Introduction to ‘#LevelUp Selected Works’
by Community Leader, Cindy Woodford
All of us on the Create Change team are constantly amazed by the incredible submissions we receive in response to each of our campaigns. Our community is vast and very diverse, but one thing that remains constant—and that always encourages and inspires us—is your consistent compassion, courage, and amazing creativity. Your response to our #LevelUp campaign has been nothing short of awesome and we sincerely thank each and every one of you who sent in an essay or some artwork. We hope you’ll take the time to check out these submissions which we feel represent a good cross-section of the entries we received. We’re so glad to have you in our Create Change community. Let’s keep moving forward together as we continue on our #LevelUp journeys.
Before COVID my life was always focused around work, schedules, and deadlines. I never bothered to take a moment for myself or think about what I needed. Suddenly I found myself with a huge window of free time. I was confused and overwhelmed because my life, as I knew it, had stopped all at once. This year put me through situations that I never could have faced if they happened to me in another period of time. It felt as if all of my vulnerability was thrown into an ocean full of sharks just waiting to take a bite.
I found myself dealing with the scariest, most painful, and helpless situations. This led to anxiety, panic attacks, stress, and a lot of crying until one day I got a call from a colleague who called to check up on me. During that conversation he told me something I will never forget. He said that this is a golden opportunity to change the course of my life and to connect to my own personality, to take this time and utilize it for self growth, and invest in my mind, body, and soul. That day I learned that words can save lives and that I had two choices. I could either let this year become the year I fall or let it be the year I rise. So I made my choice and you know what? It was the best choice I have ever made in my entire life.
First, I took time to invest in myself, so I could be more self controlled in chaotic situations. I built my days in a way that was good for me, starting from the smallest things such as waking up earlier to appreciate the sun and the colors, working-out, and writing…This new perspective helped me see that I was no longer willing to give up on myself to make others happy.
Second, I found the true meaning of connection with my Create Change family. I found a safe place and a home where I could accept myself as the person I really am. This gave me more confidence to talk about myself and the things that make me me. I also found a special connection with people who have always been in my life but now we get together every week and have deep and meaningful conversations.
This year I have found what really matters. Even with all the losses I have faced the challenge of creating a life from point zero has not only changed me, but has shaped me to be a better version of myself. I still have bad days but I have learned that it’s ok to give myself permission to feel down sometimes. I always remind myself that I have been given this rare opportunity to show myself and others that even though this year has been a lot to take, it is still possible to find the light at the end of the tunnel. By doing that, it’s impossible not to feel as though I’m leveling up and full of motivation to encourage others to do the same. To feel complete and happy with who I am feels like the bravest thing I could have ever done.
This story, it’s not just mine; it’s ours. We are in this together. But first, we need to take a deep look in our inner selves and train ourselves to grow even from the darkest places. We also need to try to be a guiding light for those who’ve lost their way and move forward together to a new journey of change. We owe this to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to humanity.
I’ve found in drama class that every time you put on a different pair of glasses you become a new person. When you have that moment of realisation it makes you want to explore further to learn more about this new person. What colour, shape, and prescription are your glasses?…For me, at age fourteen, while feeling free enough to come out to my family, it felt like I was wearing big rainbow aviator sunglasses and walking with my arms up in the air down the yellow brick road. I levelled up and it felt how I imagine Super Mario feels when he reaches the flag at the end of each task.
Towards the end of high school, I found myself putting these rainbow aviators back on when friends found out what my family had known for two years. I was revisiting that Mario level but this time it had gone from medium to hard and took longer to win and much more courage. It can be exciting and daring to get new glasses because even though the odds are someone around the world matches the same style and prescription, when you are on that journey, it feels like an individual experience.
…Levelling up can seem exciting, like that pair of glasses; whether it’s a pair you have tried on a thousand times, a new pair, or a pair borrowed from someone else to get an idea of how theirs might suit you. When you look back at the different glasses, how they vary, but also their similar traits, and how they’ve helped you get to that flag, do you imagine you will one day try them back on and revisit those levels but switch the difficulty settings? Will you let someone else try them on and achieve those levels together hand in hand down that winding path to reach the flag? What do your glasses look like?
We must acknowledge that the things we so much want to prove are for the others — we actually want to prove to ourselves. In reality, we owe those others nothing. We are enough. Pride is us. Pride, to me, is a being that reflects myself, and that reflection is something that I’m proud of. All the imperfections, all the physical scars from years of suffering, all the emotional scars that taught me how to be who I am today…all the STRIPES. I’m proud of all of me and when I look at that reflection, I see Pride. I see myself in the best way possible.
