I'm sitting in my hotel room in Buffalo and trying to process all that has happened on my short trip. Several weeks ago, I had been asked by Eva and Sari, the directors of the TMI Project, to join them on a trip to Buffalo to read my piece about my journey with mental illness at their writing workshop. Getting the chance to travel AND discuss mental illness? I responded "yes" just nanoseconds after I got the email.
My mom and I took the nearly 7-hour train ride, and I got to see Western New York for the first time. Buffalo has been even more amazing than I thought it would be. This morning, I met up with the two TMI Project directors and the other readers, Ray and Valerie. We were picked up by members of The Service Collaborative of Western New York (Thank you Hannah!) and all headed to the University at Buffalo for the workshop. This specific TMI workshop was for several groups, including AmeriCorps. In all, there were approximately 150 people, mostly young adults, of diverse backgrounds and life experiences. They sat at round tables with 8 or 9 people per table. Some were already friends, and others were meeting for the first time today. By the end of the workshop, these 150 individuals would form an open and accepting place for people to open up about things they had thought they could never talk about.
We began with some examples of the polished pieces that were formed through different TMI workshops and events. The directors, Ray, Valerie, and I all stood at the front of the room and read our pieces. The participants were exposed to our stories about subjects like mental illness, marriage, sexuality, war, drug abuse, prison, failed relationships, and successful relationships. Each story brought both smiles and some tears. We wanted to let those participants know that everyone has a story that they think is "too much information," but in reality, these are the stories that people can relate to and be inspired by; in many cases, sharing these stories will bring the reader relief, clarity, and empowerment.
We answered some questions about our stories, the writing process, and publically reading our work. After they got a sense of how the TMI Project functions, they were given a choice of writing prompts and were asked to write for 15 minutes about one of the prompts or whatever they were feeling compelled to write. After the time was up, some people stood at the microphone to read what they had written. What happened next will stay with me forever.
The true and personal stories the participants were sharing took my breath away. They were opening up about difficult times in their lives in a natural, unfiltered, and emotional way. Some of them revealed things about their lives that they had never told anyone or had a hard time accepting themselves. Just the process of writing down their feelings and thoughts opened doors that weren't open when they sat at the round tables just two hours earlier.
The process of giving prompts or exercises followed by writing then reading continued throughout the workshop. As the day progressed, I saw a change in many of the participants. Some of the stories were light, and other stories were difficult for the reader to get out. Whether the audience response was happy or sad, everyone showed respect, encouragement, and a sense of support. All of the stories were thought-provoking, and I believe everyone in the room could relate to at least one other person's story.
From a quiet room to an open and accepting place, there was a transformation within the room today; I could see it and feel it. In all, everyone shared in small groups, and over 75% of the people shared at least some of their writing to the rest of the room. We laughed together, cried together, and made a beautiful bond. I hope every person learned the power and the value in writing and sharing their stories and had an opportunity to practice compassion and acceptance.
I received many many hugs today, and have never applauded more in my whole life. I can honestly say that this was one of the best and most inspiring days of my life. For me, it wasn't just reading at a workshop, it was my chance to learn that everyone has a story inside of them that they feel might be "too much information" that needs to be told. When we can tell those stories, we heal ourselves and can provide relief to someone else. We are powerful, and we are limitless.
Goodbye for now Buffalo,