Learning to say no
In an effort to effect change and be appreciated, Peter Imhoff overcommitted, putting his own mental health at risk. Now he’s learning to set healthy boundaries.
WARNING: This story contains discussion of suicide. Please use good judgment and self-care in deciding whether to read it or find someone you can share and discuss it with. If you need help call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text line at 741741.
As an only child growing up in conservative Cobb County, north of Atlanta, Peter Imhoff learned early on to entertain himself. A curious, smart and gentle child, he read voraciously, conjured up imaginary friends and formed a special bond with his paternal grandfather, who sparked his interest in history and politics through a “museum room” that featured items and artifacts from all over the world.
From an early age, Imhoff was also, in his own words, “nerdy” and overweight, and had an unusually high, effeminate-sounding voice, That made him a target, not only amongst his peers but even for the father he often “butted heads” with and the paternal grandmother who never let slide an opportunity to share her estimation of him as “a failure.”
“I was everybody’s favorite bean bag to beat up on,” says Imhoff, 30, who lives in Englewood, Florida and currently juggles a crowded schedule that includes a customer service job at Publix, prominent roles in several Democratic and LGBTQ organizations and hosting two political shows on a Northport community radio station. “And a lot of that definitely shaped me.”
By the time Imhoff reached middle school, a notoriously difficult time for any child, he was also wrestling with confusion over his sexuality.
“I’m trying to figure out who I am, who I’m attracted to, what’s up, what’s down — and all while living in a very repressed Southern, conservative community where I didn’t have information I needed to understand,” he says. “At the same time, on top of that, I was being picked on, excluded and ‘othered.’ It left me with a lot of trust issues.”
Imhoff relied on a carefully cultivated radiant smile, an easy laugh and a “good public face” to hide his constant internal pain. (Often, he still does, he admits.) But the bullying continued, as did the unending stream of negative criticism from his grandmother, who waited until other family members weren’t around to berate him about his weight and lack of direction. It all “cratered” in his junior year of high school, when he became so miserable and depressed he contemplated, for the first time, taking his own life.
The moment is indelible in his mind. Sitting in a backyard hammock tied between two pine trees, he made a deal with God: If anything flew between the trees within 10 seconds, he would kill himself. He remembers counting slowly — his suicidal ideations usually focused on someone or something else killing him rather than him dying by his own hand.
When he got to “9” a bird caught the corner of his eye, but he wasn’t sure if it had flown between, or beyond the trees. That was enough to convince him that he wanted to go on, but he knew he would need help to do so. At the kitchen table, he broke down and confessed the magnitude of his misery to his parents.
“That was tough because we didn’t talk about our emotions ever, especially my Dad,” he says. “I think everyone knew I wasn’t in the best space because I was constantly being bullied. But I think they were both caught off guard by it, by the idea that I was suicidal.”
For the next two years, prior to his high school graduation, Imhoff regularly saw both a psychiatrist, who put him on an anti-depressant, and a talk therapist. Counseling not only helped him “get my confidence back,” it allowed him to accept and embrace the reality that he was bisexual. (He eventually shared that news with his mother when she “outed” him on a long car trip together, but he would not discuss it with his father for years to come – “even though he clearly knew,” Imhoff says.)
Feeling stronger, more self-assured and ready to live his sexuality openly, Imhoff graduated and moved to downtown Atlanta to attend Georgia State University. College turned out to be everything high school wasn’t. He was appreciated and respected, had friends and admirers, and became involved in multiple student organizations. By his senior year, when he was named “Senator of the Year,” his interest in politics had fully blossomed. He began interning at the Georgia state capitol for Representative LaDawn Jones and was hired for the upcoming legislative session following his graduation.
“I really thrived in college,” Imhoff says, recalling the happiest years of his life. “I was very out, friendly, and well liked and there was no bullying. I absolutely enjoyed every second of it.”
But the internship ended after a short, three-month session, just as his parents were considering moving full time to Florida, where his grandmother had settled after her husband died following a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Imhoff decided he might as well move to the Sunshine State as well, where he could help his parents as they cared for his grandmother, who was diagnosed shortly thereafter with esophageal cancer.
Imhoff worked part-time jobs at mostly retail jobs – at Macy’s, for Nielsen and eventually at Publix, where he started as a cashier and worked his way up to his current customer service position. But his real devotion was directed toward his (initially volunteer) political activism.
“Because I’d lived in a very red area in Georgia and was moving to an equally red area in Florida, I made a commitment to myself that I didn’t want my community to be ignored by the Democratic party,” he says. “So I got involved with party politics, which I hadn’t been involved with before and have been involved with ever since.”