Pride represents who I am, without judging, without shame and without fear of being my true self.
…I’ve learned to find the silver lining of all of the crappy things that happen on this planet, through focusing on me. I see a lot online about how you should always put yourself first, take care of your mind and learn your love languages. I’m writing this exactly one year after I was fighting depression and let me tell you, taking better care of myself is the best thing I ever decided to do. It doesn’t have to be about going to college, getting a new car, receiving a promotion at work (although these are massive successes!) but it’s the little things too.
…The bottom line is, you should never put pressure on yourself to be successful. While building your character through small tasks that make you happy, your outlook on life changes. Well, at least for me it has. Every journey is different and through learning to love yourself, you reach a different level of happiness. Real change is achievable. Reflect over the past year and think about how you may have changed. Whether that be learning to make a new cocktail, picking up a new hobby or being your own boss. I’m glad I got to share with you how I feel I have levelled up and I hope that if you got anything from this, it’s that you are in control of your own happiness, your own growth and your ability to level up in life.
I’m pretty sure I’ve been overthinking this assignment, but try as I might I can’t seem to simplify it so that I can feel ‘pride.’ I know that sounds horrible, and I wish I could say that I wear my pride and live freely but the truth of the matter…I don’t. It’s not because I can’t. In theory I can, but I guess when it comes down to brass tacks, I don’t know how. I don’t know how to exist on this earth as a whole person, so rather than risk everything, I gently try and negotiate the barbed wire on the fence that has become my life. One foot in my religion, ever unrelenting with its expectations to be heterosexual, marry and have kids. Meanwhile my other foot is living a mild yet gay life. Opposing views, fraught with landmines that on any given day will trip me up, setting off mental explosions triggering self-loathing on demand either for turning from who I am, or for not fully embracing what I am. Much like oil and water, sure the vision can be pretty but they never really mix.
I hate to make this analogy but it literally just came to me…so buckle up buttercup. Supergirl is essentially made up of two parts, her blood is Kryptonian but she lives a human experience. Every so often an episode airs where she is struggling with who or what she is, and how she can’t seem to merge the two lives into one and that’s the closest I can come to help you understand what it’s like living as a gay Mormon. I can no more stop being Mormon than Supergirl can escape the deadly results of Kryptonite. I can no more deny being attracted to women than Supergirl can breath outside Earth’s atmosphere. While there are far worse ways to live, having your eternal salvation risked and questioned with every beat of your heart, is miserable. I exist, without really existing.
So when we talk about pride, I don’t experience it like many of those like me do…and part of me has given up trying. But I will tell you this, I do have pride and I’ve worked damn hard for it.
My pride comes from being me, whoever that is, faults and all, and in helping others. My pride comes from comforting those who are cast aside, providing resources to those who are lost and giving others hope when life has become all consuming. When I’m being a therapist, that is when I wear my pride. It’s not a feeling of superiority or being better than someone else. Honestly, it’s the closest I feel to God and the Universe. It’s being present with someone, without expectations and judgement. It’s about doing for others, what I fail to do for myself.
I may never find peace as a gay woman and I may never find peace as a Mormon, but I find peace and strength in giving, supporting and encouraging those I walk this earth with. So if that counts, than being a therapist and social worker is where I can #WearYourPride.
The past year has been difficult for many of us. It’s always been one struggle after another and no matter what that struggle is it has seemed to have been magnified. Our lives have been up-ended in a way we could not have seen coming let alone imagined, but then life isn’t that easy. Just when things get complacent and comfortable we are tossed around like roller coaster cars falling off the rails and we don’t know where we will fall.
…While I am currently out of work, a situation I’ve come to accept on account of everything going on, I do have to appreciate what I have and that’s a family who cares and looks out for me. Being at home has taught me an appreciation that others may not have. I’m able to have an endless amount of time to read and do other leisurely pleasures such as writing or coloring in adult coloring books. These are the things that have helped keep me mentally stable which certainly feels nice.
As I continue to look for a job my life is now moving forward in an unexpected way. It’s going another level up, I guess you could say. I plan to go for a second BA, with a Psychology major and a minor in Social Work. My family supports this, especially my younger sister who will be graduating with a Psychology degree this coming year. She thinks it would be cool if we went into the same profession. I haven’t been this excited over something in a long time. My mental illnesses have prevented me from taking steps forward and though I know they shouldn’t define me, they have controlled me. Now though, even through all of this chaos in the world, I’m actually happy. I can’t remember the last time I truly was.
