The Story That Led Me To Geneva and A Second UN Speech
How letting people in was key
On January 10, 2003 at 4:31pm I was sitting on a closed toilet seat, staring at stacked boxes of China sets, in a half bath that didn’t have a working lightbulb.
My mom had died minutes before and I’d felt it. I felt it deep down in my bones. When I heard the doorbell downstairs, I knew that what was coming up the elevator wasn’t going to be good news. So I sat. Very still.
It was January, 4:31pm meant that night had started to fall, and it was greeting me at my loneliest.
That’s the first time I can remember sitting alone and building up walls with the bricks of the thoughts I was collecting.
When I walked out of the bathroom, I sat on my cousin’s lap as he told me that my mom tried her best, that the doctors tried their best, that everybody tried their best and that….
Well, I don’t actually remember what he said after that because I was too busy redefining survival. I nodded my head up and down, the motion breaking up his sentences.
I was that car, the one that goes through a tunnel and whose radio isn’t strong enough to carry you through a song. The beginning and the end of the lyrics are still there, so your mind has to play catch up with the fact that the middle was covered up in static, the static didn’t strip it of its meaning, but coated it in confusion all the same.
I had enough beginning and ending in my sentences to convince people that I was holding up just fine. I was told I was strong, that my mom would be proud. I was mature and taking care of others, carrying a load that was too heavy for my 10-year-old shoulders.
That was the first time I let the load seep inwards, instead of asking someone to help me carry it.
Some time in early December 2013, I had a panic attack outside of one of my marketing classes, right before my final presentation. I was digging my nails into my left thigh, while my right hand held my cell phone to my right ear as I explained to my grandmother’s doctor that no I could not be there to sign my grandmother’s release forms from the hospital. I was outside of my marketing class and for right now I needed to just be a 20-year-old girl who needed to pass her final presentation.
He didn’t care for the nuances of my life, so I called my aunt and in between tears told her the same. I couldn’t handle this. Not right now. Not anymore.
This was the first time that I saw giving in as a sign of strength.
For three months after that night I walked the tight rope that was staying sane and acting as one of my grandmother’s primary caregivers.
There are very few experiences in my life that will ever come close to making me feel as hollow as looking into ICU Doctor’s eyes and telling him that if my choices for her were death by aspiration or death by morphine, then there really wasn’t a choice, was there?
This was the first time that I hated having control over a situation.
Because with one decision I learned that having control over a situation does not mean that I get to control the outcome.
Somewhere toward the beginning of when I started going to therapy, I sat in the chair, leaned my head against the wall, and told her, “I’m really, really good at giving just enough of the story to make others think that I gave it all.” It was my warning and my cry for help.
She asked me why I was telling her and why I wasn’t taking this same approach to therapy.
I stumbled over words, but said something along the lines of, “Because I want better than that for myself. I know that if I tell you what I know will get me out of weekly sessions, you’ll think I’m fine, but I’ll know I’m not.”
This was the first time I let myself come apart in an effort to learn to love all the pieces that were holding me together.
On March 10, 2014 at a little past 2pm, I walked into a hospital room where my grandma’s body was surrounded by family. All drenched in the tears of the moment.
I’d been with her through every seizure, every laugh with nurses, every time her mind wandered and she screamed for my uncle because she didn’t remember he’d stepped out. I’d held her hand on the first day of her last stay in ICU and I’d asked her to squeeze my hand if she was still in there. She did. So then I asked her to stick around a little longer because I was graduating in May and we’d worked for this. I didn’t ask her to squeeze my hand though, because she wasn’t one to make promises she didn’t know she could keep.
So, for all the moments I held her through, I couldn’t have her final one be one of them. I couldn’t hold her as she took her last strangled breath, so instead I held her right after.
I fought with a body who couldn’t hear me break because I know that if I’d fought with her to stay while she was still mentally here, she wouldn’t have let herself go.
This was the first time in 11 years that I let myself be a kid despite the circumstances around me.
I felt cheated out of moments I thought I was owed. This felt unfair and I said so as I held her.
My college was vertical. The main building had 12 floors that from the right angle gave you a glimpse of the Empire State Building. After my grandma died, I would sit by the elevator bank in between my classes. My back against a wall, my laptop on the floor in front of me and some form of sustenance right next to me. Because after someone dies you carry food around as a reminder that eating is something you should be doing.
This is usually where Nate* would find me.
One day, when I write a YA novel and need to base the male best friend character on a boy who is always there when you need him, I’ll base him on a guy from college named Nate*.
He had dirty blond hair, an analytical brain and had mastered the art of sitting in silence.
For as much as I didn’t talk when he sat next to me, I let him in more than I let anyone else in.
Because in a time when most of those around me wanted me to commit pain to words, he accepted that my silence was the only formal statement I could make. And he came to me, this is important to note. I invited him to sit next to me, because he made my choice easy — I didn’t have to ask, he was already standing right before me.
This was also the first time I sat comfortably with a boy who knew the actual extent of my pain.
He’d been a safe space when I was in hospital waiting rooms and the texts I was sending explained to him that it was a matter of when and not if she died.
He sat next to me as I thought through the beginning of what I was creating with Too Damn Young. I told him that it was going to be my safe space, I didn’t tell him it would be an extension of the one that he created for me.
One in which silently sitting in pain was an accepted form of companionship. It’d be a place where every definition of grief was valid and how badass you were for living through it was openly acknowledged.
It was going to be a website for someone who was grieving, and also badass; someone who had lost, but also gained; someone who knew what it was to lose young and to mature quickly.
