I first started coming out to people when I was sixteen.
It began with a friend who, as it turns out, didn’t deserve to be told first, but who was nevertheless mostly supportive in the beginning. A few months after telling a second friend, I told my sister. And that was the limit for a little over a year, until I went to college and came out more broadly to a whole bunch of friends and family back home, all at once during the first semester of my freshman year. I used a ridiculously cheap but safe-to-me method, one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” personal surveys that were all the rage for a while back in the early-2000s.
For me, the process was mostly painless and undramatic, with the exception of a couple family members who did not take the news well. I didn’t expect it all to go very badly, but I also didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did. There are still some people who are uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, but for the most part I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and to have surrounded myself with good people, both before and after coming out, who never saw that one part of my personality as anything other than what it is, a normal aspect of who I am. I know how very lucky that makes me, which has always made this next part confusing and embarrassing to me.
After 20 years of being “out” in some form or another, I sit here during Pride month and realize that there is one coming out I have yet to achieve. It’s an even more painful one, something that I’ve hidden or avoided talking about for 15 years; only two people have known anything about it, all this time. I started to think about this while walking the mall a few days ago. I noticed so many stores have their PRIDE colors out and their love/equality merchandise on display. The commercialism of it is a double-edged sword, but for the most part I choose to look on the bright side: visibility is a good thing. To feel welcome in public spaces is a good thing.
As I walked through one store, though, I took a closer look at their Pride displays and read that they are partnering with The Trevor Project this year. With every purchase, customers can choose to “round up” to the next dollar, and all of those donations then go to help this organization prevent teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, where the issue remains severe and far too common. The juxtaposition of all those joyful, vibrant Pride colors with the reminder that, every day, there are queer kids out there contemplating suicide, was jarring to say the least, and it dragged me back to one of the most painful times in my life.
During my second year of college, I was, by all appearances, the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. As a kid who struggled his whole life with obesity and body issues, I suddenly found myself rather fit, making close friends, and doing crazy things like learning how to dance, performing on stage, going to parties, and all sorts of other activities I had only dreamed about since childhood. But, doing all of those things took a great deal of energy for me. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant to be as anxious and introverted as I am, so I ignored the pain of being in public and among people all the time, even though my mind and body were trying to tell me, again and again, that I was doing too much.
Eventually, I would listen, though, and retreat into an even unhealthier environment.
I was also dating for the first time. There’s a lot that could be said about who I chose to date and how those experiences went. It suffices to say for now that, none of those choices were healthy or right, and that I was looking for something to make me feel better, not realizing that this was just adding to the problem. It would take a long, long time to understand that what would make me feel better, feel like me, and feel like I deserved to be alright, wasn’t something I could ever find in someone or something else; not in a guy, not in a friend, and not in an activity. I realize now that I was overcompensating for the fact that I was not as happy or comfortable as I pretended to be, and that even though I was out and had been surrounded by friends who accepted me completely, I hadn’t ever accepted myself.
The combination of persistent, paralyzing body issues and lack of self-esteem plus the fact that I hadn’t yet accepted my sexuality, despite pretending confidence in both of these things, led me to long-distance online dating. There was something wonderful, I thought, about this opportunity. Here, I could be as romantic and loving as I wanted to be and fulfill any fantasies I had, emotionally and imaginatively anyway, but not have to risk being with someone physically. This meant I could “be me” in the safest way possible, and in the only way I thought would work for someone like me. Deep down, I was convinced nobody really wanted to be with me physically. I was so uncomfortable about my body, so unwilling to give myself up to another person, and so completely unsure of how I was supposed to “be” with another man, that I sacrificed the opportunity to heal those issues and learn more about myself. Instead, I would hide behind a screen and pretend to be happy in a digital relationship.
What I first thought to be the answer, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of my life. The relationship I entered was an abusive one. I didn’t realize it at first, and even after coming to a slow and steady awareness about the kind of person I was dealing with, I couldn’t get myself to leave. Yes, it was a long-distance, digital relationship. Yes, eventually, I realized I was being manipulated by a sociopathic narcissist. But because my self-esteem was so low and because I had convinced myself that this kind of romance was the kind that I deserved, I stayed. I endured endless cruelties and started to doubt myself even more, even the things I actually was confident about. I started to question my own sanity and intelligence, and to berate myself for knowing the truth of the situation I was in but not being “smart” enough to get out of it. I started to blame myself and to hurt myself because I had convinced myself that if this person could make me accept these abuses, then some part of me must deserve the punishment and the pain.
After far too long, that relationship came to an end. It was, as can probably be imagined, not a pleasant parting of ways. But when it ended, I was left empty and devastated, and less in control of myself or my emotions than I had been before it all began. I know now that anytime a relationship ends, there is some pain and grief, some regret, even if things are amicable. But there should also be some growth, some path forward. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, because I had been avoiding so many truths about myself in the first place and because I had been ground down by months and months of the worst kind of toxicity, I was left completely unprepared for the fallout and incapable of handling the loneliness and despair that followed. And because I hadn’t been honest with anyone about what I’d been going through, none of my friends even knew that I had been in this relationship in the first place. I felt quite literally all alone.