…Leveling up isn’t just going upwards. The levels move up and down but it’s how we navigate the game that can move us forward. Sometimes we get stuck on a level and can’t figure out our next move, but once we do it becomes a huge accomplishment even if it feels like something so minor. No level is insignificant. It all matters, otherwise there would be no point in playing the game.
I grew up as a normal kid but then I was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 1, a condition that results in marks on my skin. I was told that when I hit puberty I would probably start to get more of the spots, which I learned were called fibromas. At 13, when puberty finally hit, I had hundreds of new tiny fibromas. Some continued to grow, while some stopped. This is when I knew I would never be treated the same as others again.
By the time I got to high school the fibromas were all over my body and I lost a few friends. I guess they didn’t like the way I looked. High school was brutal. In my freshman year I got an MRI of my brain which found three benign tumors. I got put in self contained classrooms because I could not keep up with regular classes. The school system didn’t seem to want to take the time or effort to help me. My nickname from some of the popular kids was “Polka Dot”. I learned very quickly how to disappear. I would eat my lunch in the gym or library, or a lot of times, just skip lunch all together.
By senior year I had been to the hospital eight times for mental illness. I was diagnosed with a long list of disorders that only seemed to put me in an even darker place. My senior year of high school was mostly spent in the library or in the home economics room making cookies. I didn’t really have any friends because I was gone for half of my sophomore and junior years, in and out of the hospital. Graduation should have been a very happy night for me, but instead I was numb and out of touch. I walked across the football field and got my diploma, got my picture taken with a very noticeable fake smile, and sat back down.
About a year later I woke up and saw myself in the mirror and didn’t just see the tumors and scars. Instead, for the first time in what felt like years, I saw hope; hope that I could be happy and hope that one day maybe I could use my NF as a way to encourage people. I made a TikTok and started posting videos. A few people with NF saw my videos and slowly my audience grew. I now have almost 4,000 followers, a lot of whom have NF, and who have messaged me to say they could never post videos or pictures showing their tumors. I still have days when I look in the mirror and see nothing but my many tumors, but then I remember how far I have come.
I had to Level Up my way of thinking, not only to get by, but to live semi happily. I had to learn to ignore the double takes, stares, and whispers that sometimes aren’t whispers. People are sometimes cruel when they don’t understand something, but that’s human nature, and we all have to live with it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to educate people about Neurofibromatosis and what it does to both the body and mind. When I heard of Create Change I got excited, and rightly so because it feels like more than just a community. It’s a home, and one I am proud to be a part of.
The biggest setback in my life was when I fell into my abyss of depression, starting from the last week of September 2019 and lasting until March 2020. I mean, sure, people get depressed or sad, but this was nothing I’ve ever felt before. It felt like something was pulling me deeper into this abyss of darkness every day, and it took over my life. I still went on about my days like everything was fine, but it wasn’t.
…With time, I climbed and fought my way out of the dark abyss and I made it out alive. I consider that a giant Level Up! Level Up to me is a way of growing, a way of evolving from a lower point to a higher point. You grow as an individual the more you face your struggles and try to conquer them.
Covid 19 the beast that I slayed! Like Chyler, I too came down with it and believe me, I felt like something out of the exorcist! Covid 19 is an experience I NEVER want to deal with again. Fevers for days. I wasn’t sure I was going to survive….This was undoubtedly the sickest I have ever been. Attached to monitors, I wondered if this was it? But as it turned out, I slayed the beast. I wasn’t dying yet! I tested positive for the virus and am now a survivor-statistic.
I was planning to produce a series of books to film, but Covid19 stopped that…I wondered if I was ever going to produce that film. But, ultimately, being sick gave me the inspiration to keep going and make that movie! Now it looks like it is getting filmed in New Zealand in 2021! I feel like I came out on the other side. I leveled up, more determined than ever to produce my films!
…For these past couple of years I’ve felt like I was living in a Sonic The Hedgehog water level and fighting Dr. Robotnik over and over again, with no ending, no restart button, and not understanding that I wouldn’t be able to defeat the “bad guy” alone. I could not ask for help. How was it that the character that usually saves the day was now the one that needed to be saved? This idea didn’t make any sense to me. So I kept fighting Robotnik until I was unable to find any bubbles to breathe underwater and I just sank, always losing.
When you lose all your lives in a game, you need to decide if you will just give up or if you will try again. I really, really wanted to concede the game to Dr. Robotnik, but my little friends showed up and gave me all the air bubbles I needed to breathe again, and together we fought. I wish I could say that we won. We didn’t. It’s not that easy, but we as a team, we keep fighting; today against Dr. Robotnik, tomorrow against Bowser, because my villain is their villain and theirs is mine.
