Still We Rise - My Story of Resiliency
This is the first post of my new blog on overcoming adversity.
Silence fell over the room as survivors shared their stories of triumph over sexual assault, mental and physical illness, cancer and loss of parents.
On February 21, 2019, the University of Kentucky held its first annual Still We Rise Scholarship Banquet. This banquet honored students who despite their circumstances, not only overcame them, but changed them.
This program was borne out of my own story of resiliency.
My mother used to motivate me with the poem Still I Rise, by the late great Maya Angelou. I had no idea this little poem would become a such a huge defining part of my life.
It started when I was a fifteen year old sophomore living in Pittsburgh, PA. We had just moved there from Montclair, NJ a year before. Adjusting to high school in a new state was not easy, but eventually I did it.
It was good.
Until it wasn’t.
I remember the change vividly.
It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I was lying in bed and couldn’t get up. No matter how bad I wanted to - I couldn’t. The elephant wouldn’t let me. So I didn’t get up. I stayed in bed.
Before I knew it, I was spending more time in bed than not. I was crying everyday. I was at war with myself and I truly did not understand why. I just wanted the pain to stop. So I took matters into my own hands. I attempted suicide. But by the grace of God, I was unsuccessful.
My parents were initially angry and confused.
Why would I do this?
Was I being a defiant teenage girl?
Was I just looking for attention?
They drove me to the hospital where a doctor told them, “Your daughter has clinical depression. She is in pain.”
That day something changed for them too. They educated themselves on all things related to mental health. They decided to home school me, so I could focus solely on getting better.
But it wasn’t that simple.
I lost 25 pounds.
I cried uncontrollably everyday.
I struggled to do my online school work.
I fought constantly with my siblings.
The elephant wasn’t just sitting on my chest.
It was consuming my entire life.
Yet, Still I Rise.
The next year, we moved back to my parent’s hometown, Louisville, KY for my junior year of high school. I found the right combination of medication and therapy. I finally started to see some glimmer of hope. I graduated with honors from high school and was accepted into every college I applied.
I started at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 2014. On paper everything looked great. I thought the elephant had finally left. I earned a 3.8 GPA. I joined a few student organizations.
But, unfortunately the elephant was still there.
I couldn’t breathe again.
I was drowning in the treacherous waters of depression.
The week before finals, I decided I did not want to make it to 2015. I shut the door in my dorm room. I swallowed as many pills as I could, and I said goodbye. My boyfriend at the time, called my roommate and saved my life. The next week, he convinced me to go to the university counseling center to seek help. I remember sitting in the waiting room for three hours and no one saw me. I eventually got up and left.
Yet, Still I Rise.
After battling my depression in silence during the fall semester, my parents encouraged me to come home to get services in Louisville. I took a medical leave for the entire spring 2015 semester. I participated in group therapy and began taking medication. After finding the right treatment, I re-enrolled in the University of Kentucky for the fall 2015 semester.
I am so thankful for my parents’ support. I most certainly would not be alive without it. I began seeing a new therapist at UK that spring.
He asked me “Have you ever been tested for manic depression?”
“Bipolar disorder?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered
“I am not bipolar. I have never been manic. I don’t go missing and all of that kind of stuff. I just get depressed sometimes.”
“That’s how the media depicts bipolar disorder. That’s not what it looks like at all. Bipolar 2 mainly consists of depressive episodes but there are a few differences.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Mood swings, hypomania that looks like huge bursts of energy, irritability, pressured speech, lack of need for sleep and inconsistency with relationships.”
“Wow…that sounds a lot like me. Sometimes I get a lot of energy and I rearrange my room, or reorganize my apartment. I have had bouts of trouble sleeping and anyone who knows me knows I get irritated easily…you really think I could be bipolar?”
After getting tested I was officially diagnosed with bipolar 2. I called my parents and said,
“Do you think I’m bipolar?”
I explained everything the doctor told me and my parents laughed and said,
“Sounds a lot like you.”
Of course in a true bipolar fashion that irritated me.
“How could you think that. I’m not crazy?”
“We didn’t call you crazy. We said you were bipolar. You called yourself crazy. We love you, we are your family. You should never be ashamed of anything that makes you who you are.”
Yet, Still I Rise.
From that moment on, the way I felt about my diagnosis was different. I wasn’t ashamed. My family and I often joke about it. It’s something I tell everyone who meets me.
I am bipolar and I am proud.
It became my goal to rid other people with BD of that shame and stigma.
I began to be transparent about my journey. The more I told my story, the more I learned about my peers. I learned that everybody struggles in college. Most people struggle in silence. The average age of onset for mental health disorders is between the age of 20 and 25. That is prime college age.
There are numerous people who share some variation of the same story, or have other stories of overcoming obstacles. I realized my story could help others who were suffering in silence to realize that they are not alone. I wanted to help diminish the stigma associated with mental health disorders. I wanted to acknowledge the strength and courage of my classmates who were overcoming difficulties in their lives and succeeding.
Because yet, Still We Rise.
I wanted to honor students at my university .
Thats when “Still We Rise” was born.
I applied for an Inclusive Excellence grant through the University of Kentucky’s office of institutional diversity.
I received a $10,000 grant to fund the banquet.
I was told this was a one time grant that could only be used for things related to the banquet. It was not to be used for scholarship money.
But, I had other plans.
I raised the scholarship funds on my own. I introduced myself to numerous people that I knew could help with my vision. I passed around a collection plate at my church and sorority meeting. By the time February 21st came around, I had fundraised over $3,000 in scholarship money from numerous organizations: The Iota Sigma chapter and Eta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Inc., The Human Development Institute, The Calipari Family Foundation and an anonymous donor.
Six students were given scholarship money. I then began the process of ensuring this wouldn’t be just a one time event. Dr. Mary Capilouto attended the banquet and was touched. She then made a personal donation to the scholarship fund and ensured its longevity.
Since then, I have graduated from UK and am currently entering my second year of grad school studying Speech Language Pathology at the University of Houston. I haven’t had a major depressive episode since undergrad. I continue to take medication and share my journey. Even though I now live nearly 1,000 miles away, I’m glad to see that my hard work is still paying dividends.
This year, I had the honor of speaking at the second annual Still We Rise banquet, where 25 scholarships were given out. The event is now endowed for 5 years.
Because of my willingness and transparency to share my story, 131 students (and hopefully many more) will receive a scholarship and an opportunity to share their stories.
Because together, Still We Rise.
And today, I begin another chapter in my Still We Rise journey.
My new blog Still-We-Rise.com is the newest member of educated guesses - my family website.
I will use this platform to continue my legacy of resiliency.
I will seek out individuals and help them tell their stories of resilience about how they have and are continuing to overcome adversity against the odds.
Keep an eye out for these stories.
If you or someone you know would like to tell your story, please email me at [email protected]
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