Live Without Apologies:
I Found My Voice and I’m Going to Use It

By Abigail Johnson, SHE RECOVERS Community Member

“There is power in rediscovering your own voice, and I had forgotten that…But luckily my girls, my girls reminded me of that. They reminded me of my worth…No one has the power to shatter your dreams unless you give it to them. And I refuse to give anyone that power again. If anything, I hope that me revealing my truth inspires you to realize your own. Thank you for listening.” ~ Ryan Pierce, Girls Trip, 2017 ~

A Lesbian in Recovery

Now that outside is open, and the world is somewhat “normal” again, I’m sitting here reflecting on all that God has brought me through the last year and half. I’m unwinding with, Girls Trip in the background and this quote from Ryan really hits home. I’m so thankful for my girls—my circle! They literally saved my life and led me to live without apologies. Hashtag, #pandemicsurvivalstories. Truly, I regained my strength through my “community”.

Last year was traumatic for A LOT of us, but here’s how it shaped up for me:

At the beginning of 2020, I transitioned to a new city, a new dream job & I was healing from heartbreak. Adjusting to a new city was hard. Healing was hard. I am a self-proclaimed “introvert”. I was catapulted into a #leadership position & I did not feel ready. It was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” so I made the decision to fake it until I made it. (Oh, the pressures we put on ourselves! Especially Black, Indigenous, and women of color – BIWOC women). And as a Nigerian-American, I feel like there’s an added pressure that children of immigrants place on themselves to achieve a certain level of success.

I rubbed elbows with CEOs, and people more “qualified” than me, and sat at tables where I was not only the “least-experienced” but also the youngest and one of few women of color. For example, I represented my organization at the National Alliance to Impact the Social Determinants of Health, and gave the welcome address for the American Public Health Association’s 2020 Policy Action Institute.

I shrank.

Most meetings, I didn’t say more than my name and the organization I represented. I suffered from extreme anxiety & depression. There were pressures from work created by a system and society that demands that I give 1000% more than my colleagues to be respected (but what do I know, maybe it was self-imposed?) and there were personal stressors like the pandemic, the reckoning on race; living in the Twilight Zone (and the list goes on).

Now here comes the “Give God Glory Part”—Where my circle stepped in.

First, I have three sisters who were immensely supportive and listened to me cry non-stop; made sure I was eating, and took turns checking in on me. Then there was my best friend, Rafi in California, who encouraged me to visit her (risky during the pandemic I know) so that she could help me relax and take my mind off everything. I visited her twice. As a Jersey girl, who wouldn’t? California is just a dream. Some may say Rafi and I are Molly and Issa from Insecure in real life, and for a moment, we lived out that dream. There were other circles of support; my friends from undergrad at Georgetown University; my grad school friends from Pitt Public Health, and my friends from Atlanta that I made while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And last but not least, my Milton Hershey Boarding School (MHS) Sisters. Women that I have literally known since I was six years old.

This APHA Policy Action Institute offered in partnership with AcademyHealth and the de Beaumont Foundation featured eye-opening interactions with elected leaders, policy experts and other influential speakers. The event explored the social determinants of health — access to care, education, transportation, environment, immigration/citizenship, discrimination, and income inequality.

I will also be forever grateful to my “sister”, Kaitlin for encouraging me to seek treatment.

I am usually the “strong friend”. So it was alarming to Kaitlin when she realized I couldn’t get out of bed, had lost my appetite, and suffered from insomnia (I would lie awake and I couldn’t “shut my brain off” from overthinking and worrying about things that hadn’t occurred). Most scarily, I had passive suicidal ideation. I didn’t physically try to harm myself, but I wanted something to happen to me so I had an excuse not to face the day ahead. I shared all of this with Kaitlin. One night we even rushed to the emergency department because I had a panic attack and couldn’t stop crying and shaking uncontrollably. I think it had been a couple of days since I slept. I was ashamed and embarrassed to seek treatment on my own, so Kaitlin did all the hard work for me. She drove me to the emergency department late that night at 1:00 am and waited for the Nurse Practitioner to take over my care. I slept well that night for the first time in weeks. I imagine it was difficult for Kaitlin to see me that way. The Abbey she knew was the high school standout track star, her bestie with who she shared everything. In high school we took all the same AP classes together; were in all the same extracurricular activities and even followed each other to Georgetown University. We were inseparable. Like Ebony and Ivory. Kaitlin studied Nursing, and I was a student-athlete. I majored in Human Science and ran track and field ( I am a 2X NCAA All-American).  After that night in the emergency room, Kaitlin researched BIWOC providers (both psychologists and psychiatrists) in my area, assessed which ones took my insurance, and helped me schedule appointments.

Abbey & Kaitlin

This support from a friend who was a nurse and understood the “system” played a key role in my healing journey, but more importantly, it was helpful to have a sister who “saw me” and could tell when something was “off”. I had no more excuses. Kaitlin, I love you.

