through, and not only the abuse, but to have my eyes opened to the fact that he was cheating repeatedly, many, many times that I had no idea about for a long time. I didn't realize at the time, but I was also really unhealthy as far as having boundaries and valuing my own needs above my husband's needs. If he felt he needed to explode, he could explode, and then if I had a problem with that, then it was my fault.

That was the lie that I had believed, and I thought, okay, well, if it's my fault, then I should be able to fix it. I took that responsibility on myself to be a better wife, make sure the dishes were more clean, make sure the laundry wasn't piling up, make sure there wasn't a crumb on the floor or under the couch, things like that. Looking back it's baffling how false that was, and how it really wasn't, there really wasn't anything that I could do to change his behavior. Getting out of the situation became harder, and harder, and harder. Not only was I scared, but on top of that I felt guilty for wanting to give up quote, unquote my marriage, but then I had even more guilt for thinking about leaving, and putting my kids in a situation where they didn't have their dad.

About seven years into the marriage, it was the first time I finally was willing to look at the reality of the situation because I had to. At one point in counseling, after probably about three or four sessions, and after sharing details of things with my counselor, and her saying, okay, when do you want to talk about the abuse? I hadn't come to talk about the abuse. I went to counseling to deal with the cheating because I was just devastated and in shock. I wouldn't have even felt okay to admit that I was being abused. I felt very ashamed, and I felt like that was my fault. Nobody knew, for years, that, that was going on. I thought to myself, I'm protecting him, I'm doing the right thing. I didn't realize I was thinking those things, but looking back, I do see that. Really, I was protecting myself from having to feel responsible for the situation I was in, and I was victim, but I didn't even want to take the step to acknowledge that I was victim. Or, even acknowledge that I had a choice to not be a victim.

Once you realize, I'm a victim, it's like, okay, well, what are you going to do about it? You have this responsibility that you naturally just know, okay, this is my choice. If I stay, then I have to take responsibility for that choice. If I leave, I have to take responsibility for that choice, and I can't blame my abuser because really, the truth is that no one can choose that for you. Nobody can control you. It's a lie. I was just so stuck in that. There was never the right time. It would never have been the right time to leave. It was a very scary process that year and a half, that last year and a half of that marriage. Trying to tip-toe around and be careful because if he ever got any indication what I was getting through, or overcoming, he would get worse. He did do worse things and scarier things. I just had this sense, like overwhelming need that really I had done everything I could, and I just felt so approved of with God and with myself, that I knew this is my choice, this is my life, and I'm going to take responsibility for my life. I see a lot of people struggling with this, in this area. I really want to tell them is that, they matter, and that they're feelings matter, and that they are never alone, and they are never worthless.

You don't realize how much that other person, if they're abusing you or cheating on you, is actually subtracting from you. When you get out of that situation, and you can finally become yourself again, you have so much more energy, you have so much more confidence, you have so many more opportunities. Everything gets better when you do the right thing, and when you take responsibility for your choice.

For me, a lot of my processing was done with my relationship with God. For me, that's what it was, and getting strength from that, and feeling like no matter what happens, or no matter what my spouse does, God's going to take care of me and my kids. I have a lot of peace in that, and that kind of kept me moving forward, and speaking truth to myself about his love, and how loved I was, and how accepted I was, and how empowered I was, and how my feelings are important, and how much I matter, and how valuable I am as a person no matter how beat up I was. You choose forgive because every single time I forgive, there's a weight lifted off of me, and there's kind of a blindfold lifted away. You never know what somebody else is going through. I'm always careful not to judge other people. If somebody's having a bad day, or behaving a certain way, it may be because they're in a situation that they feel very powerless in.

 

10. Shawn Blomberg

My name is Shawn and this my experience, strength and hope. A big part of my story, I think has been struggling with addiction, alcoholism from a young age.

Through high school, it progressed a little bit into smoking pot and going to parties and stuff. Just kinda regular high school stuff but I was always the person who went a little too far. One salvation, I think, during that time was I learned how to play guitar, which has been a big part of my story.

By the end of high school, I had gotten kicked out of my parents house. They were kind of sick of my crap. I've kind of dabbled in street drugs, I've dabbled in prescription drugs. They're one and the same, really, if they're abused.

I ended up actually overdosing and landed in the hospital and again, was presented with an opportunity to get some help, but I wasn't quite ready. I think people need to hit some sort of bottom before they're ready to get help, and I wasn't at the time. I was 18. I moved out to Oregon.

I think I only lasted about six months before I had lost my job. Was pretty strung out on meth. It's kind of one of those things that wherever you go, there you are. I just had kind of an emotional breakdown at that point.

It was kind of an awakening of sorts. I swallowed my pride and I called my parents and I asked them for help and I said I need to get help and they were able to get me into a drug rehab center and it was one of the best things that I had ever done. It was a breath of fresh air.

That was a really cool time in my life where I was able to get clean and sober for the first time and that was when I was 20. I had decided, when I think I was about a year clean and sober the first time that I was ready to move away again.

Things were going great. Maybe things were going too good. I don't know what it was. But I ended up starting to get back into using drugs and alcohol again.

Things were still looking good. I thought I can keep this under control. I got this covered this time. Everything started to unravel. Now, I can look back and see some of the things I've learned and I can be thankful for, but at the time, it was pretty rough going. I was not able to pay my rent all the time, crashing with this person, that person.

Wasn't very stable at all. But shortly after that, I had finished school and then, of course, things were going good and I had another relapse. And I kept thinking that it was somebody else's fault or trying to justify this or that and not really able to take a look at my own behaviors.

Finally caught up with me, basically ended up on the street, with a backpack of my stuff and my ukulele. I had basically sold or gotten rid of everything else. That was probably one of my lowest points. And I just remember thinking, "I need to do something different. This is not working. The universe is trying to tell me something. I've really hit a dead end here."

It was not a way to live. It was a way to die, basically. It was a blessing and a curse for me to be resourceful because even at my lowest point, I still wasn't ready to get back to what I knew was the right path. I took another side street.

Finally, my internal compass was just tired off and it was like, "I need to get home," and it was one of the turning points for me, was that piece of home, family, saying, "Hey, you're missing out on everything back here. You're missing your niece grow up. You haven't been a part of our lives. Like, we miss you, we love you. What's going on?"

I was able to get back to my people who were doing the same thing, living clean and sober and I had a support network back home and I was able to get back into my music, which is one of the one things that I was really missing and I feel like that's been my life's calling, is to do music.

