Story Update: Tom Wicker On Mental Health, Self-Care & The State Of Theater During Coronavirus.

by Tom Wicker

Nathan: Welcome to this week’s Story Update. Today, we’re going to be speaking with Tom Wicker, who is all the way over in the UK. But before we speak to Tom, let’s take a look back at his story.

Tom: My name is Tom Wicker, and I’m from Lewis in East Sussex in the United Kingdom.

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 and with lightning in the background and an enormous tombstone, which I later learned had the word “AIDS” written on it.

Announcer: It’s a deadly disease and there is no known cure.  blood disease, and there is no known cure. If you ignore AIDS, it could be the death of you.

Tom: I think for the best part of the first 19 years of my life, that was what gay was. It was sadness and illness and death. 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 paying, 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.

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 become paranoid and obsessive about them. And as I continue 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 hometown.

I’d do all the things that people tell you not to, like Google symptoms. I’d go on to forums. I’d read about these things. I’d scare myself  half to death. I wouldn’t sleep. In the insidious way 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, sure that I had caught something. 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 will be momentarily happy with the result. And then the doubt to creep in again. What if it had been… what if they’ve made an error? What if someone else’s blood had been tested?

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. 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.”

He said, “So you don’t die straight away.”

I said, “No.”

He said, “So in fact, actually, does anything else really change? Do your friends and family disappear?”

I was like, “No, they don’t.”

He’s 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 right 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. 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 and doing people involved in, gay initiatives, and reviewing and just broadening my circle and actually in the only end with the combination of the therapy and just seeing other gay men, as people to talk to, to have a laugh with, and to be a part of community, which made all the difference.

Nathan: Alright. Welcome Tom Wicker. How’s it going? How have you been these past… I think it was six or seven years ago that we filmed your story?

Tom: That’s a long period of time, but I think so. What have I done since? I left London. I now live in Brighton on the coast of the UK, which is historically known as one of if not the gay capital of the country. So I’m in the right place. I bought my own flat last summer.

Nathan: Congratulations!

Tom: Thank you.

Nathan: Wow,  that’s a… it’s been a good six to seven years for you.

Tom: Yeah. I finally managed to earn enough money to behave like a grownup.

Nathan: Well, I’m glad to hear. So there were a few things about your story that I’d love to follow up on. I feel like one of the biggest issues that contributed to the anxiety that you talked about in your story was that ad, and I know there were some other factors involved as well, but I feel like over time, especially since the eighties, representation of the queer community has gotten so much better. And we don’t see as many images like that about the gay community. Do you think that’s generally helping young queer people accept themselves younger and, you know, do you think younger people are experiencing less anxiety than you did as a result of that?

Tom: Oh, definitely. I mean, you just need to look at the plays, musicals on stage, TV shows recently, they’re showing such a diversity of what it means to be queer and young in every aspect of life. It’s not defined by one particular issue. And I think that’s a really healthy way to see ourselves as fully rounded people. I wish that I’d had that kind of variety of choice of role models and actors and people in the public eye to look up to when I was a teenager experiencing the issues and the fears that I had that I spoke about in my story.

Nathan: Yeah. I think it’s gotten a lot better, too. And I don’t want to, like, bundle everything that contributed to your anxiety to that one ad. So what do you, whenever, you know, you hear about young queer people today who are struggling either to come out or just simply to exist, what do you think that they might need to hear, that you wish that you heard when you were younger?

Tom: I know that the phrase “It gets better” has become something of a cliche, but I wished that someone had told me as a teenager that there is a community waiting with open arms to embrace you, however alone and lonely you might feel.

And also that family isn’t necessarily who you’re, who you’re born into. I was fortunate with mine, but I know that not everyone is. But we make our families through the people we meet and closeness and intimacy don’t have to be where you start, they can be where you choose to be. I think that’s what I would say.

Nathan: I love that.  I read a quote and I wish I know who said it, but they said that a family isn’t your blood – those are your relatives – and family is who you go and have these experiences with and create yourself, and it sounds similar to what you just said.

So what else is going on in your life right now that you want to share that is different? I know we’re in the middle of the pandemic and you know, you’re in the UK, but what’s… any other exciting or different things in your life going on?

