when a high school boyfriend took my virginity without asking me first, I went a little crazy. I wish I could tell you now that it was a cool kind of crazy. Like set fire to his car in “Waiting to Exhale” crazy, or even a cute crazy like Carrie Underwood keying her boyfriend’s car crazy, but it wasn’t. Did I break up with him? No. No, of course not. Instead, I did Olympic gold medal worthy back flips of logic to convince myself that I loved him. Because I had to stay near my pieces. I stayed with that dude for three years. I withered away in silent shame all the way down to 90 pounds until I finally came clean on our living room couch to my seventeen year old brother Jim and our best friend Joe. And they leapt up off of the couch and were like, “Please break up with him. Please break up with him. Dear God! Break up with this guy!” And it had not occurred to me that I could do that. So we made a plan: Tomorrow I would break up with him, and tonight we would practice. Except… three hours later, Jim found me curled up in a ball on my bedroom floor, heaving sobbing. He scooped me up like a baby and rocked me. I just kept saying, “How did I let this happen? I think I must be a bad person. I feel broken. I am so, so broken.” And this seventeen year old boy sat me up, held me by the shoulders and said, “Now you stop that. I don’t want to ever hear you say something like that again because you are the best person I know. You save my life like every day in a hundred ways that you don’t even think count. And anything bad you say about yourself cuts into me as if you said it about me. So stop crying, and…um… I’m gonna make you the best sandwich you’ve ever had in your life!” Now, food is my love language, so that sandwich was almost as good as that speech. The boy could make a mean sandwich. But that was the day Jim taught me words can save lives. Jim didn’t see pieces when he looked at me. He saw all of me. Even when I was covered in bruises, he didn’t think I should be thrown away like a bad piece of fruit. Somehow, my brother knew at seventeen what most adults still don’t. There are no pieces of me. I cannot be broken. I can bruised, shaped, dented…sure. But I am always whole. Even when I can’t feel it or see it, the sun of my wholeness may be covered in clouds, but it is never gone. The promise of me radiates always. It is undeniable and indivisible so long as I am breathing. That speech of Jim’s has been on a loop in my head for the past twelve years. It’s been with me when my inner critic rages out of control. It’s picked me up off the floor when I have failed spectacularly. (And I have failed spectacularly). And it was with me two years after he first gave it, when the police told me that my mom and Jim had been killed in a botched burglary in our home. It was with me when the media swarmed, when the national news picked up the story, and strangers everywhere started to whisper that my life was over. When the story broke, I was reluctantly cast in the role of victim for thousands of people that I didn’t know And I gotta tell you, that role has a lotta lines… but it’s a real crappy part. I got emails from strangers, who were very well-meaning who kept telling me how terrible the rest of my life was going to be. A direct quote, “Try to have a Merry Christmas and a nice rest of your life, even though I know that’s impossible.” When I would tell people face to face, I would magically morph into Bigfoot. I mean, they’d heard about people like me on TV and in true crime docs, but they never thought they’d spot me in the wild! Everyone is trying to figure out who they are in their twenties and that’s already a really tall order but it becomes especially steep when nobody can see you anymore they just see what’s happened to you. Thankfully, I was surrounded by a lot of people like Jim. People who loved me, who saw me, who knew me. Who reassured me over and over again that this was a harrowing chapter but it was not the end of my story. And thank God for them. I mean, thank God. Because at twenty two? It would have been so easy to believe the world when it kept telling me I was broken. It would have been really easy to buy into the look in people’s eyes when they looked at me and saw nothing but debris. It would have been really easy to believe the college professor who, two weeks after they died, looked at me and said, “Oh my God, you are never going to be okay again.” I mean, he was a teacher. I’m a good girl. I’m supposed to listen to my teachers. Thankfully, I’d had better teachers than him. I’d had Ms. Graham. Ms. Graham was my high school senior seminar teacher. She didn’t just make you think outside the box. She burned the box to the ground, did a dance around the pyre, blew the ashes in your face and said, “What are you going to do without your box now?” The first day of class, she didn’t even introduce herself. She launched into our first writing assignment. “Who are you? What has shaped