You can do this.
You can do this.

Mental Health Series

Sharieff, 39

Part 1: BROKEN

It was only a couple of years after I had come back from Iraq. I basically disconnected from my family and everyone I knew.  I was angry and constantly getting into fights and I was afraid I would hurt someone.  I didn’t want to be around anybody. The more I tried to fix it on my own, the worse I became. I was homeless and living in my car so I had racked up a lot of unpaid parking tickets. There was a warrant out for my arrest, so I got pulled over and they put me in jail.  So one day in jail, my brother came to visit me. I wasn’t expecting it. I remember he wouldn't look at me in my eyes. He was just so hurt that I was so messed up. I remember he said, “Man, you're not supposed to be here. You're a war hero. This isn't supposed to happen to you.” And I could see that he was getting emotional and I remember saying, “Don't do that here. I can't handle that.” 

Part 2: SECOND CHANCE

I got released from jail after almost 2 months, and then I got a really bad toothache and so I went to the VA hospital for the first time.  The intake social worker said, “I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions. This is protocol. What branch of service are you in?” “The Marines.” “Were you in combat?” “Yes.” “Did you see anyone killed?”  And I… she knew. Then she asked me something that kind of stopped me in my tracks: “Do you have any regrets?” I thought about all my friends that I lost and I started crying. She was crying too and said, “Do you want help?” I looked at everything I went through from jail to being homeless to getting into fights and being this angry person and, for the first time, I accepted help. So I checked into the psych ward for combat vets, and I completely bought into the program for PTSD. I went to therapy, anger management, meditation, all of it. When my program was wrapping up, I decided my next step would be to audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A VA social worker helped me get ready and even drove me to the audition. I thought I did terrible, but I got a call to say I was the first accepted out of thousands. That was my light to dark moment.  It was like being cold and damp, and then feeling the warmth of the sun. That’s actually how I start every day – by standing in the sun and feeling grateful for how far I’ve come.

Laura, 36

Part 1: OUT OF CONTROL

I was in my last year of grad school at West Virginia University. I was teaching a class and explaining something – when suddenly I couldn't hear and my sight closed in like a tunnel. I knew I was passing out.  I walked out of the room and passed out on the floor of the hallway.  When I came to - it wasn’t long, just a couple seconds - my heart was pounding. I was shaky and sweating like crazy. I had no control over my body, and you're not supposed to be out of control within academia. I taught several classes that day, and I had to walk out multiple times because I felt like I was passing out again and again and again. It was hours of pure hell of not knowing what was wrong.  Retrospectively, an anxiety disorder had been building for a long time.  But in that moment I went from “everything is doable” to “nothing is doable.” I was trying to finish my thesis, I was applying for jobs, and I had no clue where I was going in my life. It was the start of years of dealing with powerlessness, lack of control, and fear.

(Model: Lauren LaBell-Schalm)

Part 2: UNIFIED

One of the ways that I got through the anxiety was that my lovely therapist got me to try yoga. I've been doing yoga for years since then. Mountain pose. Do you know Mountain pose? It's a very basic pose. You're just standing there, except it’s all strength. Your fingers and hands are spread. You are strong. You are there. All the way present. One day, my friend was signing up for classes for her Ph.D. program and I just looked at her and said, “I'm going to go get a Ph.D.” It was in that moment that I realized I could actually go back to school. I had enough control, and I could handle it. Not that I'd never have another panic attack because I had a million since then, but the fact that I could actually deal with it. I knew enough of how to take care of myself mentally, emotionally, and physically that I would be able to go back for a Ph.D., and so I did.  It was like reaching a sense of unity. I was a unified enough as a person that no one part of me was going to overtake all the others anymore.

(Model: Lauren LaBell-Schalm)

Pandora Boxx

Part 1: REJECTION

I think the biggest struggle has been suffering from depression and realizing that I’ve been my own worst enemy. I’m always afraid that people don't really like me. It's exhausting, to continuously think like that. In the darkest times, that struggle has overtaken me to the point where I don’t feel like there's any way out.  I felt so alone, like nobody else had ever gone through this. It was like being the star of the show with an empty room and no one cares. Thinking back now, I wish I could go back and slap myself in the face and say, what are you doing? Well, I'm a drag queen… and we’re a little over-dramatic.

Part 2: VALIDATION

I was at home when I got the call from RuPaul’s Drag Race. They put me on speakerphone and said, “Congratulations, you're on the show!” It was a bunch of them.  It was hard to hear over speakerphone and I was like, wait, what did they just say? Did they really… ? I don’t think I said anything. And they were like, “Well?... Are you excited?” I was speechless. I didn't know what to do. I got off the phone and I danced around the house. It felt like huge celebration even though I was home alone with my dog. Bugsy didn’t really give a shit. I had been working so hard for so long and finally in that one moment it all was worth it.  Validation. In life, that’s what all of us are really looking for - constantly.

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© Erin Reeve, MD