It's a GAD GAD World
Thursday, September 04, 2003
An Open Letter To Brian McNaught
More than a decade ago, you graced my humble little college campus with the honor of your presence and moved me profoundly with your eloquence. That night I purchased your book “On Being Gay”, the first chapter of which was an open letter to Anita Bryant. The letter was a pleading for understanding to someone who was at best grossly misinformed about homosexuality and at worst hateful and hostile to the GLB community. You tried diligently to show that by being gay, you were not someone to fear; that by being human, you had more similarities with Ms. Bryant than differences. You tried (in vain, I suspect) to appeal to her sense of empathy by describing what it was like to grow up with what you thought was a horrible secret inside of you, to wonder how your friends and family would react if they knew that secret, and ultimately to hate yourself so much because of that secret that you tried to quash your pain by quaffing a bottle of paint thinner.
Like you, I have a secret. Like you, I now wonder how my friends and co-workers would react if they knew that secret. And like you, I have flirted with suicide. Unlike you, I didn’t end up in the hospital. I merely ended up with the equivalent of a paper cut on my left wrist when I was 12. Stupid me, it never occurred to me that slitting my wrists would hurt. Of course, I was in so much emotional pain at that point in my life that I didn’t think I was capable of feeling physical pain. And unlike you, I write my open letter to you not because I think you are misinformed or hostile about my kind of secret, but because the thoughts I am going to share in this blog are painful and difficult for me, and it helps me to imagine that I am writing to an understanding soul. I have no idea what your thoughts are on the matter, but I suspect that you would be very understanding about it. I have often turned to your books when I have been upset or unhappy because I find your words comforting.
And unlike you, my secret has nothing to do with my sexual orientation.
For a very long time, I have known that I was different from other people. I wasn’t sure why. But I didn’t seem to make friends or keep them as easily as others. I was an academic overachiever who constantly worried about her grades. My self-esteem revolved around my GPA. When I was in junior high, the other kids hated me and openly taunted me. Once I got into high school, they left me alone. That was the good news. The bad news was they left me alone. They just didn’t want to be around me. I’m highly intelligent with a strong work ethic, yet I can’t seem to hold down a job for very long. I’ve never had a real boyfriend, unless you count the abusive asshole I dated for 5 months when I was in college. I’ve constantly been accused of having an attitude problem for no real reason that I could perceive.
I’ve also felt really bad for a long time. And until recently, I blamed feeling bad on all these other things listed above. I also blamed it on other things that have happened in my life, things that I’ll discuss in later entries. But within the past year, I’ve come to realize that I often feel bad even when bad things aren’t happening. And that I overreact to bad things even when they’re minor. When I got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night because I was worrying so much, I realized that something wasn’t right. Or maybe I knew all along that something wasn’t right, but was now able to admit it to myself. And by admitting it, I was able to bring my horrible secret out into the open and try to do something about it.
My secret? I am mentally ill. I have a condition known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Basically, that means I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about stuff even when there’s seemingly “nothing” to worry about.
Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’re confronted with a crisis situation—you get a phone call saying that your mother has been rushed to the hospital with chest pains, you hear your partner’s been in a car accident, whatever. When you’re hit with that crisis, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is kind of like a “crisis switch” in your head. Flipping this “crisis switch” causes you to exhibit certain physical symptoms. Your heart rate increases. Your mouth goes dry. You get “butterflies” in your stomach. You may need to urinate more frequently. (Ever notice how animals tend to pee when they’re scared about something?) You might feel as though you’re on “hyper-alert”. Eventually the crisis passes—your mother just had heartburn, your partner’s accident was just a fender bender, and your physical symptoms subside and you return to your normal self.
I have GAD, which means that my “crisis switch” doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. For one thing, it’s got a hair trigger. Things that normally aren’t cause for concern to most people can cause me to stress big time. For example, let’s say that my boss calls me into his office: “Can you come here, please? I need to talk to you.” The first thing that will hit my mind is: “OMG, I’m going to get fired! What did I do wrong?” When that happens, I am now at the point where I can say to myself, “Calm down, it’s just your anxiety. He probably wants to ask you about the phone message you took for him this morning.” But by then it’s too late. The switch has been flipped.
The second problem with my crisis switch is that once it’s on, it has a hard time shutting off. Think about the way you feel when you’re in “crisis mode” and you’re feeling the symptoms I’ve described above. I feel that way at least 60% of the time.
Researchers are still trying to figure out what causes people to have GAD, but it’s believed that the cause is a combination of biological and environmental factors. What we do know is that nearly everyone with GAD has another mood disorder to accompany it—Social Anxiety Disorder, agoraphobia (fear of public places), depression, panic attacks, and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m lucky. Out of all of those, I only deal with mild depression. There are several different types of depression. The type I have is called dysthymia. Dysthymic people are able to function normally, but we’re often thought of as unhappy, negative people. I’m not suicidal, I’m just not the happiest, perkiest person in the world.
GAD is generally treated with a combination of drugs and “talk” therapy. However, because we still don’t know the cause of GAD, we’re still trying to figure out how to treat it. Treatment is a long, arduous, frustrating process of trying different drugs until you find one that works and whose side effects you can tolerate. I’ve been in treatment since May 2003 and yesterday I started on my third drug.
There’s another reason why I address this open letter to you. There are a lot of parallels between homosexuality and mental illness. (And NO, I am not suggesting that homosexuality IS a mental illness! Keep reading.) As a gay man, you probably understand a lot about stigma. About experiencing scorn and derision from family, friends, and co-workers because of something you didn't choose to be. About how pathetically little some people understand about being gay. And about how some people just refuse to understand. I’ll bet that numerous times you’ve had the experience of hearing people make “fag” jokes in your presence, not realizing that you were gay.
Right now, I’m very much in the closet with my condition. I told one friend shortly after I was initially diagnosed and I’ve regretted it ever since. Now whenever I’m in a bad mood or I get angry with him he throws it back in my face—“Sounds like your anxiety is acting up again.” I often heard my co-workers in higher education make cracks about students with psychological problems—“Psycho”, “wack job”, “Sybil”, etc. (And these were people with COUNSELING degrees!! People who should have known better!) Just as many people wrongly assume that all homosexuals are pedophiles, there are many who assume that those who are mentally ill are out-of-control maniacs who are a danger to themselves and others and who need to be locked away in a mental ward. You’re not a pedophile, and I’m not a threat to anyone, including myself. I just worry a lot and spend an inordinate amount of time hating myself for being such a failure.
How many times have your gay brothers and sisters heard the exasperated cry “Why can’t you just be straight?” from “friends” and family members? I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has said to me: “Smile!” “Cheer up!” “Relax!” “Don’t worry!” “Stop being so sensitive!” Oh God, if ONLY it were that easy! No one would ever say to a paraplegic, “Your problem is that you need to get out of that chair and walk.” Yet it’s considered perfectly acceptable to tell someone who’s depressed or anxious that they need to “snap out of it”. It doesn’t work that way.
I’m hoping to use this blog as a means of chronicling my struggle with GAD. I also hope that others who have it will find it and read it and know that they are not alone. Brian, I have no idea whether you will ever see what I have written here. But just imagining you reading these words has helped me to write them. Thank you for allowing me to use you as a literary device.
Jain Dough (Of course it’s a pseudonym! I’m still in the closet, remember? :) )
Thank you for this explanation and your analogies, I have been searching for something to help me explain to others how I feel. This is perfect!Post a Comment