Reprinted from "LGBT" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 6 (2), pp. 19-20
In my 45 years of existence, sex between two men in Canada has gone from being a criminal offence and diagnosable mental illness to being an act that “consummates” a marriage recognized by society, government and some churches. Despite these legal, medical and social advances, the reality is that being gay and having a mental illness can result in delayed or inappropriate treatment. My story is a case in point.
The ‘cookie cutter’ approach
I was a sad and lonely child and felt I didn’t fit in anywhere. I got lost in fantasy adventure books—read all of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books—and spent a lot of time alone secretly pretending I was something special. As a teenager, I found I could escape my feelings by using drugs and alcohol and sleeping a lot. I was suicidal and socially isolated, and I smoked hash oil daily and abused alcohol.
The first person I ever told I was gay was my Presbyterian minister, in 1982 when I was 18. I’d become a born-again Christian and had stopped using drugs the year before. After my born-again experience, I developed excessive religious beliefs. I thought I knew when the world would end and believed God talked directly to me through “messages” from squirrels, music and other people.
My disclosure about being gay wasn’t driven by great angst about it. I was attending a12-step addiction support group and telling the minister happened when I was working on step five, to have no secrets. Being gay was another one of my secrets.
I always knew I was gay and clearly recall a powerful moment of clarity in the kitchen when I was 17 years old. I felt strongly that it was okay to be gay. I’d discovered that C.S. Lewis was a Christian, and he wrote1 that it would be a sin to have sex with another man, just as it would be for an unmarried person to have sex. But he also accepted the fact of homosexuality as having purpose, in God’s mysterious way.1 So it was okay to be attracted to men, but not to have sex. In a way this was a relief. I didn’t feel pressured to conform and pursue girls. And I didn’t have to deal with all the teenage anxiety about things like body image, intimacy and whether other men were attracted to me.
My minister was very uncomfortable when I said I was gay. At first he avoided the topic, then said it was a teenage phase. But he did refer me to counselling, at a mainstream service agency.
I saw a psychologist, though really didn’t know what I wanted out of the sessions. And later, in 1983, I went to a family doctor for counselling. The doctor was recommended by a gay man I had met in my addiction support group.
The psychologist and the doctor both wanted me to come out. They felt that my symptoms—which I now see as depression—were part of not living as an out gay man. These professionals assumed that because society didn’t accept gay people, I also hated myself and this was responsible for my suffering. Additionally, I had dropped out of high school, so the psychologist put a lot of focus on getting me on track with my education.
Basically, they both used ‘cookie cutter’ approaches: that is, they came up with clear, concrete solutions to obvious problems. Neither treated me for depression. I never told them about my grandiose religious thoughts, but I certainly did talk about my sadness and crying, and my suicidal thoughts. Because they saw reasons for my mood struggles, they didn’t see the depression as clinical.
I didn’t come out then other than to helping professionals and a few gay people I’d met in peer support groups. Besides, through watching and reading religious TV and books, I believed that God could change my sexual orientation.
I don’t need treatment for being gay
Throughout my life, I’ve had many diagnostic labels and have tried various medications. I have depression, mania and psychosis, and am in recovery for addiction. Anyone with these mental health challenges faces issues related to human interactions. But I don’t need treatment for being gay.
It’s important that we raise awareness about the way some mental health professionals interact with gay clients. It seems to me that straight people wouldn’t be asked some of the question I’ve been asked—or at least not immediately.
In one psychiatric assessment, I was asked about my medical health. I said, “I have mild asthma but I’m fine otherwise.” Then I was explicitly asked if I had AIDS. Over the years I’ve found that for some mental health practitioners “gay = AIDS.” This is, of course, illogical—worldwide, the vast majority of people with AIDS are heterosexual.
I later wondered out loud to the psych assessment therapist whether women over a certain age were asked if they had breast cancer after answering that they had mild asthma. She didn’t respond.
On another occasion, I mentioned to a different psychiatrist that I’d met a guy I liked. The psychiatrist immediately began to lecture me about safe sex and HIV/AIDS. I was stunned. Wouldn’t questions about relationship issues such as fear of intimacy have been more appropriate?
Afterwards I wondered if he’d have asked a straight person about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), of which AIDS is one. After all, STIs are not unique to homosexuals. To practise safer sex a person needs to have enough self-esteem to negotiate safer sex. Anyone with depression, suicidal ideation and low self-esteem may find this more challenging—everyone—not just gay people. Certainly, improving my self-esteem and treating my depression has enhanced my ability to be assertive in all areas of my life.
At my next session, I asked the psychiatrist why he’d brought up AIDS/HIV and hadn’t asked what thoughts I had about the man and how I felt. He said he’d just attended a conference and heard there’d been an increase in new HIV/AIDS infection rates, so it was top of mind for him. Still, I disappointed that I’d received such treatment from my ‘gay-friendly’ psychiatrist.
Coming out is no ‘cure’ for mental illness
I now realize that believing it was possible to change my sexual orientation or to practise abstinence was unrealistic. Delusional belief in change and abstinence meant that I didn’t have to worry about romantic love, intimacy or fear of rejection. The reality is, though, that no person can eliminate homosexual urges. One can function as a heterosexual or live a life of abstinence, but one’s attraction to members of the same sex will remain.
When I was 27, I came out and later moved in with my boyfriend. I was still paranoid, delusional, depressed and dealing with addiction on and off. Coming out as a gay man was a good step, but it didn’t cure my mental illness or my chemical dependence. I think that if I’d been straight, the mental health professionals may have addressed these illnesses specifically and sooner.
About the authorRoss is a Resource Development Associate for Coast Mental Health Foundation. In his work and volunteer activities, he strives to bring understanding about issues related to mental health, addiction and homelessness and the importance of psychosocial and peer supports. Ross does public presentations and can be reached at [email protected].
Vanauken, S. (1977). A severe mercy. New York: Harper & Row. From a letter by C.S. Lewis quoted on pp. 146-148. See also http://collegejay.blogspot.com/2008/10/lewis-on-homosexuality.html.