Thanks for the Memories

Isn’t this a song from some emo-Hot Topic-esque band? I swear it is. Hopefully I’m not just making things up.

But I’m going to tell a little tale from last week that perhaps others can relate to. That’s usually what we’re all here for.

So last week as a team leader at my gifted camp last week was an awesome experience. Dealing with the middle school crowd was certainly a challenge, but most of all, I enjoyed being around the fellow team leads, having a constant group chat streaming, just hanging out. I can easily say that it’s the most social I’ve been in quite a while.

On one particular afternoon when we had some free time after lunch, some of us were talking about a staff talent show that evening where they usually have a slideshow of old (slightly embarrassing) photos of staff members. This turned into some time scouring through Facebook and laughing over some major throwback photos.

Except in that time of reminiscing over old photos, overly edited on Picnik and doing some weird pose that at the time you felt cool doing, I felt kind of left out. Not in that people were doing so intentionally, but I really didn’t have much to contribute.

At that age and even just in general, I don’t have many pictures of myself, especially with others. Whether it’s just that people don’t do that friend-selfie scenario when I’m around, or I know I am generally not the most social butterfly out there, but I don’t have that same kind of history to look back on through photos.

Even as a kid, once I knew what a camera was, I avoided it like the plague. Especially when the dismorphia comes into play, I feel uncomfortable seeing myself in a frame that I had not complete control over. I have trouble understanding how other people see me because hey, I really can’t do it well on my own.

If I’m the one in control, I’m fine. I can have the luxury to choose what I want to keep and remember myself by. But other people, it’s different. It really shouldn’t be something that I’m overly concerned about, which generally I’m not, it just makes me feel like I haven’t done anything in my past to show of. I don’t necessarily have friends I’m constantly with who take candid photos and use as keepsakes. I myself am not one to pull out my phone all the time to take photos, let alone with others. I’d feel awkward even asking for that. In my head, it sounds almost petty to ask, “Hey, can we take a photo together just to say we did and I have solid proof I’m not always a boring hermit? Thanks.”

With social media, we have permanent proof of our past. We have tangible evidence of the memories we have shared with others and the different activities we’ve done. We find self-worth and esteem from how many group shots we have with others, regardless of how those relationships might affect your life. It’s a superficial means of measuring our impact on others and the world, clarifying if we have led a “full” life.

Which I for one think is garbage. Why must we feel like we need to prove to others how satisfied we are with our lives? Why must we focus upon images from past and current times as our mark upon the world? Because no, I didn’t have many friends back then. No, I wasn’t about to appear in a photo thinking my existence was worthless. I don’t want to remember how mentally ill I actually was and every single detail that I’ve already blocked out of my memory.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with nostalgia and going through the depths of Facebook to find some now hilarious shots. But I hope if you’re in a similar boat as me, you don’t feel guilty for maybe not having that same opportunity. Maybe you just don’t take any photos. Maybe you have deleted some on purpose. Whatever it is, it’s okay. It doesn’t invalidate your life, your friends, your family, absolutely anything. You are just as worthy and have the same chance to reflect happiness as anybody else.

Life is not measured in the perfect and ridiculous photos you have online. It’s not measured in numbers of likes or followers. It’s not measured in the number of friends you have or the number of times you go out to socialize every week. Life is about helping and reaching out to others. It’s doing things not just for the photo afterwards, but because you truly enjoy it. It’s about the quality of the relationships you have. It’s about self-discovery and growth that the internet doesn’t have to see. And nowhere in that scheme of things does comparison of others’ unique journeys fall into the mix.

Meet people you love, do what you love. That’s a photo that speaks louder than words.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

From Student to Teacher

Last week and this week, I have had the privilege to teaching some classes at the camp I’ve been working with and have gone to for years. Yada yada. Read what I wrote on Monday for the whole explanation.

But today I wanted to have a quick reflection on this particular aspect I volunteered to help with. While the two camps end up being much more than education, the opportunity to take classes about a wide array of subjects is one key aspect behind what the program stands for in general. To support gifted students, we should be expanding their minds in any way we can and not hold them back. So if that means they’re interested in storm chasing, musical theatre, or improv comedy, then why not offer it?

Luckily I did not teach any of those subjects I mentioned. Instead, I’ve taught both high school and middle school students about how to build a blog and an overview of veganism. Not in the same hour, might I add, but I figured I might be of some use to people who are interested in either and don’t know where to start.

Let’s be honest, I started out a little rough. So for the first week, I didn’t actually find out I was teaching until the night prior. So I got two slideshows together in a couple of hours and hoped for the best.

