Troy didn’t know Clement was already in the bed when he jumped up. Now both of them are annoyed — with me. (Like it’s my fault.)
He wants to know why I woke him up. (It was for this photo.)
<em>“What is love?” I whispered, my question barely rising above the dull hum of the heater. I could feel the chilly air nipping at my exposed toes. He'd turned on the heating but didn't close the window. </em>
He sighed. “That’s a short question with a long answer.”
Our society has loaded the concept of ‘love’ with far more than any individual could ever hope to unpack within a single lifetime.
The performance of love isn’t uniquely human. We’ve seen birds, such as penguins, engage in lifelong, monogamous relationships; apes such as chimpanzees care for their young offspring; highly intelligent species, like dolphins, work in packs almost like families.
But perhaps no condition is as uniquely human as our condition of love. We write poems, sing songs, create paintings and compose sonnets about this human condition, in an attempt to understand this feeling, this emotion, this state of human being. What does it mean to be in love? What is love?
Intimacy? Sex? Excitement? Joy?
Like the greats who came and went before me, I have no answer.
But I do know that to love is to make a commitment and a promise. It’s a recognition that you’re better off as a person when he’s around, even though you can function perfectly fine without. It’s a realisation that he matters in your life and you care about him as a extension of yourself.
It is, simultaneously, both selfish and selfless, for to love is to seek to return to him the happiness that he brings you, and to be prepared when you are not the answer to the question that he answers for you.
To love, then, is to be human.
I can't stop him from coming to see me.
However much I pray, I plead, I beg and I believe, he comes.
Sometimes I know he’s coming. There’s the shiver of the back, the creeping dread, the sixth sense that says he’s around, although I can’t see him.
Other times, I get no warning. He just appears next to me, whispering foul things into my ear. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough.
I try to fight him, but he just disappears into wisps of air, re-forming a short distance away with that menacing grin. He enjoys this. I know he does.
You’ll never be good enough for anyone.
I’ve tried running away. I’ve tried standing up to him. I’ve tried ignoring him. But he’s always won. He always wins.
You’re worthless. You’re nothing. There are a million better choices than you.
When he’s finished with me, who will he go after next?
I remember one scene particularly well: It was in Ms. Brown’s biology class, and it must have been Year 9, because I didn’t have a class with her before then, but Simon wasn’t in my class afterwards.
This is part three of my ongoing project to write out my personal history in an effort to untangle the emotional history and stressors of my life. Read Part One: Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?, and Part Two: My first trip to CAPS, then the ER
As far as I can recollect the moment, Ms. Brown has posed the entire class a question. I, being the collective class know-it-all as I was, knew the answer, but Ms. Brown asked me not to answer it — I can’t remember why, but I feel like there was some kind of class-wide reward behind it if someone knew the answer, because otherwise, why would Simon quip up and try to persuade me to break her request and answer it?
Ms. Brown had chuckled after Simon’s quip and said, “Hey, Leo, he’ll only be nice to you because it’s useful to him.”
It was a casual remark, but it’s stuck in my head ever since. Because she was right — Simon, one of my classmates, rarely ever talked to me before that moment. It’s not that he was a bad person who hated or bullied me, but I think we just didn’t have much in common. But he’d never expressed any care towards me and how my life was going, not even a cursory, “Hey, how are classes for you?”
I know that scene was so memorable because it shifted the way I thought about my fellow classmates and how I was going to make friends going forward. I realised, then and there, while sitting immediately to Ms. Brown’s right — a position that allowed us to chit-chat quietly while everyone else was completing the work I had already finished — that these people around me would only care about me or talk to me if I was useful to them, and they’d dump me to the side as soon as I wasn’t. I resolved to never allow myself to be taken advantage of again.
My hand, which had been steadily creeping up to answer the question, slid back down onto the desk.
I have always struggled with making friends. After so many years, I can’t remember exactly why that was, but I’m pretty sure my teachers were right when they talked about how irritating I was to get along with.
There was once, when I was about 10, when our music teacher asked us to form groups to perform. I asked to join a few people sitting next to me, and they agreed, but they both ditched after one of their friends called them over. Another time, in secondary school, I sat by myself, many seats away from others, in religious studies class because I didn’t want to have to admit that I didn’t have any friends.
