by Katie Simon Phillips
Disclaimer: This piece may be triggering to some readers.
Note: This piece originally appeared on Born Without Marbles and has been cross-posted with permission.
This is just a little note to say that this post mentions incidents involving self harm so if that would trigger you, I thank you very much for joining us today but maybe go and treat yourself to a good cup of tea and biscuits instead. Safety first pals!
I once had a psychologist who, during a talk about my mental health and how broken my brain is, asked me if I thought any of my issues “were because of being gay”. I was appalled.
“How dare you!” I replied. “What homophobic nonsense is this? I am deeply offended! You think people who are gay must also be mad because nobody with common sense would be queer? For-shame! A plague unto you and your ancestors! Watch me flounce out of this room waving my rainbow flag in a fury! Watch me flounce I say!” (please note that this was what I replied in my head…in reality I think I just squinted my eyes a bit and formed a quizzical expression).
At the time I didn’t see what being a member of the LGBTQ+ club, had to do with my mental health at all, but after a little bit of discussion, research, and no actual flouncing, I realised that this psychologist was on to something.
Turns out, rainbow folk in general show higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts than heterosexuals, so seeing as it is Pride month in the UK this month, I thought I would use this post to think about why that might be. It’s like that old saying, “if you are gay and you have mental health problems, it is your duty to mush those experiences together and write a blog about it.”
In my experience,I wouldn’t say that for me personally, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has been THE trigger that led to all of my personal mental health problems, although I know that for some people, it can be.
Often I think it can be things like homophobic bullying and external discrimination that are the reason people who are LGBTQ+ might go on to suffer problems, and in that respect, I have been very lucky.
I have never been bullied for my sexuality, my family have always been very accepting (my mum to the point where she is basically a walking gay pride parade all year round and always gets very excited/becomes a fan every time any celebrity comes out as a homosexual), and I live in a country/time period where it is safe for me to be “out” without fearing arrest.
The only discrimination I have ever had has been the odd homophobic slur shouted out of a car window at me as I was walking down the street, but this has never really bothered me as I don’t have that much respect for the opinions of people who shout abuse out of car windows… I might admire their ability to project with their vocal chords out of a moving vehicle, but when it comes to their judgements on who I fall in love with, frankly, I don’t give a damn.
However being LGBTQ+ has certainly affected me because of discrimination, it is just that all of that discrimination came from my own head and in the early days of my queerness, led me to feeling very ashamed.
Nobody in my external surroundings was telling me I was weird or shouldn’t be gay, but my head was, and consequently I was scared to tell anyone about it incase they felt the same. Indeed I decided that rather than tell anyone, I would start a grand “make Katie straight” mission so that nobody would ever have to find out. You may wonder how on earth one goes about “de-gaying themselves” as surely to do so is impossible, and in that assumption, you would be right. Little old me however, was convinced otherwise.
The idea came to me whilst watching a television program which funnily enough, was about a straight woman seeing if she could undergo treatment to turn her gay…Good lord they show some weird things on TV these days…
Anyway, in the program, this woman was told by some mad scientist to use this machine that would give her electric shocks every time she thought something heterosexual in an attempt to recondition the brain to stop thinking those things. The theory was that if your brain experiences an electric shock every time you think about something, it will stop thinking about that thing (either that or your hair will stick out all over the place forevermore and you will run up one hell of an electricity bill).
Unfortunately, I did not have an electric shock machine. I did however, have access to a lot of sharp things around my household, and I think you can guess how things went from there without me providing any more detail. As part of my “make Katie straight” plan, I set about trying to literally cut the gay part away from me, a futile pursuit considering “gayness” is not an extra body part or a long fingernail you can clip away at until it is gone. Unsurprisingly, that plan didn’t work, but it did get me into a cycle of self harm that I couldn’t get away from and still struggle with to this day.
Admittedly, my struggle with self harm is not about being gay anymore, but the whole situation introduced the idea of self harm as a punishment, a coping mechanism to try and remove guilt or shame I was feeling about anything in life.
Rather than being a punishment for being gay, it has become a punishment for things like bad marks on a test at school, or saying something mean in an argument, and I actually used to keep a little notebook in my pocket throughout the day to keep track of my “crimes” so I knew how many “punishments” I deserved later.
At first I was only doing a few things “wrong” a day, but because I was scared to talk to any of my psychologists about it as that would involve telling them how self harm started, and though I was ok with being gay, I didn’t expect everyone else to be. Consequently the notebook of punishments escalated and got so out of hand that after a few months, every action was considered a crime deserving of punishment, from using a “large blob of toothpaste” (which would use up the family tube sooner and lead to money needing to be spent on a new one), to “not smiling well enough at my friend in the corridor at school”.
It wasn’t until my mum found some blood soaked clothing in my bag which I had been trying to smuggle into school to wash in the school sink before she could see it in the laundry, that the whole self harm as punishment thing came out, and even then I wouldn’t tell people how it had started.
By the time I did tell people that I was gay, I had already been in therapy for 8 years or so and had been through two admissions to psychiatric hospitals, always keeping that part of my identity hidden. Like I said, being gay has never been a cornerstone in the almighty Jenga tower of my insanity so I don’t think that keeping that part of me a secret severely hindered my treatment. I was still able to talk openly and honestly about the depression, OCD, BPD related problems and anorexia in therapy, yet although it isn’t the source of my mental health problems, when I finally came out to professionals it did serve as some kind of relief. Whether it had been important to OCD or not, I always had to watch what I said in sessions incase I accidentally let a possible clue slip like “I LOVE HELENA BONHAM CARTER AND I WANT TO MARRY HER IN A BIG GAY WEDDING WITH A BIG RAINBOW CAKE BECAUSE I AM A BIG GAY MYSELF”. Being able to talk openly without worrying about that certainly made a difference and made me feel more connected to my therapists, because I think if you are ever keeping a secret from anyone, you are automatically reserved around people even when that secret isn’t being discussed.
As you can see then, compared to some members of the LGBTQ+ community with mental health problems, being queer hasn’t had anywhere near the impact on me that it has on other people. In essence, being gay is the vanilla extract in my giant cake of insanity rather than the flour of which the majority of the cake comprises.
That said there are a lot of LGBTQ+ folk out there who struggle so much with their identity either due to judgement from outside sources or internal judgement on themselves, that being LGBTQ+ can be a direct cause of certain conditions like depression or anxiety and it is for these people that we need to talk more about this kind of thing in the hopes that they will be able to seek help themselves. If shame about your identity leads you to having mental health problems, it is likely that shame will prevent you from seeking help for them, and as we all know that is just going to make things worse.
In this post I do not want to do a shoutout to all the LGBTQ+ people out there who are hiding in the bushes and tell them to run about telling everyone about their identity, because I understand that for some people in certain families or countries, that might not be safe for them.
All I want to say is that if you are struggling and feeling like there is nobody to turn to, you are not alone and I can promise you that there are people out there who understand (I am one of them. Hello, it is nice to meet you. My name is Katie and if you bring me penguins we can be best friends). If being LGBTQ+ is causing mental health problems and it is not safe for you to speak to people around you, there are hundreds of LGBTQ+ mental health charities out there for every country (I will link a page recommending some existing in the UK below), and if you can, I would encourage you to reach out to them for support.
I am not going to demand you just get a rainbow flag and feel proud because it is pride month, as I understand it is not as easy as that, but I do hope to offer some sense of reassurance that being LGBTQ+ is NOT something anyone needs to to be ashamed of or punished for, no matter what that voice in your head tells you.
Take care everyone x