Seamlessly blending into a friend group as “a part of” the group hasn’t come easy for me. The first time it ever happened was the spring of 2019. I was just coming out of my 24-hour observation period in a psych ward in Jasper, Alabama.
I knew what to expect. Mental health and addiction inpatient care were becoming routine for me. The food, bland. The lighting, inescapable, and fluorescent. The clothes were made of the scratchy cotton that is somehow loose but still restricts one’s movement. I would participate in five to fourteen days of group therapy and step meetings, read the decades-old books at my disposal, and color with extremely dull canyons for hours at a time.
Jasper was different. In my previous experience, I was either the only non-white or non-straight person in the cohort. My first hospitalization was at a fancy military hospital where my knuckle tattoos and nipple piercings were looked down on by most of the clean-cut white guys in the unit. My time at rehab was spent in a girls-only cabin where everything was based around our relationship as women with substances by way of praying to the Christian God.
I spent a good majority of my energy pretending to be an approachable non-threatening girl who usually wears a bra.
Both facilities made me feel even lonelier in my fleeting mental health and newfound sobriety. I spent a good majority of my energy pretending to be an approachable non-threatening girl who usually wears a bra. In our group sessions, everyone would share stories about when they realized they had a problem. During my turn to share, I felt incredibly hesitant to bring up certain instances in my life. Like, for example, the time I stepped on what my friend and I think was a knife, but I was in a blackout, and to this day we’re not really sure how it happened.
Instead, I said something vague and impersonal to try to stay in good standing with the group. I saw the way the doctors looked at me when I told them about my experiences. It’s true I was there because I had alcohol poisoning or other chaotic substance use, but they refused to listen to me when I was explaining what was going on in my life outside of substances.
To them, I probably looked like another college girl who had a habit of partying too hard. It felt like to them addiction is a disease that once diagnosed should be treated with the standard detox, rehab, and return to society with once a week meetings in a church basement. One size fits all.
What made Jasper significantly different was that for the first time, I found folx with whom I had more than just surface-level common ground. By lunchtime on my first day out of solitary observation, I was sitting with two other queer people. We joked about how laughably stereotypical we presented our queerness. Somehow under the uniforms we were forced to wear, our queerness was visible to each other. We talked about how lonely it usually is in inpatient treatment. The parts of my experience as a queer person that I tried to convey— and fell on deaf ears— during the fifteen-minute individual sessions with the therapists became the usual fodder for all of our conversations.
Somehow under the uniforms we were forced to wear, our queerness was visible to each other.
Both of these people were both white and it’s true there were some gentle microaggressions I glazed over. But there was much we had in common. We talked about how rigid gender roles were. It was very clear that they rationalized their addiction or mental health distress by creating a binary of what they think drug users should look like, and made sure to remind me that although they did do certain drugs, they weren’t criminals or gangsters. I was curious what would happen if I challenged those comments, asking them if they thought people in gangs who use drugs still deserve the kind of care or compassion they were seeking. Still, it was the first inkling of community I felt in spaces regarding mental health or recovery.
I am extremely privileged in that I have had access to stable healthcare and have been receiving care for mental health issues for years. When it came to seeking care for addiction and mental health more broadly, my family’s economic status got me in the door, but my identities kept me alone in the room.
My mental health journey started over a decade before I found myself awkwardly walking around a church’s back entrance trying to find the AA meeting room. I grew up on a busy street between two major roads in my hometown. I would wait for about twenty minutes after my parents put me to sleep to get up and sit in front of the window. I grabbed a notepad and a pencil and camped out for the night.
I would write down descriptions of the cars, make note of the general timeframe they drove by, and keep a log of cars and what I could make out of the license plates of the makes and models that repeatedly came down the street. I’d tell my parents about which cars were making me nervous and how I felt too scared by the multiple neutral tone Toyota Camrys to fall asleep. Looking back, this is behavior that should have tipped them off about my severe anxiety, but at the time they just thought they had an eccentric and dramatic kid.
When it came to seeking care for addiction and mental health more broadly, my family’s economic status got me in the door, but my identities kept me alone in the room.
Anxiety followed me into young adulthood. In high school, I had a really cool opportunity to do some work at a newspaper in Washington D.C. I was excited and nervous but ready to live out my Sex and the City fantasy of what being a journalist would look like (fortunately for me I very quickly realized Carrie is not someone to aspire to be). As I made my way to the train platform I felt my face get hot. It didn’t make sense. I had been taking the metro in and out of the city for as long as I can remember. My chest got so tight I was worried I somehow inhaled a pathogen that was cutting off circulation. I thought I was having a heart attack.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I were to get on the incoming train something terrible was going to happen. Something terrible was happening. My hands went numb. I took a seat and waited it out. Eventually, my breathing returned to normal and the feelings in my hands came back. I spent the duration of the train ride Googling heart attack symptoms. I was only 16 and in perfect physical health. I knew there was no way I had a six-minute heart attack. I found my way to CalmClinic.com and learned that what I experienced was a panic attack.
I saw my doctor and explained what happened. She warned against anti-anxiety meds, saying they’d make me gain weight and ruin my meager sleep schedule. She suggested I try working out and eating a balanced diet and told me I was too young to have anything to worry about.
I white knuckled my way through high school. I knew what my symptoms were and thankfully had a strong support system made up of friends I’d known most of my life. College brought on a new set of challenges.
The only thing that made me feel better, especially in the early days of my sobriety, was being around my friends and in spaces specific to the queer Brown experience.
While I smoked a bit of cannabis in high school, it wasn’t that often. In college, I found myself smoking almost every day. In time I would find alcohol in my nightly routine too. It worked in the sense I was eventually able to sleep, but I would wake up the next day consumed with worry and guilt and feeling completely isolated.
I went back to the doctor and explained my situation. She put me on Paxil. Then Effexor. Then Zoloft. I took Wellbutrin and Gabbapentin. Nothing was working. I was so disheartened that I began self-medicating with alcohol and cannabis again. There are chunks of my undergrad experience I do not remember because I started blacking out. I gave myself alcohol poisoning and had a beer the next day to celebrate my survival. I ended up in emergency rooms, psych wards, rehab facilities, AA meetings, therapist’s offices and psychiatrist’s offices.
Most mental health professionals just shuffled me back to the pharmacy to try a new medicine. My therapist said I just needed to try journaling. I felt ashamed bringing up my suicidal ideations and talking bout my suicide attempts because every time I did, doctors would always follow up with the “are you having suicidal thoughts right now?” and the conversation would end when I would respond with “Well. Not like right right now.” They’d give me a print out with the suicide hotline’s number and remind me to make my co-pay on the way out.
The only thing that made me feel better, especially in the early days of my sobriety, was being around my friends and in spaces specific to the queer Brown experience. I joined online forums for folks navigating mental healthcare in the US. I’ve found community through places like La Conextion, an organization that creates sober spaces with, for, and by Queer + Trans people of color through their letter-writing program and BIPOC specific healing circles. QTBIPOC Healing Space has also led me in the direction of how to advocate for mental health treatment for conditions I have rather than conditions that are easiest to treat.
Six years into my journey with mental health and addiction care, I can finally report that I’ve been diagnosed and am being treated for borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. A lot of my symptoms were exacerbated by SSRIs inducing month-long manic episodes. Mania can sometimes manifest in chaotic drug use, which was the case for me. I’m seeing a lot of people discuss their comorbidities and bipolar disorder and addiction.
If it wasn’t for the community of folks I met in treatment in Alabama who were willing to talk about who they are, I would still have believed the doctors’ superficial labels of who I am.
*Editor’s note: Author’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.