Reflections on a Morning Spent with a Muslim Woman

Yesterday, at our Cape Cop Community College exhibit, one of the volunteers was a young woman from Pakistan. Have you ever met someone and instantly knew they were a genuine, kindhearted person? She had the warmest look in her eyes and a smile on her face as she introduced herself. We got to know each other a bit as the morning went on. One of my favorite aspects of being on the road is meeting people from all different walks of life, religions and cultures.

As we became more comfortable with each other, I asked how long she has been here and what drove her family to move to the United States. She stated her father was looking to relocate for work, and her parents simply wanted the family to be safe. I then asked if she has experienced any discrimination, racism or hate. Without any hesitation she smiled and said, “of course I have. Even as a teenage girl when I first came here.” We then spoke on and off for the next hour or so and her stories had my heart aching.

I will not reveal her name as to respect her privacy. When she first moved here, she worked with her Uncle at a local 711. One instance that stuck with her in particular was a customer coming in one day as she was working the cash register. When the customer reached the front of the line, he started yelling at her that he refused to buy from a Muslim and would like to speak with the owner. She said to me, “see Courtney, I didn’t understand because I was only a teenager. My family has always been kind and accepting with all.” The man proceeded to yell at her and hit the counter. She stated to him, “the owner here is also Muslim.” I listened with tears in my eyes as I tried to comprehend this situation. She then told me she has been taught to remain silent in these situations as she believes they are looking for a rise out of her. I apologized to her, I stated I am sorry that I never have and never will have to fear my own existence as I am simply trying to get through a work day. White privilege is real and if you can’t acknowledge this, you are part of the problem.

She then told me she rarely wears her scarf out in public due to being shouted at on the streets of Massachusetts over and over again. This young woman has even had objects thrown at her. Can you imagine this? Can you imagine not being able to wear that sacred cross of yours around your neck in fear of being verbally and physically harassed? Once again, I apologized for the way people from my race treat her. I apologized that she has to remove herself from her very own culture because of racism, ignorance and hate. Not once in any Muslim texts does it say all Americans and Christians should be killed. Nope, that is Al Qaeda and ISIS misinterpreting the religious texts. You know, sort of like the KKK and Catholicism. And you know what else? Her family fears the Muslim extremists as much as Americans do.

She then brought to my attention an atrocity that occurred in the United Kingdom this spring called, “Punish a Muslim Day.” This consisted of a point system for white people in which they would gain a certain amount of points for things such as verbally abusing a Muslim or pulling a head scarf off a Muslim woman. (For the record, her father and the non-extremist Muslim men do not force women to wear these scarves. It is more of a sacred object, an item of prayer).

Lastly, I spoke with her on a book I recently read- “I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and human rights. Once thing that stuck with me was when she United States military “accidentally” bombed her home town. Soon after, the US apologized and made an agreement to not go near her hometown again. Two weeks later, bombs were again dropped on her hometown. I remember reading that Malala said, “From that point forward, it was clear the United States would do whatever they wanted with no regard for the innocent.” Malala began fighting for female education and opening up secret schools at such a young age. She did not care that this could result in her death. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my goodness, Court. All the times you complained about waking up for school, or said this material was pointless” .. as I then read that Malala was shot in the HEAD for the very thing us entitled white people take forgranted.

The young Pakistani woman I met yesterday smiled with me as she said there are extremists on all sides and she does not resent white people. She left for a few hours and then came back with a dozen donuts for everyone- just so, so kind. I urge all of you who fear Muslims to actually sit down and talk with one.

Lastly, white privilege has absolutely nothing to do with who you are as a person. It has everything to do with the systematic reality of the country we live in, in which white people are indeed given a head start. Minority communities are stuck in some of the most corrupt, poorest school districts in which children are being set up for failure. Suicide rates are highest among marginalized groups. Acknowledging white privilege promotes a shift in our culture, ignoring it keeps minorities in this never ending cycle of despair.

When you look in the eyes of someone whose ancestors have been oppressed, you see the pain, you feel their pain. And pain patterns are passed down in their DNA. We must dismantle this corrupt system- because it was built this way from day one.

In solidarity with all those who experience hate and racism on the regular- I am behind you.

