In midstream, the fundraising speech I was giving for the Hospice Foundation got away from me. I paused and the room became slow-motion silent. The crowd of attendees, some with folded arms and some with legs crossed at the ankles, sat there, waiting for me to continue. My voice cracked as I said, “There’s something you should know about me.”
I had to tell them. Without warning, the memory of four weary faces that I had seen the day before tugged at my heart and compelled me to talk about an experience I had never intended to share. Unplanned, on stage, I did it in Johannesburg.
I was in South Africa for two speaking engagements. The first was the 2009 Global Speakers Summit in Cape Town. It was an honor to be listed on the program with some of the best from around the world. My “Healthy Speakers Are Wealthy Speakers” workshop had been a complete success, and my confidence was soaring. The applause from my international peers is a sound I will never forget.
But I didn’t understand the complexity of my gratitude until I flew into what they call “JoBerg”…
I was comfortably reclined in the back seat of a black-on-black Mercedes Benz. We were headed to the Rosebank Hotel, which I had heard was “very, very nice.”
After about a mile, we came upon a level of poverty that was almost impossible to take in. Tin huts were scattered about, and it was obvious that many of the women, men, and children there slept outside. We stopped at a red light. Flashes of my own homelessness tore through me like lightning.
Through the window of the sedan, I watched a woman, stooped on a curb, cook a stick of corn atop a fire made of paper and wood. Her three small children hovered anxiously above the piece of food. I connected to the scene as a secret survivor of a similar war. An intense fear of being hungry blew through me, and I realized how far I had come from the lowest point in my life.
Here I was, 10 years later, a professional speaker. And I had never given a speech about the stale popcorn from trashcans or the abandoned van I lived in with strangers. It was too horrible to articulate.
The light turned green, and we drove away. Several miles down the road, we pulled up to the Rosebank Hotel. The lobby was Africa meets Park Avenue chic, complete with an immaculate marble floor and oversized maroon velvet sofas. “Right this way Ms. Swan,” said the concierge — and the thoughts of my past cascaded away like clouds on a windy day.
But the vision of that mother and her three children returned 20 minutes into my fundraising speech for the Hospice Foundation, overshadowing my carefully crafted health and wellness message. It was time to reveal that the Prada dress I was wearing bore no resemblance to the bloody jeans I wore when I entered rehab. It was time to reveal that my body was once a cesspool for self-hatred, depression, and drugs. It was time to say that even people with promise lose their way and end up living on the streets.
So I pressed through the crack in my voice and began talking about those days.
If you had been a fly on the dingy walls of my desperate, crumbling world back then, you would have quickly chosen to fly away and escape the swat of death that was creeping up behind you. I would have done the same, if I could. But five years of denial had melted my drive and my ability to feel danger approaching. Life just kept getting darker and I continued to close my eyes.
I had exchanged Big Apple achievements for a pee-stained mattress 3,000 miles way. No more bylines in national magazines. No more 72nd and West End apartment or Central Park morning coffee. Sunrises were cruel punishments, because I now lived outside, waiting for death to come my way.
I finally got my wish. I overdosed. I died. And there wasn’t a white light — only darker crushing darkness, until I bolted back to life. For hours, I struggled to lift my own dead weight, determined to make something of my second chance.
I stumbled more than I stepped, and it didn’t matter that I saw a little boy grab his mother’s leg as I got closer. It didn’t matter that there was blood on the seat of my pants or that there was dirt in my tangled hair. What mattered was that I’d had the courage to face the darkness within and make the decision to overcome that reality.
Blaming and looking outward had nearly killed me. Taking responsibility and facing what was true for me set me free.
As I talked to that crowd in Johannesburg, their arms unfolded. Their ankles uncrossed as ladies reached down for tissues to dry their tears. The unplanned words that poured through me connected us all. And when I was finished, they were standing on their feet and applauding.
More than 30 people waited in line to tell me how my “unintended” speech encouraged them to face parts of themselves that they had kept conveniently hidden. After listening to my story, they were willing to make their own true decision to be free.
When you make a true decision:
You honor it regardless of whether other people support it.
You honor it on the days when you feel good and the days when you feel bad.
You honor it when no one is looking.
When I was given my second chance at life, I made the true decision to live courageously. What I realized in South Africa is that courage is contagious.[Ed. Note:For years, Elle Swan (www.elleswan.com), international speaker, author, and coach, wanted to die and couldn’t. In her darkest days, she was overweight, addicted to drugs and alcohol, while living penniless on the streets. On May 29, 2000, after an overdose in an abandoned van, her misery merged with death and Elle Swan crossed over into the pits of hell. “But when your soul knows you belong here,” she says, “it won’t let you go.”
Her miraculous journey from deprivation and despair to vibrancy and abundance lit a passion inside her that illuminates her work today. Assisting others in overcoming all self-defeating thinking and behavior is her life’s purpose, and the results have been astounding.
Elle Swan’s Vibrant Living philosophy has been recognized multiple times on NBC and PBS, and she is currently the Vibrancy Coach for ABC Las Vegas. She is also the author of Your Mind Over Habits: A Woman’s Guide to a Happy Life and a Vibrant Body. Visit Elle’s website, www.elleswan.com, for more details.
The Early to Rise team met Elle Swan at last year’s Info-Marketing Bootcamp, the conference we hold every November. And we are already accepting signups for this year’s event.
As always, it will be at the Delray Beach Marriott, right across the street from the Atlantic Ocean (a great winter getaway). And, as we do every year, we’ve invited the top Internet marketing experts and business builders to help us “pull back the curtain” on how to create a life-changing Internet business.]