Note: This was written in February 2020 for a site that had requested my story. Due to COVID-19, it was spiked. Before Pride Month ends, and to coincide with a lecture delivered by Professor Michelle Furlow, I am sharing this original essay here.
Standing in a classroom at Ryerson, I have reached the point in my lecture where I’m going to tell my story to the 150 students looking at me.
“It all began on a chilly Friday evening in October, 1963, when I made my entrance into this world. Many would claim that I had a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and was looking over the top of my glasses at someone … ” It gets a laugh, and now I can settle in to telling them who I am, so that they can see me, without labels.
I’m still a bit of a 60s hippie chick, and I am not a fan of labels for people; labels work on jars and cars, tins and bins, socks and rocks, but not people. You see, when you label me, you negate me, you remove my humanity completely. Labels are distancing phenomena and are used mostly for control.
Upon my birth I was assigned a label. The wrong one, but, stuff happens. More on that later.
I grew up in an alcoholic family. My late mom and I were the only non-drinkers. Let’s say it made life interesting. In Kindergarten, I had a medical issue occur that would require a doctor visit and a hospital visit. This was the 60s, and at that time, mental illness was something that was “just not spoken of in polite company,” and was weighted down with stigma. Lots of code words at that time, too. What is now called anxiety was then referred to in whispers as “overly sensitive” or “high strung”, etc. I was 5 and there was no pill to take, no therapist to see, it’s basically, “Suck it up, you’ll be fine. It’s not a big deal, have a lollipop.” It was also around this time that I also had this unshakable feeling that something was off, that things didn’t make sense.
My school years were an experience I would gladly forget, given the opportunity. Bullying was daily life, from Grades 1 through to 13. We moved frequently, which meant constantly changing schools and neighbourhoods. Just after I turned 15, I was diagnosed with depression. Again, we didn’t talk about it, and heaven forbid you show any emotions: that just was not done.
A few months after my 16th birthday, Mom and I sat down for a chat. I had rehearsed the words thousands of times and stumbled badly on the first sentence, in my attempt to come out; come out as a girl, not what was on the label I was assigned at birth. I was lucky to have a mother who was light years ahead of her time, and she put her hand on top of mine that were shaking, and said, “Before you choke, I already know what you are going to say, it’s okay, I get it.”
I’m staring at her, “But … how?”
“I’ve known since you were very young, Kit, trust me, mothers always know.”
“But, why didn’t you say something??”
“Honey, I thought I knew, and if I had said something to you, what if I had been wrong? Trust me, it has been killing me inside having to watch you struggle with this up until now, but you had to find your own way to the answer.
Before you ‘but’ me again, I have an envelope in the drawer behind you, I’ve been gathering information, pull it out, we have some reading to do. And Kit, whatever you do, do not breathe a word of this to family, they will never let you have a minute’s peace if they find out. This is between us until the time is right, okay?”
And there was another label – Transgender.
We had heard the whispers of “The Purge” that ran from 1950 to 2000, kicking LGBTQ2S people out of the civil service, the military, and the RCMP. It was typical to have some of the community folks from mom’s work drop by for dinner and some laughs, and this topic was spoken of often. After graduating with a thorough education on these things, it was only natural that along with my working life, I would also dedicate the past 39 years to activism and advocacy work on behalf of the community. A few years after I came out to my mom, I got involved in mental health advocacy work (30 years now), and yet still could not bring myself to mention my own battles, all the while fighting for others.
I found that in the Bay Street world, working in a constant state of overwhelm was “normal.” Yet, I found that when I was that buried in work, I didn’t have the time to think about anxiety and depression. In the 90s, that would come back to haunt me. Working for a company where a 100 hour work week was standard, things started to break down. I became physically ill, seriously enough to require hospitalization.
Another new label – Burnout.
As soon as I went back to work, I went right back into the company’s routines, and was back in hospital quickly with another case of burnout. The third time, I remember my doctor shaking his finger at me, “If you do this again, my friend, there will be no recovery, you will be sick for a very long time. Take my advice, quit and get a job elsewhere that will not put you into an early grave.”
