Story No. 6 | Real People, Real Stories Series
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Jake Donofrio recently interviewed Chase Lightizer, a Rehab Counselor at MindWise’s parent company, Riverside Community Care. Here is an edited version of their conversation.
Jake Donofrio: Hey Chase, I’m excited to dive into this interview. Let’s start with the basics- tell me a little about yourself.
Chase Lightizer: Hi Jake, I’m really excited too.
I’m a 25-year-old man living in Boston with my husband and cat. I’m a trans dude and that’s been its own journey in addition to dealing with mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and OCD. When I’m not working as a Rehab Counselor with Riverside Community Care I spend a lot of my free time playing Dungeons and Dragons and hanging with my cat.
JD: I definitely want to hear more about your cat! But first, can you tell me about your personal experience and journey with mental health?
CL: When I was young, my parents got divorced. I was in second grade and desperately wanted and needed therapy but we couldn’t afford it.
I was about eight at the time and living with a festering feeling of knowing I needed help but also being aware it wasn’t coming due to our financial situation. I felt I couldn’t tell anyone and that burden was really weighing on me.
JD: I’m sorry to hear that. What happened next?
CL: The memory that sticks out most starkly to me of being a small child with mental health concerns takes place in third grade.
We had an assignment to write a story about a happy family memory and I just broke down sobbing and hid under the table because I couldn’t think of any happy memories. Eventually, I got permission to write about a sad one instead but I was really worried my teacher was going to hate me because I didn’t have any happy memories.
Looking back on it, I don’t know how my parents didn’t step in to help after that.
Life kind of continued on from there and I felt depressed and anxious a lot throughout my early childhood.
In between 8th and 9th grade I developed a “mild” eating disorder. (I consider it mild because I didn’t tell anyone and was able to push through it on my own.) I was losing significant weight which caused me to spiral further into a really dark place.
That led to my junior year of high school when I started having a lot of panic attacks during class. Like A LOT of panic attacks.
My teachers were definitely noticing and I think one told my mom. She suggested going to a doctor and getting a referral for a therapist.
So, I gave in because the jig was up- people had found out I was really struggling.
I went to my PCP eager to receive treatment but all she did was advise me to get a stress ball and take easier classes.
I felt dismissed and was unbelievably disappointed. The entire experience seemed useless and I decided I’d never ask for help again.
JD: Thankfully, you did end up seeking professional help again. What led you to try a second time?
CL: My struggles continued because I wasn’t getting the help I needed. The one time I tried reaching out it went horribly wrong, so I wasn’t eager to relive that experience.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I finally tried asking for help again.
I have some issues where I can only sit in certain places, like facing a specific direction in relationship to the door, windows, and other people in the room. It all has to be very precise.
So, seating arrangements were always very important. When my high school chemistry teacher would change our seats every two months it really threw me off. I’d beg her to let me keep my seat but she said no every time, which led me to fully dissociate for about three weeks after each of those changes.
In college, professors would move my seat for group activities and I’d always go from a fully engaged person who’s participating and adding a lot to the discussion to a shell of myself. My eyes totally glazed over and I wouldn’t talk to anyone or respond when asked a question.
And somehow, after seeing that, one of my professors came to the conclusion that, “he just doesn’t feel like working”.
I realized my mental health was really impacting me and that my grades would suffer because that professor wasn’t willing to meet me where I was without formal accommodations on the books. So, I went to my college health center and booked an appointment with a psychiatrist. At this point I thought I had some sort of generalized anxiety and was looking to treat that.
I sat down with the psychiatrist and after I described my symptoms he told me I had OCD.
I was shocked. I had seen depictions of OCD in media and I’m not like that. I’m not neat at home, my drawers are a mess, and I don’t wash my hands obsessively.
He told me to read about OCD and that was a really eye-opening experience. After additional sessions and learning more about it, I was able to accept my condition and ready to start managing it to the best of my abilities.
I was then set up with weekly therapy appointments and prescribed medication. It helped in some ways, because I was having noticeably fewer panic attacks. That was wonderful, but I also felt so awful because I went through 22 years of not talking to people and suffering in silence.
I didn’t think anyone would take my mental health seriously, and I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that.
"I didn’t think anyone would take my mental health seriously, and I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of that."
JD: Why did you think people wouldn’t take your mental health seriously?
CL: I think my reasoning differed depending on the person.
I knew my family would want to deny it because we weren’t in a financial position to address my issues with therapy.
For others, I think it was just easier for them to deny my feelings.
JD: Do you think that had anything to do with the stigma surrounding mental health? Why do you believe mental health stigma exists, particularly among men?
CL: I think a big part of the stigma comes from fear and a lot of denial that you could face mental health challenges as well.
People want to “other” conditions like anxiety, depression, and OCD as much as possible so they don’t have to face it themselves. I think a lot of stigma originates from that fear of it being your own experience.
Additionally, men might think mental health struggles are a sign of weakness or a character flaw, as opposed to something that just happens or that people are born with.
"I think a big part of the stigma comes from fear and a lot of denial that you could face mental health challenges as well."
JD: That’s so insightful, I completely agree. How has living with anxiety, depression, and OCD affected you?
CL: In order to get through middle and high school, I dissociated a lot. It’s a skill I actively cultivated without fully realizing what it was because it helped me feel less overwhelmed.
I’m now a person who has trouble finding other responses to things. Whenever something goes wrong I instinctively retreat to my “not existing place”.
Basically, if I hear raised voices or see something upsetting in the news I just go to my room, shut off the lights, turn on white noise, and become unresponsive.
Unfortunately, figuring out a way to not do that is a lot more challenging than I had hoped.
I think other than that, I tend to isolate too often. Even if I’m not stepping back from myself, I’ll frequently withdraw from other people. It’s something I’m working on but I really have trouble being around people when I feel like I’m not in a good enough place to just be a person with them.
Also, it can be tough balancing my mental health needs with being a supportive partner and keeping up on my portion of chores.
JD: Which strategies, if any, help you manage your mental health?
CL: My cat is hugely important to me.
Feeling her breathe and having another heartbeat nearby really helps me ground myself. She’s soft, clean, and I don’t think about water or bugs (two of my big triggers) when I’m petting her. She’s a pure source of goodness in the world- despite how awful she can be sometimes (as all cats sometimes are).
Other than that, I just try to be really intentional about not isolating myself too often.
I have Dungeons and Dragons every Saturday and I can’t cancel it because then I know I’m not doing well. I’ll allow myself to skip it if I have other plans, but if I just don’t feel like it, I try and make myself go anyway. I know it leads to socialization and can help lift me out of a dark place.
Additionally, there’s a lot of tactics I’ve worked on in therapy, including a variety of breathing strategies and grounding techniques.
JD: Chase, thank you for taking the time to speak with me, I really enjoyed conducting this interview. Before we finish, what would you tell someone experiencing intense feelings of anxiety, depression, and OCD today?
CL: Most importantly- “You are experiencing what you are experiencing”.
Also, I’d let them know it’s usually worth getting an assessment from a professional if you think you need one. That appointment can lead to a diagnosis and provide a name for what you are going through, which is really empowering and validates your experiences. If you go to a professional and you’re told something to the effect of, “just get a stress ball and figure it out”, don’t give up. There’s most likely a doctor out there who can better address your specific needs.
"It’s usually worth getting an assessment from a professional if you think you need one. That appointment can lead to a diagnosis and provide a name for what you are going through, which is really empowering and validates your experiences."
Real People, Real Stories Series
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