Please welcome today’s guest writer, Ali Carpenter (’15). Ali majored in international development and public health at Calvin. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA where she works at a Federally Qualified Health Center, teaches an ESL/ civics class, and loves to explore and roam the city of bridges.
If you are ever at the University of Legon in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in one of the hostel rooms in Liman Hall, there is a balcony that has a very bad burn mark across the floor from a fire I had when I was studying there fall of my sophomore year.
You may ask yourself what could have possibly provoked me to have a fire on a balcony, well the same thing that caused me to jump off a forbidden diving board at three in the morning or wander a fishing village and brothel completely alone in a part of the city that is supposedly not regulated by the police—because I love adventure and I love a good story.
It was during my semester when my mind increasingly began to turn everything into stories. This had two major impacts. First, I decided I needed to push the limits, embrace my most adventurous spirit, and make the most memorable days so that I could have good stories. Second, it changed the stories I would tell myself. I began to try to put my life into narratives.
By my junior year at Calvin—not to brag, but…I had some good stories. I had stories of secret lighthouses, motorcycles, skydiving, trespassing, protecting myself from danger. I even won the daredevil award by the end of my semester in Ghana. And I had all these narratives that I was super proud of. I was a good student and citizen. I was known as being crazy and a good time when I needed to be.
Now in full disclosure, for as proud as I was of the stories I created, I also had very little self-worth and a pretty significant depression. Sometimes people would ask about the tattoos I have, and often I would not share their meanings. They are stories, but not the kind of stories I wanted to share.
Then it came to me, the narrative that had not really occurred yet: the romance. The first time I met this guy, he was handsome, charming, spoke with an accent, and had a wonderful sense of humor. We spoke for only a few minutes, but that night I typed a long email to my best friend who was studying in China about how I was in love, something very out of character for me. A few months later, we ran into each other again, reconnected, and began dating. Isn’t that sweet? He would stay up all hours of the night to visit me in my apartment and he taught me so many things about his culture, religion, and language.
And that was the story I told others. And myself.
When my best friend returned from China, she was the first person to see that the story I told was not true. But just like the meaning behind my tattoos, the truth was not a story I wanted to tell. Even after ending up in a hospital because of an overdose and a possible suicide, it was not a story I wanted to accept. That was not my story. I stayed with this guy. I would simply focus on the stories I wanted to. I was still successful. I was still involved. I was still adventurous. In fact, he was just another adventure. I still had some really good stories.
But the day came when I felt like I was drowning in my own stories. I couldn’t put my narratives together. How could someone who won multiple awards for volunteering be so depressed? How could someone who got such good grades and worked part time be in such an abusive and manipulating relationship? Because it’s my story. Mine. Every part of it. But it did need to change.
It’s a story that I am still processing and still trying to fill in the details for, but I have it down to one narrative. It’s no longer just a story of adventure; it has a lot of heartache intertwined as well now. But I am proud of that.
One of my tattoos is a simple hand drawn candle on my ribcage. I got it after I returned from Ghana. There was one night when I considered ending my life. In fact, I was with a group of people and just burst into tears. Someone came over to me and told me just to close my eyes and to let the situation play out. I imagined myself jumping off a mountain and falling. Before hitting the bottom, I got wings and I heard a whisper: “It’s not your time yet.” The candle represents joy. You have to fight to keep joy alive. I used to believe that joy was only telling the good stories. But joy is the recovery, using stories to empower others, and seeing how much value there is in the fight and still waking up everyday. Isn’t that sweet?