I’m broken. My dearest friend and the kindest, most loving person I know, AJ, is gone. This doesn’t feel real. I don’t have the right words, but I do know I need to write them, and I need to share them with you.
He is the kindest, most compassionate, most self-less, generously open-hearted person I’ve ever met. He could walk into any room and make anyone feel comfortable, loved, and appreciated in his presence, without even trying.
We met when I was going through a difficult time, and he brought so much light, hope, and life into those dark days. He continuously inspired me with his dreams, passion, vision, and goals, to become an actor, get into comedy, start a photography company with his best friend…
He had so many ideas and continuously radiated positivity and encouragement around everyone he met. It was contagious…. I always admired and looked up to how big his heart was and hoped one day I could be more like him.
I’ve never had the privilege of meeting someone with so many special, beautiful qualities. He had wicked sense of humor and a multi-passionate, artistic vision with limitless potential. He was a committed friend, brother, and son with a rare and genuine humility, a soft, steadfast strength, and a deep gratitude for appreciating the little things in life and the people he loved.
I can’t believe I’m writing these words down. They don’t feel real. I had a sense to reach out to him to catch up and see how he was doing, to check on him to meet up since I was in the neighborhood, and the last thing he texted me was “maybe another time.” Later that day he was gone. He is gone. My brain still can’t comprehend this. He was only 25.
I had no idea of the severity of the inner darkness he was battling, but I know this: I vow from here on out to be committed to being courageous enough to share about my mental health journey more openly. In honor of AJ, in honor of every single person who has lost a loved one to mental illness. In honor of every single person who struggles with their mental health and feels alone.
The gift that AJ gave so many of us is one that will last a lifetime. He positively impacted so many people in different ways. Even though he is no longer physically here with us, his dreams for a kinder, more loving world will live in each of us, and we will all be forever shaped by his generous love.
His pure heart and fierce appreciation for his family and friends is the fire that fuels me to make sure this does not have to happen again to anyone who is suffering.
I wish I could’ve done more. I wish I had known how bad it was. I wish I had called back after he had sent that text to me. I had no idea it would be the last time I would ever hear from him again.
Everything right now feels so incredibly superficial in comparison to the gravity and inevitability of death and loss. But suicide is not inevitable. It’s something we can work to prevent through de-stigmatizing mental illness, being more open with one another about our emotions and what we are going though.
I’ll start: My name is Aurora. I have bipolar, depression and anxiety disorders. I feel like a fraud 99.9% of the time because I teach stuff I struggle with. I’ve been wanting to tell you all how I’ve been really feeling but social media these days just scares me with how mean people can be so I’ve been hiding. No more. I can’t do that. Everything I do from here on out in regards to mental health advocacy is dedicated to AJ. It has to be. There’s no other way.
If you are reading this: You are not alone. You are not a burden. I know what it feels like to be in so much torturous physical pain from the weight of not wanting to exist in the world and I want you to know you’re not alone if you’ve ever felt this way, or are feeling this way.
This week I will be working on getting the Among the Greatest mental health awareness sweatshirts from I&I Outfitters back up on my website. If you’re not aware of this previous project I started back in 2016, it’s a mental health clothing line that aims to de-stigmatize mental illness through community and conversation.
The Among the Greatest Sweatshirt features a list of 20 people throughout history that have mental illness, but accomplished amazing things and made a massive impact in spite of their struggles. When you wear it, it’s a physical, comforting reminder to yourself and a conversation starter to the world that if you struggle with your mental health, you are not alone. You are one of many, Among the Greatest.
These are the sweatshirts AJ and I are wearing in some of these photos. He was so supportive and encouraging of me to create this. AJ is Among the Greatest.
How you can help:
1. Check in on your friends and loved ones. Let them know you are there for them. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to AJ the day before he died and texted him the day of his passing. I encouraged him, let him know I was there to support in any way I could… I can’t believe I had the opportunity to tell him one last time how much I believed in him. I wish there was more I could’ve done but when someone is struggling with their mental health, we never truly know what they are going through.
2. Please reach out to me if you are looking for support, guidance, resources, or a listening ear. It’s my privilege and honor to support anyone who is looking for encouragement, in any form, and I am always here for you, even if we’ve never met in person, you can always reach out.
This week I will be taking time to process, focus on supporting Janell and her daughters in any way I can, and getting this mental health clothing line back up and running in honor of AJ.
This is not over. This is just the beginning. I’m sorry it took the death of one of my best friends for me to see how long I had been hiding from all of you in fear that I wasn’t good enough or healthy enough to speak up about my own mental health issues, but no more. This is for AJ.
