“Smash it all, the source that locked me in the darkness and harassed me / I try to get out but there’s no way out until I find the exit / Pretending it’s for me, the voices disregard my dream / I don’t want to get hurt any more, I close my ears and walk my way.” -Stray Kids
Mid-interview, I ask her, “What is the hardest part about being you?”
She answers instantly, “My mind.” And I’m quiet because I would’ve said the same thing, most days. Hers and mine are stories that overlap in that we both know pain, we both know self-hatred, we both know the dark, we both know the late nights that will forever haunt us. But we’re both here, both healing.
There’s something so fascinating to me about meeting someone smack-dab in the middle of their story and asking them to fill you in. It places them in control of their own narrative, which means that it’s up to them to show you who they are. Meeting someone one-on-one to talk about their life just drops a veil–all the complexity of social interactions fades into simplicity.
On a Thursday evening, back in September I met someone smack-dab in the middle of her story and, even though she might hesitate to admit it, hers is a beautifully, raw story that is continuing to be redeemed through faith, love, and family.
She’s the sort of person who tells you to be safe when you’re on your way to meet her, but she doesn’t know it. She’s the sort of person who says, “I’ll buy,” but doesn’t know it. She’s the sort of person who fights for the people around her, but she doesn’t know it. It’s just who she is and who you are is typically not something you think about. You just do, you just are, you just keep doing you.
I know all this because she did the first two things within thirty minutes of each other and then the third thing she showed me throughout the two-hour conversation we had that night at Starbucks. Her go-to is an iced caramel macchiato and mine is a pumpkin spice latte. I stood behind her in line, looking up at the menu but then she motions for me to order and slides her card through. “That’s so sweet,” I tell her, touched that someone who’s practically a stranger would show that type of empathy but again, that’s just who she is.
We head outside, mid-September breezes and a patio full of green umbrellas and tables. We take the furthest table we can find, away from loud customers and loud music, and talk for thirty minutes before remembering the original purpose of her meeting me.
She, like me, has lived in Greenville, SC her entire life. But her dream job is to be a traveling photographer, living in someplace like Colorado. For now, she’s in the stage of figuring it out and I nod along knowingly, emphatic. She works at a coffee shop and loves spending her free time either driving around and listening to music or hanging out with her family–her brothers and sisters in law, nieces and nephews, parents, and last, but certainly not least, her cat. Her family is the constant in her life, having helped her navigate some tough times.
“Caring, empathetic, loving, sometimes carefree, I enjoy the little things in life,” she tells me when describing herself. A nonjudgmental person, she wants everyone she meets to know what they did in their past doesn’t define them. It’s a lesson she knows all too well.
“That describes anything anyone would need to know about you,” I tell her. She doesn’t know to what extent, but she’s the only person I’ve ever interviewed and felt chills when hearing her story. When you talk to her, you can almost see how deep her soul goes like God placed her on earth to help him spill out love and beat back the darkness. But to shine so bright, you’ve got to know darkness. We wrap up the basics—childhood, family, cats, dreams, and goals—and I tell her we’re headed into deeper waters. She nods.
High school, she tells me, was when she thought she’d hit rock bottom. It was a time of dealing with self-harm, depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. Her family was the surrounding force that stepped in and took her to get help, her spending six months in a rehabilitation center that helped her both identify what was going on in her brain and also begin her healing process. Since that time in her life, she explains, she’s hit rock bottom since but keeps fighting. She describes an emotionally abusive relationship that almost took all the progress she’d made away, but she mustered up enough courage to leave. She tells me about another time where the person she loved decided he wasn’t right for her and that triggered the eating disorder, but she kept fighting.
“So what I’m hearing,” I conclude at one point during the interview, looking at her across the table, “…is that you’re a survivor.”
She says it quietly, “Yeah.”
I ask her how she would describe finally coming out of a dark time, feeling that hope is alive again. “When you see that glimpse of hope, it feels like you just surfaced on top of water that you were currently drowning in,” she explains and I can hear the rawness in her voice, unfiltered.
I nod, murmur, “Yeah,” because I know exactly what she means by that.
“What does it mean to be brave,” I ask, pausing to give her time to find the answer. It’s a question I don’t ask everyone, but I had to know what she’d call it because the word is all but stamped to her forehead.
