It’s RUOK Day. Are you OK?
I’m tired, but if someone asks me “how are you?” I’ll probably give the automatic “good thanks.” It’s what we do. In polite society we don’t expect or want the honest version of others either because don’t really have time for all of that, or real emotions aren’t for airing. That’s what therapists are for, right?
But since you’ve asked by deciding to stop by and read, I’ll tell you how I am and what’s going on.
I’m tired. I’m tired because I’m currently seeing a therapist and we’re peeling back the layers of my life and experiences to get to the core of who I am, whoever that is. We have sideways conversations at times, but that’s just me, because those sideways comments I make are the grist for her mill. Before long she’s saying “I just want you to have a think about…” which is where the deep dive begins. It’s important to have the safety to talk about even the darkest of thoughts and experiences with someone, and “how are you” isn’t that, but that shouldn’t absolve us from checking in with each other to make sure we’re OK.
An old wound surfaced this week. An unconscious wound I’ve been carrying around for twenty-seven years. It’s been with me through all my relationships and when any thoughts related to it crossed my mind I’d stuff it back down, tell myself I really need to be over this by now and get about my business. But getting about my business usually involved ignoring this visitor who, although visiting less frequently in recent times, still takes time to call on me. Psychologically.
It’s the experience of my first big crush. The first time I fell in love with someone. That feeling of infatuation you feel when you see everything you hope for embodied in another person, coupled with the reflection “could they love me, too?”
Sounds kind of adolescent for a fifty-year-old man to be grappling with, huh. But here I am. So I’ll give you some context. I’m gay, and this crush heralded the beginning of my coming out process. To say that I never felt it would be acceptable to be same sex attracted when I was growing up is an understatement. Significant others in my childhood life casually using the words “poofter” or “faggot”; mirthful recollections of a brother who had, when very young, retorted “you’re nothin’ but a poofter” when someone said he was nothing but a spoiled brat. Maybe the laughter was more about his feistiness than the content, but even now I know I’m being too kind. Follow up remarks went something like “yeah, and he was, too.” There was the male cousin who liked to dress in women’s clothing. To say the comments about him were unkind would be a gross misrepresentation. He disappeared when I was ten. We don’t know to this day what happened to him.
Now the picture of my adolescence comes slowly into focus. We talk about rites of passage, of forming our identity and becoming our independent selves. At thirteen I was confused. I wasn’t attracted to girls, but “any day now” was the promise made to me as I saw my peers find young love. This continued right through high school and into early adulthood. Then came Daniel (not his real name). He was in one of my classes at uni and I just remember being struck by his smile and that he was a lovely guy. Then I started to realise I felt attracted to him. These aren’t things we can talk about! I asked how you are, not “what’s your life story?”. Fair enough, but that’s why ‘how are you?’ doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t leave any room for genuine connection.
I developed a friendship with Daniel, or Dan as I would sometimes call him (still not his real name) afraid he’d learn my increasingly apparent (to me) dirty secret, but also secretly hoping he was the same as me and would like me too. I was twenty-three when I bit the bullet and wrote Dan a letter. It was after graduation and we’d maintained a friendship, but I felt like my desire for that to be more was really standing in the way of that friendship being authentic and I needed to resolve this yearning. I’ve always been a writer. When I was a kid I was regularly told I cried too much. I was too emotional. So I learned to avoid conversations that risked vulnerability and possible tears. How embarrassing. Boys don’t cry. They’ll think you’re a sissy.
I don’t have a copy of the letter. It was prior to any regular use of electronic communication. Email was a funky new thing in the mainstream at that stage. I opened with some general thoughts. I’d written to him before. I used to write letters to friends every now and then. It was a fun way to communicate, and I loved getting mail in return. I miss that. But you know I’m avoiding the meat of the story here. Within the letter I wrote out the lyrics to “I honestly love you” by Peter Allen and commented how I was surprised to find out he penned the song, but really felt Olivia did the best version. I thought that might lighten the mood of the declaration that followed about the parallels I felt between the song’s story and ours (mine). I wrote that I really felt that if circumstances were different, there might be a chance we could be together, but understood if he didn’t feel the same way. I even said, “If you don’t write back, I’ll understand.”
Cue the music for act three and the joyful happy ending. To some extent that music has been playing since 1995, still waiting for the response I actually wanted but gave him permission to never give me. Over the years I’ve wondered about him on and off and felt guilty because it looks and feels like an unhealthy obsession and life has moved on. He moved on. I’ve had boyfriends and relationships between then and now and have a wonderful partner by my side this current day. So why does Dan still haunt me?
Maybe when I was twenty-three it would have been nice to be able to openly take a chance like my opposite-sex attracted peers did. But I was a poofter (still am!) and it’s not safe to make those kind of declarations “just like that”. Ever heard of gay bashing? The gay panic defence? Maybe if I’d been able to have a conversation with him and been able to hear him say “I’m not the droid you’re looking for” I could have dealt with my crushed emotions then and there, healed and moved on without giving him any more thought. I guess they’re questions for my next therapy session. I need to find a way to pay as much attention to him as he’s paid to me over the last twenty-seven years and be OK with that. I deserve better.
Coming out is a life-long process. There’s no going back to the safety of the closet and whether you’re choosing to disclose your sexuality or your gender identity, there’s a whole storyline leading up to that point when the pride-filled coming out music plays and we step into the breach. Ta-dah! But that’s another story for another time.
How am I?
I’m tired. I’m working through some old emotional stuff right now.
Am I OK?
I don’t feel like I’m going to harm myself or anyone else. I feel a bit sad, or whatever actual label I can affix to the current waves of emotion. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be angry, but I’m not angry at you, I’m just processing things the best way I know how, and I’ve got some good support. While I’m not necessarily a bundle of joy twenty-four seven, I know this old hurt will now pass and I’ll feel better sometime soon.
I’m OK enough on this journey. Thanks for asking.
You can hear more of my story in Reframe Of Mind, along with some great conversations around mental health with some people who really know their stuff.
Madhavi Nawana-Parker, Director at Positive Minds Australia, talks about big emotions in episode 31.
If you are in crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Please find whatever support you need.
Are you OK?