How sexual identity can affect mental health | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Out of the Shadows: Wearing the wrong skin

WBEZ's Out of the Shadows series looked to identify some factors that could exacerbate mental illness in teens--among them, sexuality. Straight or gay, coming to terms with one's sexuality is one of the biggest hurdles a teenager crosses. Transgendered people often face ridicule that can trigger anxiety and depression--often accompanied by alcohol and drug abuse.

One warning, there are some descriptions about cutting that might disturb more sensitive listeners.

For Out Of the Shadows, Julianne Hill profiled a Chicago teen who barely made it through the transition.

“And if you called her by name she refused to answer,” Abby remembered. “You would call, ‘Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, hey Kerry’ and she just wouldn’t respond and you’d finally have to say, ‘Jacob,’ then she’d turn around have this big ear to ear grin like I am so much smarter and brighter than you are and I just got you to do what I want. And part of that what was pretty normal tomboy behavior; she was a tomboy,” she continued.

Her husband, Michael remembers Kerry as, “a great kid—fun-loving, easy going. Always smiling; never seemed to have too many cares in the world. Fun, fun kid.” She just wanted to be with the boys and play football, he added.

Kerry, now 19, said that she was made fun of because of how much she acted like a boy and looked like a boy.

“I matured faster than anyone else in my class. By fourth grade, nobody really has anything and I was very, very mature. I had, I was fully grown in lots of places,” Kerry explained.

Kerry was embarrassed by her developing body, so she hid behind lockers at basketball practice. The other girls took advantage of her vulnerability and made her a target for their taunts.

“I was made fun of because of how much I acted like a boy and looked like a boy.
They made up a fun little jingle to imply I was ‘fixed,’ meaning I was a girl with boy parts,” Kerry remembered.

Her classmates started a rumor that Kerry had been born a boy but that her parents wanted a girl. So, the rumor was, her parents had Kerry’s penis cut off at birth.

“And what the girls wanted was to have her show them what was left. And apparently this went on for some time. Ugh. I can’t even express to you how angry I was when I found out about it,” her mother recalled painfully.

“I began acting, well I wouldn’t say ‘acting’ like a girl, in junior high--but I at least pretended to because that’s how I had friends. And what do girls in junior high do? They talk about boys and they like boys. So I told my friends that I liked different boys in my class. And I knew that I liked them more of like, I want to play football w this boy. Not ‘I want to date this boy,’” Kerry said. “Most girls in my class had definitely had their first kisses majority had definitely had their first boyfriends. And because of today, a lot of them had already had sex. I hadn’t either I hadn’t even gotten close to any of those things,” she added.

But Kerry knew for certain that she wasn't attracted to those boys.

“The boy that I got my first kiss from? No. Not at all. I was looking for and he was looking for someone to kiss. So it worked out. Um. The first boyfriend that I dated I thought I liked him because the way we hung out. We never kissed; we were never made out at all. We held hands for like three blocks and then it was weird,” Kerry explained.

But she began to realize that she was very unhappy—and didn’t know why.

“I don’t know when she started struggling. It must’ve been her sophomore year. She just had a hard time finding her way. In the fall of her junior year, the counselor from school called me and asked me to come in and said Kerry has something to tell you. And what she had to tell me she was cutting,” her mother remembered.

“So I got to cut once and it left four lines instead of just one. Not only was I cutting, but I was lazy and I wanted to get it done quick. Like, I would cut and just think about how my arm hurt and I was bleeding and I should do this and this and this all surrounding around the fact that I had cut and yes that maybe helped me forget why I was so upset,” Kerry explained.

Originally, Kerry thought the depression stemmed from her parents’ recent divorce. But looking back said she couldn’t care less; she was fine with it.

"The reason why I was so depressed was because I didn’t know who I was. It wasn’t until about February of my junior year that I realized that I was gay. Actually I came out bisexual; I think most people do. I think then people don’t have to fully admit. I admitted to that and it scared me and I never thought that’s who I would be,” Kerry said.

“I wasn’t sure what it really meant or if it was a phase she was going through. But I took it in stride. She was the Kerry I always knew,” her dad Michael remembered. 

But her mother wasn’t the least bit surprised; not at all.

Kerry was dating girls—and she liked dating girls. She liked it very, very much.

But coming out didn’t help Kerry’s depression. In fact, it got worse: She began drinking alone, she saw her school counselor daily, she gave Kerry a journal and Kerry had to turn it in before their daily session.