Until we meet again my friend, you will always be in my heart and the driving force behind my courage to stand up for those that are suffering. Our friendship brought me a sense of peace and joy I never knew was possible, a glimpse of happiness that felt so surreal, so magical that it felt too good to be true.
I hope you know how deeply you’ve changed my life, how much I love and admire you, how much you are loved and admired and will be missed by so many. I will fight for those of us that are struggling. I won’t let you down. This is my promise.
Until we meet again,
I filmed this several hours after I found out AJ took his life. I’m sharing this with you because his death is a sharp reminder that there is no room for hiding behind platitudes and pretty pictures.
This is real, raw, indescribable grief. Social media inundates us with only one version of reality that can feel artificially happy and carefree. One of the reasons we can feel so alone and isolated in our grief is that we don’t have very much to look to in our culture that tells us it’s okay to have big feelings and deep pain.
We are expected to put a smile on and deal with our feelings behind closed doors. And we are told it is ours alone to deal with. This very culture leads to so many people thinking they need to fight these raging battles in their minds alone. It makes us feel like there is something wrong with us for feeling so deeply.
It led someone like AJ to feel so alone in his pain that he felt that the only way to escape it was to leave this world. It will take many of us deciding over and over again to speak up and share our feelings more accurately and publicly before this culture will shift.
One day we will live in a world where acknowledging the gravity and depths our our humanity will be honored, explored, and encouraged instead of tucked away behind closed doors and whispered about in therapist’s rooms. Until that day is here, I will keep showing up, one day at a time, telling you how I actually feel, and how much it hurts. Even if only one of you sees this and is reminded that your pain is valid, this is all that matters. In honor of AJ 💛
P.S. In my brain fog I used the phrase “committed suicide.” One of the things we can do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness is focus on the words we use. Saying something like “took his life” or “died by suicide” are two ways in which we can be intentional about our words. I am still learning, and I will continue to learn and do better.
My Note to AJ | February 8th, 2021
I will forever be looking up to you. The example you set and the way you loved others so effortlessly always left me feeling like you had something figured out that the rest of us didn’t. I don’t want to believe that you’re gone, but I don’t think I have to because you’re right here in my heart and mind, in the hearts and minds of countless people who love and adore you. I’m so lucky I got the chance to know you and be known by you. It’s a gift I will never grow old of remembering. I love you friend.
Please don’t mistake my pain as a cry for help. It’s not. This is grief. This is my heart breaking open. This is not a bad thing. We need to see more of people expressing themselves within the spectrum of human emotion.
This is healthy. Keeping feelings locked away until they tear us apart from the inside out is unhealthy. This is what can lead people to suicide. There is nothing to be embarrassed about when you feel something deeply.
There is nothing I fear now. I have never been more clear in my life as to what my purpose is, and that is to use this experience of losing AJ as an invitation to move forward and honor his life by loving others more deeply.
It would be a disservice to him and to others to keep my back turned away from the world and only look toward him. To honor his memory, I need to turn around and face you, knowing he is right beside me every step of the way.
If you had the privilege of meeting him, you would know that he had the biggest heart for everyone he met, no matter how brief the encounter.
He will live on in so many of us through the love that we share with our families, friends, and strangers. He lit a fire in each of us in different ways and we will all walk forward and carry that torch, lighting fires within the hearts of countless people we meet for the rest of our lives. His legacy lives on through us. He is still alive.
For me, remembering and honoring AJ looks like being transparent and honest with my mental health journey. It looks like creating safe spaces for us to come together to feel supported in our struggle, and advocating for mental health awareness and the stigma surrounding mental illness.
So much of what we perceive to be as “illness” or “unwell” can oftentimes look exactly like this: sadness, pain, anger, frustration, empathy... tell me what is “unwell” about being courageous enough to sit the the depths of your pain and acknowledge the gravity and weight of being human?
It’s time we start realizing that the only way we can move forward is to completely shift this culture upside down, from the inside out, one decision at a time. Who’s with me?
I share these things to normalize the full spectrum of human emotions. One of the last things AJ said was that this world was unhealthy. I know it is. It’s unhealthy to pretend we don’t feel things deeply. It’s unhealthy to pretend we’re okay when we’re not. The irony is, some days, I’m not okay. But by admitting that I’m not, it means that I am. It’s those that hide behind a smile... those are the friends that we can’t forget to check in on. Everyone is going through things. Time to normalize that.
UPDATE ON SWEATSHIRTS #1
Thank you so much for your patience as I continue to get all your orders ready.
