When Words Won't Do

Still in the DSM: Queerness, Depression and Coming Out

By Benjamin Andrews

You’re not doing it right. You’re not worth it. You’re being selfish. It’s all in your head. If you suffer from major depressive disorder like I do, you are probably familiar with these unwanted thoughts. You’re not doing it right. You’re not worth it. You’re being selfish. It’s all in your head. If you identify as queer individual you are also probably very familiar with these same unwanted thoughts.

Up until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). While we’ve made progress in the last 30-plus years, stigma remains toward both mental disorders and any sexual orientation conflicting with straightness.

The pathologization of queerness remains prevalent especially within religious communities. Living in a very sheltered religious home, sexuality was a very taboo subject—the most taboo subject among a long list of taboo subjects. I’ve always known that I was different, but really started to come to terms with my sexual orientation around puberty. I knew I wasn’t attracted to girls and that I was attracted to guys. My first year of high school I put the words together and said “I’m gay.”

I attended a private Christian school and had some friends that supported and loved me, introducing me to videos like “Shoes” by Kelly (played by Liam Kyle Sullivan). I grew pretty bold and didn’t care who knew. If someone said “that’s gay,” I’d answer with “so what if it is?” I even went to a football game in bright pink pants and with makeup on. Before long, someone in our gym class told the P.E. teacher and I was called to the principal’s office with my parents.

I was outed to my parents and was given the “choice” to either say I wasn’t gay or to leave the school. My parents withdrew from the school, so that the school never had to officially expel me and make my sexual orientation explicit in their records. My parents did not want to put me into public school so they placed me on independent study. My world had been ripped out from underneath me. I trace a lot of my anxiety and depression to this moment in my life. Academics halted mid-freshman year and my social circle was essentially gone. No more sleepovers at my guy friends’ homes. All I had was church, homework and a once a week check-in at my independent school teacher’s office.

My family didn’t talk about what was going on, but my parents had me start seeing a Christian therapist. After months of isolation, depression and withdrawing more and more into myself, I made the choice to try and be straight. I wrote a letter to the school CEO who had expelled me, saying I was all better and wanted to go back to school. I returned for my sophomore year and kept up the charade for the next six.

When you’re pressured to hate yourself and come to view the very institutions you had committed so much time and effort into as adversarial, it’s difficult to know how to seek help. My mother died suddenly the year after I had come out of and returned into the closet. Who do you look to in a time like this to deal with your grief? How do you grieve when you are so busy not being you?

Given this track record, coming out as anything is daunting. Admitting you have depression and seeking real help was the last thing I wanted to do. I self-medicated when I came out again in college. I ran away from the shame in drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex, contributing more to my depression and anxiety.

I still made it through college. I graduated, got a job, fell in love; I survived. It’s proof that people with depression can be just as smart, capable, and responsible as anyone else. But I am still figuring things out and struggle with the challenges of having depression. In the past year, I’ve been hospitalized twice for uncontrollable anxiety and suicidal ideations. I think I’ve found a medication that helps, but still have many steps to take. The important thing is that I’m taking them.

Still, the hardest thing is just letting people in. I’ve been burned too many times before, been made to feel like I am the only one with this problem. More often than not, I’m the only openly gay person I know in a given room. This isolating experience is parallel to and correlates with my experience with depression. In a society that is still vehemently divided over LGBT people, it can be terrifying to know you can’t trust everyone.

This feeling of stigma can even follow you to the doctor’s office. After all, what’s more institutional than medicine? How do you put your faith into a profession that until the last few decades viewed your sexual orientation as an illness? How many times do you have to come out to a new doctor, a new therapist? Being gay and having depression just adds more layers to the already difficult to navigate labyrinthian health insurance system.

You can feel the stigma around your queerness and wonder if it’s real or just your anxiety. You can feel the stigma around your depression and wonder if it’s real or just your anxiety. This anxiety can scream at you and make you feel naked or like a pane of glass that people can see right through. In the worst, depression makes you want to hide, hide until you completely disappear from being alive at all. But the lesson I keep learning is that hiding from reality—hiding your reality, that just doesn’t work. There’s no support in the closet. You have to come out.

One thought on “Still in the DSM: Queerness, Depression and Coming Out

  1. Thanks for this writing — really appreciate the insights and honesty. The line about “proof that people with depression can be just as smart, capable, and responsible as anyone else,” hit a chord. Also the line about “How do you grieve when you are so busy not being you?” Stay true to yourself!

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