[TW: depression, suicide] Reader question: when being in the closet kills

I received this last night. I really don’t want to turn into an advice column, but this is another question that mirrors many I’ve received in the past, so I’ll do my best to answer it.

Hi Salaam!

So I’m a 20 year old queer muslim male, currently in college. I’m realized I was queer when I was around 14 or 15 years old. I’m not out anyone at all in my life. However over the past couple of years since starting college, keeping my queerness a secret has been taking quite the toll on my mental health. My anxiety and depression associated with my secret are at an all time high, and I feel worse than I ever have. My situation now is that mom and dad have now both noticed over the past year how depressed and anxious I have been. They can tell I’m much more reclusive and not as happy as I used to be. I guess I couldn’t hide it forever. Anyways, so just last night, my parents confronted me directly about why I’m so depressed. They walked into my bedroom and just asked me what was going on. I was sitting in front of them, crying uncontrollably and I just can’t tell them why I’m so sad. So at this point, my parents now know that I’m depressed and suicidal, but have no idea why, and I refused to tell them when they asked me. They’re really concerned about me and they’re coming from a very loving place and they now want me to go see a therapist to try to work things out. I come from a practicing Muslim Sunni Arab household and I’m practicing myself, my parents aren’t super conservative,and generally make a good distinction between cultural and religious practices, but they’re conservative enough to not accept LGBT people, at least that’s what it seems. But given that they know I’m in such a terrible mental health situation, would they maybe accept my queerness? I don’t know.  
So yeah, I just don’t know what to do right now because my parents know my mental health is terrible, and I refuse to tell them what’s going on. Any thoughts on how I could approach this situation?

For pretty obvious reasons, this reader also wanted to remain anonymous.

I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and that if you’re having thoughts of suicide, you need to see a health professional. I’m a blogger on the internet, not a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Everything I suggest you do should be done in conjunction with a treatment programme devised for you by a pro. This isn’t as daunting a prospect as you think – if you’re in college, you likely have access to free or very cheap counselling services, and there are therapists that charge on a sliding scale in a lot of cities, particularly bigger ones. Therapists are bound by patient confidentiality. They’re not going to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re queer. I recommend that you find one ASAP and schedule an appointment.

Now, onto other things.

I don’t say this often because I’m not generally in favour of outing yourself if you aren’t assured of a positive reaction, but it might be time to tell your parents.

You’re worried that your parents are too conservative to accept you. That might be true. Maybe they’ll react terribly. Maybe they’ll kick you out or cut you off. Maybe they’ll try to get you to pray it away. Those would all be awful scenarios, and if you honestly think that they’re the most likely, then you can keep this between me, you and your soon-to-be-therapist and maybe you’ll be fine. But it sounds like your parents are pretty good people. You’ve said you think they’re coming from a loving place and that they’re worried about you. Maybe – just maybe – it means that if you come out to them, their first instinct will be to help.

Coming out to my own mother wasn’t easy. I had no way of knowing how she would react. I had to trust that she would continue to accept me for who I was even once she knew everything about me. It was dicey at first. It took her a long while to get used to the idea. I’m not sure she’ll ever really be thrilled about it. But she loves me and supports me, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders knowing I can rely on her now. I could never have had that assurance if I’d never come out.

Your parents aren’t my mother, and maybe they won’t react the same way. There are a few ways this could go:
  1. The worst case scenario – they cut you off, disown you, never want to speak to you again. This seems unlikely based on your description of them. Even some more conservative religious types listen to love over judgement sometimes. But that doesn’t mean this can’t happen.
  2. Slightly-less-worse-case-scenario – they don’t disown you, but they decide your depression would disappear if you just prayed the gay away somehow. I have a couple of family members like this, and I avoid them at all costs.
  3. A liveable scenario – they’re not thrilled, but they try to support you anyway. They help you seek therapy for your depression and try not to make it all about how if you were straight, you wouldn’t be so upset. I would like to believe your parents are capable of this, but you know them better than I do.
  4. A really good scenario – they’re supportive, they tell you they love you no matter what, and they help you seek treatment. In an ideal world, all parents would be like this, right?