Many of us are used to 2-day Prime shipping on Amazon & quick turnarounds, so I appreciate your understanding in how the process of collecting orders/ getting samples/individually shipping them out takes a while. After I get the website up and running, this process will go much more smoothly and quickly.
Updates for you:
1. I ordered samples this week to make sure all the colors/alignment and sizing are correct. Once those come through, I will be able to place all of our orders (there are 45 of us!)
2. About a quarter of the orders that were placed are from people in the Portland Metro-Area (thank you friends!) To save on shipping costs, and to make this a special experience, Janell and I have talked about this, and she wants to help out with deliveries. Once all the orders arrive, we will pick a day to pack them together with Ali and Kaily, add thank you notes, and drive around town together dropping off each sweatshirt and thanking at least 15 of you individually. I'm very excited to do this, and Janell has said it will be very uplifting and healing for her to connect with and thank so many of you who are supporting her and her daughters through purchasing a sweatshirt.
3. I visited Janell and the girls this past Sunday and brought over Chipotle for lunch. Janell and I talked for a good 6 hours non-stop, catching up and going through some of AJ's journals. It was really helpful for me to talk to her and understand more about the pain he was going through, and how his depression continued to get worse over the years.
4. Like I mentioned in the previous email, so far we have raised $1,454 for Janell & the girls (they don't know this yet, please keep it a secret!) My goal is to continue building upon this as much as possible until it's time to write the check. I actually got custom checks printed with a photo of AJ and I wearing these sweatshirts, so when she sees it, it will have AJ on it, and I thought that would be a nice surprise :)
5. AJ loved to paint and create art, and one of the last times we hung out, he came over to my place and we painted together and listened to music. I haven't used those painting supplies since, and I have a lot of stuff, including canvases, so I gathered everything and put it in one of those pretty floral boxes I showed you in the last video. This will be a special surprise for Ali.
6. The photo album I ordered for Janell finally arrived in the mail and it looks incredible! Over 360 photos that were gathered from everyone who shared them with me, and I know she will just love this. I will make sure to film a video when everyone opens their gifts so you can be a part of the experience too!
I think that's all I can think of for now, but if you have any questions or anything, please don't hesitate to email me back or shoot me a text.
I'll keep sending updates until I get your orders shipped to keep you in the loop!
Just make sure you keep the info. in this video a secret so it can be a surprise for Janell! She knows that I'm working on sweatshirt orders but she has not idea what my other plans are or how much money we've raised together.
UPDATE ON SWEATSHIRTS #2
I've been anxiously awaiting samples and they finally arrived this week!
Everything looks really good, had proper alignment, and the text turned out clearly, so I went ahead and placed all our orders.
The company I order through is usually pretty good with turnarounds, and the estimated delivery date is March 16-19th.
A quarter of the sweatshirts will be hand-delivered by Janell, Ali, Kaily and I once we receive them (I'll coordinate with you), and the rest of the orders will get shipped within the week they are received. Whew! Lots of logistics, but very thankful for your patience.
In the meantime, you can continue supporting by following along on Instagram @iandioutfitters to join a community of advocates for mental health awareness. I will be re-posting and sharing any photos once you get your sweatshirts! (just tag @iandioutfitters or @auroralyrayoga)
I'll keep sending updates until these get shipped to you.
Thank you all :)
UPDATE ON SWEATSHIRTS #3
Sweatshirts are finally getting shipped!
It's been a long journey, and I can't thank each of you enough for your patience, generosity and support. Together we were able to raise $2,000 for Janell and the girls. In addition to this, we showed up in community and made a commitment to speaking up about the importance of mental health and doing our part to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
I have something else I'd like to share: I didn't mention this publicly because I wasn't sure if it would work out... about a month ago I applied for a grant on behalf of Janell through Glennon Doyle's non-profit, Together Rising, which supports women, families, and children in crisis. Their motto is about transforming our heartache into action.
I explained AJ's death, how we were rallying around the Johnson family for support, but how I knew that long-term, it wouldn't be enough.
It took several weeks of waiting and wondering, crossing my fingers, checking in to see if we could get some assistance. Late last week they called Janell and offered her a no-strings-attached $15,000 grant to cover the costs of AJ's cremation and 6 months of rent. I have no words!
- The Johnson Family (Right to Left: Ali, Kaily, Janell)
The entire process of organizing these sweatshirts, connecting with each of you individually, and bringing back I&I Outfitters for AJ has been the biggest blessing for me.
These past two months have been a roller coaster of emotions, but my personal healing journey began through action, collaboration, connection, and service.
