Pohot of a person rowing on a lake

Photography Courtesy of Unsinkable

Connecting Canadians through survival stories

Olympian Silken Laumann spreads hope to people experiencing despair on her new story-sharing platform, Unsinkable

It’s not every day a former Olympic athlete tweets you to ask a big favour. But when three-time Olympic medallist Silken Laumann from Vancouver asked 23-year-old Maria Estrada from Burlington, Ont., if she’d share her story of overcoming depression, addiction and suicidal behaviour, to inspire others, Estrada tweeted right back a resounding “Yes!”

“If I can help even one person feel less alone, that’s all I want,” says Estrada. Her story is now one of many united by themes of courage, resilience, transformation, recovery and hope on Unsinkable, a story-sharing platform Laumann launched in April 2019 to build a supportive online community for Canadians who find themselves struggling.

The idea, Laumann says, stemmed from telling her own story in her book, Unsinkable: A Memoir, in 2014. There is the very public story of the devastating rowing accident that shattered her right leg just 10 weeks before the 1992 Olympics (in which she competed and won bronze, despite being told she might never row again), and there are also the very private stories of her troubled childhood; her battle with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder; and the challenges she’s faced caring for a daughter with severe autism and bipolar disorder.

Photo of a woman standing in front of a lake smiling

After she opened up about her personal struggles, people from across the country connected with her to share their own struggles. Laumann was overwhelmed. “I just kept wishing that more people could hear the stories I was hearing,” she says. And with that thought, the seed of the idea that became Unsinkable was planted.

You are not alone

Laumann says the biggest surprise for her has been how many people were willing to share their stories publicly, even before the site officially existed. Now, Unsinkable has given a voice to high-profile Canadians like Margaret Trudeau as well as ordinary Canadians telling their stories publicly for the first time. The common denominator for all the stories is that they give hope. “They’re often about courage or perseverance or toughness,” says Laumann. “These stories are inspiring and have value—and there’s a tremendous amount of trust and mutual respect that goes into sharing them.”

For Estrada, sharing her own story was about paying it forward and supporting other people the way she was supported when she’d all but given up. At a time in her life when she needed help, she says there was no platform for stories about having courage and finding hope. “If there had been, it would have changed my life, my recovery and how I saw myself,” she says. “I needed a site that would make me think, ‘I’m going to be OK, and it’s OK to feel this way—I’m not alone.’ ”

Instead, she found sites that led her down the paths of self-harm and attempted suicide. “There are so many sites focusing on the negative side of things,” she says. “The Internet can be a dark place.”

Photo of a woman sitting wearing a slogan t-shirt

Estrada came to Canada from Peru in 2004 and, at seven years old, was forced to grow up fast. She was bullied at school for being different and not speaking English, and had no support at home from her family. “It broke my sense of self-worth and, by the time I was 12, I was done. I had so much shame, guilt and hatred toward myself that I played with fire for a long time because I just didn’t care if I died.”

Estrada survived five suicide attempts and was addicted to drugs before she finally Googled “help for depression” and the Reach Out Centre for Kids (ROCK), a United Way-funded agency, popped up. “They helped me pick up the pieces,” Estrada says. “I needed people to believe in me so that I could believe in myself. If I didn’t have those people, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Estrada found the strength she needed, and ultimately went on to post-secondary studies in Child and Youth Counselling. Today she works with victims of sexual assault and human trafficking. She still goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings regularly.

Now, she hopes that when Canadians turn to the Internet for help, they’ll find Unsinkable. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you’ve done in the past, or how much or how little you have, reading someone else’s story can help you feel less alone,” she says. “You think, ‘If they did it, I can do it, too.’ It can give people the spark they need and the push to keep going to know that it’s OK not to be OK all of the time—I just wish I’d known that.’”

Photo of a woman with her arms outstretched in front of water

The power of storytelling

Laumann says the feeling is mutual. When she struggled with depression, she didn’t realize that’s what it was—she just thought she was strange and unable to cope. And she, too, has found inspiration by reading and rereading the stories that make their way onto Unsinkable. “When I read these stories, I feel encouraged and I often find myself thinking about something differently than I did before,” says Laumann. “It puts my own issues into perspective.”

Some of the stories that have resonated most for her include one about a girl born HIV-positive, who talks about being abandoned—repeatedly—as a child. She shares how she persevered and started giving back by speaking out when she was 10. And she writes, “Use your voice to connect to the people around you. Your voice, your story—they matter. Show people the real you and be gracious enough to accept them as they are, too. Everybody has issues, and everybody is dealing with hidden pain. We’ve all got pieces of our identities we wish we could change, but that’s a part of who we are. And it’s OK.”

There’s also the story of a young woman who was set on fire and, after three weeks in a coma, faced the prospect of losing an arm and most of her face. She celebrated being able to lift her arms over her head by writing, “Any win is a win. Big or small, it’s still a step towards recovery.”

And then there’s the story of a juror who reached out for support for PTSD after a gruelling trial and, upon finding there was none, set out to change the system himself.

“Our stories and life experiences connect us,” says Laumann. “I hope reading these stories helps people develop more compassion and a greater understanding of what other people’s challenges are. Ultimately, the purpose of the site is to encourage support and empower Canadians—and to celebrate how strong people are.”

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