Last week, I had the distinct honor of speaking to two groups of high school students in New York. My friend and colleague, Sarah Fader, and I talked about mental health, stress, self-care, bullying, and panic disorder. At the end of each session, we answered questions from the class (always my favorite part of any talk). The experience was good for my soul.
It was the first time I’ve spoken to a group of teenagers in nearly 5 years. I was apprehensive, walking the streets of Brooklyn, entering the albatross of a school, walking down their halls. I didn’t know if I still had it. I wasn’t sure if I could muster the courage to tell my truth again.
But the words of William Paul Young came to mind. Paul once told me something like this, “We are wounded in relationship. And it is in relationship where we find healing.” As I stepped behind the podium yesterday morning to deliver an inspirational message, God was taking me back to the place of my deepest wounding.
In the darkest days before and after my suicide attempt, shame and desperation told me I wasn’t good enough. I believed I would never speak again. That I would never sing again. That this dream I had of “messy grace” was all a big sham, a fake, just like me. But yesterday morning, I stood and told those kids that I was once right where they are. I was once an honor roll student who seemed to have everything going my way, but I’d been dying inside.
I told them about my first panic attack, and how I used to cry into my pillow. We talked about how I would cry in the shower because I knew no one would hear me. I owned my story, shared my truth, told them I remembered the pressure to perform, to be the very best at everything, and yet, I still remember feeling worthless at the end of the day.
I begged them not to be like me – holding onto secrets and pain for 28 years and nearly dying as a result. I urged them to find an adult they could confide in or a friend they could trust. Someone who would have their back, no matter what.
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We talked about the word “peace” and I told them that things come our way that we never asked for – people and institutions cause us harm and distress. We’ll be disappointed a countless number of times, but peace is this idea that really bad days come, and we press on.
Peace is a calmness in the raging sea. Peace is a decision. “No point in losing my shit today. It won’t do me or anyone else any good.” Peace believes that the promise of a better tomorrow outweighs the difficulty in this particular moment.
Peace is a wide-angle lens in a world of tunnel vision. Peace believes there’s more to the story. Peace doesn’t ignore the gnarly details, but is confident in our own resourcefulness, so peace chooses to ride the wave. Peace knows there’s a big difference between stress and distress. Peace is stubbornness with a wild-eyed smile.
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I was so encouraged during the Q&A portion of our time together yesterday. I introduced a coaching technique called “The Wheel of Life” and some of the students shared the highs and lows from their particular wheel. One student said his sense of happiness comes from eating right and exercising, another student talked about how it’s always been his dream to do something great with his life, and a young lady on the front row confessed that she could never speak to her parents if she did ever face a mental health crisis.
The kids were honest and hopeful, vulnerable and wise. They spoke their truth in front of their peers and looked me in the eyes when they spoke. One guy talked about his first panic attack and the way his breath became short and his hands shook for no good reason, but he was thankful he had a friend to call who had been through it before. Another young man said he was raised to believe that we shouldn’t deal with things like anxiety or depression, that we should just toughen up, but that he’s grown enough to no longer believe that lie.
Talking to these students yesterday was healing for my soul and hope for my future. The Light always conquers the darkness. And as we continue to educate, inspire, and empower a younger generation to speak up and be kind to themselves, we persist in shattering the lies of stigma and shame.
Let’s be resolute in constantly telling our children that their lives – pains, joys, traumas, successes, disappointments, and hopes – all matter. Their friendships matter. Their support systems are vital for a healthy and vibrant life. If we continue to do that, they will create their own sources of Light that no one can snuff out.
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