A few months ago, a friend invited me to a talk on Emotional Resilience that he would give. I accepted without giving it much thought. When there, it turned out that the talk was organized as a special session for members of a mental health support group. Despite my little confusion, I decided to stay.
After experiencing depression and anxiety over the past 10 years, my mental health has been dominated by the wrong, uninformed and unfortunate Colombian social notion that depression, or whatever it resembles, is not really a problem. I have been “solving” these issues simply by letting them ‘pass’, crying for a couple of nights and telling myself that “this will go away” on its own. I silently had these reflections while the attendees peacefully interacted with each other: they made funny comments, laughed, hugged each other…
The session started with some words of the group leader and a round of introductions. This was followed by a short and simple question, one that would change everything: “How was your week?”. The room remained quiet for a bit. Of course, my week had had ups and downs, but nothing really worth sharing, I thought. I decided to simply listen. The stories behind the smiles I had seen just a few minutes before included mental and physical abuse, suicide attempts, eating disorders, bipolarity, anxiety and depression, linked to homosexuality, chaotic homes and toxic relationships. There were cries, hugs and emotions in the air. I still didn’t say a word.
The talk turned out to be a workshop, so we did introspection and self-esteem exercises with paper, markers, role playing, etc. At the end of the session, some decided to go for lunch, but the ice hadn’t broken enough yet for me. As I waited for the taxi, I looked at them and, remembering the session, I felt overwhelmed. “What just happened?”
At home, I had a bittersweet sensation: on the one hand, I didn’t expect to hear these stories. On the other hand, I wanted to go back. But was it worth coming back if, in general, I felt good? I was going through a lot of changes, but I was fine…
I continued attending. The ice started to break despite me not sharing much about myself. I was just there, mostly listening. I started forging friendships and building trust. I felt genuinely good and I enjoyed spending time with the group. One day, out of nowhere, it happened: after some time, I had a horrible anxiety attack. I had anticipated it. It happened for everything and for nothing: for living in a new country, not understanding things, being away from home, not taking care of myself, feeling alone. With tears on my face, I texted on the support group’s chat and described how I felt. Reading their words of encouragement was extremely comforting because they knew almost exactly how I felt. They had experienced it. They have become stronger. Their advice was different in knowledge and depth compared to that given by friends or relatives. They went beyond the “Cheer up!”s or the “It happens to all of us, let it go.” They understood me. They got it! Then, only then, I stopped feeling like I was alone, and my anxiety started to dissipate.
Much of my anxiety is rooted in experiences I had during my childhood. In addition to dealing with how we look, our social navigation and our family dramas, LGBT people have one more layer on their resilience shields: our sexuality. As a result, we have come up with pain mitigation strategies on our own, often alone, without guidance or references. We may perceive depression as inevitable and connect our anxiety with insecurities fueled by a self-esteem splintered by years of school bullying, gross attitudes and rude comments from family members, pretending to be someone else, suppressing small yet meaningful desires like speaking in a certain way or wanting to hold hands with your loved one in the street.
This leads to a vulnerable mental health state that cannot be ignored. This, of course, is not exclusive to LGBT people, as in Colombia at least 4.7% of the population suffers from depression, and it is estimated that at least 40.1% of Colombians suffer or will suffer from a mental disorder. However, compared to heterosexual people, LGBTs are more likely to experience mental health issues or commit suicide. Even so, stigma around these issues within (and outside) the community remains. We are afraid to admit that we feel sadder than usual, or that we cry more often for no reason, or that suddenly we hyperventilate and can’t breathe. Maybe because we’ve experienced it before to the point of normalizing it, because that’s what we know, because that’s the life we think we were destined to have…
But this is not the case. We can be better. Attending the group’s sessions have allowed me to notice aspects of myself that let me understand my personality better. I have realized, for instance, that I tend to display an excessive confidence that is as fragile as it is apparent, one I am fully aware of because men “have” to be like that: confident, radical, decisive, unhesitant. This false high self-esteem is reinforced by an aura of pragmatism that I have sculpted and polished to be thin and sharp, preventing me from emotionally engaging with other people. I discard any threat, real or fictional, with abrupt, quick decisions in order to shield myself so as to not having to deal with it because it would mean reviewing my emotions. Then I am hard on myself for being responsible for my own loneliness. And just like when I was a little kid, walking one more kilometer to avoid running into a random group of bullies, I have done my best to escape, moving from city to city, merging my desires to run away with my personal and professional aspirations. In short, I’ve become a “cocky” lonely wanderer robot.
I don’t write this with pity or sadness nor I seek to victimize myself. On the contrary, I do so with optimism and hope. Putting these thoughts out there has been a therapeutic, necessary and even exciting exercise. It is so now as well, as I write this for you to read it. I may be describing something similar to your reality. I may not. There’s no single way to deal with who we are. None is better than the other. What’s important is to know that the person who can best guarantee your own well-being is you.
You don’t have to do it alone. So, how was your week?
*Original text in Spanish published on Sentiido.