I think it really was a higher power thing leading me back home. I was preparing myself for that next phase where I needed to get back to my program and I knew I needed to get clean and sober again, which I did, at 31. And I'm 36 now.

Since then, the transformation has just been incredible. It's been a really cool journey to come from having a backpack with a few items of clothing and through the grace of God and my family and all the support, I've been able to get back on my feet.

I've learned if I'm living in kind of a God-conscious space and not trying to run the show myself, things go a lot better. When I forget that is when things start unraveling and also living and following a program that works for me is key.

I feel like I'm much more compassionate. I think that being in place of struggle, I think I'm much more empathetic, realizing that everybody's going through what they're going through and you never know. Not everything's always on the surface.

It's been a good teacher for that. I think God works through people and reminders of, "Hey, maybe you should try something different, because what you're doing isn't working," so I think that was a major factor for me. That's key. It can't be for anybody else. It has to be for you.

I tried quitting for people and for girlfriends and for jobs, and none of it stuck. It was until I wanted something different for me and that's the point that gotta jump off and have some faith. If you're ready, there's Design for Living Networks and that you don't have to do it alone. There's a lot of people out there doing and they're amazing people.

 

11. Amanda Johnson

My name is Amanda Johnson, and this is my journey to becoming enough.

I grew up with this belief that in order to be loved, I had to be perfect. Do things perfectly, do things right, and anything that wasn't that, wasn't okay and therefore I would not be loved.

Then somehow I also convinced myself, okay. Something's broken, I'm not enough. I'm not good enough. I need to be fixed in some way. I spent my entire life thinking that I was broken.

On the journey, I know a lot of us sometimes say, well, what was that aha moment or what was that kind of turning point and I also like to joke a lot that I feel like my experience, my journey, my story, in and of itself hasn't been enough. This is where it started for me, was can I not be in judgment of even that?

Because, the judgment piece of it has been so debilitating for me and noticing the judgment was a huge turning point for me. I noticed for most of my life, and even til today, the critic in my mind is so loud. Constantly saying something.

It had something to say about anything that I did.

I always remember reading self help books. I just couldn't get enough of obviously something's wrong with me, what is the answer? I was gonna find it in the book, or I was gonna find it int eh other person. This led to years of me striving and also doubting everything that's in me already naturally.

There were all these books I just felt I had to consume, consume, consume and nothing seemed to be working, because inevitably I was in this vicious cycle that no matter how much I read, how hard I tried, I was still in the loop of it would never be enough.

At the age of 24 I could've been the very first in my family to get a divorce, and for someone who believes that she is not good enough or she needs to be perfect to be loved, that actually was a debilitating moment of decision making for me, because a divorce would be wrong, people would judge me, they wouldn't love me. I literally had the thought that I would be ostracized from the family if I got a divorce.

I remember, it was the feeling of unconditional love from other people that I had never given myself for so, so many years. I lived under the belief that that was impossible. Nobody could love me unconditionally. Well, of course nobody could love me unconditionally in my mind, because I didn't love myself unconditionally.

That's really for me what started my healing and my expansion into the work I wanna do in the world, knowing that it does start with me. As the more I cultivate it, the more I do see it in others. And i receive it from others.

For me, the piece of this that was so powerful was the observing what is without judgment. No matter what, that came from a couple of books that I read. The Power of Now, and the Untethered Soul and the messages of those books were all about being present, observing what is. Those were the key things I remember hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. I was like, "Oh my gosh. This is what it is. This is what I have been completely unwilling or unable to do up until this point in time."

That for me is an ongoing practice and the more I practice it of course, the easier it gets. I allow myself to stay out of the judgment long enough to say the thing I need to say, to do the thing the I do, and let it be. Then notice how the world did not come crumbling down around me.

And to be able to then relax, it's like I've lowered that shield and it is now so much lighter and I can breath more fully. And I am not constantly walking around like, "Oh my gosh, what am I saying? What did I do?" That constant editor, critic voice.

I honestly feel like my experience with life now is vastly different and much of it from something as simple as pausing, being present as much as I can, observing what is in the moment without labeling it, without jumping to worst case scenarios, without judging it as right, wrong, good, bad, and then allowing it to be what it is as often as I can.

We are all on our own journeys, and yes, we impact one another, and we are connected, and that doesn't mean running around and being careless. And that doesn't mean that I'm not responsible for my actions. It just means that I don't need to put so much weight and concern into what are other people gonna think of me?

I've gotten to a point in my life where, because I've been able to develop that unconditional love for myself, slowly but surely, I now trust that other people will also love me. I see that. When I am exactly who I am at all times.

The one thing I want people to know is that no matter how loud that voice seems to be, the truth of who you are is so much louder and will eventually make itself known. Just takes time, and it takes practice, and it takes patience. But eventually it will drown out the other voices, worries, fears, judgements.

I just encourage you to keep going.

 

12. Susan & Wyatt

Susan: My name is Susan

Wyatt: And I'm Wyatt and this is our story.

Wyatt: Mom, I love you so much. The following note expresses my feelings. They are all true, and I really need your help, please. You may not understand now, but you will later on. It's probably hard to accept all of this. Trust me, you need to.

Wyatt: I need all of your support and love. I am a boy. Please accept me. Love you so much. Wyatt, 2017.

Wyatt: Mom, I found an old picture I drew. On it, I had spiky hair, and a red t-shirt, and gray shorts. I was trying to tell you something, but I couldn't. I was too scared that you would be mad, so I hid it. I shouldn't have. It was who I felt I was meant to be.

Wyatt: Remember those huge fits I threw? I bet you do. Anyway, that was how I wanted to show you that I did not want to live as a girl. I want my hair to be long forever? Yeah, that's a lie. I'm sorry.

Wyatt: I've always dragged you to the boys' section of the stores. I did everything I could to be seen as a boy. Big smiles, spread from ear to ear, if I have male pronouns used for me.

Wyatt: Every day, I think, "Why did God make me this way?" From the age of three, I've hidden my feelings. It is very hard to hide your feelings when you are little. I want to be myself for once. I want to look and feel handsome. Every day, I think about being a girl and making my family happy, or being a boy and being happy and accepting myself.

Wyatt: Ever since I was two, I felt different. I'm a boy in a girl's body. I hate being called a girl. Please let me be Wyatt. I cannot live as Alexandra anymore. I want and need to be happy, but I also want my family to be happy, too. This is so hard. I want everyone to accept me as Wyatt and as a boy.

