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Resilient Healing: A Complex Mental Health Journey

QTBIPOC (Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous, People of Color) face unique mental health challenges. Many of these individuals must navigate not only disparities in mental health support but also the impact of racial and gender trauma. Some must also deal with the complexities of intersectionality while living in poverty.

We spoke with a QTBIPOC person currently living in Fairfield County about their mental health journey. Read the interview below to learn more about their experience living with Bipolar II Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), and how they’ve overcome the challenges of poverty, racial trauma, and treatment disparities.


To start, what’s your mental health diagnosis?

Currently, I have been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) and Bipolar II. I’m also currently in recovery for alcohol use disorder (AUD). But these haven’t always been my diagnoses.

Really? What do you mean by that?

I was first diagnosed at 12 years old with depression and anxiety. I was a loner who was constantly bullied. I struggled to pay attention in class. Every day after school I would come home and go to sleep immediately. I’d sleep through dinner and then spend my evenings alone in my room, watching TV until like, 6am. I was always late and I struggled with procrastination. As my grades started to slip, my school counselor suggested to my mother that I see a professional therapist. That’s when I got my first diagnosis.

So what’s changed to get you to the diagnosis you have now?

Well, time and stress played a role. Also, major life events really exposed more of my mental health conditions. When I first talked to a therapist as a kid, I hid a lot of things. So I don’t think my therapist ever really got the full picture.

There is a strong stigma against mental health issues in my family. It’s practically cultural to be honest. I grew up with brothers with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It brought a lot of stress and hardship for my single mom. A lot of my extended family really wanted nothing to do with us because they felt my brothers were “out of control”. I think I learned pretty early on that anything to do with mental health should be kept locked away to myself. I also was a people pleaser as a child. I knew that having another kid with mental health disorders would be hard on my mom. So, I hid my symptoms for a long time.

This all changed when I went to college in New York City. It was the first time I had ever been away from my family. My freshman year, I was living in a six person dorm and was being treated differently because I was Black. One of my roommates would constantly use my dishes and leave them in the sink dirty. She didn’t do this to anyone else, just me. When I finally called her out on it, she made a “you people” comment, and suggested I shouldn’t mind cleaning up after her. I got angry and reported her to the Resident Assistant (RA). This upset the rest of my dorm mates. They began locking me out of the dorm or I would come home and random strangers would be sleeping in my bed. It was unbearable. By winter break, I started living in the 24-hour library at my school just to get away from it all. I think that’s when my mental health started to take a drastic turn.

Wow. Can you tell us more?

College was hard for me, and I was the first person in my family to go. I was a full-time student in a double major who was also supporting myself through school. I didn’t know what I was doing. I struggled to fit in, and then was basically homeless on top of the social anxiety and stress with my roommates. I did eventually make friends… and those friends liked to party. A lot. I started getting into alcohol and substance use heavily. Periods of chronic substance use and homelessness became pretty standard. My family wasn’t much help. Being away from them put a major strain on our relationship, especially once I started using drugs and alcohol regularly.

As an out of state student, I had limited health insurance and couldn’t see a specialist for my issues. I was couch surfing and using substances to numb any and all emotions. But it wasn’t working. I would have major breakdowns and panic attacks. There would be periods where I wouldn’t leave my residence for weeks or months. I wasn’t showing up to class or turning in assignments. I was barely passing. I even took a medical leave at one point. Eventually, I made a major mistake filling out my financial aid forms and my school denied me the student loan I needed to finish my last year. I dropped out a semester shy of graduating.

What made you finally decide to seek help?

It all became too much. At 23, I moved back home to Connecticut. The drug use relaxed but being home with my family again started to bring up a lot of traumatic memories that I had forgotten all about. My family also can be pretty abusive. My drinking increased dramatically. I couldn’t hold steady work and I was dealing with daily flashbacks. After almost five years without health insurance, the Affordable Care Act kicked in. I could finally go see a therapist and I did. That’s what led to my current diagnosis of CPTSD and Bipolar II.

Can you explain a little more about CPTSD?

CPTSD is complex post-traumatic stress disorder. It actually isn’t always accepted as a formal diagnosis because it still isn’t very well understood by many in the mental health field. There’s a lot of debate about whether it should be included as a separate diagnosis to PTSD or if it is merely a severe form of it.

