June 9th was my first Pride parade! It was also my first Pride parade being out as bisexual! In addition to these exciting things, I attended with the first person I came out to. It was a really exciting day and I’ll hold onto these memories as the time I fought back against my struggles and reclaimed my identity. To understand fully how much this meant to me, I want to take you back to when I was a high school student grappling with who I was. I felt so ashamed and alone. I felt like a problem, out of place and so unlovable. I knew I was attracted to both boys and girls as a child, but I greatly struggled with being open about it. It was not normalized in the culture I grew up in to be LGBTQIA+. I also carried immense shame for struggling with suicidal thoughts and an eating disorder. I felt like people never saw the full picture, which was so painful, because here is this girl acting out and in so much distress, but why? I feel like the root wasn’t addressed until it was much too late. I also struggled verbalizing what was going on. It was a difficult situation for everyone. I suffered a lot because of the circumstances. I felt like I didn’t have a voice or a choice. The trauma I experienced as a child and teenager silenced me to the point a “hello” was difficult for me to manage. Anxiety held me back from learning valuable social skills and reaching out. The wonderful friends I did make along the way I inevitably pushed away because I didn’t feel like I deserved them. I felt like I deserved to suffer. My friends worked very hard to keep me rooted in the friendships, but most invites I rejected. I felt as though they’d be happier if I was not around. The trauma I was unable to speak about came out in such destructive ways. I like to think of the damage done by the trauma now and not necessarily all me because it humanizes the person struggling. Like how we say in eating disorder treatment, ED (the eating disorder) is an outside force trying to control us. It’s not a choice to struggle with mental illness or trauma, but we can choose recovery. When we personify the illness, we take blame away from the person struggling and give our understanding that not every person is well enough to make good decisions when they are in deep pain. I was in deep pain as a teenager and was just trying to survive. A lot of the things I did and said at the time were occurring because I was forced to bury the truth — my trauma — in order to survive. I am on a journey of self-forgiveness now. I feel like I’m failing at it at times because I tend to picture other people not forgiving me and therefore, I don’t allow myself to be forgiven. I’m aware that I can receive forgiveness from others, but I know it will never be enough. My aching heart needs to let go and forgive myself so I can move forward and ultimately do better in the future. We can’t go back in time and not every person from the past will make it to our present. So, the path to healing lies in our court. We need to make the move to embrace healing for ourselves — it’s up to us. Being at the Pride event, understandably, brought up a lot. I had general anxiety about going to a Pride event, but this anxiety is also deep-rooted. It was in my hometown. I don’t live here anymore. A lot of bad memories reside here. I never felt like I belonged. The anxiety leading up to going back here caused me racing thoughts and lots of “what if’s.” The saving grace, which I didn’t learn until I was marching, was that yes, a lot of painful memories live here and at the same time, here I am making happy, peaceful memories. More importantly, here I am making new memories in recovery. I have been in strong eating disorder recovery for many years and my other mental health struggles have been managed since 2019. I’ve honestly been my best self these past few years having found the right medications, skills, and therapy. I adore that quote, “You cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick.” It’s very applicable to different points in my life. In this instance, I’d want to challenge it a bit. Perhaps you cannot always heal in the same environment that made you sick, but you can heal somewhere else — somewhere safe — and when you’re ready, you can come back and offer what you’ve learned and what you’ve grown from. We don’t always get what we want in life, but for me, for right now, I think this is enough. Sharing my life online and with friends keeps me rooted today. I feel very connected in these communities. I want to continue to translate my online work to more tangible avenues as well. The only hurdle I need to overcome is my anxiety. I marched in the Pride parade with my former high school teacher and the GSA from my old high school. My former teacher/now friend was the first person I came out to when I was a teenager. It was so special to be there with her. We have been through so much. I don’t know if she’ll ever truly know how much she has helped me, but I certainly do not stop trying to convey it to her with my immense gratitude! There were absolutely moments during the march I felt anxious and out of place, but I pushed through for the best moments. Confidence comes and goes on me, but when I feel anxious, it can stray almost completely. With my teacher-friend walking in solidarity with myself and my former high school’s current students, I began to open up throughout the event. At some points during the march, I