In the wake of Hurricane Sandy's unprecedented assault on the East Coast from New England to the Carolinas, one cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy for those who are now experiencing the truly unexpected. Having previously felt the deep impact of the worse hurricane to hit the U.S. in recent history, living through Hurricane Sandy today stirs one feeling inside of me: gratitude.
At 22 years old, my life changed forever. I did not realize it at the time, but what I viewed as two "complete disasters" were simply predestined to become a part of my unique path. The first of said disasters took place on Aug. 29, 2005. Albeit little attention I had been paying to the looming threat that Hurricane Katrina posed on my family's home of New Orleans, I half listened to my father's account of our family packing up and heading to Houston while my great aunt took shelter with a friend who lived on "higher ground."
One, I had heard it all before... hurricanes hitting New Orleans and most of my family caravanning out of the city. Two, I was completely self-absorbed in my new-found adventure of being fresh out of college with my first job in New York City's world of fashion. Three, nothing could have prepared me for what would happen next.
My grandmother's home sat under 15 feet of water for two weeks. I struggled to make sense of the dead bodies floating in the still flooded streets of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, while watching families bake in the 100-degree heat that beat down on survivors lying on the side of Interstate 10 in the days following the storm. My desire to get involved was immediate. However impractical as it was to jump on a plane at the time, that did not stop the need to contribute, to be a part of the healing process. I rallied a few friends and fellow creatives in my Brooklyn apartment, and started to hand design a series of t-shirts to use as an incentive for contributions of fifty dollars or more to an organization called HandsOn New Orleans. That would only be the beginning.
On the other side of the storm I had found a new sense of loyalty to New Orleans and my family's culture that I had been taking for granted. In one conversation, my cousin Wesley, six months my junior and also a recent college grad, expressed his own sense of pride for his city that had given him so much to be able to go out into the world and conquer it. An amazing actor, Wesley and I had grown up together sharing experiences from New Year's Eve in the French Quarter to competing over who could eat the most fried catfish. Our plans to rule the universe were larger than life as we laid out our lifelong dreams. In short, Wesley was my best friend. Six months after Katrina, Wesley died of AIDS in February 2006.
As you can imagine losing my cousin to a preventable disease took the second spot on my list of complete disasters. In similar fashion I had not regarded the severity of his diagnosis the day Wesley called to tell me he had tested positive for HIV that September after Katrina. Most certainly I had no reason to believe that he would progress so quickly and be dead five months later. I hated the media after that. As an '80s baby, I grew up learning about HIV/AIDS; and knew from all the soundbites that today more people were getting treatment and living longer with HIV than ever. The phrase "no longer a death sentence" came to mind marking a turning point in my unique path.
Though it would take some time to develop, I had the idea that my concept of designing t-shirts for HandsOn New Orleans could be much bigger, that I could use it to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. I even believed I had found the opportunity to cultivate that idea by traveling overseas to complete my MBA in 2007, but it could not be that simple. Going back to school was not only something I had always wanted to do, but in moving to the UK I would be living out one of Wesley and I's longtime dreams of moving to London together. In reality, however, I moved to a foreign country that I had never been to and did not know a single soul. It became a recipe for acting out all the anger, grief, and depression I felt from Wesley not being there with me. I took on self-destruction like a new pair of stilettos (the kind you never want to take off), blindly self-sabotaging relationships with my classmates, partying until sunrise, and having unprotected sex for no other reason than I felt it did not matter if I did. The more I believed I was the victim of the heinous crimes life's complete disasters had cruelly put in my path, the worse my behavior became.
While there are any number of coping mechanisms we humans employ when the pain appears to be more than we can handle, I do believe it is possible for each of us to find ways to build constructive meaning from the complete disasters that life throws our way. With the gifts and talents that each of us possess we have a toolbox with everything we need to do so. Through a long road to recovery I have built a sense of self-empowerment where having unprotected sex is no longer negotiable. From that process, the humble beginnings of hand-painting t-shirts in my apartment has manifested into a full on charity-driven, premium apparel brand called HUMAN INTONATION. In giving voice to the complete disasters that have now given me so much, the lessons from my experiences led to creating a fashionable platform for social change where 20 percent of the proceeds of each sale are donated to our nonprofit partners. Out of building Human Intonation, more healing has come with talking to other people about Wesley's story and my own journey to insisting on using protection as a way to raise awareness about prevention.
The process of constructing meaning out of life's complete disasters will not be an easy path. There will be carnage along the way with damaged relationships, poor judgment, and amends to be made. For many of us, we will find ourselves facing similar obstacles over and over again if we did not catch the lesson the first time; but if not for these experiences we would never stretch outside of our comfort zone to travel the path we are destined for. Our complete disasters are sent to us to build our character, and facing them requires the ability to honestly stop seeing ourselves as victims. Our experiences can and always do benefit others if we share them, but I will be honest that finding a way to give back to others has been more beneficial to me many times over.
Today, Human Intonation is a comprehensive brand including four apparel collections, community outreach, workshops, speaking engagements, and a campaign targeting HIV prevention and Women of Color. I could not tell you the exact time and place when I had my 'aha' moment that putting myself at risk was not going to bring Wesley back, but I do feel fortunate that I came to realize that self-destruction does not lessen the pain. It is hard to believe that it will be seven years since Wesley passed and that so much has changed since that day. Wesley had his unique path to travel and I am grateful to be here to travel mine.
Follow Verneda White on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HumanIntonation