Skydiving With Grandpa

A few months ago, the world lost Alexis Zayas to a skydiving accident. She was a free spirit in its purest form. Since then, many people have said they will never go skydiving. Hell, I briefly said that, even after wanting to go for years. But I can just picture Alexis laughing at us, pestering me till I just shut up and did it. Her passing is teaching me that time is something we can’t get back, to deliberately throw myself into situations out of my comfort zone and let go of fear.

I think we all find ourselves not following through with plans or bucket list experiences. We are too busy, or tired, or simply “not ready.” A  few weeks ago, I called my grandpa and he goes, “hey Court, weren’t we supposed to jump out of a plane?” Alexis’ tragedy occurred and I said to myself,  “alright, grandpa is in incredible shape. But he is 82, and things happen. Car accidents happen. Sudden illnesses happen. Life can pass us by.” So I kept an eye on the forecast each weekend and when I saw Saturday morning would be clear, I booked it. I called my grandpa to tell him the news and without any hesitation, he said, “alright! See you at 6am on Saturday!” Which brings me to my grandpa. 

He will be 83 in less than a month. He is what many would describe as batshit crazy. The good crazy, of course. He has been driving solo across the country for the last 5 or 6 years, which inspired me to drive cross country myself. He served in the army in the Vietnam war. He goes night fishing and kicks my ass hiking because sprinting up the mountain is his only way. He exercises and lifts weights regularly- yes, he could put people my age to shame. He collects rainwater to conserve (difficult times are coming, he’s been telling me for over a decade) and has a sweet sword collection and always reminds me to carry pepper spray. In his case, dog spray- “it works on the two legged dogs too, Court.” He rode his bike to my house from Queens, 60 miles round trip, the day after skydiving. My grandpa truly embodies the whole, “be ready for anything” mentality. He knows his time here could be cut off at any moment. 

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So yesterday morning, the day of our jump, we got in the car and all I could think of was how terrified I was. My grandpa laughed and did not show even the slightest amount of fear. He reminded me to focus on my breathing. We both enjoy being on the road so despite how nervous I was, the ride was peaceful. I gazed out the window as the sun rose, took a breath and smiled. Ahh, I was at ease.

While filling out paperwork, I did some people watching and saw the look of anticipation on everyone’s faces. Is it too late to back out? We watched a video and got all geared up. Everything from there seemed to go by incredibly quick. It was as if time was nothing but a concept for the next 30 minutes. 

Next thing I know the dude I’m going tandem with is rushing me to the plane. I frantically ask for my grandpa and I’m told he’s already boarded. I get on the plane and look at my grandpa. The  82-year-old is grinning ear to ear and I’m panicking. All of the sudden we are taking off and my  thoughts begin to race. I remind myself to focus on my breathing and remember that fear is an external force. If I go within, fear can not overtake me. If I go within, fear does not continue to exist.

Now, we are halfway up and the man I’m going tandem with asks how I’m feeling. I’m about to jump out of a plane 2 miles high in the air, im f***** terrified. Am I SUPPOSED to feel any other way? He begins attaching everything to my back and tells me to put my goggles on. The door is opening. He goes over the motions I’m supposed to follow one last time. Time stops. 

Did I really just fall out of a plane? I don’t feel like I’m falling. In fact, everything feels still. A meditative state. I have zero fear. I look out and as far as my eye can see, there is lush, green farmland and the Long Island Sound. The lands I call home. I had never felt so free.

I land and look up as my grandpa descends to the ground. People are cheering him on and I still can not fathom what is happening. The agreement had been for him to jump first but I was given no choice with the way we boarded the plane. I glance up at grandpa and just think about how this is happiness in its purest form. 

The man I went tandem with gave me his business card, which had a picture of him diving with Anthony Bourdain. I found this to be ironic as the last thing he asked me before jumping was what my semicolon tattoo symbolized. I quickly explained Project Semicolon- that an author uses a semicolon when they could’ve ended their sentence but chose not to. You are the author, the sentence is your life. He commented on how powerful this was. And then we were flying.

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Anthony Bourdain- another free soul that constantly sought adventure and sparked the inner seeker in others as well. A mind that was engulfed in darkness and lost the will to fight. Receiving the business card with the picture of Bourdain made me realize something, it helped me to recall a thought I had while taking off on the plane. I remembered thinking to myself while we ascended that for a few years I too, felt I could not go on. Suicidal ideations were prevalent. I was fixating on the paperwork I had signed, which acknowledged what I was about to do could result in my death. I shed a few tears real quick as I thought of something potentially going wrong. I remembered a time when I wanted nothing more than to die. Yet there I was, wanting nothing more than to live.

