When I recently saw an apartment ad boasting, "Closets everywhere," I thought: Life can be that way.
Most of us face decisions, regularly, about staying in or stepping out of the closet. But for some, choices of concealment or revelation are even more complicated. LGBT people who have psychiatric problems, such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder, must decide again and again to keep masks on or take them off. Even if we've come out heroically to friends, family and co-workers about our sexual orientation, this additional hurdle to being genuine remains in our path: To whom should we talk about our illness? At what point?
Thirty years ago, when I first got my bipolar diagnosis, the rule espoused by the doctors was "need-to-know basis." Their advice: Our psychiatric conditions were our business, to be discussedlike some state secretwith those few people we completely trusted.
For years, when I formed new friendships, I'd try hard to present myself as having no unusual problems. I didn't talk about doctor appointments, the true reason my mood appeared up or down, or why I ordered 7-Up at bars instead of a cocktail. (Alcohol doesn't mix well with meds.) If I learned someone else had a mood disorder, I'd tentatively view him as a kindred spirit and talk about myself. But it hardly ever happened. Thus ensued the years of Bob, Man of Mystery. Almost none of the people I routinely saw knew much of substance about me.
The need-to-know strategy created an existence that stretched on like one big lie of omission. It felt like I had the right to remain silent about some of the most interesting aspects of my life. Worse, I felt isolated. Living one's life close to the vest, because of fear of rejection, can evolve into deceit. Before we came out as LGBT, many of us spun yarns for relatives, friends and colleagues to conjure quasi-fictional lives that they'd view as "normal" and non-threateninganother awkward situation avoided. The same sidestepping or stretching of truth easily happens when we try to hide illness.
Partly, I think, lack of candor is a reaction to the outrageous demands for supposed perfection that sometimes emanate from the gay and lesbian world. Online dating ads specify "no baggage." These ads seemingly travel across the cosmos, transmitted from a Bizarro Chicago where everyone leaps from his bed happy each morning, has never paid a therapist a dime and never has dishes pile up in the sink. Yet I find myself with more "baggage" than the United carousel at O'Hare. Thank you, SEXYEDDIE60657; maybe it's best if I pass.
Lucky for me, I found kinship a few years ago, when I learned through Windy City Times of a local organization called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). My chapter, DBSA GLBT Chicago, is designed for our community. Now in its seventh year, the group could best be described as an airy, sunlit space where strangers are met on arrival with friendliness instead of apprehension.
It's not a therapy group; there are no professional counselors or doctors. The rationale behind "peer power" is simple: Uninhibited conversation happens best when people are among others with similar issues and identities.
Our group is thriving and growing, with men and women who've attended for years plus new folks showing up nearly each week. I've stopped counting how many tell me it's been instrumental in staying healthy and stable and maintaining a positive self-image. It's a source of friendship for many. Plus, we've attracted attention: One of a very tiny number of LGBT-oriented DBSA chapters anywhere, we'll officially accept a "Leadership Award" at a national meeting in Portland, Ore., this falla recognition that we rate among the best of the hundreds of groups in the United States.
Of course, we're not serious all the time. What would any gay assemblage be without socializing? We've shared in holiday parties, movies, beach outings, countless lunches and a lot of laughter. But the marrow of the group remains 90 minutes of sincere self-disclosure each weekunashamed and as real as it gets.
It's called vulnerability, and it's underratedneed-to-know basis be damned.
Bob Kazel is a freelance writer and president of DBSA GLBT Chicago, which meets Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Howard Brown Health Center, 4025 N. Sheridan Rd. For further information, call 872-216-3272 or visit www.dbsa-glbt-chicago.com .