on coming out, staying sane, and telling my story

(I meant to post this last week, but stuff happens and instead it’s a week late. I hope you can still find some good in it.)

***

It’s fitting that World Mental Health Day and National Coming Out Day arrive back-to-back each year. Each of these days illustrates a different part of my personality, of what makes me, me, even as the two collide to make my life a special sort of circus. I didn’t think I’d be able to speak so freely on either of them at this point in my life, but everything has to come to a head sooner or later.

So here goes.

***

I’ve always been slightly anxious. It didn’t hit me till last year that I really suffer from anxiety — a mind-eating little cesspool of a disorder. It turns your brain against you, whispering things in your ear that you would never tell another human being unless you were a sociopath. Things like, “You’re a failure.” “No one will ever love you.” “You’re nothing but a waste of space.” My personal favorite is, “Everyone you love will leave you once they find out what a liar you are.”

I feel restless, overwrought, nauseous, all at once. I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to run or hit something or just pass out, just to stop feeling anything.

Anxiety is often accompanied by depression, a soul-sucker that leaves you with no motivation, no energy, and an overwhelming feeling of pointlessness. I’ve spent nights crying myself to sleep and mornings struggling to even lift a leg outside of my bed. I’ve found it difficult to speak beyond a mumble, exhausting to lift the corners of my lips to smile at my coworkers. I’ve had to battle tears at work, on the bus, in line at Starbucks.

Sometimes, I want to sleep forever. Sometimes, I can’t make myself close my eyes if I glued them shut. Often, I snap at people and appear irritable, when I really just want to be left alone. I usually want to hide from the world. I really need a friend. I don’t take as good care of myself as I want to. This is my mental state.

I’m also bisexual. Sometimes, my anxiety comes from knowing this and wanting more people in my family to know it. Sometimes, my (perceived) depression makes me feel like I’ll never be accepted and it’s pointless to even bother trying to stir that pot again, seeing as it went so horribly the first time. (More on that later.) More often than not, these two things are not related. But I can’t deny the link between my anxiety and my own isolation from the people I’m supposed to love more than anyone else.

***

I no longer talk to the first person I ever came out to. She and I wrote about hockey together, when I was 17, long before I figured out how to deal with myself. I whispered it into the phone during an intermission of a New York Islanders game, muffled by the hanging sweaters and jacket sleeves of my tiny closet (a fitting place to be). My friend laughed and said, “Oh, honey, is that all?” Apparently, the only person at this point who assumed bisexuality was more of a disease than a sexual orientation was me.

But it might as well have been. I was the straight-A student, the athlete, my father’s pride and joy. I couldn’t be any kind of gay, much less a gay that wasn’t really gay, more like the result of me not being able to make up my mind. That was what my mom and aunt said about it; that was what my cousin made clear, when she mocked girls at her school who said they were bi. “Pick a side!” she’d shriek. “There’s gay or straight, just choose one, you idiot!”

It wasn’t like I was ready to join a parade or march up and down the streets of Brooklyn screaming, “I’M BI HOW ARE YOU.” I wasn’t even 100 percent sure that was what I was — I knew I felt weird about my attractions to girls, that they were there but never consistent, and maybe I was just curious or seeking some kind of attention where I shouldn’t be and what were my parents going to say and oh god I’m going to hell. (I was still bent on becoming a fully confirmed Catholic as a teenager, mind you.) It gave me fits some nights as I woke up, aroused and confused, with some nameless girl’s dream lips still touching mine. This was not okay. This was not allowed.

I managed to stifle those thoughts for a while, trying to do whatever I could to prove I was only attracted to boys. I had a ridiculous number of crushes; I tried to be as feminine as possible when I wasn’t playing lacrosse. I watched the other girls, open with themselves, flirt and roll around the field before practice and ignored the twinge in my chest that said, That could be you. I even made it college without incident.

And then we moved from Brooklyn to Buffalo, 500 miles northwest and two numbers up in the area code. I had already felt isolated before then, having just withdrawn from college in my first semester with nothing but $3500 in debt, a couple of friends, an ill-advised two-month relationship and a lot of time spent in the library. But I experienced my first real bout with what I thought was depression in the first month after moving, isolated in my aunt’s house with a mother focused on finding a job and no one around for longer than a few hours to talk to. I felt heavy yet restless, dying for a companion to chat with but unable to push out more than a few words as soon as they were present. It was maddening.