Only you know which of these scenarios is more likely. I hope it’s #3 or #4, but obviously I can’t say for sure.

If you do decide to come out to them, you can always test the water first. Bring up gay rights issues and see how they react. Decide if you could deal with that level of scrutiny or judgement directed at you. If you mention anti-gay laws in Uganda and they say they hope everyone there gets the death penalty, it’s probably not safe to come out. If you mention statistics about gay people being beaten and murdered and they’re horrified, maybe things might not be as bad as they could be. Find a time when you can sit them down and tell them what’s going on with you. Usually I’d suggest that you bring a friend, but you’re not out to anyone, so that’ll be tough. Maybe establish a connection with a therapist first, then invite your parents along to a group session. If nothing else, they’re much less likely to become violent if there are witnesses. (I hate that I have to talk about these things as though there’s always potential for violence, but we all know there is.)

If you don’t decide to come out to your parents, I think you’re still going to have to come out to someone. Definitely your new therapist (I really can’t stress how important it is that you find one), and at least one friend or family member you can trust. This is not a burden you can carry by yourself. It’s eating at you every day and endangering your life. You need at least one ally in your everyday life so that you don’t have to do this all alone. We are not solitary creatures, we humans. We need love, support and community. Those things are sorely lacking in your life right now. Consider joining a campus LGBT solidarity group – you don’t have to be queer to be in one, so this won’t necessarily out you – and see if you can’t find some friends who’ll empathise with you and support you.

Mental illness is such an ugly, unbearable thing. You are not weak or childish or in some way defective for being unable to handle it on your own. I remember being roughly your age and sitting in my doctor’s office, just talking about how I was. He told me, “I think that if you don’t get help, if you don’t get out of the situation you’re in, it’s going to crush your soul.” He was talking mostly about my abusive father, but he was right. Some things a human being simply cannot tolerate forever. I implore you to find a counsellor, doctor or psychologist. I promise that there are some available to you. Your parents may even help you seek treatment, even if you don’t come out to them, given how worried they are about you and how much they want to help. Take advantage of the services available to you as a college student – they won’t be free forever, and you should use them while they are. Find that one person who will offer you a safe, non-judgmental space where you can finally be yourself.

Whether or not you decide to come out to your parents, I really hope things work out for you. Remember that you are never alone. Allah’s blessings be with you, wherever your path may lead.

The winding road to recovery

Have you ever felt like you’ve been awake your whole life? However many years that is – fifteen, twenty, thirty, fifty. Awake that entire time, never allowed to sleep, because every time you try to lie down, just to get a single moment’s rest, the world asks something else of you. And you’d give anything for just one night – just a single night! – of sleep. Just one. If the world could give you that – if the universe or your god or gods could give you just one night – then you’d happily go the rest of your life without sleeping again. But you just want that one night of sleep, because you’ve been awake for so, so long.

They talk about the road to recovery. You’re depressed; you start treatment; you get better. Sometimes it’s as easy as that. If I ever meet a person for whom it’s been that easy, I’ll be sure to tell you. For me, the road has not been a straight one. I am walking towards the light on a road that often twists and turns so far away from it that I lose sight of it all together. And so it goes and goes and goes, and I’m still begging the universe for my one night of sleep. Just one. I’d give anything.

This road is not a smooth one. It has so many bumps that will trip you up, hobbling you until you must limp forward, crippled. There’s no other choice. There are no rest stops. You do not get to stop walking. You go onward and onward along a road so pitted and scarred that at times it is nigh unpassable. It twists and turns so that sometimes you are going backwards, moving further and further away from the light, but still you hobble on. What other choice is there? There is nothing but the road. And so it goes. Maybe there will be sleep at the end.

You will be tempted to stop following the road. You will ask yourself – why seek the light? It is so far away, and offers no warmth and only enough illumination to throw shadows before you, obscuring the road further. Why keep walking? It is so tempting to stop forever. It is so tempting to say, to hell with the light, to hell with the road, to hell with all of it, because you have been walking your whole life and you’re still not there and it never seems like it’s getting any closer. Why bother? Why not just…stop?

Some people do. I do not blame any of them. I feel sad for them – my heart aches for them – but I do not blame them. This road is so hard, so unforgiving. It asks so, so much of us. Too much, maybe. I do not blame anyone who stops.