“To me being brave, from my past experience, is to push away your fears. Push away your fears of rejection, of someone being angry at you, and to just speak your truth. Speak how you’re feeling and to be vulnerable and to show how you’re feeling to people and letting them know how they’re making you feel. And I think being brave is also walking away from things that you don’t want to, but you need to. And just, no matter how hopeless you feel, being brave is continuing to go when you don’t want to.”
I’m quiet for a second, not sure how to respond. “I think that’s a beautiful definition,” I tell her.
I ask her to tell me about the hardest part of being her and she tells me about her diagnosis. Recently, she says, she went back to a psychiatrist who took the time to listen to her and went into more specific detail for a diagnosis than what she’d previously been given. Manic depression, was what the first doctor had diagnosed, but this psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. The hardest part can be relationships, she explains, where it’s hard to be understood when she’s having a rough day. “I just want people to understand that I’m not what I’m diagnosed as, you know, I might go through my mood swings; I might have a really bad day and go off on you. And I want them to know that it’s not meant to be personal and I’m not trying to do that to be rude—I’m trying to control it and it gets very hard and it just…” she pauses, “I just want them to know that I’m not my mental illness. My personality, my being is not my mental illness. I’m not defined by that. That’s one thing that just I wish people would understand because a lot of people don’t.”
“What are you here to do?” I ask her, tilting my head and watching the way she tells her story. She’s here, she says, to spread peace and happiness while also spreading awareness for mental illness. Her story is one that she wants to use to help other people reach out for help when they need it. Her goal is to show others that while times may be difficult, there’s still hope.
“How do you find purpose in your day-to-day life?” The question is one I ask frequently because it’s an answer I’m still looking for myself.
“Some days I can’t, honestly,” she says quietly, “Some days I can’t.”
Her family is a large part of where she finds purpose, she says. She’s got younger nieces and nephews, she explains, and they are a large part of why she works so hard to hang on and continue to heal. She wants them to grow up and see that, while she went through hard times, those times don’t define her and she overcame them, so if her nieces and nephews ever go through a hard time they’ll know she’s there for them and loves them no matter what.
Her older brother is another reason she keeps working towards finding healing. He lives across the country, but that doesn’t keep him from being her world. He was instrumental in her reaching out for help, telling her, “I love you. You’re going to get through this,” she recalls. And now, he’s instrumental in her road to recovery, she says as she tells a story about a time he walked in to find her after she’d harmed herself. He never cries, she explains, but that night he’d cried after seeing her and that memory is one that keeps her from harming herself again. The thought of hurting him by hurting herself is too much.
I ask her to describe what she’d tell someone who’s going through a hard time and she responds with passion in her voice, “You are worth so much more than you think, “she says, “And you have so much to offer this world. You might not know what you’re good at right now, you might be in a funk where you can’t see what you’re good at, but you’re good at something and you’re going to find that out and once you find that out you’re going to be like, ‘Holy crap.’ Whether it be writing, whether it be making music, anything. They’re going to be able to share their stories through that–they’re going to be able to tell people, ‘Listen, I was there. I came out of it. I’m a better person.'”
I ask her what her epitaph would be, my favorite question of the interview because it’s more about legacy than it is anything else. It’s a way of asking, “Who do you want to be?” But for her, I’m really asking, “Who are you? Who are you fighting for?”
She thinks for a minute about what her legacy will be, then says, “She came, she fought, and she conquered.”
“You bet your ass she did,” I tell her. It’s an unsophisticated response, rough around the edges, but it’s the only thing I know to say.
Finally, I ask her if there’s anything she’d like to say. It’s the end of the interview and she tells me all the ways she wishes people would reach out when they need it because the last thing she wants to hear is that someone believed they didn’t matter. “Don’t lose hope,” she says, “Don’t. Because there’s such a bright future for you and you can’t see it, but it’s there.”
We end the interview, I close my notebook, and I can still feel God’s presence. This kid is special and I grab her hands and pray hard for her, that she would know who she is and keep fighting. I give her the biggest hug and leave that Starbucks in awe at God and the stories he’s always weaving and the paths he’s interweaving with mine and all the ways he’s bringing us all out of the dark.
#6, I can’t wait to see where you go, kid. I can’t wait to see all the ways you shine and bring other people into healing and light.