Wyatt: My feelings are very strong. There's no changing my mind. I am a boy. People force me to be a kid that I am not, but, no, my heart and mind are telling me I'm a boy. Can you please try to find something about a kid like me? Maybe a video, or a book, or something?

Wyatt: I don't know why so many people think I'm a girl. It might be wrong to feel this way. I don't know, but I do. Please accept me as Wyatt. Please. I don't want to live like this. Please let me get a boy's haircut. I need to be happy with myself. It's not your fault I feel this way, I promise. I'm just a boy stuck somewhere I cannot explain.

Wyatt: This isn't anyone's fault. I just feel this way.

Wyatt: Remember at Disney in 2014 when I was seven? I was so mad that I had to wear princess dress. I began to stay away from anything girly. I've always wanted to tell you all this. It's very hard to live this way. It's also very sad. Deep down on the inside, I'm a boy. On the outside, I'm a girl. It's sad and hard to live like this. I'm a boy named Wyatt, and I need you to accept it.

Wyatt: I want you to use male pronouns for me. We can do this together with a little work. This may be hard to understand, but my heart and mind tell me I'm a boy. It is hard for me, too. I want to be a boy always, but I can't unless you can help me.

Wyatt: Love you to the moon, to Mars, and to Jupiter and back.

Wyatt: Love, Wyatt.

Susan: While I was reading the letter, I was bawling, and to be perfectly honest, I had to run to the bathroom and be sick because it was so overwhelming and upsetting to me as a mom, and to know that my child had been growing so much her whole life that we didn't know, and we didn't understand. And just the sheer magnitude of the issue weighed heavily upon me. It was huge.

Susan: To see a child living authentically is so amazing because, at the age of 44, I am still figuring out what it means to live authentically, and to be who I am. And this life lesson I've learned through Wyatt has helped me to realize that it really doesn't matter what other people are thinking. It matters what we think as a family, and just looking at Wyatt and seeing the light in his eyes, and the brightness, the smile, the way that this kid who never wanted to be in pictures now takes selfies every day.

Susan: He has taken a selfie every day since April 3rd, 2017. He actually has filled up his device and has no more storage because of the selfies. And I will tell you what, I am very excited because of that. Because it means that you're proud of who you are.

Wyatt: I have 1,593 selfies.

Susan: We hit that year mark next week. I look back on this year and think, gosh, it feels like it's been ten years. It's just been the worst and the best year ever. And a couple weeks ago, Wyatt asked me, "Mom, was this the best year of your life? Because it definitely was the best year of my life," and I thought to myself, you know what? It really wasn't one I would've called the best year of my life, but it was the year that I found out who I really was through my son being who he really is.

 

13. Melissa Ellefson

My name is Melissa Ellefson and this is my story.

When Matt and I met, within a week I had truly felt that I will be with this man for the rest of my life. December 31st, 2009 Matt had gone to the gym and come home and coughed up blood and our relationship had degraded to the point where we had sought counseling, but we just didn't like each other. We perhaps loved each other, but definitely did not like each other. As the day went on, I got a call from him asking me to come to Avera and as I came in and I saw his face and I thought, "Gosh something is really wrong," and he had told me that we were waiting for some results from his doctor and when the doctor came around the corner I could just see in his eyes that our lives were going to change forever. Matt was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given eight months to live. When I woke up that morning, I couldn't imagine living with him and by that night I just could not imagine my life without him and something happened.

Something brought us together from being so distant and so disliking each other to just becoming one and uniting us as a team and being that team that we were always meant to be. He's been declared cancer free about six times during these eight years, so we've had high highs and horrible lows. Cancer can cause such fear in people, but we have not let that happen in our lives. I don't know if Matt is going to have another year. I don't know if he's gonna have ten or 20, no one does really, but I do know that when we get to the end we will never look back and know that we let fear rob us of any joy. Sometimes it's a minute, by minute decision to just, "listen, I'm not going to stay in this place of fear, I'm not going to stay here. I'm going to choose to show up in a different way."

Both of us are of strong faith and you can find reason and purpose within your struggles and if we wouldn't have chosen to find our purpose in the pain that we were experiencing, then Matt wouldn't, I doubt that he would be alive today because he would have lacked purpose and love and so much that he's been able to gain through cancer. He wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be the person that I was, but we had to make that conscious choice to do something with this situation that we're in. I had struggled with who I am as a person and something happened when I started giving updates about Matt's progress and his treatment and the more I was being authentic and telling stories that weren't pretty and just being really real, really, really real, I was able to connect with people and the more I connected and told my story, the more I felt that I was being my true-

 

14. Lori Dykstra

My name is Lori Dykstra and this is how I found joy again.

I'm surviving living without my son. He passed away of cancer when he was five years old. He had medulloblastoma which is a brain stem tumor and he was diagnosed when he was ... Just after his fifth birthday, and he battled for about 10 and a half months, and he passed away on December 27, 2003. That sounds like such a long time ago, but honestly, you still carry it with you every day.

I remember thinking early on that there was like never going to be a time that I don't feel this much pain and I can't get out of bed. But that's not true. People say time heals wounds. I used to think, whatever, that's not true. I don't know that it heals it, but you learn to carry it with you. I always say that ... They say time heals broken hearts. Well, no. It's a scar on your heart and you just wear it, and you wear it with pride and you figure out that that is something that you can use for good in your life. I've been able to take that pain and that heartache of losing him and honor it with my kids today.

I used to complain about the littlest thing. Even coming in here today, I talked about my kids being sick and it's a lot of work when they're sick. We're running them to soccer and here and there. People, my friends who complain about that to me, they always say, "Oh, I have to do this, I have to do that," and I say, "No, you get to do this, you get to do that." That's really the difference is getting through it and being able to use that, that pain and that loss, to appreciate the things in your life more.

I'd like to tell you that it was like a year, two, three years, but he passed away at Christmas time, and Christmas is one of my favorite times growing up. My mom makes Christmas amazing. She always made a big deal about Christmas and I loved it. But that took Christmas from me and I hated Christmas for many years. People think three, four years, yeah, you got over it and you're celebrating Christmas. It was year nine. Year nine, I finally said, "My kids now deserve a Christmas." I remember just looking at my two little kids and they wanted to go see Santa, and I was like, ugh. I had that sigh of like, ugh, I have to do this. Something just clicked in my head and I was like, I don't have to do this. I get to do this. I have two healthy children in front of me who deserve a Christmas. I'm healthy and capable. Like, get up off the couch, take them to see Santa.

