6 Women On Finding Their Power In Hard Times

When dealing with a difficult life event, it’s easy to feel at risk of losing yourself. But a quick review of your diary can provide a great amount of insight. Whether you’re finding confidence in previously weathered storms, or taking a moment to appreciate your own creativity, one thing’s for sure: Reading through your old diary entries is a great way to see how strong and brilliant women can be when they’re tested.

This is the rationale behind HBO’s latest project, the Inspiration Room. Currently on display in New York City, the Inspiration Room is a public exhibition of the diaries of women from a variety of different backgrounds, generations, ages, and experiences. It’s a place where women can become inspired by each other, and the world can observe the complexity and raw authenticity of the female narrative.

Sound like your thing? You can visit the Inspiration Room in person this week in New York at 399 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, now through Sunday, March 24th. Curl up with a complimentary hot tea, and read through the hundreds of real women’s stories that are moving, funny, raw, bizarre, and uplifting — sometimes all at once.

For those of you who can’t be there in person, HBO has exclusively shared a few of these stories with Bustle to spark some inspiration of your own. (You can also check out a selection of entries performed by some of your favorite HBO actresses!)

Here are five diary entries from women taking back their power, and reminding themselves of who they truly are.

1. A Woman Releases Her Hair After Chemo & Finds Invincibility

My oncologist called me the other day to check in as we begin the countdown to my next chemotherapy.

‘I’m doing well,’ I said, ‘except that my hair is rapidly falling out. I mean, like, rapidly.’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘About two weeks after the first treatment, the hair starts releasing.’

‘Releasing’ is the medical term for the way the sad little strands fall out when their little follicle homes are obliterated by the chemo drugs. It seems, to me, to be the most accurate term possible for the process. In many ways, this whole cancer experience has been about releasing. Releasing control. Releasing expectations. Releasing vanity. Releasing fear.

And now: I am bald.

Well, more accurately, I am buzzed — shaved down with a three-guard like a fresh-faced army recruit.

I’d heard enough horror stories about cancer patients weeping quietly as, resigned to their fates, they shaved their own heads in a dark bathroom. That wasn’t going to be me. I wanted a party. So I called up my brother, who has sported varying buzz cuts over the years, and asked if he’d do it. ‘I’d be honored,’ he said.

We invited some friends and set out a chair in his living room. I felt strange, but also strangely excited. We poured wine, put on a great party playlist and my friend P. had the honor of sending my tresses to hair heaven. The whole deal took 10 silly, adrenaline-pumping minutes.

Honestly, it’s a relief to have it over with. This is probably the most universally dreaded side effect of them all, and here I am, living through it. Kinda makes me feel invincible.

– M.L. California

2. One Nigerian Woman Tries To Shield Youthful Wonder From The World’s Cynicism

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and I was a six-year-old immigrant yearning to experience the magic of Christmas. I left out a carefully arranged platter of cookies, and I knew that jolly old Saint Nick would soon send them down the hatch into that proverbial bowl full of jelly. The most exciting Christmas traditions were literally foreign to my deeply Christian Nigerian immigrant parents, and therefore wondrous to me.

The next morning, I tiptoed out of my room, expecting to find an empty plate, evidence of Santa’s late-night feast. The plate was gone. Where the f*ck was the plate? I looked all over, finally giving up long enough to retrieve a drink from the refrigerator. Where I found the plate. With the cookies on it. Covered in store-brand cling wrap. Did I mention I’d left out a glass of milk? The glass was in the fridge too. Full of milk. Covered in plastic wrap. So many immigrant stories are stories of hope. That Christmas, I was like a little balloon, full of the special kind of hope that is unique to the holidays. Finding the cookies was the little dart of reality piercing that balloon. There’s nothing malicious about it, but those little darts are also part of the immigrant experience. The collision of magic with pragmatism.

I have a child of my own now, and he loves Christmas. He’s a true believer. I know someday the cynicism will creep in. And I know someday we’ll need to have some tough conversations about what this world can be like for a black boy. The darts are coming. I will shield him just a while longer. I will let him have his magic. And when he puts out cookies, Santa’s leaving nothing but crumbs.

– I.F., Arizona

3. One Trans Woman Dreams Of Princesses, Becomes A Queen

I’m a 23-year-old transgender woman. I’ve never actually said that out loud to anyone. Within the playground I called college, people were always suspicious, convinced, etc., but no one had ever heard it directly from me. The first time I ‘came out’ to anyone after my transition was during my study abroad experience. I came out to my closest friend via my research paper on the comparison of the transgender experience in the U.S. vs. the Netherlands. We had to peer-edit someone’s paper, and because I hadn’t told anyone about my past, I asked my professor to assign her as my editor. Two years later she is still one of my best, most treasured, friends. When I do tell people, it happens naturally. It’s rare, but it happens. I’ve never felt like I needed or had to tell someone; it’s more so that I want to share my whole self with that person.

Although I ‘come out’ more often now, I still have difficulty connecting with the trans world because I forget that I am transgender. My mom, my therapist, and even my friends often forget that I am transgender. I’ve felt like a girl for my entire life. I’ve never doubted it once (unless you count the .5 seconds I asked myself if I was gay in the 6th grade and then was like, ‘No, I know that’s not me…’). When I was growing up, I had no idea that transgender was a thing, or even a possibility. I felt alone in the fact that I didn’t know what my feelings about myself meant, but I knew I wasn’t gay. Here I was praying every night for something that would never happen, and thinking I’d live the rest of my life wanting to be a girl.

