Patrick McIlvain’s Dream Comes True
Walk for Mental Health Awareness comes to Houston
by Brandon Wolf
Photo by Jamiel Boling: Ieko Media LLC
“I am and have been challenged with depression for 42 days shy of 61 years. I know that I am not alone when it comes to knowing first-hand the pull of the negative energy, the feeling of loneliness, sadness, being angry, unwanted. Depression has no friends, and it likes it that way. Like any abusive relationship, it wants to keep people isolated.” —Patrick McIlvain
“I wasn’t raised this way, and I never used to live like this,” says McIlvain, as he looks around his small, low-income alternative housing unit. He surveys the kitchen sink filled with unwashed dishes and the piles of clothes that are seemingly everywhere on the floor. He sighs at the sight of a rumpled bed that hasn’t been made in a very long time.
For the past 15 years, McIlvain has been clinically depressed. Despite therapy sessions and prescribed medications, life for him has been a constant struggle. “It takes a great exertion of energy just to get out of bed and make it out the front door,” he says.
But life wasn’t always this way for McIlvain. Before 1995, he had held several responsible jobs. In the ’80s, he volunteered to assist with fundraisers for the Wortham Theater and radio station KLEF. Because of his work with the Houston International Festival, he was asked to help organize the grand opening of the Menil Collection.
Nearly 20 years of therapy sessions have helped McIlvain begin to understand himself. “Depression is an illness, not a weakness,” he says.
A Fractured Childhood and Adolescence
McIlvain was born in Temple, Texas, in 1949. His mother was a nurse at the time. “She gave birth to me and then went back to working regular hospital shifts again,” he says.
During World War II, McIlvain’s mother helped a young Dr. Michael DeBakey set up a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit. She remained especially close to one of the nurses she worked with at that time, and it was to this friend that she turned for help when she conceived her plan to ensure her young family’s future security. She asked her friend if she and her husband would take care of her sons while she completed her master’s degree, which would qualify her for higher paying professional jobs.
Seventeen months old at the time, McIlvain and his brother subsequently spent the next three years being parented by their chosen legal guardians. Then at the age of five, he moved to Rhode Island with his mother and brother. His grandfather had passed away, and his mother needed to look after her widowed mother.
Five years later, McIlvain and his brother again went to live with their legal guardians.
“At that time, people weren’t aware of the importance of a child bonding with their mother,” McIlvain reflects. “I now realize I had big problems with bonding. By being moved back and forth, I was never able to cement any permanent bond, and abandonment issues arose.”
From Bell Bottoms to Town Cars
McIlvain struggled with school and finally dropped out in high school. In 1969, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. “I had a Top Secret clearance in communications,” he says. “My role was completely clerical. Never once did I touch a gun or a bullet.”
In 1972, McIlvain was told to report for a private meeting. “As soon as I walked through the door, someone said, ‘Anything you say could be used against you in a court of law.’” McIlvain says he froze and wondered what was happening.
“I was told that there were rumors I was homosexual,” McIlvain reveals. “They couldn’t prove I was, and I couldn’t prove I wasn’t. So ‘for the good of the country’ I was honorably discharged.”
For the next 14 years, McIlvain worked in the import/export industry. His life was busy and relatively stable, and he enjoyed his work.
Then in 1986, McIlvain learned that he had been diagnosed with HIV. “Back then, we were told to get ready to die,” he remembers. “Believing that my time was limited and that my strength would begin to fade, I needed a job that I could continue to do despite the upcoming challenges from my diagnosis.
“I love Houston. I love to talk. I love to drive,” McIlvain says with a warm smile, “so I became a cab driver for Yellow Cab.”
Because of his ability to deal well with people, McIlvain was asked to join a newly formed town car program. He worked by appointment only and was so popular with his clients that he constantly received new referrals.
His most important client was Dr. Malcolm Gillis, then the president of Rice University. “I was his exclusive driver. He trusted me to pick up all his important guests from the airport and deliver them to the campus with safety, courtesy, and comfort.”
The Foundation Begins to Crumble
McIlvain’s interest in politics led him to work as office director for Sue Schechter, then the head of the Harris Country Democratic Party. But he soon found his sense of security was beginning to ebb. Years of repressed HIV anxiety, the resurrected traumas of two past rape incidents, and his abandonment issues all came together like a “perfect storm.”
“The depression had been there for years, but I was in denial,” McIlvain says. “But now it was becoming more and more intense. I became paranoid, believing that people were looking at me and talking about me. I grew afraid to ask questions. I refused to wear red because it attracted attention.”
