Personal Growth

Helping Others Helps Yourself: How I Used My Own Detour to Help College Students

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I’m the only person in the world that feels this hopeless. 

How can things ever get better?

 I must be crazy.

I feel so alone.

These thoughts raced through my head for years.

When Life Takes A Detour…

These were thoughts I had when my “thought-out” life took a detour.

abstract paintingWhat’s a detour?

A detour is a curve in the road, a bump in a path, a big sign in the middle of your trip that says sorry, you have to go THAT way.

Nobody expects a detour to happen in life. It’s what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball.

Believe me, I didn’t expect to be in a coma my senior year of high school.

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At 17, I was molested for almost a year by my voice teacher, then at 18, my stomach literally exploded due to an unforeseen blood clot. I was in a coma for months and almost died.

It’s a mouthful, I know. That was my detour. I thought that in just a few months my path would lead right to college.

For a long time, my detour felt like a dead-end. After 27 surgeries and six years of being unable to eat or drink, I didn’t know where my life was going anymore. As my stitches healed by one, my thoughts seemed to unravel day by day.  My detour took me to a very scary place, into a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations, and memories.

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My Scary Detour

The detour I traveled was a very rough path. Although it became worth it, for a while I didn’t want to keep going. I lamented why my path had gone this way, and, plagued with anxiety and hopelessness, I wanted to give up. Now, I’m an artist, actress, author, playwright, “survivor-to-thriver,” newlywed, and lover of life’s beautiful detours—but I had to get there. The path was long-winded, scary, and challenging. When you don’t know where you’re going, it’s stressful and anxiety-provoking. You can feel very alone.

The most important thing I learned about a detour? You can still live a happy, healthy fulfilling life. I even got to college – at 25!

love my detour painting

But the great part about a detour?  You get to travel a route you would have never expected. The road may be tough, long, winding, and seemingly out of the way, but what I finally realized is, it’s the twists and turns in life that ultimately make us who we are.

Stress Makes Us Feel Alone

Stress and anxiety can make us feel like we’re entirely alone in our struggles.  College especially can be a breeding ground for stress—a turning point in our lives where we’re independent, perhaps for the first time. Doors become open to us that we never even knew existed. We realize we have the power to make choices, which can be equal parts empowering and frightening.

When I was going through my traumas, the biggest thing I needed to know was that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to reach out to a friend, a mentor, or a community of people, just to listen, to show understanding and compassion.

I realized I wasn’t alone in my stress, depression, and anxiety when I saw how mental health issues and emotional concerns were a campus-wide issue.  I learned that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students.  About one-third of college students across the United States had problems functioning because of depression in the last year; almost half said they had felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year, 20% said they had seriously considered suicide in their lifetime, and 5.8% said they had attempted suicide.

Plagued with their own anxiety, as well as taking on the anxiety from their families, many students appear more stressed than ever. The office hours of my professors were jam packed with students asking for advice on how to handle situations outside of the classroom or are looking for advice on what to do. Counseling centers are operating on waitlists and students are not learning how to self-care properly.  Students may feel uncomfortable reaching out to health and counseling services.  Worse, students may be unaware that these resources exist.

The Frightening College Reality

I was shocked to find out, in a 2011 NAMI study, that 64% of college dropouts were for mental health-related reasons, and that, of those, 50% never accessed any mental health programs or services.  73% of college students report having experienced a mental health crisis while in college.

This inspired me to develop a program that combines Broadway theater and mental health advocacy. Now, I deliver this keynote to colleges and universities, providing hope, health, and saving lives.

I never thought that 10 years after I was supposed to start college, I’d be doing a different kind of college tour!

EngageEncourageEntertainEducateEmpower

Now that I’m also in my third year of college, I’ve realized that physical and mental health issues are things we all think about, even if we don’t label what we experience as an “illness.”

We all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to. We all could use a few tips on learning how to love who we are.  We all have detours in our lives, and we become empowered when we trust that we can travel those detours and come out okay – even better! This “detour” in my path has turned into the richest time of my life and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. That’s why I call it my “beautiful detour.”

I turned my detour into the best trip ever.

Gutless & Grateful, the honest one-woman musical story of my life, shows the great and not so great aspects of a detour in life.  How I traveled my “detour” was by trial and error—and it still is.  But what I realized is that when I finally spoke up, asked for help when I needed it, and shared my story, I was finally able to heal and move on from it.  Gutless & Grateful is the story of how I became a Detourist.

Sharing Our Stories

Why am I sharing my detour? It takes “guts” to talk—and sing—about my sexual abuse, my anger, my guilt, how I lost hope in things ever getting better.  But I share to show that things DO get better with patience, trust, and resilience.

I share to give courage and a sense of belonging to people who are struggling with all kinds of mental health or physical challenges, but also to help build a campus that gives everyone the kind of awareness and generosity of spirit that makes that world a better place. If we all share our “detours”, we see that our detours are not detours at all.  Every road leads somewhere—we just need to hang in long enough to catch the flowers along the way. The more we share our detours, the more we realize we’re not alone. 