I truly felt like and wanted to be a biological girl since before I could remember. I asked my mom for a Cinderella dress when I was two years old and the rest is history. Throughout my childhood, dolls, makeup, manicures, heels, and my favorite red floral dress were my regular after-school routine. So, when it was time for me to transition, it happened naturally and wasn’t a shock to anyone who really knew me. I have always been effortlessly effeminate; it’s what comes naturally to me. Since the day I graduated high school I have been treated like a ‘normal’ girl.

During my transition I quickly realized that I could be anyone I wanted. By the end of my junior year of high school (only seven months after starting my transition) I became the world’s first transgender Prom Queen (May 2010, if your heart desires an investigation). After I won, a literal dream come true: I realized that if I wanted something badly enough, I would find a way to make it happen no matter what. When I went off to college I thought, ‘I could become Queen of College.’

– Corey Rae

4. One Feline Mom Sheds Her Self-Imposed "Cat Lady" Shame

When I was single, and convinced I would perhaps die alone, I had a very hard time dating. See, I had three cats. I loved these cats. But it was an enormous amount of cats for my small one bedroom apartment, and while trying to find a life partner, this fact sometimes got in the way. I went through various charades in an attempt to shield men from the reality of my cat ownership… especially when it was someone I really liked.

His name was J, and I feared the cat reveal would derail our budding relationship. Will he respond favorably to two cats asleep by his head and one by his feet, as was their favorite sleeping position? Would he mind a cat or two, potentially watching him do the nasty, should the nasty happen?

So I did what any normal adult woman with an excess of cats would do. I got them a motel room.

I paid the $64 and began the process of secretly sneaking them in, one by one, in my laundry basket. When all cats were securely in the room, I decided to turn on the TV so they’d have a little ambient noise. I didn’t want my cats to be bored in their new environment, obviously. And on the TV, as soon as you turned it on, was hardcore porn. Right when you turned it on! What kind of a place was this!? I felt guilty, but they’d take one for the team.

I wish I could say the date was worth the hassle, but as it turned out, sometime between the app and the entree, I realized J sucked. I sent him on his merry way and never saw him again.

– B.S., New York

5. One Woman Finds Her "Too Much-ness" Providing For Those Around Her

After a few months, my boss called me into her office for my first performance review. She told me how pleased she was about my hard work, my diligence, my attention to detail.

‘But there’s just one thing,’ she said. ‘I’d like you to pay more attention to your personal appearance.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, thinking my suit and pumps were a good enough disguise for the corporate world.

She took a breath and said, ‘It’s your hair.’

My hair — sigh. I tried to bind it in a tidy bun, but no matter what I did — pins, hair spray, gels — my wild red hair was not so tamable. Wisps fell into my face and down my back, highly visible against my blue suit (maybe I should have invested in a different color?) It had been so short when I was young that I had been called everything from Twiggy to a bald eagle. The nannies who looked after me since I was four, after my mother died, forbade me to grow my hair. So as a teenager, I rebelled and refused to cut my hair anymore, and had not since then. Its unruliness was a sign of my rebellion. It not only looked like flames, out of control, but it had actually caught on fire when I was lighting a cigarette (another act of defiance) in my principal’s office, when he was threatening to expel me for other things. My Pintupi mothers in Australia had complained that my hair was ‘too much’ when they tried to help me wash it under a hand pump. or even more challenging, tried get all the lice out of it. Through all of this I had never cut my hair. My boss proceeded to tell me how important appearance was in this office environment. I guess my navy suit wasn’t enough of a disguise; my out-of control hair gave me away. I could not pass. And I knew I was on the verge of being fired.

[…]

Twenty years later I was in a different marriage and a new career, the mother of two teenagers, but still with the same long, wild hair. On this day I was sitting in my driveway in Yonkers having my head shaved by a friend because I knew it was all about to fall out after my second round of chemotherapy. Neighbors stopped by to watch, birds flew past picking up strands of my hair that were being carried by the wind. My mother-in-law told me the birds would use them to build new nests. It made me think about how the Pintupi mothers I lived with would weave strong, coarse string out of their sons’ hair to bind the sacred objects that would later be used for their initiations, and then they would hide these sacred objects in their hair. The women had even collected hair from my hairbrush to add to the balls of hair string they were spinning. Even now my hair was being repurposed. This made me feel better about losing it.

[…]

Eventually my hair grew back. But when it did, it wasn’t the same hair — it sprouted from my head in tight curls, lighter in color, coarser in texture. Other people just thought I had a new hairstyle. But It didn’t look like me to me. And then, once again, after a while, I got used to this too.

So it turns out I lost a job because of my hair, then lost my hair but found myself. I learned that my hair was not me and I was not my hair, that it was okay to let my hair down when I had it, or let my head show when I didn’t. That whatever was on top of my head was not the same as what was inside my head. That I always needed to lean a bit to the wild side, whatever work I did — because as I once read on a birthday card: “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”

– B.C., Quebec

6. Lastly, One Woman Comes To Terms With Her Body "Betraying" Her

– A.D., Florida; this story was made into a short film and performed by HBO actress Susie Essman. Don’t forget to check out the other films HBO created from real diary entries here.

[Editor’s note: Some of these stories have been condensed for clarity and brevity.]

This article is sponsored by HBO. To learn more about visiting the Inspiration Room, click here to RSVP!

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