On this particular Saturday morning at Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, tables are packed with people and covered with coffee and scones, and the line is seemingly endless. I sit against the wall with Jessica Minhas amid a sea of tables for two. The chit chat around us roars loud, so she brings the microphone in close. I lean in, immediately drawn into her story, and don’t lean back until she’s done.
Minhas is the founder of I’ll Go First, which uses storytelling as a way of expanding the access vulnerable populations have to mental health and trauma recovery care. The name comes from the idea of sharing your own story before inviting others to share theirs, something that was difficult for Minhas to do herself.
After the death of her twin sister and grandmother, Minhas was raised by her verbally abusive grandfather.
“The only thing he told me was ‘You’re never going to make it,’” says Minhas. “Looking back I understand that he was coping with his pain, but it made growing up with him difficult,” she reflects, and she spent much of her childhood “feeling ashamed and unloveable.”
In addition to the verbal abuse from her grandfather, she endured repeated sexual assault while at college. This took a toll on her emotionally, and there were times when depression kept her in bed for days.
“I remember thinking, ‘If I make it out of this alive,’” says Minhas before lowering her voice. “I mean if don’t kill myself, if I don’t fall into a depression,” she says. “Then I hope my story can help others know there’s a way out.”
She pauses, “It makes me emotional… you can get through it; you can live a great life.”
Eventually she was able to get professional help, and going to therapy was transformative.
After her grandfather died, she travelled to India to climb to the Everest Base Camp and to try and discover who her Indian family was. Through her travels, her eyes were opened to human trafficking. She returned to India a year later to learn more about human rights with the goal of supporting survivors.
While going through her grandfather’s belongings after his death, she found a photo of her half sister at the hospital in Philadelphia in which she was born. Minhas moved to New York, hoping if her sister was still in Philadelphia, she would be close enough to find her.
Five years later — after a lot research – she found her! After two years, their relationship grew and they decided to travel to Punjab, India, where they had a cousin getting married, so that her sister could meet the family and learn her family story.
During further travels in Cambodia, Minhas was in a small brothel in the slums learning about working with survivors from a sex trafficking survivor organization when she received an e-mail from her friend AnnaLynne McCord asking her to share her story at a local church. She was hesitant, but another friend convinced her that in order for others to share their story and heal, she must do the same.
She felt very vulnerable talking about her own story of abuse and depression for the first time. “As soon as the clapping ended, I was mortified that I had just shared this with an audience of about a thousand people,” says Minhas.
Many people walked up to her afterwards and shared their own personal stories. One man expressed that he had been planning to kill himself that day; however, he saw that this event was happening, and, as a final attempt to change his mind, decided to attend. It had saved his life.
“I was floored,” says Minhas. “There’s something so powerful about sharing our stories.”
This is at the core of I’ll Go First. “Accepting your story is the first thing— and embracing it— and then really committing to the healing work,” she says. “I’ll go first in my own story and really commit to what it’s going to take to get through what I’ve been through.”
She is always thrilled to see survivors of abuse take control of their lives, experience freedom and happiness, and go on to accomplish great things – even becoming lawyers and doctors. “That’s the gift of going first. That’s the gift of redemption,” says Minhas.
She has taken control of her own life. After the years of verbal abuse, she has let it all go. “Learning to rewrite that narrative has been hard, but I think it’s how I’ve changed.”
Adulthood has presented new challenges for her. She was recently diagnosed with Steroid-responsive encephalopathy associated with autoimmune thyroiditis, a rare brain disease that, if left untreated, could lead to early onset Alzheimer’s.
In her work, Minhas is constantly caring for others, but her rare brain disease demands she give the same care to herself. She is happy with the recovery she has had so far, and her doctors are hopeful that remission is in the near future.
It can be difficult to live in the city that never sleeps when your body begs for rest. “Everyone in New York is so driven. It’s easy to get in the fast lane and not pull over for a break,” says Minhas. Just as she teaches, though, she is committed to the work it takes to get better. While New York can be busy and nonstop, Minhas has discovered pockets of calm – citing the Morgan Library as a particular favorite.
New York has also provided her with amazing opportunities to connect with the world. She remembers when she was invited to hear the testimony of a young woman who escaped from ISIS. “I could not believe I got to bear witness to this,” she says.
Moving forward, she is thrilled to be creating an online and mobile platform for I’ll Go First that will support people with their mental health care and trauma recovery care with support from Civic Hall, HackNY, and Re:Coded, a non-profit that provides coding education for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Minhas’s narrative has gone through change after change, but it is far from being over, and she is in the process of writing a memoir.
Forty-five minutes after sitting down, Minhas has shared as much of her story as we had the time for, and I’ve forgotten all about the roar around us. She looks to her future with a great deal of hope.
“Hope is audacious; it is the heartbeat of a warrior,” says Minhas.