Up With People

A couple years after high-school, I uncovered the benefits of traveling through youth exchange programs.  I came across an organization that would allow me to travel to dozens of countries over the course of a year.  This was like hitting the jackpot!

The challenge was, the group would be performing a musical in each of the local communities, and I had never sung, danced, nor acted at all in my life (literally, I was an isolated geek techie).  I called to ask if my lack of experience would be OK, and they said “Yes!”

I worked and saved $20,000 for the big adventure (pretty cheap considering it includes all travel, accommodations and food for a year).  I began on the trip, and it was so awesome!  I got to meet people my own age from all cultures around the world.  I got great dance training from experts.  Most of all, I was the happiest I had ever been in my life.

For the first time in my life, I even met a woman who was interested in going out on a date with me!  The first date of my life was with a Swedish woman named Miriam, in Denver, Colorado.

A month into the rehearsals, and I noticed that I was getting a little depressed because I wasn’t making many friends, and nobody would sit beside me during meals.  I felt like I needed to talk to a psychiatrist and get some antidepressants.

This didn’t make sense to me.  Antidepressants never really worked for me in the past.  But I felt honesty was the best policy, and so I told management about what was happening to me.

The organization found me a psychiatrist (which I paid for), and I spilled my guts.  I said I was so depressed that I would take my life if I could.  I also said, there wasn’t an easy way (implying, in my mind, that I wasn’t going to do anything).

I got out of my shell, and spoke to all my peers.  I asked them for their help in connecting with me.  It took a lot of courage, and everybody felt genuinely concerned and willing to support me.  I thought everything was going to get better again.

Our opening night came, and it was so cool.  I had never put on stage make-up before.  The show went well, and I was happy.

Right after the show, two people from management came and escorted me to a room in private.  There they began to tell me that I was going to be removed from the program.  I cried, saying “Up With People is the reason I am living.  I’ve never had such a great time in my life!”

It didn’t matter.  Instead of allowing me to go home with my host family, they proceeded to escort me to a hotel for the night!  Now, I was more depressed than ever before.  I remember in the hotel room going in the washroom, and realizing my make-up was still on.  I took many minutes to remove it and went back to the two men.  They told me they were concerned that I was “trying something” in the bathroom.

It was a tough night.  I was escorted back to my host family (which I loved), only to take my belongings and say an abrupt goodbye.

The two men took me to breakfast where they proceeded to smoked cigarettes.  I explained to them that although my thoughts were negative, I wasn’t suicidal, and that they were killing themselves more so by smoking those disgusting cigarettes.  They agreed, and then proceeded to drive me to the airport.

They felt it was necessary to even escort me on the plain back to Toronto and hand me off to my sister and mother who were instructed to wait for me at the airport.

I thought I was doing the right thing by speaking to a psychiatrist.  I realized later that the psychiatrist was not interested in helping me, but more protecting himself from liability.  That one decision caused me to miss out on 11 months of traveling around the world living the life of my dreams.

Of course, Up With People told me I could apply again.  But the year following the organization was significantly altered due to financial challenges.  Now, I’m too old.

On the positive side, when I had come back home, I found a new love for the arts.  I started taking singing lessons, dancing lessons, piano lessons, etc.  Through that experience I co-produced a Broadway-style musical that would run for three years in Toronto.

However, I still wish I got that year of traveling around the world with youths my own age, learning about cultures, giving charitably in all the communities, and performing in a musical.

I regret talking to that psychiatrist and being authentic with Up With People management.  How would my life be different now?