The first day I only taught about blogging, but you could definitely tell it was Wednesday at a bright-and-early 8 AM. Since I didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of content prepared and since it’s fairly easy to set up a WordPress account, I felt like I was pulling at some straws to keep kids interested. You can definitely tell that some were giving it a solid go of writing out a first blog post and figuring out what designs look best as a website, but others were literally writing out about how tired they were from two full days of camp already completed.

Which, I completely understand. I’ve been in their shoes. But it still made me antsy, going through the thoughts of “Am I qualified to do this? Do these people actually respect me? How many times have I said ‘obviously’ in the past hour?” Have to love anxiety and the constant voice in the back of your head thinking the absolute worst case scenario.

The next day, however, I was in the zone. I gave out food for correctly answered trivia questions. I had lots of information to go through. I even put memes into the slideshow, so I’m already stepping up my game. But I felt more comfortable in general. I felt more put-together. People were actually asking some great questions. They randomly applauded at the end as if I just did a choreographed routine or something.

But overall, I really enjoyed that experience. In classroom settings, I’ve occasionally done activities where you “teach” the class, but never just…me. No pressure, right? I’ve already had a deep respect for education though. It was never something I’ve wanted to do as a career, but since my mom has always done something involving education, I see the hard work that goes into it. I see how often students neglect the blessing it is to even have a quality education available to them.

If it was possible, I would have everybody fill in a teacher’s role, even just for one class like I did. See how you hold up. It’s quite a responsibility to know you are leading a room full of young minds looking to you as a mentor, to learn something new. You can really have a major impact on them. Just as they can have a major impact on you.

It’s so easy for people living in a developed, modern society to see education as just another hoop to jump through. The expected path to partake in order to fill that all-American dream and eventually go up the corporate ladder. Why do that when you can step out of high school and enjoy some newly found freedom instead? Go against the grain?

Regardless of the grade or institution, we cannot devalue education as a core human right, a resource that truly affects all aspects of life. Especially for those who might not have the same luxuries as America, education can turn a struggling nation into one that addresses economic, health, and security concerns in an entirely new light. Education can save lives.

Maybe a little spiel about setting up a blog or watching a video about veganism won’t do much in the retrospect of things, but I know that for me, it has been a wonderful experience. It has reaffirmed my affirmation that knowledge is power. That fully appreciating the world and people around us requires an openness to seek new things out, to discover and always learn. We are always students. Yes, some of us end up being teachers, too, but the wisdom we might gain beyond a general lesson plan is an opportunity we cannot pass up.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

More Than a Message

Technology is so wonderful. The capabilities we now have to learn more information and stay in touch with people near and far is, if you really dwell on it, surreal. I still remember having to use the landlines to call my friends and schedule play dates. Weird, right?

But back then, things felt much more simple. While it was certainly less convenient to rely upon a phone on the wall to make plans, there is also a reliance upon this technology to communicate in any capacity. As in people who, while in the same exact place, will still text each other. Or how about talking about very important topics that should be discussed, but being afraid to say them in person?

Yes, I relish the fact that I can communicate in a way that I can best articulate myself and have to time to think about my words, but there’s a time and place for that. Maybe it just shows my age that I have come to truly appreciate having an open conversation about something compared to an on-screen exchange.

Not that I’m planning to stop writing or texting any time soon, no sir. But I think that should be used as a starting point and as a casual way to catch up. It should by no means be a complete replacement for getting your point across, especially if you are discussing very important.

For any type of relationship, regardless of what it may be, if it’s something beyond an acquaintance, you cannot avoid talking. As easy as it is to fall back to a familiar keyboard, it’s a crutch. A virtual wall to hide behind to avoid a fear of opening up to someone and having an immediate response and every emotion that might come from that. If somebody cares about you, you deserve to receive everything, not just the snippets of composed, robotic words.

Again, let me reiterate, there’s still a place for our texts and messages and whatever else we send these days. We can get in touch with people at any time, from anywhere with a wireless connection. That’s crazy. People hundreds of miles away are suddenly at your fingertips, expanding your knowledge and world far beyond the naked eye.

It’s also much easier to reach out to others in general. If you have any hesitation with dialing a number, a quick message can be a thoughtful gesture. You can still find a comfort in making contacts with others, even if you have difficulties communicating.

Technology bridges past gaps in making contact, but to an extent, we abuse that luxury. We forget how to actually speak up for ourselves. We forget how to actually think in the moment, how to read other people’s emotions and body language, how to truly empathize with others. We overlook that valuable quality of simply being present.

