The Making of The Solidarity Stories

by Kate Speer


32 years. 21 psych ward hospitalizations. 7 years of psychosis. One suicide attempt. And I would still tell you a thousand times over, 

my gift is my burden, my burden, my gift and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Of course, for a long time, I did want things to be different. I wanted my own acceptance of my mental illness to be accepted by others and society as well. 

I was an odd kid and I realized at a very young age that I felt absolutely everything. Touched by the gift and the curse that is to be an empath, I spent my younger years fascinated by the understanding that every single human on this planet feels pain and yet, very few people actually talk about it.

Perplexed by how we could all walk around with this massive truth and feel shame for it instead of camaraderie, I discovered my purpose on this planet. That purpose is this - to teach the world that we all feel pain, it is okay to do so and the act of doing so is not an act of weakness but instead, one of strength.

This truth became even clearer to me when I started struggling with mental illness. The rare 16 year old to actually talk about my depression openly, I found myself the secret keeper of all of my peer's pain. Story after story, I would hear of triumph and resilience - of a human living through hardship and rising above it and yet time and time again, that human would only tell me.

Kate at Mclean's Obsessive Compulsive Institute at the age of 21.

By the time I was 20, the symptoms of my mental illness had grown so severe that psychiatric hospitalizations were required to keep me safe. The ward only furthered my understanding that to live with pain and grow beyond it is to be wholly alive and beautiful. During one of these first few psychiatric hospitalizations, I started journaling about this - about the deep seeded shame for something that actually resembled warriorhood. It tortured me how a society could get something so wrong and I found myself obsessed with how could I teach people that they were not weak because of their pain but actually stronger because of it.

Scribbled in response to this conundrum of mine amidst brainstorms for an overhauled education curriculum and a health care system built on rewards for going to therapy instead of not going,  a clothing line that spread both awareness and advocacy for people living with mental illness was built. Sketches of shirts and hats that read enough, human, survivor filled the pages. Of course, this is making it sound a little too planned so let me straight here - in this same journal, I also wrote that I wanted to marry Orlando Bloom, live in Tahiti and the first shirt that would launch the collection would read: BATSHIT CRAZY. 

Obviously, only some of the ideas from back then stuck. Then again, there are still moments I want that shirt that reads BATSHIT CRAZY - like every time I go to the grocery store or a family dinner or leave the house - please just give me one way to tell people I don’t want to talk to them today. But as usual, I've digressed.

My point is - ever since being diagnosed with depression at age 16, I have dreamt about a clothing line that started important conversations about mental health and had a gentle way of saying, ‘hey, I'm having a day.’ OR, ‘hey, I'm here for you if you need me.’ 

It’s been seven years since my last stint in the ward and although there was nothing inherently wrong with me back then - disability and illness are not tokens of worth -  a lot has changed. My desire to build out that clothing line, however, has not. A desire is not enough though - we all know that - and community is paramount in building anything so it was beyond fortunate that I crossed paths with my now dear friend Taylor Walsh last year.  

Taylor came to me as an intern at The Dogist but our relationship quickly extended beyond that.  Two introverted dorks, we fell into mutual awkwardness together as we nerded about all things dog, data and mental illness meme over vegetarian chicken nuggets. (yes, they are a thing.)

Over these non chicken but oh so tasty - nuggets, we talked about everything from relationships to future dog names to the mental illness we so desperately wanted to de-stigmatize. Last spring, over one such nugget nom session,  I shared the idea of Solidarity Stories with her. I started by talking about my deep desire for a way to say, ‘I’m fighting my mind’ and ‘I’m accepting of that fact.’ I wanted the apparel to start conversations about mental illness and the power of using vulnerability to build community in the face of its hardships. I also really wanted it to be a way to bring people together, to know that we are the one in five and that it's not weird or wrong to live with mental illness, it is a badge of warriorhood.

Taylor nodded and listened attentively as I shared the business plan for a company that would fund non profit work in the advocacy and human rights sector while providing comfort and community for those living with the hardship of illness. 

After the emotional sermon about my hope for what something like this could become - and yes, I definitely cried - no shame here ever - I broke the microwave. At this point,  all semblance of grace and eloquence disappeared from my existence and I went on an absolute tear about how technology is out to kill me and all I really need in life is a shirt that says “A little help would be nice.”

I’ll spare you that schtick and how truly inept I am at anything electronic but let’s just say that this design is not off the table because we all could use some help. Cue Taylor who fixed the Microwave that day and all my tech issues since and well, this very website you are reading right now if you really must know. Anyways, after all of that - the sermon, the anger, the stand up, the pure unabashed humanity that I was and always am, Taylor smiled and simply said, “Kate, you do know you survived right? We could do this if you wanted to."

I took in her words but couldn’t find my own to respond with at the time. That night though, I wrote this in my journal. “Survive I did indeed. It is time to wear it with pride.”

So, here we are. December 2019. Two women. One dream. Alive. Honoring survival and the warriorhood that is living with mental illness with humor and a quest to talk more about it along the way. Join us. It it is time to wear our vulnerability with pride and empower others to do the same.