Being lonely and socially unpopular is awful. I remember talking to my parents and my sister about it, trying to understand why I was so disliked. I’d never said anything to hurt my peers, I thought. Why can’t I get them to like me?
In retrospect, I can now see just how much of a jerk I was. I was smart. I was clever. And I didn’t hide it. I didn’t think I needed to, but I also wasn’t sensitive and didn’t understand that other people might not be able to just skim through the textbook and be done for the day. I can see why they would have resented me for it, especially at my age. (Young Sheldon is uncomfortably relatable.)
It was about that age, though, that I met one of the few teachers who actually understood me and knew where I had to growth. I can’t remember which grade I first met Ms. Salter, although I do remember our first interaction — an after-school first-aid training session I participated in took place in her classroom as she was working, and she overheard my answer to a question I don’t remember and quipped “That’s the best answer I’ve heard!”
Salter’s positivity, and belief in everyone, was infectious. As my
teacher, she guided me for an entire year, and gave me confidence that
the knowledge in my head and the analytical and technical skills I was
demonstrating — at or around age 12 — was worthwhile and valuable, and
not just something that would label me as a “nerd” or “geek” and
unpopular with my classmates.
During a parent-teacher conference, she used an analogy with my father that has stuck with me for a decade: She pointed at the tabletop and said “this is the baseline,” then held her hand a few inches above it, said “This is where everybody in Leo’s age group is, on average,” and then moved her hand higher and said “This is where Leo is.”
I felt pretty good about that — validation from others is still something that I live for — but then she delivered: “Look, there isn’t a ceiling. Leo can still keep climbing.” Her point was clear: I might be excelling compared to my peers, but there’s no limit to how far up any of us could go.
In retrospect, that was probably my first lesson in humility.
By the end of that grade, my parents and friends noticed that I had
picked up a few twangs of her South African accent. I lost that soon
After I graduated from primary school, I went back to visit her to present an Oscar statue I had bought in a Los Angeles gift shop on holiday: Best Teacher.
She left the school soon afterwards to pursue better opportunities,
and I didn’t see her again for years. I don’t know what happened to the
statue, but I’ve never gifted a teacher anything like that since.
Soon after Ms. Salter, I graduated from the primary school and shifted over to the secondary school across the parking lot, where I would attend for the next seven years. (In British educational systems, secondary schools are equivalent to a combined U.S. middle and high school.)
I was probably around age 11 or age 12 when that transition happened. It’s distinctive because it was the first major life transition that I can still remember — anything before then was stuff I only knew because of photos and family anecdotes, not personal experience. I remember being really shocked because everyone was so much older — and taller. Before summer, I was among the tallest students in the school, but now, in this new school, I was again one of the youngest.
These two schools that I attended were unusual in that it was a feeder system — graduates from the primary school, where I was taught by Ms. Salter amongst others, were essentially guaranteed a spot in the secondary school.
As far as I can remember, only about a half-dozen new students joined my grade as we entered secondary school. It also meant that, out of about 150 students, there are only six people who didn’t know me before we met.
So making new friends was no easier after the transition than before. I still had no friends. I still sat alone during lunches, and struggled to find partners during classes. I had no friends.
As the years passed, though, things did seem to be getting a little bit better. I was making connections with some of my peers, getting better at sympathising with their experiences and emotions. I learned to shut up and got better at listening. My self-confidence improved.
I feel that I began to be more accepted as we got older and good academic grades, rather than the size of your play-mates circle, became how our social popularity was scored. I didn’t always have the top grades in the class, but my name would always be there near the top. I had already discovered that I could learn things faster than the people around me, a skill I had been using to coast through my classes and focus on other parts of personal development.
But one day, people began to sit next to me during lunch, and we’d talk silly things like trading card games and complain about the orange duck sauce served at the cafeteria. A few months later, I got out of class a little late and was held up in the queue waiting to pay for lunch, but when I turned up at the usual outdoor lunch table, they shuffled down the bench to make room. As it neared summer, it began to rain — and the first lunch break when it rained out our outdoor seating area, I found that one of them had used their bag to save me a seat in the crowded indoor cafeteria area.
Oh my, I thought. Maybe I now have friends.
