How can things ever get better?
I must be crazy.
I feel so alone.
These thoughts raced through my head for years.
When Life Takes A Detour…
These were thoughts I had when my “thought-out” life took a detour.
What’s a detour?
A detour is a curve in the road, a bump in a path, a big sign in the middle of your trip that says sorry, you have to go THAT way.
Nobody expects a detour to happen in life. It’s what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball.
Believe me, I didn’t expect to be in a coma my senior year of high school.
It’s a mouthful, I know. That was my detour.
For a long time, my detour felt like a dead-end. After 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I didn’t know where my life was going anymore. As my stitches healed one by one, my thoughts seemed to unravel day by day. My detour took me to a very scary place, into a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – PTSD. Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories.
Stress Makes Us Feel Alone
Stress and anxiety can make us feel like we’re entirely alone in our struggles. College, especially, can be a breeding ground for stress – a turning point in our lives where we’re independent, perhaps for the first time. Doors become open to us that we never even knew existed. We realize we have the power to make choices, which can be equal parts empowering and frightening.
When I was going through my traumas, the biggest thing I needed to know was that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a community of people, just to listen, to show understanding and compassion.
I realized I wasn’t alone in my stress, depression and anxiety when I saw how mental health issues and emotional concerns were a campus-wide issue.
Plagued with their own anxiety, as well as taking on the anxiety from their families, many students appear more stressed than ever. The office hours of my professors were jam packed with students asking for advice on how to handle situations outside of the class room or looking for advice on what to do. Counseling centers are operating on waitlists and students are not learning how to self care properly. Students may feel uncomfortable reaching out to health and counseling services. Worse, students may be unaware that these resources exist.
The Frightening College Reality
I was shocked to find out, in a 2011 NAMI study, that 64% of college dropouts were for mental health-related reasons, and that, of those, 50% never accessed any mental health programs or services. 73% of college students report having experienced a mental health crisis while in college. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students.
This inspired me to develop a program that combines Broadway theatre and mental health advocacy. Now, I deliver this keynote to colleges and universities, providing hope, health, and saving lives.
I never thought that 10 years after I was supposed to start college, I’d be doing a different kind of college tour!
Gutless & Grateful, the honest one-woman musical story of my life, shows the great and not so great aspects of a “detour” in life. How I traveled my “detour” was by trial and error – and it still is. But what I realized is that when I finally spoke up, asked for help when I needed it, and shared my story, I was finally able to heal and move on from it. Gutless & Grateful is the story of how I became a Detourist.
It takes “guts” to talk – and sing – about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better. But I share to show that things do get better with patience, trust and resilience.
Starting the Conversation on Campus
My show Gutless & Grateful aims to introduce helpful resources on campuses that can help students build resilience. I’m sharing the story of my life, and then talking to campuses about what students can do to create their own resiliency toolbox; a must-have in order to deal with stress and navigate life’s detours.
In the final component of my program, I introduce students to a panel of counselors, faculty and wellness resources on campus, opening the channel of communication between the student body and staff. If we can bridge that gap, we can help more students get the help they deserve.
A strong campus community is full of compassion, support, and resilience. The more open we are about our struggles – whatever they may be – the more we can normalize needing a bit of help. Resilience is a learned skill, it’s a challenging task, but it is achievable. Through resilience, I learned how to cope with stress, anxiety, and even better, I was able to travel my detour long enough to finally find that beautiful clearing.
We all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all could use a few tips on learning how to love who we are. We all have detours in our lives, and we become empowered when we trust that we can travel those detours and come out okay – even better! This “detour” in my path has turned into the richest time of my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. That’s why I call it my “beautiful detour.”
So when life gets stressful, or just doesn’t go as you plan, think of it as a detour – and make it a beautiful one.
As you travel, remember to reach out and ask for the help you need. Together we’re stronger. Together, we can navigate our beautiful detours.
Learn more about Amy’s program for colleges here as well as her programs for LGBT students and sexual assault survivors. Get involved in the student Detourist movement here, and help contribute to making #LoveMyDetour a world wide movement.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for The Huffington Post, award-winning health advocate, actress and playwright. As a survivor and “thriver” of nearly 30 surgeries, a coma, sexual abuse, organ failure and a decade of medical trauma, Amy has been challenged with moments of extreme difficulty. But as an artist, newlywed, actress, 28-year old college student and overall lover of life, Amy eagerly shares the lessons learned from trauma and has brought out the stories that unite us all through her writing, mixed media art, performance and inspirational speaking.
Amy works directly with survivors of sexual assault and those healing from PTSD. Learn more about her college sexual assault prevention initiative here. All artworkwas created by Amy as a way to heal from her own history of sexual assault.
Speaker for RAINN
Creator of Gutless & Grateful