When I arrived on Brown’s campus, no one knew. Even though we all had everything to learn about one another, I kept quiet and feared the day when I would have to let someone in on the truth.
The truth is that I am sick. I have three chronic illnesses that are both painful and invisible. There is no way for anyone to know this unless I bring it up. Managing pain throughout high school, I thought I was at war with my own immune system, and I wanted to win.
At Brown, the battle became a fight for normalcy. I hid rows of pill bottles in the bottom dresser drawer and dealt with pain privately in bathroom stalls. Still, even when my fingers were swollen, I typed up problem sets and poetry in translation. I believed that my silent struggle was necessary in order to take full advantage of my time at Brown and the opportunities we have here.
Then, during my first year, I took a course in Literature and Medicine that broadened my perspective on what those opportunities could mean. I was surprised to find myself identifying with Philoctetes in the play by Sophocles.
He was left on an island by shipmates who couldn’t bear to see his incurable wound, and I related to his isolation in my own invisible experience. I understood his constant apologies for his gaping sore, and I had experienced the kind of pain that took him beyond expressible thought. The class sparked my interest in pursuing health academically.
Studying health opened my entire world to the possibilities of the personal. I learned that I could use the immediate relevance of my own experience to understand issues affecting entire communities. One of my diagnoses, lupus, is not only more common in women than men, but is also three times more common among Black women than white women. Health became the lens through which I could directly address the consequences of social inequity.
We all witnessed the violence of inequity at the start of our sophomore year, when the government consistently failed communities in Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Through volunteer work and independent research, I have confronted this and other forms of ongoing structural violence, such as the high rates of disease in communities of color. In classes at Brown and abroad, I have worked to craft a curriculum of personal and community empowerment.
Studying in South Korea and Brazil, I met people who taught me the importance of faith and humor in the continuous work towards positive social transformation.
During an experience mentoring adolescents with chronic illness at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, I began to realize that what I went through in high school and at Brown was normal. We all have our invisible struggles. So that when we are chastised for arriving late to work, or when a professor hands us a paper with a grade much lower than we expected, we think: If you only knew.
Still, no one has to understand everything we have been through in order to get to know us. We are not defined by the realities that challenge us. Instead, we have the chance to define ourselves through the choices we make in overcoming them. Part of this transformation is the way we voice our truths, whether with a close friend or onstage, through a painting or a poem.
Realizing that we aren’t alone in our silences can empower us to speak about our experience. When I began to perform spoken word in Providence, I was nervous to include poems with details about my life. Through people’s responses to my poetry, however, I recognized the power of voicing invisible aspects of life.
Speaking up can open us to a process of mutual understanding and healing. Personal pain does not have to mean isolated struggle, and there can be relief in hearing the type of knowledge that comes from experience.
Integrating my unseen daily reality into academics and art has challenged me to think creatively. I have learned to talk about what I know in ways that are meaningful outside of my own experience. As a result, I have come into friendships with unexpected people.
During the hours spent talking over salads in the Ratty, the nights spent stargazing from the roof of Hegeman Dorm, and procrastination on the Main Green before exams, we have supported and encouraged each other through the excitement and challenges of the past few years.
Finding friends whom I can trust has been the most transformative part of my time here. Together, we have created space for each other to move from hiding our struggles to actively healing. This is something none of us could do alone. Learning to be open here, with you, has brought me into a new definition of healing, one that requires community.
My father has always stressed the importance of being able to recognize my personal pain as part of a collective struggle. I value my time with all of you for the chance it gave me to develop an extended sense of community.
Whatever our future paths, my prayer is that they allow us to create spaces where the silenced voices of our communities can be heard, responded to, and nurtured.
Despite the urgency of the work to be well, it requires loving patience from all of us. Part of our own health depends upon becoming trustworthy, to make it safe for others to speak what they know. As we move beyond this campus, let us stay committed to the truth gleaned from our personal trials and those of our communities.
To be truly healthy is to be open to the possibilities of each moment, even when they are not what we expect. The openness and acceptance of friends here has encouraged me to speak, and the space to speak has helped me to heal. The generosity of spirit that has supported us here can continue to expand healing spaces for those who need it, even as we form new communities and grow in new ways.
For all of you, especially those of you who have helped me to grow, I have written this poem:
I am a woman born with roots
In familiar but hostile ground
And I have pieced together safety
In the love that I have found
And lost, and found again—
This is the joy of letting you in.
We make room for each other to speak what we know
Our voice is the seed our survival will grow
So whatever you are waiting to love, love it now—
Don’t wait to be well:
We open to heal in the truth that we tell.
Let’s keep growing, Class of 2008. Congratulations!