May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Thankfully, there is more awareness and acceptance these days, but there remains a category of people we aren’t talking about, the people who get the brunt of stigma: those with severe and persistent mental illness, who are expected to live with debilitating symptoms the rest of their lives. For most of them, a meaningful life is still out of reach.
I was one of those people. I’ve struggled with mental illness my entire life. I was first diagnosed as a baby with failure to thrive and infantile autism, and then with emotional disturbance and various learning disabilities. I spent time at the Augusta Mental Health Institute (AMHI) as an adolescent. I would later go in and out of psychiatric facilities many times, sometimes staying for weeks or months. I could manage my illness for months or even years, but inevitably I would regress and battle severe symptoms. I struggle with C-PTSD, dissociation, major depression, and learning disabilities. I used to have crippling anxiety and many trauma symptoms, and was plagued by emotional flashbacks.
Ten years ago, I was considered “high functioning.” It was during this time that I discovered work could be helpful, and I took it to the extreme, working 60-plus hours a week. I did that for three years to try to avoid my emotional pain. Then I crashed hard. I was hospitalized for three months out-of-state. I almost immediately regressed when I returned home, as there were no supports set up for me.
I found an apartment. It was in a basement. I had what I now call a basement mentality. I lived without much sunlight and no joy. My days were mainly spent eating, smoking, and watching Netflix. Most of the personal interactions I had were with my providers. I was, however, “stable.” A typical conversation with one of my providers went something like this:
“John, I don’t like my life. It’s pointless and boring. I want to do more.”
“Do you keep a clean house?”
“Yes.” He knew I did, as I often bragged about that.
“Do you pay your bills and grocery shop?”
“Yup,” I’d pipe up, sitting a little taller, hoping this was leading to something more substantial.
“Well,” the provider would say, “What more is there?”
I remember how dejected I felt. My life was being summed up by the activities of daily living. Nothing more was expected of me. I had no expectations for myself, either. That hit me hard, and I knew I wanted to grow. I really wanted to know my full potential, what I was truly capable of. So I joined a gym and quit smoking (for the 9,233rd time!). I stopped binge-watching trash TV and starting watching documentaries and reading. I lost 30 pounds and was starting to feel really good. I was reconnecting with old friends and made a new one.
It was during a prayer/meditation ritual with a friend that I noticed a lump. It turned out to be a very aggressive cancer: triple negative, invasive, ductal carcinoma. I was stunned. I’d been doing the right things and thought I was finally healthy. I had a tough decision to make: Was I going to comply with treatment or let the cancer overtake me? Initially, I opted for the latter. My life had been so hard. I had struggled with suicide in the past, and here was a way to die of natural causes.
Eventually I chose treatment and I’m glad I did. I found a paradigm that worked — I was courageous. Everyone rallied for me: friends, providers, strangers. Cards, gifts, flowers and meals arrived nonstop. I responded well to all this nurturing. I began to believe the encouraging messages and that improved my mental health. As hard as the cancer treatment was — nine months of infections, intravenous chemotherapy, and radiation — dealing with debilitating mental illness had been harder.
Once the cancer treatments finished, the support dwindled, but I saw myself in a new light. I was empowered and again felt the urge to stretch and know myself. My ability to handle social interactions had improved due to all the support I received. I started attending two support groups. I took adult-education classes and some improv classes taught by the late David LaGraffe. I was finally flourishing.
A big step was owning my gender. I transitioned from female to male. This greatly relieved my body dysphoria, my depression began to lift and my anxiety decreased. In 2016, I wrote and published My Resurrected Spirit: Triumph Over Tragedy & Transgender Dignity. I now teach adult-ed classes on transitioning and speak at hospitals, nonprofits and faith settings. I recently got involved with “This Is My Brave,” a stage show that gives folks like me the opportunity to share their stories of struggling with and overcoming mental illness.
I hope we can become a society that recognizes everyone has gifts and every life has infinite value. I still struggle. I still have symptoms. But now some of my symptoms include gratitude, hope and joy.
Visit hmatthewfrancis.com for more info about Matthew’s life and work.