Barbara Kay ’24
Until Next November
“You do have a story inside you; it lies articulate and waiting to be written — behind your silence and your suffering.”
― Anne Rice
Public speaking has always been my biggest fear. This is probably the biggest difference between my brother, William, and me. He thrives off the lights, all eyes on him, his two cents making everything priceless while mine were the loose change at the bottom of every wallet.
I distinctly remember breaking out into hives after presenting my eighth-grade science project; running down eight flights of stairs to hyperventilate in the bathroom and calm my racing heart, only for my legs to ache on the way back up. William was the captain of his speech and debate team that year; I thought of that when Professor Dearing announced we would be doing a Moth Story Slam.
I didn’t think I would have to speak since I was the TA, but Professor Dearing thought that, as I’m a student, my sharing a piece might encourage more students to participate. It would be a small, intimate group of his and Professor Wright’s college writing classes in the Multicultural Center; Professor Dearing’s wife made cupcakes, and they ordered pizza from Dominos.
The room was warm, and tensions were high. People would tell one of three accounts: a lesson they learned in high school; a time a stranger taught them something; and a time when they thought they wouldn’t enjoy themselves but ended up having a good time.
I chose the second option, a time a stranger had taught me something. My piece began “The summer of 2020 was a weird one.” And it was. We were in the midst of the pandemic, trying to adjust to a “new normal.”
Naturally, I didn’t adjust well. I didn’t adjust well to my “normal” before the pandemic. I had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and clinical depression in November of my freshman year. I can’t say anyone was surprised, I sure as hell wasn’t, but I was relieved that someone had the courage to say what everyone already knew.
But after high school ended and during the summer of 2020, the stranger who would later become the basis for my Moth story approached me at five in the morning on what would become an unseasonably cool July day. I hadn’t slept in what felt like days; I was incredibly, if not debilitatingly anxious about the future—about what would happen come the fall, about where the relationships in my life stood, and what exactly my purpose was. I was twitching and smoking when this woman stopped in front of me while I was outside on the steps of my apartment building and told me her life story, almost as if she had known me my whole life. She talked about how while she was growing up in Europe, her life belonged to everyone else. Everything she did was for her father, or her brothers, or her in-laws, and she had to decide who was more important- them or her. I understood this, all this time I thought there was only passive or aggressive, and yet there this woman was, teaching me about assertion. She gave me one final piece of advice- no one was worth stressing over like that, not in her life or mine. We parted ways, and when my mom woke up hours later I told her I had met my guardian angel.
But after my worries became reality, and I wouldn’t be able to dorm in the fall because of the pandemic, my best friend and I would stop speaking, and my self-esteem would hit an all-time low, I wouldn’t only hit rock bottom, but try to go six feet under it, or at least that’s what I wrote in my Moth Story. It was no fabrication, of course. My suicidal ideations eventually became more than maladaptive daydreams in November of 2020. They became the note on my desk and the handful of pills in my palm. I never did it, and I didn’t want to. But I felt like I was already lying in my coffin, watching everyone I love throwing a handful of dirt on me, saying how much they would miss me. But no one could possibly miss me more than I already did.
I don’t like when people ask me what changed, because sometimes I convince myself that nothing has. And while that isn’t true, three thoughts made it clear that suicide could no longer be an option. The first was the thought of my mom finding my lifeless body; the second the thought of William having to write and read my eulogy; and third, my cousin Catherine having to celebrate her birthday alone. I got a tattoo that month to feel something again and tried to forget it all.
But come time to write my story for the Slam, I put all the unresolved trauma on the page in the final draft of my story. It was vulnerable, honest, and raw, what Professor Dearing called a slice of humanity. Writing has always been my only outlet, the only thing that no one else could see, or hear, an activity that could be as invisible as me. But when Professor Wright indicated it was my turn, I shook my head. It didn’t matter how many or how few people were in the room, they would be looking at me. But, I thought about what Professor Dearing had first said, about the opportunity to inspire more people to tell their stories. So, I got up. My hands were shaking as I grabbed the mic, and began, The summer of 2020 was a weird one…
I couldn’t stop trying to figure out how William could possibly enjoy this, how he still enjoys public speaking as a high school teacher. The lights seemed much brighter in the front of the room than they were in the back, and the new sweater I was wearing became increasingly irritating. My voice came out hoarse at first, I hadn’t said a word since I walked into the Multicultural Center. But, as I continued reading, I didn’t recognize my voice. It became louder, and clearer, drawing attention to the person under the mask, and suddenly there wasn’t a room full of people gawking at me, but merely peers, listening. I very rarely took my eyes off the floor, but when I did, I saw just how mesmerizing I had become.
I don’t remember at what point I began to cry, but I do remember having a very vivid realization. I had spent my entire life longing to be the main character and not everyone’s sidekick. I longed to be everything I wasn’t instead of all the things I was- I am. But, there was this story in my hand, my story, that was being read in my voice. I didn’t care if it was hoarse, that voice belonged to me. A new connection between my physical and emotional self formed; I had spent so long keeping the two as far apart from each other as I could, evicting the tenant from her home. The voice in my head didn’t mean to write a story about me, she had written the story of some sad, lonely girl who wanted to love herself as much as she loved everyone else. But hearing my own voice telling my story opened a wound I thought had healed, and scarred over. And yet there I was, bleeding in front of people I had never met before but was most surprising was where there was once shame, was now acceptance.
I cried for her, for me, for us.
When I finished, applause followed. Tamel, who would tell his story next, gave me a tight hug, and I could still feel his arms wrapped around me when he told his story. I should’ve told him how much that moment meant to me. I should’ve told another student, Rachel, how much her story meant to me too. The week before, we had discussed that we were both far too nervous to speak, but after some convincing, she was one of the first people that took the microphone. Validation and appreciation weren’t things I was used to, it had never occurred to me that the things I did were important. But standing up there, I was talking about the loneliest experience of my life with a group of people who although I didn’t know, had probably felt the same way at some point. I wasn’t only validating my own feelings and experiences, but their’s too.
Pride isn’t an emotion I usually feel, but that night it consumed me. It was so warm and welcoming, and so much better than anything I had ever felt about myself before. There is no getting around the fact that I will be clinically anxious and depressed, and bipolar for the rest of my life, but that night, no one cared. And they didn’t care because they chose to ignore that vital fact about me, but because it didn’t impact their view of me. I didn’t let it impact my view of myself. This November has made up for every other one because for the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to the next one.
Link to all stories from “Expect the Unexpected” here.