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“I belong to myself now”: Niki Leffingwell on coming out, gaining the hunger to live

Best friends and chosen family Niki Leffingwell (left) and Jenica Andersen (right).
Best friends and chosen family Niki Leffingwell (left) and Jenica Andersen (right).

As part of the 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour, which is in the midst of a month-long residency in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoula Public Library, best friends and chosen family Niki Leffingwell and Jenica Andersen talk about gaining the hunger to live, about being and belonging to oneself, and about hope and healing.

CW: Please note that this excerpt contains mentions of suicide and depression and may be triggering for some listeners. If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Jenica Andersen: What would you say... A thirty-second-or-less description—a life story... What’s your arc? At this point? What does it look like? The narrative...

Niki Leffingwell: Yeah.

Jenica Andersen: ...that is you.

Niki Leffingwell: Oof. I think the first three and a half decades of my life were surviving.

Jenica Andersen: Wow.

Niki Leffingwell: And then it was a choice point, a moment. I remember very clearly, at age thirty-seven, sitting on my floor, meditating. And I think people often describe coming to not know themselves as, like, a long process, and it is, but I definitely had this instant of Oh, oh, shoot. [Laughs]

Jenica Andersen: Fiddlesticks. [Laughs]

Niki Leffingwell: [Laughs] Fiddlesticks. What if, what if you’re queer? And what if you built an entire life around other people’s expectations of you, because you are such an amazing chameleon, and you so want to be loved and appreciated and admired by your family and by the community you were raised in? And what if all that was so unfulfilling to you, because it was never feeding your soul, that it generated three and a half decades of being depressed and intermittently suicidal and not always the healthiest person?

And so that moment was a choice point, and I remember thinking for an instant, You could just keep—you could keep pretending. And I just—I decided not to. And I saw that in a flash, too, in my head, what I was going to lose, which was everything. And I have, except for my children, and the friends who have stayed. And those who have left? They never saw me anyways. So—

Jenica Andersen: What have you gained?

Niki Leffingwell: Oh, myself. [Laughs] The desire to die is gone. I am so hungry to live now. I feel this deep well of gratitude and awe for getting to be here now in this, in this place in time and to have been given the gift of wherever that strength came from. Because I—it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It feels like it came from somewhere else, to say yes. And to keep saying yes, and to dive off the edge in a really wholehearted way, which—I’m still in the freefall in some ways. But I belong to myself now—for the first time ever. And I can’t really fathom a greater gift, and I hope what comes out of that, as what I foresee as hopefully being the next arc, as I am patient and allow this to unfold: I hope it allows me to deliver some medicine to this world that is deeply and singularly mine to bring and that I can heal myself and something else and in a way that matters. Yeah, that wasn’t thirty seconds.

Jenica Andersen: [Laughs]

The 2022 StoryCorps mobile tour is recording at the Missoula Public Library, giving Missoulians the opportunity to preserve their conversations and stories for future generations. StoryCorps Missoula is brought to you in part by Clearwater Credit Union, Partners Creative, and Montana State Fund.

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