The Road Behind Me

Courtney Burke
Courtney Burke

I sit in the foothills of the Sierras, looking out at the mountains in the distance while reflecting on this tour that is now behind me. 18 displays. Hundreds of conversations that shook me, that made me feel everything at once. Countless amounts of individuals whose tireless effort is the fuel that keeps this mental health movement going.

I look the other way and see the freeway out in the distance, a road that crosses the entire country. The country we drove across to raise awareness and hope. Nearly three months on the road. A road that has brought some of the most powerful interactions and experiences of my life. It has been both an awakening, while exhausting at the same time. People ask us how we do this, how we carry forth with such heavy work. My answer? It needs to be done. And with anything in life- you just keep going.

Display days were emotionally raw and left an impact that can not be fully put into words. I look around at the backpacks and think to myself, there should not have to be a display for this. This epidemic should not exist. Mental health needs to be made a priority, we must do better. However sad it may be, displays spark an overwhelming sense of solidarity among students, professors, mental health professionals, and so forth. We are in this together and will not keep quiet. Silence is not an option. On these days, you just know everyone feels welcome. I’ve listened to people speak of things they haven’t talked about in years- or ever, for that matter. A safe space for all.

SSP Display

There was Justin’s Uncle Jim who came to see his nephews backpack. He was such a kind man and expressed so much gratitude towards the exhibit. Jim stuck around for hours. I watched him from a distance as he read the backpacks and smiled at strangers. We talked as if we were old friends- we laughed together, we shed a few tears together, we reflected together. Jim took every single resource and seemed to be at peace when he left. He mentioned that all of these backpacks have a common narrative- that those who lost the fight were well-liked, empathetic, caring, and so forth. A few displays later, Justin’s best friend came after she heard how much of an impact it left on his Uncle. I held space for her as she brought Justin’s memory to life.

Note from Uncle Jim

At another display, a family came to donate a backpack, and a ceremony was held for the young woman that had lost the fight. Her parents, sister, and best friend all attended the ceremony. I felt their pain as tears were shed, but there was also an overwhelming sense of hope. When I looked at her backpack, I immediately saw the light radiating off of her picture. Her sister stated that she was beautiful, both inside and out.

A young man, Matt, came to us in California and opened up about having suicidal ideations. He hadn’t told anyone as he was ashamed and afraid of the judgment that may come with disclosing this. Minute by minute, I sensed Matt felt more at ease. When he told me I imparted a new way of thinking for himself by sharing my story, I knew every second was worth it. Matt left grinning ear to ear and assured me he would use the tools for healing, that he now knew the road to recovery was possible.

In Tennessee, my Uber driver was curious as to what the nature of my work was while traveling across the country. After explaining Send Silence Packing, this man opened up about losing his brother to suicide when they were teenagers. He stated that he does not speak of this much, that his family has been ashamed for decades. His brother was in the military and didn’t want to admit to his weaknesses. We need to stop this macho bullshit, as suicide is the second leading cause of death among men ages 18-30 in the United States.

Just as we were wrapping things up at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the ROTC marched out onto the quad to pay their respects. So powerful, so raw, so real.

Veteran at SSP Display

Fast forward a few days. I sit in the truck while we drive through the plains of Nebraska. The west behind me, the east ahead of me. This is a bittersweet moment as I am yearning for the comfort of home, my family and familiar faces. There have been moments on this tour where I have felt alone, especially these last few weeks. Being on the road every few days, picking up and leaving places that my soul has felt a calling to, not having the comfort of familiar faces week by week, it has been trying at times. I don’t fight this or suppress any emotion, I allow myself to feel it and I am free. I have left a part of me in so many places, places I hope to one day return.

The Send Silence Packing tour will stay with me for as long as I live. At every display, I looked around and thought to myself that I could have very well been a face on one of those backpacks- but I am still here. Recovery is a choice and it is one of the strongest decisions you will ever make. There is not enough recognition for those who have conquered mental illness and came out on top, but I am here to say I see you. I applaud you, no matter where you’re at on your journey.

I crawled around in the darkness for so long, but today I can say I’ve never felt so hopeful. There is a war to be won and this is only the beginning. In solidarity, today and every single day.

 

To learn more about Send Silence Packing® exhibit and how to bring it to your campus, please visit our website.