What is the story related to mental health, suicide, and/or resilience that you’d like to share?
Growing up gay in rural Indiana is not something that I would recommend—especially when compounded with religious fundamentalism. For most of my life, I felt I could not live as my authentic self. Religion told me that being gay was not an option, and I tried for a long time to change that about myself. I entrenched myself in religious gatherings—church on Sundays, youth group on Sunday and Wednesday. Figuring out sexuality in a rural community is never easy, and I felt so alone. I felt taken advantage of by older men who preyed on my uncertainty. I felt so much shame and regret.
I was bullied my entire middle school experience and much of my high school. My bullies were both relentlessly cruel and surprisingly inventive. Everyone thought I was gay and made fun of me for it. I desperately wanted to admit the truth, but never could. There were many times I considered taking my life—I felt a lot of pain and wanted to end it.
At 18, I went through a form of conversion therapy—something to try to change my sexuality. Two intense sessions of prayer, quasi-counseling, and battling the “demon of homosexuality” tried to convince me I was straight. I went through these various forms of conversion therapy for the next six years. Group therapy in college coupled with quasi-counseling and prayer sessions in churches. I tried dating women in high school and college to turn myself “straight.”
Throughout this time, my mental health suffered. I always felt as though I was inherently bad and evil. I was made to believe that being gay was the result of a demon—and that I was the one that kept inviting it into my life. I went through one last round of conversion therapy at the age of 24 while working as a youth pastor at a church. I officially came out as gay in February of 2016. This time was simultaneously horrible and liberating.
After coming out, the church I worked at sent a letter to all the parents and leaders stating I had chosen to “follow the ways of the world.” Some family members did not contact me for months. I lost almost all friendships and relationships. Though this was traumatic, coming out began the process of healing. I found a community of people that supported me—that validated my feelings. I began therapy—real therapy—to address the trauma the church had caused. Finally, I was able to live authentically.
There are still days I wrestle with the trauma of conversion therapy and feelings of low self-worth. I probably have an existential crisis daily. However, the healing I have found through a strong community, especially with Sioux Falls Pride and other LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit organizations, has been tremendous. Going to therapy—real therapy—has helped to lessen the PTSD experienced by religion and conversion therapy. Therapy has helped me to know that my authentic self was worth expressing. It lifted the burden of shame and regret by informing me that these were feelings placed on me by others. Through a lot of growth and self-reflection, I have been able to address my mental health in positive ways with the help of a strong community of people.
Though there are still days when trauma and low self-worth creep into my mind, I am now in a space where I can feel those emotions, address them, and continue to live an authentic life. To me, the ability to live authentically as myself has been the most healing process. I can be fully who I am and know that others will love me for it.
What resources have helped you to address this challenge?
Mental health therapy has helped me address my mental health in extremely positive ways. Organizations like Sioux Falls Pride and other LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit nonprofits have helped as well.
Based on your experience, how can we work to build resilience in ourselves, our loved ones, and in our communities to better face life’s challenges?
One of the best ways to build resilience for me is the idea of authentic living. Being able to express ourselves authentically is crucial to resilience. Encouraging this in others will help our loved ones and communities as well. As a community, we must be willing to allow others freedom of expressing their authentic selves, and welcome and embrace them. Be willing to have conversations and really get to know people.
What is one thing related to mental health, suicide, or resilience that you wish everyone could understand?
I wish that everyone could understand that mental health affects everyone. We are never alone—and there are resources to help.