This was when I started spending a lot of time by myself, walking up and down the quiet roads of Williamsville, trying desperately to empty my head and make myself too tired to cry before I went to sleep. I didn’t know what was going on — I just knew we had moved, I hadn’t wanted to, I had nothing going for me and I was more of a nuisance than a welcome presence in everyone’s lives. I had gone from being the perfect student-athlete and budding writer to spending my afternoons wandering aimlessly or sprawled on my cousin’s bed, begging for a friend.

I went to my mother and told her I thought I needed to see someone. She dismissed it with a curt, “You have no reason to be depressed. You have your whole family here. Talk to us — you need to talk, you’re so standoffish.” I remember heading back to my cousin’s room with a lump in my throat, willing myself not to cry before I got the door closed. And even as I emerged from that episode to find a job and get re-enrolled in college, I remember rarely telling her a single thought deeper than my pick for this year’s American Idol, ever again.

Not until the night before my 25th birthday, when I opened my mouth and told her I was going on a date with a woman. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

***

I finally met the woman who would become my best friend and psuedo-mentor in this entire thing, B, a few months after I realized my mental health issues. She’d just moved into the area from Washington to go to school here, and she was looking for local friends. We spent seven hours talking to each other the first time we met. She was older, unbelievably well-read, and intelligent. She was bi, too, and completely comfortable in her own skin — even defiant, in a time (just a couple of years back) when the main idea was that bi folks were confused or not “real” queer people. Over the next few years I learned things from her that I had never even thought of: about being queer, being open-minded, and questioning everything — even the people you were meant to respect above all. And I slowly came into my own, forcing myself to become tougher, less shy, more outspoken, even as my anxiety grew worse and I began bursting into tears at random intervals every few months.

B helped me realize that it was possible to be openly queer and find love within your family structure. She also showed me the importance of taking care of myself mentally, pushing me to find a therapist and fix what was wrong with my brain. Her mom was impossibly cool and supportive of everything, and I found myself envying the freedom B had to tell her mother things I could never tell mine. I wanted to tell my mother everything.

Armed with what B had taught me, once I finished college I began to date women, finding them on dating sites and through friends. They were nice and pretty, but nothing clicked. Once again, I began doubting myself — until I realized I had a type (androgynous/masculine, mostly). I reached out to said type, and was struck with the biphobia I’d come to realize as the norm — sorry, no bi chicks. I don’t want to get cheated on with a penis. Sorry, you’re not experienced enough with women, I’m not interested in teaching anyone.

And then, it all came to a head during the summer of 2016… and I realized. Yep, I’m here, I’m queer, and it might take me drinking all the beer, but I’m making my move.

She was athletic and petite, a reader, a runner, sarcastic and vulnerable from her last relationship. We hit it off, but I came on too strong after the first couple of weeks, and she ran. She had every right to; I was a baby bi confused as fuck about what I was feeling and where this was going, and I had been convinced from the time I was a teen that I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s affection. That manifested itself into a lot of affection and rambling, and to anyone — but especially to a girl trying to figure herself out after escaping hell — it would be way too much.

To make matters worse, she ended things with me while I was moving into my first apartment and riddled with anxiety over striking out on my own. There, within bare walls on an ugly industrial carpet, I cried, heartbroken and lost yet again. That was my second major spiral. I had panic attacks at the gym, stomach cramps that kept me from eating. I lost six pounds in two weeks and told people the truth when they asked my secret. This was me at my lowest point, over the course of a month, and it took a lot for me to finally get out of it. I focused on myself, swearing I wouldn’t date again until I was 100 percent sure I wouldn’t vomit anxiety all over another person. And I didn’t, until January of this year. And then things began to get better. At first.

***

My mother meant well in raising us. She did what she could, marrying young and raising us while getting her teaching degree. She’s also one of the strongest people I know, staying tough through her second round with colon cancer. But she was, and still kind of is, firmly in the “that’s how they were brought up” camp — the group of people who allows for bigotry because hell, those assholes can’t help it, they’re a product of their time.

