"I thought I needed to just figure it out with the “God” people kept telling me about. This “God” that was “all I needed.” So, I discontinued therapy. I hid most of what I was going through from everyone, including my closest friends."
by Jené A. Colvin
Sometimes I see Facebook’s "On This Day" posts and thank the heavens that I am years beyond whatever I said or did. Cringe. Laugh. Sigh of relief. Scroll on.
Then, I see posts like this and remember exactly why I posted it. These are the posts that cause me to pause. I cannot see them and briefly cringe, laugh, sigh, and scroll on. When I see them, I remember vividly where I was and what I was going through.
January 9, 2009: I was in college. I had severe insomnia. I suffered from panic attacks multiple times a week (sometimes multiple times a day). I hadn't yet fully accepted myself. I still cried at night about being attracted to women. I was suicidal. I was afraid of my own mind because I felt like it betrayed me daily.
I leaned into some very unhealthy relationships (romantic, spiritual, platonic, and otherwise) to try and escape all of it. I was afraid of continuing therapy because I did not want a diagnosis. I did not want to be handed a pill before I explained what I was going through (I had a therapist once that dropped a very untactful medication suggestion on a first appointment). I had watched too many other people belittled and defined by their diagnosis. I felt I already had enough on my record, so I was scared. I thought I had done something wrong. I brought the panic attacks, the suicidal thoughts, and “homosexuality” on myself. I thought I needed to just figure it out with the “God” people kept telling me about. This “God” that was “all I needed.” So, I discontinued therapy. I hid most of what I was going through from everyone, including my closest friends.
I will say it again. This status is not the testimony of someone who is trusting God because she believes God can and will work this out. This is a post from someone who is afraid of her own thoughts and is scared to go anywhere that will provide comprehensive help. I don't talk about this period of life much, mostly because the pain is still real. I am still trying to bask in the richness of no longer believing that I am built the wrong way or somehow cursed.
I am also a person who likes a little time to myself before my story is a testimony. I need it to be my little bit of joy before everyone else is in it. I tell my bests, homies, and cousins my whole life. The rest of the world…not so much. I’m a private person. Moderately introverted. Also, I still worry about the real repercussions of stigma. So, my quietness is complicated.
I am talking about it now because we forget that intangible ideas and words have tangible consequences. The things about mixing mental health issues with various and sundry forms of oppression, it’s literally lethal. I almost died.
My first panic attack came before I committed to the idea that I NEEDED to be straight. The first time I thought about killing myself came before I even fully understood that I wasn’t just attracted to cis-het boys/men. (You come up with a lot of explanations when you’ve been told bisexuality isn’t a thing and pansexual is a word you’ve never heard.) I knew that I would be called selfish, dramatic, self-centered, and weak if I told anyone that I was scared every day and couldn’t figure out why. I had no idea how my parents would react. What would folks at my mom’s church say? I knew that I “didn’t seem like the type” to be suicidal. I knew that finding a healthcare professional of any kind that takes Black girls and women seriously is a feat. I knew that Black women and girls are “supposed” to / perceived to be super-human strong. Enter homophobia and heterosexism, stage right.
“Homosexuality is an abomination” is an idea that drove me mad. I’m using that word literally - mad. The madness felt like it was going to swallow me. It is hard to describe the echoes in your head when you have been convinced that something that you cannot excise (or exorcise) has made you “an abomination.” Then, there is the rampant idea that I am a walking, talking manifestation of the betrayal to the Black family structure (which is a whole other essay itself). There was insomnia or nightmares. The nights I didn’t dream at all turned into days when my thoughts were a funky steam cloud.
Teaching that lifted prayer above thoughts and feelings reinforced the idea that I was being irrational and dramatic about everything. Faith could control my emotions. Prayer would set my mind right. I was simply too worldly (thus the desire for women). I didn’t have enough faith. I didn’t believe enough. Thinking too much would get me in trouble. “Be anxious for nothing.” And my personal favorite, “…take no thought…” and simply rely on God. It was just as vague for me then as it may seem to you reading it now.
I couldn’t possibly have a real condition that needed treatment and care. Being anxious was the result of a lack of faith and likely punishment or consequence for “homosexuality”. I’m sure there are people who can and do engage these ideas without disrupting a healthy response to mental health. But for too many of us, that isn’t the experience.
Then, there were the ideas that rebelled briefly against religious belief and believed a level of intellectual rigor would do the trick. If I just stopped believing things that religious and superstitious people believe, I’d be fine. Thinking well could control my feelings. Christianity was foolish. It was the problem. There was nothing wrong with me. I could outsmart my issues. This kind of thinking still supported the dangerous idea that anxiety made me weak and was something I could will away.
None of that worked. The wish to not wake up the next day got louder in my mind. I would walk to class with headphones in, thinking of various ways to die. Every day. Walking in between buildings, meetings, classes, lunches and time with friends, imagining how I might die.
I am talking about all of this now because I am centered and healthy enough to say it aloud. Now, I am excited about projects like the H.O.P.E. Center in Harlem, yet also terrified at the prospect of our government intentionally making it impossible for people to have resources to fund their care. We all know getting quality mental health care and paying for it is already heard enough. Recent legislation didn’t solve that. There is a specific kind of evil in making it worse. There is a specific kind of good in normalizing help seeking and providing accessible space for it.
This is important to address now because we still don’t believe that words and ideas and “beliefs” are deadly. That even “attempts” at “supporting” people can leave them in life threatening situations. For example, someone told me they still loved me (love the sinner, hate the sin) and I believed it was a pity I did not deserve. I still needed to be “fixed.” Any hell that came my way was earned. Any hell that did not come my way was “grace” I did not deserve. Someone told me all sins are equal and I believed I killed Christ every time I wondered if a friend liked me as much as I liked her.
I am not talking about it now because I have overcome in the traditional sense. I still have panic attacks. Anxiety gets the best of me some days. I’m still looking for a new therapist thanks to ten thousand and one changes to my health insurance. I’m not ashamed of any of that. I am often frustrated by it, but I am not ashamed of it. I am grateful that I am now resolute in the belief that the only abomination in me is the McDonald’s I ate (and now regret). All the intricacies of my gender and sexuality are to be loved, celebrated, and protected from abuse. It took a lot be unashamed.
It took the camaraderie of friends with similar experiences. It took engaging in professional help when I have been able. It still takes reimagining my faith so that I am not believing in something that might destroy me. I am still a licensed minister.
I still believe in God, even if my belief involves a little heresy. It takes loving myself and learning what that looks like at each change in life. It takes regarding anxiety the way I regard having fibroids or migraines. The way my mother must regard her asthma. Recently, it takes me reading more about what people are doing so that I can begin to get actively involved. Today, it means having a yellow day and still deciding to write.
On this day, January 9, 2017 I saw my old self...and promised to love her and do right by her.
Jené A. Colvin
is a Chicago-based
Photos by Christopher Flowers, Noah Dobin-Bernstein and Viktor Hanacek