wanted to hide, but as I began to realize that all these people gathered downtown of the place I once called home were there for me and with me, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face and I embraced the sheer joy in my step. The exchange of cheering and waving from the people on the sidewalks and us marching on the street was so spectacular. The energy is unmatched. There were people with shirts that read, “Free Mom hugs” and plenty of elaborate, rainbow costumes. I heard students exclaim, “We own the rainbow now!” and one complimented an onlooker’s dog that was wearing a rainbow tutu, “I love your gay dog!” We chanted “Say gay!” and waved our flags triumphantly. Seeing these students embrace who they are gives me so much hope for the current and future generations of children. Their lightheartedness and pure joy from marching with their friends reminds me that we were never a scary community; we are a peaceful and beautiful community. Supporting and embracing LGBTQIA+ youth is the right thing to do. We simply want to be heard and feel like we belong. We owe it to those discovering themselves to provide safe spaces and to allow them to open up in their own time. We must dismantle the systems in place that say otherwise. Having a safe space at school helped me so much when I was a child. I think sometimes people can underestimate the power of support and understanding. Just a few words, a smile, a simple compliment or a willingness to listen can save a life. If you told me a decade ago I would be here today doing this Pride walk in my hometown, I absolutely would not have believed you! I’m so glad I did find the strength to go because sometimes we need to go back to the places where we fell apart so we can feel more whole and be sure of who we are. It wasn’t fully my wanting to speak about my sexuality to my teacher back when I was a teenager; I honestly felt so ashamed and alone though and I needed to let it out. I was not ready, but I also was ready. She is a safe person and still supports me today. She and my therapist at the time held space for me and fought to keep me alive during times I didn’t feel like I deserved to be alive. Having those two adults in my life who understood were sometimes the only reason I could stay alive. We talk about in the mental health community that you are allowed to stay alive for whatever your heart can find worth it— even if it is small. I’ve always told people that you need to try to stay alive for those small things and then one day, you will want to stay alive for yourself. I stayed alive for my pets, for my friends, for my supporters. I’m really proud that I can now say I stay alive for myself, too. I want to be alive for these moments and more. I know now that pain, discomfort, anxiety and more are part of life, but I also see that freedom, peace and love are the parts of life that make it so worth living. What Pride has taught me is that I deserve to feel proud of who I am. I’m very critical of myself, even though I am aware I have achieved so much since I was a high school student suffering deeply and struggling to find my self-worth. I deserve to feel pride in my work on and off the screen as well as my recovery. I choose recovery every day and I have come so far. I have had so many incredible opportunities and I continue to work on so many new things I want to be proud to share in the future. Old feelings certainly arose at the Pride parade, but I am learning that I have the ability to challenge these old narratives and thoughts. I am simply not teenager Lexie anymore. I am not that scared, trapped child anymore. I am a young woman who is working towards her dream career of being an art therapist. I am a psychology and art student. I am an advocate and activist. I work diligently in my job in healthcare. I put care and love into my relationships with others and myself. I am a kind person. I have embraced my sexuality. My compassion inspires others to have compassion. My words and art are appreciated. I have purpose. I hold clarity. I am free. And I am working on forgiving myself for the messes I created when my mind was muddled and my house was not a home. We are more than the problems we created when we felt we were so broken and unlovable. My younger self just wanted to be loved. I am forever grateful for every person who pushed past my scared and timid exterior and fought to love my younger self for who she was. My younger self was very brave and I want to thank her for pushing through even when all she felt was pain at times. Tears well up in my eyes knowing that my love for her may not be enough right now, but I know someday I’ll be able to love my inner child the way she needed to be loved all those years ago. I hope if you learn anything from my story, it’s that we must be the love, compassion and humanity for one another. Not all of us are able to look inwards and feel it for ourselves. We must be the love and break through the darkness for the hope that one day we can love and forgive ourselves, too. The anxiety I felt leading up to Pride and even during the march from time to time is nothing in comparison to the bright hope and profound love I feel today. Thank you to the Haddon Township Equity Initiative and all the wonderful sponsors and volunteers who made the day so special. I may not have felt like I belonged here in the past, but I do feel like I belong here today.