By Archie Fox
CN: Queerness, depression,
As a teen, I was apparently not great with metaphors, given quite how much time I spent in the very literal closet. I was fifteen when I started shutting myself in my wardrobe – doors closed, enveloped in pillows and blankets, earphones in, surrounded by dark. I was safe, music dulling the buzzing in my head for the time I spent there. I was twenty-one when I finally started taking antidepressants.
A few years earlier, I’d fallen for my best friend. She was, disappointingly, entirely heterosexual, making for a very tense few months during which I worked out how to not make out with someone you very much want to make out with. I came out as queer eight years later.
We build our lives around the narratives available to us. From my parents, I learnt very early on that academic success was paramount, and that being upset about something was not going to get you anywhere – you toughen up, get your shit together, and get on with doing things. I took this on board, and stopped reaching out – I could achieve things, it was just a question of whether I was trying hard enough. At the same time, every song, book, and film I came across made clear that a romantic relationship was not only the normal state in which everyone exists, but essentially the one thing that makes existence worthwhile, although of course only ever demonstrated in heterosexual couples. To add to the mix, I’d grown up being told that I was going to achieve great things, giving me a deep fear of inadequacy, and a need to be notably different. Stir vigorously and add a pinch of the horror of being a teen, and you’ve got yourself a walking identity crisis.
While mainstream media wasn’t much help, I wasn’t entirely resourceless. I watched Gok’s Fashion Fix, listened to Joan Jett, read Jeanette Winterson and Nigel Slater – as close as I could get to queer role models. As much as I wanted to be one of them and join the club of the pretty and witty and gay, their stories didn’t seem to fit me. I was very aware that, unlike pop culture’s leading lesbians, I very much wanted to bone boys, but no-one I came across seemed to be occupying the space between 100% hetero and solid-gold homo. Consequently, I decided I had to be straight, as there was no other label that fit.
“Unlike pop culture’s leading lesbians, I very much wanted to bone boys, but no-one I came across seemed to be occupying the space between 100% hetero and solid-gold homo.”
With the same force driving me, I read books and watched films looking for someone who had anything like what it was that I had going on. In the little I found, the outcome seemed bleak – so much of The Bell Jar described what I felt, but while that book is many things, hopeful is not one of them. As well as representation, I wanted my experience recognised. I washed my hands until they were cracked (my dad told me to ‘just stop’), left lessons to cry outside, went to tutorials slurring words and unable to answer questions because I couldn’t sleep. No-one suggested that anything about this might be notable. I hadn’t been taught to open up or ask for help, so I didn’t, instead hoping for a crisis that would give me the escape and get me the help that I wanted.
I wasn’t entirely oblivious to what was going on; I tried on identities. I went to LGBT+ women’s meetups, but found no-one who seemed to be the person I was, the person I wanted to be, or someone I wanted to be with. I went to the GP, but didn’t pass the nine-question ‘have YOU got depression??!’ quiz so was, apparently, absolutely fine and had nothing to worry about. It became increasingly clear to me that I was straight, and sane, and shit.
My narrative resolution came bit by bit. I met wonderful, arty, interesting queer people who I wanted to spend time with. I started sleeping again, and found out it’s easier to be a person when you’re not struggling with moving and forming words. I started taking antidepressants, after my sister said she’d found them helpful. I rediscovered and explored things I was interested in, finding (to my surprise) that I was still capable of enthusiasm and excitement.
Representation of both queerness and mental illness has also improved. Whether it’s Samira Wiley, Kristen Stewart, or Kate McKinnon being loudly and unapologetically queer, or Zayn, Rubyetc, and most of twitter talking about mental health, role models are now more available and more accessible than they were a few years ago. We also have the power to shape the narratives around us – starting conversations with friends about sexuality and mental health led a lot of them to talk about things they wouldn’t usually talk about, contributing to my friends now being 500% gayer and more emotionally open than ever before.
“My friends are now 500% gayer and more emotionally open than ever before.”
The stories we grow up with shape what we see as possible, framing and contextualising our experiences. When they don’t fit, it can be easy to lose a sense of direction, as what comes next is no longer obvious. I spent a long time trying to fit myself into other people’s narratives, and that was, in a lot of ways, hella useful – it helped me to figure out what I do and don’t want to be doing, who I want to be doing it with, and why I want to be doing it. As overwhelming as having to construct yourself from scratch can be, there’s a freedom in it too. Having questioned the stories that surround us and left behind what’s problematic or dull, I’m choosing my own adventure – queer, ready to name my firstborn after my antidepressants, variably cogent, unbearably fabulous, and having an absolute day.
Sources of support and solidarity for LGBT+ readers: