Updated: May 17
This is my story about how being an in-denial gay teenager shaped me.
A year ago, I posted a message telling my friends that I was attending counselling. Posting it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it shouldn’t have been. Since I’ve started talking about my mental health, friends and strangers alike regularly contact me about how they are feeling the same, and when I post about having a tough day, that it makes them feel better about when they have their tough days. I’m now in an incredibly healthy relationship; not one where I never have bad days, but one where we talk about things and support each other during the bad times. I know of many people who suffer with poor mental health because of experiences in their childhood and later youth, as well as in adulthood, but where does it come from and what can we do about it? This is my story and how I’m working hard to undo the damage that my past has caused me.
I grew up in Bridgend, South Wales in the early 90s. My secondary school was very rugby orientated, valuing sports, “masculinity” and athletic success above all else (although that was confined mainly to rugby, as swimming, which was one of my talents, was not deemed as masculine enough to be celebrated in the school). Being a very academic student, I never felt valued in the school and despite achieving almost all As and A*s at GCSE, the students who achieved success in P.E. were always the ones who were celebrated in front of us at school assemblies. This was definitely not all of our teachers, and I had some incredibly inspirational teachers who worked diligently to ensure that they celebrated all of their students’ achievements; but in my view, this was in contrast to the culture of the school at the time. These early experiences helped shaped my view of the world, leading to regular bouts of imposter syndrome and resulting in a form of self-sabotage, where I would compare myself to traits in others that I could never compete against, resulting in a downward spiral of self-esteem that still happens today.
Adding a complication to my school life was the fact that I was gay; although at the time, I was so deep in denial that I was quite the ladies’ man in school! It felt like there were no gay men in Bridgend in the 90s; or at least that was the impression that the local area liked to give. Since I left school, I know many Bridgend men who have subsequently come out, but none of them gave even a hint of being homosexual in school. As happens with many men who didn’t conform to the ultra-masculine norm that was respected in Bridgend, I was also bullied for being gay; constantly being called gay by a group of bullies who have since had the gall to try to add me on Facebook! Despite my parents bringing this up with the school leadership when I was 12, nothing was tackled, and the bullies were not even spoken to. The harassment was swept under the carpet and for the next 6 years of my school life I simply stopped telling people and I pretended that the daily abuse went away. This had the effect of deepening my denial of being gay, to the point that I considered asking for “help” to get rid of my ‘disgusting’ thoughts and feelings about men. Thank goodness that the internet was still in its early stages and this type of information was not readily available. It concerns me immensely that it is now easily accessible, and that people who may be in a similar position to where I was, will have access to conversion “therapy”. This inability to be myself has continued to impact my confidence in who I am, negatively affecting many friendships and relationships in my life over the years. Until recently, I would abandon who I was, just to fit in and make friends, rather than have the confidence to be myself; resulting in shallow and short-lived friendships where I never opened up or became vulnerable with them in any way.
When I went to University, everything changed. I suddenly met people who were openly gay, and proud of it. But the damage that had been done to me at this point had taken its toll. After dropping out of university at age 19, I had a breakdown and tried to take my own life. This is the first time that I have said this publicly and it is a terrifying thing to admit. But it was a cry for help at a time when I had years of feelings that I needed to deal with, but I had no strategies to deal with them. I’m happy to say that I’ve never come to that point again and the way that I now deal with things means that I won’t ever again. But as suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, it’s something that we should all be aware of and tackling head-on; in society and in the education system. I didn’t deal with any of this at the time and the personal issues that built over my teenage years continued into adulthood, simply being put into a box at the back of my mind, but continuing to damage my confidence, self-belief, and acceptance of who I was.
In 2016, I adopted my son, at age 2. It was such a changing point in my life and gave me a purpose that I had never felt before. Unfortunately, my already damaged mental health was compounded by incidents such as losing my niece to a brain tumour, my partner at the time working away from home, and other occurrences that I won’t go into here, which caused me to lose total confidence in myself; both my abilities, personal and professional, my entire personality, and my physical appearance. In 2019, I got to the point where most evenings on my own I would put on a hoodie in a dark room and either stay silent or sob until bedtime. I felt absolutely helpless and whenever I was on my own, I felt like I should just hide away. People close to me knew that there was something wrong, but I was so good at hiding it, that no-one knew just how bad it was. In September 2019, I made the incredibly difficult decision to leave my partner. It is difficult enough for anyone to leave their family, but adding into the equation an adopted child, the guilt I felt was extreme. I don’t regret making this decision, as it was the right thing to do for my son and I. In fact, research shows that children are far better off with separated healthy parents who co-parent, than living with parents that remain in relationships for the wrong reasons; but this knowledge didn’t make it any easier.
Over the next 2 years, I finally began to recognise that I was suffering from anxiety disorder; something that was evident for a long time, but I could never accept. A culmination of lots of things in my life, I realised that it couldn’t go on and I made the tough decision to ask for help. In no way did I want to go back to where I was at 19. I applied for counselling through my workplace and attended an initial 6-week counselling course. I am incredibly grateful to my school and my local authority for providing this, and although it did not have a significant impact on my long-term mental health (as I wasn’t completely open or honest), it opened the door for me to continue asking for help and started my journey to recovery.
During lockdown, I attended several online counselling sessions, which were appalling (including one incident where I was on the phone to an American counsellor who decided to go for a walk during one of our sessions and was chased by a grizzly bear – you can’t make it up!).
In 2021, I was lucky enough to come across LGBT+ Cymru, a charity set up to support LGBT+ people in Wales. They offer free and subsidised counselling and I snapped it up. Over the course of 5 months, I received weekly counselling and broke down and tackled all of these issues that I have addressed here. I must have tried dozens of strategies for managing anxiety, but several have really stuck. I journal almost every day (well, I try, but life sometimes gets in the way) But the greatest positive impact on my mental health and the one strategy that I wish I could tell my bullied teenage self, was to talk to people: to my friends, my family, and my colleagues. The difference that this has made to my life has been incredible.
I decided to end the counselling in September 2021 as I was finally at a point where I felt I could manage my anxiety and that I was happy being single; I no longer needed someone to complete my life, I was enough. That’s not to say that my anxiety had gone and that I had the confidence that I deserve, but I was on a path that I knew I could continue and that I could continue to grow as a person. And then I met my partner. Coming out of the blue, I had a message off Tinder that has changed my life. In that first date, I knew that I had met someone special. Even on our first dates, we talked about our mental health, our anxieties and life experiences that led to where we are today. This was a breath of fresh air and was liberating. Rhys and I are now 7 months in and I’m in the healthiest relationship I could imagine. Just this morning, we were messaging about being anxious; this is such a new feeling for me, knowing not only does someone understand, but also goes through similar feelings.
I have a lot to be thankful for in my life. I have an amazing partner, a supportive family, a beautiful son, a great job and have achieved a lot, such as my master’s degree, starting my new blog and having a very successful career. (I don’t say this to brag but that we should all celebrate our own successes!) This doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days. Sometimes I have days where I have huge imposter syndrome or where I have such runaway thoughts that they stop me thinking of anything else. But between the counselling and my new partner, I am no longer ashamed of these feelings; we all get them. I wish that in my youth I had been given the opportunity to talk about my feelings, to be proud of who I am, and to be accepted for me, but I wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to let it stop me now. I have just restarted counselling to continue to tackle some of the issues that I still face, but I’m going into it as a person who has an exceedingly happy life and I recognise how far I’ve come. I have an incredible life and I am so excited for the future. Talk is good. Men especially need to talk more. So let’s help them do it and let’s ensure that LGBTQIA+ teenagers don’t go through what I endured.