I got a second chance at life the minute I bought toodamnyoung.com.
I’ve told this story often and to some extent the more you tell a story the harder it is to believe it is actually your own. The words create distance between you and the feelings, you’re left with paragraphs that condense rock bottom moments into vivid descriptions of what hitting rock bottom must feel like.
Except, the character in my essays is me.
I’m the girl who had a panic attack outside of a Zara. I’m the girl who didn’t know who she was after her grandma died because she’d always been a caregiver, a good student, a good friend, but never whoever she needed to be for herself.
I’m the girl who found herself breaking after an argument with a friend because the word “obligation,” as a descriptor, is my kryptonite.
I’m the girl who commits to telling the story she was born to tell every time she types “Too Damn Young” into anything.
On May 28th, 2014 I started Too Damn Young because I saw my life experiences as the biggest burden I’d ever been given the task of carrying.
At 21, I’d lost any person I’d ever called mom, I knew my way through the ICU and I’d given the okay to put someone on morphine. I hadn’t even had a real boyfriend yet.
To me, I was at a loss. To me, I was a loss.
I needed, for survival’s sake, to find myself in other’s stories so that I could learn to love my own. I needed to love my story so that my worth wasn’t attached to how anyone else perceived it because my roots would be firmly planted.
For months, mine was the only story that I was given the privilege to peek into. Then the Ingrid Nilsen video happened and Too Damn Young had its 15-minutes of fame.
15-minutes that led to two of my favorite girls walking into my life and making Too Damn Young’s story their own.
Holly came to me on April 5, 2015, with an email that had this sentence in it:
I remember as a teenager going through high school without the most important woman figure in a young girls life, a mother, was extremely difficult and wish I would have stumbled upon your organization sooner.
She’s made Too Damn Young’s mission — of helping others not feel alone — her own ever since.
Then Caitlyn walked into my life with an email on May 18, 2015, that included this:
I just wanted to say that this site has helped me a lot over the past year, and if a little bit of my story can help someone else then I want to share it.
And from the Midwest, Caitlyn became the voice behind Too Damn Young’s Twitter and a better, braver version of who I was at her age.
They are my two daily reminders that while I started something that struck a chord, it only turned into what I wanted it to be after I let them in.
Too Damn Young has always been, and will always be, big enough to let others stake their claim on its story and make it their own.
Healing for me happened moment by moment, every time I let someone in.
It happened with Nate*, and Holly, and Caitlyn.
But learning how to genuinely love my own story, that didn’t happen until I was the one doing the inviting.
The first time I texted a friend an essay, instead of letting them just happen upon it, that was me claiming ownership of my narrative. Any time that I tried to bring my mom or grandma up in conversation, it served as a reminder to both them and me that I have stories to tell. That only one is sad and an ending, the rest are pretty good middles.
This year was the first time that I realized that it’s not enough for someone to like the end result, they need to be down for the middle.
And there’s no way I’m stopping nowmedium.com
When I spoke at the UN for the first time, at the beginning of the summer, I had a hard time prepping for it.
Every time I would start with my story, I’d trip over the details of my own life. The overpowering voice in my head that told me that not every moment had to have this much depth, made it hard for me to hear my own voice.
I like depth. I’m a fan of vulnerability. I’m convinced that when you lead from a place of openness, you allow those around you to meet you in that same place.
But the intersection I live on is scary one to inhabit. For a really long time, I saw rejection as the only outcome for being vulnerable. There have been a handful of people who have shied away from this part of who I am, and, yeah, it’s insulting, hurtful and confusing.
But it’s also a challenge, and a reward in and of itself, to find the people who won’t.
This was the first time I gave myself permission to let go of people who only loved me in parts.
Some of my best qualities as a friend stem from the fact that I know loss intimately and think that not being intentional in a relationship is a waste of everyone’s time.
When I make my way to Geneva, I’ll stand before a room of UN Leaders on Friday and tell them how my best qualities as a leader surfaced after I shifted my intentions. I stopped putting all of my energy into building brick walls with my thoughts and instead started inviting people into the process.
Inviting people in is one of the scariest and bravest thing anyone can do.
Trial and error has taught me that some walls are okay to have up, especially when deciding who to share with. My top four are these:
- Do I feel like this person has earned the right to hear my story
- Do I trust this person enough to take care of my narrative (read: to not project on it)
- Do I feel safe enough in who I am outside of the relationship to weather potential bad outcomes
- Do I understand that I have no control over how they respond, but regardless of their response my action is significant
My last year has been a series of hits and misses when it comes to these items. But regardless of this it taught me a lesson I carry with me everywhere: I share for my sake, not for someone else’s.
I share because it makes me a more authentic person, which makes me a more authentic leader. I share because I can.
I share because I’m living a story and I have every right to tell it.
Whether or not the person on the other end considers it oversharing, that’s an opinion I have no control over.
I’m sitting in an airport, next to my best friend, wearing sweatpants and listening to a playlist titled, “Switzerland.”
This is what freedom by way of Geneva feels like.
Follow my Instagram + Instagram Story for updates on my trip to Geneva: https://www.instagram.com/vivnunez/
I’m the founder of toodamnyoung.com. I’m a writer, editor and entrepreneur. You can find my personal essays on Medium + other writing on MTV, Forbes and Popsugar Latina. I also co-host Creating Espacios, a Forbes Podcast.
Follow along as I condense essays into 140 characters:https://twitter.com/vivnunez