When you do come across people who tend to be bug-eyed on their phones all the time, you really start to appreciate what conversation feels like. You can too often lose any sort of accountability with those people to receive a timely answer. (I’m guilty of this, but when did heart-to-hearts ever happen over Snapchat?) Especially depending on the subject matter, it is just common courtesy and respect to tell people straight-up what you’re thinking or planning.

Anybody can write a text. Heck, you don’t even have to use complete words or sentences. It’s easy. It gets the job done. Especially for introverts, it takes true willpower to make that extra effort to say something, and something that might be uncomfortable at that. But the fact is, if you cannot have an open stream of dialogue between somebody else, what kind of relationship do you actually have? As the Bee Gees once said, “How deep is your love?”

And if that’s the case, if you feel like somebody isn’t confident enough in themselves and in you that they can bring up a topic, as rough as this sounds, they might not be worth keeping a close connection with. You do you, of course, because everybody’s situation is unique and you know best. But you shouldn’t feel like you’re walking on eggshells and that you cannot mention certain things that you think are important. Any relationship you’re in should be uplifting, not draining. It requires work, and that work probably looks like having a difficult exchange of words every now and then.

Conflict sucks, but it can be unavoidable. And hopefully it’s ultimately productive. Constructive words and feedback can be the wake-up call we all need sometimes to slap ourselves awake and get our heads back into the present moment. While typing or writing our your thoughts can truly be a lifesaver to organize what you want said, that comfort zone doesn’t allow much room for growth.

We all have different preferences when it comes to communication and life in general. I despise talking on the phone and tend to avoid conflict like the plague. My mind tends to falter when translating my thoughts into spoken word. I fear I become muddled and cannot articulate myself how I want to. But how am I ever going to improve if I never try? How will I receive the openness of somebody else if I myself won’t meet them halfway?

Moral of the story? Always be open for self-improvement, wherever that may be. And do not settle for people who aren’t willing to grow and challenge themselves, too. Still expect me to be chatting away on my blog, making random remarks on Twitter, and relying on texts to keep my loved ones updated. But also expect me to make the effort to try new things, to venture into areas that scare me. Technology provides some stability, but I must remind myself to soar.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

A Greener Back to School

I was never a huge fan of summer. It felt like too long of a break from a scheduled routine, a blank canvas that I must somehow fill when everyone is off doing their own things. The second I started seeing commercials for back to school, I was giddy with excitement. If that makes me a nerd, then I fully accept that.

I still get excited seeing all of the office supplies go on huge sales this time of year. Nothing beats the feeling of opening up a fresh new notebook or using some new pens, even if you still have plenty left over from last semester. Obviously in college we don’t have any sort of quotas for what we need, but nonetheless, if it’s on sale, why not? You never know if you might need those extra packages of note cards or post-it notes.

With the aisles filled with new products to get our hands on, folders and mechanical pencils and agendas galore, we might not consider the implications our consumerism this time of year may have. We get caught up in the buzzing activity and anticipation of a new season that we neglect to acknowledge that we still need to be conscious of the environment around us.

Because for many of us, we probably don’t need brand-new everything to start off the school year. We still have backpacks that work, notebooks with blank pages in them, pens with ink. If we automatically buy everything new each passing year, we build up clutter and, inevitably, litter. Not to mention the other green associated with back to school: the hundreds of dollars an average family spends to equip kids K-12, not including all of the college dorm supplies.

Especially for kids of a younger age stuck in a classroom with their peers, they are prone to feeling the pressure of fitting in, and a great way to do so (at least from what the commercials claim) is to have certain school supplies, sport some cool designs and characters, wear clothes from particular brands. Parents of course want what’s best for their kids, and if buying a little something that might score them some new connections and make the social aspects of school easier on them, it makes sense to cave in and buy that superhero or princess backpack.

There’s a reason besides the increased traffic for office goods that these products are cheap: they are frequently made to have a short lifespan, to keep us coming back even past the fall to restock on what we need. It’s an endless cycle of needing more.

The obvious answer to break that cycle is to actually use up what you already have. It might not look as flashy or brand-spankin’-new, but it serves the same function and saves you some money. Before thinking about heading out to shop for school, go through what you already have at home and make of list of what you actually need. Make that distinction of what you need and want. Chances are the cool things you want are just a passing trend that will be gone in a month anyways.

If you do need something new, opt for the greener options available. As the demand for more sustainable products increases, the prices will go down. No, they aren’t as cheap as the usual options, but in the long run, it’s worth it, especially if they will endure more wear and tear. You would also be surprised by how much younger people know about living an eco-friendly lifestyle, and they might even be the ones leading the charge into picking the sustainable pens and notebooks over the shiny plastic ones.

