How Being In The Closet Affected My Mental Health
I first started having same-sex attractions when I was in middle school. I noticed that my erections would appear when I saw both attractive men and women, and while I was confused, at first, I didn’t question my straightness. I had been told that kids my age had raging hormones, so I assumed it was just that — my overactive hormones getting a little too excited, unaware of what the stimuli was.
My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder also didn’t help the situation; it’s common among straight men who have OCD to question their sexuality incessantly. When I was 16, I told my psychiatrist that I was having a lot of questions about my sexuality, that I thought I might be gay.
“Do you like women?” he asked.
Without hesitation, I replied, “Yes.”
“Then you’re not gay.”
“Well, maybe I’m bisexual.”
To which he shook his head and responded, “Bisexuality doesn’t exist in men. You’re straight.” That's how he said it. No ambiguity. No hesitation. Conversation over.
Despite what my psychiatrist might have thought, my same-sex attractions never went away, although I did manage to keep them under wraps until I got to college. Then, within two weeks of college, I hooked up with a man. I had decided I needed to try it; my college was big enough for me to explore safely, and I could experiment without anyone knowing. I felt safe in my anonymity.
There was a cute sophomore who had been flirting with me since I dropped my bags off at my dorm, so I decided, yes, my first time was going to be with him. We went out to a few house parties, and I drank way too much. I needed to; I knew I wouldn’t be able to go through with it if I was sober. He took me back to his room, and we both got undressed. I was too nervous to do anything to him, so he stuck me in his mouth. Midway through, I left, ran to the bathroom, and proceeded to vomit everywhere. When I came back, he asked me if I was OK. I said I was fine. Minutes later, I ran to the bathroom to vomit again.
The next morning, I woke up to the stench of stale puke. My head was spinning, a combination of alcohol and confusion. After steadying my eyesight, I remember thinking to myself, That’s it? I had been thinking about men for the past five years, finally built up the courage (with some liquid assistance) to make a move, and that’s it? The hookup had provided no clarity. I didn’t feel like I finally found something I was missing. It felt like I would after any other drunken one-night stand.
Every evening — every, single evening — I’d question my sexuality. It was the only thing I ever thought about. I couldn’t sleep, and then I’d be upset with myself for being unable to sleep. The self-destructive cycle of confusion and self-loathing was always revolving, always intensifying. Am I gay? Am I bi? Does it matter?
And so began the five years of getting drunk to hook up with men. Five years of destroying my liver to have the courage necessary, five years of taking drugs so I could have a much needed excuse. (I was high, I’m not bisexual!) Five years of unprotected sex with many men and women.
Still, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was sleeping with men. I came up with various rationales. I was just horny, and it’s easier to sleep with gay men than straight women. I’m bored. I’m drunk. I was taken advantage of. My reasonings even became academic and philosophical. All of sexuality is socially and culturally constructed. Look at Ancient Rome. Look at the Samurais in pre-modern Japan. There’s no such thing as sexuality—simply attraction. Honestly, I’m not even sure what that means.
For five long years, I engaged in a deep, destructive pattern of sex, alcohol, and drugs. Somehow, I managed to have some pretty solid monogamous relationships with women in those five years, but I always felt something irking me. The girlfriends never lasted, and I was always the one to initiate the breakup.
While dating my girlfriend junior year, I began watching gay porn. After many times masturbating to gay porn inebriated, I finally starting masturbating to it sober. It was confusing; I deeply cared for my girlfriend, and the sex was great, too. Why am I watching gay porn? What part of me am I suppressing? I was livid with myself. Not at the fact that I may be bi or gay, but at the fact that I didn't know, and that no matter what I did, I couldn't seem to figure it out. I couldn’t have a serious relationship for more than four months, and they all ended for some unknown reason, though I ended all of them.
Every evening — every, single evening — I’d question my sexuality. It was the only thing I ever thought about. I couldn’t sleep, and then I’d be upset with myself for being unable to sleep. The self-destructive cycle of confusion and self-loathing was always revolving, always intensifying. Am I gay? Am I bi? Does it matter? Do I actually love my girlfriend? Am I in denial? Should I try exploring sober? What am I even thinking about this? It shouldn't matter. Just go to sleep. I'll figure it out later; there's no rush. But there IS a rush. I want to know if I'm wasting my time. Should I set my Tinder to men or women? Should I be going to gay or straight clubs? Of course it matters. Then why can't I figure it out?
I began to hate myself. Truly hate myself. I didn't think these thoughts of uncertainty would ever go away.
It was only after graduating from college, finding a hell of a good therapist, and doing some deep introspection that I finally admitted, once and for all, that I’m attracted to all genders — both emotionally and physically. After admitting it to myself, none of my core beliefs changed. But my mental health, boy, did that change. I was no longer an anxious mess. I could sleep better. I wasn't afraid in new social situations. I didn't have to get hammered to have sex with men. I started wearing condoms, and I even started openly dating men. After coming out, I was still Zach — just securer, happier, and no-longer-an-anxious-mess Zach.
Of course, life didn't immediately change for the better. Many people refused to date me because I'm bisexual, and they believed negative stereotypes about me; that I can't be monogamous, that I'm a sex-addict, that I'm confused, or in denial. When I came out, my family was a little confused by it, and at work, I felt awkward discussing my dating life. But luckily, I managed to find some people who did accept me; my polyamorous/bisexual/genderqueer community. It took me a while to find them, but once I did, I felt safe and accepted. For the first time since I started dating people when I was 16, I was no longer hiding any part of me. I felt understood.
I know that every person has a different closeted experience, and mine is by no means the universal experience. But I do know that many people who are closeted experience two feelings in excess: confusion and hate. They hate themselves because they can’t sleep. They hate themselves because they're not sure why they’re doing what they’re doing, or even thinking what they're thinking. They hate themselves because they don’t know who the are, and because they think others will hate them too. They hate themselves because we live in a world where people still hate us because of our sexual orientation, where people deny us basic human rights, and will potentially assault us for holding hands with our same-gender partner on the street.
That's why, in the aftermath of Orlando, I will continue to kiss my boyfriend on the street to show others that PDA between two men is OK — not only OK, but beautiful. I will continue to write about my experiences of bisexuality so that others know they are not alone, and that there is a community who will support them.
Because while it's by no means our responsibility as an LGBTQ community to prevent homophobia, the sad truth is, we are better equipped to know how to fight it — because we've all experienced it. Now, it's our time to help others in the community who are closeted, to let them know they're not alone, to let them know they don't have to hate themselves or others. That they too can join the dance party.
Images: Zachary Zane