In every game the main character has a sidekick, Supergirl has Alex, I have my friends. And if you’ve lost all of your lives and are thinking about giving up, stop and think; do you actually want to let your Dr. Robotnik win? The Create Change team is building this amazing space and I am sure that they – actually all of us in the community – want to kick some villain ass.
Thoughts are really important and helpful. They help in so many ways, organize the day, for family, for work and so on. But my thoughts are often my kryptonite…Anxiety and Depression come in big waves. On these days I judge myself and I`m very harsh and never satisfied. I fought my whole life against this kryptonite.
I’ve realized that sometimes I can’t trust my thoughts…I decided to start a therapy. My therapist knows how to handle me on days when kryptonite wins, and I know I can trust her.
…This is my level up. I know kryptonite is always a part of me but I can handle it. I give it no more space to grow. I will not give up and I will face my anxiety…I am happy to be part of this great community and I will never give up.
…I’ve been through hell and back more times than I care to admit. Yes, I’m still here and always find a way to survive but the older I get the more I know I need that person in my life who will grab me by the hand and say “we will do this together.” How magical would that be to have someone anywhere in the world that you have a connection with and who helps guide you on that journey to open that door via written words.
We all need guidance to know we are not alone. We need serenity, love, hope, and the brilliant light that we can grasp onto in some of our darkest moments. I believe that “where there is light there is darkness, and where there is darkness there is light”…We all have light and dark moments but if you can grasp that light you feel is fading, and hold on to it ever so close to your heart and soul, it can take you on the most beautiful magical journey you can experience.
One of my many darkest moments was when I gave birth to and lost my daughter, Serenity Hope, on August 8th, 2001. In that dark moment I couldn’t handle life anymore and I wanted to end my life…I thank God for surrounding me with my guardian angels back then because I’m still here. Don’t get me wrong I’ve struggled and life definitely isn’t easy but somehow God, my guardian angels, and my three sons give me the strength to go on.
I share this moment because life is a constant struggle of one’s mental stability, but also a journey that one must take to be able to share something that may guide another on their own journey. Mental health is a huge struggle but the journey of life is like the brilliant shiny stars in the night sky, glimmering at the beautiful light of love you have within you to share and hold on to one another, that gives us the strength to lift each other up to be that positive beacon of hope.
During quarantine, like a lot of people, I felt very stressed. I was worried about school, my family and friends, and everything going on in the world. I definitely had a lot of time on my hands and that’s how I realised I had a problem. I was feeling down all the time and it was very odd because I often didn’t know why…I asked for help and I was ultimately diagnosed with depression. It all made sense, but it was hard to accept…The things that were there to make me happy were music and TV. I would listen to music or binge watch TV for days on end and it made me feel a bit better.
I use music and drama to level up. It’s something I’ve always loved and I hope to pursue it in the future. I have healed quite a lot in the past couple of months and that’s because I finally took time for myself and for what I loved, and now I cope a lot better.
…With time and professional help I am slowly getting better. Getting help should not be frowned upon because most of us will need it in our lifetime…What I’m really trying to get across is that it’s ok to take time for yourself…Our mental health is so important and we should make sure we are ok and that we are happy. It Just Takes Time.
The idea of the parallels between games and real life is familiar to me…I remember when I was little I used to play an educational Pink Panther game. Like real life, it had no restarts and no level ups. I controlled the Pink Panther, gathering objects and information that could be useful later on. Sometimes I had no clue what to do next so I would come up with a crazy idea to try and move forward. Many times it worked. My “crazy” idea was a tool to move forward in the game.
…In some games I played the only way to move forward was to restart until I could level up. I remember my frustration when I realized after restarting that my character in the game didn’t know what I had just learnt before the restart. The character would always start from the very beginning, just like going back in time, while I had already developed a strategy and knew where to find tools.
…Just like in games, we are often brought to the restart point and it can be frustrating but it is necessary that we remind those frustrated versions of ourselves that we can level up. We are stronger and wiser than before. It is also okay if you decide to try a bunch of crazy ideas to see what happens. Most of mine turn into stories.
…In the fall of 2015, I studied abroad in Paris as part of a joint global-health study-abroad program with my university in the US and a university in Paris. Everything was going really well. However, this all changed four weeks before the end of the semester. I was getting ready to go to bed on a Friday night when my mom called me. She asked if I was home, to which I said yes. She said, “I’m driving to pick up your brother from high school, and I heard on the radio that there were explosions at a soccer match.” When I checked the news, it turned out that there were additional shootings at several restaurants in the 10th arrondissement, along with a hostage situation unfolding at a nearby concert hall…I felt shocked, scared, and confused.