There are people who can help smooth the path before you a little. Perhaps they will remove some of the stones that might have tripped you up had you come across them. Perhaps they will shine a little light to dash away the shadows, making it easier to see. Perhaps they will warm you a little when you are chilled to the bone and feel as though you can’t move another inch. But ultimately, one must walk the road alone, helpers notwithstanding. And so it goes, and so it goes. One step after another, no rest, no sleep.

This is the road to recovery. It can take a long time to reach the light at the end of it. Some people never reach it at all. Some people find themselves stumbling or collapsing from exhaustion before they get to the end. I was almost one of those people, once. Almost. Not quite. Too close for comfort. They say the road gets smoother the further you walk. It is true that there are fewer stones, fewer shadows, than there used to be. I suppose this makes things a little easier. But I still have to walk – alone, unassisted, bearing the scars of every injury sustained upon the way. And it’s hard. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. The light is getting closer but it’s still so far away and there are days when I fear I will never reach it and I would still give anything – anything – for a single night’s sleep, just one. Just a single one. I have been walking for so, so long. I am so tired. I just want it to be over.

You’re depressed; you start treatment; slowly, you begin to get better, but this does not mean you can no longer get worse. The road is not a smooth one. It is not forgiving. It will demand everything of you, and then it will demand more. And you have no choice but to keep walking.

The light beckons. Maybe once you reach it, they will finally let you sleep.

Hey, are you okay?

I’m talking to you. You, reading this right now from the comfort of your bed, or on your phone as your grab a coffee before work, or at the end of a long day. You, a man/woman/other of any age, in any place, at any time, doing anything.

Are you okay?

I’m asking because maybe life just doesn’t give you as much joy as it used to and you don’t know why. Or maybe you find yourself unable to sleep at night or unable to wake up in the morning. Maybe you’ve lost your appetite or found yourself eating more than normal for no other reason than because you can’t think of what else to do. Maybe something really small happened to you today and you cried for hours over it and didn’t understand why you couldn’t stop. Maybe you woke up this morning and realised that you just weren’t looking forward to the day ahead, or the days after it. Maybe you haven’t looked forward to anything for a long time. Maybe life seems just a little harder than it should be. So I’m asking you again:

Are you okay?

Take a little time to answer. Think back through the last month or two. Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling anxious and unable to do anything to calm yourself. Maybe it’s been just that little bit more difficult to get yourself going. Maybe the things you used to enjoy don’t seem like that much fun any more. Maybe you’ve found it harder to make yourself spend time with your family and friends. Maybe you’re fighting with people you love over inconsequential things and they’re starting to ask you what the deal is. Maybe something just seems wrong and you don’t know it is. So I’m asking you – with no pressure to answer, just with genuine concern:

Are you okay?

I’m asking because maybe it seems like nobody would care about the little things that have been going wrong for you lately. Maybe you feel like you’re just letting things get on top of you. Maybe you feel like you haven’t been getting enough rest, even if you sleep for hours and hours. Maybe you’ve been feeling anxious and on edge at work and you don’t know why. Maybe raising your kids seems to be taking more out of you than usual – every school trip, every afterschool sports game, every temper tantrum in the car on the way to school over something small and silly. Maybe it’s all starting to seem like a little too much. Wouldn’t a break be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice to talk to someone about all those things that seem too small and too insignificant to bring up to anyone? That’s why I’m asking you again:

Are you okay?

I’m asking because one in three adults will suffer from clinical depression at some point in their lives, but less than half of them will seek help. I’m asking because some people suffer and suffer without knowing that there’s something wrong or that life doesn’t have to be this way. So I’m asking you now, whoever you are, wherever you are:

Are you okay?

Today is R U OK? Day, a day of the year when we remember that sometimes, all someone with a mental illness needs in order to set them along the path to recovery and good health is for someone in the right place at the right time to ask the right question. Asking takes almost no time at all, but it might stop someone for just long enough to make them realise a few things:

No, they’re not okay.

And yes, it’s okay to ask for help.

Don’t be afraid to ask. You might be the catalyst that speeds someone along towards a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Today I am empty.

