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Naomi Osaka Put Her Mental Health First. We All Should

Naomi

My first day on disability in the winter of 2015 felt like my last day on Earth. The pain was unimaginable. I cowered on the couch. The tears would not subside. I stared at “that window” 24 stories above 49th Street in Hell’s Kitchen; my escape from this excruciating hell and agony. 

The darkness was inexplicable, and the medications I was given to calm me only seemed to make me more grievous. How had I gotten to this point? Just three months prior, I had wrapped up a global public relations climate change project for the United Nations, winning countless industry awards. And, I had just started leading an account for one of the top climate change advocates in the world. I was at the peak of my career. Yet now, I was immobilized, mentally “disabled.”

This was surely the end; I felt like I had sunken to the depths of despair and was now spiraling further into the dark and non-returnable abyss.

Normally, when I write about a newsworthy event, or one that affects our community, I seek out an LGBTQ+ thought leader or authority to provide expert commentary about the subject to help us all understand the issue better. For this column, I didn’t have to venture any further than my own computer, because I understand.

When tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, at the peak of her career, backed out of meeting with the media prior to the French Open, she got lots of pushback. That’s her job, and as such, the responsibility to talk to the media comes with that job. She was fined $15,000 last week for her action by the French Tennis Association.

However on Monday, Osaka made a very candid revelation. She suffers from bouts with depression and anxiety, and as a result, put her mental health first by withdrawing from the French Open completely — taking a break from her job. Meanwhile others, including LGBTQ+ icon Billie Jean King withdrew their initial criticism of Osaka’s media no-show, with King saying that Osaka was “incredibly brave” and that she “needs space.”

Subsequently, on Wednesday, Nike and other major sponsors threw their support behind Osaka. “Our thoughts are with Naomi. We support her and recognize her courage in sharing her own mental health experience,” Nike said in a statement.

When I had to leave my job and go on disability, which turned out to be a year-long gruesome battle, it was my doctor’s and a psychiatrist’s decision. And when I returned to work for the first time, after being out for six weeks, there were no balloons, no cake, no hugs, no “welcome back sign.”

I came back to an empty desk, forced removal from the accounts I led, lots of cold stares in my direction, and was given absolutely nothing to do. Under these circumstances, I lasted only two weeks, going back out on disability, because no one understood what was going on. I was treated like a pariah and slipped further into darkness and hopelessness. I wrote about my experience with workplace ignorance toward severe depression and anxiety.

By removing herself from her job of playing in the French Open, and giving herself space, the 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam singles champion showed tremendous courage and sent a very valuable lesson to young people and employers — mental health challenges are serious and should not be ignored. And people who suffer from them need to be understood.

Former King rival Chris Evert, appearing on Good Morning America, said, “This is an individual sport and it can be brutal at times,” adding about players like Osaka, “Remember these athletes are teenagers and in their early 20s and they can’t cope with what a 45, 50-year-old golfer can cope with.”

Evert is right, but to a point. I was 50 when years of suppressing what happened to me as a teenager came roaring back with a sinister vengeance in the way of PTSD. At 12, I had suddenly lost my father, and then entered a world of physical and mental abuse at home, a long grooming period by an evil Catholic priest who accosted me, all of which warped my sense of self and attitude toward my sexuality. I suppressed this mightily all my life, dealing with it through excessive drinking and professional overachieving.

It’s a scientific fact that suppressed memories can cause debilitating psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD or dissociative disorders later in life. Having young people, particularly famous young people, be so open about their struggles, and uninhibited about getting help, is immensely important, particularly to young people. Had I got the help I needed long ago, who knows how my life might have been different?

We continue to see that suicide rates among LGBTQ+ teens still remain high, and that’s because so many are still tortured by the thought of coming out and being themselves. It’s wonderful that young people like Elliot Page, Jojo Siwa, and Lil Nas X come forward and be themselves, but it’s so hard to translate that openness to a child who lives with abusive parents, or is in an ultra-Christian conservative community, a disinviting culture, or is being victimized by an adult in their life.

I worry so much about how young people are affected by all of these anti-trans bills that are flourishing around the country. Young, trans teens are being victimized by older, bigoted, privileged white men, who are looking to score political points at the risk of harming the mental health of these young, precious individuals. As someone who is older, I can’t imagine the pain of a closeted teenager who sees people out to destroy them?

But, to a point, I can imagine their pain, because I lived through hell during my teens. Thus, I’m extremely sympathetic to anyone else, young or old, who suffers from anguish, particularly as it relates to their sexuality, or their livelihoods. By speaking up, and being open and writing about it, if it helps just one person, then it’s worth putting it all out there.

A few years ago, during a vacation abroad, we met a young male/female couple in the lobby bar of a hotel where we were staying. I went out to have a cigarette with the guy at one point, and we got to talking about my sexuality, and he started crying.

He told me he had been suffering for years with severe depression and explained that revealing his sexuality would mean being disowned by his parents, friends, and, of course, his girlfriend. He lived with constant fear and anxiety. It was so painful to hear his trauma and to watch him cry so hard. I told him I’d been through so much pain too, and I offered to keep in touch and to help him. For a few years, we communicated, until one day, I didn’t hear from him anymore. It’s hard not to think the worst.

It’s immeasurable that Osaka has been so upfront, and that so many are now coming to her defense. It’s super hard to try and explain severe depression and anxiety to anyone who has not been through it. When I tried to do so, on many occasions the response I got was, “Oh, I get depressed all the time.” After a while, you just don’t talk about it anymore because you figure out that people just don’t understand it.

My editor posted the story about Osaka on our company Slack and suggested that maybe this deserved a commentary? She didn’t direct the message to me, but something in me said to take it, and to talk about it, because I understand it.

This week starts Pride month, and we’re going to be hearing so many amazing stories about overcoming challenges, being resilient, rising up, conquering, and reaching our goals, and recognizing achievements. But for some people, this month might be very difficult because they take no pride in who they are.

I particularly remember watching my first Pride event in Washington, D.C. as a closeted young man. It made me cry because I never believed that that isolated and beleagured teenage boy would ever find happiness, or find any reason to be a proud gay man. While I have come to be proud of myself, and dealt with my demons from the past, I'm still keenly aware of the insidiousness of depression, and the fact that being gay, for me, was once a hauting curse and a detriment to my mental health. I thank God every day for seeing me through those dark times.

Ironically, last month was Mental Health Awareness month, and on the last day of May, Osaka spoke volumes about helping people understand severe depression.

From my own experience, what follows are some signs to watch for from your co-workers and friends to help you understand how someone might be having some difficulty. Don’t ignore them or put them in a corner and forget about them; reach out to them. If someone had done that for me, it would have made all the difference in the world:

·       Work output slipping or someone not returning texts or phone calls

·       Voice change, or the lack of expression in spoken words

·       Gradual, unexplained weight loss

·       Empty eyes and dark circles that look lifeless

·       Sudden lack of participation in social events, especially by someone who was always game for fun

If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at (877) 565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at (866) 488-7386. You can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

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