Last week it was National Coming Out Day. I wrote a bit about my coming out story before and talked about the issues of coming out as lesbian parents here.
Interestingly, last week also celebrated – if that’s the right word – World Mental Health Day. I say interestingly because, for me, the two things are inextricably connected. The coming out story I detailed here months ago is a sanitised version of how I came to discover and reveal my sexuality and, whilst my mental health issues are, I believe, totally a separate issue to my sexuality, they had a huge impact on it.
India Knight wrote this column about the stigma (or not) of mental illness in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago (I’m hoping this isn’t hidden behind a paywall – I just managed to access it). Mark Rice-Oxley wrote this response in the Guardian. And the fact of the matter is that I am far more comfortable talking about my sexuality than my mental health issues. Perhaps it is because my sexuality is more apparent and that to hide it would be to deny the existence of my wife, the love of my life; maybe it is more that my sexuality continues to be different from what is often “expected” whereas my mental health issues are very much in my past and not a current issue. Either way, I am that uncomfortable with being upfront about it that I already started writing this blog post once and then deleted it because I felt I didn’t particularly want this information published here.
Very few people in my life are aware of my mental health history. In fact, with the exception of L and her parents, the only people in my life who know about it are the people who were there when I went through it all. Anyone I’ve met since knows nothing. They may have their suspicions – I don’t make a particular effort to hide the scars they may or may not correctly identify as self-inflicted – but I have never had a conversation with any of them in which I admit to having had mental health problems.
As someone who has gone from being chronically affected to being “recovered” and holding down a responsible job as a fully functioning member of society, part of me feels I should be a beacon for mental health. I should be shouting it from the rooftops so that I help to remove the stigma by showing how mental health problems really can affect anyone and that there is light at the end of the tunnel for those suffering in a similar way to me – I have come out the other side, after all. But still, coming out about my mental health history remains something I find far too much of a challenge.
My late teens and early twenties were such a tumultuous time for me that whether I liked guys or girls was barely a consideration. My first same-sex kiss was at the age of 16 and was with a girl I was in a psychiatric unit with. It was her idea and was approached as more of a clinical experiment – by both of us – than based on any kind of attraction, but I was surprised to discover that it felt okay – even pleasant – although I didn’t really fancy the girl in question.
The fact of this encounter then pretty much vanished from my mind. I didn’t give much thought to it and later on, when I truly was exploring my sexuality, I found I’d totally forgotten that I had already kissed a girl before.
I was diagnosed with depression and borderline personality disorder – a diagnosis I don’t fully agree with, although I did manifest most of the “symptoms”. I spent the best part of two years in and out of psychiatric hospitals between the ages of 16 and 18 – more in than out. I ended up being transferred to an adolescent psychiatric intensive care unit, complete with locked doors, CCTV and plastic cutlery, for about 8 or 9 months.
Eventually I managed to convince the doctors I was well enough to leave and held off the worst of the self-damaging behaviour which kept me out of hospital while I did my A Levels, although I was far from happy during that time. I had a couple of boyfriends while I was at college, but also developed a couple of major crushes on girls, one of whom was straight but going through an experimental phase and the other who was gay but clearly not interested in me.
At this point I quickly accepted my sexuality as bisexual. I had posters of women up in my room and went to Pride. A friend accidentally outed me to my mum by discussing my tryst with the experimental-straight-girl in front of her.
At this point my mum, a Guardian-reading, liberal social worker who had gay friends, told me that kissing one girl didn’t make me gay, even though I was trying to explain to her that I’d had an epiphany about my sexuality (as much as that epiphany was a half-hearted, bisexual cop out).
I didn’t approach the topic again for quite some time. I went off to uni to study English and decided to join the LGB Soc, but then I also joined the cheerleaders and felt I had to conceal my sexuality from my new friends. I would frequently get drunk (it was uni!) and snog my straight flatmate at parties and clubs, but I always defensively claimed it was to get attention from blokes, which was the argument she used too and as far as I know she still exclusively dates men.
I didn’t last out the first year at uni. I got glandular fever and ended up thoroughly depressed, missing lectures, drinking constantly and becoming pretty much nocturnal, spending all night on the Internet and writing an awful, angsty online journal.
I went home at Easter, having been told I hadn’t achieved enough credits to pass the first year and that I’d need to repeat most of my modules, and ended up in hospital again, my life returning to a cycle of insomnia, self harm and overdosing. After a year in and out of hospital – and a rather abusive relationship with an older man I’d met in hospital – I was referred to a therapeutic community.
I completed the full year of treatment at the TC (the Henderson Hospital which, sadly, has now closed down) and came out having once again embraced my bisexuality, although still without having had an actual relationship with a woman.
Being in the TC saved my life, without a doubt. The year of intensive talking therapy and supporting and challenging the other residents, whilst being supported and challenged by them in return, had a huge impact. I came out with a better understanding of why I responded the way I did to certain things and with the knowledge that I did possess the tools to handle what life threw at me; I was just still not that adept at using said tools.
I moved into a bedsit and tried to figure out what to do with myself. A friend of mine had talked to me a lot about her spirituality and I was curious to find out if there was anything church/god could offer me.
I ended up going to a New Testament church with some pretty fundamental beliefs. At first I decided to just conceal my attraction to women, thinking if I just kept it quiet I could still have my own beliefs but wouldn’t rock the boat. Still very emotionally delicate and vulnerable, I needed the sense of community and family the church seemed to be offering me.
As time went on I got a boyfriend from the church (who I didn’t have to sleep with because we weren’t supposed to have sex before marriage) and eventually convinced myself that I had never even had those feelings about women. I was sure that once I got married to a nice Christian boy, I’d be able to be straight.
But I wasn’t happy in that relationship so I ended it. I was still a mess and still needed a lot of love and attention. There was a family who sort of “adopted” me. Until, that was, the dad decided he didn’t see me as a daughter and tried it on with me. Things got horribly messy and I ultimately lost any belief in a benevolent god after the matter failed to be resolved, even after the pastor and other members of the church got involved, and he got away scot free by lying his arse off and using my mental health history as a weapon against me.
I did go to another church for a while, but then, whilst working part time to get myself through uni, I met a woman and realised how much I’d been denying a true part of myself. I was suddenly aware of how I’d met girls at the church and thought things like, “Wow, she looks great in those jeans – idontfancyherthough!!”
I’d been in absolute and complete denial for so long and realised as well that I really wasn’t interested in men at all. The church told me they were happy to let me stay if I saw a counsellor to work through my “gay issue”. I told them goodbye.
I had come a long way since leaving the Henderson and finally admitting to myself that I was gay was the last thing it took to make me happy in my own skin and a million miles from the vulnerable, needy, emotionally-childlike person I had been. I went to Pride and spent many a night at G-A-Y. I told my mum and she was fine, accepting that I was in a relationship with a woman without a second thought.
By the time I met the woman who was to become my wife, I knew who I was and what I wanted out of life and the person who had spent so long in and out of hospital was like a distant memory.
I often wonder if I would have come out a lot sooner if my life hadn’t been overcomplicated by excessive emotion for so long. I also wonder if I’ll ever really be comfortable telling people about how much of a mess I used to be. I’m never ashamed to admit I had glandular fever – and in fact use that as an excuse to fudge over the details of why I dropped out of uni and then had a big gap before I went back to do a teaching degree – but I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t used to be able to cope with life.
So that’s the story. Of course, this is the condensed version as it spans several years. Now I’m out of the asylum as well as the closet.