“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
by Rich Keys
Pardon me if I get personal, but there’s a point to it.
I’m writing this column in the middle of a depression I didn’t see coming, watching The Godfather because it’s as dark and foreboding as I am right now. Several issues hit me all at once from various directions, and it was the perfect storm to trigger it. It’s not a major depression…more like a first-degree funk, but it triggers flashbacks to times when it was much more serious in my life. The symptoms were the same back then, but much more severe. There was no color in my life or even black and white. It was all gray. I lost interest in everything, whether physical, mental, social, spiritual, or sexual. I didn’t want to do anything, go anywhere, or be with anyone for weeks, except for the occasional drive-through at McDonald’s to see if I could handle it. I just sat in my chair and stared at nothing for hours. When it was over, it wasn’t really over, leaving an ongoing numbness until the next major episode. When you’re in the middle of a deep depression, you lose the ability to judge right or wrong, analyze the problem and solve it. You even the lack the will to get out of it because everything is seen through the eyes of that depression. You can’t even identify it as a depression separate from yourself. It IS you, your identity, your life.
I’ve suffered from chronic depression all my life. When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what it was called, I just knew I was different from everyone else, and it was always there, like living in a dark, foreboding closet. Later in life, it got worse, but I could finally put a name to it, and I jumped from one therapist to another, both in and out of the Church, each with their own way of explaining and treating it. They would also prescribe different antidepressants in a trial-and-error approach to attack the problem and deal with any side effects. If one didn’t work, try another, and then another. I went through a lot of therapists and a lot of meds until I finally found the one that delivered me from the dark side, with no side effects, and I felt great. I learned that I probably had a physical problem in my brain that kept my chemical critters (serotonin and norepinephrine) from doing their job properly, and this particular drug helped them back to their normal and full-functioning selves. Then I could deal with life’s problems more constructively.
After several years of being on the right medication, I felt so great, I thought I was “cured,” so I stopped using it. I forgot it was a chronic physical problem, and I felt fine for three weeks, but then I suddenly dropped into the abyss again. I got back on the meds, and three weeks later I was back to my happy normal self. I did that twice with the same results, so I finally learned my lesson and never stopped again. I’m still on the medication, but my alertness, my positive mental attitude, and my silly critters are not “artificial.” It’s the real me, and through personal revelation and medical science, I’m able to be my true, authentic self in every sense, and I don’t feel I’m “cheating” the system to be something I’m not by taking a pill. So when a bout of depression comes along like I’m now experiencing, I’m more likely to recognize it and figure it out. I know there’s an end to it, that I have a fighting chance to see it through, and I can get to the other side and come out of it intact…and I can write about it.
Now to the point…
We live in a world that is getting more and more stressed. We see it in the news and we feel it in our own personal lives. The pressures and plagues of today’s world are converging on us from all sides—politics and polarization, wildfires and drought and hurricanes, fitting in, standing out, feeling alone in the middle of eight billion people, living on borrowed money and borrowed time, and so much more, and bullying everyone else in a desperate attempt to feel better about ourselves. We’re afraid to let anyone else know who we really are…human, mortal, like everyone else, that we don’t have all the answers, and we need help sometimes to cope with life. So we stay in that closet of anxiety and depression and deal with it, cope with it, suppress it, sometimes down deep until we think we’re not stressed at all. We ignore it, deny it, and put it off until later, while the destructive seed grows inside, so slow we don’t even know it’s there, waging its little war on us, slowly winding us up and wearing us down. At some point, we finally can’t take it any longer, and we make headlines.
BYU is reflective of the increased pressure in today’s world. In a church culture that takes “be ye therefore perfect” as a benchmark, members can walk a thin tightrope between salvation/approval and failure/rejection. According to Steve Smith, Director of BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), “We have an especially high degree of perfectionism in our student body. BYU students are used to being top performers. For some, when they don’t perform as well as they believe they should, they become depressed and anxious. Most students learn to adapt and handle these challenges quite well, but a significant number do not.”