McIlvain wouldn’t even pick up a copy of OutSmart from a local rack. “I was sure someone would see me and form some sort of judgment. My only answer was to subscribe to the magazine.
“Children with depression do certain things to protect themselves. They may be lies, but they protect us from pain. The lies, however, become the foundation of our lives,” McIlvain says. “I had to work with a therapist to go back and rebuild my foundation.”
Overwhelmed, McIlvain finally applied for disability on the basis of major clinical depression. His request was approved, and he began receiving a meager monthly payment, barely enough to live on. He was not allowed to work part-time.
Pandora’s Box now opened wide, and McIlvain battled regularly with his shyness, sensitivity, feelings of low self-esteem, social phobia, and fear of authority figures. He even attempted suicide. “I looked up in the night sky and took a pill for every star I saw, until I fell into unconsciousness,” he says.
He survived the attempt, but fell even deeper into the pit of depression. “I was hearing from people that I was growing more and more hostile. Then one day I did something very inappropriate and discovered several police cars were at my front door.”
McIlvain felt lost until he happened upon the website of The Walk to DC for Mental Health Awareness, which described the story of a suicide survivor in St. Louis who wanted to walk 835 miles in 50 days, with rallies planned in cities along the way.
Intrigued, McIlvain began reading the personal stories that people were posting to the website. “I wore their shoes and felt the grains of sand in them as I read those stories,” he says.
The organizer of the walk was looking for three people to fly to DC and walk the last 10 miles with him. McIlvain found sponsors who helped him make the trip and walk those last 10 miles.
He was then asked to be a state coordinator for a petition drive to ask Congress for funding to increase mental health education, research, early intervention, and to broadcast public service announcements.
After his success with the petition drive, the head of the walk asked McIlvain to bring the event to Houston in 2011. “It took me a nanosecond to say yes,” he says.
The Houston Walk, to be held Saturday, October 15, will raise money for three local mental health organizations that work with the city’s most underserved communities. It will also give McIlvain the opportunity to raise awareness about mental health issues in Houston.
“Forty years ago, the LGBT community had to begin the slow process of educating straight America that we weren’t really so different from them,” states McIlvain. “That’s the point that mental health awareness is at today. We want to break down the stereotypes, eradicate the stigma, and show the world that we’re really very much like them.”
Looking back on his 61 years of living, McIlvain says that his life has been “enlightening—because life is about evolution, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to propel myself forward.”
In Honor of His Trailblazing Mother
Patrick McIlvain’s mother, Annella Rice Harrison, was a woman far ahead of her time, when she realized she was the parent of a gay son. In 1978, she dared to take a group of several gay men and women from Houston to appear on KTRK Channel 13’s Turn On. The show was hosted by Ed Brandon, and the guests talked about how gays are often rejected by their families. Ironically, Brandon was in the closet at that time, but he still remembers the show.
In early 1979, Harrison decided to found FLAG (Families of Lesbians and Gays) in Houston, with her friend Lou Snyder. The first meetings were held in the backstage area of Numbers Disco, using folding chairs and tables, during off-hours. FLAG would later morph into Houston PFLAG.
In October 1979, Harrison went to the March on Washington and met with a group of 100 other parents of gays. Many of them had local support groups in their areas, but felt the need to organize a national coordinating group. As a result of that meeting, PFLAG National was formed. Local groups then became local chapters of PFLAG.
Over the years, Harrison appeared many times before the Houston City Council to lobby for her son’s civil rights. In 1995, she was elected by Houston’s LGBT community as the honorary marshal (heterosexual ally) of that year’s Houston Pride Parade.
On Saturday, October 15, at 8 a.m., Mayor Annise Parker will officially start the first Houston Walk for Mental Health Awareness. “I hope you will join me in supporting this inaugural event that is sure to become a tradition in Houston,” she says.
The Walk is being organized by Patrick McIlvain, a longtime member of Houston’s LGBT community. McIlvain is deeply passionate about the event—it’s something he’s dreamed of for over 10 years—because he understands the effects of mental illness first-hand.
Former U.S. congressman Patrick J. Kennedy has recorded a special video message for the walkers, which will be shown that morning. “We could be seeing the beginnings of a national Walk for Mental Health Awareness,” he says.
Participants will cross a breakthrough line at the finish of the walk and then pass under a model of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, where they will receive medals for their own “triumph.”
Facebook: The Houston Walk for Mental Health Awareness
Email: [email protected]
Date: Saturday, October 15, 2011, 8 a.m. sharp
Location: Stude Park, 1031 Stude Street, 77007; between Studewood and Taylor.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.