Ampai Thammachack is the founder of Step Above Stigma, a Canadian charity with the purpose to destigmatize mental health and increase access to mental health resources. She is also an honouree for the L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth 2022. This is her story in her words.
For much of my life, I felt I needed to hide who I was. Ashamed for feeling ashamed, I kept my experiences with anxiety, self-harm and low-self-worth behind closed doors. I thought if people knew how I really felt sometimes, I would look weak, which was, especially as a woman of colour, something I didn’t want to be seen as. However, when standing arm in arm, embraced by seven of my best friends, after receiving so much love and support from my family, communities and L’Oréal Paris, it hit me that my mental health had been changing for the better, for a long time. In this moment I realized I am loved through and through exactly as I am. I felt destigmatized, worthy and content.
Taking my first Step Above Stigma
Growing up in Bedford, N.S, as the only racial minority I knew of, made me feel so unworthy. My parents and loved ones tried their best to help me see my inherent worth. But I thought the only way for me to become a success was to turn into a white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.
When I was 12, my family lost almost everything we had. After working through a number of additional trials and tribulations through high school, I felt like I was crumbling. I became obsessed with suicide and began to self-harm. It made me feel like I was treating myself the way I deserved to be treated. Eventually, it became clear to my family and my guidance counsellor that I did not want to live anymore. They connected me to a social worker who got me the help I needed. Once my mental health improved, I powered through school and earned a full scholarship to Queen’s University.
Once I went to Queen’s, things were looking up, but a few experiences almost brought me back to the mental state I was in before university. I walked into a restaurant and a woman screamed “ni**er” at me. She said I had a chip on my shoulder coming in there.
That hurt, but what hurt more was that no one stood up for me. Months later, at an afterparty I said No to a guy I thought was my friend. The next morning, I asked him if he was sorry. He said I needed to “grow up and get over it.” I felt gut-punched, but again, what got me through was my community and the mental health resources I accessed: things everyone deserves, but not everyone has.
This made me realize I needed to do more to help others understand their worth and systemically increase access to mental health resources. So in 2017, I founded Step Above Stigma (SAS), a charity that works to de-stigmatize and redefine what it means to have mental health and build community.
Destigmatizing self-stigmas is no easy task
It is crucial to forgive yourself if you are not able to do any of these things perfectly or fast. Sometimes self-forgiveness is the hardest kind. Know that your experiences are valid, take your time, but when you are ready, there is no reason you have to make yourself small. You are a force to be reckoned with.I think women can take control of the stigmas they feel defined by in many ways, but here are two of my favorites:
The way you speak to yourself matters
Take a step back to recognize the way words you say to yourself in your head, minute to minute. Is what you are saying to yourself kind? Is it harmful? Would you ever speak to someone else that way? We talk to ourselves negatively for many reasons – which is different for everyone – I have been mean to myself more times than I can count. I have found that when I am aware of the way I speak to myself and try to be more kind, I subconsciously begin to make choices that honor my self-worth.
Being aware of the moments that stop you from taking action or standing or advocating for yourself
When you can take a pause, try to dissect these moments to identify what held you back. Was it uncertainty because your gut was telling you one thing, and someone in a position of power was telling another? Were you worried you were going to be shamed or shut down? Once you pin-point this, try your best to slow these moments down in your mind, rehearse them in your head and visualize how you might react next time. Eventually you will nail this in real time, and it will feel so good.
Find inspiration in my story – and from your own story
Looking back, I want to hug the little girl that struggled so much, but I also want to thank everyone who was there to support her. I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a challenge, but I work to have healthy thoughts every day. Self-compassion is really one of the hardest things. And self-reflection can be even harder, especially when it requires reckoning with things you wish never happened.
However, I think what is perhaps most important is working towards caring for yourself not in spite of, but because of the lessons you have learned. What I hope for the women I love, and the women reading this, is they recognize they are worth making decisions that are good for them, that they have so much power within them that they have yet to explore, and they are extraordinary because of the things they might be most ashamed of. They are worth it.