Tom: I mean, it’s been an interesting time. I turned 40 about a month into lockdown and it feels weird even saying that out loud, but yep, I am a 40 year old. I have to keep saying it and I’ll believe it. And that was a strange experience because I had many plans for parties. Obviously all of those fell through. I’ve grown very accustomed to the idea of a zoom hangover, certainly on my birthday.. And a nice thing that happened also on my birthday was that my brother had his first child, my niece. So she comprehensively stole my thunder by arriving in this world rather than just turning an age in it. So, but that’s been lovely and it was quite difficult for the first six or seven weeks when we were very isolating not to meet her, but it was lovely to finally meet her a couple of weeks ago. And that was my first step towards being like, I was reconnecting with my, my family and my friends again.

Nathan: That’s great. Congratulations on, on being a guncle.

Tom: Thank you.

Nathan: So, I want to… you really touched on so many important parts in your story, really about growing up, as just a gay person. And were there any other parts of your story in terms of mental health and overcoming those challenges that you had that you want to talk about or address, or, you know, not even within the minutes of your story, but how that’s continued today and over the past six or seven years of, you know, basically any advice on how to improve queer people’s mental health.

Tom: I think there are… I mean, obviously I don’t want to talk on behalf of people with mental health issues because there’s such a variety and diversity of things that people confront and face, and it is different for every single person. So there is no one fixed rule about how to behave, either if you have mental health issues or with someone that does have them.

I think from my own personal experience, what proved to be toxic at the time that I was seriously ill was shame. I think I felt ashamed of the reasons that I was feeling anxious. I think I was ashamed of the fact that I had become so obsessed with my sexual health. And I think shame means you don’t speak out and your loneliness is multiplied by a hundred times.

And I think when you live that much inside your own head, it’s a big empty, echoing place. So I think whenever people are struggling and whenever they feel able to, and in whatever way they can, they can reach out and talk to other people. It’s incredible what a difference that can make. But again, I’d say that has to be your own pace and you shouldn’t feel forced into a conversation you’re not ready to have yet.

Nathan: That’s great. So don’t keep it to yourself, speak out, be open and reach out to others for help. Is there anything else that’s going on in your life that you want to share? Any other life updates besides, you know, buying a place and turning 40 and becoming an uncle?

Tom: Oh my God. What more do you want?

Nathan: What about professionally? What are you up to these days?

Tom: Well, I mean, I don’t think I mentioned it in my story, but I was an arts journalist, specifically a theater reviewer. And now obviously, as we know, on both sides of the Atlantic, theater isn’t really happening at the moment, but I am trying to navigate that. And I’ve still been interviewing theater makers and I’ve been so impressed by what a passionate and impassioned bunch of people they are.

I mean, during the course of my work, I’ve interviewed a number of queer artists who have an inspiration, and I know that they are still looking for avenues, whether that be digital platforms or outdoor performances. I think the spirit that I admire in the LGBT community and the friends that I’ve made is very rife in the theater world as well. And I think so much is happening in the world that I think one thing that feels optimistic is that people have a burning desire to keep improving and moving and forging forward, even though we seem to be facing adversity on every front at the moment.

Nathan: Yeah. So what about – what’s hopefulness in the future? Like what, what do you, in terms of arts and, you know, everything has changed so much. What do you see, you know, what light at the end of the tunnel do you see in terms of art?

Tom: Yeah, it’s, it’s tricky. I mean, I think certainly theaters are spaces that need to be filled with people. That’s in the essence. And I think no one really knows when that will happen again, but I’ve been really impressed by the way that theater companies and artists have embraced digital platforms, putting their work online, whether that be YouTube or streaming platforms. I really admire the way that people adapt. I think maybe that’s the one quality that I think will see us through this: our amazing ability to adapt and form communities and find other avenues and outlets for the things we need to say, the things you want to show in a very changed world.

Nathan: Absolutely. Our resiliency and ability to adapt. I love that. Well, Tom, is there anything else that you wanted to share?

Tom: Just that I know that everyone is having an incredibly tough time, but there is solidarity in recognizing that. And I think just to keep communicating. I mean, platforms like Zoom, Facebook, Skype, just keep talking, keep seeing each other’s faces, and just try and hold on.

Nathan: I love that. Thanks, Tom. And if Tom, some people might have questions for you, if they do, y’all leave them in the comments and Tom will check back periodically if that’s alright and maybe answer them. And if you want to watch Tom story again and any others, we have thousands more on our Facebook, on Instagram and on our website, of course.

So, check back next week for our next Story Update. Thanks.

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