When something bad happens to you, it robs you of the joy that you had in the little things. Allowing myself, giving myself permission to experience joy again was probably the toughest thing that I ever did. I still have to do it, remind myself sometimes that it's okay.

I look back now and think, wow, I really went far into my grief without letting anyone know how I was feeling. It was amazing. People would say things like, "Oh, she's so strong." I'm like, [inaudible 00:03:10]. I'd be in private just like gag. I'm not strong. I'm dying here. You just don't see it. I might go into the bathroom and cry, and then fix my makeup, and come out and go to a meeting, and you might not know that I'm upset, but that doesn't mean that I'm ... But they didn't it. They thought that I was being strong. Then I started to think I needed to be strong.

Strength doesn't come from not talking about it. At some point in my twisted grief, I thought strength was me stuffing it down and being okay and everyone seeing me poised and handling it well, or what I thought was handling it well. Actually, strength is when you can have conversations like we are right now and you're able to talk about it and be okay with it.

 

15. Chuck Blomberg

My name is Chuck Blomberg and this is my story of how I found something to believe in. By the time I was 18, I was a sniveling, self-pitying, violent alcoholic and really lost. I couldn't put words to what was going on with me then, other than there was something missing inside of me, just absolute emptiness. I couldn't figure anything out and I couldn't focus on anything. The only thing I could do was come up with all this negative stuff with my own thinking, continuous. There's something wrong with me, something wrong with me. The way I would gain control of those thoughts was either alcohol or to just do really crazy things so I could take all that inside stuff and feel like I had it focused and I could control.

I needed some direction, some place to go. I decided I was gonna join the Marine Corps. It was just me desperately trying to grab ahold of something to believe in. As I look back now, my whole search, my whole life has been searching for something to believe in other than me. In my mind, I'm gonna go to Vietnam, I'm gonna be this big hero and die. Well, didn't work that way. I survived Vietnam. Yeah, I got wounded, and as bad as that sounds, I was one of the lucky ones. The next thing I knew, and this is where the trauma for me started, I'm back home and I was supposed to somehow just become a husband, a father. I just couldn't do it, I absolutely couldn't make sense of anything, nothing at all.

So here I am, worse off than I was before I went to Vietnam, more of that missing piece. It's bigger than ever, absolutely unbelievable, just beaten, broken and not knowing what to do, other than a lot of speed, a lot of alcohol, a lot of drugs, a lot of stealing. Again, it didn't last, none of it lasted because it was all me pretending that I was okay. I was searching. I wasn't doing it in a good way, but I was searching. So when I hit that place where I got access to all the drugs and alcohol I could use, it just couldn't take care of that hole, and I had no solution.

That's when I said, okay, I couldn't do any more damage in people's lives. I just couldn't handle that anymore. There was no room for any more guilt and shame, remorse. That's when it started for me. I went to a treatment program, because I didn't have any choice, no options. It was either do this or stay miserable within myself and no solution. Alcohol and drugs were done. Everything I tried was done.

The one thing I know about me is I do have a thought disorder that I cannot not act on unless I believe in something greater than myself. I just can't do it, I can't stop, even now day. That thought disorder comes from trying to only believe in myself. So this program offered me an opportunity to believe in something other than me, which is pretty amazing. Then somebody said, "Chuck, you've got some insight, you've got some experience." I'm still feeling like the lowest of low, the worst of worst, nothing to offer, but a piece of me said that's all I got to offer is all these experiences I've had up to this point.

I made to December 30th, I will have been clean and sober for 38 years. I had some wonderful mentors, teachers. I had a 32-year career working with addicts and alcoholics. I think that's why I had so much success in this profession I chose, I just was able to listen and then I was able to relate my experiences to them, and I could be there for them so they weren't alone. I believe that's the worst thing that can happen to a person is when we're in that moment of powerlessness and the feelings that go along with it, if we're alone in it. I believe all of us that have suffered, and we all have suffered and had trauma, but I believe all of us that are continuously given opportunities, if we're willing to watch and see and hear and listen to other people to move through that trauma in a way we can't do on our own, that no matter what, we have to take responsibility somewhere to receive what's being given us. If we stay alone in that hole we're not going to see it, we're not going to feel it, we're not going to sense it. The big part is if you can just, don't stay alone. Anything like that, you can't solve it by yourself.

Just okay, somebody's out there struggling and they're doing all the right things, there's a place in this program I go to that we trudge the road of happy destiny. Meaning it's not meant, I don't think it's meant to be just a nice, straight line. That's not experiencing life, it just isn't. It's like there's a straight line to spirituality but my path is up and down and crosses that spiritualness. When I'm about ready to fall off is when I'm way out on the edge, and that's where it's important to have people.

I hope people know that there's a solution, but you got to stay willing. You just got to continue to be willing. It never did just happen for me. I had to do my part. I believe with my whole being that there is something that can give me the strength to do what I can't do on my own. So when I'm feeling that way, for 38 years one day at a time I stayed willing to hang onto that belief. No matter what I'm thinking, no matter what I'm feeling I do the things that keep me connected to that belief, and eventually it'll pass. Doesn't always feel good when it passes and it's not always wrapped up in a nice little picking like I'd like it to be, but it passes and life goes on. There is a way out, and I believe a way out of anything.

By the way, I never got to be the hero I wanted to be, but I survived, and I found out some things about myself that I would never have found out. There is a way to not stay a prisoner. There is a way to do it, but you got to be willing to do your part no matter what, and that's the hard part, finding that something to believe in that'll give you the strength to do what you can't do on your own, find something to believe in that you're willing to share and allow other people to be a part of with you. You can't do it on your own.

 

16. Sarah Jo

My name is Sarah Jo and this is how I healed.

I invited this guy over to my house one night. I opened the door and I let him in, and I didn't know that night he was going to rip my clothes off and force me onto my bed, and he started raping. Now, I had been a sexual assault advocate for a couple years. I gave trainings on what do you if you think you're at risk. How do you handle sexual assault? You need to report it. You need to get tested. Needs to be held accountable. I just let this man in my house to rape me, and I laid there and I blacked out, 100% blacked out and I let him rape me. I remember afterwards putting clothes back over me and I was so numb again, and he left. That night I got a sexual assault call. I got dressed and I went on that sexual assault call. You get trained when you work frontline to shut your life off, and that kicked in.