If they don’t know already, let’s make the effort to educate each other, regardless of age, as to what it means to live consciously. Going green shouldn’t feel like a punishment or a sacrifice if we understand why we are making these choices in the first place, whether that’s from growing landfills or awful working conditions.

The steps to take when going green this school year can be quite simple. Opt for reusable water bottles and lunch bags. Need new clothes? I’m all down to head over to the thrift store. Purchase items that are made with recycled materials, such as notebooks, filler paper, and pencils. Make use of last year’s backpack, pencil pouch, ruler, and whatever else you might own.

Also think about how you’re getting to and from school. Is there a bus system? Options for walking, cycling, or carpool with neighbors and friends? Or how about your school district’s incentives to recycle while in class? Is there any efforts to reduce energy consumption from the growing number of electronics in use? The details and potential areas of concern can really pile up like a landfill themselves, but you don’t have to do it all. Take baby steps. We all have to start somewhere. Then we can graduate onto more places we can reduce our carbon footprints and make the world a better place.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

“Crazy” Criminals

As the story of the Pennsylvania young men murdered by a peer continues to develop, I wanted to point out an important aspect of the crime that may lead to more harm than good.

So the fact that somebody would even consider committing this crime is atrocious. It is a violent, cruel, and unnecessary act. Homicide, then body mutilation. What provokes people to do these things?

A common answer to that question is mental illness. People with severe cases of psychosis, schizophrenia, and other personality disorders are categorized by the select few who make national headlines. The more often we associate those with severe mental illness as criminals, people to be put away in prisons and institutions and pretend their lives don’t matter or, worse, cause nothing but harm to the rest of the population.

In lies where myths and misconceptions begin to bubble to the surface. We let our fears take control, assume a single face to a problem to make it easier to comprehend, and end up painting mental illness as a demon to slay. We cannot expect crime to disappear if we misattribute its cause.

So what are the real statistics associating mental illness with crime rates? According to the Washington Post, mentally ill people are actually disproportionately victimized by violent crime. But many complex factors play into how severe mental illness may develop and turn to crime. Substance abuse and unemployment are the top offenders, and when we leave mental illness untreated, each reason turns into a vicious cycle. Substance abuse is an illness in of itself, creating dependence upon alcohol and/or drugs, while mentally ill people often face difficulties keeping jobs and being hired in the first place.

TIME Magazine also found information about this subject. Only about 4% of interpersonal violence in the United States can be attributed to mental illness, yet close to 40% of news stories about mental illness connect it to violent behavior that harms other people. And while it is an honorable mission to improve the country’s mental health treatment sector, doing so with the intentions of lessening violence furthers the stigma.

The constant media attention mental illness receives is backed by our stigma, not evidence. And when we try to isolate mental illness as the sole reason for crime, we ignore the other areas of society that need improvement and provoke mental illness and the stigma to flourish in the first place. Schizophrenia and psychosis become the “others,” the ugly enemies that threaten our way of life. It’s an attribution bias that, from a psychological perspective, makes the world simplified.

The fact is, mental illness is complicated. It’s a messy topic for those discussing it and those that live with it every day. We cannot expect to lock every suspected mentally ill person in prison and expect them to magically heal. It’s just a more dangerous situation. With a stigma running rampant, the mentally ill are huge targets for discrimination, isolation and violence when incarcerated.

How can we break the bonds between mental illness and crime? It starts with compassion. Providing more mental health resources may look expensive, but in the long run, we would be saving lives in countless ways. We should not see problems solved from locking up mentally ill people for nonviolent crimes. Today, in 44 states and the District of Columbia, the largest prison or jail holds more people with serious mental illness than the largest psychiatric hospital.

Law enforcement is not healthcare. There’s a reason why they are separate. People simply cycled through the prison system miss the opportunity to receive actual treatment and support, limiting them from potentially setting themselves on the right path in life. There is already an overflow of people incarcerated, let alone conditions that might take care of people’s well-beings.

Now back to this particular headlining story of the four missing young men expecting to make a drug deal and ending up buried twelve feet underground in a mass grave. Reports say the perpetrator suffers from schizophrenia. Does that mean this disease directly leads to violence? NO. Most people with schizophrenia are not violent, and even if they do exude violent tendencies, they are more likely caused from childhood conduct problems and other disorders rather than schizophrenia itself. We must distinguish the clear differences between rage or aggression, and psychosis or an intense state of fear.

Hallucinations and delusions that come with psychosis and schizophrenia, whether they be visual and/or auditory, can be very scary for the one experiencing them. And they might go without medication or any treatment to avoid the stereotypes assumed from these symptoms, that they will become the monster news outlets paint them into. It is society’s responsibility to show compassion and empathy. We must separate what a criminal looks like from a person suffering from mental illness because chances are, they look very different. No longer can we clump together a hodgepodge of assumptions into a single prison system. We must put faces and lives behind the orange jumpsuits and help them in whatever way we can, whether that’s rehabilitation behind bars or treatment in a mental health facility.

