Channing Nicole On Conversion Therapy: Bio, Shock, Infinite

7/14/2018

Channing Nicole #StillBisexual

As a teen, Channing Nicole was “super Mormon, like Molly Mormon.”

“I was such a good kid, did okay in school. Never drank coffee or saw R rated movies. I was president of the Young Women’s Club.”

What happened when Channing’s mother found out she had fallen in love with another girl made her “question literally everything in my life”. Earlier this month, Channing and I sat down to talk about her #StillBisexual video, an account her mother has since publicly denied. What follows is more from our interview—Channing’s experience with being a bi person in a conversion camp, through electroshock therapy, and the after.

SB Swartz: With the video you talk about being a teen, of falling in love with a girl, of your mom finding out and sending you to this camp. Is there anything you would like to share about that period of time?

Channing Nicole

Channing Nicole: I’ve never felt that way before, and I’ve never felt that way since then. You’re a teenager, you’re already confused, you’re trying to figure out who you are. My religion was a huge part of my life. So when this all got turned on its head, it just felt like this [religion] clearly isn’t right for me. What do I do without that? And I’m going to lose my family. I still had my dad, my mom and dad are divorced, but he doesn’t have extended family. On my mom’s side I have forty first cousins. We’re all close. They’re all Mormon. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

When [my mom] dropped me off at the camp, she said she was going to drive to my girlfriend’s house and share this private stuff with her parents, out her, get her in trouble. I knew I was going to lose my girlfriend, not out of her decision but out of what my mom was going to do. I have lost my religion. I was somewhere where I didn’t know where I was.

You had no idea where you were?

No. They took us in a tinted van. We drove for hours into the wilderness. They used code names for everything. I genuinely don’t know what state I was in. I still don’t know.

What was a typical day like?

We’d hike for a majority of the day. When I say hike, I don’t mean cute, nice little trails. I mean climbing over rocks and mountains and sliding down hills and an intense hiking for at least six to seven hours. And then [we’d make] camp for the night. We had no tent. We just had tarps underneath sleeping bags. This was November, so it was cold. I wasn’t sleeping at all.

We’d make a fire and they’d try to get us to eat. We didn’t have a change of clothes. We didn’t take showers. We didn’t go in the river to bathe. It was just you and the elements and it was gross.

Were you offered food and drink?

Food is an overstatement. There was oatmeal in tin cans and you’d cook it over a fire. Kids were making up their own ways of making the food taste like food. I think I was offered a potato one night.

Do you know if the other kids were also queer kids?

There were [kids] there for getting involved with drugs and gangs and things like that. And then there was me and one other girl. I never saw her again, never heard about her again. She told me she was there for the same reason. She was at that level I wanted to be. She was like “Hey, I’m going to get through this and I’m not going to be any different. I’m going to do what they tell me to do and try to make the most out of it.” She would sing songs to me and try to get me to sing with her. We were given journals and we were supposed to write to our parents. But she was writing letters to her girlfriend so when she got out she could give them to her. So instead of writing to my parents, I would write to my girlfriend. She really helped me get through it. But once they found out that we were forming a bond, they separated us.

There was another male there for the same reason as well. They separated us very early, they separated the boys from the girls. And then they kept breaking us up into different groups and [my friend and] I got separated fairly early on, I think within the first week. But I didn’t forget her. I always wished that there was a way for me to track her down, but I never was able to.

I wasn’t given the same privileges the other kids were. It was almost like being in solitary confinement because once they separated me into a group of all girls, they’d also keep me sequestered away from them. They thought that I’d get my gay on them or something.

What were the, did you call them counselors? What was their role?

They were called trail walkers. They would have lessons for us. A lot of it was about Native American culture even though none of them were Native American. And it would be about how to survive in the wilderness, but then they’d always make metaphors to religion. How this fit in with Jesus. Everything was a guilt trip. It was there to make you feel bad about yourself. This wasn’t about building kids up, it was about tearing them down. Basically telling us we’re bad people and we’re having a negative influence on our family.