But, what Kerry didn’t disclose in the journal—or to anyone—was that she was attempting suicide. In fact, she tried—nine times.

The last attempt came after a rough night near the end of her senior year. Kerry wrote drunken thoughts in her journal.

“And I was trying hard not to cut but did anyway. I took my bloody wrist from cutting and I printed it inside of the journal. Which, then instead of handing my counselor a journal that didn’t make any sense, it was a journal that didn’t make any sense with a giant bloody mess on it,” Kerry recalled.

Abby referred to the entry as her plan—on how she was going to kill herself.

“She was clearly in a lot of pain. And for her to do something like that, she had to be in a lot of pain. Aside from being concerned and frantically trying to figure out how to get to her and help her, I felt bad that she was in so much pain. I felt bad that I didn’t understand that she was in that much pain or why she was in that much pain,” her father remembered.

Dr. Brian Mustanski, director of Northwestern University’s IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program, said that LGBT youth face a number of stressors that their heterosexual peers don’t experience. He studies mental health issues of LGBT youth.

“Certainly there’s some evidence that they experience more psychological distress and what I think we need to understand now is does that turn into psychiatric disorders,” Mustanski explained.

Kerry spent two weeks in the adolescent psychiatric unit at Highland Park Hospital. Doctors there warned about the possibility of bipolar disorder.

After the hospital, Kerry worked with a psychiatrist to find a medication regime that worked. And, she started seeing a therapist, Dr. Lisa Goldman. There, Kerry explored a new path, questioning her gender identity.

“Kerry had been feelings for a very long time that Kerry was not a she. That she was a he,” Dr. Goldman remembered. 

One session, Dr. Goldman opened the DSM-IV—the bible of brain disorders—and read Kerry the description of Gender Identity Disorder.

Goldman remembered looking up at Kerry after she read the description, and Kerry said, “Yep, that’s pretty much me.”

“She said very helpful sentence: ‘I think you might be transgendered.’ My brain thinks I’m a boy. And that statement right there, my brain thinks I’m a boy, but I’m a girl, is transgendered,” Kerry remembered. “But after talking to her for a while and talking about it, being transgendered sucks. I am one thing but I think I am another thing and I’ve wanted to be another thing my entire life. That just sounds like it shouldn’t be called being transgendered. It should be called… disappointed,” she added.

Goldman counseled her for substance abuse and for depression—and she made sure Kerry’s beliefs were grounded in reality and not delusions or hallucinations. 

Once that was established, they discussed how to transition to becoming a man. That made Kerry realize she didn’t have to live with the frustration. She thought that was pretty amazing, that she could actually change it.

“My parents’ reactions were very different than what I thought they were going to be. My dad said, ‘If this is going to make you happy, if this is who you are, if you’re going to be happier after you have this surgery to be a boy, then, yes, let’s do it. It’s going to great. Yes. Let’s go.’ My mom took awhile to get into it,” Kerry recalled.

“It’s a very simple thing to understand your child is gay. That’s easy. It’s a,” Abby struggled to explain, “a completely different thing to understand—rapidly—to understand your child is not just who you thought they were but they are not who they think they are. He was very concerned that I didn’t want to have a son. It didn’t matter to me if Kerry was a boy or a girl or a pig or a horse. It mattered to me that Kerry was Kerry again,” she finished.

“I tried to assure her that I would help her in any way I could to try to get her to where she wanted to be and where she should be,” father Michael said.

This spring, Kerry started taking male hormones, lowering his voice and changing hair growth patterns. In June, Kerry’s breasts were removed. Kerry now considers himself a man, and prefers to be referred to as “he.”

When asked to talk about pronouns, mother Abby laughed instantly.

“Yeah, so I flip back and forth on the pronouns because it’s really hard to tell stories about Kerry when he was little and not attach a feminine pronoun because he was she. He was a baby girl,” Abby said. “It’s a strange expression but I think it truly applies to Kerry. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He is absolutely wearing the suit he was supposed to be wearing,” she finished.

“I’m still on medication for depression and so I take it every day. Part of me thinks that’s why I’m not depressed, but um. I was on depression medicine before when they first realized and I still had really bad days but I don’t have bad days anymore,” Kerry said.

But when asked whether she was proud of Kerry, Abby’s reaction came in a whisper: “Oh my God—am I proud of Kerry? I am. I am.”

“Now I do like talking about it. I get to say, ‘My name is Kerry. I’m a boy and I’m happy,’ Kerry laughed quietly.

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