As we got older, it got easier to talk to people. Girls would start coming to me to talk about their problems, particularly with boys. (Does this happen to all gay men, I wonder?) A lot of people would ask me for help with their homework and assignments, which I would courtesously give, but point out that I wasn’t their after-school tutor.
I shook off the perception that I was the geeky, physically-inept nerd when, in physical education classes, I scored a penalty shot in basketball on my first try to give our team the opening lead (after no one else could for about a dozen rotations) and blocked a goal-score attempt by a much taller opponent in netball.
The cheers and roars of the people around me are still seared into my memory.
As my popularity grew, so did my self-confidence. I no longer took
the dark, inner corners of the changing rooms, but would throw my bag
and kit onto a much more exposed bench instead. I felt welcomed. I felt
accepted. It was a good feeling.
But I still felt sad. Things didn’t feel right. I felt as though I was missing something, like there was a puzzle piece in my life that wasn’t in the box as I was putting it together. Looking back, now, I realised that I was still denying the truth abuot myself, and I was performing a masculine, butch role to compensate for the insecurities present in my childhood — to try to be liked by others, and never be that guy who couldn’t find a group in music class again.
I’m deeply indebted to a lot of my teachers, nearly all of them predominantely women, because they acted as the mentors and provided the guidance that my own mother didn’t, or couldn’t, provide.
Ms. Brown is among one of them. I think it took her about ten minutes to figure out who I was, and what stereotypical high school role that I played in her classroom. That I chose to sit next to her was no coincidence, but she expressed a level of interest and care in my well-being that other teachers had not.
Her caring for her students didn’t extend to just me, though. Our class was moving faster through her biology curriculum than expected, so she announced mid-term that she was prepared to cancel our last session of the term before examinations since “there isn’t anything else left to teach” and just make herself available in the classroom for anyone who had questions.
After she learned that our class was struggling with physics topics (we had the same classmates for biology, chemistry and physics), Ms. Brown asked all of us if we would like to revise physics topics in the last class session instead (a resounding oral ‘Yes’ from nearly everyone) — and proceeded to teach us an hour of physics material, despite it being neither her speciality or her obligation.
Looking back, I think Ms. Brown realised that there wasn’t a lot of biology — or science — that she could really teach me. But she still put effort into teaching me the things that I hadn’t learned, like how to be sympathic towards other people, consider others’ feelings, but also to live with and be OK with myself. She was the first teacher that I met who expressly supported and rewarded my intelligence and academic excellence, but tempered it with the tough-love that I needed to adapt my ways to be more accomodating of others.
Ms. Brown would teach me for another two years in biology with a different group of students — many of whom I would become friends with over the years. In my last two years before college, I had no classes with her, but I still would often seek her out to chat and catch up with each other, and to let her know how my life was going.
I don’t harbour any ill feelings or thoughts towards Simon, either, because I don’t think he did anything malicious. As kids and teenagers, we were all pretty awful people, and I’m certainly not proud of who I was. But I also don’t ignore the reality that he was a character playing a part in what was a particularly emotive and negative moment in my life, and I think I would like to avoid reminiscing about that moment.
But this fear of being alone — and being exploited when not alone — has stuck with me over the years, and continues to play a factor in how I make friends, seek romantic partners, and even my sex life. Rationally, I know that I’m in a much better situation now, and I’m more able to both take care of myself and to recognize when someone’s just trying to use me.
But at a deep, primal level inside me, there’s still a 13-year-old Leo who just desperately wants to emotionally connect with other humans, but is terrified that doing so is going to make him vulnerable and other people will abuse that to get what they want.
This fear continues to drive my decisions today.
This fear is why I keep so much of my personal life a secret — and why so many people don’t know my favourite food, or my favourite coffee blends, or where I like to go when I’m alone.
This fear is why I rejected all my friends’ blanket-wide requests to share location in Apple’s Find my Friends feature, because I didn’t want people to know where I was, where I was going, and how I get there.
This fear is why I have multiple phone numbers and email addresses — so I can disclose different contact details to different people for different needs, and know that they can’t use that information to stalk me and find out information that I didn’t want them to know.
This fear is why I don’t go out with random hookups from Grindr, because I’m terrified that I’m just going to used and then ditched when I’m done — and I don’t know if I could live through that again.