I shut what just happened to me off and I was the best I could be for that woman that night, and I did it. But emotionally, I didn't realize till later how emotionally hard that was for me. The next night the same guy came over. I had forgot he raped me already. I was so numb, I forgot, so I opened the door and I let him in. He started ripping my clothes off again and I remember him taking the side of my underwear and pulling it off, and something clicked with me, like "This isn't right." I remember screaming, "No," like "Don't." I remember scratching him, everything I say to do in a training to do. I tried kicking him and I kicked him hard and I was like, "No get off of me," and I was screaming now at the top of my lungs. Well he continued to rape me. He looked me dead in the eye and laughed and raped me.

I remember my daughter's stuffed animal was right here. This thing that has been through every living hell with this child was right there, and that was what gave me the power to kick him even harder. Even though he did finish raping me, I was able to kick him off of me, and I kicked him out of my house, but I was so ashamed as a sexual assault advocate. I couldn't tell anybody. Had I told anybody I would of lost custody of my children, so I kept quiet. I took a shower. Everything I know not to do. I took a shower, I washed my sheets. I made sure there was nothing of him left at my house. I crawled right back into that same bed and went to bed. Everyday in the shower, I saw that guy on top of me and I'm still silent. I'm doing a damn good job on the frontline, because now I get it. I get why people don't report. I get why people are so ashamed to tell people. I get why they want to shower 15 times a day.

A few months into it, I had lost it at work one day. I was like, "I can't." A sexual assault call came in and something about her story resonated, because I had a fully red quilt, and I don't remember if she was wearing red or what it was, but that was enough. I had lost it. My boss ... thank God I work with people that understand sexual assault, and I was like, "I can't. I can't." I remember freaking out. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't explain to anybody what was going on. I was hyperventilating and I just kept screaming, "I can't. I can't." Well what I was doing, was I can't take it anymore. I couldn't hold that in any longer and my boss actually went to my house and we took that comforter, and we couldn't burn it like we wanted to, but we threw it away in a dumpster far away from my house.

Her and another advocate went and bought me a whole new bedding. They cleaned my room. They changed it, because every single night I was going back under the same blanket he raped me under. Every single night I was reliving that sexual assault, but then I had to turn around and be like, "So I now need help," and that was humiliating. But I remember getting Donna there. Donna, she's like, "I get it." That's all it took was for that woman that wasn't working with me, but that one woman to tell me she got it, because I didn't report it was my biggest hindrance. I push, and push, and push for women to report it and hold these men accountable, and I didn't. I didn't. I remember telling the police officers that I work with about it. I was like, "I didn't report it." You know what, they also said, "I get it," so for once in this whole timeline so far, there were people that actually got it.

I hate to say it. It's because they've lived it. That's when people tell you they get it, they probably get it and sometimes that doesn't come from a textbook, but those are the moments as a community, and I think a huge part of what you're doing with this project and why it's so important, is because people that are going to be like, "That person gets it. That person gets it."

 

17. Wilson Kubwayo

My name is Wilson Kubwayo and this is how I found myself. One thing that inspires me to do what I do is because of my story. I grew up in a place that was not my own and that's a refugee camp. I have a long history and it's a history of poverty and disimprovement and that's what it is. But I also say I have a longer history and that's a history of resiliency and perseverance. I just grew up without any dream. You know how people encourage you to follow your dream and what about those who don't have dreams? At age 10 years old, that's when I realized like, "Oh, there is another world. There are other people around this universe that are living different lifestyles."

Then I started asking deeper questions like, "Why did I end up in a refugee camp or why did I end up in this situation?", which is a common question that many people ask when you are finding yourself in certain situations that you don't think you can get out by yourself. You ask yourself, "Why? Why me? Why did this happen to me? Why?" So I was like, "Well, maybe I don't deserve it. Maybe I grew up in a refugee camp because I'm just ... Nobody cares about me. I don't matter in this world." That's where the "Mind Virus" came from, just thinking that I'm not good enough just because of what happened in the past and a lot of people use their past to define themselves in the present tense.

But I realized you really, really have to work hard to get out of the situation that you're in or [inaudible 00:01:32], but at the same time you need somebody to give you that first hand out and just be able to help uplift you. That's what this country has been able to do for me. We're able to come to the United States in 2008 and I think that's when I ... You restored my hope back that I can actually achieve something because I was getting out of refugee camp. Then I admired my story, I was like, "Whoa, I am a survivor.", and I was like, "Well I must behave like one." You can not know where you're going unless you know where you have been.

It's very important to have mentorship in lives, because when you have somebody who is willing to believe in you, actually really, really believe that you can be something, you come to believe in yourself as well. Believing in myself was the first step that I took in my life. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "Gosh, I just wanna be miserable today." If something's not going right, you have to change it. You have to really find the new friends, new network, new environment, something like that to change a situation. I just remembered telling myself, "I wanna change." When you decide to change and when you really, really decide that you're not gonna be fake to yourself, you see the need and you're like, "I just wanna change." When you make that decision, i think there's something different about it that makes you want to try it, because I found out that success is as addicting as failure.

For me, I was like, "Okay, I know where I wanna go. I now have this dream, I now have this goal, why can't I do every single day to get there?" It's a matter of keeping the consistency. Being consistent with what you are trying to achieve. You can not eat an elephant in one bite, and how do you eat an elephant? You have to chop it up into smaller pieces. Simple as that. The main decision that I made was to go to classes every day. That was simple for me. I was like, "I have to attend classes every day, no excuse." I think attendance in everything that we do matters.

The second decision that I made was to use positive attitude like a positive approach on everything, whether it caused trouble, whether if something was going on, whether somebody belied on me or whether really somebody was at fault and they said that I was, I approached them differently from what I used to do. Freedom is not to do what you want to do, sometimes freedom means to do what you are to do and that's what I've learned. One thing that I learned was this quote by Les Brown, he said, "Ask for help not because you are weak, but because you want to remain strong." And most of the time we tend to act like everything's good. We tend to act like we're okay.

