Phil: Hey, this is Phil aka Corinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you’re listening to…
Both: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast.
Phil: Two years ago, I’m From Driftwood spoke with Joe and Tom about the important subject of mental health, and how as queer individuals, they navigated the sometimes murky waters of fear and anxiety. Let’s take a listen.
Joe: Hi, my name is Joe from Folsom, California. When I was in college, I did come out to my parents, but then after that I lost all momentum. I never really came out to my younger brother. I never came out to my extended family at all. And also, I was in college in a small town. Like there wasn’t a lot of like gay stuff in my life. I didn’t have any boyfriends. Like, there was nothing… there was no, like, queer life I was living. Cut to moving to New York City. Suddenly you’re in the thick of it all.
Tom: My first memory of anything gay-related was actually a TV ad when I was probably about four or five. And it was of a stormy, volcanic landscape with lightning in the background and an enormous tombstone, which I later learned had the word “AIDS” written on it.
Advertisement Voiceover: It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure. If you ignore it, it could be the death of you.
Tom: I think for the best part of the first. 18 years of my life, that was what gay was. It was sadness and illness and death.
Joe: I am going on dates. I have boyfriends, I’m learning, you know, who I am and what I’m into. And, like, all of a sudden, like, this gay world just, like, blossomed. And I was living this like huge gay life in New York and it was a lot of fun. But it also meant that all of a sudden, like, those phone calls home, like, people would ask, like, what, what are you doing tonight? And I was, like, kind of lying by omission a lot. And it created this kind of really deep sense of, like, shame and anxiety in me. I didn’t really know, like, what to do about it. I didn’t take any action to try and solve it. And I certainly didn’t address it as a problem.
Tom: And the only other experience I had of being gay in my early teens before I came out at 19 was a public toilet in my hometown, where I used to go down because people wrote stuff on the walls and it was quite exciting.
And I remember going down to that toilet once one Saturday afternoon on my way into another town. And there was a man at the urinals and I went to take a pee and he wasn’t peeing, he was masturbating. And I was sort of dumbstruck. And then he reached over and grabbed my arm and then went to move me into one of the cubicles and it was as if the spell had broken. And actually then I was terrified. And I pulled away and I went to leave. That was the only experience I had of anything gay again until I came out at 19 and began dating people.
Joe: Eventually, that anxiety started to show itself in strange ways. The first thing to go was that I started having a really hard time sleeping. So for me, what that meant was waking up really, really early in the morning, like far too early for it to make sense. Like 3:30 AM, 4:00 AM and you know, I would sit there and I would just… like my mind would just work and work and work and all this, like, gay guilt that I had never processed was just coursing, like, through my thoughts.
Tom: One of the other issues in my life during that time was that I suffered from depression, specifically anxiety, and it would often seize on certain things and I’d become paranoid and obsessive about them.
And as I continued to be a sexually active gay man, the anxiety and obsession used to focus on sex. And my mind would always jump back to that ad and to that dirty, disgusting toilet in my home.
Joe: You know, and I was raised religious. I’m, like, having conversations with God asking, “Why am I this way?” It should all be better. Right? Like, I’m here. I’m in the Oasis. Like, why am I still dealing with this? Shortly after, like, the sort of sleeplessness I started losing appetite. This one time I had friends in from out of town. These were friends from home.
I said to them, I was like, “Hey, why don’t we get Italian food? That’s a big part of being in New York. You guys will love it.” So, you know, I took them down Ninth Avenue and we stopped at this Italian restaurant that is… was a favorite of mine at the time. And I ordered a plate that I would ordinarily think I would enjoy. I was so, like, nervous, like, some – like just, you know, like every day I was so nervous at this point. Like it just – I had no appetite.
After a while people were like, “Joe, why aren’t you reading?”
And I said, “Oh, I think my, like, stomach is kind of upset.”
