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Dan Choi Hospitalized; A Discussion About Our Community's Multi-Faceted Sacrifices

NOTE FROM PAM: Today brought news to our inbox that Autumn and I wanted to share with Blend readers in what we feel is an appropriate context. We learned that Dan Choi, who sacrificed his privacy to take on a high-profile role as one of the public faces of the impact of the discriminatory policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, has been hospitalized and is in the hands of professional mental health practitioners at a Veterans Administration facility. Dan explained in his email:

I did not initially want to publicize this but I now realize it is critical for our community to know several things: veterans gay or straight carry human burdens, Activists share similar burdens, no activist should be portrayed as super human, and the failures of government and national lobbying carry consequences far beyond the careers and reputations of corporate leaders, elected officials, High powered lobbyists, or political elites. They ruin lives. My breakdown was a result of a cumulative array of stressors but there is no doubt that the composite betrayals felt on Thursday, by elected leaders and gay organizations as well as many who have exploited my name for their marketing purposes have added to the result. I am certain my experience is not an isolated incident within the gay veteran community.

At the same time, those who have been closest to me know that I truly appreciate their gracious help and mentorship. I am indebted to their hospitality and leadership.

If you could share the info and sentiment I’d be most grateful.

So yes, this is newsworthy, and Dan clearly wanted to share what he could have left private, or had to deal with had information about this leaked out. But this is another gift to the community — to open up a multi-faceted discussion: 1) the mental health toll taken by gay and lesbian service members; 2) the stressors that arise when also thrown into the public eye as a matter of fate or circumstance, not as a job.

As a society we tend to bury mental health issues, always trying to pretend that everyone can just “suck it up” and bear all of life’s maelstrom, and that there is inherent weakness in needing mental health services. Far from it, there are many people in desperate need of professional help in this vein who don’t seek assistance because of the stigma still attached to mental health issues. A snippet of what I said in my response to Dan:

…Now you have a chance to actually rest, get off of the hamster wheel and take care of yourself. Sometimes this is what it takes for those who find it hard to ratchet down. Part of gaining perspective is to take care of your mental health as Dan Choi the person, the human being. “Activist” is an acquired label, worn by you in a very public manner – it’s a difficult burden.

This is private time to both heal and build up the skills you need to handle the anxiety that can be crippling and painful. That’s a process, one that takes time, practice…I trust that you will cast the outside world out of your mind for a while. It will obviously be there when you’re ready to engage, and the world will be just as screwed up as it ever was.

What matters is that you gain back your strength. Your health – mental, physical, spiritual – is more important than any of this.

And the closet is no place for mental illness, there is no need for euphemisms that skirt the issue of addressing a clinical matter. Doing so only makes it that much harder for those who suffer in silence from getting the help they need, and in the military, the stigma remains strong.

Autumn recounts some of her own experiences as a veteran who has sought help in the VA system below.

POST FROM AUTUMN: As most of you know, I took to the White House fence with Dan Choi in April and November. In the photo below and to the right, I’m in the dress blue Navy uniform standing next to Dan.

And too, as those who have been following Pam’s House Blend for awhile, you know I retired from the military in 2000, and have a Veterans Administration (VA) Disability Rating of 100% — my VA Disability Rating is Service Connected. The main reason I have that rating is a bipolar type II and a half condition, also known as cyclothymic disorder. I was hospitalized in at the San Diego VA Medical Center’s Psychiatric Unit in 2004 because I’d been overmedicated on my then mood stabilizer, Gabapentin, in large part to help me deal with an extraordinary amount of stress I was under at the time. At the time of that hospitalization, I wasn’t a public figure, but I was a public figure when my friend Christine Daniels died by suicide in November of 2009, and I then had a significant panic attack — which is a kind of anxiety attack, and was associated for me with mania.

Significant stress is a trigger for me; I have hypomania, depression, and anxiety attacks when I feel stressed.

For others who aren’t bipolar like me, though, significant stress still can result in anxiety attacks, depression, and mental breakdowns.

For example, as a military veteran I’m very aware that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a particular kind of anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.

Personally, I’ve had to learn how to deal with my stressors in a way that doesn’t harm my ability to function in society. I had to learn, through years of therapy, that I need to address my own needs even while attempting to deal with the needs of others. I have to limit certain kinds of stress I experience — a reason why I don’t work is because work stress is difficult for me. So, even though I work hard to address issues relating to the freedom, equality, and justice of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, I’ve had to learn what I can and can’t do for the causes I believe in; I’ve had to learn that I have real limitations, and that trying to exceed my personal limitations leads to negative outcomes.