This fear is a part of me now, and somehow I’ll just have to make my peace with that.
“Hi, my name is Leo. I’m a student at Northwestern University. And I suffer from serious depression-like symptoms.”
This is part two of my ongoing project to write out my personal history in an effort to untangle the emotional history and stressors of my life. Read Part One: Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?
To be precise, I’ve never been clinically diagonsed with depression or anixety. No doctor has ever sat down in a white lab coat and said “You have depression” and handed me a little paper slip that says I have this medical condition.
I, therefore, can’t ethically say that I have depression, as that’s a medical condition that should be determined by medical professionals, not myself. But if I am diagnosed with depression, then I would join the approximately 6 million U.S. adults who have experienced at least one major depressive episode but never received treatment in 2016, according to statistics published by the National Institute for Mental Health.
The prevalance of undiagnosed and untreated depression among adolescents is even worse — while 37% of adults aged 18 or older who have experienced at least one major depressive episode received no treatment, that percentage rises to 60% for those aged 12-17.
I’ve heard arguments from medical professionals to not describe depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions as an “epidemic,” because mental health issues aren’t contagious from person to person. I think that’s an unnecessarily nuanced point, but I will defer to the medical experts, but I do believe that it’s far to say the prevalance of untreated depression episodes is a major public health crisis.
Suicide is now the tenth-highest leading cause of death in the United States, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s public health agency.
It took five years between when I first thought of killing myself and my first interaction with a mental health therapist.
For the first half of my life, the issue was one of access. Given that everyone — including my biological family members — were threats to my well-being, it’s not surprising to learn that issues of mental health were stigmatised as well. I didn’t know any therapists or counsellors or psychiatrists. I was also a legal minor, which meant that my parents had access and control over all my medical records — including anything I would disclose to a mental health professional. I wasn’t able to access any services to cure and heal my depression, anxiety, stress, fear and trauma without it also being a real threat to my life.
It’s because of this that I am now a little hesistant about issues like the age of majority, because a part of me feels that I was denied adequate medical care by law on the basis of an arbitrary age distinction. If I had been able to control my medical records while under the age of 18 to prevent my parents from knowing what doctors I was seeing and why, then I would have felt a lot more secure in seeking services, and I doubt my condition would have worsened to the point where it has now.
But the way that our legal system works assumes that every family is secure, functional and acting in the child’s best interest, until it’s really really not.
In 2015, though, I boarded a 16-hour flight to university on my 18th birthday. Which meant that from the moment I stepped onto Northwestern’s campus, I was legally in control of my own medical and academic records. That was no longer a reason not to go.
But I still. never talked to Counseling and Psychological Services throughout all of my first year. I thought I didn’t need it.
I thought that the change in environment, the making of new friends, and the fresh challenges of a university curriculum would eventually lift my spirits. I was already feeling really happy from all the excitment, and really supported because of the incredible efforts of my upperclass peer advisors — Geordan Tilley and Michael Stern — who spent over a week leading and guiding me and my group of fellow new students during Wildcat Welcome, the university’s orientation week.
At the time, I didn’t think I had depression or anxiety issues. I thought my situation was just a mood caused by a combination of the biological effects of adolescence, my conservative social environment, and my continued questioning of my sexual identity. When I arrived at Northwestern, having just turned 18, I thought I had messed up all the years of my life up to that point. I was just looking for a fresh start.
Throughout all three quarters of my first year, I dismissed any symptoms that I wasn’t OK as just “transition anxieties.” To a large extent, those were real worries — what would Ben, my roommate, be like? Would I make any friends? Would I be accepted, welcomed, included? Would I enjoy my classes or end up absolutely hating college life and dropping out? Was journalism the right choice after all?
What I didn’t realise, though, was that these worries were caused by my underlying anxieties. I thought all these new questions were causing my anxieties and sadness.
It turns out it was the other way round.
I had listened to my peer advisors and my resident advisors about all the agencies and departments at Northwestern who could help — CAPS, CARE, the Women’s Center. I filed that information away in case it would be useful in the future, but I thought I wouldn’t ever need it.
I had managed my own life pretty well up to that point, I thought. What kind of help would I possibly need?
My first-ever trip to the emergency room was that summer between freshman and sophomore years.
I was staying in Evanston because I wanted to work over the summer at the NUIT Support Center, continuing my first on-campus job there that I had taken in April. I applied for the job simply because I found myself with some extra time between classes that I wanted to fill with something fun, and Ava, a new friend I was making at Chapin Hall, suggested that I give it a go.
Residential Services closes most of the campus houses as soon as spring quarter ends, leaving a few weeks’ gap between summer residents, like high schoolers on programs, could move in. I knew that it wouldn’t work for me, because it meant that everything in my dorm room had nowhere to go for two weeks as I didn’t know any off-campus friends and didn’t have any family members nearby. (My sister, physically closest, was over 800 miles away in Connecticut.)
So I started looking around for a sublet, and eventually found a then-junior in Medill who I knew through North by Northwestern and through the Knight Lab who was looking for someone to live in her apartment on Clark Street over the summer. She was someone whom I respected and admired, and I thought she was trustworthy, so we set up an arrangement.
This was great, I thought. You can see the apartment from the Support Center. I could walk to work in a minute. How convenient!
I had no experience in handling anything like a lease or sublease. To be fair, I don’t think she did, either. But, as things got closer to the end of spring, there were a bunch of red flags that I missed because I didn’t know what I was looking out for.
First, the terms of our deal changed from what we had agreed, and she told me that I wasn’t subletting from her, but from her roommate. Then, she told me to duplicate the apartment and mailbox keys without informing the property’s landlord. She also took ages to contact the landlord to let them know of their intention to lease to me – and when they finally did tell the property landlord that I wanted to move in, the landlord took so long to process my application and credit check that I still wasn’t approved as a tenant when the quarter ended and Northwestern was kicking me off campus.
I was scared. I panicked. I didn’t want to be living in a place that I had no legal right to be in. To some extent, if I lived there, I would be nothing more than a squatter — and I thought if the landlord did ever visit and found me or my stuff there, I could be evicted and I would essentially be homeless.
I moved all my personal belongings into that apartment and settled down for the night, but I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified that the landlord was going to enter in the middle of the night and kick me out. That weekend, I would stay outside during the day, wondering around the emptied campus and around Evanston simply because I couldn’t stay in the apartment a moment longer than I had to.
I can’t be sure if this actually happened or if it was just a drastic, fear-induced thought, but I was prepared to pack everything into my suitcases and ask to leave it at the NUIT Support Center for a few days if it came to it.
I’m more hazy about these details, but after a few nights’ panicking, high stress and lack of sleep, I called CAPS and spoke to their after-hours counselor and blurted out every detail about what was happening. She listened and suggested that I come in for a visit.
That was how I first visited CAPS.
I’m pretty sure I told NUIT supervisors that I had a medical appointment at Searle, which wasn’t exactly lying, but I also didn’t tell them that it was CAPS.
I met with a lovely therapist, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and we talked for about an hour about my housing troubles — how I was technically squatting, how I didn’t have a legal lease agreement and how that was causing my fears and anxieties. I felt pretty good opening up to her, so when she asked me about other stressors, I talked to her about how I was still figuring out if I was gay, how my parents didn’t accept me, how I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have many friends, and everything.
It was nice. Her sofa was comfy. It was the first time I had ever admitted those struggles to anyone.
She then told me that she wanted to consult other staff members to see what she should do. I agreed and sat on her sofa for a while. When she came back, she told me her plan: We were going to call Evanston hotels to see if anyone had a room where I could sleep for the night.
She started calling hotels. Hilton Orrington? No rooms. The Holiday Inn? No rooms.
The closest availability for that night was in Skokie, near Old Orchard Mall, miles away. I couldn’t make it.
But I was feeling a lot calmer, so when we eventually concluded that hotels didn’t work, I told her that I was feeling better and prepared to sleep in the apartment for a few more nights.
I felt a lot better leaving CAPS than I did going in. I even slept soundly that night.
But about a week later, everything fell apart.
Without my knowledge, one of the upperclass students whose apartment I was living in had entered while I was at work to pick up some things that she had left behind. She had not messaged or called me beforehand, and later I discovered that she had let herself in with her own key after knocking on the door for several minutes.
When I returned to the apartment at night after work, I didn’t know she had been. She didn’t leave a note or send me a message. All I could tell was that someone had been in the apartment, and my things had been moved.