Either way, it’s pretty similar to PTSD except for a few differences. The first is that CPTSD is centered around the length of trauma. Folks with long-term and repeated trauma tend to experience extra symptoms to those with PTSD. In addition to flashbacks, hypervigilance, and behavioral stress responses (like insomnia or flinching around loud noises), I struggle with emotional regulation, forming and maintaining relationships, and establishing a sense of self/ identity. My CPTSD diagnosis, like many, stems from years of childhood abuse and neglect, including sexual assault.

How have your mental health disorders impacted your life since diagnosis?

At first, having the diagnosis didn’t change much. I was still living in active addiction and had no real support system. Knowing what was causing the flashbacks and stress didn’t change how I was coping. I was in and out of therapy, off and on medication but nothing was working. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready to be healthy. I don’t think I ever really had been, and I had no frame of reference for what being mentally healthy even looked like. Nearly everyone in my family has some sort of diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health disorder that goes untreated.

As I got older, I simply got tired. I was bouncing around in low end jobs. My family and I were completely disconnected. I was a big liar and alienated most of my friends too. After getting out of a pretty abusive relationship with an ex, I finally was able to luck into steady housing. I continued to struggle with addiction for another year before I found my footing.

Truthfully? My cat saved me. She followed me home one night from the bar and has been with me ever since. I didn’t want her to have to be back out on the street because I couldn’t take care of us. So I finally started learning more about mental wellness. I got my finances in order (they were a mess!). I found new friends who actually liked me for me rather than the drinking buddies I’d had. I fell in love with an incredible person who showed me what support looks like for the first time in my life. I kept trying therapists until I found one who was culturally competent and understood my experience as a mixed race person. I honestly think I just got lucky.

So you’re mixed race?

Yes, Black and Puerto Rican. I’m also queer and genderfluid. Throw in that I’ve spent most of my life in deep poverty and I think you hit the trifecta of marginalization.

Do you think being mixed race and queer delayed your diagnosis?

Yes and no. Every mental health professional I encountered before my current therapist was extremely caring and qualified to provide me support. That said, they all have been cisgendered, straight white women, though I did luck out once and had a gay man. I just don’t think they completely understood my situation. After over 20 years in and out of therapy, I’ve only just recently found a BIPOC therapist, and even she isn’t trained in handling gender expansive clients. It’s nearly impossible to find someone perfectly suited to deal with my unique experience.

Can you give an example of the struggles you faced finding the right kind of care?

I’d sit in a therapy session, deeply disturbed while relaying incidents of racism or gender violence that they just couldn’t understand or relate to. It made some of them so uncomfortable to even be talking about race or gender. Some would try to divert me away from the subject altogether.

Some specialists couldn’t comprehend that I had absolutely no family support. Others didn’t have an appreciation for what it took for me to even be in therapy. There were times I was paying out of pocket with spare change I hustled off the street. Other times I was taking 2 buses just to arrive late and be denied entry into session. It was hard.

I think that people genuinely wanted to help. I just don’t think they ever had the tools to do it. Most therapists lack cultural competency when it comes to Black, Brown and Queer patients. They just don’t learn much about us in school. They don’t always have the exposure to work with patients from my community primarily because:

1. Therapy is expensive and many people don’t have insurance or funds to pay

2. There‘s a ton of stigma in Black and Brown communities against any sort of mental health treatment or diagnosis, as well as a historically deep mistrust of the medical community

What advice do you have for others?

I knew I wasn’t healthy for a long time. As I got older, my symptoms got worse and I wasn’t using the best coping skills to manage them. The best thing I ever did for myself was commit to therapy. Even when I wasn’t totally happy with my therapist, I never felt that leaving therapy altogether was an option. I always knew I needed help, I just wasn’t always in the best place to get it.

Therapy doesn’t have to be the only way. I have found the right balance with my mental health these days by taking a holistic approach. I practice meditation, try to exercise regularly, and even see an acupuncturist for my chronic muscle tension and migraines, which are all related to my mental health disorders. I lean into art making and writing as a way to de-stress. There honestly isn’t much I haven’t tried to maintain my mental health balance. When one thing isn’t working for me in the moment, I move on to another coping skill. It took me a while but I finally have the right tools in my toolbox to meet most mental health challenges head on.

You can be mentally healthy too, once you find what works for you. Stick with it and don’t give up!

Want to learn more about Complex PTSD for BIPOC?

Check out The Pain We Carry by Natalie Y. Gutiérrez

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