November 3rd, 2003.
That’s the day I tried to kill myself.
It’s not a date I forget easily. Obviously I didn’t succeed, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But I tried. Ten Tylenol PM. I’d meant to take the bottle, then decided it was the worst idea I’d ever had.
I’m sure you’re picturing me as some tired, scared teenager, struggling with my sexuality.
I was 23.
And the only thing I was struggling with was my mental health, in an abusive home environment with the very person who goaded me into taking the pills. The person who watched me spend days sobbing, nearly catatonic, after two decades of parental emotional manipulation and physical abuse culminated in a psychological break. The person who told me I, with my tears, was trying to intimidate and manipulate her. Who told me I, her broken son, huddled in a corner in a trembling ball, was inflicting violence on her by existing and experiencing pain. Experiencing confusion, because I needed help and didn’t know where to turn, so the only way out was in the bottle of pills she put in my hand.
I haven’t known where to turn for a long time. Haven’t known who could tell me that it was okay to love myself—me, this bisexual, androgynous, mixed-race man of color, this survivor of child sexual abuse, rape, parental and relationship abuse. Haven’t known who could tell me I have value in a world that privileges people who are everything I’m not. Because for a long time, I didn’t know mental healthcare was an option, because it’s just not something we talk about.
Not in POC communities in the U.S., and particularly not among LGBTQIA+ Black and Non-Black POC—for too many reasons to name. Cultural. Social. Economic. Pressure and dismissal from external privilege; from majority populations who don’t see the pain we live in, who don’t think that pain is for us. Hush, they say. Hush. We have tropes to live up to: strong Black person, well-adjusted Asian, noble Native, spicy Latinx. Tropes that give us no latitude for our complexity, brokenness, humanity. Are you sure you aren’t just sad because you’re queer? Mental health professionals who want to lump everything in under one fallacious umbrella. Don’t admit it. Don’t be weak. Don’t give anyone another reason to judge, to shame. You don’t have time for that. Work. Children. Family. Friends. The illusion of a life. Who can afford it? The car’s busted again and the credit card bill just came due. Minimum wage isn’t enough; no time for a second or third job. That cough can wait. That crippling, painful anxiety? Tough it up and deal. Everyone’s got problems. Maybe next paycheck. There are more important things to worry about. You’d be fine if you’d just try harder. Aren’t you people supposed to be tough?
With everything crushing down on you…who has the luxury to be sad?
After my suicide attempt, my absentee father came rushing to my bedside, sobbing. My mother watched, her mouth twisted in an angry knot. Hush, hush, she said. We don’t want anyone to know. Don’t this. Don’t that. Don’t tell her the real reason I did it.
Don’t be anything but another queer statistic, instead of a young man caving under the pressure of her mental instability.
That’s the thing; this was generational. This is what happens when POC, particularly LGBTQIA+ POC, have no access to mental healthcare. My mother’s pain, her scars, became my pain. My scars. Her undiagnosed disorders fueled my undiagnosed disorders. And here we were, caught in this dance: her shackled in the yoke of years without support, me shaped to fit the troughs and furrows her sharp edges carved.
And the entire time, I was silently begging for someone to see me. Help me.
My first lifeline came when I was released from the hospital after less than 24 hours with no observation. Mandatory therapy, on my mother’s insurance. Those sessions were the only time in my life I’d had access to mental healthcare. They were the first time I knew there were people out there with the ability to help me create a framework for survival. But the sessions ended a few months later, when my mother put me out on the street and I had no one left but myself.
Since then I’ve dealt with my mental health on my own—meaning I haven’t dealt with it at all. A self-employed writer, first with no insurance and then, later, minimal ACA coverage; I’ve struggled for over ten years with the choice between the cost of living and the cost of feeling alive. I’ve worked my arse off to better my situation. Torn myself to pieces. Scrabbled for everything I had. Again and again, it’s been ripped away. I’ve crumbled. I’ve broken. And when I’ve begged for a moment’s grace, for room to breathe…people looked at my skin color, my long lashes and full lips and a certain sloe-eyed way about me, and said no. No. Not you, never you.
We know it’s harder.
We just don’t have to care.
When I lived in Chicago, there were two LGBTQIA+ mental health centers. Both a $40-50 Uber drive from my impoverished neighborhood. One, sliding scale with a years-long wait list. The other? $250 a session, didn’t take my ACA insurance, and wanted to lock me into a session a week. The intake specialist I spoke to didn’t understand why it wasn’t possible. She couldn’t fathom that I wasn’t unwilling to spend the money.
I just didn’t have it.
That barrier of understanding is omnipresent. So many can’t fathom that not only do we not have access to resources, but we don’t have the capacity to take advantage when they’re there. There’s a fundamental disconnect when discussing the mental health needs of the underprivileged, and the hard choices we face. There’s a subtle implication that we just aren’t trying hard enough to help ourselves.
How much harder do we have to try to win an ounce of human consideration?
Mine isn’t an isolated story. It’s happening every day, all around you, in POC communities everywhere. Therapy might help us cope, but when therapy takes food from the mouths of our loved ones, sometimes the choice isn’t a choice at all. When you only have room to think about short-term needs, it’s easy to choose material costs over personal costs—but those personal costs add up. We spend more of ourselves than we can afford to lose. The roofs over our heads are bought with pieces of our hearts, our health, our lives. Every time we say not today and try to cope, we lose more of our ability to cope. Every time we hear hush, hush another piece of our beauty is buried out of reach. Sometimes all we have left is the desperate hope that if we just get by for one more day, tomorrow it will get better.
Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you slap a Band-Aid on it, and limp on. Writing has always been my Band-Aid; my distraction; my way of holding on to some of my own beauty. It’s not perfect. Sometimes it doesn’t help. But it makes me feel less alone, to write characters who deal with my struggles in a medium where no one will say hush, hush because fiction somehow makes it okay.
But when it doesn’t work I’m left in the dark, struggling to find my way.
And I can’t help but think if I’d had access to mental healthcare as a child, if someone had acknowledged my depression and PTSD, if someone had seen me…I’d never have taken those pills in the first place.
The Pulse nightclub shooting brought LGBTQIA+ mental healthcare into greater visibility and stronger focus. The attack struck all our hearts, but it’s hard to ignore the target. Hard to ignore the majority of ethnic minorities among the victims. In the aftermath, mental health professionals stepped forward to ask are you okay? Where does it hurt? What do you need? Because that was the price tag, for a moment of care. Deaths numbered in the dozens. Apparently we don’t deserve empathy until we literally bleed to death on national television.
Mental healthcare shouldn’t be limited to response to trauma. It shouldn’t be a privilege, limited by access, cost, capability. It shouldn’t be a point of shame, silenced both inside and outside our intersecting communities.
And we shouldn’t have to die en masse for someone to acknowledge a need not just in LGBTQIA+, but in LGBTQIA+ POC.
How many more lives will it cost to buy recognition of our humanity? What’s the cost of bankrupting ourselves for a scrap of compassion?
And what do you do when the world tells you hush, hush…when everything inside you is screaming?