The night of the fallout, I was by myself in my dormitory room. A few months earlier, I had had my wisdom teeth pulled and there was a full bottle of pain killers left over in my closet. Never before that moment and never since have I ever had a desire to die. But that night, after 20 years of pretending to be happy, pretending to be normal, pretending to be that “ideal gay” who has his shit together and could do anything and be accepted by everyone, my inner pain spilled out, and I broke. I shattered completely and deeply, and in a way that I never knew a human being could break.
The tears started falling before I took the first pill and before I stepped out of my dorm room and started walking aimlessly in circles around campus. I remember the black and red hoodie I was wearing, because I kept the pill bottle in the front pocket, for easy reach. I walked around at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… popping another pill every few minutes and swallowing it with a sip of water from the bottle I’d remembered to bring with me. I passed the same group of students from my dorm three or four times. They were hanging out in the “smoker’s spot” near one of the back entryways, shielding themselves from the cold midwestern winds, and eventually one of them realized there must be something wrong with me, because he called out to ask if I was alright. Invited me to join them.
I waved him off.
Finally, I reached the bottom of that pill bottle. I don’t remember how many I had taken, but I do know it was mostly full to start. And nothing was happening. I thought the pills would have had an immediate effect. I thought I would be passed out in a field somewhere, or laying face-down on the sidewalk. But, mostly, I was just utterly exhausted and I couldn’t keep going. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented, and I was tired from all the walking. But I was still awake and still alive. Why? Another failure.
With the bottle empty and nothing happening, I went back to my dorm and sat down on a couch in the common room. A few minutes later, the guy who had called out to me wandered in and sat next to me. He started to talk to me, but I have no recollection of what he said. All I remember is the way it felt to have my hand wrapped tightly around that empty pill bottle, inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I can still feel the heat returning to my hand and making my fingertips tingle. I can feel the sweat making that small plastic bottle slippery as I debated taking it out of my pocket and showing it to this guy, which is what I finally did. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was desperately confused, terribly embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of what I’d done. I was stunned.
He saw the bottle and immediately ran the few steps to the director’s apartment, pounding on it until she awoke. An ambulance was called, and I remember most of that ride, the questions they asked and the looks they gave me. I remember my boss riding with me, being supportive and asking me what happened, was it about a boy? And I remember the sidelong glances from the paramedics, the looks that I took to be disgust, and the way they spit out, “Ma’am, please stop talking.” I remember how humiliated I was when they inserted the catheter, how they took my blood, and when they asked me who they should call. And I remember my mom and my sister showing up. I remember their faces, most of all, though the face of the hospital psychologist completely escapes me.
All these things I will remember, but most of all, I remember how alone and confused I felt. Not just that night but, in retrospect, all the time.
When people talk about suicide, when they ask how anyone could do that to themselves, to their friends and family, I think back to that loneliness and confusion. I think about the façade I wore day in and day out, and the way that people saw me but did not know me. I think about how easy it is for us to imagine we understand the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, whom we love, and yet I know, intimately, that we may not know anything at all.
We say “things get better” and they do. We say “things are better” now than they were 100, 50, and even 5 years ago. And in many ways, that is true. But some things haven’t changed. The strength it takes to get up every day, knowing you’re different, is exhausting. The pain of having to come out not just once, but almost every day, in every public space or whenever you meet someone new, is ever-present, because the assumption of straightness remains. And the confusion about what it means to be gay, to be a boy or a girl, to be in a relationship or not, to be a friend, to be a son or daughter… that confusion is something, I think, almost everyone is trying to work out, all the time. It’s just especially difficult for those who are also questioning who they are and living in fear about being rejected or attacked for it at any given moment.
I never wrote a suicide note, so I’d like to think of this as a note of a different kind. A note I get to write because I failed. It’s a reminder, mostly to myself, to check in on people and to pay more attention. It’s nobody’s fault, what I did. Not that horrible guy, not the friends I kept at a distance, and not even mine. When you get to a point of true misery, you’re no longer in control. You’re not even yourself anymore. You’re lost and there seems only one way out. So, you take that route. You find that exit. In that moment, it seems entirely logical.
I can’t imagine, now, having tried to commit suicide. I can’t imagine, now, ever trying it again. But what I can imagine is the many seemingly valid and justified reasons why people, and LGBTQ+ teens in particular, make that choice every single day. I can imagine their pain, their loneliness, their fear. Because I’ve felt it, too.
I’m glad I’m still here. The friends I made in the months following that suicide attempt are still my best friends to this day. I met and married the love of my life. I went further in my education than my dreams ever really allowed, and now I spend my life educating others. I try my best, now, to really look at people. To see them in a way that I felt unseen, because I know what it’s like not to be able to look at yourself or show yourself to anyone else. I don’t know if it will ever make a difference, but I can’t risk closing my eyes.
I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I could write this suicide note.
To learn more about The Trevor Project and how you can help prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, please visit: https://www.thetrevorproject.org
If you think you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org