Project Resilience

By Guest Contributor

Founder of Project Resilience Emma Erwin ’15 shares her story and answer to “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?”

Two and a half years ago, I was several thousand feet in the air, flying home from Vermont after my freshman year of college, crying. I reached into my backpack to grab a tissue and pulled out a pen and a notebook. Instead of wiping my tears away for the thousandth time on that late night flight back home to Texas, I uncapped my pen, and wrote a letter.

I wrote down the things that no one else knew: I was not the happy girl that everyone seemed to think I was; I had a habit of taking a sharp blade to my skin, intentionally; I rarely wanted to be where I was, I often didn’t want to be anywhere at all; I had never planned on living past the age of twenty.

Five or six pages later, I closed my Moleskin, capped my pen, and looked out the window at the Houston skyline as we touched down on deceptively solid ground. A few hours later, well after midnight, I sat down on my bed after a long day of travel and an incredibly tiring year. I was exhausted, could have easily fallen asleep. Instead, I got up and shuffled through my backpack, grabbed my notebook, tore out the pages I had written on the plane. I walked downstairs, quietly stepped into my parent’s room, found them both sound asleep, and left the letter on the nightstand next to their bed. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

A few hours later, I woke up as my mom came into my room, crying, and in an instant, everything had changed. Instead of hopping on another plane the next day to leave for my summer job, I met with a therapist that day and for many, many days after.

A psychiatrist and an additional psychologist were soon added to the repertoire, and my summer days quickly became full of crying, talking, sobbing, and sometimes just sitting in silence, folding pieces of paper nervously between my hands, not sure what to say. But it helped. I was honest with others, and myself, and gradually I learned that although I had depression, it didn’t have to define me. Just because my uncle shot himself in the head when I was younger, it didn’t mean I was going to.

After several months of a whole lot of talking, running, yoga, and soaking up some Texas sun, I started smiling—and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t faking it. I picked up the phone and called the dean of my college, told him I wouldn’t be back at school for fall semester: there were some things I needed to do first. I booked a flight to South America and in September I was in Chile, climbing mountains with a crew of strangers on a semester course for a leadership school in Patagonia, and I was truly happy—no pretending involved.

One night in November, I left a camp we had made while sea kayaking on the coast of southern Chile and walked alone for several hours down the beach. I stopped, looked up at the sky, dug my fingers and toes into the ground, and cried for the first time since I left home.

I thought about how good it felt to let tears fall down my face, without falling apart. It was okay to think of all the horrible things that happened in the world, to let it affect me, but that it didn’t need to inhibit me from being alive. There were some pretty good things in the world, too, like the grains of sand falling through my fingers, and the water splashing on my toes.

Back in Houston in December, I picked up the phone again, called Middlebury again, and told them I wouldn’t be back in the spring either—there was something else I still needed to do: I needed to go to Alaska.

Alaska. That was where I told my high school boyfriend I wanted to go, whenever he asked. For a long time, my favorite book was about a girl named Alaska, who dies. That’s the Alaska I had always been referring to—but he never quite picked up on that.

So instead, I went to the geographic Alaska, and stayed there for quite a while. I lived with strangers, I worked on farms, I biked a lot, read a lot, and learned a lot. And then I climbed the tallest mountain on the continent. And it felt so good to be alive.

In August of 2013, I came back to school: I was a happier person this time around; I had a better relationship with my family, my friends, and was excited for all the things to come. But what came was not so great: a couple months into school, my best friend raped me.

But I didn’t fall apart.

A few months later, I got a phone call on a Thursday morning: the person I cared about most in the whole wide world was in the hospital, because she wanted to kill herself.

But I didn’t fall apart.

A couple months later I stood on the border of Mexico and California, and then I walked all the way to Canada, at twenty-one years old.
I walked a lot of miles, for 102 days, in the heat, in the rain, under the beating sun and shining moon, largely alone. My feet bled a lot, and I still have scars on my hip from my pack. But that was not the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to leave that letter on my parent’s nightstand, to ask for help.

This is my story. What’s yours?

EMMA ERWIN ‘15.5

Share your story at go/resilience or go/light
You can contact Emma Erwin at eerwin@middlebury.edu.

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