And so I kept living- by seeking experiences that make me come the most alive. I lost fear and gained my whole life.

For the memory of Alexis, who gave me the courage to do this. For my grandpa who inspires people day in and day out. And for Anthony Bourdain- who magically became a beautiful reminder for me on Saturday.

Your story isn’t over yet.

The Road Behind Me

I sit in the foothills of the Sierras, looking out at the mountains in the distance while reflecting on this tour that is now behind me. 18 displays. Hundreds of conversations that shook me, that made me feel everything at once. Countless amounts of individuals whose tireless effort is the fuel that keeps this mental health movement going.

I look the other way and see the freeway out in the distance, a road that goes crosses the entire country. The country we drove across to raise awareness and hope. Nearly three months on the road. A road that has brought some of the most powerful interactions and experiences of my life. It has been both an awakening, while exhausting at the same time. People ask us how we do this, how we carry forth with such heavy work. My answer? It needs to be done. And with anything in life- you just keep going.

Display days were emotionally raw and left an impact that can not be fully put into words. I look around at the backpacks and think to myself, there should not have to be a display for this. This epidemic should not exist. Mental health needs to be made a priority, we must do better. However sad it may be, displays spark an overwhelming sense of solidarity among students, professors, mental health professionals, and so forth. We are in this together and will not keep quiet. Silence is not an option. On these days, you just know everyone feels welcome. I’ve listened to people speak of things they haven’t talked about in years- or ever for that matter. A safe space for all.

There was Justin’s Uncle Jim who came to see his nephews backpack. He was such a kind man and expressed so much gratitude towards the exhibit. Jim stuck around for hours. I watched him from a distance as he read the backpacks and smiled at strangers. We talked as if we were old friends- we laughed together, we talked about how valuable life is, we reflected together. Jim took every single resource and seemed to be at peace when he left. He mentioned that all of these backpacks have a common narrative- that those who lost the fight were well-liked, empathetic, caring, and so forth. A few displays later, Justin’s best friend came after she heard how much of an impact it left on his Uncle. I held space for her as she brought Justin’s memory to life.

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At another display, a family came to donate a backpack, and a ceremony was held for the young woman that had lost the fight. Her parents, sister, and best friend all attended the ceremony. I felt their pain as tears were shed, but there was also an overwhelming sense of hope. When I looked at her backpack, I immediately saw the light radiating off of her picture. Her sister stated that she was beautiful, both inside and out.

A young man, Matt, came to us in California and opened up about having suicidal ideations. He hadn’t told anyone as he was ashamed and afraid of the judgment that may come with disclosing this. Minute by minute, I sensed Matt felt more at ease. When he told me I imparted a new way of thinking for himself by sharing my story, I knew every second was worth it. Matt left grinning ear to ear and assured me he would use the tools for healing, that he now knew the road to recovery was possible.

In Tennessee, my Uber driver was curious as to what the nature of my work was while traveling across the country. After explaining Send Silence Packing, this man opened up about losing his brother to suicide when they were teenagers. He stated that he does not speak of this much, that his family has been ashamed for decades. His brother was in the military and didn’t want to admit to his weaknesses. We need to stop with this macho bullshit, as suicide is the second leading cause of death among men ages 18-30 in the United States.

Fast forward a few days. I sit in the truck while we drive through the plains of Nebraska. The west behind me, the east ahead of me. This is a bittersweet moment as I am yearning for the comfort of home, my family and familiar faces. There have been moments on this tour where I have felt alone, especially these last few weeks. Being on the road every few days, picking up and leaving places that my soul has felt a calling to, not having the comfort of familiar faces week by week, it has been trying at times. I don’t fight this or suppress any emotion, I allow myself to feel it and I am free. At the same time, my heart is heavy leaving so many people and places behind. I know I will one day return and until then, this road will never fail me. 

The Send Silence Packing tour will stay with me for as long as I live. At every display, I looked around and thought to myself that I could have very well been a face on one of those backpacks- but I am still here. Recovery is a choice and it is one of the strongest decisions you will ever make. There is not enough recognition for those who have conquered mental illness and came out on top, but I am here to say I see you. I applaud you, no matter where you’re at on your journey.

I crawled around in the darkness for so long, but today I can say I’ve never felt so hopeful. There is a war to be won and this is only the beginning.

