Having someone close to you die is completely life changing. I feel like a walking cliche even just typing those words. But cliches do exist for a reason….they are pretty true. In 2016, my husband died of an accidental heroin overdose at home and needless to say, my life exploded into a million pieces that day. I’ve spent the last two and half years picking up those pieces and trying to put them back together again. But that puzzle is proving way too hard to do. I feel like I’m doing one of those puzzles that has 1000 pieces and no picture on the box. It turns out the pieces of my old life don’t fit together anymore. I’m slowly and painstakingly putting this puzzle together and an entirely new picture is emerging. Putting this new puzzle together has lead me to experiences and people I would never have dreamed of 2.5 years ago. As I found my life shifting and changing around me, I made a conscious decision to say yes to new and potentially uncomfortable opportunities that came my way. I delivered a TEDx talk in October 2018 on how we can save lives in the face of the devastating opioid crisis. After that talk, I got connected with Dan and Rina, the founders of Speaker Slam and they expressed interest in having me compete on their stage. Old me instantly thought ‘nope, I can’t do that. I’m not a *real* speaker. Thanks, but no thanks’. But then post death, new me thought ‘let’s do this thing that scares you. Let’s do this thing that the universe has put in your path for you to grab onto’. I had survived the 2.5 years since my husband’s death by being open, honest and vulnerable about his death. This vulnerability had lead me to so many new and wonderful connections. Speaker Slam was another one of these things that had shown up for me and i couldn’t ignore it’s call, regardless of how scary, new and different it was.
Preparing for and writing my talk was unexpectedly hard. The topic I was competing on was “Overcoming Adversity” and when I sat down and thought about it, I had no clue how I had ‘overcome’ the nightmare of losing my husband when I was 41, with two young kids at home. Sobbing hysterically on Father’s day or yelling at my kids in complete and utter exhaustion as a solo mom does not sound like ‘overcoming adversity’! Some days I feel like I’m barely hanging on let alone overcoming anything. Truth is, you never get over or move on from grief. You learn to incorporate it into your life. You make space for it. But overcome it? No way. That’s truthful but probably not very inspiring. I had to sit and think long and hard about my journey through grief. How had I moved from the shock, sorrow and numbness of the early days to today? I’m not only surviving, but some days I’m actually thriving. I still sob but I also laugh, smile and dance. The process of writing my speech, condensing it into 6 minutes and practicing endlessly was like a giant grief counselling session. By the time the competition rolled around, I was wrung out from digging deep into my emotional vault. I was energized and motivated to share my story, but I was also emotionally spent.
So I did what I am so good at when grieving….I shopped till I dropped. Grief shopping is totally a thing. I fixated on ‘what would I wear?!’ The outfit had to be ‘stage worthy’! But also, comfortable, forgiving to my grief weight (grief eating is also totally a thing!), good at camouflaging nervous, sweat stains as well as able to hold a mic pack. It was a tall order. But I persevered and found the perfect outfit. I also fully acknowledge that my obsession with my outfit was a mis directed channel for my growing anxiety regarding taking the stage. But hey, knowing is half the battle right?
I spent the week leading up to the event practicing as much as possible. My cat got SO tired of hearing my speech. I also made exercise, sleep and meditating a priority in the lead up. My physical and mental state were paramount in delivering an authentic, poignant talk. When the actual day arrived, I woke up excited to do this! The mantra I had created for myself rang out strong and clear in my head. “You are made to do this. Kevin (my late husband) is with you.” I went to a yoga class, got my hair did and felt rested, ready and able. It was go time. And before I knew it, it really was. The mic pack was being attached to my skirt and all of a sudden I was walking towards Rina and Dan standing off to the side of the stage. Hugs from them and then I was on stage, blinded by brilliant lights but also emboldened to deliver my message. The practiced words came to me easily (for the most part!) and my story tumbled out of me. 6 minutes was gone in an instant, and then there was applause as well as adrenaline rushing through my body. I had done it.
I connected with my friends at our table (and downed a glass of wine!) and sat back to enjoy the rest of the talks. A women sitting near us came over to talk to me. With tears in her eyes, she said “thank you for sharing your story”. She had a recently lost a friend to an overdose and my story reminded her she wasn’t alone. Through my words, she could see her pain wasn’t hers alone, and she didn’t have to suffer in silence. The stigma that surrounds substance use disorder and overdose is immense and suffocating. By taking the stage at Speaker Slam, I am telling the world that we will not be suffocated by stigma and shame anymore. By sharing our stories we can cultivate compassion and empathy instead of shame and stigma. By sharing our stories, we can heal. The hug this woman and I shared reminded me this. Her reaction is why I share. Her story is why I share my story.
I did not win Speaker Slam. I came 6th. If I’m totally honest, I was very disappointed in my results. My confidence was shaken. I was embarrassed. Maybe I’m not meant to do this, my inner critic told me. But then the conversation I had with the woman whose eyes were filled with tears came back to me. She is why I do this. My words, while not prize winning, helped her. My story put a tiny ray of light into the darkness that she is experiencing. My story IS helping people. My story IS chipping away at the stigma that surrounds substance use disorder. I will continue to tell my story until we respond to those struggling with addiction and mental health with empathy and compassion, instead of shame and stigma. I will continue to tell my story as it helps me heal and it helps others find light in the darkness. That is more important than any prize money.
- Sarah Keast
Journey to The Stage...
This is a series chronicling the journey of our speakers from the moment they sign up to compete and what it takes to get there. What was their experience once they took the stage and afterwards? We find out!
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Sarah Keast is a writer, a public speaker and an activist. Through her writing, her blog and her recent TEDx talk, she explores love and loss, mental health and substance use disorder, shame and stigma, and the power of empathy, compassion and connection all with a healthy dose of the f-bomb and humour. Her writing has been published in Chatelaine, Today’s Parent and The New Family. She is a widow, a mother and a wannabe Wonder Woman. She also believes in the powerful magic of a good yoga class, Netflix binging, vanilla lattes, laughing with friends and laughing at yourself.
What is Speaker Slam?
Our Inspirational Speaking Competition features 10 competitors going head to head and heart to heart, to deliver 4-6 minute speeches based on a monthly theme with a chance of winning cash and prizes valued up to $5000. Our winners have gone on to get paid speaking gigs, TEDx talks and online notoriety.