When I began in opening up to people and to really expressing myself and telling people, "Hey, this is where I am, this is what I need.", I realized I asked for help because I wanted to be this person that I was striving to be and that I knew I had it in me. It's just a matter of how can I really bring it out? How can I bring out the best of me, the true Wilson Kubwayo? And for me was that, it was ask for help not because you're weak, but because you want to remain strong. That's what I did and life just opened up. If you don't know something, it's very difficult to improve it and the best way is to be open to your community, to be open to others, to be open to friends, and that's where it starts. It starts from getting access to somebody you can be comfortable with in sharing about who you are, sharing what you want to accomplish. That's where it is and that's what I would like to share with all of you.

 

18. Sabreena Schmitz

My name is Sabreena. This was my struggle and this is what I want you to know.

I feel like my story has kind of been going on for a long time. It had been about five years, no baby, so we decided to seek some fertility help. And then, of course, as everybody redundantly says, "Stop focusing on it, stop focusing on it and it will all happen," and it did. And so we found out MJ was going to be a part of the picture.

It was kind of one of my a-ha moments when I do look back, you know, we're ordering our pizza, there's the most darling gentleman by the counter, you can tell he clearly has special needs, and I don't tend to be an emotional person and it evoked so much emotion in me. And I had looked at my ex-husband and I said, "I don't know what it is but I don't know if I could ever be a parent to a child with special needs." And that night I had come out of the bathroom and just collapsed and I knew something was not right. So that was the moment that we were just kind of in the dark all of a sudden, all of this light and all of this excitement of having a child and all these things that we had waited for suddenly were just unknown.

So baby arrives and they're about to whisk him off to the NICU or wherever they're going to take him, again it was just one of those heart sinking moments where we had no idea what to expect. He was 26 weeks and four days when he was born, two pounds seven ounces. We come to find out that MJ was hemorrhaging and at that point they told us likely he would not survive. We had a neonatologist who basically at that point and time explained what was happening with the hemorrhaging, explained that she believed the best course of action would be removing him from all forms of life support and allowing him to pass, and making that call on her own. And I had said, "We don't even understand what's happening, how are we supposed to make a decision of that caliber? I just don't understand." And I said, "If the good Lord wants to take my child home despite all your means of keeping him alive, the good Lord will take him home. I'm not making that decision."

At that point had so many unknowns. So MJ had a VP shunt placed in his head, I think that was the moment things set in that life was really going to be different. I don't know if it was a feeling, I don't know what it was, but I said, "I know God has placed me here for a reason and I can't go back. This is where I'm supposed to be."

Last three and a half years were surgery, rehabilitation, surgery, rehabilitation. And despite all of the negative outlooks that we were given in the NICU, though he didn't do things normally, he wasn't doing things on time, he was still doing things. We were essentially pretty much told he would be comatose, he would have zero quality of life, and I said, "We're going to figure this out, we're going to do this." And we knew for the rest of his life MJ would have brain surgeries and the neurosurgeon came back in and he said, "Sabreena, I don't know how else to say this, because this defies everything that I have studied, but he doesn't need the shunt anymore." And it was at that day that I knew this kid was going to just move mountains.

About two years ago now, we removed about half of MJ's brain and when were actually cut loose from the hospital we left with more diagnoses. That was the big question, "Can I even do this?" He ended up suffering a really bad seizure. For 24 hours MJ didn't require these drugs that he was needing to keep him normalized and what have you, and so this chronically ill child I basically was caring for around the clock had a seizure one day and came home more of a normal child than he once was. He just passed his first two swallow studies, which they told us he would never do, he would never get rid of his G-tube, he would be tube fed for the rest of his life. All of these times where they said, "This isn't possible, this isn't medically possible," and it happened. I just feel like we were given so many miracles and so many things to celebrate.

I think the biggest thing I want people to know is that I had some bad days and that was okay. I think that we got through that journey because I never allowed myself to do it alone and I never allowed myself to suffer in silence because I realized in the journey too, where a lot of people told me my child wasn't and my child wouldn't and that we couldn't, that we had that last say. At the end of the day there's always a way, when they say there's a will, there's a way.

I'm just happy to be where we are now and I'm just so happy for MJ. And I'm proud of him and everything that he has done and continue to prove that you don't know what the end result is until you know, and even then I just don't ever think it's the end. He is what has kept me going, he is going to do whatever he's meant to do. I think that that's what we have learned the most, is knowing that you're blessed for everything you've been given and it's not a curse, even the bad things that you go through. They've made me a much more patient individual, they've made me more understanding, and they have made me more of an advocate for not only my son but for other people. And for the first time in a very long time I realized how and learned how to put somebody else before myself, and I think that is one of the most beautiful gifts that you can ever have. And out of this entire journey that's what I would say would be the best thing that's happened.

 

19. Chelsea Tracy

My name is Chelsea, and this is my journey to finding my authentic self. Growing up I always had self confidence issues, like most girls do, right? And me and my dad didn't have a very good relationship growing up, so I felt like I was always looking for that love, like someone to love me. And my mom loves me more than anything in this world and my sisters love me like crazy, but it was that male kind of affection that I was searching for.

So my love language is words of affirmation, and that was something that I found... I'd never really received that from anyone else. So he knew my love language, like the back of his hand. He knew all the right things to say to me, and it was always the things he said. He didn't really do a lot of actions, but that's not my love language, so I didn't really care if he wasn't living up to the things he was saying. But he was saying what I wanted to hear, because he knew exactly what I wanted to hear, and how to make me feel loved. And so I married him because he filled that hole that I was missing. And the building collapsed downtown, and I was living in Utah at the time, and I found out, and I was just a wreck. Like, I was just so upset about it; I was just bawling and bawling.

I went in there and I was like, "I'm just so sad about this, I can't imagine how his family's feeling and his brother that got out, and he has this girlfriend who has a new baby", and just all this stuff. And I just ... was just so sad about it, and he turned over and looked at me and was like, "Chelsea, people die every day", and then turned back over and just totally blew me off.

And I left and called my mom, and I was just driving around just bawling, and telling her what was going on. And she said, "Chelsea, that's not the guy you married; he's not empathetic and compassionate. He's not the same person as you are." And it was just like, "How did I not see this for so long, that we're not the same people."

I was always just super silly and loving and caring and was just there for people when you need 'em and was that person that you called on when you needed something or you needed to laugh. I was that person, it was like, I was so shut in and was trying to be this perfect human for him and his perfect wife and this perfect giver and just everything, that I got so far away from that person that I was. And my mom said I turned super judgemental and the three people you hang around most is who you become like, and when that person is your husband, you start picking up those traits and being him. And I hate that. I hate that's who I was and who I was becoming, because it's so far away from who I actually am. And so I started ... and like I said, I was putting up this wall to be like this perfect person, and I didn't let anyone in, I didn't let anyone know what was going on in my life. I was always like, "Oh, I'm so happy!" and ... when really, I was dying on the inside and so unhappy and didn't know how to be happy any more.

