When my high school years were coming to a close this past June, I was approached by my school counselor who introduced a program called Experience Ontario. Her and I had previously discussed my disinterest in post secondary; I hadn’t closed on a subject I wanted to study and I ultimately felt unready. The program wasn’t entirely explained to me but it was made clear that we would choose 3 separate placements that would help us further our careers; whether we chose to jump into post-secondary afterwards or just continue with jobs.
I received an email mentioning that I had a mandatory conference to attend, which partially scared me. Jumping into something entirely new just shook me up and didn’t sit well with me, and to be frank, it wasn’t properly explained to me in the beginning.
The days approaching the conference, my trichotillomania worsened, leaving me with a bald spot where my bangs used to be, my anxiety was rising and I felt depressed. I was not prepared for it and didn’t know what to expect, despite the fact that I knew I would enjoy myself in the end. After all, it was going to be in a camp setting, and that’s always been somewhere I’ve felt comfortable and happy.
Bandana tied around my bald spot, dressed in a Nicole Dollanganger tee and a black pleated skirt, I desperately wanted someone to talk to me. Some staff members approached me, including one who took me down to my cabin. In the first 10 minutes of conversation, I revealed my trichotillomania. I had no idea why I felt the urge to share it, but I did, and she had it as well. She had told me she had never met anybody else with this condition and we furthered our discussions.
Once we returned and she got on to other tasks, I was on my own again. Eyes around me felt averted, as if I was invisible. Groups had already been made and people were chatting. Isolated, I attempted to have myself noticed by walking around and making eye contact with different people, which was ultimately destroying me inside because of anxiety.
Activities began and I was put in the French group, which was lovely. I felt like there were people around me that I could express my culture and love for my language and background. We got to meet one another and I was able to talk to a few people. I felt my shell breaking rapidly, and outward came the version of myself that was lively prior to mental illness.
She was chatty and funny and loud. No one could bring her down. She had answers to every question, and even if they weren’t right, she wouldn’t cower away. She was proud to speak and her voice echoed and bounced off the white walls. She had big thoughts and large dreams, and it seemed like she could attain them in seconds if she just put her mind to it. She moved, and laughed, and everyone’s eyes seem to gaze in her direction. She was who I used to be, on top of the world, and it was as if I was never mentally ill.
We had an activity where we had to create ourselves a shield, and in the bottom right corner, our comrades had to write their impressions of us. It began with “pretty”, “friendly”, “artistic”, etc. but in the upcoming days, “natural leader” was added, and it was evident to me that I was capable as I believed as a child. I really was a public speaker and motivational figure, and I could use that to my advantage to help others.
The first night, which helped me fully escape my limitations, was an activity called “Groove”. I walked into that room with no expectations or idea of the upcoming activity, and I can admit that in the beginning, I was uncomfortable beyond belief. It was similar to a dance class, but we were made to make asses of ourselves with silly dance moves and partnering with strangers. But everybody was acting silly, so there was no embarrassment. As the stench of B.O. filled the room, disgust did not follow. One second we were ballerinas and the next we were rock stars with guitars, the next we were drumming all together. We even had a hip hop dance battle, with no rehearsal. By the voice of the instructor, we were her artistic figures, and we benefited from that pressure to be released from our own confines.
We were demonstrated trust in one another with symbolic activities. We formed a spider web and it was made clear that if one person no longer holds onto the web, the web will break and everyone will fall. Everyone needs to support each other in a team, or it cannot be considered a team. Without trust in others, we are entirely alone in this world.
We learned about our inner critics and the stress we put on ourselves, claiming we will fail before we even attempt to try. Had I let my inner critics talk to me while at camp, I wouldn’t have been able to socialize and I can only imagine that I would have been miserable.
One section of programming addressed innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, and we had to create a solution to a problem, which was a newly graduated man who was in search of a job. Within us were boys that laughed at the content, calling the man a “bum”. I, having been a homeless “bum”, ignored their ignorant comments and proceeded to discussing issues with homelessness, especially in Toronto, which I knew too well. I raised issues like lack of housing, mental illness, feelings of hopelessness, etc. And eventually, we were made to make a prototype. I raised to the table that Toronto has been building condos and apartments, one after another, ignoring the vagrancy issue that is prevalent in their city. While I was homeless, I was looking into subsidiary housing, which accommodates your income so you are able to pay rent, and the waiting list being over 10 years, and I had a wonderful idea. What if we created subsidiary housing with jobs on the inside, where the individuals can raise money, get experience for their resumes, raise enough money for their own apartment, all the while getting assistance with programming, food, housing and advice?
Little did I know, it was a hit. My group wanted me to go in front of everyone and demonstrate our prototype and ideas. Many loved the idea, and I was congratulated by many people after my presentation.
That night, staff raised to us that there was a talent show that night. I had a talent, but I was anxious and unready. My chest was heavy and anxiety was trying to take over my body. Ten minutes prior to my performance, a guitarist from the camp learned the chords to the song and we practiced twice, and up on stage we went.
I gave a little speech, addressing my anxiety and a bad performance I had in the past, which destroyed my confidence and that I hadn’t sang since.
Cheer after cheer, my confidence built up sky high. I saw jaw drops and tears in the audience, and I was so astonished with myself. After my performance, tears now in my eyes, I spoke to the crowd.
“Thanks to you guys, I might be able to sing again.”
I couldn’t believe that I had moved a crowd like that again. My previous performance hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, singing a song I hadn’t been connected to, which for whatever reason, I dictated justifiable for me to stop singing entirely, which I should have NEVER done.
The next day, all groups were asked to have a few members speak to the whole camp. On cloud nine, I made an offer.
Bestowed in front of so many eyes, I cracked a few jokes before I spoke openly of my mental health. Short and sweet, I shared that my mental illness robbed me of all my ambitions and that was the main reason I was a part of the program. I declared that illness stole my ambitions, my desires, my self confidence but that now, after this program and conference, I understand that I am capable and that I CAN DO IT.
After my performance and speech, I had dozens approach me, declaring their love of my voice and even saying that I was an inspiration. I was fluttering inside. Everything my mental health and insecurities stole from me, I had gotten back in a matter of a few days. I was capable once again, talented even.
I realized that I had a voice, one that sang and spoke. That I knew how to relate to a crowd and speak from the heart. I had never felt more powerful and confident.
I tried many new things and met many people, some I will not be forgetting anytime soon. I watched people grow, as they did with me, and we all became much stronger, with a more detailed vision for ourselves.