I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but at the same time it was ingrained in me so much because I was so a part of the Mormon religion. I knew that I couldn’t change so the more they told me I was a bad person for not changing the worse I felt. [They told us] if you don’t change, you’re going to Hell. Threats of your family’s going to have to disown you for their own sake because they can’t be associated with you.

And it was just like, well, I guess that’s what’s going to happen because I can’t do anything about this. Once I came to the conclusion that they were the ones wrong and that I was the one who hadn’t done anything, then it became, how do I deal with the issues after the fact? I know that my mom’s probably not going to speak to me ever again and I know that the rest of [that side of] my family is probably not ever going to speak to me again. I’m going to be excommunicated from my religion, I’m going to lose that whole community. How do I start over?

Channing’s father was able to gain full custody, which lead to her release from the camp. While the custodial paperwork was finalized, Channing lived with her mother, during which time she was sent to electroshock therapy.

I remember eating dinner. The next thing I remember, I wake up and I’m strapped to a chair at a doctor’s office I’ve never been to before. Once I came to this doctor jumped right into asking me questions about private things between my girlfriend and I and showing me pornography and asking me how I felt about it.

I had electrodes attached to my head, my arms and my legs. I had an IV going through my arm. They would give me these really painful electric shocks. I figured out later that the IV they were giving me was pain medication so that I could withstand the shocks. The next day I couldn’t get out of my bed I was in so much pain. All my muscles were spasming. I had the worst headache I’ve ever had.

How did the conversion experience impact your mental health?

I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 because of [the camp] and the shock therapy. In subsequent years I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am a very anxious person now.

Eventually, Channing was able to go live with her Dad. She recalls her high school friends coming over, bringing her food, brushing her hair, watching X-Files with her. Teachers being kind and supportive. She credits her former stepmom as the person who, through good food and tough love, gave her the final push that got her back in the stream of life.

Are any of those friends from high school that brought you food, that former stepmom, the folks that were there at the time, still around?

Yeah, they are. Luckily with technology, we’re able to stay in touch. One of my best friends, we’ve known each other since I was 11, we still stay in touch regularly.  I have a friend who knew me right after this happened. We bonded over the fact that we’re both not straight, and are geeky. He runs my D&D group. My dad’s still very supportive. So yeah, there’s still some of those people who remember that time that I stay in contact with. My boyfriend, he wasn’t there during all of this, but he knows about it and he’s a good support system.

What do you do for self care?

Channing’s tattoo of Elizabeth, a character from Bioshock Infinite, framed with the lyrics “Will the circle be unbroken”

I honestly could be better about [self care.] I’m trying to kind of learn how to do that again. I just do things that make me happy. I’m a writer so I write a lot. It’s really helped me. It’s always a cathartic experience when I’m writing something. Pieces of me go into it.

I play video games. It weirdly helps my anxiety go down. As opposed to just focusing on my emotions and my anxiety, it gives me something else to focus on.

Any recommendations of games that have helped you?

Portal is a great game for anxiety. A puzzle game, you’re by yourself. Probably one of my favorites of all time.

I loved Bioshock Infinite so much. I have a tattoo for it, because I related to the character. She came from a religious family that suppressed her, kept her locked in a tower, and tried to brainwash her and mold her. And she got shock therapy. That scene in the game where she was getting shock therapy, I was in tears. Because you’re also playing from the perspective of, you’re supposed to protect this girl. So I was playing this game trying to protect this younger version of myself. And now, she’s on my arm forever.

 

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Remember: It’s ok to not be ok. Resources:
The Trevor Project (LGBT Youth): 1-866-488-7386
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860
National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN): 1-800-656-4673
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

SB Swartz
SB Swartz is an author covering inclusive wellness, queer family, and reflections of our world as seen on tv. As a contributing writer for bi.org, SB created the Step Bi Step series for bi parents and originated the This Bi Life series showcasing bi community stories.

SB would very much like to talk to you about your pets, her pets, and the way you view the world. She's her favorite somebody's mama. And yes, she's #StillBisexual.

Find SB Swartz @sbswrites on Twitter and read more of her latest @sbswartz on Medium.