And so being able to be open and honest about how I'm feeling now ... I'm not having to hide behind a wall. I think that's created such deeper relationships for me, because when you put down the wall and you're more vulnerable, people then actually see who you really are and they want to be closer to in those moments. So being okay with who I am, flaws included ... It's okay if my thighs are a little bit thicker than I'd like them to be or I have a dull acne now or whatever it is, I just love me for who I am, because I am a good person and I don't have to be anything more than who I already am. Just being able to be in a relationship now that's so real, and meaningful, and I don't have to pretend, I don't have to be someone I'm not, I can just be 100% me, and he loves me for exactly who I am, in spite of all of my flaws.

The biggest thing is, you have to know who you are first before you can even be in a relationship. If you don't know who you are, then you can't make yourself happy. If you go out and you try to find someone to fill those holes to make you happy, then you're going to end up short every time. You're going to end up pretending to be happy. And that person, if something happens and they're not able to be there for you 24/7, like you need them to, you're going to drown. You can't rely on anyone else to make you happy. And that was the hard thing for me to realize and to figure out, and I think it's something a lot of 20 year olds deal with. Like how do you be happy without someone else? How do you be happy when you're not in high school and you don't have sports or the play, or your parents to rely on? And you have to find it within yourself. It's really hard, but once you can get to that point, your life will change forever. Like the saying goes, can't fill someone else's cup if your cup isn't full.

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

And I think that's for anything, whether your mom or in a relationship, or a friend. Have to make sure you're happy first.

 

20. The Willard sisters. Jackie, Frankie, & Jordan

Jackie: Our names are Jackie.

Jordan: Jordan.

Frankie: Frankie.

All sisters: And this is our journey of healing.

Jordan: I looked back at my younger self and looked at other people that lose a parent. I think for my journey the biggest thing that I would've wanted to hear and want to tell people is, you are not alone. You're really not alone. There's people around you that have so much love for you and, most of all I think for me and what other people need to hear is that, God isn't found outside of your suffering. He's not like waiting for you outside of that and waiting for you to figure it out and to be okay. He has experienced so much suffering and he knows what it's like, and he wants to be there for you and he wants to hold you and to comfort you. And so, to receive that gift, you're just invited to talk to him. Yeah, you're not alone.

Jackie: Every year, on the date of his passing, we would like pull something on Facebook and people would always comment. And I was always like, "Oh, I don't want to do this." But I also wanted to just like remember him. And I remember one year I asked people on my Facebook to like share a memory of him. And I think that was the one thing that helped me and I still continue to look back at that status because it's just good to like hear things about him and keep being reminded of him. And so, I think just in different forms of grief you really have to find what helps you in that one day where it just hits you. Like, not every day you're going to feel sad about it but, when that one moment hits you, you've got to understand, okay, how am I going to get through this. What's going to help me?

Frankie: My grief came up in a big way moving away and I think it's because I was separate enough from my sisters, away from them enough where I think God opened that door for me to grieve. Like, it was okay to grieve because I wasn't so close to them and, you know, just proximity wise.

Jackie: Just coming from an older sibling, it was really important for me to make space to grieve without feeling the pressure of having to take care of younger siblings. And that was probably the most powerful for me was allowing myself to grieve. And it didn't come til years later. It was almost a decade later that my dad had been gone. And being in Denver and, seeing as I was seeing a counselor and a spiritual director because my grief was just so raw again. And through all of that, it allowed me to see, like Jordan said, you're not alone. And for my walk, that was God showing me that, "I was there with you the entire time. I am with you. I will always be with you."

Jackie: And, it took me going back into those memories because I didn't allow myself to see God in those moments. I didn't allow myself to even grieve in those moments because I was trying to protect them. And so, to go back into those memories of, you know, him dying and just things even after that, just to say, "I'm with you, and you don't have to be strong." Like, that was huge to just let go in those memories and to be sad.

Jackie: And it was important for me to forgive myself for how I grieved too, back then. Like, you know, for some people that are going to hear this, they may be not grieving until later on, or even know that they have to grieve. Like, I didn't know that I had to grieve. I don't even know if I really grieved. So to go back into those memories and to see God, or to go back into them and to look at your fourteen-year-old self, or whatever age you were and say, "It's okay to be sad there," and to just let it out.

Jordan: Like say, you're not alone. And your world seems so small and you feel so big in your world. But people lose important people every day and there's somebody else going through whatever you're going through at the time. And grieving is a process that is so different for everybody. And it will never look the same, so don't ever compare yourself to anyone else's grief. It's never going to look the same, you're not going to feel the same way. Even if you do something that someone else is doing to grieve, it's never going to make you feel the same way it's making someone else feel. But grief is awful and it's hard but it's something that it's good to work through.

Frankie: Being younger, I would say a little differently. Like, they said it was really hard to get me to talk. So I wrote down a lot of stuff that was going on in my head. I still have the journal. Jordan sent me some pictures of him ...

Jackie: I know.

Frankie: ... and just writing down memories that you don't think you'll forget that you might, so it's really ... it was really helpful for me. Like, just in the middle of the day you remember something about your dad or the person you lost and just write it down. No matter what you think, no matter what it is, I just had to write it down because going back and reading it has been really helpful for me because I didn't talk to a lot of people. And that really helped me.

 

21. Robert Swaney

My name is Robert and this is me.

We pluck the petals from the flowers that grow from our fingertips because we are scared to shoe this world our truest colors. But nothing is more beautiful than the bosquet you hold in your hands, so let your flowers bloom.

My dad, he left my mom before I was even born, and my mom struggles with mental illness, so she's schizophrenic. And so, she was in and out of mental institution in Yankton and then in and out of jail as well. Just some of the trouble she got in while she was struggling with some schizophrenic issues, so that's why we ended up with my grandparents.

I was kind of always seen like the normal one, so I wasn't on medication and I got good grades. School was easy for me and I was good in sports. It put me in this place of where I felt like I couldn't be honest and open about my own issues in my own head because I felt like I had to be the one ... I was the normal one, so I had to have it together.