With his involvement, and as the schedule ramped up toward the 2016 elections, came job offers. It was while working on the campaign of a local Democrat that, in June of 2016, the news reached him of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Devastated by the murders within a community he considered his own, Imhoff responded by renewing his commitment to political change.
“In my mind it was, ‘OK, we will avenge them by winning in November,’” he recalls. “That’s how I tucked away my emotions and stored them.”
But when the November elections came, not only did Imhoff’s candidate lose (as was expected) but Donald Trump unexpectedly won the Presidency. That, Imhoff says, “shook me to the core.”
“Again, I put on a bright face, but inside I felt very scared and very vulnerable,” he says. “I felt kind of betrayed by my community because to me, it wasn’t a policy thing, it was a personal thing. You weren’t voting for this man because of his great tax policies, you were voting for him because you didn’t like certain people. And I happened to be in one of those categories.”
Imhoff’s chagrin at the results initially turned to anger and then to a deep depression. He found himself getting short with his family, snapping at customers and taking their complaints personally. Fortunately, he recognized that he again needed more help.
At 26, for the first time since high school, he returned to therapy, greeting the counselor at his first appointment by saying, “We have years of rewiring to do.” They spent a year working mostly on “my raging self criticism and self hatred,” Imhoff says, while he continued his activism with the Democratic party, as well as the Florida LGBTQ and Democratic Caucus and several other local social justice groups.
“I was involved in organizations up to my eyeballs and woefully unprepared for that,” Imhoff admits. “I thought I was mature enough, but a lot of people doubted me because I was so young … It was always, what about this? What about that? It started to feel like nothing I could ever do would be enough.”
On a day in 2017 that culminated with him stranded after his car broke down, Imhoff emotionally crashed. Feeling “I will never be good enough for these people. I’m no good to anyone,” he again became suicidal. His solid relationship with his therapist prevented him from acting on his thoughts and eventually led him to the difficult decision to withdraw from his activist positions. When he subsequently did, citing only vague “health reasons,” there was more negative backlash.
“I made a pledge to myself that I was going to quit everything,” he says. “I learned the power of ‘no,’ which is a very important word I’ve had trouble with for a long time. But it was hard to do because some of the organizations struggled after I left and I became the one to blame.”
In 2019, he suffered a third bout of major depression and suicidal ideation– this time brought on by the callously critical and dismissive treatment of a doctor he’d consulted about bariatic surgery. By then, he’d begun renewing his political involvement and social activism, while also taking on hosting duties for two shows on the Northport community radio station — WKDW, “The Political Corner with Peter Imhoff” and “The People’s Politics.”
Though he tried to weigh his choices regarding involvement while consciously considering his mental health, Imhoff felt compelled to reenter the arena. Today, the tagline that follows his email signature (and is often longer than the email itself) lists roles with the Manasota Young Democrats (President), the Region 6 Florida LGBTQ and Democratic Caucus, the Stonewall Democratic Action Committee and the Securing Opportunities for Sarasotans campaign, in addition to his radio positions.
“I don’t want to be a cliché, but I’m one of those people who sees there is a lot that needs to be changed in the world and I feel like it’s not going to get done if I don’t do it. You have to set limitations but sometimes you know you’re the most qualified person in the room, even if no one else thinks you are. So that’s why I keep getting involved.”
Still it continues to be a juggling act to remain vigilant about his mental health. There are days, Inhoff admits, when “all I want to do is curl up in a ball and not do anything” and plenty of others when his public face is all that allows him to make it through his job fielding complaints from customers or a politically divisive radio show. But he’s learning to set firm boundaries, as well as to force himself to build respite and social time with friends into his days, even when he doesn’t feel especially motivated to do so.
“I am nowhere near ‘cured,’ whatever that means and I will always have depression, I don’t know what it feels like not to,” he says. “To me a great day is when I don’t feel suicidal. So, it’s so important to be able to set those boundaries and for someone like me who has constant depression, that means routine maintenance. Whatever mechanism you have to develop for yourself to do that, you must do that, because you’re no good to anyone if you’re in that awful place.”
Imhoff says he has no regrets about his 2017 “crash,” when he said yes to too many things and then “watched it blow up in my face.” Nor does he refrain from talking about his struggles openly, in the hope not only of normalizing his situation but encouraging others to make a similar commitment to their own health and mindfulness.
“I don’t regret that because without it, I would not have learned what too far is,” he says. “To me that was when I really matured mental health wise.
“I am grateful for the struggles I’ve had. We shouldn’t be ashamed of what’s happened in our mental health history. Because, at least for me, those struggles have made me a stronger, more empathetic person and a better manager, organizer, employee and friend. That’s why it’s so important that those of us who have been through these trials and tribulations have these conversations and share what we’ve learned.”