Ask a person with social anxiety to speak in front of one hundred teens about social anxiety, and the irony is all too apparent. Still, when Gina’s Team asked, I said “yes,” and immediately asked myself WHY? What was I thinking? I’m terrified of speaking in public, but I resigned myself to my fate.
Gina’s Team is an organization founded by my friend, Sue Ellen Allen. Gina Panetta died while serving time with Sue Ellen at Perryville Prison. She died because of ignorance—Gina, a young woman with children who loved her. Now, Gina’s Team works to promote education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men in Arizona.Wednesday, a group of us from Gina’s Team traveled to Prescott to visit the Mingus Mountain Academy. Mingus is a safe place for emotionally and behaviorally at-risk adolescent girls. The girls there are victims of abuse. Some are suicide attempt survivors, drug addicts, and criminals. Others have escaped sex trafficking and unsafe home environments. All in all, they are broken and in need of healing.
Upon our arrival, I was surprised at the attitudes of these young women. They approached us immediately, shook our hands, and introduced themselves. These are teenagers with a healthy respect for their elders and confidence not mustered by most adults. Impressive.
We congregated in the gymnasium for the speech segment. Three of us offered our input. Lori and Diana (both ex prison inmates I was blessed to work with at Perryville) told their stories of missing fathers, drug abuse, rape, and prison. When Lori broke down in tears, the girls of Mingus cheered her on and shouted, “We support you!” Some of them even joined in her tears, because they related—they understood.
As I mentioned, I was invited to speak about social anxiety and depression. I gave the narrative version of my life—from my days of black hair, cutting, and an abusive relationship to now. I told the story of meeting Jake, and the girls gave a standing ovation when I told them I’d been married two whole years. They were just so thrilled to hear I’d found someone—someone who loves me for who I am, who doesn’t hit me, who lets me be me.
Afterward, during the Q&A, they asked me to sing for them, which I did (another standing O). One girl was brave enough to ask how I stopped cutting, since she is a cutter herself. I channel my depression, anxiety, and rage into writing, so I told her she needs to find her cutting replacement, too. Another girl asked how to get over losing someone. The only thing I could tell her was time.
As we got ready to leave, young women ran to me to give me hugs and read me their poetry. I was amazed again by their self-confidence but also by their talent. The girls of Mingus can write!
On the drive back from Prescott, we read their comments. A repeated theme: “You give us hope.” I received a personal note, as well: “Sara, you inspire me to move on with my life.”
During my speech, I talked to them about a lot of things—about escapism, how to cheer up when in a funk, and how to be strong, especially in a world dominated by men. I also talked to them about God and how He gave me depression and anxiety for a reason: so that I could relate to others suffering from the same diseases and let them know life is never without hope.
I completely crashed after my trip to Mingus. I felt the lingering nausea, which always follows public speaking. As an introvert, my body was sapped of all energy. Yet, I basked in the images of my day—all those beautiful, broken girls and the way they cheered for us outsiders, strangers. They enveloped us in their love, despite perhaps feeling unloved themselves.
I hope to return to Mingus in September for their annual poetry slam contest. I can’t wait to hear more of their written words, their form of artistic escape. Until then, the girls will be in my prayers because I want the best for each and every one of them. They deserve the best.