The Choice to Become K.C. Ardem:
Never Alone Stories
Chase Anderson MD, MS is a vocal force to be reckoned with on Twitter.
Chase works out of UCSF School of Medicine, where he trains as a Child Psychiatry Fellow and “I hope to help as many kids as I can feel safe with their own minds, and to help families heal.”
This is Chase Anderson’s Never Alone Story.
“Try to lock me in this cage,
I won’t just lay me down and die.
I will take these broken wings,
And watch me burn across the sky.
Hear the echo saying,
I won’t be silenced.
Though you wanna see me tremble when you try it.
All I know is I won’t go speechless.”
~ Speechless, Naomi Scott in Aladdin
It’s November 9th, 2019, and I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.
I’m about to start a Twitter account. It seems so silly to me to be this scared. Or, at least part of my mind thinks it should be silly. The other part is terrified. For I know it’s not silly. It’s potentially dangerous. What I am about to do comes with inherent risks that may not outweigh the benefits. Actually, I’m not sure there will be any benefits to what I’m about to attempt.
The reason there’s the usual cold and heat of anxiety washing through me like an unstoppable flood, through every nerve and fiber of my being? The reason that apprehension, that dread, is counterbalanced by that glimmer of hope that luckily never seems to be fully expunged from my shattered and bleeding heart? The reason that both competing emotions swirl within, a tempest mixed with so many other feelings, thoughts, and dreams, all of which I hold on balance?
Well, because I’ll be starting said Twitter account under a pseudonym.
After nearly seven years of discrimination in the medical field, I will be using this account to speak up about the fallacies in medicine—how far too many people continue to say they value diversity while their actions are too often incongruous to those words. I’m going to try to play a precarious chess game where I display enough of my personality online to help people feel seen, but not be found out by my current university where there are people who petrify me with how they treat others, how they’ve treated me. On a public stage for the first time, no longer simply speaking up only at my universities, I will attempt to hopefully shine a spotlight on the racism, homophobia, and overt and subversive bigotry that occurs in medicine.
All under the guise of a persona that I’ll craft. A mask I’ll wear to hopefully help others.
I need to do this. I need an outlet for the emotions I keep tightly held within.
Yet, that doesn’t stop the wish that I never needed to do this in the first place. Knowing this could help others doesn’t stop the dreams I have for a simpler life where I never had to tackle racism, homophobia, and bigotry because our society was better than the one we have currently. The knowledge that maybe I can help others not feel so alone doesn’t wipe away the hope that one day I can live the life I want: a simple, peaceful, magically ordinary extraordinary life, one free from discrimination, with a husband and our two kids, where the world is a better place.
But I know that is a fantasy. One that won’t come to fruition if I don’t do what I can to advocate for others. If we don’t all do what we can to re-chart the course of the ship we’re on.
That still doesn’t calm the thudding of my heart trying to free itself from my chest.
Yet, I know that I’m going to do this and find a way to make it work.
I need to do this.
So, I sit there beside one of my best friends, one of my colleagues in our psychiatry residency program. As two psychiatry residents, one of us a gay powerhouse who advocates for transgender health, the other an African-American, gay guy who is living through his third bout of depression and anxiety due to bigotry who has been made to feel unsure of himself in so many ways, I don’t know that what we’re doing is about to change my life.
What we are doing is going to be a part of giving my life, my dreams, back to me.
Our actions that day are going to help me take my voice and power back.
Beside him on his couch, we create my account. He’s been telling me for three years that I should join Twitter, how it’s a place where physicians find each other and can have a voice, that he knows about some gay physicians on Twitter, that there are some vocal physicians who are Black. I’d balked at the suggestion before because I’d seen the backlash speaking up brought against the minoritized. I had lived and am living that backlash. Doing this under a pseudonym somewhat alleviates that concern. Besides, he’s right, it’s time.
It’s been past time for years.
I choose my name: K.C. Ardem. The pseudonym I’d created for a memoir I’d written about my adventures, failures, triumphs, navigations through medical school as a Black, gay, class president who had a resurgence of his depression and suicidal ideation because of discrimination. A book about hope, friendship, and dreams. A novel written specifically to help other minoritized people find their way and be seen. K.C. – Camp Kesem reversed, a camp that I’d done charity work for and been a camp counselor for during my time in college and graduate school at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ardem – Dream, my camp nickname, my nickname with my closest friends from MIT who had saved my life, taught me how to dream again, and who always told me I taught them how to dream of a better future.
How could I choose any other name?
We craft my first tweet together, my friend and I, an off-the-cuff comment about Prozac not curing racism. We choose my gif, because that will be my niche: gifs. It’s how I often communicate with friends, and my friends call me a Gif Qween, so why not on Twitter too?
My avatar comes without a second thought: Salem the cat from the original Sabrina the Teenage Witch stirring a cauldron and cackling. My choice for my Twitter banner? Sailor Moon as she upholds the Silver Crystal whilst her enemies try to steal her shine.
With everything set, I send my first tweet out into the world.
In my mind, I adhere a new, elegantly powerful mask, a glittering façade, to my face. I’ve worn so many masks throughout my life to get through situations as a minoritized person in systems built to fail minoritized people. I’ve reflexively worn masks to keep myself safe, to help me survive, to become the person others needed me to become. This time, though, this is a mask I choose to wear. Not to defend, not to attack, but entirely to heal.
This time I make a conscious choice to become someone else – to become my true self in a way I haven’t been in nearly seven years – to help others know they are never alone.
I choose to wear a mask to hopefully help others dream of that better world we deserve.
I choose to be someone else because I want others to know we can make that world a reality.
In that moment, with that first tweet, I become K.C. Ardem.
