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The Nested Lez: Mental illness -- a different kind of coming out

Many of you understand the struggle that we, as members of the LGBT community, face in coming out.

No matter how much things have changed in society, in many parts of the country (let alone the world) and within various religious, societal, and cultural groups, the stigmas associated with being a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual person, or a transgendered individual, are still very real.

The negative reactions and the unspoken belief that living as a LGBT person makes you less of a person kept many people suffering in the closet. However, hanging in "the closet" just reinforces the notion that you should be ashamed and should hide.

LGBT people aren't the only ones in the closet

Recently, I heard a story from a friend that made me realize that a similar stigma and shame is connected to mental illness. It is something you shouldn't talk about and that you should keep hidden so others won't treat you differently.

People suffering from mental illness and their caregivers have enough to deal with that they shouldn't be shoved into their own closet. It's time we take off those closet doors and at least allow ourselves the opportunity to be open to the discussion of mental illness.

Maybe you can relate to Emily (not her real name). Emily's story starts when she was a little girl. She grew up as the youngest in a loving Catholic family.

Overall, life was pretty good. She had a stay-at-home mom for a chunk of her childhood, her parents were married, and there was little fighting and no abuse. She had a great environment to grow up in.

Just being a kid

Most people described Emily as a happy kid. And, for the most part, she was.

However, there were many occasions when Emily would become overwhelmed with grief and would cry -– often for no apparent reason. She didn't understand why she was crying and since there was no reason for her tears, she would hide it. If she was caught crying, she would say she had a sore throat and "it just really hurt."

Emily was a smart kid, but was a habitual procrastinator.

Even when she started a task, she often became distracted and would take much longer than necessary to finish. She was never labeled a "bad kid" because – despite the procrastination – she always did well in school and never disrupted the class. It was always just brushed off that she was a kid and that she would "grow out of it".

In high school, Emily was involved in sports and clubs, had a good group of friends, and graduated at the top of her class. Yet, for some reason, she constantly felt out of place (and a little lost). She was often tired and still cried occasionally, but was able to hide it from others.

Not something she outgrew

During her college years, everything was going how Emily wanted it to: she was getting the grades she needed to keep her scholarship; she had great friends; and she enjoyed the freedom of being away from home. And yet, she still wasn't happy.

She had many days when her mood was just "off."

When friends asked her about it, she shrugged it off and said she had a "case of the blahs." As the years progressed, the "blah" days seem to be more frequent and although she was tired all day, she couldn't sleep at night. She did her best to hide this from others, and instead, became a goof-ball and made it her goal to make others laugh.

That was when Emily started to think that she was a fraud.

She wondered why people thought she was a good person, when she just felt worthless. Thoughts of suicide crept into her brain, but she wouldn't consider it because of her strong religious beliefs. That didn't stop the thoughts of wishing she would get hit by a truck the next time she stepped off of the curb.

Thankfully, Emily sought help and began counseling sessions. She was able to stop her negative self-talk, which was a great start for her to feel better about herself. Once that happened, Emily moved on with her life.

Coming out was the key to freedom

A year after she graduated, Emily finally realized that she was gay. It was an immense struggle – mostly due to her strong religious faith. She hid the fact that she was a lesbian from her friends and family for a while.

Little by little, she had faith in those she loved and she came out. For the most part, people were supportive. Although she had some bumps in the road, her coming out was so much easier than the coming out stories others had shared. However, she still stayed closeted professionally and chose not to come out to some of her other friends.

Eventually, Emily realized that the more people she came out to, the better, and freer, she felt. She understood that by hiding her sexuality, she was acting like it was something to be ashamed of.

Once she lived her life openly, her self-perceived stigma of being a lesbian slipped away. Sure, there are still many people who hate and persecute the LGBT community, but she no longer fed the negative stigma of homosexuality. It was who she was. It was, in fact, a gift from God – to finally understand what it felt like to be in love. So if others had a problem, then that was their issue.

She would not hide. She would not be ashamed.

We're just getting to the important stuff

That's not the end of Emily's story. In her late 20s, she began to get "the blahs" again. It was just a little at first, but then they became more frequent. Even though her life was going well, she felt unhappy. She decided to see a counselor.

The counselor knew that Emily's life story highlighted some of the common symptoms of clinical depression, including:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness or "emptiness"
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Insomnia and restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating

Emily accepted the counselor's diagnosis of "mild depression," even though she felt a stigma attached to it. (It didn't help that the counselor offered her a diagnosis of "social anxiety disorder" to avoid issues with insurance.) Emily met with the counselor for a couple of years. She began to feel better, so she ended her counseling.

A few years later, the cycle started again. So Emily started seeing another counselor, who after the first few sessions reached the same conclusion: mild depression.

Once again Emily accepted the diagnosis, but only discussed it with her wife and her counselor. Between her counseling sessions and a newfound interest in exercise, Emily was able to lift her mood. She felt great. Instead of walking away, she kept dealing with her depression.

You take Midol, don't you?

Eventually, Emily's body adjusted to the endorphins from her exercise and she started to feel "off" again. Her counselor recommended that Emily begin taking a daily medication for depression, but she balked.

Then she realized that she hadn't really accepted things. If she started to take a pill she would really be admitting that she had depression. She didn't want to do it. She had a good life. There was no reason that she should be depressed … but, she knew she has been battling depression most of her life – even when she was a little girl.

Finally, her wife reminded her that depression was a medical condition and asked, "If you have cramps, you take Midol, don't you? How is this different?"

Point taken – Emily started on a low dose of an anti-depressant. She is glad she did, and now understands that depression will always be a part of her life and she has to keep it in check. She never wants to get back to that time when she wanted to die, so she will stick with it (and adjust her medication when necessary).

Coming out about mental illness

As a result of this whole experience, Emily realized that she was treating her own acceptance of her depression like she originally treated the fact that she was a lesbian.

Her behaviors contributed to the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses by hiding the fact that she was diagnosed with clinical depression. That's why she needed to share her story. She wanted to take away the power of the perceived shame.

Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. It is a real medical condition and should get the same respect by both those suffering, their caregivers (if they need them), and society.

You may wonder why, if "Emily" wants to "come out" with her depression, she using an assumed name. Well, to be honest, it was to make it easier to relate the story, but it is time to come out.

I am Emily.

And yes, I suffer from depression.

No, I am not ashamed.

Take away the stigma

Don't judge those around you who are suffering from depression or other illnesses.

Don't shy away from conversations about mental illness. I'm not saying you need to use this as your icebreaker, or introduce yourself by saying, "Hi, I suffer from depression," but if you see someone else who is struggling, it may be an open door for the conversation.

If we continue to hide, we are adding to the stigma

If you or someone you love is suffering from depression or other mental illness, there is help, including:

It is time that we take away the stigma of depression and other mental illnesses. We have lost too many good people to suicide and undiagnosed mental illnesses.

Let's start the discussion. No one should suffer alone.

Amy C. Teeple is the author of Nested Lez, a column formerly published in the print edition of The Lavender Lens. Drawing inspiration from her 10+ year relationship with her wife Julie, she explores topics related to life as a "nested" lesbian. Born and raised a Jersey girl, Amy has embraced SoCal living, but still visits the East Coast at least once a year. Loving San Diego's beautiful year-round weather, she is active in softball, biking, and running, and has a not-so-secret love affair with lesbian romance books. Amy is also the owner and lead writer at ACT Web Consulting, a web writing and online marketing agency. You can reach her at nested_lez@earthlink.net.