I can't thank you enough for trusting me with your time, your stories, your resources, and your hearts... this is what I would like to devote my mental health advocacy career to: connecting with more people like you.
Now that this first phase of the sweatshirt production is complete, I have been working on quickly getting the website up and running. Once done, you will be able to invite friends and family to join in on the cause.
I will have these special designs of the Among the Greatest Sweatshirt w/ In Loving Memory of AJ on the sleeve available in new colors, and I'm working with Braelyn Ross to create some beautiful new designs for some sweatshirts and tees... I can't wait to share these all with you. Here is one of the new designs!
Here's how you can continue to support:
1. Please take a photo of yourself in your sweatshirt and tag me @auroralyrayoga and @iandioutfitters to continue to raise awareness. It doesn't seem like it means much or makes a difference, but trust me it does.
2. I will let you all know when the website goes live. If you feel comfortable re-sharing on social media, that would be so helpful.
3. Let's stay in touch! If you ever have questions, ideas, or feedback for the direction of the brand / ways you would like to get involved, I am always looking for help.
Thank you all so much for inspiring me to dream bigger and bring this company back to life. For AJ, for you, for your families and friends, thank you so much.
Since my initial post on February 8th, 2020, I shared an open letter for friends and family and total strangers who showed up to support the Johnson family. To you everyone who stepped up:
You are INCREDIBLE. Words don’t do justice to how much you’ve inspired me with your generosity and kindness. I’m so grateful to each of you.
Being able to individually connect with every single one of you over the past 2 months has been a huge part of my healing process and has helped me get through this grief.
Together we were able to raise $2,000 for Janell and the girls, and over 45 of you now have an official Among the Greatest sweatshirt that we can use as conversation starters to raise awareness about mental health and the stigma surrounding mental illness.
I’m sharing this card with you all as proof that small acts of kindness make a BIG difference. Each of you made an incredible impact, just by showing up and reaching out.
Together we can move forward and create the kind of world that makes space for us to be our whole selves, for AJ, for ourselves, for those we love, and those we haven’t met yet. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your lives through this brand that I started 5 years ago. I didn’t know what it would turn into, or that I would even bring it back, but I’m so excited to continue to share this message and connect with more of you.
The Original Story Behind I&I Outfitters
In 2016, I started a brand to raise awareness about mental health. I called it "I&I Outfitters," with the tagline, "In the darkness I am, in the light I am."
At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into. I knew I wanted to create something tangible that people could feel proud of and excited to share with their family and friends, something that made the conversation surrounding mental illness much more approachable and less intimidating, less embarrassing.
I started a community on social media, openly sharing my experiences with anxiety and depression. In the process of this, I began to realize the very thing I had been hiding from others, out of fear that I'd be judged or ridiculed, was the very thing that connected me to those around me. And the more I shared, the more I realized I wasn't alone, that a lot of people felt like there wasn’t a safe, non-judgmental place to have these conversations. I wanted to create that space.
Over the years, I’ve had the desire to grow this idea into a global community, but I had to walk away from it multiple times, ironically, to focus on my mental health.
All the while, I kept telling myself that I would soon come back to this concept, when I was capable, and I would create something that we could all share in, together.
Well, I'm excited to share that this day is finally here!
5 years later & countless hours designing, iterating and researching, the "Among the Greatest" sweatshirt is DONE!
It features a list of 20 carefully researched famous figures throughout history that have various mental illnesses. From artists, young and old, to athletes, painters, musicians, actors, singers, poets, scientists, and writers, these incredible people struggled with or currently work through everything from bipolar disorder to addiction, depression, schizophrenia, panic attacks, etc.
The idea is, if you have any type of mental illness, well, you’re not alone or crazy, you’re just one of many, among the greatest.
In researching these 20 people I found it very difficult to represent certain ethnicities and backgrounds, which highlights just how stigmatized it can be in certain cultures and conversations around the world.
I did my best to craft a list of people that represented a majority of the major types of illnesses, from different races, backgrounds, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages, and artistries.
If you have any suggestions for additions, I’m open to all feedback.
It’s my hope that this piece of clothing can be a conversation starter that enables us to understand that mental illness isn’t a character flaw, that we can do amazing things despite and because of the challenges we are faced with. On average, 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness in their lifetimes, but 5 in 5 humans have mental health. Let's start making it easier and less intimidating to talk about.
What I’ve realized throughout this process in sharing my story, is that a lot of the stigma surrounding mental health is internalized. One of the keys to undoing that is to speak up about it and share our truth. That’s why I created I&I Outfitters.
Thanks for reading & I look forward to continuing on this journey with all of you 🙂