Today I am empty;

I have no words or thoughts to share.

Try as I might,

Fight and fight and fight,

There’s just nothing there.

Today I am empty;

Uninspired and drained,

Battered and bruised and pained,

Barren, broken, bare.

Tomorrow is a new day.

Tomorrow, I will rise again,

And then,

I’ll have new things to say.

But today I am empty.

Today I have no words but these –

No thoughts to share, no way to please you,

Not today.

 

I’m sorry.

Labels on my soul: “mentally ill”

There are so many things I wish I could tell my teenage self. I wish I could tell her to love her body even when it seemed like it would never stop being coltish and awkward and ungraceful. I wish I could tell her not to be afraid of loving people and accepting the love of others. I wish I could tell her all the things everyone knew but she – that she was so, so clever, and so, so talented, and that she didn’t need the validation of the men in her life to prove it. Aren’t there always so many things we wish we’d known ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? But if I had a single postcard to send back to my teenage self, and if I could write only one sentence on it, it would be this:

“You are mentally ill: seek help.”

My teachers first began to notice signs of depression in me when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t listen to them because I didn’t want to hear what I already knew – that my inner world was changing, that nothing seemed as bold or as bright or as beautiful to me any more. I didn’t want them to tell me that I seemed to lack motivation, that I had lost my drive, because I knew those things already and did not want to admit them to myself. I didn’t want to hear that I was broken. I thought that maybe if I refused to believe it, it would stop being true.

Mentally ill people learn to cope. I won my school’s debating award twice. I took up public speaking. I learned to act. In fact, I learned to act so well that I never stopped. I learned to be bigger, bolder, better, brighter. I was the class clown; I talked too much and joked too much and was too much. I woke up every day and put on my school uniform and my hijab and prepared myself for another day on the stage. This was my life – playing a parody version of myself before the world, hiding behind a mask.

My father didn’t believe in mental illness – or rather, he didn’t believe in treating it. He told me I wasn’t praying enough, that it could be overcome with the power of positive thinking. My inability to do this was an indication that I was a failure – not good enough, never good enough, for him. I internalised that idea. I lived it. I had to deal with this because if I didn’t, it meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I lay in bed at night and wished my life would end. I contemplated killing myself, mentally composed suicide notes when I couldn’t sleep. I was ashamed of my weakness. I didn’t want anybody to know.

At the age of seventeen, I let my father bully me into enrolling in medical school, and the mask started to crack.

I remember the day I finally realised the act was slipping. A very good friend of mine told me he was worried about me. I asked him why, and he said that I seemed sad, and that if I was so upset that I couldn’t hide it, something must really be wrong. (Perhaps I wasn’t as good an actress as I believed?) He was right. It was becoming too much. I told my father I needed to see a doctor about something menses-related so that he wouldn’t insist on attending the appointment with me, and I told my doctor that I was feeling depressed. He – knowing my father would never allow me to take antidepressants – prescribed me some sleeping tablets and told me to visit him before exams, just to chat. For three years, that was as much mental health management as I was able to get – a chat with my family doctor before exams, short-term prescriptions for sleeping medication that didn’t work because my nightmares woke me up. He didn’t even officially diagnose me with anything. It was a small comfort.

My father kicked me out when I was twenty years old; I went to live with my mother, divorced from my father only two years prior. Finally, I could see a doctor without having to hide my reasons why. I went to a new doctor, was put on antidepressants. They made me feel like a zombie, but things seemed to be getting better.

Then I tried to kill myself.

Please don’t ask why. I can’t tell you because I don’t know. All I remember was that at the time, it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. I took an entire box of my antidepressants. My mother called the ambulance just in time; later, they told her that had she hesitated for even a few minutes longer, they might not have been able to save my life. As it was, I spent a night in intensive care hooked up to a bunch of machines and decided I’d had enough of medication. I was discharged; I went back to acting.  It didn’t work. Six months later, having deferred my studies because I could no longer bring myself to rise from bed in the mornings, I went to another doctor and was officially diagnosed for the first time. I had major depression, he said – I needed new antidepressants, a psychologist. Overriding my concerns, this doctor sent me to a therapist who could not have been more wrong for me and put me on medication that made me into a new kind of zombie. I refused to see the therapist again after the first appointment; my doctor refused to refer me to another if I wouldn’t give him a second chance. I stuck with the medication for nine months before deciding it was making me feel worse, not better. Back to acting, then.

