I’ve always been the most devious thief of
my own joy. For years, I allowed the chemical imbalances in my brain to act as an excuse
to sabotage friendships, lash out at those
that loved me most, and disengage from socialization altogether. The unhealthy coping mechanisms I accumulated over time followed me throughout adulthood and it wasn’t until my move to Houston in 2014 that I realized I needed to face my demons head on.
I attended The University of Texas at Austin in the 2010s and I struggled early on to connect with people and form intentional friendships and bonds. I couldn’t seem to focus on studying and I saw my grades begin to suffer for the first time in my life. I considered the fact that I was simply suffering growing pains and that the feelings of anxiety and the relentless cycle of feeling like my body wasn’t moving at the same pace as my mind would eventually fade away. The word “depression” wasn’t just floated around and spoken about as openly in those days as it is now. No one, save perhaps university faculty and a few acquaintances in my life, was talking about mental health and Instagram accounts focusing on self-care didn’t exist, as the app itself had yet to be created. I couldn’t even utter the word “depression” when I was trying desperately to name what was going on with me‒I refused. The stigma attached to the word had as much of a grip on me as the actual depression did.
One night, I hit a wall. I was on the phone with my mom, who knows better than anyone that my perfectionist mindset would never allow me to surrender to the notion that there was something happening with me that was in any way out of my control. I was spiraling, frustrated that I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling and not knowing how it would be received even if the words somehow found me. I remember hearing the speed at which she was talking begin to slow as she walked on verbal eggshells. I was easily triggered by any number of words or phrases that made it seem like this was somehow out of my control, and she was well aware that her next words to me needed to be the perfect combination of gentle, stern, and to make it seem like it was a mere suggestion that she was floating out there and not an unofficial diagnosis.
“You know bud,” she began, “I remember at your [college] orientation, they mentioned to the parents that there are free counseling sessions at the student services building. It might be nice to talk to someone and just see what they tell you. Maybe it’s nothing, but they’ll be the ones to know.” Sitting on my twin bed in my dorm, the sun was setting, streaming golden hour rays of light through my plastic paneled window blinds, I felt my shoulders drop and my heart rate slow. “Fuck,” I thought, defenseless and tired of fighting the inevitable realization that something needed to change and the only person who could make it happen was me.
So, I made an appointment for my first therapy session. I scheduled it for 7:30 AM, because I wanted to sneak into the building and back out before most morning classes began. There I sat across from a disarmingly handsome Australian man as he asked me questions and nodded along as I described everything I’d been experiencing. He informed me that he couldn’t give me a diagnosis, medication, or any of the answers I was desperate for, but it genuinely just felt good to talk to a third party who wouldn’t judge me and could possibly relate. It was the quick fix I needed. I figured I was all set and I survived my first therapy session ever. I never really talked about it, but I did inform my mom later that day that her suggestion was spot on.
Flash forward to the following semester and I’m sitting across from yet another therapist. This time a young woman not much older than myself who had strategically placed a box of tissues by the couch her patients sat on. I divulged every single bit of what I was experiencing again, reliving the mental exhaustion sense of isolation I’d worked so hard to fight through. I sat hunched over, with my elbows on my knees, fingers interlocked, staring at the floor between my shoes as I spoke. Suddenly I heard a sniffle. I looked up and was taken aback by the sight of my therapist crying, tears pooling between her lips painted with red lipstick. “Are you okay?” I asked as I handed her a tissue. She apologized and we ended the session a little earlier than scheduled. “I am so fucked up.” I thought as I rode the escalator down to the first floor lobby.
I joined organizations in an effort to connect, ultimately buckling under the pressure to commit to the various responsibilities each one required. I thought once I graduated, I would be okay. I just needed to get out of Austin and start over. So, against the advice of multiple trusted friends, I followed my girlfriend at the time to Houston and took the first job that was offered to me.
