No more masks: Speaker tells Loyal students to be themselves
Masks for many people are a part of everyday life. Going about one’s daily activities, smiles are faked and good times elaborated upon — all to hide the true pain and misery experienced in their lives from others and from themselves.
Nathan Harmon knows a lot about such masks. He wore his own mask for many years, hiding the troubles of his life behind a skinthin facade. Today he knows the truth about the mask, that it brings no help to the one wearing it. Only by taking it off and reaching out to people around you will you actually find peace and that all people are “beautifully broken.”
Harmon is an international “I stayed up the entire night, making every deal with whatever could hear me, that I would change if she lived,” he said. “When the newspaper truck came around the next morning, I tore it open and I read three words, ‘Crash victim died.’ At 23 when I should have been a senior at college, I took her life. If I could go back seven years when I began to compromise myself, I never would have started to feed that stupid bear cub.”
After the accident, Harmon said he was charged with reckless homicide and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was riddled with guilt. At one point during the court process, he said he was contacted by Pricilla’s family. He didn’t know what to do or what to say to them, knowing full well what he did wrong. Expecting hate and anger, what happened next was unexpected.
“I had never met her family,” he said. “And what do you say to them? ‘Sorry? Forgive me? I get it if you hate me?’ But they said we understand … as a family, they chose to forgive. They said to me, ‘You need to do two things for us. Don’t let our daughter die for nothing and make the world a better place.’ I didn’t know what to do with that. If I was a dad in their shoes I would have wanted justice. But they chose love over hate.”
Those words from Pricilla’s family stuck with him in prison. As he sat in his cell, Harmon said he began to think back on his life, the choices he had made up to that point. He began to see that for too long, he wore a mask, hiding the things that hurt him and seeking the hollow approval of the people around him. He had hid behind this mask, waiting for the perfect someone to trust and always finding people coming up short. Now seeing the mask for what it was, Harmon took his first difficult step back. He removed his mask.
“I was waiting for the perfect person to trust, but you will never find a person that won’t let you down sometimes,” he said. “In 2009 I made the decision that I wasn’t going to care about the opinions of other people. I don’t care what you think of me.”
Opening up in prison, Harmon said he started to make his way back out of the hole he had dug himself into. Determined to fulfill the wishes of Pricilla’s family, he applied himself in prison, speaking at events about his experiences and improving his character. For his work, he was let out of prison after only a few years behind bars. But Harmon didn’t stop there. He continued to strive for improvement and began speaking at schools and events on his own. From there, it just continued to grow.
“Life can be hell,” he said. “Sometimes challenges and adversity arises. Life hands us things we didn’t ask for. We didn’t ask for broken families, it just knocked on our door and came in. We had to deal with abuse, trauma. We didn’t sign up for it, but we have to figure it out.”
In the process of figuring life out through all its challenges, Harmon said it is very important for people to connect to those around them and avoid using masks. Standing on a ladder, he said it is important to have relationships with people in peer groups and people in higher positions such as teachers and coaches. That way, he said there will always be someone there he made his greatest mistake. He decided he needed to do things alone.
“I thought the mask I was wearing was going to keep me safe,” he said. “I didn’t know as a young man that I wasn’t supposed to be an island. Many of us in our culture these days keep up a mask. We think, ‘What would others think of my struggles?’ I had good friends, but I was afraid to let anyone in. I wanted to prove to my dad that I didn’t need him.” Once freshman year began, Harmon said the mask he was wearing began to slowly ruin him. Ever eager to show he was picture perfect and at the top of the social ladder, he abandoned his former loyal friends and started to hang out with the “cool crowd.” You become what you surround yourself with, he said, and soon he began to compromise the principles he grew up with. “Who you surround yourself with matters,” he said. “Some friends make poor decisions. You need to surround yourself with people who don’t compromise on their beliefs. Who you surround yourself with will impact your life … I was one of the most successful freshmen, but I cared too much about what others thought of me. I was open to pressure.” Very soon, Harmon was on a path of drugs, alcohol and self-harm. Comparing what he was doing to feeding a seemingly innocent bear cub, he said he was only making the problem worse. The bear demanded more, more drugs, more alcohol, more cuts. As he fed it, the problems only grew.
“Drugs seemed so innocent,” he said. “As the bear grows up, it’s not cute and cuddly anymore, the instinct of the bear kicks in and it will kill you … From 18 to 23, five years of my life, I made so many mistakes. My life became a mess. I felt like nothing would change. Still, I wouldn’t take off my mask.”
