It was a cancer diagnosis that influenced Matthew Francis to change the way he thought about mental health.
Francis, then 41, had dealt with complex PTSD, depression and dissociative disorders since he was a child, as well as autism and learning disabilities. His family had lived through generations of poverty.
So, when he received his cancer diagnosis, he felt relieved.
“I was glad,” he remembered. “I was going to let the cancer overtake me.”
But being forced to confront his physical wellness made him confront his mental health, too. He realized he had been feeling shame about his mental illness that had paralyzed him. He was living in a basement at the time, smoking a lot and not spending any time building social relationships.
“I remember I received so much support: meals, flowers, cards (when I was sick). Cancer was not my fault,” he said. “The cancer set up a paradigm that I wish trauma and mental health would implement: I wish people would see those of us with mental illness as brave, courageous and know it’s not our fault.”
Francis stopped blaming himself for his struggles with mental health and feeling pride for all that he had lived through.
“For the first time in my entire life, I genuinely saw myself as brave and courageous, and as hard as cancer was, dealing with trauma and mental illness has been harder,” he said.
He attended adult education classes, support groups and tried improvisation classes. Through self-care and introspection, he came out as a transgender man.
“Once I owned that aspect of myself, I was able to own other aspects of myself as well,” he said. “Finally, for the first time in my life, I was able to love my whole self.”