(Those assholes will surely enjoy dying out as they refuse to change with our society, but I digress.)

Still, once I met the woman who is now my girlfriend and realized it was the start of something great, I couldn’t hold back. I had to mention it. I had to take the chance. So I did. And as I watched the smile slide off of my mother’s face, and I watched the shock (and disdain) take hold, I realized just how wrong I had been. I can’t even remember what I said, floundering for a response as she asked me cold questions .

So, was this why you moved out over the summer?

— No, I was going to regardless, I just thought you should know the truth about me.

— Are you mad?

It’s just not what I expected.

What did you expect?! I wanted to scream. But I knew I had to keep calm. I knew I had to act like this wasn’t a big deal if I wanted it to blow over. So I left, promising to text when I got home. When I did, she let loose, telling me I broke her heart, that she had been praying for me for months, that I was being influenced by the wrong people. She yelled at me for doing this to her, somehow, for making her think she was losing me.

I thought of her nephew, my cousin, and her sister-in-law, my aunt, both gay. Were they wrong? Was she really about to love the sinner, but hate the sin? What sin is there in being loved? I wanted to ask all of these questions, but instead I just took it, told her it wasn’t about her, it was about me and my happiness and I was not the one leaving her if she decided she would lose me. I muted my conversation with her, held it together long enough for a beautiful birthday dinner, and cried in my girlfriend’s arms later that night.

It wasn’t worth trying to explain to her how badly my anxiety had gotten as I tried to navigate my sexuality. It wasn’t worth detailing the fling I’d had that past summer, when I first actually realized I could feel emotionally for a woman. It wasn’t worth taking her back to that night in the closet, nine years prior, when I whispered to the only adult I trusted more than them that I didn’t think I was straight and I couldn’t bear my parents finding out. It wasn’t worth telling her much more than “This isn’t about you, it’s about me and my happiness.”

I didn’t say anything because I knew I’d be wasting words better saved. I wish now that I had said something, anything, to let her know I wasn’t going to let this happen again.

***

I came out to my mother this past February. It’s now October. We’ve talked about my mental health, my seeing a therapist, potentially being prescribed medication. It’s here that she’s made the most improvement, encouraging me to find the calm I’ve been seeking for years and letting me know I can always come home for a night if I need to. For that, I am grateful.

We haven’t talked about my girlfriend. My mother doesn’t even seem to want to meet her. She knows the woman exists; still, there isn’t even a mention of, “I’m happy you’re happy,” at the very least. I go to her house and we sit in near silence. She asks me what I’ve been up to. I speak slowly, faking casual, as my heart pounds and I feel my love’s name slipping to the tip of my tongue. At the last possible second I swallow it, and I hate myself more in this moment than I ever have before, if that’s possible.

My dad may or may not have a clue that I’m bisexual. The rest of my family is a toss-up. A few cousins. None of my aunts or uncles. I’ve had dry heaves and anxiety attacks over the idea of being ambushed with pleas for prayers, “therapy,” what have you. In hindsight, I’m glad I waited till age 26 to start this process, because at least it means I’m completely in charge of my own life. That won’t mean a thing if I can’t be by my mother’s side as she faces new hurdles with her illness, if she decides that.

My mental health is tied to my sexuality in that I’m terrified at the thought of losing my conservative family because I’m bi. My entire life, I’ve struggled with loneliness, with the pressure to overachieve and be the pride and joy of the family while also knowing any one wrong move could mean disaster. Now, I feel like its ultimate disappointment, through no fault of my own.

Still, I am proud to be bisexual, however my family might feel about it. There’s so much I’ve learned and can speak truth to. I’m also proud to be so open about my mental health — now, more than ever, is a time to speak out and support those who are struggling. Some days are better than others for me, but I’m always going to be a work in progress. That’s the nature of the beast.

Maybe a year from now I’ll be talking about how happy my entire family is for me, and how well I’m doing mentally. That might not be the case right now, but I work for it daily, and I’m so thankful for the woman by my side helping me through it. I’m grateful for B. I’m grateful to those who have nothing but love for how happy I am. And I’m grateful to everyone who has come out before me and shown me I am queer enough, I am strong enough, I am enough. And I can make it.