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Once upon a time, when I was 16, I made a bad decision. A really bad decision. I was naïve, and trusting, and simply put; I was young. It was a decision that very quickly became public thanks to smartphones and the internet. To set some context, I had one of those hot pink razor phones at the time, so yes, it was a long time ago.
It was one of those decisions that your parents warn you about, but you never think will happen to you… until it does. What happened to me, or really, what I brought upon myself, was not only emotionally traumatizing, but it had a lasting impact on the relationships I had with family, with friends, and most importantly, the relationship I had with myself.
When you’re 16, you don’t know who you are yet and it’s really easy to let other people define you. My poor decision lead to the worst forms of bullying I’ve ever witnessed. I was being called words and names that my virgin 16-year-old ears had never even heard before. I could barely walk from class to class without a harsh reminder of what a worthless piece of trash I was by someone who didn’t even know me. Sometimes I remember feeling like it was an out-of-body experience. For a few months it was almost like I was watching myself go through my own life like a movie. It couldn’t be real. This wasn’t my life. This couldn’t be happening to me, right?
I learned a lot of important lessons from that mistake. I learned how to hold my head high during hard times. I learned to be confident and believe in myself when no one else did. And I learned that I defined myself and that no labeling, name-calling, or false-perceptions were going to determine who I was as a person.
Public shame is something that is almost indescribable. Who didn’t do something regret when they were 16? Who hasn’t made a bad decision as a teenager? No one. Think of the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, the thing you are most ashamed of. Now think about if everyone in your life knew about it – your parents, cousins, friends, neighbors, teachers… everyone. That was me. It was almost like being thrown into a blinding spotlight that I never wanted to be in and suddenly I was subject to criticism, cruelty, and abuse.
As someone born with pride in my belly, I never let it show, ever, but my life was in a dark shallow place. My mom would sleep with me for days, weeks, months, after the event while I cried myself to sleep. But you know what? I didn’t switch schools, we didn’t move, and I didn’t stop being my outgoing passionate self. I let my smile and my confidence mask the pain I was feeling inside for years. For lack of a better phrase, I kept calm and carried on.
High school was undoubtedly the worst time in my life, but I didn’t let one mistake define me. I chose to prove everyone wrong, to keep my grades high, to keep my spirits up, and to beam with self-assurance at every opportunity I had. I chose to be kind and not resentful. I choose to forgive the people who hurt me and in time, I even chose to forgive myself.
Now 24, I’m an honors college graduate, successful business professional and advisor for multiple organizations. I found myself starting to speak out. I opened up and I found my voice. I started talking to high school girls about what had happened to me, speaking at conferences for women, and openly reflecting on my traumatic experience. After 7 years of silence I even started going to counseling, and guess what? It didn’t kill me.
My mistake had lit a fire within me. I had learned and I would let it make me stronger. I became bold and I let me voice shine. I began advocating for women, for friends, for family members, for organizations, for causes, and most importantly, for myself. I became my own cheerleader. Cheering myself on, in all of my ambitions.
My mom had once told me, “You’ve got to root for yourself, Elise, because there’s going to be a lot of people on the other team.” She was right, and that’s just what I did. I started rooting for myself. It’s what you can do too. It’s what we all deserve.
Mistakes are not what define us in life. What defines us are the moments afterwards, when we decide who we want to become. It’s the moments when we are faced with the opportunity to choose defeat, and instead we choose a future.