you? Who do you want to be?” Silence from a room of overachievers. That was a miracle. And then, we launched into a litany of questions. “Like captain of the wrestling team?” “No.” “You mean like…where do I want to go to college? What’s my GPA? What do I want to major in?” “No.” “Oh, you mean like…what do my parents do?” She took off her glasses. She rubbed her face. And then, she very calmly walked us through the loss of her two sisters, her father, and her husband. The room started to spin, each of us drawn off balance by the magnetism of her trauma, but with a wave of her hand it stopped. And she said, “But I’m the happiest person I know. These things have shaped me, they have changed me, but they are not who I am because they are not who I have decided to be here. So who are you?” And at that moment, I tethered my heart to this perfect woman. And because of that, she was there incanting to me all through my twenties that this would shape me, but it could not break me. That I couldn’t control what happened to me, but I alone got to decide what it meant. Most importantly, Ms. Graham taught me that I am always bigger than the parts that I play. If someone asks you who you are, I think our tendency is to break ourselves down into all the parts we play for other people. It’s like we’re writing a little casting description for the movie of our lives when we write our Linkedin summary or or our Tindr bio. Yours might say, “Occupational therapist. Mother of two. Baby boomer. Texan.” The role of Sarah Montana would probably read, “Seeking: Writer. Married, no kids. New York, liberal artist type. Victim of gun violence.” All those things are true about me, but if I see them written out like that? I don’t think I’d cast me as Sarah Montana. I think I’d cast someone way cooler who has tattoos and drinks whiskey and has glasses and writes a lot of think pieces. I hate think pieces. I think that’s why none of us ever feel good enough, right? We’re always trying to live up to all the parts that we play, the perfect mom, the rockstar employee—instead of seeing ourselves as whole. And why should we? The best minds in the country in Silicon Valley break us into little bits of code every day. Who are we to do any differently? The problem with breaking ourselves down into parts and pieces is that we denigrate and shame the parts of ourselves that don’t receive validation from the rest of the world. We try to hack them off, even though we can’t, hide them in closets, We say things like, “I’ll be a real writer when I get published.” Or, “I’m not a real singer. I don’t get paid.” And you all know those are the two nicest examples I could think of. Full disclosure: I got my masters degree in opera from Manhattan School of Music. My whole life I was going to be a singer, and I have a lot of shame in calling myself that now because I haven’t sung or been paid to sing in at least five years. But if one of you came up to me at this next break and said “Phantom of the Opera” was your favorite opera… I would have to correct you and tell you it’s a musical, not an opera. Because I’m a snobby singer. And I think I always will be. If anyone one of you stood up right now and said, “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts…” I’d go, “for which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord amen.” I’m not a practicing Catholic. I don’t consider myself Catholic. But I was raised Catholic. And that part of me is always going to be there. And I was a writer well before I decided that I was. Well before Hallmark hired me. And I always will be. We can’t wait for the world to confirm who we are or we’ll always be asking permission to exist. We’ll think any first step we take toward our goals, if we stumble, that is a confirmation that we are inherently a failure. Or worse… We might actually get it and feel like a sham the whole time. Worst of all, when the world inevitably moves on, we will cling to our titles and accolades like the high school quarterback in his forties talking about the time they made States. So why do we do this? We know it’s bad for ourselves, but we do it on purpose. I think it’s because we want to be small. We want to be invisible. Because at some point, every single one of you, when you were a kid, dared to be whole at least once, and somebody knocked you into next week for it. And then they told you that the very fact that they could wound you was proof that you were breakable and unworthy. And on top of that, they told you it was selfish and weak to heal your wounds. I think we do this to good people all the time. We tell them that what makes them good is the fact that they break themselves down for other people. I think self-sacrifice can be a noble and beautiful thing. But I really think we’ve created a culture of goodness where we keep all the good people locked in survival mode, feeling small, spent, and scared. We don’t want to dare to be whole. History shows us that