Here’s the first thing to know: You’re not alone. It feels like you’re alone. And it feels like you are carrying around this secret shame into every conversation – almost like a second backpack that holds all your heaviest textbooks. And it definitely feels like no one has ever felt the way you feel before – like the walls are closing in – and it’s harder to breathe than yesterday, and you’re just so afraid you won’t ever get back to the person you used to be.
Like I said, you aren’t alone. I only say that with confidence because I used to think I was, too. And I was ashamed of the way the word “depression” sounded when a therapist diagnosed me so I kept it like a secret between my lips. And the only time I ever came out and just said it – that I felt like I was falling apart – was in a letter. It was a letter I wrote and left on a train in New York City. It wasn’t just one letter, either. It was dozens of them. I would write them to strangers I would see and tuck them into library shelves and coat pockets in department stores and all over the coffee shops of Manhattan. For a season, my first year after graduating from college, I was obsessed with writing and leaving love letters all over New York City.
I blogged about the letters I was leaving after a little while. I left a pretty wild promise sitting on the Internet: If you need a love letter, I will write you. No questions asked. Just send me an email, and I will handwrite you something and drop it in the mailbox with a stamp.
Stories started flooding in: girls being bullied or boys wanting to end their lives. There were people of all ages. People who’d felt and seen and experienced different things than me. People I would probably never meet. And yet this little voice inside of me seemed to say, as I clicked into each story: You are not alone. You are actually surrounded by people who are lonely and sad, and they don’t know how to admit it either. Don’t think for another second that you’re fighting this battle on your own.
I spent a year writing letters to strangers after that. And that grew into the global organization I run today. My life flipped upside down because of that one small action – leaving a love letter. That one thing changed my life. But you know what I learned the most? While the world had always told me that it would be grades that would teach me and good test scores that would matter most for my future, it turns out the world was wrong. It was people. All along, it was people who would grow me and teach me and show me what actually mattered when it comes to being human and hopeful and a little bit lost (and okay with it) in this lifetime.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of people in this world. And people still need other people to step up and say the things they cannot believe for themselves. Things like this: You matter. You’re not alone. You’re rare. Look up, it’s gonna be good.
I believe these things for you, even if we’ve never met. And my reasoning for that is simple: Once upon a time, I desperately needed someone to look me in the eye and tell me I was here for a reason. I needed them to tell me that I could go out there and do amazing things. It would have never mattered to me if it was a loved one or a stranger; I needed to hear it all the same. Words are powerful like that.
I met a girl named Sarah recently at a youth conference where I was speaking. I came off the stage to find her waiting for me. And before I could even catch my breath to say anything to her, she was rattling off every shortcoming she could name: “I’m not good at this… and I hate myself for this… and one time I did this… and it made me feel this way… And I self-harmed last week… And sometimes I don’t think I even want to be here.”
There was this strange sense of insecurity in the way she spoke to me, looking down a lot and fidgeting with her hands, as if she were waiting for me to turn in the other direction and walk away.
Instead, I grabbed her shoulders. I drew her in as close as I could. And I just whispered into her ear so that only she could hear it: “Sarah, you’re okay. Stop looking for a reason to not be okay. You got up today. You’re right here. You’re okay to me.”
It was this really quiet, grace-filled moment where I was surprised to find I reached out to grab on to her so tightly. And she just broke down into my arms sobbing. And we just sort of rocked back and forth together for a short spell of time.
I don’t really know how long we rocked for.
But I know the battle Sarah has faced. And I know what it feels like to look around and think that no one gets it. And I know how it feels to be swallowed by the loneliness. So maybe you need to hear the same thing: You’re okay.
Stop looking for a reason to not be okay.
You need to make a step this week. That’s the goal – one step. One step that you’ve been afraid to make. One step that you know is the thing that must come next. One step. One small action. One tiny thing. It might change your entire life.