In this blog post, Jesse Forsey shares how early experiences of trauma and homophobia impacted his journey with anxiety. 

This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing personal stories, journeys, and insights about mental health and anxiety from members of our community.

Growing Up In a Small Town

I grew up in a rural town on the East coast of Canada. My father worked in a paper mill and my mother was an artist. From the outside looking in you’d see a pretty typical family, but there was much more to see behind closed doors.

In the midst of my childhood, the paper mill was shut down, which meant my father and all his friends were out of work. Suddenly, most of the men in town were dealing with financial hardships, and the stress and anxiety that came along with wondering how they would feed their families. Almost overnight, there was virtually no work available. Due to the lack of awareness around mental health resources, alcoholism, depression, domestic abuse and substance abuse took our small town by storm. 

I remember one night a friend showed up at our house in a panic asking my mom for help.  My mom told me to stay home but I of course followed her as I was nosey and wanted to know what was going on. My friends’ parents, who were both drunk, were having a fight and my mother had to step in the middle to intervene. No child should have to witness what I saw that night. Thereafter, I was afraid of alcohol and seeing people drinking alcohol makes me very uncomfortable. 

Grieving my Father 

Alcoholism had its own place in my household but it was never in a way that made me fear for my safety. After losing his job and feeling defeated, alcoholism consumed my father. He was always trying to get better, but he always fell back into the same cycle. He died in his late 40’s.  

After my dad passed away, I was numb for a while. I spent a lot of my time making sure those around me were okay. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge and feel the emotions that accompany losing a parent. It was too much for one person to process, let alone a teenager.

What I didn’t realize then is that I would carry this trauma with me throughout my life. I think I mourned my father for 5 years, less at the beginning and more so recently. With time, I learned to let myself feel the emotions that come with loss. 

City Life 

I left my hometown when I turned 16. I vowed to do everything in my power to avoid turning to the unhealthy coping mechanisms I witnessed as a child. I remember stepping off a plane in Vancouver, and thinking “this is it, this is how I escape my past”. I quickly realized that living alone meant I had a lot more time with my anxious thoughts than I had anticipated.

As a gay man from a small town, I felt overwhelmed by Vancouver’s LGBTQ+ community. I felt heightened anxiety around my identity as a man. Back home, I was taught a much more conservative approach to love, influenced by homophobia. I was often met with offensive slurs and bullying in response to sharing my sexuality, and as such I grew up wishing I had a deeper voice, or presented as more masculine. In Vancouver, I was told to be “loud” and “proud”, which conflicted with what I was taught in the past. All the while, I continued to feel anxious and uneasy with my masculinity.

Despite trying my best to fit in, I felt like an outsider. I was so used to being rejected for being gay that I figured if I tried to put myself in new social situation, I was destined to be humiliated. I’d make up excuses not to socialize and would isolate myself. I began to sabotage my own experience due to bad experiences I had endured in the past. My trauma had turned me into  my own oppressor. I grew distant from many friends who didn’t understand how I felt. I think the problem is, unless you experience something first hand you don’t understand the severity of it.

Eventually, I started having frequent panic attacks. I continued to isolate myself from my peers, and turned to cannabis as a way to cope. Intuitively, I followed the path of those I observed as a child, despite making every conscious effort not to. 

Discovering CBT 

After struggling with my mental health for several months, I looked for work in a different city, desperate for a fresh start. Upon moving, I made every effort to eliminate my unhealthy coping mechanisms and started seeing a therapist. Looking back, this is something I wish I had done sooner, but the stigma from my upbringing had prevented me from doing so for so long. I finally had the opportunity to explore and understand all of the feelings I was experiencing.

My therapist recommended cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, which I found to be very effective. Now when I begin to feel a panic attack, I use grounding techniques that I learned in therapy. When I was first taught these techniques, I thought they were a little silly. With time, I’ve learned how powerful these tools can truly be. Now I’m able to maintain a level of calm I never expected to achieve. I still have some bad days but I feel confident I can navigate them using the tools I learned in therapy. 

A New Point of View

The trauma from my upbringing was something I often brushed under the rug. I had no idea that my childhood could have such a large impact on my present day experiences. We look up to our fathers and inevitably end up becoming them in some way shape or form, even if it happens unconsciously. I saw my father put up a front in social situations to mask what was actually going on deep down. I realized after months of therapy that I was doing the exact same thing. I barely let people get to know me because I was always trying to adjust to fit each situation.

Every day I still find myself facing new hurdles. I still feel that anxiety in the back of my mind but I’ve learned how to cope in a healthy way. I now try to give myself the space to make mistakes, be embarrassed, and then grow. Every new experience is a learning opportunity.