High school: some of the shortest but best years of a person’s life. Right? For Emily Torchiana she had it all – beauty, brains and big involvement. She played on the varsity tennis team, participated in her community service organization and was a member of the National Honor Society. On the outside, Emily looked content – happy, even. Successful.
It wasn’t her accomplishments in academics and extracurricular activities that she prominently remembers from high school, though. High school to her was many times considered more of a sad place than a happy one – a place full of struggles that were invisible to others, but clear as day to her. Every day turned into a battle with a vicious, stubborn fighter named depression. High school quickly turned from some of the shortest and best years to some of the longest and worst.
“I feel like I didn’t have really any resources of people that understood what I was going through,” Emily stated while sipping her latte in Black Tap Coffee. “Not necessarily that they had the same story as mine, but just the common theme of struggling. Flash forward to college, I finally realized that others struggled with in similar ways that I did.”
After spending a few years speaking about mental health, her senior at The College of Charleston, Emily sparked the idea of starting a non-profit to spread more awareness to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, alcoholism and more. She named her organization, “The Invisible Illnesses.”
“The idea is to make people comfortable in sharing their stories on The Invisible Illnesses website,” she said adjusting her jean jacket. “For others to know that so many other people are struggling with the same types of situations could push them to get help, and could even help save a life.”
One of these story sharers and friend of Emily’s, Merilee Pierce, shared how The Invisible Illnesses has impacted her life. “So, I confided in Emily about my history and my story with my mental illness. After listening she said, ‘you know if you ever feel comfortable and want to share on The Invisible Illnesses website, you’re more than welcome. It’s no pressure, though.’” Merilee paused, took a deep breath, smiled, and continued: “That’s when I knew I wanted to share my story.”
People from all over the country have submitted their stories. Each story is completely different, but all have the common theme that hope is out there, even in the darkest of times. When asked what some of her favorite stories were, Emily pursed her lips, looked out the window, and crossed her legs – her worn Chuck Taylor’s swinging back in forth as she thought. “I guess I would have to say my favorite stories are the ones that contain uncommon mental illnesses. Obviously, I love reading about depression and anxiety because that’s what I struggle with, but having people come forward about their borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia or more of the uncommon ones, I think it sheds light on them because there can sometimes be bigger stigmas towards them. Like, if someone hears ‘bipolar disorder’ they’ll automatically think that person is crazy or violent.”
Specifically, though, her all-time favorite was with Chef Jamie Lynch, the chef of a restaurant called 5Church here in Charleston. “Jamie was on the show Top Chef, and he battled with heroin addiction, so that was really impactful to me. I also got to interview him, rather than just having him submit his story, so I got to have that one-on-one interaction.”
Emily’s bubbly and upbeat personality has allowed her to connect with people that have helped her creatively expand The Invisible Illnesses – and some of these people have become valuable friends.
“Emily and I met through a mutual friend at some event a little while back,” remembers The Invisible Illnesses headshot photographer, Jesse Volk. “So, she came to me and told me about this idea that she had about helping those with mental illnesses tell their stories, and she wanted photos to be a really big part of it.” Fidgeting with his camera he continued, “Photos of people can tell someone so much about them. When we take the storytellers’ pictures, we tell them to be relaxed and comfortable and to act natural. We want to capture their personality in the photo if that makes sense.”
It wasn’t always so easy in the beginning, though. While Emily had tons of supporters, there was one person in particular that tried to stop her idea in its tracks.
“So, an ex-boyfriend of mine reached out to me when I started public speaking about mental illnesses. He was always against mental health, and told me starting something like this would, ‘ruin my reputation.’ That didn’t stop me, though. I’m thankful today to have a boyfriend who is so extremely supportive. He’s actually the treasurer of The Invisible Illnesses. He started out as a friend and helped out with the non-profit before we starting dating, but then things kind of emerged from there. It’s great knowing that he’s been there supporting me since the beginning.”
Though The Invisible Illnesses is barely a year old, it has already received great local and national recognition.
When asked about awards for her impressive and hard work, Emily blushed and smiled softly, “This year, there were about 300 of us that were nominated for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award at the Jefferson Awards Ceremony, and only five people actually won. I honestly was just honored to be there, because everyone got one minute to describe what their cause was, so that was just incredible in itself. I was so surprised that I actually won.”
Still ever-so humbly, she finished her thought with, “Sometimes with non-profits and causes you just sit there and think, ‘am I actually making a difference?’ Winning just kind of reaffirmed that, yes, my organization is helping people, and that’s what my goal was from the start.”
Even while she was busy creating her organization in college, Emily still made time for friends and involvement in other activities.
“Emily was the secretary of our Student Government Association,” remembered fellow SGA member, Chak Or. “Part of her position was approving new organizations that wanted to come on campus. Every time she met with organization leader, she was always so kind and willing to help them in the best way she could. One of my favorite things about her is her ability to take command in a room. She by no means is the loudest person in the room or takes all of the attention, but she has an aura that makes people want to talk and listen to her. She actually inspired me to run for secretary the following year.” And that’s just what Emily is – an inspiration. When her name is brought up, that’s exactly almost every person refers to her as. Even Dean Stephens from ABC News 4 used it to describe her: “Her words are courageous and she’s committed to her conviction…Torchiana is inspiring others to live.”
After traveling around the country giving talks at different universities from Widener University in Pennsylvania to Alpha Delta Pi Sorority (her fellow sisterhood) at LSU in Louisiana, Emily has finally landed back in Charleston where she has been planning her first annual The Invisible Illnesses banquet.
“Usually with benefits, people plan them like, a year in advance. It came up as an idea around February, but because of the support of the Charleston area, it’s honestly come together better and faster than expected,” Emily said still in awe of the successful turnout. “Some of the silent auction items are gift cards to restaurants like The Macintosh, and handbags from Kate Spade and Marc Jacobs. There is just so much support that I honestly didn’t expect.”
A common theme in Emily’s responses is that many things have happened that she, “didn’t expect.” She never once assumed that anyone would automatically do anything for her organization, just because it’s a non-profit. Still, she’s using the money earned from these silent auctions to continue to give back: “What we want is for people to come together to raise money for the mental health workshops that we do. This past year, we educated 700 plus students through these workshops, and 5,000 plus students through my presentations. The hope is just to really expand that and get our workshops out to further areas around the country.”
Emily has truly become a Charleston icon and is quickly moving to becoming a national one. Though she tirelessly works to continue improving her platform, she still makes time for the people that have helped her get where she is today.
After a jam-packed full week of traveling around and giving speeches across the country, she’s happily willing to sit down for a cup of coffee and chat about the thing she is most passionate about. Taking her last sip of coffee and with her big smile, Emily gave her final praise to all of those that helped her get to this point, “It’s crazy to think that I used to be bullied on social media, but now it’s become, my friend. I’ve been connected with so many mental illness advocates through our website and Instagram. Our community keeps growing, and even though I don’t get to meet everyone who shares their story, I’m thankful that they do. Us helping them is making them want to help others. It’s so cool to see.”
Emily’s positivity and willingness to help has encouraged so many people to speak out – even many people most wouldn’t think are struggling.