And they were like, “Oh, okay.” And like, I couldn’t really tell, like, maybe people were, like, wondering if something like bigger was happening.
Tom: I’d do all the things that people tell you not to. I’d Google symptoms, I’d go onto forums. I’d read about these things. I’d scare myself to death. I wouldn’t sleep. In the insidious depression works, it began to take over my entire life. And around the autumn time of 2005, it got really bad. I stopped sleeping altogether. I’d lay awake, panicking, worrying.
I did the thing that seemed like a solution, which was to get tested. But of course, all of that was symptomatic rather than the cause. So I would be momentarily happy with the result. And then the doubts would creep in again. What if it had been… if they’ve made an error? What if someone else’s blood had been taken?
Joe: This went on for a long time and I was, like, sleeping and eating only enough to stay alive. And then one day I had this kind of, like, really scary thought where I was like, “You know, what if like everything that’s happening is irreversible?” And I was like, “Can I, like, be trusted to be alone? Like, will I just like snap one day?” All of a sudden, I was just checking in and checking in with myself to just make sure that I was like holding it together.
And then one day my boyfriend and I, we went to this party down in Chelsea. And I was already, like, a nervous wreck on the way there, because I’m just like a walking panic attack at that point. And we get to the building and we go up to a really beautiful apartment. Nice party. And it’s on a high floor. It has a wonderful view and it has a deck.
Tom: And I went back from work to my parents for Christmas, having by that point, probably not slept properly for almost two months. I vaguely remember one day where I just sort of shut down. And I have flashes of my dad coming back to find me sitting on the sofa, pretty much Non-responsive. i remember that little bit. And then him bundling me into the car, taking me to some kind of emergency GP clinic. Him explaining what had happened. Him crying. I remember that. That’s essentially where I stayed for three months, in the spare room in my parents’ house.
And then, we all decided that I probably needed to do what I hadn’t done, and was way overdue, was to find a therapist.
Joe: I was like, I have to make it through this party because if I snapped during this party, what I could do is, like, run and jump off this deck. The moment I had that thought, I just had this, like, this surreal flush of fear. And it was, I guess, too much for me. And I ended up fainting in the center of the party. And vomiting, too. Everything that had been keeping me so tense for months, I think it just, like, snapped in that moment and I got lightheaded and I just went down hard.
Phil: Whenever you have to fragment your life or section your life off in such a way, it’s so dangerous. It’s really dangerous. And it’s sad because I think the other part of it is that you’re not just, you know, sectioning off part of your life. You are also not dealing with the fact that you’re not living a very integrated life, but like your life is disintegrated. And that… that also is very dangerous and plays – very much played a role to me in his depression, his insomnia, his anxiety. It all played a role.
Alex: Yeah. The story really resonated with me. I could feel the anxiety because I know how that feels. And for me, my anxiety is so physical and I’ve even had…I, when I was a teenager, I had panic attacks. And so hearing his story really talk about going to this party and getting lightheaded – whew, I’m like that – what you said about it being disintegrated, like it… it can feel like everything is happening so fast and then you start to panic and you feel that intense anxiety.
And so one of the things about mental health issues is that a lot of times, because they’re so stigmatized, people are also kind of in the closet about their struggles with mental health. And so it’s almost like there are these two concurrent paths where you’re not telling anybody that you’re feeling anxious because you’re afraid that people might think you’re, you know, quote-unquote crazy or some other term like that. And at the same time, you know, you’re not coming out because you’re also afraid of that kind of rejection.
It just, to me, it feels like a pot of water that’s just waiting to boil over. And like, that was the moment when it happened for him.
Joe: On the way home, like, so my boyfriend’s talking to me and we – I had kind of said to him, like, oh, you know, I’m, like, not sleeping… or I’m having a hard time or whatever. But he was like, Joe, “What is going on?”
