One wonderful thing about anxiety disorders is the moment the anxiety takes a break. At nineteen I was deep inside my first extended bought of anxiety; the kind of anxiety that made me feel as if there were maggots having an ungodly orgy under my skin, squirming relentlessly. I was sitting on the couch in my room; it was a dark and otherwise pleasant summer night. I was trying to pay attention to “Mind Games” by John Lennon when the anxiety broke, if only for a moment. It was as if my subconscious had heard his lyrics and decided to cut me a break. I felt relief. I felt like a gently rocking rowboat in an endless ocean, slowly bobbing, waiting for the next wave to come, but laughing in the meantime. What else could I do?
In retrospect it’s hard to make sense of this initial anxiety order. It came out of nowhere and clung to me like an Alien face-hugger for months (until I started taking the numbing, but welcome medication Paxil). I was afraid and convinced I was gay.
Full disclosure: when I was in middle school I was a fearful bigot. It was actually my church Pastor that challenged me about sexuality. I was a 12 year-old and we were discussing sexuality in relation to the church for some Boy Scout thing. She asked me if I thought it would be alright for two men or two women to get married. I said I didn’t agree with homosexuality (whatever the fuck that actually means[i]). She asked me why and answered that I couldn’t answer. In fact, part of me thought she wanted to hear that I agreed with Leviticus and Romans II and that it was a doggone sin. That was not the case—in addition to that neither Leviticus or Romans II, when read critically, actually say much about homosexuality, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.
So I was 12 and in middle school and trying to make sense of what the hell queerness was and why everyone seemed to hate it so much. I probably let a lot of that environment leak into my own opinions. I probably got afraid I could be gay, the same way someone in the USSR might have gotten afraid they didn’t really believe in Stalin and his communism. I problem held deep seated and uncomfortable feelings that queerness was still “bad” despite consciously trying to change this idea.
I cannot date when it really started, but I do remember driving with my father up a hill in Glastobury, CT thinking, okay, if I’m gay I’m just gonna accept it right here and now. I had an anxiety attack. I kept it hidden from my dad by clenching every muscle in my body. He didn’t know because I was scared to let him. The ironic part? He would have talked to me in a calm and levelheaded manner, telling me that being gay was fine. It was also fine if I was straight.
Not only was this uncomfortable, it was new. I didn’t know anything about anxiety disorders; my mind was a great untamed landscape that was more to be feared than trusted, with its roving thought patterns and flora that would lash out with stinging words. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to accept my gayness. Mostly because I wasn’t gay; but, I don’t think I had a compassionate place inside me to examine these frustrations without judging myself, so instead I started developing obsessive compulsive tendencies.
I spent hours researching “ways to tell if you’re gay” (even writing that still makes me shudder with trepidation). I came across a now infamous and largely stupid study that showed gay men had a longer ring finger than pointer finger… or was it that the fingers were about even? It had something to do with testosterone because obviously gay men are less masculine than heterosexual men (again an entire ‘nother problem to unpack). But this wasn’t enough because I could make my fingers look about equal or make my ring finder look longer; and I did, for hours.
Things started reaching a fever pitch. I was working at a golf course taking care of golf carts and I stopped talking to my fellow co-workers because I was going over that last fact I’d just looked up on the internet, like: a gay man’s hair tends to swirl counter-clockwise, mine is clockwise, why doesn’t that make me feel better?
Eventually it reached a point where I decided to masturbate to gay porn as some ultimate test. I waited ‘til the house was empty, opened up my laptop, did the search, watched for a moment and felt a deep and ugly revulsion come up inside me that I was sure could have been arousal. Shaking and shaken, I went to the garage and grabbed a sledgehammer and went to the woods and smashed a boulder until my hands blend. Then assume this hammer use was just sublimation.
The thing is, I felt like I was wrong for daring to asking these questions, like sexuality was a given and everyone knew theirs. I took it as a sign that if I was struggling I was by default gay. Most of this anxiety came from a homophobic place and I knew it. If I was queer I just wanted to accept myself as being queer, but something kept getting in the way. In a weird way, I’d dug out a closet that never existed before; I was hiding from people the fact that I felt hurt because I couldn’t find a solid foundation in my sexuality. Yes, I recalled the countless times I’d had some awkward woody around a girl I thought was attractive, but my anxiety riddled mind just assumed those were all fetishized moments or repressed homosexual urges or whatever psychological/psychoanalytic theory I’d recently read.
And then there was that break: John Lennon singing “Mind Games.” It was an unexpected moment of synchronicity. My mind was at rest for a moment and I saw the structure of what was going on. In a very strange way my obsession with sexuality had nothing to do with sexuality and I certainly wasn’t going to learn what turned me on in my homemade laboratories. You see, the best I can understand was that I had a lot of failures with girls in the past and I took that to mean I wasn’t ever really attracted to them, or not meant to be with them. Girls scared me, sex scared me, but everything I saw told me I needed to be having sex as much as possible all the time. And, living in a society that emphasized sexuality as a binary rather than a spectrum or a multiplicity, the only logical alternative was the seeming fact I was gay. That’s why there were some girls I wasn’t interested in. That’s why I felt uncomfortable having sex with the idea of sex at that point in my life.
This insight didn’t “cure” me (it goes without saying that queerness never needs curing, it’s a compassionate take on sexuality that widens what we know to be human) but, it did give me some weird insight I could repeat to myself once I started slipping into another anxiety pit.
But this still left me with something I was not at all comfortable with: my desire to prove I wasn’t gay. Why was it such a big deal? And it was answered after I got to know some gay men and women: it shouldn’t be the sole signifier of a person. It is not the single most important definition. Important, yes, but the definitive statement on who someone is? No. I cared because there were still vestigial religious traits in me that said your sexuality is your self-worth. I’ve found sexuality to be an expression, whether alone or with someone else.
The best part? I now know a whole lot of people that have gone through something similar. I just wished we talked about this more, everyone. Why is it a weakness to admit you’re unsure, let alone tell others?
[i] I actually think a lot of this ugly homophobia comes from the well-worn tread of ignorance, but maybe more importantly, a lack of compassion. It’s hard to be compassionate for someone, some group of people you know nothing about, it’s hard to imagine their pain.