I was in a race against time to find an apartment in this strange new city, pack up everything I’d bring with me to Houston, and orient myself to the landscape and my first full-time job. After three-and-a-half hours on the road, I unpacked my pickup truck and was officially a Houstonian. I hated my apartment, my bike was stolen within a few months, my job was not what I expected it to be and I dreaded going to work every day, and the girlfriend I followed to Houston broke up with me roughly three months after I moved to the city. Things weren’t so great. I’d reached the peak of my depression and spent most evenings contemplating giving up, taking the loss, and moving back to Austin where I felt at home and comfortable. I ultimately decided, begrudgingly, that I didn’t want to give up on H-Town, but something had to change if I was going to survive here and the only person who could make it happen was me.
Over time I made some friends, mostly through the church that I attended at the time. We entered a series in our small group that met on Sunday evenings where we shared testimonies, which, in short, is church-speak for telling everyone some real deep shit about yourself. We were asked to share either something specific about our lives with the group or a broad look at what our lives have looked like overtime up to this point. It was all based on individual comfort level, and I saw this as my chance to explain why I occasionally avoided the group altogether, why I was known to cancel plans at the last minute, and why I could be incredibly distant one day and the next day I’d be more engaged than anyone else in the group.
When I decided that my depression and anxiety would be the topic of my talk, it ironically ramped up my anxieties. Again, the stigma around mental health, particularly depression, had yet to be demystified at a mainstream level at this point. I assumed that when the word “depression” left my mouth, my friends’ eyes would grow bug eyed and I would be placed on suicide watch, or worse, they wouldn’t care and just say a little prayer for me and we’d move on. I ultimately decided the return on investment was worth it regardless and I prepared my talking points. I sat in a chair with everyone seated, relaxed and facing me. I explained everything to a group of people I’d come to know and love over the previous year and a half. What I saw when I looked up from my moleskine journal, where I had been reading from a bulleted list of notes, was a group of friends physically leaning in, listening closely, and when I opened the floor to questions, they asked thoughtful, intentional ones that offered a better understanding of what I’d just talked about. Only later would I learn that some of them were asking specific questions because they related personally to what I spoke about. On my walk home that night, feeling mentally and physically lighter than ever, I received text message after text message from friends in the group saying things like, “I’m so glad you told us that. I always wondered why you’d just disappear on us,” “Zach, I think I might also have...what you have,” and, “Please just text me next time you’re feeling this way.”
Coming out as someone who deals with mental health struggles was not initially on my list of things to accomplish in my quest to claim Houston as my home. I thought once I found a new apartment, had a job I liked, and made some friends, that would be the end-all be-all justification for my decision to move to and stay in this city I had zero ties to. The foundation of my decision not to leave Houston was born on an idea that I didn’t want to give up, pack my bags, and retreat back to Austin. I welcomed the challenge before me and grew from the absolute dirt that I found myself in when I initially moved here.
Houston gave me the push I needed to confront some of my most antagonistic demons and became the place of significant emotional and mental growth. This revelation to a safe group of people was a huge personal milestone and a big reason why I felt comfortable staying in Houston and ultimately felt at “home” here. I’ve learned to be upfront about my mental health with new and potential friends. I encounter mental health hurdles every single day, and although acknowledging my challenges by speaking them into existence didn’t cure or rid me of my imbalances, it made a hell of an impact. Although the members of this particular group have mostly gone our separate ways, the experience of coming out to them with something so personal was a lesson that I referred back to in the days leading up to my next big personal step. My journey didn’t end with coming out as someone who copes with their mental health challenges, but I continued with my journey of personal growth and authenticity by coming out as gay years later.
This city was not as welcoming as I’d hoped she would be. Houston gave me a true no- holds-barred initiation into real life. I am in a constant state of appreciation of the fact that I stayed and planted my stakes here. Had I done what I really wanted to do, taking the easy way out by packing my bags and heading back to Austin, who knows where I would be today, personally and emotionally. Houston will always be what made me and where I truly found myself.