The therapy I’ve had has helped me figure out my limitations, as well as helping me figure out strategies for dealing with stressors to minimize debilitating mood swings and panic attacks. Without the mental health resources I have as a retired, disabled, Persian Gulf War veteran, I don’t believe I would have broken thorough to the functionality that I currently enjoy most of the time.

Basically, I’m not Superwoman.

In the same vein, Dan Choi isn’t Superman. I don’t know all of the personal and public stressors Dan has recently experienced, nor do I know exactly what kind of anxiety Dan has recently experienced. He gets to have his health care related privacy, and he is free to share — or not share — about the medical conditions that find him hospitalized.

What I do know is that Dan did the responsible thing, and decided to seek professional help through the Veterans Administration when he felt he needed help. He is no doubt  resting and receiving the help of professionals that he needs. And, he chose to inform people publicly that he is hospitalized, and he is receiving treatment.

It’s too easy to forget that Dan Choi is not just a brave and strong combat veteran, but he’s a human being too. I know that from time I’ve spent with him before engaging in the White House direct actions he truly is brave and strong. He’s lived through combat; he’s taken upon himself a fight against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for what he hopes will be the benefit of the broad LGBT community. Those are some big stressors Dan has taken upon himself.

I’ve watched as politicians treat lesbian, gay, and bisexual veterans as if they are political footballs instead of qualified, honorable servicemembers who are prepared to die for their country. I’m sure Dan personally feels treated as less than fully human by many politicians in Washington. Dan’s bravery and strength have limitations, and it now appears that he’s ran into some of those limits.

Dan isn’t alone. There are many, many servicemembers who have seen combat — enduring stresses most of us can’t imagine — and yet are still valuable members of society. Dan has been, and still is, a valuable member of his veterans and LGBT communities. Hopefully, when Dan has engaged for awhile in the treatment he knows he needs, he’ll again be productive — but hopefully while taking better care of his own needs in the process, and hopefully while better functioning within his own limitations.

As Dan Choi talks now about what combat veterans go through, and now begins a discussion within his communities on the stigma that veterans — especially LGBT veterans — who reach out for help face, he will create space for positive change.

Sue Fulton, the chair of Knight’s Out and a board member of OutServe, had this to say about Dan:

Dan Choi is both a hero AND a human being, who has exhausted himself in the pursuit of justice. Our prayers are with him, and we hope for his speedy recovery.

I have similar thoughts to Sue’s thoughts; my warmest thoughts are for Dan’s well-being.

JD Smith, chair of OutServe, added this:

Dan brought our movement to a whole new level. We all have our roles to play in this movement and he played one of the most important: making us challenge and evaluate how exactly we are challenging the status quo to get equal.

Dan Choi is brave, strong, and needing mental health assistance now — and all of those things are true all at the same time. That, as well as the sacrifices he has made for his country and LGBT community, have contributed towards his need of assistance. Those are issues that are worth discussing.

My hope for LGBT community is that we won’t stigmatize or minimize Dan Choi for reaching out for the mental health assistance he needs now. Our LGBT veterans deserve to be treated with honor, respect, and with dignity; Dan Choi is among the bravest and strongest LGBT veterans I’ve ever met, and he deserves honor, respect, and dignity. I’m proud to know him, and proud to continue to stand by him as he receives the assistance he needs now.

Servicemembers United reminded us in a Veterans Day email blast of this:

Of the approximately 21.8 million veterans in the United States today, over 1 million are LGBT. And of the 1.2 million active servicemembers, over 66,000 are LGB. While the discrimination we face as a minority under DADT has been very real to all of us, Servicemembers United wants to take this Veterans Day to focus on an issue that affects the entire wider military community, regardless of orientation, color, religion, gender, or age.

Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) remains a serious issue for servicemembers and veterans. While PTS can affect anyone, its impact can be exacerbated with gay and lesbian troops and vets because of our frequent unwillingness to trust military doctors and sometimes even VA healthcare providers. For those who are skeptical about seeking evaluation and treatment for PTS because of the cloud of DADT, Servicemembers United has been featuring two civilian resources as alternatives on its homepage.

Give An Hour and The Soldiers Project are two civilian mental health provider networks that can hook up servicemembers, vets, and even their families (including LGBT families) with free counseling and other mental health services, and many of these providers specialize in treating PTS. Several of our members have used these networks to get the care they needed but were hesitant to seek elsewhere, and both organizations have confirmed to Servicemembers United that they are very welcoming of gay and lesbian troops, vets, and partners.

Contribute a ‘get well soon’ message to Dan Choi on our GroupCard

Click the image above to participate. We’ll ensure Dan receives your well-wishes.

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Autumn Sandeen

Autumn Sandeen