“You can be anything…” (part 1 of 2)
Confession: I wasn’t a happy child. It wasn’t the lack of love, affection or any material object; I wanted for nothing. There was simply something inside of me, something necessary and fundamental that was broken. I became a great actress. Outsiders looked at me and considered my childhood idyllic, so I convinced myself the view from the outside was reality. Other kids were starving, didn’t have clothes on their back or struggled to survive each day. What right did I have to be unhappy? I hid behind the widest smile while searching for something to fill the empty spaces within me.
My unhappiness stemmed from my loneliness, but it was more than that. I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person, but I do believe in a higher power. I’ve always felt that the sadness and extraordinary trials I’ve experienced were preparing me for something greater. My quest for that “something” has been long and hard. Nevertheless, there is a heavy weight that comes with that self-imposed responsibility.
The journey began early. Back then I was feeling so many different things: fear, indecision, and anger. I was a jumbled, confused mess. Born in another time, I am certain I would have been diagnosed with a form of depression; medicated just enough to not be lucid enough to figure out who I was meant to be.
To settle my swirling emotions at a very young age, I developed a strong appreciation for the lost art of letter writing, which to this day still calms me. With that, I can be my most raw and honest self. I take my time with every word, erase until my heart’s content, revise, rewrite and, when I deem it ready to go, send it off without a care in the world. I’ve written to celebrities I like, executives I don’t and just about anyone else with whom I have a thought or twenty to share.
I don’t know what finally prompted me to write one particular letter. By then, I was struggling with being a teenager. Struggling with self-doubt and self-hatred that was overtaking me, burying all the good within. Struggling with trying to always achieve perfection. Struggling with figuring out what I was supposed to do with my life.
One day, I sat down at my computer and I began to type. I forced myself to be honest in a way I never had. I poured my heart out to someone I watched everyday, whose personal journey was an inspiration to me: Oprah Winfrey. There’s something freeing about being anonymous, so I confided in her like I would no one else in real life.
Once I signed my name to the finished product, I placed it face up on top of my dresser. That is where it remained until one gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
On this Saturday, like every other, my mother picked me up from my engineering class at the University of Michigan. I remember the trees and the slight breeze as I jumped in the car and waited for her to pull off. I remember crafting my argument for stopping at Washtenaw Dairy for a single scoop of Superman ice cream in a cup. But when she turned toward me wearing the all-knowing expression that every mother has, my craving for ice cream melted away and I wanted to hide. She’d read the letter.
My mother wanted to have a serious discussion; I wanted to avoid it. I’ve never been much of a mumbler, so I gave one word answers as she tried to delve deeper inside my heart. Despite her best efforts, I confirmed one thing — every word was true. Beyond that, I’d shut down. Perhaps it was intuition or even desperation, but something told her to do what I lacked the courage to do: mail the letter.
Weeks passed. And then one day, there was an envelope addressed to me from Harpo Studios, on fancy paper with a purple logo.
“Torri, you can be anything you want to be,” wrote Oprah Winfrey.
I don’t remember the words before or after her emphatic statement, but I didn’t care. What she wrote told me that I mattered. In that moment, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.
Although the letter has disappeared, its message stays with me. I think of that letter and Oprah’s declaration often. A stranger who was everything I longed to be believed in my potential when I didn’t. The only thing left was figuring out what I was truly meant to do. It was when my path crossed with Oprah’s again that I had a sense that a higher power was speaking directly to me.
My family is filled with cheerleaders, who say and believe that there is no goal I cannot reach, but the fact that Oprah Winfrey said I could do it made me truly believe there were no limitations — I just needed to get out of my own way.