There are people throughout our lives that inspire us to be better, inspire us to make a stand and inspire us to follow our hearts and dreams. These people can be anyone: a random person on the street or a friend/mentor. Sometimes they are famous people who are fighting to make a difference, and sometimes they are average people who just happened to make a statement so powerful that it captivated the world.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet one of those people who have inspired me to be strong and to take a stand against breaking the stigma that surrounds metal illnesses and depression.
If you’re Canadian, you should know the name Clara Hughes. Clara won 6 Olympic medals for Canada over multiple Olympics and is the only Olympian in the world to hold medals from both the Winter and Summer games. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that up until a couple years ago, I didn’t recognize that name. I was never big on the Olympics (save for hockey and freestyle snowboarding), so names were not familiar to me.
Some of you may recall that a couple years ago, I jumped on board with something called Bell Let’s Talk, a campaign designed to get the conversations rolling about mental illness to help break the stigma. Clara, being one of the main faces of the campaign, captivated me with her story and helped me to find the courage to stop hiding from my mental illness; to stop believing it meant there was something wrong with me, and to be willing to vocalize my story to help make an impact on others struggling.
When the editor of one of the papers I freelance for asked me to cover an event featuring one of our Olympians at a mental health awareness event put on by Dufferin Child and Family Services, I agreed, but didn’t think much of it. When the press release for the event popped up I glanced it over, but was so distracted by the busyness of life that week that I hardly noticed the name. It simply did not compute.
Finally, when I got to the event, and two students began to introduce Clara as the guest speaker, it clicked. I stood there, heart and mind racing, trying to keep my composure as a journalist when Clara walked onto the stage. It took everything in me to stay focused on doing my job. Standing in front of me was a woman who definitely impacted my life in a profound way, and in little over an hour from then, I was going to get the opportunity to stand before her and ask her questions.
We had a short press conference after she spoke, and I stood there shaking, fighting to hold back the tears. In person, Clara was even more captivating than I could have ever imagined. She was beautiful and confident, passionate and unafraid of talking about something most of us have been conditioned to believe is a dirty little secret.
It took everything in me to remain professional, and to prevent myself from betraying the emotions that were leaping forward as this woman who changed my life stood before me.
After our short press conference, I wanted desperately to take advantage of the moment and meet her and tell her how she had impacted me, but I held back. I knew she was concerned about getting back to the kids in the auditorium who were waiting in line to meet her, and this wasn’t about me. If I was going to have the chance to meet her, as a fan and as someone whom she had impacted, I wanted to be fair about it.
So I lined up, and I waited. Scott stood with me as I bounced up and down, nervous and excited all at the same time. As we passed around her medals and took some pictures with them, my mind spun with all the possible things I could say to her.
When it came to my turn, I nearly burst out in tears. I joked that this time, I was there for me not as the press, and then barely managed not to cry as I briefly told her my story and how she had impacted me. Our exchange was short, but it was possibly one of the most memorable moments of my life. She told me I was inspiring and to keep doing what I was doing, because it would change lives. And though I felt a little silly doing it, I asked for a photo with her and her autograph. I had contemplated not asking for either, but I realize I may never get the chance to meet her again and I wanted something to keep with the memories.
I had nothing for her to sign, so I asked her to sign my iPhone case. Then we stood together and smiled as Scott snapped our picture.
I’m certain my time with her was less than two minutes, but it was powerful. It’s something I will definitely never forget. For a moment, I was able to connect with someone who had seemed larger than life. To connect with her on a level that we both understand, on a struggle that we both share. We were able to connect on a passion and a desire to inspire the same kind of change in people.
While I know it’s not likely I’ll ever meet with Clara again, I still hope that one day our paths will cross again and we’ll be able to rejoice in seeing a change in the lives of those who suffer to and a change in the way people think about mental health.
And Clara, though I know you won’t ever read this, thank you. Thank you for taking a stand and for being a voice dedicated to changing the stigma. Thank you for changing my life, and for inspiring me to pursue the same dream, and to fight against the shame and the hiding that I had been conditioned by society to believe was necessary.