With my veneer in place, I start to find myself again for the first time in seven years.
My colleague, my bosom bud, is my guide at the beginning as I find my way on Twitter. I learn my way of interacting online. The utilization of gifs becomes my signature. That I am outspoken about racism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination – good gods there’s too many – becomes my “brand,” according to friends. I form connections with other doctors, healthcare workers, people. Approximately three people online figure out my true identity (because how many Black, gay, unicorn-phoenix psychiatrists are there online? I also, I found out, have a distinctive way of talking and writing). None of those people ever “outed” me – they understand the need for this disguise, the repercussions outing me would bring – they ask me privately about my identity and let me share if I wanted, they hold my secret tight, and they support my voice and respect my privacy.
On Twitter, I am fortunate enough to see other physicians, other people, who look like me, who have shared similar struggles, who have similar dreams.
I no longer feel so alone in medicine.
My voice that had been ripped from my throat ever so slowly begins to return.
Being a different person doesn’t stop the racism, homophobia, or bias I experience in the last months before I purposefully leave my current university for child fellowship in California.
Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t stop a program leader from saying – in front of almost our entire residency cohort – that how I looked out for my class after a close colleague in another program passed away was unprofessional. Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t mean that anyone other than my colleague who helped me start my Twitter account speaks up for me in that moment. Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t mean I don’t have to once again defend myself as I have a panic attack. Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t wipe away the feeling of betrayal that no one else spoke up against those words, even when I had defended many of them at various points in residency. Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t forestall the annoyance, pain, rage when colleagues who didn’t speak up apologize later and make excuses, saying I’ve always been the consummate professional, that they were scared to speak up because of possible backlash, even though they admit what happened was wrong.
Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t mean that any of the program leadership, nor that person specifically, ever apologizes for what happened – why would they, when such instances of discrimination had been happening to others before I became a resident there, during my time as a resident there, and would continue after I left?
Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t stop that event from making me acutely, actively suicidal for the next few weeks.
Being K.C. Ardem doesn’t stop me from wishing I’d never become a physician.
But, being K.C. Ardem helps me hold somewhat steady through such events.
Being K.C. Ardem helps remind me I deserve better, to be treated with respect, to be loved.
Throughout, there’s a constant fear of being found out. After that instance with program leadership and so many other occurrences in the years before, there’s little doubt how that would play out (hint: not well). Even though everything I speak about online is true, has been experienced by so many across the country, we’ve seen how truth often isn’t enough in a racist world and systems with discrimination woven through them. So, even though I’m careful, though I never name anyone, though I make sure what I tweet applies to all, there’s often a tinge of anxiety.
But, being able to be myself online gives me a place where I could see a better future.
I once again am able to start to become that person my friends in college fondly nicknamed a unicorn-phoenix, able to rise from the flames of discrimination while doing what I can to work with others so the world is just a bit more magical. A bit more loving. A bit more caring. I feel far less shackled by bigoted societal trappings meant to keep the minoritized “in their place.”
I have the opportunity to connect with other LGBTQ+ people. I’m fortunate enough to follow people who are African-American who show me this discrimination is happening in every corner of academia and America. I see so many people trying to be themselves in a world that too often doesn’t allow for such things, and I am inspired by them. We create a positive feedback loop online – not always, but far more often than not. We validate each other’s existence.
With my friends from MIT who know my identity online, with the few friends I tell in residency, we have a secret that is ours. A secret that is the true self I cannot be in reality yet. Online, I begin to not only find my voice again, but also the purpose I’d lost.
And, with the help of my residency friend as my first writing editor, being online helps me feel confident enough to publish my first op-ed about bigotry in medicine in May 2020 under the pseudonym K.C. Ardem. When I can’t find a literary agent for the memoir, Twitter becomes a way to share the words I need to share with others: you are never alone.
Then, June 21st, 2020, after I’ve left my previous university, in the streets of San Francisco as I walk in shorts and sandals while listening to Kpop, I decide to unmask myself on Twitter.
Because of the confidence I’d gained from being myself online, because of so many connections formed there with people who are actively working to make medicine and the world better, I decide to be my true self as I begin child and adolescent fellowship. With the guidance of a trusted mentor from my old university, I unveil myself.
I decide that the time is right for me to be all of myself.
Since no one should have to hide who they are and it's time to be open:— Chase Anderson, MD, MS (K.C. Ardem) 🦸🏽♂️🏳️🌈 (@ChaseTMAnderson) June 21, 2020
Hi everyone. My name is Chase TM Anderson, and I'm a recently graduated psych resident about to start Child Psychiatry Fellowship at UCSF.
It's wonderful to meet all of you. pic.twitter.com/uUiojPViJa
That day in June, I have no idea of so many future events: that I will soon be happier than I’ve been in the past seven years; that I will come to love being a physician and truly enjoy the time I spend at work; that my program director at UCSF will mention during a feedback session how she’s seen my Twitter account, and before I can even say, “Oh, gods, my bad,” she tells me how she finds my speaking up brave; that the LGBTQ+ healthcare workers of #GayMedTwitter will create a weekly “roll call” where each LGBTQ+ healthcare worker sounds off with a gif; that Black physicians will begin to unite in a way I’ve never seen before through a group chat called “Wakanda Forever.”
I don’t know that day that because of Twitter I’ll be able to speak with medical school students across the country and work with others to hopefully make the path easier for the next generation; that I’ll sometimes be brought to joyful tears at how so many people on Twitter are trying to break the legacy of abuse that is all too common in medicine, in our world.
But those are all stories for another day.
What I do know for certain that sunny day in June as I choose to set aside my final mask?
That I’m glad that, once upon a time, a best friend said I should start a Twitter account and I became a person named K.C. Ardem.