In solidarity, today and every single day.

I Don’t Want to be an Ant- Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana

The display at University of Tennesse at Chattanooga was super powerful. We were interviewed by school and local media which was fun. It is not a big deal in the slightest but I was pretty nervous initially. I’ve never been a fan of being the center of attention- I don’t like all eyes on me for opening of presents or happy birthday songs, I don’t like people making a fuss over me, I don’t like people’s phones constantly  in my face for snapchats and Instagram posts. Anyway. The thought of being on camera made me nervous but it came pretty naturally. It’s also been cool seeing our names come up in local news. We are going to a lot of schools in California and Active Minds is hoping to have national news outlets there. I am hoping to feel prepared at the time but we will cross that bridge when it comes.

So many awesome people stood in solidarity. Parts of the day are extremely difficult- students are angry, devastated, confused, yet at the same time, grateful for the display and the awareness it is bringing. We all remind each other that it is ok to take breaks. Everyone is looking out for one another and it is so beautiful. Just as the day was ending, the ROTC marched onto the quad to pay their respects. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.

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Once again, the volunteers were awesome. At the end of the day, so many students and professors and so forth helped us break down the display- many of which were not even signed up to volunteer! It was such a beautiful thing to see and be a part of. It’s been a very weird feeling, meeting so many wonderful people and saying goodbye just as fast.

We stayed in the COOLEST hotel called the Chattanooga Choo Choo. This was part of the only section of a Terminal Station that was demolished in 1973. This railroad line was built in 1880 and ran from Cincinnati to the south. Nearly all trains passing from Cincinatti to the south ran through Chattanooga. This railroad line was last used in the 1940’s. It felt like taking a step back in time!

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We checked out in the morning and browsed the gift shop, another old train car. Super cute. As we were walking out of the gift shop, an older man at the hotel approached us asking if we were enjoying our stay. We said yes and he gave us some recommendations on local things to do. He then asked what we were traveling the country for. When we explained what the campaign consisted of, his response was, “well if someone doesn’t believe in God, they might as well end it all.” He was not joking. Somehow he now begins to preach to us about the confedarate flag and how his ancestors fought against tariffs that favored businesses in the north. At this point, I’m beginning to lose my patience. I wanted to ask him if his ancestors were slave owners and if so, how did they treat those slaves? I bit my tongue and thought to myself, people like this man want a rise out of me. He was for sure rambling, definitely made passive aggressive comments regarding our views (which we didn’t even speak of). Finally, I gave him a nice big smile and said “I’m sorry, but we are really pressed for time” (we were not in the slightest). We get into the truck and Alexia looks at me and goes, “you’re really preaching about tariffs??! What about the enslavement of human beings? Screw your tariffs, bro.” I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard. I’m all about hearing multiple perspectives but when you fail to mention the mistreatment of human beings, we ain’t cool.

Before hitting the road, we walked through the art district which was pretty sweet. I had ice cream for breakfast, no shame. We also went to an art museum in the city, right on the water.

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We hit the road and stopped in Huntsville, Alabama on our way to the University of Misssissippi. Huntsville was cool, very small town USA. I took an Uber downtown (or what is actually referred to as a city). I really enjoy chatting with Uber drivers and hearing their stories, definitely much deeper of an experience than sitting in the back texting and ignoring the human in front of me. It blows my mind that people can go through day to day life while lacking human connection, we are losing this and it’s scary. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, maybe I was born into the wrong generation or something. One of my favorite quotes from “Waking Life”…

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Huntsville was a really cute city. I walked through Big Spring Park which was a nice trail on a little stream with little waterfalls and whatnot. Alabama was a lot cooler than I expected. I also ate a lot of fried pickles.

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After Huntsville, we headed to Oxford, Mississippi for our display at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi). Once again, a really impactful day. I have to remind myself that although I see this display over and over, at each school, hundreds and even thousands have not seen it yet. So many meaningful conversations. I definitely do not feel like an ant anymore. I felt trapped for so long and have finally broke free. All those years of darkness suddenly make sense.

Our stop  in Jacksonville, Alabama was cancelled, so we had time to venture to New Orleans! It was a very cool city but at the same time a bit of a creepy vibe. Strangers kept coming up to us and got a little too close. I’ve never been one to remain passive when men overstep their boundaries. Nah, dude. At no point in this conversation did I invite you into my personal space. Do. Not. Touch. Me. Too many women these days thinking this behavior from men is acceptable. Stand your ground.