Before we rely upon a single catchy headline to define what violence looks like in America, let’s educate ourselves as to what our words and actions mean and the repercussions they have on a significant portion of people. People deserving of love and respect.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Back Home

This is an exciting week to say the least.

If you’ve been on my blog long enough (which, if that’s the case, I appreciate you so much), you will know that when I say “home,” I don’t necessarily mean the house I live in with my parents over the summer and especially not the temporary college apartment blocks from campus. Home, as strange as it may sound, is a camp I attended for four years as a participant, twice as an alumni visiting, and once as a reporter discussing the camp and everything is encompasses for those involved.

What a mouthful, right? A camp that is apparently this great? Isn’t that what all kids say about the childhood summer camps they attended? I don’t have much comparison to draw from, but trust me when I say that this particular camp is top notch.

It starts out as Governors Camp for middle school students. Those considered gifted in academics or leadership come for a week to take very unique classes (everything from fencing to cake decorating) and have a various array of presenters and evening activities. As much we jokingly call it “nerd camp,” there is so much more going on. But the root of it all is to promote funding for gifted education.

Now the fun part of camp comes when you’re in high school, graduating onto the Ambassadors of Excellence. The single week expands into two weeks and final show presented at the end. As in everybody, regardless of your musical talents, puts on a performance similar to that of show choir, singing and dancing and all. And yet with days spent in rehearsal learning music and choreography, campers truly become family. As in once it hits our last year of camp, everybody is crying thinking of never coming back to this place as an ambassador.

And with everything else camp entails, anybody who has gone can tell you it is very hard to describe. People don’t understand what we do and why we do it, but maybe that’s the most interesting part of it. What gets a bunch of peers from around the area to come running back every year to dress up in costumes and learn over an hour’s worth of musical numbers? It’s the community. The people drawn to the same place that may never speak to each other otherwise can somehow find a common interest and perhaps even more. It’s the environment that encourages young minds to push outside of their comfort zones despite their unique circumstances, to not fear but embrace mistakes, to grow as individuals in ways we never expected. It’s the realization that once you leave, you still have the acceptance and support from over a hundred people going on their separate paths and yet always connected by a irreplaceable bond.

So why am I rambling onto today about this camp? Well, I will be spending the week as a team leader, working for the camp in a new way. I guess they can never shake me from leaving, huh? While I will be with the younger campers most of the time, I am still beyond excited to get back into that environment and support young people to love the place as much as I do. I have not been able to be a team leader before this summer since I am usually stuck working with no week vacation time available. But because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, despite the hardship getting here, I’d like to think the stars have aligned for me to finally fill the role. I mean, I have come back in some capacity even after leaving the program three summers ago. Crazy how fast time flies by.

You won’t see much difference on the blog this week even though I’ll be busier than usual. Of course I write everything ahead of time, so no surprises there. But I wanted to at least express my excitement about being a part of a program I hold so dearly. While I want to dedicate my time and energy toward helping others, I am especially passionate about instilling the values I learned from this camp that were so powerful in my formative years.

And from this camp, I am equipped to begin my senior year of undergrad studies and see where life takes me, hoping I can leave the world better than it was and make a positive impact however I can.

As generation after generation enters the world, the least we can do is lead a good example. Having resources like these camps and gifted education in general available as assets for growing minds is crucial in innovation and development. As cheesy as it sounds, young people are our future. The large responsibility of living with the decisions we’ve made and potential consequences fall into their hands. They deserve to learn in whatever capacity they can. They deserve to live in a world that wants them to reach their fullest potentials.

Being a summer camp counselor for a week might not be the change in perspective that makes these statements common mantras, but hey, you have to start somewhere, right?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Just the Right Time

Here’s a quick little story for this end-of-the-week post.

As my mom and I were going on a walk along my city’s bike trail (which, might I add, they should have clear lanes of traffic or something), and since we were on a busier section of the trail, we came across many different people. With the townspeople as nice as they are, they often will greet us with a smile or a “good morning” as we pass.

However, one person we came across was more than a passing exchange of few words. Along the river, I saw coming up an older woman pushing a covered mesh stroller. I was slightly giddy wondering if she was pushing a dog in there. While there wasn’t a dog, she was actually pushing her cat.

The cat had apparently undergone some less than favorable experiences recently. She only had three legs because a cancer had spread through the fourth one and had to be amputated. The woman cares so much for this cat and knowing she liked to walk outside, she traded a leash for a stroller.