And so it went, and so it went. And yet, here I am now, writing this, and I can say with complete honesty that this is not an act. This is me – and “me” is, for the first time in a long time, incredibly, resoundingly fine.

I don’t know if I believe in miracles, but if I did, I’d consider meeting my partner to be one of them. Through the fog surrounding me, he reached out to me, first as a friend, then as a lover and companion, and he told me something that nobody had told me before – that I could be happy. He told me that with help, the right help, I could beat this. I could feel normal, or something approaching normal. It took him a year and a half to convince me to try therapy one last time. Listening to him was the best decision I’ve ever made. I found a doctor who listened to me, who cared about medication side-effects and quality of life, who believed that I was worth fixing, who made me believe it. It took a lot of trial and error, but on and on we muddled. He noticed my mood swings and realised that I was bipolar, taught me how to deal with the more dangerous highs and how to mitigate the damage when the lows arrived. Between him and my partner, I actually started believing I could get better. For the first time since I was thirteen years old, I started to wonder if maybe I didn’t have to be broken forever.

I am, at this moment in time, the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. I find joy in the things I love; I enjoy the company of my friends and loved ones; I feel more motivated, more energised, than I have since I was a child. I am sick, but I’m getting better. There is hope for me.

I am writing about this because I believe I need to. I am writing about this because one in three adults in Australia will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives but less than half of them will ever seek treatment. I am writing this because none of us should have to act like we’re fine when we’re not. I am writing this for my teenage self, who kept her pain bottled up inside because she was scared that nobody would love her if they realised how broken she was. I am writing this because this sickness almost killed me and I am blessed, so blessed, to be alive to talk about it. I am writing this to prove that it doesn’t have to be like this, not for me and not for any of us.

Mental illnesses – and there are several, ranging from the psychoses (schizophrenia and psychotic depression, amongst others) to anxiety disorders to personality disorders to the many and varying forms of depression – are real diseases that affect real people in real ways, but because not all of those ways can be easily measured or seen, sufferers of mental illness are treated like pariahs, told they’re hypochondriacs, that it’s all in their heads, that they need to get over it, to move on, to cope. There are very few ways in which the severity of a person’s depression can be tested and measured, and yet, depression can impair both mental and physical function to a level that can be debilitating or even fatal. We may appear physically well, even healthy, but we are sick, just as sick as sufferers of any other disease – diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, kidney failure. Our wounds are so much more than skin deep, and they are not easy to treat. There is no band-aid fix for depression, no dressing one can apply over one’s anxieties, no way of suturing closed the little nicks and gaping gashes caused by post traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia or BPD.

But there are treatments – and with the right ones, sufferers of mental illness can lead fulfilling, even happy lives. We should not have to suffer. We should not have to act as though we’re not in pain. Things can be better. They’ve become better for me. They’re becoming better every day. I’m well enough to write this. I’m well enough to discard the act.

I write this in the hope that perhaps someone will read it and realise that they, too, do not have to suffer. I write it in the hope that perhaps someone will read it and realise that it’s okay to admit that they need help. I write it in the hope that we can stop acting. I write it in the hope that it will speak to someone, somewhere, so that they won’t have to go through what I did.

And I write it to show that I am not ashamed, and that I do not feel the need to hide this. I am not a failure or a weakling or a freak. By breaking my silence, I am showing that I will not be complicit in the stigmatisation and degradation of sufferers of mental illness. I am a human being suffering from a chronic disease. This is not a flaw of character – it is a sickness for which I can be treated. It is not all in my head. I will not pretend otherwise, not any more.

I am Jay, and this year, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am not ashamed of this label on my soul, painful though it is. We all have our burdens, and this is mine. I would rather shoulder it proudly, knowing that it does not make me lesser, than carry it in secret, thinking myself weak when its weight bears me down. I am sick and getting better. I am a work in progress. I am more and more complete every day.