As a young boy growing up, I really struggled to accept my own sexuality. For many years I internalised all the stress caused from hiding that ‘big secret’. I didn’t anticipate that after finally ‘coming out’ as gay at the age of 19 I’d ever be all-consumed by something of that same scale, all over again. But I was. For the following 10 years I ended up battling with both mental and physical health challenges. These presented themselves throughout my entire professional career. And drove me to periods of distress and exhaustion, often in silence.
‘Who am I?’ was the key question I found myself asking after finally breaking down aged 30 with occupational burnout.
While people of different sexual orientations and gender identities have certainly become more widely accepted and included in certain societies, rates of mental health conditions (notably depression and anxiety) remain three times higher in the LGBTQI+ community, compared to that of the general population, with those from other intersectional minorities even more likely to suffer. Why? For many, studies show that ongoing struggles with identity and self-esteem are causing major internal conflicts.
Who are you?
After burning out, I needed to take some time off to rest, recover and reset. I didn’t have a job, so I wasn't earning any money, and couldn’t afford to stay in London. Taking away the money, the status and the recognition, it soon became clear that I didn’t really feel confident knowing WHO I was without these external ‘things’ that validated me and gave me a sense of belonging, and identity. The things that I thought were going to make me feel content and satisfied, in fact left me feeling a bit empty when they got taken away. I realised that I knew exactly who I’d wanted everyone to think I was – but being that person had become all-consuming and tough to maintain.
It was clear that in order for me to start living from a place of authenticity, I needed to start processing my past and understand how it was showing up in my present. Something I had started doing several years before, but conveniently swept back under the carpet, because it didn’t align with my ambitious career plans and hedonistic lifestyle.
I tried A LOT of different things. From therapy, to group work, coaching, holistic practices, retreats, books, webinars… What I eventually found, was some of the simplest techniques, when combined, are the most powerful.
I wanted to find a way for other gay men to start a similar journey of ‘discovery'. Because I’m so grateful that I am able to share my own story like I do now. I’m doing it for those who don’t yet feel able to share their own story yet. And I do it in the hope of educating, inspiring or empowering just one more person.
A virtual retreat programme
I decided to create ‘Who am I?’, a ‘virtual retreat’ programme exploring identity within the LGBTQI+ communities. I wanted to use my personal experience (my struggles and successes) to try and provide a solution for others to some of the same problems I had faced. We launched in June 2020 and now the programme has around 150 global ambassadors. And this number is growing every month.
Each retreat brings together a team of six global industry professionals from different fields to explore identity. The programme empowers individuals with the tools they need to focus on their own health and wellbeing. It does this by helping them understand how their past experiences may be influencing their present-day behaviours, thoughts and beliefs.
We offer a unique blend of complementary bespoke workshops, all carefully designed around tried and tested psychological and holistic practices, which take participants on a guided process of self-exploration. These include compassionate self-inquiry, sharing in groups, breathwork, creative workshops, and other techniques to elicit a deeper connection and understanding.
Creating safe LGBTQI+ spaces
I believe it’s so important that we create safe spaces to openly share and learn from each other’s experiences. Once we understand why we behave a certain way, we can use that knowledge to make healthier decisions and fundamentally lead a happier life. We take an active role in shaping our own future, and hopefully pave the way forward for others too.
In each retreat, a different guest speaker joins the team to offer a new perspective. I hope that by creating a space for these brave people to share their personal stories more openly it will encourage others to do the same.
With places limited to 14 participants on each monthly ‘virtual retreat’, it is a very intimate and confidential space. The programme offers the unique opportunity for participants to openly share and learn from each other’s past experiences without judgement, building resilience together in the face of their collective adversity.
This retreat has very much a forward-facing approach in terms of possible end goals and objectives. You’ll find it particularly useful if you're preparing for change or a transition. Needing to take some time to debate ‘what next?’ Or understand better your actions, thoughts and beliefs before making a start on a plan of action. Use the safe space to discuss and get curious.
Create Space will host a free workshop on Saturday 17th October.
Michael Edward Stephens:
Michael is a mental health and wellbeing advocate. He promotes the importance and value of prioritising self-care, predominantly within the creative and LGBTQI+ communities. He does this through his own channels, orchestrating relevant conversations and partnerships, as well as through Create Space, his bespoke retreat and workshop business.
Michael Edward Stephens, Founder of Create Space Retreats.