But something did change in Harmon’s life through another moment of impact. It began one evening after going to a party at a bar and getting drunk. Not trusting himself to drive, but being told by some of his friends at the party to leave ahead of them to set up another party at someone else’s house, he called a friend named Pricilla to pick him up and drive him there.
“I was super inebriated,” he said. “I said I was not driving, said, ‘See you at the party.’ But somehow between the bar and the car I got a hold of Pricilla’s keys and got into the driver’s seat. It’s a blur. On the way to TJ’s house, it was right there. I could see her face and she said one word to me, ‘Tree!’ There was a helicopter, shadowy figures, police officers asking questions, asking what her name was, where she was from. No one knew who she was.”
Confused and hurting, Harmon said information about what happened to Pricilla eventually came together through the night. They had struck a tree at about 60 miles per hour and Pricilla had broken her neck, and was given a low chance of survival. All through the night, he said he stayed up, begging for her life to be spared.
“I thought of my father as a hero,” he said. “When I looked at him, he was the hero of my life. He could do no wrong. He never sugarcoated anything.”
This picture perfect existence of his came crashing to an end one day, he said in a moment of impact. This type of moment many of the students in the audience found they could relate to well: the divorce of his parents.
“I remember I was in sixth grade going into seventh grade when my dad called a family meeting,” he said. “Those were exciting times, he would usually announce a vacation, a shopping trip with the family. So I remember walking into the kitchen, I remember the table … 1970 pieces of artificial fruit. I remember the detail, and my dad saying that things aren’t what they seem and they were going to separate.”
Reflecting on that moment, Harmon said to him at the time, the announcement came out of the blue. Now though, he realizes there was much more going on behind closed doors.
“Maybe I was naive,” he said. “Growing up, I never seen a conflict, going up to their bedroom was off limits. I thought I had a picture perfect family. But behind the bedroom door, there were drugs and alcohol. I see now that they were just trying to protect me and get by. I have a girl that’s three and another at seven and so I understand that, but it still felt like a betrayal.”
With the devastating news in hand, Harmon said he did what so many people have done in the same situation, what many people sitting in his audience have also learned how to do. He put on a mask.
“I learned to do what lots of us learn to do,” he said. “I learned to put on a fake face, a picture perfect face. It seems we as people put on a mask. It makes us look OK, but behind the mask there’s all these emotions. We care so much about what the people around us think, so we put on this mask, but behind the mask we are screaming, struggling.”
As Harmon went through middle school and into high school, he said he played his mask well. He worked hard to get good grades, but though he was successful for a short time, he said it was then that strap.” Looking at the audience, Harmon said with a mask on, it’s hard see neighbors as having the same struggles and it’s easy to feel alone. For a moment, he asked everyone in the audience to remove their own masks and answer a question.
“How many of you have felt that you are by yourself, that no one understands you or where you come from?” he asked.
Nearly every hand in the gymnasium was raised.
“You are not alone,” he said as the hands were raised. “We are better together. We’re not supposed to do it alone. Just because we feel alone, doesn’t mean we are alone. We’re all beautifully broken.”
speaker and the founder of Your Life Speaks. He was in Loyal on Feb. 18 and spoke during the school day to high school students about his life experiences and later in the evening to community members. Filled with youthful energy, Harmon interacted with the listening audience to share his message and his life struggles, telling them that they can overcome any challenges life sends their way.
Like many children, Harmon said he grew up in a family he thought was picture perfect. His family was firm, but supportive, and he looked up to his father as the hero in his life.
“Life can be hell. Sometimes challenges and adversity arises. Life hands us things we didn’t ask for. We didn’t ask for broken families, it just knocked on our door and came in. We had to deal with abuse, trauma. We didn’t sign up for it, but we have to figure it out.”-- Nathan Harmon to help you in need.
“Ladders are unique,” he said. “There’s steel ones, red and blue ones. All of you have horizontal and vertical relationships. With a seatbelt, there’s both horizontal and vertical straps. When applied appropriately it can save your life. If you’re just using the horizontal strap though you can be injured. Your peers are your horizontal strap, your coaches and teachers are your vertical
CHEYENNE THOMAS/STAFF PHOTO
Nathan Harmon shares his message with Loyal High School students on Feb. 18.