The city definitely had a European feel to it. We  strolled through the French Quarter and are crepes and just took it all in.

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46104FCA-7FCE-4668-B661-DF32F5C33811.jpegWe had a good night. The street performers brought some really great energy into the experience. There were even little kids performing with their friends/family! A whole jazz band in the street. Super cool.

The next day I went kayaking in the Manchac Bayou. Aka swampland, home of all the alligators. I would’ve never done this years ago. I talked to the guy and was like, listen, I’m from New York and this is pretty wild to be kayaking where alligators live. He said there’s only been two recorded alligator attacks in the bayou in the last 100 years. They do not attack people in kayaks or boats, mainly people on feet. I’m thinking to myself, “cool. I’m going to be that third attack in 100 years.”  I was low key freaking out for the first 10-15 minutes or so but didn’t want to be that annoying person, so I did not let on to it at all. Once we were deep into swamp though, the beauty just made me forget all my worries. And yes, we saw a few alligators.

3ADEAF0A-92C7-4182-BEF7-3D2FC3018506.jpegThe bus ride back into the city was great. I’ve been meeting so many interesting people. One woman lives in a trailer in Arizona and is hoping to figure out a way to build a tiny house on wheels and travel for a year. ME TOO! We talked about all the National Parks we hope to see, Zion in particular. Something is calling me there. It was cool to be around people that get it.

We got back to the city and I went into a bar and ordered a frozen Irish coffee. I just sat there and laughed to myself.. who orders an Irish coffee in New Orleans? Me, apparently. Whatever, I was really craving Baileys and Jameson. I did some people watching and then strolled the streets with my frozen Irish coffee. I loooove that you can walk the streets with a drink in your hand. The cobblestone streets closed of for pedestrians are my absolute favorite.

This trip is changing my life. I no longer feel the need to water myself down or change myself to fit into societies standards. Over and over again, I am experiencing true human connection- almost more so in the last 4 weeks than the first 25 years of my life. I’m not an ant. I’ve never felt so free.

The Reason I Am on this Journey

I am currently sitting 30 feet off the ground in a tree house. It has been my dream to find a spot exactly like this one, and for some reason, I am not on cloud nine as I expected to be. I sit and look out into the distance as the sun descends, as it falls beneath the trees in the distance. Here I am in a state I never imagined myself to step foot in, not knowing a single soul other than Alexia. So many fleeting moments and interactions that are super meaningful, but come and go all too quickly.

For the first time on this tour, I am scared. Not scared for my safety, but just apprehensive about the journey to come. So far we have done three displays- each one more powerful than the next. I’ve already had hundreds of conversations aimed at diminishing the stigma surrounding mental illness. This is so heavy and I knew this walking into it but it is really difficult at times. Students are angry, devastated, confused, yet grateful at the same time. I’ve watched individuals fall to the ground as the tears flow, I’ve been a witness of friends holding each other as they cry. Throughout all this, I have to be the strong one. I have to be that anchor, the living testimony that recovery is possible. And it’s tough. I had a *minor* existential crisis last week. I began to feel overwhelmed and thought to myself- SHIT, I am not cut out for this. How am I supposed to feel everyone else’s pain without transforming it into my own? I can’t.

I talked it out with my Shan and lucky for me, I have a huge support system who have reassured me that this needs to be done, and remind me over and over that I am courageous for being the one to go forth on this journey. I know this tour is going to be extremely difficult at times but I am tough as hell and was chosen for a reason. Every single person I’ve met on the road thus far has opened up to me about someone they’ve lost to suicide- a father, cousin, student, neighbor, best friend, acquaintance, teacher, daughter, mother, coworker, brother, teammate and so forth. EVERY single person. Now THAT is why I am doing this. As we set up every display, I look at the beautiful faces on those backpacks, the faces of those who lost the fight. That is why I am here. I speak for all of them and I will not keep quiet until this epidemic ceases to exist.

I remember my first time uprooting, when I left to study abroad in Ireland for four months. Here I am again, having left home behind, not knowing what exactly the future entails. I won’t lie, I miss the comfort of home. The spot I am at right now is SO serene and I keep thinking to myself I’ll be driving home to Long Island tomorrow, just like every other weekend adventure I’ve gone on. Then I say to myself, actually no, you won’t. But I can’t help feeling that way. Tomorrow is Easter and I am hundreds of miles from home. I miss my family and my heart is heavy knowing I will not be with them tomorrow. Here I am in a strange place and as beautiful as it is, I am yearning to see a familiar face. I guess I was sort of naive going into this and didn’t fully acknowledge that this path will not always be easy.