The woman, who happened to have a European accent I couldn’t quite place, asked my mom and I directions for a certain strip mall nearby. The woman didn’t seem to have a phone or anything else with her, so it made sense she needed some help.

It turned out that was she new to the city. She was originally living in Florida, but she didn’t say her reasons for moving north. My mom and I were probably with this woman for about ten minutes as she opened up to us about her struggles of being in a completely new environment. Besides her cat’s ailing health, she has been trying to find a job that would suit her credentials and has come up empty. Even with an advanced degree in cosmetology, younger and less qualified applicants had been chosen over her.

She also became teary eyed as she admitted how lonely she felt. As a single woman living in an apartment, she had not reached out much to anybody nearby and, in general, felt very lost. She was stressed, concerned about her and her cat’s well-being, and trying to find the determination to keep moving forward.

But let me tell you, being around her was a comforting experience. She discussed how much she loved being in nature. In fact, whenever she walks, she picks up pieces of littered plastic along the way, sticking it in a little compartment on the cat stroller. She had even stopped driving to pick up a littered street, warning others who planned to go in that direction. One time when picking up litter, she stopped to see a yellow-chested bird sitting calmly on a bench, seeming to be singing a sweet song to her before flying away, a little sign of hope.

While we weren’t able to exchange any names or phone numbers, my mom and I empathized and comforted this woman as she opened up, even suggesting calling the suicide hotline for some support. She refused to think about trying medication that might mess with her body, a completely understandable opinion, but we suggested the options that were available.

What was meant to be a simple walk through some city parks turned into an experience that felt almost surreal. When you feel like you were truly meant to be somewhere at that exact moment, to cross paths with certain people. It’s a reminder of how incredible life is and the impact we can each have, even if that impact is subtle.

Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been in this woman’s shoes. Obviously not the exact same situation, but there comes a time when we are overwhelmed, that we feel like we’re drowning in an endless sea. We ask God or the universe, “What more am I supposed to bear? What else can go wrong?”

No matter what we are facing, there always is and will be hope. And when we lose sight of that, we must rely upon our resources to revive our spirits and remind us of this simple fact. Amidst all of the cacophony, we are distracted from that little bird singing its sweet song. We should not feel ashamed for admitting when we need that push, whether that is self-care, reaching out to loved ones, or utilizing therapy and medication.

I don’t think I’ll ever see that woman again. And if I do, I know that it will again be for a reason. From simple moments come life’s greatest lessons. We reach out to those who may need our words and actions and vice versa. I will never doubt that there are some people in this world who angels without wings, bearing our souls and testing us in ways we might not expect.

If I can communicate just a smidgen of my experience on the bike trail last week, I want everyone to know that vulnerability can be a lifeline that we must cherish. We should view each person we may come across, whether that’s a best friend or stranger passing by, as an opportunity to spread love and compassion. We must realize our shared burden of hardship in life, a universal trait of humanity, and know that support is always within reach.

So life may be full of hardship, but it’s full of these tidbits that make every hardship worth it.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Aid Comes First

How I stumbled upon this topic is an interesting tale in of itself. My family likes to watch Jeopardy! every afternoon, a little tradition of shouting answers at the TV.

But halfway through when Alex Trebek talks to each contestant, one person mentioned that wherever she travels, she takes along a stuffed koala bear. My gut reaction, as with most things, is to be critical of what sense that makes. At least until she explained what that koala bear represented.

His name is Algee, named after an acronym used for an action plan utilized in Mental Health First Aid training. For as much as I research about everything mental health-related, this is one program I had not heard about until then.

Mental Health First Aid was created in 2001 by Betty Kitchener, a nurse specializing in health education, and Anthony Jorm, a mental health literacy professor. Kitchener and Jorm run Mental Health First Aid Australia, a national non-profit health promotion charity focused on training and research. The United States is just one of the many countries that have adapted the program from Australia.

The program consists of an eight-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives you the skills you need to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis. The target audience is more geared toward the common person with a basic understanding of mental health so everyone can have the skills necessary to help others.

According to its website, the premise behind the training is to make a mental health crisis equivalent to that of any other physical ailment. Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR, or at the very least, call 911. But too few of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that a friend or co-worker might be showing signs of alcoholism. Mental Health First Aid takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder.

The action plan mentioned above form that ALGEE. Assess the risk for suicide and/or harm. Listen nonjudgmentally. Give reassurance and information. Encourage appropriate professional help. Encourage self-help and other coping strategies.

