I want to share a little bit about how growing up as a gay person in an anti-gay environment has affected me. In my August 2 coming out blog post, I shared how being closeted — or in many ways being coerced into being dishonest, secretive, and ashamed about my sexuality — felt like “the steady petrification and gradual implosion of my psyche and soul.”
It would be a lie if I told that that after I came out of the closet, I just always feel happy and I never face emotional turbulence. For me, coming out has been a process in which I’ve begun to feel happier more whole and more free, but also a process in which I’ve had to let my psyche and soul fall apart before I’ve been able to begin to rebuild on a foundation of authenticity and love. I’ve had to get in better touch with fear before I have been able to learn how to better seek out security. I’ve had to learn how to identify and wrestle with shame before I’ve been able to develop a better sense of pride. In a very emphatic way, I’ve had to allow myself to feel anger and sadness before I’ve been able to better appreciate joy and gratitude. I can now say that I’m proud to be gay, but it’s definitely been an interesting journey.
In November, 2014 I endured a specific incident that triggered an explosion of emotions and a flood of memories and voices from my childhood and teens. On that occasion, my brain cycled through sensations of anger, fear, loneliness, sadness, and shame. Those emotions swirled together and coursed through my body, short-circuiting my ability to reason. The piece of art that I’m sharing in this blog post is a depiction of what I experienced on that occasion.
Acrylic paint, pencil, sharpie marker, on heavy paper.
I’m not ready to share all of the details of that incident, but the situation really angered me. Things about that situation seem to have mirrored many situations I had endured in the past. I was being threatened. I was being forced to violate my conscience. I was being forced to lie. I was being silenced. I was being punished for just being. Statements of affirmation were immediately followed by statements of condemnation. I felt unstable and attacked.
And then something snapped. I was overwhelmed by fear. I felt intensely unsafe. I felt compelled to rush out of that building and to run until I could hide behind an embankment, out of sight of where I’d just been. I was shaking and crying. Shame mixed in with the fear. I curled into the fetal position. Sadness swept through my body. At some point I tried to identify how old I felt in that moment, and I determined that I felt like I was 8 or 9 years old again. Voices crowded in on me. Voices from all stages of my life. The voices felt like dark clouds, and they pushed down on me like heavy blankets. I felt like I was being smothered.
I heard the voices of religious leaders and of my parents.
I heard the voices of kids who I grew up with. I could also sense the disgust of adults who I’d encountered over the years — adults who were too refined to repeat the words that their children were saying, but who communicated the same contempt in other actions and words or in silence, silence while their children mocked and bullied other children.
I heard the voice of my mother. Memories from my childhood and teens flooded in on me. Memories of me being forced into a mold that I didn’t fit into. Memories of feeling inferior and broken. Memories of confusion and loneliness. Rejection pressed in on me. Disappointment stole my breath. I wanted to hide even from myself.
I heard the voice of my father. Memories from my teens and early twenties flashed through my memory. I felt unheard, trivialized, misdiagnosed, explained away.
I felt betrayed by my parents and religious community.
Rejection. Shame. Disgust.
I heard the voices of parents, coreligionists, and spiritual guides. Memories of sermons flashed through my mind. Memories of ex-gay counseling came flooding back. I felt betrayed.
If quotations marks could be put around the word homosexuality, denying the reality of homosexual orientation and experience (see my coming out post), that meant that quotation marks could belong on either side of me too. I felt like I could be erased at any moment, at the will or whim of others.
And then the voices went silent, and I was left only with feelings. I felt like a victim being blamed by my abusers for the abuse they’d inflicted upon me. Maybe I deserve what just happened to me?
After a while, I lost sight of the faces of the people whose voices I was hearing. I couldn’t hear their voices anymore. Instead, I saw the image of a grim reaper looming over me. His voice was hideous. I cried and hugged my knees tighter.
Eventually I felt numb. The world around me felt unreal. I felt unreal. Maybe this was all a bad dream that I was about to wake up from? Maybe I’d never been born at all? Maybe I was some sort of supernatural being who had imagined he was a human, and now I was learning I’d never been human?
I didn’t wake up and find that everything had just been a bad dream. The memories of what had just happened cycled back through my memory. I still felt like I was being suffocated by a swirl of emotions and memories. The voices came and went. I felt lonely, insignificant, and despicable.
And then at some point this word came to me. It was a command, whispered in my ear. It seemed like the logical intention behind all of the voices. I wondered if perhaps I was dying even in that moment. And I didn’t object. Death felt like a welcome escape from the pain of this explosion of emotions, a welcome escape from this trail of painful memories.
But I’m grateful that I did survive this incident. I’m grateful for my two friends who witnessed the triggering event, who came and extracted me from my hiding place, and who talked it through with me as best as they were able. As much as it was horrible and as much as I wish that none of these events had ever happened to me, in light of the fact that we cannot undo the past, I’m grateful that I experienced this explosion of emotions because it has enabled me to begin to rebuild my psyche from the rubble. I’m grateful that I’m alive and able to share my story. In liberation there is hope.