Specialist ReNeice Williams’ career has been defined by her search for answers to difficult questions.
When Williams met Caroline Judd, the latter was an introverted suburban teenager in Tarrant County transitioning from man to woman — not to mention transitioning out of an unsupportive home environment. The former was new to the job but well aware that every step forward needed to be small to stay within Judd’s comfort zone.
Judd first heard about PtW through her school’s counseling program. She began the program with a different specialist, who also identified as transgender but who left the program to pursue another career opportunity not long after Judd began. The transition brought some barriers.
“There had been barriers in the beginning,” Williams shared, adding that she visited Stanley’s office in tears more than once, uncertain about how to support Judd in other physical transitions, too. “Caroline was facing depression, and one of her goals was to lose weight, so when she set that goal, I had expected her to work out. I learned that she wasn’t motivated, and it’s not that she was lazy. She didn’t want to go outside and work out alone. One day I called her and said, ‘Caroline, did you work out today? OK, I’m coming over, and we’re going to go for a walk.’ ”
Not long after, Williams’ search for answers refocused around a crucial question: “How can I make her happy?”
Williams started searching for information on transgendered living, the transition process, and social supports available to Judd. She soon became equipped with an education she never knew she’d need, sharing what she’d learned with Judd and encouraging the young woman to seek out life-changing support. She found it in a local chapter of Trans-Cendence International, Inc., an established transgender organization.
Williams didn’t anticipate Judd’s anxiety and skepticism about attending a support group, but people outside the transgender community rarely understand what a social engagement with strangers could mean. In the National Transgender Discrimination Survey from 2012, 53 percent of the study’s 6,450 respondents had experienced verbal harassment or felt disrespected in a public place, such as a restaurant, airport, or government office. Forty-one percent had attempted suicide, an alarming statistic when compared to the same figure for the general population, which was significantly lower (1.6 percent).
With Williams by her side, Judd attended her first support group.
“I haven’t missed a meeting since we first went together,” Judd told me with a laugh. “I have met pretty much my entire group of friends now through the group, and they’ve helped me out. I have nail polish on because my friends from the group helped me get that, and it’s done a lot to make me feel kind of sane in a ‘trans-rare-enough’ city, let alone in Texas.”
Stanley remembers when Judd was new to the program, struggling to make eye contact or talk much to anyone. Stanley has been told more than once that the group is the highlight of Judd’s month, and both credit Williams for letting the simple question of “How can I make her happy?” guide them to the many voices of local transgender people.
“Even though it’s [Williams’] job to help me out,” Judd said, “I consider her a friend of mine. I consider [Stanley] a friend of mine, and that’s also a big motivation to continue working with them is because I like seeing these people who have become my friends.”
Judd thinks the value of this sort of friendship is even more important to individuals lacking support from their families.
Without going into too much detail about her home life, Judd prudently shared that “a lot of people take for granted that if you need something you can go ask your parents.”
She hopes to become financially secure enough to move to Oregon, where her girlfriend lives.
“It’s like a real-life class for how to do things,” Judd said, acknowledging the PtW specialists in the room. “There’s no class that they give you in high school for that.”
Although many high schools offer life skills courses, discussions regarding mental health take a backseat to other topics, such as job readiness or college applications.
PtW outfits young men and women to be their own first line of defense in moments when negative self-talk strikes, when an emotional trigger brings a traumatic life experience barreling back into their psyches. What’s more difficult is changing the way society views these youths when they struggle with mental illness in visible ways. One of the larger goals of PtW is to connect to the strategic vision platforms of the Mental Health Connection, which aims to “build consensus among community partners,” making mental health more visible and familiar, less stigmatized.
The stigma surrounding mental health often goes unstated, and the care workers I spoke to agree that may be part of the problem. Open discussions of mental illness are easy to sidestep for those uncomfortable with the topic, but avoidance doesn’t lead to empathy for those who suffer. For anyone unsure how to ask about a mental health condition, PtW’s Barkin has a suggestion: “Instead of asking a youth, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Stop to ask, ‘What happened to you?’ ”
In a parallel example, she said, “What if someone has a brain tumor, and they’re behaving in a certain way that’s odd? It’s the brain tumor we fault, then, and it starts to break down the stigma and opens us up to more understanding.”
Understanding comes from conversations, most of the time, but visual art has become the medium of choice for helping people see what many of us choose to look past. Local artist Lindsey Strehlow’s most recent solo exhibition, The Creative Meltdown at Shipping and Receiving, connected creativity to mental illness to give her audiences “a glimpse of what it is like to live with both,” she said. Last spring, the Fort Worth Science and History Museum presented Michael Nye’s Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness, an exhibit of portraits of 55 patients suffering from a wide variety of conditions (from agoraphobia to clinical depression), each photo accompanied by audio of the subject discussing how he or she lives with his or her illness.
For one outing, the Paving the Way students visited the exhibit. Some of the photos had been enlarged to nearly mural-sized proportions to amplify the all-encompassing, almost infectious reach that mental illness has on sufferers and their loved ones. The specialists and Judd still remember the exhibition as a sobering depiction of the fine line that separates mental health from mental illness. On any given day, the line can drift toward one direction or wash out the progress made in another.
Last Thursday at Lena Pope, an 80-year-old nonprofit devoted to keeping families healthy and together, a graduation banquet was held in honor of the 22 Paving the Way clients who achieved at least two of their three personal goals they set for themselves. Not all of the enrollees were able to finish, but what matters is that every youth touched by this program was given a safe space to create a new future. l