It Gets Better

Last year one of my good friends and classmates had the idea of making an “It Gets Better” video on behalf of the UIC community, specifically soliciting the stories of those associated with the College of Medicine, be they physicians, residents or students.  What resulted was something more genuine and better-edited than I ever could have imagined, and something which I am truly proud to have been a part of.

For those who may not know, the “It Gets Better” project was started by columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage early last year in response to a string of LGBT teen suicides, and consists of youtube videos directed towards teens who may be considering suicide due to any number of factors, with sexual orientation being the main focus.  The project spurred an outpouring of support and videos from celebrities, professionals, and random people gay, straight, and anything in between, all to get the message out there to young people in a troubled place, that things do, in fact, get better.  Below is the UIC College of Medicine’s video, which was officially premiered earlier this month:

In the spirit of the video, I thought I’d use this week’s post to speak a little bit about my own experiences, and comment on how positive an experience coming out has been in both my professional and personal life.

Personally, I would say I knew from a young age that something was different. And although I wouldn’t self-identify with the label until much later, I pretty much knew.  God knows the signs were there: dancing to the Spice Girls in the 4th grade talent show, a keen interest in pop music and none whatsoever in sports, I was basically a walking stereotype.  Nevertheless, when confronted with even the prospect of being gay I was petrified, so much so that it took until late in my teens to really start to accept that it was true, even if I didn’t know how to deal with it, or want to openly embrace it.

For the longest time I viewed it as a fault, obsessing over my grades and academic performance in order to compensate for the one thing I knew I couldn’t control that would ultimately disappoint my parents.  Strong academics became the façade that protected me against questions.  Why didn’t I have a girlfriend?  Oh, I was too busy studying.  Why no interest in sports?  I was just the nerdy type and preferred science (this one is still completely true).

Regardless, that plan only worked for so long, and eventually the pent up stress and angst came to critical point.  College had brought new challenges and stressors, and I could no longer function as I once had.  I had initially felt that UIC was too close to home to get that fresh start that people talked about with college, and once I realized this wasn’t the case, was so disappointed with myself for once again creating a lie for myself to live in.

This led to a nasty bout of depression and low self-esteem, the likes of which I’m sure each of those teens was experiencing.  I was just fortunate enough to have made it past those moments (because it was not a one time thing) and get to a point where I was at least able to begin a process of introspection.  It was a dark place, indeed, but the more I was honest with myself, the more accepting I became.

The process of self-examination and reconciliation went on until sophomore year when I decided I’d finally become comfortable enough with myself to begin the slow, perpetually awkward process of coming out.  Anyone who’s been through it knows: you don’t come out once; you come out over and over and over again.  It’s an arduous process, but one that is necessary.

So I started with one close friend, and then expanded to a larger group, then eventually got myself to the point where whenever I was in a social setting I could be comfortable being introduced along with the title “gay.”  It was certainly an evolution, and one that took a good amount of time.  But as comfortable as I became with myself and my friends, I still had extreme resignations about coming out to my parents.  For some reason, they were the ones that I most expected to be un-accepting.

Now this was not completely off-base.  Growing up with the fear of the inevitable (i.e. having to eventually come out) I had long since picked up on their attitudes towards LGBT issues and gay people in general, and from what I had seen, it wasn’t looking good.  My dad, despite having grown up in a very diverse part of Chicago, and not a racist bone in his body, was the polar opposite when it came to “the gays.”  He listened (and still does) to Rush Limbaugh and quoted Fox News on a regular basis, so needless to say, I was less-than optimistic about how he’d react.  And my mom, although not nearly as vocal, was on a similar plain with regards to the subject.

That said, I had strategically come out to my siblings well in advance of telling my parents, knowing that, even if it randomly came to light, and things turned ugly, I would have them on my side.  Lucky for me, that didn’t happen.  Although incredibly uncomfortable, and still-makes-my-stomach-churn awkward, things turned out alright.  When I finally told them my dad was taken aback, while my mother said that she had always known… not from the Spice Girls dance, but rather, the fact that I’d always only had girls for friends growing up.  Go figure.

Point being, as awkward as it may be, it is who I am.  And the experience has shaped me in myriad ways which are hard to completely pin down.  Above all else, the harsh introspection that came with the depression led me to a level of self-assuredness and confidence which continues to mold my decisions and interactions with people to this day.  Furthermore, clinically, it has meant that I am slow to judge; I see patients with the mindset that I will never fully understand their context, though I will do everything I can as a clinician to empathize and understand.  After all, anyone who saw me during my turbulent period was privy only to the façade, and had no idea what was stirring beneath.  In just recognizing this fact with my patients, I feel like I will have done them a service.

And so, to finish this post off, allow me to repeat yet again that IT DOES GET BETTER.  With time come perspective, growth, acceptance, and ultimately the ability to help others who find themselves in a similarly difficult position.

Picutre of author

About Justin Fiala, MD Candidate

Justin is currently in his third year of medical school at UIC's College of Medicine, and is hoping to pursue a career in internal medicine. He has a strong interest in addressing the health needs urban communities and is part of the College of Medicine's Urban Medicine program. Aside from academics, Justin enjoys cooking, listening to public radio, and perusing the New York Times website. He is also a trained pianist and self-professed lover of all kinds of music.

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2 Responses to It Gets Better

  1. Michelle says:

    Wow Justin! Thank you for sharing your experiences. I always enjoy your posts and I will spread the word about the video. Great work!

  2. kevintyn says:

    Justin, thanks for sharing your story. I learned a lot and I'm sure it will help others. Loved the video you appeared in too!