Use Your Voice

This morning, I happened to wake up right when the sun was rising. I slid out of bed, dragged a plastic chair out onto the balcony of my new apartment, and sat and watched the sky fill with light. The crows that hide out on Vanderbilt University’s campus flew past Kirkland Tower and over the buildings of West End. I’ve noticed that these birds are creatures of habit during the time I’ve spent as a student at Vandy. I’ve noticed that they fly the same path in the early morning and again around 5 o’clock. It’s hypnotizing to watch the flock of birds go together, owning the sky.

 I have one and only one tattoo – on my left wrist, two swallow birds in flight. Legend says that sailors would get swallow birds tattooed to signify the journeys they had been on. Some say they would get one bird tattooed at the start of a perilous journey and another at the return. Others would get birds to denote the amount of nautical miles they had racked up – 5,000 miles per bird.

Why the swallow bird? The sailors would know they were near land when they saw the birds flying in the sky. The swallow birds also return to the same location every year to mate and nest, so the tattoo is meant to symbolize a safe return home.

For me, my two little birds symbolize the great journey I’ve been on over the last few years to truly find myself. I spent the first eighteen years of my life happy but not ever content. I chose to follow others rather than myself, and when I began the process of applying to colleges, I realized that I knew a lot more about what others wanted for me than what I wanted for myself. All I was sure about was that I wanted to study English and be a writer—the people around me dictated the rest.

 This is not to say it is their fault. It was up to me to use my voice, but I had no idea what to say. And so, I ended up going to a school in Upstate New York that I hated, and one of my first great chances to speak up came my way. I decided to transfer, to pick the four universities I would apply to on my own, and worked towards my goal of getting out of the hole I’d dug myself.

It’s funny. I’ve spent a lot of my life digging graves that I was all too ready to lie in. The last four years though have been a whole lot of me climbing back out of them, proving to myself and the world that I can stand on my own two feet. Ultimately, I transferred to Vanderbilt University, my dream school, and I learned how to live a life worth writing about.

 Now, I know how to tell my own story. I’m recovering from not using my voice for so many years. From the depression that’s poked holes in my self-confidence since I was a preteen. From falling down the rabbit hole in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship. From thinking that self-harm and mind-altering substances could fix my problems.

I’m discovering how to take flight but still come back home every night. Recently, when cleaning out some things during my move to the new apartment, I found a list of 22 facts about myself that I’d written at age 20. They were things like, “’Peter Pan’ was the first book that made me want to be a writer” and “The only scars on my body are on my ring finger’s knuckle from a straightener burn and my left wrist from a few desperate nights.” Despite the fact that I have gone through an unexpected bout of journeying and change since I wrote that list, most of the facts still rang true. I still have a copy of “Peter Pan” on my bookshelf, and I still have those same scars. Two years ago, though, I would have never thought I’d be several months clean from alcohol and drugs, getting through the craziness of the holidays without a glass of wine, and sitting in an off-campus apartment that my parents helped me find because they trusted me enough to live in it.

 My core values haven’t changed. I am still fiercely loyal to my friends and family, and I am still confident that I am meant to be a writer. However, I have picked up a few more healthy habits along the way and grown into a person that I’m proud to be. I’m still working on the whole “using my voice” thing, but with each day, it gets a little easier. I got my tattoo at the start of this year to document this “awfully great adventure” that I’ve been on. When in doubt, I look down at my swallow birds, flying away from the faded scars of past mistakes and heading towards more sober sunrises over the beautiful Nashville skyline.

-Jules Wilson