Last winter, my family and I received a great blessing: we were introduced to NAMI. After nearly five years of isolation, we finally found a place of support for my daughter’s mental illness. We are so grateful for NAMI’s acceptance and compassion. Because of our experience, I am pleased and honored to volunteer for my affiliate, NAMI Western Slope in Grand Junction, Colo. I have a deep desire to work with members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community who have mental illness and their families, an aspiration that has grown out of witnessing my daughter Adrian’s development of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia hallucinations in addition to the struggle of being born transgender.
My husband and I have three grown children and until May 2008, we thought we had two handsome sons and a beautiful daughter in the middle. As our youngest son, James, grew he constantly said and did things to make us laugh and we all loved him more than can be put into words. Out of the blue, at just 3 years of age, he strongly insisted, repeating over and over, “Don’t call me James, I’m not James. My name is Adrian!” Sadly, we did not understand that he was trying to tell us that not only was his name Adrian, he was really a she. So we only honored this request for a little while and then went right back to calling him James. He gave up and we never thought about it again. Little did we know that his battle had just begun.
During his early years, James gave us more clues that he was a transgender child but we overlooked them. To us, he was just a sweet little boy. We recognized the importance of gender neutral play, so we thought nothing of his love for dressing up in dresses and costume jewelry and playing with his sister’s Barbie Dolls, because he also loved to play with Star Wars toys, Ninja Turtles and everything else little boys enjoy. However, a defining moment came one afternoon when he was 9 years old: James announced that he was finished playing with boys. This was a mystery to us because it seemed so inconsistent with his life. He was well-liked by his peers, spent most of his free time playing with friends and participating in sports. For the next 11 years, we were proud to see our child do well in school, continue to make us laugh and never get into trouble or act out.
They say that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will immediately jump out to save its life, yet if the same frog is placed in tepid water that is gradually heated, it will not be able to perceive the danger and eventually be cooked to death. People are often unwilling or unable to see significant changes in their lives if these changes occur slowly over a long period of time. What we didn’t realize was that when James, who we now know as Adrian, announced that she was no longer going to play with boys, she was already in the pot of water that had been heating up since she was 3 years old. She gradually shut herself off from life as the water became hotter and hotter. This can influence the mental health of our LGBT loved ones: the stress of constantly having to hide who they truly are and conform to what their families and society expect them to be is the pot of water that heats up through the years to such a scalding degree it causes them to either break or die.
It took Adrian until she was 20 years old to tell us her truth. Those of us who love her could tell that the light in her eyes was slowly dimming. We just didn’t know why. We didn’t know that she was petrified of coming out because when she looked online for answers, all she could find were stories of abandonment and sorrow, so she drank alone in her room to dull the overwhelming pain of holding in her secret. We could not see the wounds she hid beneath her jeans from cutting herself with a utility knife, a way she found to ease the frustration of having her male body develop in a way that made her hate herself. We didn’t realize that she anguished in silence because she didn’t want to “disappoint us” or that she thought of herself as a “freak” because she had never met anyone else who shared her feelings. We had no idea that she tried to kill herself three times and the only thing keeping her from it was her concern for me—she didn’t want me to have to clean up the mess.
Adrian’s experience is not unique. In fact, compared to many, Adrian is one of the lucky ones. In the last five years, I have met many LGBT individuals whose families have kicked them out of their homes and disowned them, who face discrimination wherever they turn, making it difficult for them to secure employment. They feel lost and abandoned by the people they love and the communities to which they long to contribute, leading to homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. This needless distress could be stopped if only we as a society recognized that being a member of the LGBT community is not a choice or a lifestyle or something a person decides to be. It is innate, just like the color of your eyes. As parents, siblings, neighbors, co-workers and friends, it is our duty to treat LGBT individuals with respect, kindness, consideration and love.
Additionally, we must all recognize that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is not a mental illness, although the increased stress and social stigma that accompanies being LGBT affects mental health. This fact is so beautifully illustrated in NAMI’s LGBT Recovery Perspectives Video.
Adrian experienced severe depression and social anxiety for most of her teen years, even though she hid it very well. After coming out, she experienced PTSD and she eventually also received the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia hallucinations. If our society could only understand that LGBT individuals come by who they are naturally and embrace them, my daughter would not have had to endure all those years alone.
Since coming out in 2008, Adrian has graduated cum laude with a degree in sociology, received gender reassignment surgery and excels at her job that she has had for two years, all the while learning to manage her mental health issues. I will be forever thankful for NAMI Western Slope for reaching out to me and to Adrian. Being part of our local affiliate gave us hope. Moreover, we are excited to see local NAMI support groups starting for the LGBT members of our community.
I strive to help our society understand the millions of talented, hard-working, intelligent, loving and wonderful people who are part of the LGBT community and also need support for mental illness. I am so very grateful NAMI is reaching out to the LGBT community because it truly is a matter of life and death: it is instrumental in saving lives.
Editor’s Note: During June, we observe Pride Month in honor of LGBT communities and allies. It is an important time for NAMI members and our partners around the country to consider the mental health challenges facing individuals, particularly youth, who “come out” about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Read HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' statement on LGBT Pride Month. Share your own perspective and experience through NAMI's You Are Not Alone campaign. We also invite you to view our new video encouraging NAMI leaders to consider this community in our organization's inclusion and support.
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