I first thought about killing myself in bio class junior year of high school. My teacher probably thought I was thinking big bio thoughts. My obedient behavior apparently gave her the impression that I cared about what we were doing. I had learned that the only reason to talk to her was to affirm that she was right.
The plans I was considering came from movies and TV, mostly. I knew not to talk to my teacher about them. She wouldn’t have drawn on her knowledge of human biology to help me choose the most efficient option. She would have told me I was wrong, and probably referred me to the appropriate administrators. Maybe I would have gotten the help I needed, and probably for that very reason I didn’t risk telling her or anyone else.
I’d already been through the psychological support process in fifth grade, when I freaked out in class about a gray cloud in the sky and panicked that a tornado would kill us all. I ended up spending six months or maybe a year in weekly sessions with the school district psychologist. We met in windowless storage spaces. She measured my IQ. One week we built a model airplane together as we talked. I thought she was a weirdo but trusted, and still trust, that she had some good intention. I just didn’t get it. And if it helped me, it didn’t work for long.
When I moved from elementary to junior high school, I had panic attacks throughout the first month of school, my body’s way of rejecting the transition that I didn’t want to go through. The school counselor did his best to talk me through it, but basically I just got used to the discomfort of the new environment. A lot of my classmates turned mean and, along with kids from the other schools that fed into our junior high, they turned on me. I’d taken some crap in elementary school; I’d been called “sissy” so many times I lost count. In junior high, it only got worse. They called me “faggot” and other slurs. When dressing out for gym class, other boys would point at my fleshy chest and say I had breasts, which was an extreme version of the more common attempt to insult me by saying I was a girl. I don’t remember teachers saying anything like that except my gym teachers, who called us “ladies” when we weren’t moving fast enough. Later, I would learn about gender expression and identity and come to understand that the “insult” hurt because it was mostly true for me.
So by the time I got to my junior high bio class, I felt pretty worn down. But I didn’t act on my plans. Things got better senior year. I made friends, spent more time with the friends I already had, and learned I had some talents I’d hoped I had. Although the good times didn’t erase the pain, I was too busy to acknowledge the feeling that everything would surely fall apart. I was avoiding the problem, yes, but I wasn’t aware of how I could get help. I did what I had to do to stay alive.
After graduating, things got bad again. All of the unknowns of going away to school overwhelmed me, so I stayed at home and went to community college. Compared to the previous, wonderful year, I had little contact with friends and there wasn’t an obvious way to explore my newfound talents at the college. One of my professors was very nice and would talk to me sometimes as I left class. If I had to relive that time, I would open up to him more. He probably could have helped me. In hindsight, I think he was trying to.
I ended up quitting school with three of four semesters done and a good GPA. But I didn’t feel right there. A friend came home for the summer and did a community theater production. I hung out with her and got to know her friends. Long story short, I fell in love with one of the guys, which pushed me to come out and, shortly after, move out of my parents’ house although I didn’t tell them I was gay until later.
On the surface, everything seemed so much better. I knew who I was, someone loved me, and I had an extensive support system of queer friends and allies. But I still felt the pain. I couldn’t reach it, nor could any of the great new people in my life.
So I started planning again, only I had a better idea of what would work and what wouldn’t. I didn’t need to talk it over with anybody. And on one of my days off, I decided it was time to end the pain. I called my partner, Jeff, at work to tell him. He said to just stay there, and he made it home in half the time it should have taken him. I think I had an idea that he would respond that way. When Jeff got home, he called a friend of ours, and we met her and talked for hours. They understood that the pain I felt was hard to understand. Having them in on my secret helped me a little. It didn’t make everything instantly better. But I felt stable, like I could keep myself from falling into the pain and getting consumed by it.
From there, I took it day by day, carefully seeking out professionals who could help me and being kind to myself. That may seem discouraging to someone who is in despair, but it’s what you have to do. Ask for help. Hold on to the friends who care about you and let go of the ones who bring you down. Say nice things about yourself. Take at least a few minutes every day to do something that makes you at least a little bit happy.
It took me a long time to understand why I didn’t hit bottom until then. Coming out as queer was, and remains, the best day in my life. It really helped me understand all that I’d been through and felt up to that point. But until that moment on July 1, 1989, I honestly didn’t know how to articulate that I was queer in an affirming way. The only language for “it” was loaded with shame. As much as I tried to resist the labels of “faggot,” “sissy,” and “girl,” I couldn’t slough off the shame. It stayed on me and weighed me down even after I broke free. Given my family’s history of anxiety and depression, it’s no surprise I had trouble even after I started to feel better about myself.
I’ve been in and out of treatment since that first stint in fifth grade. I’ve had good and bad therapists (and ugly and weird and brilliant and freakish). As much as I didn’t get what she was doing, I’ve got to give credit to my first therapist. Even though I felt singled-out and worried what people would think of me if they knew, it felt good to know I would see her and that she cared about me.
The most useful help I’ve received has been like that, allowing me make room in my life to figure things out and support for me doing things my way. That’s what we need to be doing for people suffering through bullying today. It gets better, but it’s complicated. The challenges continue after the bullying stops and a better life begins. And regardless of age, the bullies don’t give up. As I said in my last post, those of us who are bullied fight back using a bully’s tactics and many of us become bullies. And let’s just call it what it is–abuse. Getting rid of the shame is an ongoing process. We’ve got to rewrite the script so we can help our kids and ourselves.