While I see a tremendous benefit in educating people on the basics of mental illness, I do think that other sources of information are necessary for a fuller perspective of how to view mental illness. From the videos I’ve seen on the program’s website, the symptoms of certain mental illnesses, especially those labeled as “psychosis” tend to be very stereotyped in the typical behaviors to look out for and how to address them. I appreciate the goal to make the training as common as CPR training, but we have to realize that there’s a reason why we stigmatize mental illness: it’s very complex and hard to understand without doing so. Seeing someone having a heart attack is fairly straightforward. A panic attack or any other mental crisis could vary greatly from person to person.

But having a program like Mental Health First Aid is a great starting point, don’t get me wrong there. It’s a launchpad for so much more, especially when it’s targeted toward everybody, regardless of your background or education. And with the outreach it has already made, the website boasting over a million Americans certified, I think we could go the next step forward.

With the knowledge of how to address a mental illness crisis, how can we learn more about how a person might have a reached a point of concern? How can we prevent that from happening in the first place? Prevention should come from both the individuals who fall under the mental illness umbrella and those who are simply offering support. How does society’s view toward mental illness spur on more concerns? What subtle signs and symptoms might we overlook that lead up to needing first aid?

Inevitably, this is me trying to fit a very large problem into something reasonable and compact for anybody to consider. I feel that’s the only way we can actually approach it, as an “average joe.” But you shouldn’t have to be a psychological professional to at least care enough to inform yourself about mental health. We cannot downplay the potential of each of us to make a lasting difference in others’ lives.

Do I think you need a fancy class and certification to address mental illness? Certainly not. If that was the case, I’ve been wasting lots of time writing the past year. Our most powerful resources are not just trained instructors, but our neighbors and friends who have firsthand experience. It’s other advocacy organizations like NAMI dedicated to fighting the stigma. We should be equipping ourselves with as many tools as we can grasp. There is then no limit as to how much progress we could make.

And if a cute little koala gets to be a spokesperson for it all, that helps, too.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

How Fun is Fundraising?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be not uncomfortable when I hear the word “fundraising.” My mind immediately goes to selling cookie dough in elementary school, or selling food to help my high school’s band program. Which, in most cases, has been just family being the main contributors.

When you’re someone who doesn’t tend to deviate away from keeping to myself and not bothering others, fundraising feels like the exact opposite. The last thing I want to do is walk door-to-door and ask strangers for money. If those strangers are anything like me, they probably wouldn’t even answer the door anyways. They’d just duck under the windows until I go away. (Yes, I basically have a stop-drop-roll maneuver to avoid answering the door. Judge away.)

But inevitably, I cannot avoid this basic activity. In fact, for many of the groups and organizations I am and want to be involved in, fundraising is a major aspect of being a member. If I want to launch any of my own ideas and projects off the ground, I have to have the funds to do so, and I certainly cannot afford paying for things out-of-pocket. I am a college student, after all.

In fact, my current internship requires that I fundraise. Of course in the hiring process I was all up for the challenge and was more than eager to do my best work, but when stuck in my own thoughts, of course I psych myself out. Fundraising is a concept that is outside of my comfort zone of how I like to contribute to my work, so when it’s a requirement, I have no choice but to face it head-on.

So you may be expecting this self-proclaimed socially anxious introvert to have some magic solution to how to fulfill the protocol of fundraising without having a existential crisis in the process, and I wish I had a solid answer. Luckily there are online options available these days, but even then, people just won’t care or give anything unless they’re asked.

What seems fairly simple to do, make a mere request, can be very intimidating. I completely understand that. I live that. In our heads, we build up crazy scenarios and turn a little gesture into a life-or-death statement. Even for something like fundraising, an act that very few of us have never done before. We all get it. We’ve been there. So there’s no reason to isolate our own fears as something brand-new and foreign to human nature.

Let’s face it: any types of sales, whether that be fundraising or selling anything else, is a job dedicated to extroversion. The personalty type first became championed over introversion once the Western world exploded with consumerism and being a compelling salesperson became ideal. You have to be outgoing, outspoken, lively. How else are you supposed to rouse donors to support your cause?

But of course, what is necessary is balance. As much as it’s great to raise your voice loud enough for all to hear, people need someone who listen to their interests and concerns, and an introvert is a natural listener. We can pinpoint specific people and talk to them on a personal level that, in my opinion, is a better method than flashy advertising. We are purposeful with our words, honing in on the information that matters.

Inevitably, regardless of your personality and setbacks, we all must face a point where we must stretch from our comfort zones. The most effective means of fundraising at the end of the day is one-on-one and face-to-face. But once you recognize your strengths, you can choose the best method that works for you. Personally, this process will start with a progression from social media outreach directing people to an online fundraising page, to sending out letters, to going from there. It’s putting the time and thought into activities that are reasonable but potentially challenging for you. Maybe just target smaller groups of people at a time and focus on the relationships you can build versus the money you want to make.

