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‘In my work as a peer …’

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This week’s post is by Rafeal Newport, a counselor with the recently launched peer-run warmline of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. It’s available weekdays from noon to 8 p.m. at 855-845-7415 and online for chat. A directory of warmlines and an introduction to what they do can be found here.

Before I talk about my story of being a suicide attempt survivor, I want to talk a little about who I am. I am a proud Bay Area native, a loud and proud queer and a fierce woman of color. I love to read, hike, hang out at the beach, nerd out on foodie activities and laugh — oh, how I love to laugh. I have been an LGBTQI and women’s activist since I was 16 years old and have worked as a doula, non-profit worker and health educator.

My story of being a survivor begins long before my attempt. I began a decline into depression when I was in junior high school. During that time, I was realizing that I was queer, and the Southern Baptist household I was growing up in made sure to let me know that being gay was a sin and abomination. At the same time, I was being bullied daily at school and having a difficult time with the issues of race, internalized oppression and misogyny playing out in my life. I was also dealing with abuse in my home and didn’t feel like I had a safe place to go.

In high school, things seemed to only get worse. I developed an eating disorder and began cutting. I had one face at school – being in many clubs, hanging out with a few friends and participating in school activities – while screaming inside. My senior year of high school, my life exploded into a series of events that sent me spiraling deeper into depression. I lost a close family member, I was fighting with my mother, many of my friends stopped talking to me, I began coming out, and to top it all off, I was sexually assaulted. I spent that year in a fog trying not to completely fall apart.

At the age of 19, all I had been through left me feeling hopeless, and I decided to attempt suicide. During that time in my life, each day felt like someone had turned the dial down in my life — food tasted dull, colors were lifeless and conversations didn’t matter. I felt angry and bitter all the time, which made it so most people didn’t want to be around me. I didn’t want to be around me.

After waking up alive, I decided to get some support for myself. I went to see a therapist on campus and got lucky that I found one who was amazing. I began to make a plan with my therapist for a life that I wanted. I moved away from home, came further out of the closet and talked about my experiences of pain and loss.

By then, I had been involved in youth-focused LGBTQI activist work and felt empowered by telling my story. I spoke out about my sexual assault, my coming-out and my attempted suicide, and each time I shared my stories and supported others, I felt myself heal just a little bit more.

This I coupled with various kinds of body work, therapy and finding a spiritual path of my own, and I carved out a way to have a very different experience than that of my life at 19.

Today, at age 32, I work with the Mental Health Association of San Francisco on the peer-run warmline, creating a space where others can call and talk with someone who has lived experience of mental health challenges. People come to us for someone to talk to or to get resources for things ranging from housing to support groups. Each call gives me the opportunity to share my experiences and be living proof that there is hope.

Being on a line with other peers has been a great way for me to find a community that understands. Supporting other peers who may be having a hard time is a reminder to me that each day is different for all of us. That today may be tough, but tomorrow is another day, and having someone to listen to you is powerful.

In my work as a peer, I strive to be a voice for other queer people of color who may have lived experiences of suicide. There is so much stigma within the African-American community and American culture regarding mental health challenges and suicide. It can be difficult to even talk about. I strive to be one of many examples of hope that one can live a full life after dark periods of despair. I still have my tough days, and I now have resources to get me through those days. And today I have hope, something that felt impossible before.

For more between posts, follow @AboutSuicide.

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