I had had one friend who had ever talked about going to therapy in front of me. So I called him and I just said, “Hey, like, I think I need to see a counselor or talk something out because like I’m having a really tough time and it’s been going on for too long. And I’m not sure what the next step is.” He actually wasn’t seeing a therapist at this time. But he had a friend who was seeing a therapist that, you know, he had heard was like helpful.
So I went in. I’m sure it’s a pretty like standard office, right? Like, she had a chair. I was seated on some sort of like couch ottoman thing. She was probably giving me just the simplest, like, coping mechanisms, like, ways to, like, sort of detach yourself from your thoughts and recognize that you were, like, going into sort of like a panic mode and to breathe and to move through it.
And getting to like getting some things off my chest made all the difference. Having these little tools to like stay calm made all the difference. Making a plan of, like, how to address, like, what was really bothering me…
Like, I did end up like restarting conversations about my sexuality in my life with my family. I was talking about it a little bit more openly, making it a point to, like, talk a bit… a little bit more openly and not like, feel, like I was hiding all of that. And I went to like eight sessions for eight weeks with… with this therapist. And at the end of the eight weeks, I was, like, doing so much better that I was, like, I think I’m okay to just, like, try this on my own again. And she said, okay. And it’s been a lot better for me ever since.
Tom: So we did some research and I found a therapist in London who dealt in cognitive behavioral therapy. And for the first time someone said to me, okay, “Instead of talking yourself out of this, instead of saying, ‘Don’t be stupid. You haven’t taken these risks. You’re going to be fine,’” the therapist said, “Okay, you get the result and it is positive. Do you die?”
And I said, “No.”
And he said, “So you don’t die straight away.”
I said, “No.”
He said, “So, and in fact, actually, does anything else really change? Do your friends and family disappear?”
And I was like, “No, they don’t.”
He was like, “Then work with that.”
And in some ways that was a breakthrough because it meant that I had… this bogeyman under the bed was something I had to sort of pull out and hold by its shoulders and look at properly. So I kept seeing the therapist, stayed on my meds. And actually the combination of the two was great because the meds leveled me out and the therapy gave me an outlet.
But also what I realized at that point was I didn’t really have any gay friends. For all of these years, my overriding impression of gay men was that ad or that man in the public toilet or any number of films I watched in my late teens, which invariably were about gay men getting AIDS. So I thought, you know, one of the things to do here is to make an effort to try and change that.
Phil: I was really so interested in watching the process that this therapist had with Tom. And it was so interesting to watch the thought process that he was experiencing and what the thought process that the therapist had introduced, and how that was introduced as a way to help him to think through what was happening to him in those feelings. You know, I thought that was really interesting.
Alex: It’s amazing how therapists or having that neutral person can completely reframe how you’re thinking about something. And one thing that I really appreciated about his story was saying it’s okay to seek out help if you mean it. And I know that getting therapy is still, even today, so stigmatized. But it really can just be so helpful to have that person who can help you access the kind of language to talk about it or help reframe these kinds of issues.
I think sometimes they take for granted what it’s like to now live in New York city with a large community of queer people around me. And both of these stories reminded me how isolating it can be when you’re first coming out, especially if you’re growing up somewhere where those are the only things that you have to compare to. And just also that no wonder LGBTQ+ people are experiencing mental health issues when you are so isolated, so afraid of rejection from your community and from your family.
I mean, those are – before we even get to anything biological that causes any mental health issue, like, those alone are so hard to handle. And just even the social anxiety of having to navigate talking about being LGBTQ with people who you think might respond in a bad way… that stuff is really upsetting. So I just went with a reminder to me.
Phil: Wow. You know, this makes me think and want to talk about what I see when I think about some of the mental health issues happening in the trans community. I feel like for black trans women in particular, you know, as we know, they are just being, like, decimated in terms of, like, being attacked, you know, murdered.
