“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” – Viktor E. Frankl
When I think of “health”, my mind automatically conjures up images of Dischem supplements, spinach, lunges, squats, treadmills and 2 liters of water a day.
I know how to keep my body healthy. But what am I doing about my state of mind?
According to the online version of the Oxford Dictionary (presumably the most up-to-date), the word “gay” is currently defined as: “Relating to or used by homosexuals.”
It also lists the “dated” meaning of the word as: “Light-hearted and carefree”. Is this ironic, or do we have it within our power to make both meanings blur into one another? How’s that for a “lofty” ambition? Lofty: “Of imposing height… A noble or elevated level.” How can we make “Happy” mean “Gay” again?
As a community, LGBTI peeps still face so much prejudice, stigma, ignorance and even violence. Aside from this obvious external homophobia, many members of the LGBTI community also suffer from internalised homophobia. This is when people with same-sex attractions turn inward on themselves – feeling ashamed of their sexuality even in the absence of overt homophobia from others. Research has found that levels of internalised homophobia may be higher among gay men than among gay women.
How we feel about ourselves affects how we behave and how well we take care of ourselves. For example, research done in America has shown that gay and bisexual men who are able to resolve their internalized homophobia have better health.
Research from South Africa has confirmed the link between depression and risky sexual behavior. For example, Dr. Andy Tucker and others from Health4Men found that MSM (men who have sex with men) who suffered from depression were nearly three times more likely to report having unprotected anal sex compared to MSM who were not depressed.
When we feel bad about ourselves, we try to find ways to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a good glass of wine at the end of a tough day. But in cases of severe depression, recreational substance use can escalate to the level of addiction. While excessive drug and alcohol use can be harmful in themselves, they also influence our ability to make healthy decisions. For example, it has been found that MSM who were regular drinkers were four times more likely to report having unprotected anal sex.
Research has shown that “dispositional optimism” may be linked to better health outcomes. In other words, a happy mind is linked to a healthy body. This makes sense if you think about it. Stress, negativity and depression ravage the body with abrasive hormones like Cortisol, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine and too much of these guys can result in “suppression of the immune system, increased blood pressure and sugar, decreased libido, acne and even result in obesity”! (Ja, I can imagine a few muscle-mary’s “plutzing” about that last one!) “Fat” is “mos” the most frightening “F-word”!
However, optimism and a happier more relaxed approach to life help us produce more beneficial hormones like Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphins. These guys make you feel fantastic and appear younger, radiant, intelligent and attractive. They also make you feel more loving, improve your memory and help you do things more efficiently. To quote the bygone goddess, Judy Garland: “Pack up your troubles and just get happy!”
So what is the secret to true happiness? Don’t get me wrong, I am no guru and Grace Jones knows, I have my own share of demons to wrestle and imbalances to level, but here are four suggestions of things that have helped me.
1. Invest in your personal growth
Many of us suffer from insecurities and self-doubts for one reason or another. We worry that we’re too short, too tall, too loud, too shy, too smart, not smart enough… The list of possible imperfections is endless ! Although we invest time in our relationships with others, it’s easy to forget to invest in one of our most important relationships: our relationship with ourselves. This means watching out for that ‘Negative Nancy’ voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough… for whatever reason! Focus on your inner strength, your talents and unique gifts. Soon you’ll learn to love the unique quirks and foibles that make you you. Once you start to see the good within yourself, others will be sure to notice the good things too.
2. Pick your company
As much as we all like to think we are uninfluenced by those around us, the reality is that most of us spend huge amounts of time with our friends and genuinely value their opinions. We can’t choose our families, but we can choose our friends! So make sure you pick people who are worthy of your friendship – people who value the same things you do. If you surround yourself with people who know and accept you as you are and who love you because of who you are, you’ll probably find it easier to have a gentler, more accepting attitude towards yourself.
3. Acknowledge the realities
Being genuinely happy is not simply a matter of sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that all is right with the world when we know this isn’t true! Unfortunately, homophobia is not just a figment of our imaginations but a very real phenomenon that is rife in the world and notably, on the African continent. But acknowledging the realities ‘out there’ can sometimes be easier than acknowledging what’s happening within our own lives. Issues of depression and addiction are serious and should be taken seriously. It takes deep courage to acknowledge the realities about ourselves and knowing when it’s time to ask for help. If you think that you or someone you know may have a problem, know that you are not alone and that help is only a phone call away! You can contact: The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): 011 262 6396
4. Be the change
As Ghandi put it, you should “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. If it weren’t for external homophobia, internalised homophobia wouldn’t exist. So if we really want to get to the heart of the problem, we need to address the homophobia ‘out there’ as much as the homophobia that we internalise. Not everyone is an activist, but activism can take many forms. It’s not only about picketing and making posters – it’s about changing the way we interact with those closest to us. Contributing to a less homophobic world can be as easy (and as difficult!) as standing up to friends and colleagues when they make an inappropriate or homophobic comment. And make sure to practice what you preach… Just as you would like to live in a world where you are not judged but are accepted for who and what you are, so does everybody else! So try to adopt and practice the kind of tolerance that you would like to see in others.
In a nutshell (or clutch-bag, whichever you prefer), nobody says it better than the divine Ru Paul: “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”