My job was also super supportive throughout all of this; shoutout to the de Beaumont Foundation. I emphasize this because employers can often be criticized for creating burnout, stress, and anxiety, etc. in their employees; however, creating a supportive space for employee wellness is bidirectional where:

1.The employer creates a supportive space. I mean authentically (no lip service please).

and

2.The employee advocates for what they NEED. Employers should be authentic in creating a supportive space for their workers. Lip service is not enough. If this is not the case, employees will not feel comfortable self-advocating. As Black women, it is particularly important for us to communicate what we need. It can be intimidating, especially because we don’t want to come off as the “angry Black woman” or that person that needs hand-holding. However, diversity, equity inclusion; (DEI), and employee wellness are inextricably linked.  We can’t ignore the effects that both external and internal structural racism; unconscious bias; microaggressions etc. have on our mental health in the workplace. I admit I could have done a better job at communicating my needs, and I won’t sugarcoat it—I also think there were some things that my job could have done better—there is always room for improvement when it comes to creating a culture of wellness in the workplace.

#CreatingCulture is a Verb.

I appreciate the fact that my job encouraged me to take some time away from work and that my coworkers remained champions for my health. Long story short, I  took the time and got the help I needed (six weeks of disability) with therapy & treatment. During the time away I saw both a psychiatrist (weekly to monitor my meds and make changes as needed) and a psychologist (intensive sessions 2x a week). I am fortunate this was all covered by my insurance. But I know many people aren’t so lucky*.

Reclaiming my Narrative

When I returned to work, I found we were moving faster than ever. The world was trying to figure out what space to take up in Covid. Followed by George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Amaud Abery-to name a few. Cue the repeat cycle and the rat race to “do something”. Like with COVID, the world was trying to figure out how to respond to racial tensions building across the country. In the public health community, many cities were declaring racism a public health crisis. My job responded by sparking a new initiative to assist cities with operationalizing policies, practices, and programs to address racism in their communities. Guess who was tasked with writing the proposal for funding and serving as the Project Manager for the effort? Me.

I could not separate what was happening in the outside world and my work life. Although I felt whole again from the mental health challenges that I experienced earlier during the pandemic, the racial tensions opened deep fissures of pain that I didn’t even know existed. I felt myself spiraling out of control again. I was not physically or mentally well enough to continue working. I knew I had to make a decision.

So I quit my dream job in October 2020.

I needed time to rest, recharge and rediscover the BEST version of Abbey. I recovered out loud by documenting my journey on YouTube. The outpouring of support that I’ve received lets me know that I’m not alone. There are so many people who are going through similar experiences but shame and guilt prevent us from sharing our truth. I was tired of that narrative, so I took a leap in January 2021 and Launched my business, Live Without Apologies to inspire everyone to live life unapologetically on YOUR terms without judgment or validation from others. The message is resonating. Live Without Apologies is a lifestyle brand that is working hard to encourage everyone to live life unapologetically, AND we are super passionate about raising awareness about the current “epidemic within a pandemic—the mental health crisis globally”. I found my #voice and I now know my worth & I’m going to use it to speak for the #voiceless. It’s time to take our power back!  I’m rooting for everybody, but most especially I’m rooting for:

  • Every Black, Indigenous, and person of color (BIPOC)
  • Any underresourced community
  • The little guy/girl/human
  • Any marginalized or misunderstood community (LGBTQIA+, AAPHI+ Muslim + AAPHI etc.)
  • Any human whose story remains untold

I’m so grateful my #Tribe helped me find my voice.

They loved me unconditionally and gave me the freedom to be me, to truly express myself without shame or guilt for just “being”.  This must be what Naomi Osaka felt when she shared her truth in her now-infamous TIME article, It’s O.K. Not to be O.K. The last line really resonates with me, “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.” My hope is that you, dear reader, feel inspired by my story to walk and live an unapologetic life. To not conform to the way society, the media, or other people “think” you should live, but to walk in your authentic truth. I hope YOU give yourself permission to feel all the feels—good, bad, or indifferent. I also hope that you keep your circle close. Your circle members can be relatives, friends, neighbors, or even complete strangers. I’ve found a strong circle online in communities like SHE RECOVERS. Just know you are not alone. There’s strength in this community of recovery.

Unapologetically,
Abbey

*There are more affordable resources available like the online provider BetterHelp.com who may provide financial aid If you are facing financial challenges.

Abbey & Rafi

If you are a woman of color, being in or seeking recovery doesn’t have to be an isolating experience.

Gather with fellow travelers each week @ 11AM PT / 2PM ET in the SHE RECOVERS Together BIWOC Online Gathering. Join the SHE RECOVERS Support Group for Black, Indigenous, & Women of Color – an intra-community closed space designed for women of color to connect and heal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abbey Johnson

Abbey Johnson is an Unapologetic Coach and Founder of Live Without Apologies. She is a child of God, a daughter, sister, friend, Naija, a Mental Health Advocate, a passionate public servant and so much more. She created Live Without Apologies to inspire everyone to “Live Life Unapologetically on YOUR terms without judgment or validation from others”. Connect with Abbey on InstagramTwitter, or Youtube

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