Content warning: This post, and pages it links to, contain stories about addiction, abuse, and psychiatric disorders, which may be distressing.
A few weeks ago I met Helena, the author of Stories Like Yours. She told me about a project she was working on right here in the Mount Pleasant & Columbia Heights area. She is reaching out to total strangers to hear their stories. They agree to meet her for a short visit and share their life challenges and struggles. I was amazed at how much one stranger could share with another and then walk away, likely never meeting again.
I wanted to know more, so after talking with Helena I read some of the write ups on her Stories Like Yours website. Of course the subjects are cast as anonymous, but the stories and people are real. Real human beings with real struggles. The stories are not always easy to read. But, I'm reminded that life in DC is not always about new retail developments, local political campaigns, or whether the baseball team won last night. There are many people who silently struggle with mental illness, abuse, addition, homelessness, or other complex, serious predicaments. For all of the increased wealth and population growth we've seen in DC over the last 10 years, we know that not everyone walks that same path, in that same pair of shoes. Each one of us has an uncommon and extraordinary story. Here's what Helena is working on, in her words:
"Six months ago, I posted a Craigslist ad under Platonic > w4w > w4m; the title is "Tell me about yourself..." and it's still running if you're interested in the text. The ad says that I am working on a creative nonfiction book project that seeks to grasp the full range of human hardship through a series of two-page vignettes—simple snapshots of people’s struggles. I guarantee anonymity—the subjects' names and identifying information will never be associated with their story.
I woke up the next morning to a slew of responses, and by the end of the month I had over one hundred. I started meeting with people immediately; if they weren't in the area, we set up phone chats.
Hundreds of stories, tons of coffee, lots of tears, and many words later—I still sit in a café every day and just listen. And in case you're wondering where I get the time: well, "I quit my day job" (let's hope that doesn't become my tagline). The response from the people I was meeting with was so overwhelmingly positive, that these meetings slowly became "my job." Even though I don’t give advice, I do ask very occasional questions for the sake of the story. What continues to surprise me is how many times I still hear “I’ve never told anyone this” or “I’ve always felt so alone and burdened” or…”it feels good to talk to someone”--and it surprises me because a lot of these people have spent a lot of money and time in therapy. Yet they seem to be saying these things out loud for the first time, and their gratitude for just listening is overwhelming.
The ultimate goal in writing about these stories is to provide an honest mirror of the invisible problems we carry around—the problems we would only confess to a complete stranger. I hope that these accounts will expose some societal taboos and make DC a more sensitive, kind, and accepting place. I hope they will make us better at listening than we are at judging, and ultimately I hope they will give one person the courage to come forward and speak—the silence is always the most painful part.
Thanks for listening,"