Oftentimes I, you know, some of the trans women I know, come across so beautifully strong and fierce. And it’s like, there’s an incredible strength there. You have to be playing to that strength so much that you’re not able to be… to have the human side of how scary it is and how frightening it is to have to experience some of what we experience.
You know what I mean? I feel like we can hear about all the fierceness and all the amazingness, but these are, you know, we’re talking about people. People with emotions and people with real trauma that has to be processed and it has to be looked at. And I think that sometimes we need to look past the fierceness and make sure that, you know, our sisters are okay. You know, everyone’s okay. Like, Are you okay? I know you’re fierce. You can be fierce and not okay, too.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah.
Phil: You can be both. It’s okay.
Alex: What you’re saying almost makes me feel like there is this cycle that exists where folks who are living at the intersections of different identities or who face casual, systemic, all kinds of discrimination on a regular basis because of their identity, that they almost, when they’re coping with mental health issues have to veil those issues because then of the perception that it could, again, feed into forms of discrimination. I mean, it is so… there are so many layers to it, but it just seems like, you know, it’s another one of these ways in which somebody doesn’t get to, like, bring their whole self in terms of their identity and their mental health, to wherever they are.
Phil: Yeah, I agree. And the other thing is like, you know, when you’re talking about folks that are living at that intersection, we were also talking about people who don’t always have access to the care that they need, right? So then now you’re talking about also not even having access to, you know, mental health professionals that can really help, right? So you have to seek the help, but also, do you even have access to it?
You know, we have, sometimes, have to look out for each other.. Like, you know, I want to be the person that’s like, I think something’s not right. And I think you need to see somebody. What can we do to get you some… some help?
Alex: I feel like that can be such a hard conversation to have with friends, because I feel like it’s something that’s like… to be a good friend, you want to be able to say that to someone when you know that they’re struggling, but it can be so tough to really have a real conversation about that. Like, I think a lot of times when people think about therapy, they also think about you’re going to be like digging into all of your childhood traumas and it’s going to be really, really hard. And I feel like that’s understandably a huge detriment to therapy.
Like I was having a… I was talking to my therapist about this and she told me that if you have a therapist who isn’t going to respect your boundaries and is going to make you go places where you don’t want to go, like, you shouldn’t have to do that. And so I feel like there are also just misconceptions about what getting help even looks like. Because it doesn’t… it certainly can be that, but it doesn’t have to be that. And I feel like getting help and finding the right match, it’s like going on a million first-time dates or something, which, like, listen, I understand why people don’t want to do that, but you can like really… it can be anything that you want it to be if you find somebody that you want to work with. This is just me. Now I’m just giving a Ted talk. I’m like, I’m so sorry.
Phil: I want it. I’m here for it. I love all of it. But also I will say this… I’m not in therapy right now, but I will get to therapy in a hot minute. I will not hesitate to call up a therapist if I need it. Yeah.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah.
Phil: Not in the least. I have no problem going to therapy. I have no problem talking about myself and looking at it. Even if it’s, sometimes it’s hard, I have no problem doing that. I have been, I feel like… and that’s the other thing about therapy. It’s like, it’s not like you’re in therapy, that’s it, you’re done. It’s like some days, there are periods of your life where you’ll be in therapy and periods maybe you… you may not. You know? And I feel like there’s no shame in going back when you’re like, I got to work on some things. You know, I have this anger I have to work on, or I have this anxiety I need to work on.
There is no shame in picking up a phone if you can. And you know, and also I would also say, I think when you… if you feel like you don’t have access, there are so many services out there. They have a sliding scale. There’s so many ways to get the help. But don’t… don’t act like, you know, looking for the help, just because you’re… because you’re concerned about that. Try it. I mean, there are resources that, you know, people can find and get the help they need But get the help, please.
Alex: Yeah. That’s such a good point. There are so many different kinds of… of services available to people.
