Alexa Freedman and Julia Harris, Strong Women Fellows, co-authored this article originally published in VOXATL.
As anyone who struggles with mental illness knows, it is hard to love your brain and appreciate your mind, when you know that in some cases it is the root of your issues. However, Pamela Schuller, an internationally known disability and mental health advocate and professional standup comedian, has learned to love her brain and embrace what makes her different.
In March, JumpSpark’s Strong Women Fellowship got to hear from Schuller. She has an incredibly interesting story and used hilarious anecdotes to tell it. When she was young, Pamela had the worst diagnosed case of Tourette Syndrome in the country. Pamela says she loves Tourettes; it’s the best neurological disorder she could have asked for, she told us.
How, you may ask, did she make it to this point? It was a long journey of self-discovery, personal growth, and unfortunately, pain. For a long time, Pamela said, she believed she was a waste of space; she struggled with being an outsider and with her disability defining her. When asked to write something she loved about herself, she was unable. Throughout the years, however, with help from therapists, friends, and community, Pamela has learned that she is more than her diagnosis and has so much to give to the world.
Throughout our session, Pamela shared many funny stories from her childhood experiences, but each one taught a lesson. She certainly faced many hardships growing up, including having a broken neck and several broken bones due to her tics, but she chose not to focus on those when telling her story. For example, she shared how one night, she was barking (this happens when she is excited), and a neighbor complained about her having a dog in their no-pet complex. Pamela said she absolutely mortified the landlord, who had come to explain the rule, when she said the barking was her. The landlord promised to never come to her if anyone else complained again, and according to Pamela, she went out and got a dog right after. This funny story really stuck with me, since instead of being upset Pamela really made the most out of the situation.
She was once told that her case of Tourette’s Syndrome was one of the worst, but today she uses her own story in hopes of inspiring others. Pamela taught a very important lesson to the Strong Women Fellowship: Every person has struggles, but every person still adds so much value to the world. If allowed, a perceived disability or illness can add wonderful things to a person’s life. It is possible to balance struggling and loving oneself at the same time.
Alexa’s takeaway: As someone who has struggled with mental illness her whole life, it was so empowering for me to hear Pamela talk about all the ways she has embraced her diagnoses and let them enrich her life, instead of taking away from it. It gave me a lot of hope to see Pamela thriving and having so much self-love because of the way she has transformed her diagnoses into blessings instead of burdens. Pamela’s journey is proof that with help and hard work, it is possible to break down defining barriers and rewrite who you are and how you want to live.
Julia’s takeaway: Pamela taught us so many valuable lessons and made me feel nothing but proud of who I am and what makes me different. I learned the importance of celebrating our differences, and her unique outlook really spoke to me. I also recognized how impactful it is to advocate for others who cannot do so for themselves, or else the pointing and laughing will continue. Sometimes I refrain from doing things that will make me stand out in fear of being judged, but I now realize that standing out is really special, and that there is no point in only considering others and not myself. It was so reassuring to know how much greatness came out of Pamela’s tough situation, and this made me think with a much more positive outlook. I now know that what might seem like an unbearable situation for me has to have some upsides; it just may take a little digging. Pamela Schuller — a Jewish, 4-foot 6-inch woman with Tourette’s (or, as she calls it, “the trifecta”), taught me so much from the little time spent with her. I will certainly be passing on her story and using her advice in my daily life.
Alexa Freedman is an 11th grader at The Galloway School, and Julia Harris is a 10th grader at Dunwoody High School. Both are second-year Fellows and Peer Leaders for the JumpSpark Strong Women Fellowship.