So much of our personal happiness depends on our innate ability to be true to our authentic selves, to be willing to dive deep within to explore our hidden truths, and to keep a space open for love and acceptance. In the words of Nevada Foundation Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), Steven C. Hayes “When you stand open and compassionate with loving posture, you can bring beauty, hope into other lives.”
As Dr. Hayes shared his riveting story curled up on the TEDx stage about a life plagued with anxiety and panic attacks, in a single harrowing moment he prepared the audience to hear what it sounds like to hit “rock bottom,” a sound he hadn’t made in 34 years, exclaiming a painful “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” As the sound clamored across the theater, it reverberated deep into the audience. Dr. Hayes asked: “In the face of trauma and pain do you run, fight, hide, or meet the experience openly?” As the author of 38 books and more than 540 scientific articles, the audience paid special attention as he shared his personal story about his own trauma, survival, and hope.
This theme of hitting an extreme low point, and pushing through to recovery, meaning, and purpose played out across a handful of other powerful and moving TEDx talks including Sherry McConkey’s emotional account about her husband, Shane McConkey’s sudden death; Jill Tolles’ uncomfortable conversation about childhood sexual abuse; Shane Wickes’ attempted suicide story, triggered by his inability to be true to his authentic self; and Lacey Sturm’s testimony about a life filled with depression, mistrust, and anger leading up to her own brush with suicide.
Despite the shades of darkness experienced, each and every speaker’s story brought a combined message of hope after experiencing various turning points in their lives that allowed for them to find ways to honor their own individual purpose and help others.
In the case of Sherry McConkey, an avid world traveler who was born in Ireland and raised in South Africa, it was through her husband Shane’s death that she learned to endure heartache, overcome obstacles and become a bigger version of herself. Shane, a professional skier and BASE jumper who inspired thousands to think outside the box and follow their dreams, died suddenly in 2009. Sherry talked about the depths of her pain and sadness upon losing her husband and stated emphatically: “Through incredible tragedy, I discovered a new me – and my story is not over.” Today she serves as Executive Director of The Shane McConkey Foundation where she works to inspire people with her and Shane’s belief that “You have one life, live it. You have one world, protect it.”
For Jill Tolles, wife, mom, and a UNR adjunct professor of Communication Studies, trauma came to overshadow her life in the form of childhood sexual abuse. It wasn’t until many years later that she even came across a name for what had happened to her was called. In sharing her story, she noted: “Silence is a predator’s best friend. Shame and violence are the ingredients of abuse.” Once she learned to speak out about what had happened to her, she was able to move forward with her life. She currently serves as a member of the Senate Task Force for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, and is an advocate for education and child protection issues in the state of Nevada. Her mantra: “We can all be heroes, and we don’t even need a cape.” Her talk clearly resonated with the audience as it was met with a standing ovation.
Shane Wickes is a Reno-based high school football coach, marketing manager, and a student pursuing a degree in Finance and Economics, who is a strong believer in power of sports to bridge social gaps. Unfortunately, as a gay man, the anxiety of coming out drove Shane to attempted suicide. Early on in his journey, he made the realization that coming out wasn’t about his bedroom habits. “It’s about living my life in its entirety,” he said. After a series of emotional pauses, the audience cheered along Shane as he pushed through his heavy talk punctuated with feelings of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness that soon transformed into a vision underscored by the importance of being true to one’s own self, in congruence with who we really are meant to be.
In a final example illustrating the path from darkness to light, solo artist Lacey Sturm stands as a powerful model of someone who found love, freedom, and trust on the other side depression, darkness, and despair. In-between singing performances she talked about the meaning of love and love as an instrument of freedom as her husband, Josh Sturm, strummed his guitar alongside of her. After letting go of a toxic relationship and also coming face-to-face with her own depression and near-suicide, she experienced a turning point marked by a spiritual experience that led to one of the songs she performed live at TEDx entitled “All Around Me.” In October of 2014, Lacey released her first book, “The Reason – How I Discovered A Life Worth Living,” which covers her journey from hopelessness to purpose, and how she found a reason to live on the day she planned to end her life.
Through sharing their collective stories, Dr. Steven C. Hayes, Sherry McConkey, Jill Tolles, Shane Wickes, and Lacey Sturm are together shining a bright light on heavy topics that are not only making it possible for others to expand their own levels of awareness and compassion, but to find paths to healing, as well.