What speaking at TEDx taught me

What speaking at TEDx taught me

Sitting across a researcher who I had worked many years with, discussing a new project I was working on, I noticed my phone ringing. Normally, I would just press ignore and continue focusing on the task at hand. But for some reason, this time, I answered it.

I think I have must have looked like a ghost. Or like I won the lottery. Either way my jaw was on the ground, my voice pitch high and my arms moving in random directions.

They had asked me to speak at TEDxWaterloo.

I had approached the organizers about the work I do for mental health, and submitted an application assuming nothing would ever happen. I even took a volunteering role assuming that I would not get in. But it happened.

To be honest the next thing that hit was pure fear. There was no way in hell I was good enough to be on that stage. I felt like I had tricked them into liking me, and all I was going to do was disappoint them all.  For weeks I could not even think of the possibility of it happening without shaking.  I honestly I just felt like a huge scam.  There are many better and stronger mental health speakers that deserved the opportunity I got.

I honestly thought about running away, about dropping out and not doing it. Because I have a secret to tell you, as much as I might look all cool on TV and stage it scares the living fuck out of me. Every time.  I don’t want to show it because then people feel bad about asking me to share.  I know it’s something that needs to be said, and I want to say it. Doesn’t mean sharing my naked soul in front of thousands of people ever gets easy.

I visited mindyourmind to bounce ideas off professionals and try and make it real for myself. ML and I worked and we came across the idea to use the superhero metaphor and telling people that change comes when you know someone belongs to a group but your treat them as you would treat anyone else. When you act like a decent human being regardless of whether they are mentally ill or not.

As I left London I felt good having a theme. But I did not have talk yet. And much to the surprise of many people, I would avoid actually writing to the talk (out of fear) till about a week in advance.  It was not until I freaked out in my friend’s kitchen that I sat down with her and started putting words to pictures.  It finally became real, and I spent an entire week living in constant fear about screwing up. Stress dream after stress dream I bugged everyone I knew into hearing it.

As I practiced, it became clear that many people did not know how to handle this information. They look at me with pity, trying to find the words to say to make it better.  They look at you from afar like some strange creature they do not understand but would love to approach. To be honest I found the whole thing amusing. It shows that it doesn’t matter how well you craft the words, some people will never get that mental illness can and does happen to anyone. There will be people who get it, people who cry and people who tell you their story in return. They make it worth it.

The first time I stepped on that stage for my practice run, as my friend said “shit just got real”.  I felt nervous but after going through a practice run with all the light changes and strange happenings that night before prep entails it seemed like it wouldn’t be that bad.

Yeah. Right.

When the day rolled around, I had my own dressing room to hide in and freak out.  I left the theatre during the day to visit my friends’ final year design projects to stop myself from peering into the growing crowd and crying myself into a corner.  I wore the more badass super hero shoes I could find and tried to put on my best big girl face.  Backstage was a really cool experience, with amazing people working really hard to make the day the best it can be. The volunteers helped me get food (way too much food for my nervous tummy) and my friends who were volunteering even sat in the back room with me. Without the company I think I might have actually ran away.   As the day passed I watched other talks, watched people nail it again and again.  Eventually, they called me back stage to get miked up.

I don’t think I have been more scared for anything in my life. Not when I walked into a psych ward, or heard that my mother had cancer.  I stood back stage peering out into the crowd and did all I could to stop from crying. Eventually, he announced me and I walked on stage. I had never understood what it felt like to have your knees shake until that moment.  As I started to speak, they shook more and more.  Than something magical happened.

My slides stopped working.  And everything was alright.

After something actually did go wrong (and the world didn’t end I calmed down. I went through my speech and felt more natural. That doesn’t mean however that when I finished the speech I didn’t have the overwhelming desire to kiss the ground and fall asleep right after getting off the stage.

It was done!!

Afterwards, the experience of shaking hands and hearing stories was amazing. Getting hugs from people or even a simple thank you for sharing made the whole thing worthwhile.  A girl even told me, “I hope that you know that you were my intentional superhero today, I want to finally get help.”

The funny thing about speaking is how people approach you after. They circle you, almost hunter like, almost trying to work up the courage to talk to you.  People assumed that overcoming being suicidal and being able to give that talk was something internal to me. That made me better than them. What you don’t realize is it’s the environment almost more than it is the person. I was able to beat it because I have an amazing support network. I am able to speak to you because of the amazing people at TEDxWaterloo.  Assuming that the outcomes represent the entire person isn’t good. Because, after all, isn’t that what we say to people with depression? We look at what has happened to them and blame them entirely? As humans we can forget the impact of the environment, biology and endless amount of other factors.

As the days went by after TEDx a couple things became extremely clear.

  1. These things never have the effect you think they are going to have. Yes, you get recognized on occasion and small things change. But really, you are still you. At some point, you have to go back to being a student and speaker and start working for new cool things to happen in the future.
  2. Watching your ego is especially important. I choose to end with this one purpose. As a kid I used to build walls around me so high that no one could touch me. So no one could hurt me. After TEDx I was dealing with rejection that I had not dealt with before. I used giving this speech to inflate my ego so high that no one could hurt me. I hid behind to try and make myself feel better. While doing soI made all the people around me get annoyed with me or feel worse about their own accomplishments. I was trying too hard to make it seem like this one guy didn’t matter, that I ended up also insulting my friend’s accomplishments.  I realize now that I should not have done that.  A speech is a speech. My personality matters much more than that.
  3. Most important. People rock. Plain and simple. They send you amazing messages and share stories. You hug and you feel amazing. For every joke or person that doesn’t get it there are many people who do. I have a wall of tweets and Facebook messages that I can look at when I need to remind myself why I am fighting stigma.  My faith in the world has been forever restored.

In the end it was an amazing experience. I would not change it for the world!

I just want to thank everyone who helped me make this happen. And now, the video is released, the world will forever know my secret. They will know that I am an iron woman, and I can’t wait to show more people my cape!