Things were just fine, and then it all got blurry and went in dangerous direction. My skin dripped with sweat and my eyes grew full with tears. This was not supposed to happen and they knew it.
They stared, I froze, and the room became slow-motion silent.
There were 400 people and most sat with folded arms. Some had their legs crossed at the ankles. It was a very conservative crowd and I was the only African American among them. Their time was important and they had no sympathy for me.
I panicked. I paused, then said: “Okay...there’s something you should know about me.”
I couldn't hold my secret any longer because the memory of the four worn out faces, that I had seen the day before, kept flashing in my mind forcing me to reveal the experience I vowed never to share in public.
Unplanned, on stage, I did it in Johannesburg.
You see, I was in South Africa for two speaking engagements. The first was the for 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.
But, I was not at all prepared for what would happen before speech number two.
I was nice and cozy in the back seat of a black-on-black chauffeured 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 visibly take in. Tin huts were scattered about, and it was obvious that many of the women, men, and children slept on the ground in the dirt.
When we stopped at a red light, flashes of my own former homelessness tore through me like lightning.
I watched a woman bend down on a curb, cooking a stick of corn atop a fire. She had made it from paper and wood. Her three small children hovered anxiously above the small piece of food. I connected to that scene as a secret survivor of a similar war. An intense fear of being hungry for days flooded my whole body, and inside that air conditioned sedan, I realized how far I had come from the lowest point in my life.
There I was, 10 years later, a professional speaker. And I had never given a speech about the stale pieces of popcorn from trashcans that I had eaten. Or the abandoned van I lived in with strangers. The memories were too horrible for me to say out loud.
Then the light turned green, and we drove away. Eventually we pulled up to the Rosebank Hotel. The lobby looked like Africa mixed with Beverly Hills. It had immaculate marble floors and oversized maroon velvet sofas.
The bellman said, “Right this way Ms. Swan,” — and those thoughts of my past cascaded away like clouds on a windy day.
But, the next day, the vision of the mother and her three children suddenly returned 20 minutes into my fundraising speech and I couldn't stop it. Their sadness overshadowed my carefully crafted health and wellness speech.
It was time to reveal that the Prada dress I was wearing had no resemblance to the bloody jeans I wore when I entered rehab.
I could feel that it was time to say out loud that my body had once been a cesspool of self-hatred, depression, and drugs. It was time to say that even educated people with promise can lose their way and even end up living on the streets.
I knew it was time to say my whole truth.
So, I pressed through the crack in my voice and began speaking from my heart about the hell I lived through.
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.
As a result of my addiction, I had exchanged my New York City achievements for a pee-stained mattress 3,000 miles away from home. No more 72nd and West End apartment. No more Central Park morning coffee. Sunrises were cruel punishments, because I lived outside, wishing for death to come my way.
Then, one day I overdosed on drugs. My wish arrived and I died.
Spiritually, I begged for a second chance...and I got one.
For hours, I struggled to lift my own dead weight out of that van determined to make something of my life again.
I kicked the door opened. I stumbled more than I stepped, and it didn’t matter that I saw a little boy grab his mother’s leg as I approached them.
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 the courage to face the darkness within me and make a true decision to overcome years of poor choices.
Blaming and looking outward had nearly killed me. Denial is never your friend. Taking responsibility and facing the truth set me free.
As I talked to that crowd in Johannesburg, their arms started to unfold. The women uncrossed their ankles, and some reached down for tissues to dry their tears. The unplanned speech that poured through me began to connect us all. Actually it was not my speech...today, I know it was God's.
More than 50 people waited in line to tell me how my “unintended” speech encouraged them to face parts of themselves that they'd kept hidden. After listening to my story, they were willing to make their own true decisions 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.
I know what it is like to live in denial. I know what it's like to blame others and avoid making life-changing decisions. But, I also know that there is a power inside of us all that can help us live courageously.
The line of people who waited to talk afterwards taught me that courage is contagious.