By Fran Watson
They could not get up.
Paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Restrained by feelings of perceived failure. Saturated in endless tears.
Mike Webb simply could not get up.
Two years of trauma had manifested into a mental and emotional breakdown. What followed was a short stay in a local behavioral hospital, three months of home care and outpatient recovery, and a healing journey that continues to this day.
As a black genderqueer activist, Webb had become a master of managing feelings—compartmentalizing emotionally-taxing issues, shoving them back into the depths of their mind, and pushing forward to get the work at hand done. Their father’s suicide. Their HIV diagnosis. Their sexual assault. Their worry-induced ulcers. Their constant battles with racism and homophobia in homogeneous spaces. Managing these feelings was an act of survival—that is, until they were no longer manageable.
In 2015, Webb was raped. They were attacked in their hotel room while in Dallas for an advocacy training. It was a horrific and traumatizing incident that remains vividly etched in their mind. The dread and anxiety of being attacked again lay draped like a heavy weight around Webb’s shoulders. But, as practiced, Webb suppressed those feelings and locked them away. They were replaced, instead, with a checklist of tried-and-true coping mechanisms:
- Brush it off, even if you want to scream when someone lovingly (or even accidently) touches you.
- Suppress the unchecked and justified anger and fear that has fallen over you.
- Replace the urge to scream and cry out with a smile—a safe action that removes any angst from the current situation.
- Call or meet up with your support system—your chosen family who makes you feel safe.
After all, there is work to do. There are lives at stake.
Webb continued their work in HIV advocacy and community organizing. This work was intersectional and often overlapping, making it difficult to decipher where advocacy at work ended and community organizing began. Many times, it was one and the same—it was ongoing, consuming, and spilled into evenings. Into late nights. Into early mornings. Sleep became a rarity, insomnia the norm. However, Webb’s tried-and-true checklist was still working, for all intents and purposes.
Then, Webb stepped into a new role. They were now a legislative aid for the Honorable State Senator Sylvia Garcia. Senator Garcia was well known for her progressive advocacy and for being a champion for the people. Webb was excited for what they could accomplish working for the Senator.
As a legislative aid, part of Webb’s job was to move to Austin and work at the Texas Capitol during the 2017 legislative session. Following the 2016 election, there was much angst in Texas and the nation—the communities that Webb served were no exception. The move to Austin meant endless political possibilities for Webb, but it also meant they would be leaving their familial support behind in Houston, including proximity to the love and support of their chosen family.
There was excitement in the air upon arriving in Austin. Webb immediately clicked with the rest of Senator Garcia’s staff. Everyone in the office took good care of one other and the new role was seemingly a perfect fit for Webb. Everything felt right.
Unfortunately, outside of Senator Garcia’s office was a different story. Over the next few months, in what would be a brutal legislative session, Webb faced bouts of disrespect, homophobia, and racism at unbelievable levels. Webb was constantly questioned by Capitol officials on whether they belonged in certain parts of the chamber, even though their badge was prominently displayed. Webb listened as representatives and interest groups lobbied against communities of difference. They listened as LGBTQ people were referred to as second-class citizens. They fought off the transphobic rhetoric of staffers and lawmakers who worked hard to pass bathroom bills and other legislation that hurt queer people and other vulnerable communities in Texas.
Yet, Webb never stopped organizing. In addition to working in Austin, they also tended to Houston matters remotely. They worked to make sure Houstonians had the information needed to lobby on behalf of communities of difference. They secured meetings and spaces for lobby days that took place at the Texas Capitol. Webb even secured a free charter bus to help a local advocacy group’s members travel to testify at the Capitol.
They did all of this in a place where one day felt like ten. Where working nearly 24 hours a day was commonplace. Where every day was treated with a sense of urgency, as the finite number of days in the session could end with an entire community being told that, legally, they do not matter.
Anxiety began to creep in. Webb went through their tried-and-true checklist, but this time, it wasn’t working. Something was missing.
They could not get to their family. They had no time to call. They had no safety zone.
And so it began.
The panic attacks were mild at first. Webb could feel them come on in public, but was able to suppress them for a few hours until they could reach their apartment. Once there, full-blown panic attacks would occur.
Following the end of the legislative session, Webb moved back to Houston where they had a period of readjustment. Webb had been away for six months. No longer did they have to call in for meetings or send out emails between a nap and a shower. Webb was finally home. Yet, they still felt alone.