I had my first panic attack.
I remember I was sitting up in bed, perfectly still. I couldn’t move. I was staring at a radiator by the living room couch that was visible through the doorway of the room I slept in. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear my heart thumping like crazy, and all I could think was “oh my god someone was in this room what if they come back at night and what do I do and who were they and are they going to come back tonight and kill me—”
When I could finally move again, I called my CAPS therapist, who had given me her direct line, and left her a voicemail message asking if she had some time to talk. She called me later that day and said that I should come in immediately to talk, and so I did.
She smiled at me like she always did and invited me into her office, and asked me what was going on. I told her what had happened.
She left the office again to talk to her colleagues, and eventually came back and said, “Look, I think you should go to the emergency room.”
I nodded. I had considered it the night before, but ruled it out because I thought it was an overreaction from the emotions and the shock. But if she was suggesting it, then it was probably a good idea, I thought. Honestly, at the time I was so scared and exhausted that I would probably have agreed with anything.
I left her office and called an Uber to take me to Evanston Hospital.
I was there for about three hours. They really didn’t do much — I was just taken in, asked to change, and then doctors and nurses came to run check-ups. My blood was drawn. They asked me about alcohol and drugs. I was given a lot of water. (I overheard one doctor saying he wanted to get a urine sample to test for alcohol.)
I found the entire process to be exceedingly clinical — which made sense, since this was a hospital — but also reassuring. Sure, it was expensive, but I felt like I was being taken care of. I knew that nobody was going to kick me out of the emergency room and leave me to fend for myself. I felt safe.
While I was there, a social worker came in to talk to me and find out what was happening. So I told her everything that I had been spilling to my CAPS therapist only a few hours before: about my housing sublease, about being gay, being accepted, struggling with friends and adjusting. She started our conversation by taking notes in the margins of the paper on her clipboard, but about halfway through, she stopped and just looked at me as I talked.
When I was done, she reassured me that what I was feeling was valid, and then gave me information that made me feel so much better — for example, Evanston law meant that landlords couldn’t just wander in at night and find me there, and had protections for my property even if I was kicked out. She explained that, yes, it wasn’t OK for the other student to just enter without my knowledge or consent, and I had the right to demand the landlord to change the apartment locks. She suggested I reach out to Northwestern’s administrators to see if they could help.
I felt so much better. About twenty minutes after talking to her, a nurse told me to change back to my clothes, and I was discharged from the ER. (I never provided the urine sample, but I did visit the bathroom on the way out.)
Eventually, I ended up taking another sublet mid-summer from another student, and lived in Park Evanston for most of the summer. I insisted that the property management be told and I signed on as a sublessee. For about two months, I was essentially paying two rents. Fortunately enough, my parents wired me some money out of our family savings to pay for it, but the arrangement — along with the $600 bill for my emergency room visit that arrived several weeks later — still wiped out all of my NUIT summer earnings.
Somewhere amidst all of this, Jonathan Sammon gets involved, because I distinctly remember staying at his apartment and crashing on his couch for a few nights. What I can’t remember is exactly when that happens, I’m grateful for it, but I’ll mention Sammon again in the future as plays a further (and greater) role later in my college experience.
I moved back into my campus dorm for sophomore year — this time, living in a single room — a few weeks before everyone else, as I had to join NUIT’s move-in day rounds to check on all the new students and make sure they and their tech were getting settled in.
I didn’t see CAPS again for a whole year.
If you’re in crisis, there are options to help you cope. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can visit https://www.befrienders.org for more resources and information about suicide prevention hotlines worldwide.
I was 13 when I first thought about killing myself.
I know it was that age only because I remember a specific detail that couldn’t have occurred when I got any older. After my sister, Lisa, moved to college when I was 14, I left the bedroom at the back of our third-floor 3-bedroom apartment, overlooking the fence, and into the larger bedroom that used to be hers.
The fence is an important detail because the I remember wondering how it much it would hurt if the spikes punctured my skull as I fell onto them, and resolved that if I was going to kill myself by jumping off the building, I should try and avoid those spikes.
