Auburn University's Miss Homecoming 2015 shares recovery experience, passion for advocacy

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Taylor Wesley, Auburn University's Miss Homecoming for 2015, is preparing to crown her successor on Saturday, Oct. 1. As a result of her personal experiences and concern for others, Wesley dedicated her title platform this past year to speaking out about substance abuse and mental health issues. Hers was a unique journey that is also distinctly Auburn.

"I grew up in Atlanta with a loving family," she said. "My freshman year of high school I was in a car accident with my grandmother, and it was the first time I had been in a life-threatening situation. Soon after the accident, my parents noticed a change in my behavior."

Growing up, Wesley had always had underlying anxiety. But the accident triggered within her a deeper trauma, and she had a panic attack after a routine car ride. She ended up with a general anxiety disorder diagnosis.

"I wouldn't take my meds regularly, largely because I thought that meant I had something wrong with me," she said. "When I got into Auburn, I was suddenly free of all the rules that had ordered my life in the past. Basically, I didn't know how bad my anxiety was, and I didn't know how to handle it."

Wesley discovered that alcohol removed her anxiety, but only temporarily. Consequences soon followed, and her overall mental health declined rapidly.

"Alcohol soon became my immediate solution, or so I thought at the time," she said. "I began taking every opportunity to drink, but when I did, I couldn't stop it because I loved the feeling."

As her grades and relationships went into deep decline, Wesley took a medical withdrawal, blaming it on everything but her alcohol abuse.

"May 17, 2014, was both the best day and the worst day of my life," she said. "It was the day that I realized alcohol could potentially take my life if I kept drinking, so it was the last time I drank."

Wesley entered a treatment center in Texas and immediately faced conflict and fear.

"I entered treatment with a very judgmental attitude, believing that I wasn't meant to be there, but I soon realized that this prideful reaction was not going to help me or the other clients," Wesley said. "Acceptance was the only answer. Instead of counting down the days, I began to really listen and began relating to the other people there. We were all in this thing together and were experiencing a similar disease. To me, the only way to get better was to help each other and develop a strong network of peer support."

As Wesley realized she couldn't get better on her own, she also realized that she did not need alcohol to be happy. Although she was stuck in the middle of west Texas, she was feeling happier than ever. She enrolled for a semester at Texas Tech, which has the country's largest collegiate recovery community.

"It was so great," she said. "I plugged into that community and learned how to do college again, but this time without drinking. In a public speaking class one day, I was open about my sobriety for the first time. From becoming vulnerable to just 20 random students, I had people approach me and tell me that they could relate to what I had to say."

Back to the Plains

After this experience, Wesley began advocating for recovery and mental health, and she eventually felt called to go back to Auburn.

"I was very fearful going back into that environment," she recalled. "My second week back, Auburn happened to be hosting Mental Health Week, and that's when I realized that my experience could help the movement. I became a member of Active Minds and part of the Auburn Recovery Community. I took a leap of faith and became the director of health and wellness for the Student Government Association, and a member of Auburn's mental health task force. My passion for mental health advocacy continued to grow and multiply. Others saw it, and that's when SGA nominated me for Miss Homecoming."

After having success in her interviews, Wesley was selected into the top five candidates and was thus tasked with creating a platform on which to run.

"My platform was 'Spread Wellness with Wesley' because if you take the 'I' out of mental illness and replace it with 'We,' it becomes mental wellness. I suddenly had a much larger stage on which to share my experiences and encourage others."

As she promoted fellowship and peer support the week of the campaign, she was able to raise $2,000 in three days for Student Counseling Services. She was scared at first because of how vulnerable she was becoming publically, but the conversation spread and students began opening up and supporting each other.

"My family had been through so much with me," Wesley said. "At the homecoming game ceremony I gave my dad my first-ever sobriety chip and as he carried it across the field the symbolism of all that just washed over me. When I heard my name it was like a dream. I felt that everyone in the stands loved me in spite of my diagnosis. I felt very deeply not that I had won, but that my platform had won."

Wesley's involvement has continued to grow, and she served this year as co-director of Mental Health Week at Auburn. She also spoke at a recent statewide mental health recovery conference, and was asked to join the board of Alabama National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

"Life is more fun now than ever, just being who I really am," Wesley said. "A lot of my friends are in the College of Education and plan to become teachers when they graduate so I think knowing me and my story will help them have that extra level of understanding when they encounter mental health and substance abuse issues in their careers, which they definitely will. After all, one in four students struggle with mental health at some point in their lives, which means that either you or someone you know and care about is affected by it. The more this is talked about, the less stigma there will be."

And after her graduation this year?

"Well, what I really want to do is work at a treatment center. I saw how I was losing my life and got it back, better than ever. Helping others do the same thing would be a very humbling and fulfilling career."

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