Their checklist was not working. They could no longer suppress their anxiety. Instead, they ruminated, playing stressful scenes over and over again in their head. They felt like a failure. Like they should have done more for their queer black community while at the Capitol. Like they didn’t live up to the standard black excellence requires.
Suddenly, the assault in Dallas came flooding back to their memory. The suppressed memories of Austin resurfaced. Everything hit Webb at once—the sheer force was paralyzing.
Mike Webb simply could not get up.
Webb called their brother to take them to a behavioral hospital in Northwest Houston. Within an hour, Webb was checked into their room. Their phone was taken away and they were told, “We’re here to help you and to stabilize you.” For the first time in a long time, Webb felt safe.
Webb stayed in the hospital for nearly two weeks. Over the next three months, Webb began their journey of healing through a combination of outpatient services and home recovery. They took a leave of absence from work and all community activities and focused on healing and reflection. During this time, family and friends sent notes of encouragement, which Webb believes was a major help for them as they navigated their personal rebuilding journey.
Unfortunately, some were critical of Webb’s absence and tried to shame them for prioritizing self-care. This criticism only proves that there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding mental health in advocacy circles. It’s the reason Webb’s story needs to be told. The silence and stigma surrounding mental health in activism must be broken. As Webb says, “Imagine a world where we help each other from our own lived experiences. Authenticity would do wonders in moving our communities forward.”
When the time came, Webb knew they needed to be intentional with their reemergence into the advocacy and social scenes. If they had learned anything during their recovery process, it was just how vital self-care is to survival. Therefore, Webb made the decision to only participate in specific, limited roles and to control how much work they took on. They would not feel guilty for these decisions.
Webb also came out as genderqueer and now uses they/them pronouns—another freeing step in their healing journey. During the legislative session, Webb heard hours upon hours of testimony from folks under the trans umbrella who were speaking out against proposed anti-trans legislation. As Webb listened to these stories, familiar feelings surrounding their gender identity (which they experienced growing up) began to resurface. These feelings saddened Webb, as they felt they were hiding a layer of themselves from others. But after they came out publicly as genderqueer—and were flooded with love and support—they now feel they can present their whole, authentic self to the world. “Now I am able to exist as who I am,” Webb proudly states.
Webb’s healing journey is ongoing and they are continuing to receive care. But Webb has come a long way. Instead of feeling obligated to participate in numerous organizational boards and advocacy groups (thus, being spread thin), Webb has chosen to dedicate themselves and their work to a few meaningful issues and organizations. Webb is predominantly focused on their efforts with the Houston GLBT Political Caucus. They have experience in a variety of board roles including Screening Chair and Membership Co-Chair, and for the past two years, they have served as they organization’s Vice President. Now that Webb is able to dedicate the majority of their time and efforts to the Caucus, they’re seeking to take on a larger role in the organization—Caucus President. Webb’s perseverance, lived intersectional identities, passion for the communities they serve, and sheer dedication to the organization makes them ready to lead as President. And on January 3, 2018, Webb will ask Caucus members to vote and elect them to that office.
While there are still some critical voices, Webb wants to recognize and thank those who have been by their side during this continued healing journey: John Humphries, Harrison Guy, Fran Watson, Senator Sylvia Garcia, Januari Leo, and Jared Smith. The support from these folks, plus the wonderful texts and calls from the community, has taught Webb that “a simple touch of kindness or compassion has an impact.”
With this new outlook, Webb recognizes the vast amount of work that needs to be done surrounding mental health for activists. “There is more to us than what you see at the table,” Webb stresses. Webb adds that, while their job provided them with access to the mental healthcare they needed, others may not have that privilege. Therefore, work must be done to increase access to lifesaving mental health services.
In Texas, more than 500,000 adults live with a serious and persistent mental illness. One in five adults experience a mental health condition every year. While increases have been made over the past 10 years, Texas remains nearly last nationally in funding for mental health. Such funding could be obtained through Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, but the current administration refuses to expand the program. We are working hard in 2018 to change that.
Webb was able to get up. Let’s make sure the next person who falls can too. In fact, let’s do what it takes to prevent the fall.
If you or someone you know needs access to care, here are some places that provide mental health support and services:
Fran Watson is a Houston attorney, community activist, advocate, and a candidate for Texas State Senate, District 17. She believes in People First, meaning that everyone should have equal access to the opportunity to succeed in Texas.