Alex: That’s so true. You know, something I feel like – this past year has been, like, especially difficult, just because, I mean, there are so many reasons. Of course there’s the pandemic. There is the racial justice movement of the past year and the trauma of the police brutality we witnessed. There is also the political polarization that we’ve experienced over this past year. There is the vast unemployment. There are the hundreds of thousands of people who have died from COVID. I mean, it’s like the list goes on and on of really tragic, traumatizing things that are going to take a really long time to get over.
And I just feel like, I don’t know anyone in my life who… maybe I knew a couple of people, but I… I feel like everybody I know is really struggling with their mental health during this time.
Phil: Right. And, you know, in… in the two stories we looked at, we’re talking about people who have experienced anxiety, depression, and I think that we can think about mental health as this thing where somebody has to be on medication and they have to be in talk therapy and all these things. Like what you’re talking about, some of these folks we’re talking about, like almost anyone that we know has experienced something that has affected their mental health in some way.
So there… the spectrum of what mental health issues look like is very vast and we need to make room for all of it. And we also need to understand that all of it’s important and all of it needs to be looked at and support it in some way. So, I mean, right now with COVID times, I think a lot of people are struggling with the isolation, with not being able to see their friends and their family. You know, they’re struggling with, you know, like you said, losing jobs, they’ve lost loved ones. You know, it’s, there’s a lot that’s going on right now mental health-wise in this country right now, I think we’re struggling. Like. really, like, we’re… we’re struggling a lot.
Alex: Completely, like, there’s just so much happening at any time that it feels like it’s difficult to kind of break through the noise to really talk about it or get to the heart of it.
Phil: You know, I just want to go back to something you said, even thinking about what happened this past summer with what was going on with police brutality, you know, people of color are experiencing their own set of mental health issues. And some of that is this the idea of feeling like we have to have answers. People are like, Well, what do we do? We don’t have answers. You know, we don’t have answers. Like this has been going for a very long time and, you know, we can’t be, you know, we can’t be… have the responsibility to have to figure this all out, but I think that, you know, even there, you can see that being a thing that’s really weighing heavily on people of color. And there are mental health issues going on there because just from being – you know, some of that’s exhaustion. I mean, that’s just exhaustion of what’s happening. And also the notion that it’s been happening for a while and people are now only suddenly take notice of it. So that in itself is pretty traumatic.
Alex: I mean, it sounds just incredibly exhausting, as you said, and frustrating too, on top of that, like just trying to take care of yourself, witnessing everything happening in the news, you know?
Phil: Exactly, exactly. And, you know, and also seeing the images and the things over and over.
Phil: That’s extremely traumatic. So you’ve mental health, but we talk about it. We can talk about it from so many angles. You know, one of the other things I think I want to mention is we talked about the medication and how there’s medication involved. And I feel like… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being medicated. I think you use the tools you need to help out.
I mean, I would hope that it’s being coupled with, like, some level of talk therapy, because if I was taking medication, I wouldn’t want to be on that medication for the rest of my life. The hope is I’m using it to get to a certain point so that I can then take over and I had the tools of what I need to feel like I’m okay.
But, you know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with medication. I, you know, I would hope that it’s not something that has to used indefinitely, you know?
Alex: Yeah. I feel like the thing that you’re getting at here is that there’s no one solution, and this is not easy. And it’s also like, again to what you said earlier, it’s not like you go to therapy once and you’re like, that’s it.
Like, I have solved all my problems. I am done here. You know, it’s like, it’s really, it’s something that ebbs and flows and changes and flares up all the time. So there’s just no, like, one easy answer here.
Tom: Rather than see men as the things I wanted to have sex with and the things that would kill me, actually go out and see them as people. I started working for an online magazine interviewing… interviewing people involved in gay initiatives and reviewing and just broadening my circle. And actually, you know, in the end with the combination of the therapy and just seeing other gay men as people to talk to, to have a laugh with…
Joe: Kind of funny, I turned this corner in thinking about, like, mental crisis. It’s like, you know, if you have some sort of fiscal element or physical crisis, you go to the doctor, you get it treated. And when you’re fine, again, then you, like, go on with your life.
