By Tamara Bullock, special to Act
I was born on the beautiful island of Jamaica, the oldest of four children (and the only girl). I was raised by a single mother in a religious Christian household in a poor neighborhood in Kingston. Growing up, I knew that there was something different about me long before I had the language to name that difference.
I knew my difference would label me a failure in the eyes of my family and society if it was ever discovered. This knowledge, and my feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy, compelled me to be an overachiever and perfectionist to compensate for my failure. This constant need to be perfect and to excel in everything while hiding my true self led to my 10-year struggle with depression and anxiety, which began in high school.
After I graduated high school, I left Jamaica to begin my undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. I thought this would be a new chapter in my life but despite all of my accomplishments, I could not fully accept myself and was unable to let go of my fear of failure.
During my senior year in college, my depression and anxiety worsened to the point that I tried to commit suicide twice — not because I wanted to die, but because I just wanted to escape the pain of living with my conflicted feelings and the guilt, shame and inadequacy I felt for being myself. For being a lesbian.
Another low point of my struggle came in 2008, when my depression and anxiety led me to drop out of my graduate program (after only one semester). This caused my immigration status to change from a legal international student to an undocumented immigrant.
Dropping out of graduate school and becoming an undocumented immigrant were the manifestations of my lifelong fear of failure. The dire reality of my situation sent me spiraling further into depression. My anxiety also worsened because I feared being deported to my violently homophobic country. By this time, I had been outed in Jamaica when accounts of my active involvement in LGBT groups in college were reported to people there.
I knew that my life could be in danger if I were deported back to Jamaica, and this fear made me desperate to find a way to legally remain in America. In 2009, I went to Immigration Equality and sought their assistance in filing for asylum. This meant asking the U.S. government to allow me to stay here to protect me from the persecution that I would face as a lesbian if I were forced to return to Jamaica. I was seeking refuge. I was seeking safe haven. I was seeking a new home.
The asylum process was emotionally intense and invasive because I had to revisit all the difficult and painful memories and experiences surrounding my lesbian identity. I also had to come to terms with the fact that I was giving up my family and my country because I would not be able to return. Although I was uncertain whether or not my asylum application would be approved, I knew I did not want to live in fear of deportation and with the limitations of being an undocumented immigrant.
In 2010, after months of agonized waiting, I was granted asylum and the chance to fully live my life without fear and to thrive in a supportive environment. I decided to let go of my past feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy and my fear of failure and to finally and fully accept myself for who I am. I knew that my life was valuable, that I mattered and that I deserved the opportunity to succeed.
Once I was granted asylum I was able to seek legal employment, and I turned to Dress for Success to assist me in reentering the workforce. The welcome I received from the moment I walked in and all of my experiences since then have made me fall in love with the organization and the amazing staff and volunteers who make the magic happen!
Photo: Tamara with Dress For Success supporter Stacy London. (Dress For Success)
Dress for Success is unique because they believe that every woman, regardless of her background, has the ability and the capacity to succeed, and the organization is committed to facilitating, championing and celebrating our success.
I knew Dress for Success was more than a suit, and I wanted to take full advantage of all the career and personal development programs offered. Once I gained employment, I signed up for the Professional Women’s Group program. The resources, inspiration and empowerment I received from the program fueled my personal and professional growth, increased my confidence in my personal and professional skills, and strengthened my commitment to my own success and the success of other women.
I feel transformed, renewed, triumphant and blessed because Dress for Success has dressed me from the outside in and from the inside out. I am proud to be a part of such a strong network of women who have overcome numerous challenges and who are committed to achieving success, together. With Dress for Success as the wind beneath our wings, there is no limit to how high we can soar!
Photo: Tamara receiving a standing ovation after delivering a speech similar to this story. (Dress For Success)
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