people who dare to be whole get killed for it over and over again. Women get killed for it every day. My mom got killed for it. My mom’s life calling was very simple: She wanted to be Mama Smith. She was mom to every teenager and kid in our community. The front door was always open, the snack cabinet was always full, and you couldn’t pass her in her van without her rolling down her window, waving to you, and saying, “Hey! I see you! I know you. And I love you sky big.” Her wholeness was the sun and kids just gravitated toward it. In her killer’s confession, he said that He killed her because he knew she recognized him and she wouldn’t stop screaming. She recognized him because she made it a point to wave to him every day, because he was a troubled kid and she wanted him to feel seen. We turn people like my mom into heroes. And she’s my hero. But we say people like her are these rare, mythical birds. That they are bigger than us. That they were always destined to burn brighter than us and die in a blaze. And I gotta tell you, I think that’s nonsense. The difference between heroes and villains is very simple. Villains ignore their wounds. They say, “Yea. I’m broken. You’re broken. It’s all broken. The system is broken, but it’s the best we’ve got.” And they perpetuate a cycle of wounding. You wanna be a hero? Sorry. A heroine? A shero? Give yourself permission to heal your wounds. I promise you, after these past ten years, it will take everything you’ve got. It will take every ounce of compassion, courage, talent and skill you possess. And because it takes everything you’ve got, it will show you everything you are. Every nook and cranny of genius you possess. And once you’ve seen that? It’s impossible not to show up fully to everything. To be whole. To be the mom at work, to be the boss at home, to be the opera nerd at the women’s conference. It’s the bravest thing that we do. And it’s power doesn’t lie in big speeches or best-selling books or viral video posts. It lies in the hundreds of small opportunities we have every day to look at each other and remind each other that we see each other as whole. About a month ago, I went to this art installation in Brooklyn. It was very “cool.” There were all these different rooms. In one of the rooms, there was a social experiment. You got paired up with a stranger, and you had to make three minutes of very awkward eye contact, and then you asked each other a series of questions. My partner was this young woman, she was in her late teens/early twenties. Very quiet. And she asked me, “Okay… what song means the most to you?” I thought about lying. I thought about staying hidden. And then I just said it. I said, “You know what? This is super lame. But it’s Don’t Stop Believing by Journey. It’s because my brother Jim loved it and he was killed ten years ago, and we sang it at his funeral and now it’s like this anthem for him that’s everywhere.” She tensed up as soon as I said it, and I was like, “GAH! Why did you share that? You are always doing the most! You don’t have to be the most all the time!” And then she looked up at me and said, “My sister was killed in a car crash. It’s gonna be a year in October.” I said, “I’m so sorry. You know, nobody talks about how hard it is to lose a sibling.” She said, “Yea, I know! She’s like the only person who really saw me, ya know?” I said, “Yea. I get that.” And then she took a deep breath and asked me, “What’s ten years like? Like… is it gonna hurt this much forever?” And I said, “Absolutely not.” And she lit up like a Christmas tree. And I realized probably no one had said that to her yet. And so I laid it out for her. I gave her the speech Ms. Graham gave me in twelfth grade. I gave her Jim’s speech from my bedroom floor, minus the sandwich, unfortunately. I gathered every little breadcrumb that I had picked up on the way to finding my own wholeness and I laid them out on the table for her. And by the end of that exchange, we were two strangers, who knew we would never see each other again, holding hands across a table in Brooklyn. That’s why we have to heal our wounds. That’s why we have to give ourselves permission to accept our wholeness and to reject the myth that we are broken or breakable. Because people who know how to do that, know how to help other people without constantly abandoning themselves. They actually know how to form a pack of whole people who know how to stand in their goodness. Who know how to protect the weak and the vulnerable. Who see people who are hurting and don’t just walk by but get down on the ground with them and say, “Hey. I know how much this hurts. I know that you are bleeding. But you are not broken. And you cannot stay here. Because anything bad that happens to you? Happens to me, too. So we’re gonna do this together.” And if that doesn’t work. And they’re still not getting up. You can try making them a sandwich. Sandwiches can fix a lot of things. Thank you very much.