I had to start leveling up from this incident almost immediately. I first leveled up when I left my host family’s apartment for the first time the Monday after the attacks. It was terrifying for me, and I had previously never been scared to go to class. Everyone was silent on the metro as I commuted to class, and I felt relieved when I got to campus. While I was still in Paris, I had to gather every ounce of strength I had to attend class regularly and turn in all of my assignments while navigating a city with officers around every corner and bag checks at every building entrance.
…I also had to continue to level up when I returned back home. The transition was not what I expected. I felt nervous when I went out and there weren’t bag checks at places like the movie theaters. A couple weeks into the semester, I realized that I actually wasn’t okay and that I needed help. I leveled up by emailing a counselor and asking if I could see her. I spent most of the first session telling her about where I was when everything happened and how I had been coping. Over the course of the next couple of months, at my counselor’s suggestion, I leveled up by working hard to not look at news footage or articles about the attacks because it brought up many hard feelings for me. By the time spring break rolled around, I felt that I was in a good place mentally…
I’ve found that I still have to level up and restrain myself from reading articles and watching news footage on this subject to this day, not only about the Paris attacks, but about terrorist attacks more broadly. However, generally speaking, I feel that I’m in a much better place now than I was five years ago. I hope that sharing this story will help you or someone you may know level up in the face of difficult circumstances.
…I’m naturally an energetic person and am a self-described “Energizer Bunny.” I have a hard time calming down and even sitting down for any period of time. My therapist has been teaching me coping skills in order to maintain some sort of sanity during these insane times. One of the methods of coping that has been helping me tremendously is deep breathing and meditation. I like to practice this method of relaxation in my bedroom, which is mostly free of distraction. I lay in my bed and breathe in and out deeply for 10-15 minutes at a time. It always seems to work, and afterwards, I am calm for about an hour or two.
I will not let my past trauma define me as a person. Instead, I choose to learn from my experiences, and attempt to grow from my mistakes and failures, turning them into something positive. I’m using these experiences and my knowledge to fuel my passion for mental health awareness. I believe this is my purpose in life, and that spreading awareness and helping others who struggle similarly, is key to my healing process. My advice to those who are struggling, is to find what makes you happy and what fuels your desire to grow, and create positive change; not only within yourself, but within the world. For me, finding my purpose has made a positive impact on my life. I now feel there is hope, and I believe we all can find that hope.
After hearing the prompt for this campaign and after an initial surge of motivation I plummeted. Doubt and anxiety took over; which is a common theme these days. I always thought of myself as an optimist but looking forward and trying to see the good in everything, to seize the day, to be motivated to take the next steps, or to self-optimize, is getting harder and harder. Leveling up has never felt so daunting. What I need is a reboot.
Even before this pandemic changed everything; I was exhausted. Instead of leveling up I was struggling to keep up. That quarterly goal at work, workout challenge, writing project, even making plans, and things that were once fun or relaxing, or that gave me a sense of purpose, were stressful and at times frustrating. Then everything came to a stop and accelerated all at once.
For many of us this year has been a dramatic game changer and we’re struggling to adjust to a “new normal”. We’re incredibly adaptable, and we are trained to always look ahead, to the next step, to the next challenge, or problem to be solved. We rarely find the time to reflect, to break down and be vulnerable, or to really think and feel. To take a break. Now we have been forced to do just that, but we aren’t. Not really. We took the time we were given in abundance and got bored scrolling through our social media feeds for the gazillionth time, started baking, played video games, got in and back out of shape, read books, or learned how to play an instrument. We have tried to be productive despite everything but we’re still stuck. Stuck in a world that is divided and where people are hesitant to trust each other or themselves. We live by rules and expectations that have developed over generations and they won’t change just because it’s a new day or a new year. What we think is a ladder turns out to be a hamster wheel and it’s time we stepped out to catch a breath and look around.
This is not giving up or game over. The game has changed forever, that much we know for sure. So how can we level up if we don’t know what the next level is? Maybe reaching the next level is not my goal but maybe I want to explore the level I’m at a bit more – complete a side quest or two. Maybe I’ll discover something new and it’ll lead me on a different path. I can choose to defy the expectation to level up. Maybe I’ll help others level up instead.
We have a unique chance to reevaluate and do what is truest to ourselves. We can go back and start again. Choose a new game with new rules and new levels. What’s most important; we don’t have to play alone. The Create Change community is an amazing multiplayer team. We’re players on different levels, all with our unique set of talents and resources, and we can help each other on our individual and collective journey.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Create Change or its affiliates.