If there’s one skill that underpins good reporting, at least according to the Medill School of Journalism, it’s the inquisitive mind to ask good questions and whiff out terrible answers. I’ve always had a curious tendency, but Medill trained my question-asking to a laser-sharp focus on people and their motivations. Friends, and interviewed sources, then compelled the other necessary skill — the active listening that now underpins my approach to all relationships.
I’ve always been surprised at how much people are often willing to share, particularly about themselves and their most personal, intimate secrets, if you’re just willing to listen. I often spend time with such people as they spill the truth about themselves — the guilty pleasures they’re too ashamed to tell, the insecurities they fear, and the secrets they regret. It is knowing this — and knowing the consequences if such information were widely known — that I’ve been critical of journalists who treat such intimacy insensitively.
It was my therapist who, during our first session a few months back, asked me to tell my own story. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do.
I’d spent every moment of my life up to that point trying to hide the truth about my life story. Now I was being asked to share it.
(Those who know me personally and are scoffing at that claim should recognise that there is a difference between making myself the story and making myself the center of attention. I unashamedly admit I am the latter, but I will ask you to consider how much you really know about me and my life. What’s my favourite food?)
Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve become convinced that this is good for my mental health. I believe that forming a cohesive and consistent narrative about myself will help me understand how my personal history affects me and untangle the mess of stressors and anxieties in my life.
This is part one.
Suicide is not an easy or casual thing to contemplate. Dying is an awfully permanent thing — to decide that the marvels of life are not worth continuing to exist is a serious mental condition.
In all the times I’ve been at high risk for suicide, it’s never been one single, big reason, but rather a bunch of little reasons which added up to make life miserable and nearly unlivable.
I am not alone feeling this way. The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, a set of published guidelines developed by leading experts in suicide prevention, expressly point out that “Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated.”
At 13, I knew that something was wrong. I hated myself. I found every day of my life to be a gentle struggle, like pushing upstream against a slow but menacing river. I thought about giving up and just ending my life, then and there, rather than taking on whatever happened next.
But the worst part was probably when I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
There’s no age by which everybody realises their sexuality, but the realisation and formation of a sexual identity are indisputably linked to puberty and adolescence.
I remember, at age 11, attending my first sex education class in primary six (the British educational system’s equivalent to sixth grade). I don’t remember our teacher’s name, but I do remember that she made us chant the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ ten times, out loud, so that the entire class of eleven-year-olds would get over giggling about these terms. (I loved that moment.)
I have hazy memories of watching educational films about ejaculation, fertilization and impregnation, and I feel like we talked at length about primary and secondary sex characteristics — all the girls were told about their breasts getting bigger and all the boys about deepening voices and strengthening muscles. All of us were taught about hair growing in new places.
What I don’t remember learning — and what I realise, now, was probably not a mistake — was how to handle being attracted to other people and what to do if what I wanted to have sex with wasn’t a woman’s genitalia.
Like basically all teenagers, my exposures to the richer senses of sex was through the Internet. I won’t go into any further detail, but I discovered and learned about an entirely different axis to both sex and to sexual pleasure and realised the inadequacy of my formal sex education.
While the Internet could fill in the details about sex that my teachers and peers could not, there was little that even folks on the Internet could do when it came to dealing with the emotions that came along with adolescence.
What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?
The city of Hong Kong, at the southern tip of what is now China, was the only place that I really knew while growing up. I’ve lived in and visited many cities, towns and villages across the world throughout my childhood — courtesy of parents who like to take the family to travel every summer — but Hong Kong was the closest thing that I had to a home.
It’s funny, because my birth coincided with the year that a new Hong Kong began in 1997. The colonial administration handed the city over to China on July 1, 1997, after over a century of British rule. I grew up along with a post-colonial Hong Kong — one of the many signs that my life, however much I wish otherwise, is inextricably postcolonial. (The only good thing that’s happened to me for being born in 1997 was when I got to go to Hong Kong Disneyland for free. It was an underwhelming experience.)
Despite the government advertising Hong Kong as an international, cosmopolitan city, the city is an exceedingly conservative place. (However, it’s a great place to do business.) The city’s populace are firm believers in traditional Chinese cultural values, evidenced when Hong Kong’s laws allow for floor numbers to skip using numbers with a digit ‘4’ (as four, in both the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese, sounds like “die”), and the city’s architecture will still include weird features like odd angles and holes to accommodate feng shui expertise, despite the city having the most expensive land in the world.