I doubted myself on being open about all facets of this journey. However, I need to be real because I am a multifaced being. Too many people only want to share the sweet stuff. I want to prove that there is strength in vulnerability and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

I sit here in my solitude as the sun sets and patiently wait for the moon to rise and stars to appear in the sky. Once those constellations burning far, far away are visible, I will be at ease. I used to be terrified of being alone, whether it be for 10 minutes to go order food, or a long weekend in the woods, or not having someone to be with. Yet here I am. So I’m proud of myself, I’m proud of myself for overcoming that, for everything I’ve overcame.

In just a few short days, we will embark on our drive from southern Florida to northern California. I am feeling everything all at once and it is so damn beautiful.

I breathe in, let it all out, and allow this life force energy to flow through me.

Onward.

Mental Illness and Gun Violence: The Bigger Picture

I was unable to march yesterday due to being on the road for the majority of the day. I am so proud of all of my friends that marched, and most importantly, the youth that have taken a stand to ignite this movement. After every shooting, the conversation automatically goes to blaming the mentally ill. I feel obligated to speak up and silence those further perpetuating the idea that the mentally ill are violent.

When describing the shooter, President Trump used words like “savage sicko”, and “mentally disturbed.” Dana Loesch, NRA spokeswoman’s choice of words were, “insane monster.” Yes, we are quick to blame the mentally ill. It is only a natural reaction for us to think to ourselves, someone who is mentally healthy would not do that. They say they’ll increase further background checks, make sure someone with mental illness does not get their hands on weapons of war. This only increases stigma and shame among the mentally ill, allowing for people to be more reluctant in terms of seeking treatment. No person in power is talking about the larger issue at hand here.

According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, “People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributed to serious mental illness.” What is more astounding than those numbers is the amount of youth living with mental illness going untreated. A study done by Mental Health America in 2017 shows 63.1% of youth living with depression don’t receive mental health services. So if the people in power want to make gun violence a mental health issue, let’s do just that. Let’s hold the government accountable for not providing more affordable, timely, accessible mental health care for all. Let’s talk about the amount of individuals struggling to find care. There are studies that show the government and insurance companies are failing to provide affordable, timely mental health care to all. One that hits home for me is Project Access, conducted by Long Island’s North Shore Child and Family Guidance.

The project surveyed 650 individuals on Long Island currently receiving help for mental illness. The results show that almost half of the respondents had a harder time accessing mental health care than they would have accessing help for physical illness. Of those, 40% said their insurance did not cover an adequate number of providers. Other factors into not receiving care are stigma, affordability, and long wait lists. The study states that in 2008, Congress passed the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. This federal law states, “it is illegal to treat diseases of the brain differently that any other part of the body.” Two years later, the Affordable Care Act passed into law which reinforced that health insurance companies must provide equal amount of benefits for mental illness as they do for physical illness. However, it is clear that this is not the case. I worked as a Care Manager on Long Island and one of my primary responsibilities was linking clients to treatment. The amount of times providers would tell me they had a long waitlist or no longer take certain insurance is unacceptable. I have witnessed firsthand the lack of care that is readily available to those most vulnerable. If the NRA and our president want to make this a mental health issue, let us do just that. Let’s call for higher federal and state regulations of insurance companies providing adequate mental health care for ALL. Let’s call for more funding for mental health services such as early intervention, education in schools, and family support. Let’s demand funding for research into other factors that contribute to gun violence. These include but are not limited to history of domestic violence, history of substance use, history of violent misdemeanors, and history of DUI/DWI.

One last issue I would like to bring to attention is the correlation between gun violence and suicide. I know I know, a forbidden topic that most are afraid to speak of. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 93 people in the United States die from gun violence a day. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides. Why is this not spoken of? In my current role, I’ve read through hundreds of personal stories on backpacks of those who lost the battle to mental illness. Let me repeat that- hundreds. Not one story suggests the victim was violent. In fact, every single story submitted by family or friends states the victim was loving, empathetic, caring, funny, well-liked. I’ve looked at picture after picture of individuals who are no longer here, individuals that were afraid to speak up and seek treatment. We must break the silence, we must highlight the real issue here- lack of access to affordable, timely mental health care.