Growing up, keeping it all to myself, I backed myself into this lonely corner where I just felt like it's just me and this issue and it's just me against this thing and I can't defeat this thing myself so I'm just gonna fold and just let it run it's course on me.

I dropped out of college and that was a big turning point for me. It's when I decided that I'm not a good person that anything I do, I'm gonna ruin, like anything I touch is gonna break. And so, I remember calling my grandma and telling her I'm dropping out and they wanted me to come home. They took care of us and I mean I actually was a good person, but I didn't feel like it, and I told them I didn't even wanna come home. I said I've burdened you guys enough, so I ended up in Sioux Falls when I was 19 and I didn't work for about six months. I had some money saved up from college and I just, I did nothing for about six months.

I burned through all that money and then got in debt and I eventually got a job at McDonald's, but I thought I was this huge terrible person. Things just started spiraling and I got into a ton of debt. I wasn't paying my bills and I hated myself and I just thought I was this terrible person and I'm just like, it was just like the mental illness [inaudible 00:02:22] my family. I just thought I'm just like everyone else and I'm gonna have the same struggles and I convinced myself that that was just my destiny.

The lowest point I hit was I had a ticket, it was just a silly little seatbelt ticket that I didn't pay. They revoked my license because I didn't pay it. I dint know they revoked my license because I wasn't getting the mail because my mail was going to some old address. And so, I got pulled over for a tail light that was out and if you're in possession of a suspended license, you get arrested. So, I got arrested and that was the most terrifying thing for me, just for someone who was like the good kid, the good kid in school.

It was just this low point because I was like, I'm not doing drugs. I'm not drinking. I'm not any of these things and still I'm in this ... I still feel terrible. I'm still in this terrible place, like why am I not a good person, why am I not capable of doing good things.

I think for the longest time I thought I needed to fix myself. I'm a bad person, I need to make myself good. And then, I was like well that's never gonna happen, so I gave up. When the reality was I just needed to love who I was because I was a good person. I think that was the turning point where I was able to see, okay Robert, you do have potential and you can get out of this mess. You are capable of getting out of this mess. There's people that love you, but you need to love yourself first before you can open the door to that help. Allow yourself to say, you know what, I'm gonna be okay. There is good in me. I am a good person and there's people that love me.

One thing I talk a lot about is this idea that it's okay to not be okay. It's not about fixing everything. There's always gonna be stuff we can work on with ourselves and there's always gonna be stuff in our life that we actually can't fix. And so, I think that's a good starting point of just eventually, and it's not like you can't do it in the snap of a finger, but eventually being able to be at peace with that idea that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay to let yourself be emotional and let yourself be vulnerable.

You are a flower, so bloom. You are a songbird, so sing. You are a branch, so sway. You are a river, so flow. You are a light, so shine. You are you, so be you.

 

22. Jillian Gunlicks

My name is Jillian, and this is what I want you to know. I don't really know exactly what happened because we got home and we were like hanging out for a little bit, and I don't remember anything after that really. The next thing I remember was waking up in my bed and he was having sex with me. I mean, it was just hard, it was trying to wrap my mind around what happened, and not knowing exactly what happened, and I just felt really confused about the whole thing. Even right after that I had people telling me, I would tell somebody what happened and they'd be like, "Oh, that's not rape” And I was like, "Well yes it is" because I felt completely violated.

I think that one of the hardest things for me at that time was not really knowing, and that was really hard at the beginning for me, because I was not knowing what to even myself think about it, much less have some people tell me “That wasn't rape." Even though I felt like it harmed me. I was just crying and not feeling like myself, not knowing what to do, and knowing that there was like so much healing that I had to do, and not knowing where to start.

The things that helped were the support groups, and just time. I felt very distant from everybody in my family and the people closest to me, because I just felt like they had no idea what I was going through, and I didn't know how to communicate that. I just felt very closed off on people. It was hard to feel so disconnected from people that I've always been so close to, because I've been really close to my family.

It is a fine line with like saying, "Oh, I know what you're going through," or "I know how you feel," to somebody. Because every experience is so different. But I think just being vulnerable and just being open and saying like, "This is what happened to me, and if you need to talk about I'm here, I'll listen." I think that's all I would ask for.

So I mean, there's just a lot I think right now around what you would call rape. If you feel violated, if you feel like you did go a little too far and then maybe said, "No, we shouldn't do this, no, stop." I feel like the definition can only be for the person in that situation, because if it damages them and if it affects them emotionally, like then that is rape. I mean, I had anxiety, I had all of these things happen to me after this that it's like, no matter what you say, no matter like if I tell myself, "Well, I was just a little too drunk." That doesn't matter, because I was affected negatively, I was emotionally affected by this, it was really hard, and I think that's all that matters.

All I know is that how you feel after it happened and if you feel like it was rape, then it was rape. Because I feel like if you don't own that or if you don't acknowledge that, then it's going to be really hard to heal after it.

For me it was when I got pregnant I guess for some reason I knew that everything that had happened to me was for a bigger purpose. That rape and what had happened to me then was for my daughter. I realized that I'd gone through that so she wouldn't have to. That's when it shifted.

I definitely feel like I am a lot stronger now than before. I mean, it's a lot to have to navigate and figure out, and all those struggles, the traumas, the things that we go through, it takes a lot to figure out how to heal from them. Once you start doing that, it gets easier and you get stronger. Because I think that even me sitting there trying to figure out what happened, that didn't do anything for me, that just put me back in the same cycle of experiencing it over and over again, trying to figure it out. I sat there and replayed it over and over and over in my mind, and that's not healthy. So it's just letting go of not knowing and letting go of trying to figure it out. So if you just acknowledge how you feel about what happened, and then work to heal that, I think that's what you need to do.

I dont think even casting blame on anyone is going to make you feel better. I definitely want people to know that you don't necessarily have to figure it out. You have to acknowledge how you feel and accept how you feel and how it's affected you, and go from there. It doesn't matter what anybody else says, it doesn't matter even what you think. You've been hurt and you need to acknowledge that and just start to try to heal.

I want to make sure that anybody that's gone through something similar, I want to make sure they know that it's not their fault and that no matter what anybody says or what you think, it's not your fault. You can get through it, you can move past it. It will get easier. But you just need to accept what happened and start to look forward and do things that make you feel good, and search for what's going to help you, because it's going to be different for everybody, so search for it. And maybe the first thing you try isn't going to be it, but if you keep on taking those steps and you keep on trying, then you can heal from it and it will get better.

 

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