Now add to that the pressure of being LGBTQ, not only in today’s world, but also in an LDS world, and it can get even worse: bishop roulette; second-class status in the kingdom of God; the subtle (or not so subtle) shunning from the next pew or pulpit; fighting to have a bathroom to call your own; fear of rejection by our church or family; searching for a new church or family; needing a gay “green book” depending on which state you live in; living in a country where who you are can get you beaten, imprisoned, or even killed, all legally; wondering who you can trust, or even if you can trust; the policy rollercoaster and whiplash; gutting it out when the class discussion is about morality or standards or eternal marriage or family family family; being asked not to take it personally when they excommunicate you; and bullying in the name of “love” by leader and lay person in a desperate attempt to measure their own worthiness by making you feel less so. A recent study from the University of Georgia found almost 90% of people identifying as both LDS and LGBTQIA met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from their religious experiences, whether direct or indirect. At some point, we can’t take it any longer, and we make headlines.
Dan Reynolds, leader of the rock group Imagine Dragons, gets it. He’s LDS, a returned missionary, and winner of BYU’s Battle of the Bands. In 2017 he and his wife organized LoveLoud, an annual combination outdoor rock festival and love revival meeting in Utah, overcoming insurmountable odds to pull it off and get the Church’s blessing for it, and it’s taken off, going viral and with major corporate sponsors to fund it. The next year, it streamed live throughout the world at no cost to viewers, and this year too, and he says it will continue annually until it’s not needed anymore. Dan wants to use it as a healing point, where people can lay down their torches and pitchforks and come together and practice love and acceptance with each other, a safe place for all, whether LDS or LGBT or both, and to show everyone that you don’t have to leave it there when you go home—that you can take it with you and be that in your own lives.
Dan speaks from experience. He’s suffered from depression and been on that side of life looking at everything through gloom-and-doom glasses. But he’s come out of that closet because he wants others to know that it can be done. “I understand how it feels to be in a state of numbness and grayness, and feeling like there is no sun, there is no relief, there is no breath of fresh air,” he says. “I would say to that person, ‘I promise you it is available to you. It is there. Hang on.’”
Suicide is a major public health issue in our nation. In 2017, suicide took the lives of more than 47,000 Americans, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Men accounted for 78% of these tragic deaths. Women make more attempts, but men are likely to use more lethal means, such as firearms, and, therefore, more likely to die. Men are also less likely to seek help when feeling depressed and hopeless. Only 28% of men, compared with more than 50% of women, were receiving mental health treatment at the time of their deaths. When you add the treatment and attitude towards LGBT individuals by politics, society, culture, religion, relatives, and that neighbor down the street, it gets even grimmer: more than three times as likely to experience a major psychological condition than the rest of the population, often hampered by the fear of disclosure and facing discrimination, and the only demographic in the US in which the rate of alcoholism is going up, as we look for something, anything, even a counterfeit cure, to deaden the pain. A friend of mine was only half-kidding when he once said the best place for cruising is gay clubs and AA meetings.
Affirmation recognizes the need and is stepping up to help. Last year, it began rolling out the QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) suicide prevention training program, offering training to every member of Affirmation throughout the world, and anyone else who wants it. Such proven and professional training will enable people to recognize the warning signs in themselves and others, know how to intervene and what to ask in a proven, helpful manner, and provide the appropriate resources for further help. Please, sign up for the training. Take it if it comes to your local Affirmation area chapter. Take it at a regional or international conference. Then let your light shine brighter for others in this dark and dreary world. If you need to get help for yourself, find someone in Affirmation who can give it. You can also go to the International Association for Suicide Prevention for an international list of suicide hotlines.
Closets are dark, lonely, shameful places to be, whether sexual, mental, emotional, or physical. If you’re in one and you’re thinking of doing something that will make headlines, please take the daring step of coming out and speaking up, asking for help, and then offering your help to someone else who needs it. You are loved and accepted for who you are, and that includes this area as well.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.