To the men and women in office perpetuating all mentally ill as violent, I call BS. To the NRA’s uneducated standpoint that promotes shame and stigma, I call BS. To those in power not acknowledging the whole picture, I call BS. To the government and insurance companies not providing accessible mental health care to all, despite being mandated by law, I call BS.

Education and expertise are our greatest weapons of the future.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation or thoughts,

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, available 24/7

Crisis Text Line: 741-741, available 24/7

Trevor Project (primarily for the LGBTQ+ community): 1-866-488-7386, available 24/7

Sources:

https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/22/health/trump-mental-illness-comments-bn/index.html

http://www.amhca.org/blogs/joel-miller/2017/10/03/gun-violence-and-mental-illnessmyths-and-evidence-based-facts

http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/mental-health-america-youth-data

https://www.northshorechildguidance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/north-shore-project-access.pdf

http://www.bradycampaign.org/the-truth-about-suicide-guns

Day 10 of 68

Wow. I am feeling very overwhelmed right now, but in the best way possible. There is so much happening every single day and I am trying my hardest to pause when I can, and just take it all in. It is beginning to hit me that I have been hired to drive across the entire United States. Excuse my language, but I think to myself countless amount of times throughout the day, “Holy shit, this is actually happening. This is real.” Either someone needs to pinch me and wake me up from this dream, or I need to realize this is the reality I deserve.

I would be lying if I said this journey does not terrify me in some sort of way. I left Long Island for Washington DC not knowing a single soul. I didn’t just pick up and leave nothing behind- I left a job in which I had 20 clients and their families who counted on me. I was lucky to be working for an incredible agency, and be introduced to the mental health field with a lot of wonderful mentors. Fortunately, when everyone heard of the campaign I was going to be working on, I received nothing but support. I won’t lie, when I made the decision to go on this tour, I was afraid some people might judge me for just picking up and saying goodbye to routine life. You know, the 9-5 type of deal, societies standards. Being on the road like this, it feels so right. I’m grateful to have so many influential people in my life who understand why I needed to do this.

Alexia and I stayed in a hotel last night called Quinta Inn and Suites. It began to snow and her reaction was so funny. She is from California and has never really seen snow. We woke up to about half an inch of snow, if that. She looks out the window and says to me, “how are people driving? What are we going to do?” I asked what her definition of a lot of snow is and she goes, “like an inch.” She just sat there staring out the window like a little kid. I was so amused. Meanwhile, my family is back on Long Island snowed in with yet another blizzard. Happy spring! We met less than a week ago yet it feels like we’ve known each other forever. Friends like that are good stuff.

We had a pre-site visit at a University in Chattanooga, Tennessee today. No, I never thought I’d wind up here either. I described the last town we were in as “bumblefuck Tennessee” and Alexia was losing her shit, as she never heard the word before. She keeps asking me to describe to her friends what this means exactly. You know, those fly over states no one thinks of going to or appreciates till they experience it themselves. A place that isn’t your typical vacation destination.

A pre-site visit consists of meeting with a representive at a college where we will be coordinating a display, which is typically the day before. At these visits, we elaborate and discuss every last detail of the exhibit. There is a lot that goes into it and it is by no means easy work. I’m excited that we get to be creative and stand in solidarity with a lot of remarkable people.

After the pre-site visit, we checked in at a hotel downtown. I was very eager to get out and hike as there are some pretty sweet spots in the area. I took an Uber to Rock City, a little town on the top of Lookout Mountain. On a clear day, you can see seven states from the top. My Uber driver immediately asked where I was from. I thought my accent was fading a bit, apparently not. He asked what brought me to Tennessee and I explained I was here for work. I don’t go into details as to what I am doing or why I am doing it unless someone seems genuinely curious. Suicide prevention and awareness is heavy stuff, not everyone is comfortable discussing this topic, and I respect that completely. However, this kind man asked questions so I explained further the nature of Send Silence Packing. He then told me that he lost his brother to suicide when he was 15 years old. He is now 45 years old and opened up to me, stating his family has not fully processed or dealt with this until recently. We discussed how our culture forces men to believe they must suppress their emotions. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among men ages 18-30. So no, you don’t always have to “man up.” I have a dream of men and women alike bragging about going to therapy the way they brag about going to the gym. You can exercise your mind the way you exercise the rest of your body. The brain is an organ, let this message be known. When he dropped me off, he thanked me for what I was doing. Every single interaction I’ve had in the last 10 days has left me feeling so good. I know I am harping on this, but the people in Tennessee are so awesome. I could honestly see myself living here. Never in my life did I imagined I would utter those words. I’ve been made aware of the difference between a redneck and hillbilly, and listened completely to numerous individuals as they explained that the confederate flag is not always a symbol of racism and hate- many people down here consider it a symbol of southern pride. I can respect that and am glad my mind is beginning to open up. With all this chaos going on in our world, I wish more than anything to promote respectful debate. It is the only way we will begin to see real change in this country, at least in my eyes.