If life's taken you down an unexpected path, you're a Detourist

From my own decade of medical isolation, I learned that nobody can heal in a vacuum. Being able to reach out for help and find support is what helps us realize we’re not alone.  This inspired me to start trying to bridge the gap of communication between verious departments on campus—academia, career counseling, wellness resources, accessibility, and student groups.  There can be a barrier between academia and a student struggling with anxiety, campus life transitions, and common adjustments needed for college

The more statistics I read, the more urgent I realized my campus concerns were:

  • 67% of college students tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.
  • More than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts and 1 in 10 students seriously consider attempting suicide. Half of students who have suicidal thoughts never seek counseling or treatment.
  • 80-90% of college students who die by suicide were not receiving help from their college counseling centers

bring gutless to campus

Students often feel embarrassed, afraid or too overwhelmed to seek out wellness resources available to them on campus.  Those who are struggling may not even know there are resources that can help. They may feel that if they don’t have a “diagnosis,” “mental illness,” physical handicap, or learning disability, there is no reason to seek out services, they are not qualified to seek out these services, or they fear being labeled.

What ends up happening is many students fall through the gap.  The resources on campus become compartmentalized and students who don’t necessarily feel they have an issue “significant” enough cheat themselves out of learning valuable life skills.

Starting the Conversation on Campus

Now, my show Gutless & Grateful aims to introduce these resources on campus helpful sources that can build resilience on campus. I’m sharing the story of my life, and then talking to campuses about what students can do to create their own resiliency toolbox—a must-have in order to deal with stress and navigate life’s detours. In the final component of my program, I introduce  students to a panel of counselors, faculty and wellness resources on campus, opening the channel of communication between the student body and staff. If we can bridge that gap, we can help more students get the help they deserve. The more students we can help, the more compassionate campus we can create.

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A strong campus community is full of compassion, support, and resilience.  The more open we are about our struggles (whatever they may be) the more we can normalize needing a bit of help. Resilience is a learned skill, it’s a challenging task, but it is achievable. Through resilience, I learned how to cope with stress, anxiety, and even better, I was able to travel my detour long enough to finally find that beautiful clearing.

How do you learn to love your detours? You follow the path and see where it takes you : that makes you a DETOURIST.

A detourist looks for the upside of obstacles. They follow that twisted path because they’re curious to see where it could lead.

The road may be long, tough, and filled with even more detours, surprises, and unexpected turns.

hampshire flyer on campusBut a Detourist just keeps going and let’s those twists and turns create an even stronger, savvy traveler.

If you’re a detourist, every obstacle  is an amazing opportunity to grow, learn and see all that life has to offer…and who doesn’t like to travel?

Traveling as a detourist can be tough. A detour is not a free ride, but it is a thrilling one.  When the road gets rocky, the important thing to know us that were not alone.

So when life gets stressful, or just doesn’t go as you plan, think of it as a detour and make it a beautiful one. As you travel, remember to reach out and ask for the help you need.  Together we’re stronger. Together, we can navigate our beautiful detours.

I was sexually abused.My stomach exploded.I was in an coma for months.I've had 27 surgeries.I couldn't eat or drink for 6 years.

Learn more about Amy’s program for colleges here as well as her programs for LGBT students and sexual assault survivors.

Get involved in the student Detourist movement here.

Helping Others Helps Yourself
By: Rodion Kutsaev

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29 Comments

  1. You are such an incredible inspiration! So many people would let that kind of detour destroy them, but you have found a way to help others. I am so sorry you had to go through all of that, but you are an amazing person for not letting it hold you back.

  2. Thanks for being so open and sharing. I was with some from age 16-22 and I married him at 18. Problem was he was physically abusive. Life wasn’t what I thought it would be, nor was it what I wanted it to be. I didn’t know what to do, I was so in love I never went to college.

    At almost 23 I pulled myself together and started over. I wasn’t sure how things would turn out but I’m so glad they did. I didn’t know such joy was out there, now 13 years later it is better than I could have dreamed.

  3. This is awesome. College can be an extremely stressful time. There are probably so many people struggling to navigate their detours. It’s great that you’re using your own experiences to help others!

    1. Thanks Liz – it’s great to be able to make an impact on students. And I love traveling, so it’s a wonderful, detoured college “tour”!

    1. Thanks Stefany – everyone has a story – I’m sure you have some detours too! It’s what makes us who we are, right

  4. Wow, you are so strong and brave to share your story! College is definitely a stressful time for many, and it sounds like you’ve had your share of challenges, but come out the other side a stronger person.

  5. That was a very tough detour with a time in Coma too. You are really a strong person and I hope a lot of people who would go to the same situation with be as strong as you or at least they have the support they need.

    1. That’s the most important thing – that people know where they can go for support. Glad you liked my story 🙂

  6. This truly is an amazing story and program. It is indeed for anyone dealing with mental illnesses, traumas, etc. to know they are not alone in dealing with what they are going through. Thanks for sharing this story and program.

    1. Thanks Rebecca – it’s the ultimate reward to give back. I’m hoping to reach as many students as I can!

  7. Oh my goodness. What a touching story. I’m so sorry you went through all that, but seems like you’re a strong person to overcome it. Thank you for sharing!

  8. What an inspiring story! I love how strong you are and thank you for sharing your story to help others!

  9. Is awesome how you were able to manaed such a scary situation and even help others out! I loved how openly you shared this

  10. Wow what a story! I am so sorry to what happened to you at such an early age. I am sure the stress that was going on in your life cause that unforeseen coma. It seemed like a crazy detour but you got out of it and now living a happier life! So happy for you!

  11. Most students suffer from a lot of homework and tight deadlines. Which often brings a lot of trouble. You can use coupons for essay writing services, this will simplify the task.

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