And I think that’s the approach I try and take now. Where it’s like your, your thoughts, like you’re… you know, you react to your situation and to your circumstance. And if things are really difficult, like, you might have, like, some mental health things to address. And that’s totally fine. And I don’t think that message gets shared enough with people.
When I look back, the thing sad about is that I let it go on for so long. So I would have urged my younger self to, like, try and take steps sooner and try and, like, just start talking to people sooner. Don’t wait until you’re in crisis. Like if something is really troubling you act fast. I read an amazing
Phil: I read an amazing article that you wrote. I want you to talk a little bit about this article, tell the I’m From Driftwood audience about your article. I want to hear it from you firsthand. Thank you so
Alex: Aw, well thank you so much.
Phil: So excited to hear about it
Alex: So on top of just the barrage of things we have talked about related to mental health over the past year, one of the things that I noticed is that as a person who is highly social and enjoys talking to people and being around people, I was really struggling with the ways that those avenues for expression were completely shut down. Whereas my wife is much more of an introvert and so she actually doesn’t need to be around people to feel recharged.
So I wrote a story on NBC that is basically about how introverts and extroverts are dealing with the pandemic very differently. And one of the misconceptions I had going into this story is that I thought, Okay, I’m having this hard time. You know, not only do I already have these anxiety issues, there are real tragedies we’re coping with, but also it’s just because I am not able to go out and like see friends who are normally that pressure relief for me.
What I learned from talking to psychologists is one of the reasons why extroverts are struggling is because we’ve lost all of these regular social interactions in our lives. For example, sitting on a subway and somebody starts… sees a concert poster and starts talking to you about the poster. That’s an interaction there. Walking in the street and just seeing a lot of people, that can be something that gives people a lot of energy. Just being around the normal kind of sights and sounds of the world is something that oftentimes recharges extroverts and can make you feel better and good.
And when you don’t have that, you feel really, really depleted. So this time, whereas it may be less of an adjustment for introverts who are just… prefer or tend to want to spend more time alone or in smaller group settings, that release valve for extroverts has temporarily dissipated. And so that just may be one in many reasons why people are having a hard time.
The other thing, too, for introverts is that because everybody’s housing situations have had to reshuffle during this time, now a lot of people are living with people that they normally wouldn’t spend time with, or having to move in with different folks. And so for introverts who really value their quiet time with themself, this is also kind of the inverse of what extroverts are dealing with, where all of a sudden there’s all of this stimulation and socialization that they’re kind of thrown into the mix of. So they may also be having a difficult time.
I feel like just learning this from the experts really helped me understand part of why I was feeling drained so much because I feel like normally when I feel bad about something, I want to, like, go talk about it. I want to just be around people to take my mind off of it. I’m not the kind of person who is like really wants that alone time for extended periods of time. And it just helped make a lot of sense.
Phil: I love the article. The article is fantastic, though, and I think it speaks to something that doesn’t get talked about enough, which is like the people who are paired up, who are introvert/extrovert, paired up. It’s like really… it’s a really cool thing that you’re like highlighted that I don’t think gets talked about enough.
Alex: Yeah. I mean, a whole other conversation. Another pandemic life conversation we could have is the pairing up but that will have to stay for another episode.
Phil: If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to reach out and get help. LGBTQ youth can contact The Trevor Project at www.thetrevorproject.org. For everyone else, please reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting LGBTQ to 741741. Available 24 hours, 7 days a week.
The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corinne
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Andy Egan-Thorpe.
Phil: It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, a worldwide nonprofit LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s Founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
Phil: I’m From Driftwood is a nonprofit organization, and this Podcast was funded in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
Alex: Additional funding is provided by TD Bank and Heritage of Pride New York.
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Alex: Thanks for listening y’all.