I took his advice, and decided to teach for a year. I loved it! I found my old excitement for work in being able to share knowledge with my students. It was the break I needed, and my anxiety and depression became manageable once more.
I started my own consulting business and worked from home. This worked well until Mom retired, and took sick while working part time. A trip to the hospital where they handed us her death sentence. Terminal brain cancer. She had beaten cancer twice before, but this time they gave her 6 weeks. She hung on for 7 months. I was holding her hand at the moment she took her last breath.
Having put life on hold while I took care of her, I had not seen things were being cleaned out. I couldn’t get back to work fast enough to save our place, and was about to lose the home we had shared for 48 years. Depression hit harder and I went downhill fast. It led to my first suicide attempt in 2011. It was the first time I was diagnosed with PTSD and the conditions that co-exist with it.
A bunch of new labels, and I was referred to by my illnesses, not by my name.
I ended up homeless and on the street with the clothes on my back and my cat, Heidi, in her carrier. After a few days and nights, we found ourselves guests of our city’s shelter system. I ended up in Emergency multiple times with severe panic attacks. Each time, I would be discharged with more pills and another new label. I also picked up more labels during that time: sexual assault survivor, assault survivor, suicide attempt survivor. The last panic attack I experienced after all of this was severe enough to trigger cardiac issues.
Getting into my own apartment was such a relief, I could get back to my advocacy work, while working to educate and cause positive changes in policing. I met with a psychologist who revised my PTSD diagnosis to Complex-PTSD, covering multiple traumas over an extended span. She said that if the old guidelines had not been so stiff, I would have been diagnosed in my 20s and avoided the difficulties I had in the intervening years. Once the C-PTSD was treated and managed, everything else fell into line as well. The therapist I worked with after could not fathom how I had any mind remaining after my experiences. Simple, really – I inherited Mom’s stubborn streak, and I’ve got too much to do to surrender to it now.
Following a busy media spring and summer in 2016, my friend Laurie McCann contacted me, “Christine, do you know Natalie Harris?”
“Yes, we follow each other on Twitter.”
“Do you talk to each other?”
“We have liked a tweet now and then.”
“Okay. You two gals have got to meet and chat, OMG, you have the same sense of humour, you work in the same mental health fields, you both get results, just imagine if you talked and compared notes, you really must meet!”
“Okay, Laurie, I’ll get in touch.”
Little did any of us realize what Laurie had just set in motion. It was an instant connection, and we would talk for hours, sharing stories, laughing until we were sore, sitting up all night texting. We had instantly become BFFs. When we met in person, it was even better, and we became chosen sisters! Nat didn’t walk through my door, she burst through it with love, laughter, and so much lightness. I had reviewed her first book, Save-My-Life School for a magazine I was writing for. After stating the first section of her book was my story, too, I “came out” to my readers about my mental health battles for the very first time. Nat was part of our 2017 Ryerson lecture series, and we have since spoken together on stage in multiple cities. We wrote and performed our essay “Love Is Love” on International Women’s Day 2019. Nat was the one who inspired me to be fully open in public about my battles with my mental health.
People have tried to come up with labels and their own interpretations of us; human beings are meaning-making machines, after all. Their interpretations never fit. We have our own labels: BFF, Sister, Soulmate, Partner. We are BFFs and chosen sisters. Soulmate, because our souls merged so perfectly that Nat swears we share one soul between two bodies. Partner, because in everything each of us does, the other partner is always there, supporting them. When we say our favourite vow, “I’ll love you forever and a million days more,” it comes from our shared soul.
Back to that Ryerson classroom – wrapping up my story, and finishing my lecture:
“You saw all those labels from over the years. If I only exist to you as those labels, then you will never see me, or truly know me. If you surrender those labels, you will then know me as the musician, singer, writer, artist, educator, speaker, advocate, the City Mom, and the amazing love I share with Nat. Drop all of the labels, and see me, Christine, with the only label that matters, the label that we all share – HUMAN.”
Christine Newman is a published author, educator, speaker, advocate, and an LGBTQ2S Peer Support Advisor & Lived Experience Facilitator for the Peer and Trauma Support Systems team at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.