Direct It is powered by personal storytelling, and we're actively working to showcase your stories here on our blog. I'm excited to finally publish our first guest-post from the amazing Gavin, one of the first friends I made in graduate school. He's currently finishing his master's degree in public relations and writing about theater PR on his professional blog.
[Interested in telling your story here? Contact Direct It]
1) Explain your first experience with mental illness. When did you decide to seek help for your anxiety?
When I was a senior in high school, I started to panic about everything. I wanted to be one of those kids who just didn’t care much about their grades and didn’t feel stressed over college acceptances, but I was constantly worrying about having an A in every single class. Even when I got into college and knew that I didn’t need to worry as much about grades, I still felt like every assignment needed to be perfect. Even getting a B- on a test or project felt like the end of the world.
I was taking an AP English class at the time that was incredibly challenging, and every time I received below an A, I would freak out that I was going to have my college acceptances rescinded. Finally, one day, I had a complete mental breakdown over a test I bombed in the class, to the point where I was having suicidal thoughts. At that point, I knew I needed help. My parents helped me schedule doctor’s and therapist’s appointments, and I went on medication within the next week.
2) How do you treat your anxiety? Did you make any lifestyle changes when you were diagnosed?
I’m on medication for my anxiety, and I used to go to counseling up until last year. I no longer go, not because of stigma, but because I feel comfortable with the coping mechanisms I’ve learned.
My main lifestyle change has been to make sure that I reserve one day per week for doing “nothing.” I’m a workaholic and I can easily get caught up in working as hard as possible seven days per week. I designate Saturday or Sunday, depending on my schedule, to see friends, go out, play video games, or just watch stupid YouTube videos. It helps restore balance so I don’t work myself into panic attacks. It also restores perspective – I realize that there are other things besides work that can fulfill me and make me happy.
3) How often do you disclose your mental health? Do you feel comfortable talking about your mental health with people?
I’ll usually mention I’m an anxious person to people casually, but I’m cautious about telling people that I have an actual anxiety disorder that I’m treating with medication. People have a stigma around using medication, to the point that I actually went off of it for awhile – and then went back on it because I couldn’t deal with my disorder without it.
It’s no different than the medication I take for acid reflux, though. I take my acid reflux pill in the morning so I can eat without throwing up, and I take my anxiety medicine alongside it so I can go to school and work without panicking - yet people want to stigmatize the anxiety medication and not the acid reflux medicine.
If I know someone else struggles with mental health, I usually feel more comfortable talking with them about it because I know they’ll understand. But I find it difficult to talk about having an anxiety disorder because people often assume that I’m simply unable to cope with stress. I work in theatre and PR – I can definitely cope with stress!
4) As we've discussed before, your experience as a member of a marginalized group intersects with your mental health. Can you go into this more for those reading who don't know you like I do? (Aren't I lucky ;) )
I’m a transgender guy (I’ve been transitioning since my freshman year of college), and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what anxiety is coming from me just having anxiety, and what anxiety is coming from the fact that trans people are under constant attack . . . including from the president this week. A lot of trans people I meet have mental health issues as well, and it leaves me wondering how much of transgender mental health issues are caused by living in a hostile world where we’re constantly on guard.
It also makes discussing mental health difficult, because a lot of people will jump to the conclusion that I have anxiety because I’m trans, and therefore have something innately wrong with me. When you’re part of a marginalized group, there’s this constant pressure to be a model person so you don't further marginalize your community. You’re under pressure to present yourself as this perfectly healthy, happy person, even if that’s not always the case. It often feels like trans people aren’t allowed to have complex lives because we need to keep up appearances.
It’s tough to describe in a paragraph or two . . . I mean, academic essays and books have been written on this complicated subject. But being trans, or queer in any sense, definitely makes acknowledging and talking about mental health more complicated - you don’t want to be seen as a “crazy queer person.”
5) What advice do you have for someone reading this who might not feel comfortable sharing their story?
If you’re not comfortable sharing your story, take your time. With social media and people being more open about their stories, there’s more pressure to tell yours. And that’s great for some people – but for others, it takes time, and there’s no shame in that.
When you want to talk about your story, find someone that you know will be supportive, whether that’s a close friend or someone else with mental health issues. Maybe find a Meetup or another resource that will feel safe. I’ve fortunately found friends who I can talk to about my anxiety, but not everyone has accepting people in their lives.
If you’re experiencing a similar intersection with mental health and queer identity, don’t blame your mental health on your queerness. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s something wrong with you, because that’s what toxic rhetoric wants us to believe. Remember that it’s people who want to hurt the queer community that come up with those narratives and make us believe them. You can be a complex queer with flaws, mental illness, and other health issues – and it doesn’t mean that queer people have something inherently wrong with them.