Anyway, back to Rock City. It was a nice stroll through a trail called the “Enchanted Gardens.”   The name alone enticed me.

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It was so nice to just sit and reflect. I then came across Lover’s Leap, an absolutely breathtaking waterfall.

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According to Native American legend, a Chickasaw warrior named Sautee and a Cherokee Chiefs daughter, Nacoochee, crossed paths in the woods while exploring. Elders from the feuding tribes forbade Sautee and Nacoochee from seeing one another. Eventually, Nacoochee’s father ordered for Sautee to be captured and thrown from the top of Lover’s Leap. Nacoochee was devesated and jumped to her death immediately after. There has been debate if this actually occurred, as artifacts have shown that the bottom of Lovers Leap was a burial ground for many tribes over a long period of time. A cute little story regardless. Also, the fact that people roamed these lands for thousands of years blows my mind and leaves me in awe.

Next was Fairyland Caverns. This was a bit of a  cheesy display through caves, mainly directed towards little kids. However, I have no shame in admitting that I enjoyed every second of it.

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I sat on a bench and did some people watching. I enjoyed being childlike in wonder for an hour- this is SO important. One little kid, he must’ve been about 3 or 4 years old goes, “look dad! We found Candyland!” Then he starts pretending to eat the candy and knocking on the door asking if anyone is in there. He was so freakin cute. He also did not fail to say “hello there!” to every person passing through. My goodness, the personality of some kids is the greatest thing ever.

I explored the caves and came across clear quartz all over the walls. I was super excited because this is one  my favorite crystals, I was even wearing a necklace with clear quartz at the time.

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The healing properties of clear quartz consist of amplifying energy and thought, as well as balancing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual planes. A lot of people find it pretty strange and ridiculous to believe in this stuff, like, “come on Court, you really carry around crystals and stones in your bag?” I’m very well aware that this could be a placebo effect but whatever, these little pieces of the Earth are so beautiful anyways.

When I was leaving Rock City, I opened up Uber and it turned out there was no drivers in the area. I went into the coffee shop and asked if there was a bus or trolley that’d take me back downtown. The woman told me that Uber’s do not cross state lines. Wait, so I’ve been in Georgia this entire afternoon, not Tennessee? Awesome!!! Now I can add another state to the list! A couple in a car with two dogs overheard my conversation and asked me if I wanted a ride. I would never hop in a car with strangers back in New York but I knew it was ok. This may be a bold statement, but my intuition has almost never led me astray. I realize that many people are concerned for my safety and I am lucky to have so many people always looking out for me but I knew this was totally safe and not sketchy. We had a really nice conversation, these people were super interesting. The woman is running a relay race with her friends from Chattanooga to Nashville, which takes about 36 hours. I asked if they take breaks and she said they sleep in a van and by sleep she means hang out and provide support for whoever is currently running. She said it is such a mental thing and is ready for it to be over towards the end. The couple asked what I was doing in Tennessee and I told my story. Their reaction was pretty similar to everyone else’s. When they dropped me off, they wished me the best of luck on my endeavors and this journey and I wished them the same.

I got back to the hotel and Alexia and I went out to dinner. We’ve been ordering out a lot and did some cooking at the Airbnb so it was nice to change it up a bit. There was a book case with donations where you could take a book for free and leave one of your own.

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I took two books home that really spoke to me. I remember reading something along the lines of asking someone in a book store where the self-help section is and the worker states, “if I told you, that would defeat the whole purpose.”  Lately this is what my life feels like. Every moment leading to another magical moment. I’ve become a magnet for positive energy and experiences. All good things in all the right time.