With as many ideas and opportunities out there these days, the options for fundraising are limitless. If you have something important to say, then chances are, your own hesitancy will be your biggest obstacle. Introverts and extroverts alike will at some point “fake” being each other, forcing everyone out of their norms to either speak out or quiet down, respectively.

When it comes to fundraising, we aren’t all going to fall into the category that loves hosting events and going to parties. There are others to do that. You bring your own unique skills to the table, and that is the fuel driving a successful fundraising effort waiting to happen. We don’t have to fall into a stereotype of success to actually accomplish our goals. In fact, we should be admiring those who innovate, who challenge themselves and offer a fresh perspective on a timeless activity.

Yes, I’m still anxiety-ridden. But I know that if I can make the most of this opportunity, learn and grow from it, and do my part for my organization, then I know the effort will be worth it. And if I can do it, so can anybody else.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Dash from Dining

As is inevitable when it comes to social interaction is the situation that for those with a similar history as me might shudder: eating out, in restaurants, with others around.Let me tell you, I am currently writing this while sneakily eating a banana I had in my bag mid-flight. You know, because eating fruit is very tense and embarrassing, right?

As much as I am reminded that people don’t really care about what you’re doing (they’re often thinking the same fears from others, too), I cannot help but get anxious about something as simple as dining with others.

A peek inside my mind might make more sense. When I’m at home, knowing what, when, and how much I’m eating, I don’t feel the need to dwell on the little details. I can feel comfortable knowing it’s a “safe space.” It’s food I enjoy eating, and I can eat with my immediate family no sweat.

But start pulling in new factors. Different people with different eating patterns and appetites and diets as you. Going to different restaurants that, unless I’ve looked at the menu beforehand, is a shot in the dark of what I’ll have. And whatever ends up in front of me, how much do I eat? What is considered a normal portion? Are people looking at me or judging me?

Going vegan has helped tremendously in this struggle. If it’s vegan, it’s good to go. I can enjoy it without much other thought. But that still doesn’t necessarily prevent feeling self-conscious, especially if that means deviating from others, making different requests. And I still automatically think people are watching and judging me, that they can see me hesitate and overthink a function that should be innate but isn’t. Add more people, and the anxiety increases tenfold.

It’s as if there is a disconnect between my stomach and brain. They act independently and don’t understand each other often. So in a new dining situation, simple becomes complex. What is choosing an item from a menu or partaking in a buffet becomes endless questions and difficult decisions.

This comes back to my discussions regarding life as a constantly recovering individual in terms of my eating disorder. The network of nerves and signals in my brain will most likely always behave the same way, but from these patterns, I can address them accordingly. The fact that I don’t enjoy restaurant and large dining hall environments is not necessarily an out-right phobia. It’s definitely more anxiety-driven, making me on edge and uncomfortable.

I’m all about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s important to not always steer away from what scares you, especially if you feel held back. This pertains to truly anything, regardless of your mental health. But I also think there’s compromise out there. It goes back to my discussion and thoughts about triggering situations that provoke unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. It’s not like all social situations have to involve food. You should not feel guilty if you don’t want to eat out or eat in a certain situation if you don’t want to. And others should understand that it’s okay, that the presence of being close to others and the effort into taking the time and energy to see others is worth it.

Because yes, I would not feel sad if I never ate out again. If I have the choice and we have to order from a restaurant, I will always go for takeout so I can at least be in a comfortable environment. So that means that if I’m actually present in a restaurant, regardless if I’m eating or just sipping or drink or just hanging out, then kudos to me.

Chances are, this is will always be my normal. Just as I am always generally in a lower mood than most others, I have come to accept that I have to make adjustments to live a full life, and that’s okay. The people who are in my life will hopefully understand that, and anyone who enters my life will be people who will come to accept that, too. It doesn’t make the whole predicament less annoying, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. I do hope I can continue becoming more comfortable with the inevitability of eating out with others.

Basically I’m here to voice my frustrations and let others know who might be in the same boat that it’s okay. It doesn’t make you broken. If it’s something that really bothers you and hinders your life, then it’s something to work through with yourself or a therapist. You do you. Either way, you are validated in your struggle.

Theme of today: keep on keeping on. Celebrate the little victories and be okay admitting if you need help or just need to leave a situation. Ultimately, if doing something like dining out in a busy place brings discomfort, there are always options and alternatives. It’s the awareness of your personal well-being that truly matters.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie