Today I left my home in the dark early morning. I drove for hours, over hundreds of miles of highway, and then dirt roads that carried me further and deeper into vast and vacant countryside. I drove as far north as I could without crossing the Canadian border, at higher elevations where the snow never melted from last week’s storm. The dirt roads narrowed and wound through brown fields full of wild turkey, past small family farms with bull cows curiously watching me pass, and Guinea fowl rambling loose on lawns. Fatigue stung my eyes. My car became covered in a fine layer of tan dust.
When I arrived at my destination—a small combined elementary and middle school in the furthest reaches of the Northeast Kingdom, I noted a single yellow school bus. I wondered if it was the only bus for the entire school. When I met the guidance counselor inside, she confirmed that it was in fact the only bus. And not only was she the guidance counselor, but she was also the only bus driver for the school, which required her to make two runs each morning and two each afternoon.
She was the one who invited me and my co-presenter to the school to talk about mental health through a NAMI presentation called Ending the Silence. I asked her, prior to the presentation, “How much discussion have the kids already had about mental health? Have they talked about things like LGBTQ identities? Race?”
I looked into the round baby-faces of the middle school kids as they waited patiently for me to begin. They seemed so much smaller than I had pictured them. Was it just this town? Was it a small town with small kids? They were quiet. I wondered what it felt like to grow up here.
I told them about big things. Things like queer identities, race, violence, mental illness, suicide. I also told them about other big things, like hope.
I have decidedly embarked on a mission to be the person that I needed when I was their age.
For the first time in my life, I stated aloud to a group:
“I live with a mental health condition.”
They didn’t know they were the first to ever hear me say this. But they were the most endearing and gentle audience for this admission.
On my way home, not surprisingly, I got lost. I found my way, maybe magnetically, to the shores of Lake Willoughby. I got out and took some pictures of course. Here I am, squinting at the sun, feeling something like relief, something like peace. I’m welcoming this opportunity into my life to do meaningful work.