My name is Aysha and I’m 16 years old. I sat at WE Day Vancouver last year with a story that I needed to tell.
(Watch me talk at the link below beginning at the 47:35 mark.)
I was a happy-go-lucky four-year-old, until suddenly, there was a jarring change in my behavior. I started to develop severe OCD symptoms, performing set rituals, fearing everything, washing my hands to the point of bleeding. By grade three, these OCD behaviours manifested themselves into restrictive eating. At the age of eight, I was admitted to the BC Children’s Hospital for anorexia, risking heart failure two weeks into my admittance. Faced with the choice of eating or dying, I finally chose eating – but my fear of food continued to manipulate and torment me.
By far the youngest patient in the Eating Disorder ward, the other girls became like big sisters to me. They left words of strength on the whiteboard in my room, drew pictures with me, held me, cried with me, and encouraged me to keep fighting, even though I often didn’t want to. Their kindness was the beacon of light during the darkest time of my life. It was from them, that I discovered the amazing strides girls can take when they support one another.
Three years after continuing to silently struggle with mental illness, I was diagnosed with something called PANDAS—a rare disorder caused by strep attacking the brain’s emotional control center. I successfully underwent treatment, without which I might never have fully recovered as I have. But without the kindness of the girls in the hospital, I don’t think I would have survived.
I’ve never shared my story beyond a very close circle, because I wanted to be known as Aysha, not as my illness. In doing so, I’ve helped feed into a stigma I no longer want to be part of. Mental illness, whatever its roots, must be confronted openly and honestly so that we can support others who are struggling.
My being alive today is a product of the power youth have when they support each other. A power that inspired me to do something to extend that same support to other young women. That’s where the idea for Self.I.E. Camp came from. At this camp, girls come together to gain confidence and a sense of self, through five themes of empowerment: self-care, self-acceptance, self-expression, self-defense and self-to-others.
Self.I.E Camp is led by other young women, and every girl has their own reason for participating. I feel honoured to have witnessed the campers’ words of self-doubt and insecurity at the start of the week, be replaced by confident words of self-acceptance. That’s what happens when we accept each other – we learn to accept ourselves as well.
Today, I encourage each of you to accept yourself, and those around you. To yourself and others, be kind and be supportive. Your words and actions are the only thing completely within your control, so use them to inspire and empower. Use them to be kind. Use them to break down stigmas. Use them to change the world.