This has huge implications for members of Hong Kong’s LGBT community, which included me for a while; the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, which is affiliated with the mainland Chinese government north of the Hong Kong-China border, only de-classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001. (The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.)
While homosexuality might be medically accepted, the idea that queerness is a mental illness, rather than another diversity of humanity, still remains pervasive in Hong Kong and Chinese society.
This line of thinking was not just shared by the general public, but by my own parents as well. My mother has, in no uncertain terms, stated that she believes homosexuality to be a serious mental disorder when I gingerly asked her about it as I first began to explore my sexuality. The anger and disgust that she expressed made me scared and frightened, and I knew that I could never come out to her — at best, she’d disown me. At worst, she might actually kill me.
This is a fear that’s shared by far too many queer children. And it shattered my world to realise that my own mother — this woman who gave birth to me and loved me and took care of me for so long — wouldn’t accept, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t recognise who I was.
I figured out I had to stand on my own. I figured I would always be standing on my own.
It is in this environment that I figured out I was gay and I had to learn how to live with that. The struggle of dealing with society’s stigmas and taboos — the shame of other people’s judgments and mutterings, and the fear you might be attacked, maimed or even killed if you did so much as say you were attracted to someone — was drilled so deeply into thirteen-year-old me that I’m still recovering a decade later.
So, when I began to feel the hormonal urges of sexual attraction toward other men, I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t talk about my fears, my shock, my desires to anyone — not to my parents, not to my friends, not even to my teachers, who would be legally bound to share that information with my parents. I had to navigate that aspect of my biological, personal and social development on my own — a frightening prospect for even the bravest and most resilient of teenagers, a category of which I most certainly did not fall under.
Suicide prevention experts advise sharing stories of positivity and strength to help those at risk avoid choosing a terminal path. In the few times I have told this story to others, they’ve always told me about strong and resilient I am, although, in truth, I’ve always felt anything but.
Nevertheless, I survived. Despite my sadness, my crying, the pain in my heart and in my head and the nagging feeling that “maybe this life isn’t worth living after all,” I survived.
I survived my first wave of suicidal thoughts because I convinced myself that life was worth living and I was more scared of dying than whatever was coming next.
There was so much to come in my future, I thought. After all, I was 13. Statistically, the best years of my life were still to come. It was probably a better deal to wait it out and see what happens.
It was a matter of taking it day by day, moment by moment. I tackled each challenge as it came and tried not to let any single thing overwhelm me too much. I watched TV shows, primarily productions from the BBC — relatable sit-coms, especially Miranda, got me through some of the saddest days. I read news articles and listened to streaming radio stations.
The biggest danger was when I had nothing to do, because then my mind would wander and would inevitably fall into a dark pit of some kind. So I threw myself into work, and when I ran out of stuff to do, I created new things to work on.
When it came around to college applications, my admissions counsellors were impressed and mildly shocked at the range of projects and experience I was able to present — even considering how many of my peers were similarly capable or qualified. I’d taught myself several programming languages, could speak either fluently or conversationally in other human languages, had started a bunch of websites trying things in technology, social media, news, journalism and taken over an exceedingly popular and well-trafficked educational resource website. During school productions, I’d often be one of the people called on by staff technicians to run either the lighting or sound boards — once, simultaneously — because I was one of the few who could. One year, I wrote the entire script for the school’s annual play.
People around me thought I was showing off, or playing the college admissions game really well. In truth, it was neither. I wouldn’t be surprised if those things certainly did help my college applications, but I was doing them simply so that I had something to do, so that I could exhaust my body and my mind before going to bed every night so I didn’t have enough energy to think about how awful I felt and how much I wanted to die.
I had to get out of there.
“I don’t feel like anyone could understand me without knowing more about me than most people do,” I texted. “I usually do not have the time to explain the about-150 years of geopolitical and sociocultural history of the U.S., Europe and Asia and how that impacts me.”
He didn’t quite understand that at first. So I gave him examples: I told him about how I watched people jump out of their high-rise apartments because of a financial crisis. I told him about how I didn’t have any contact with friends for a month at the age of six because of an then-unknown epidemic which threatened the tightly-packed city and turned hospitals from centers of healing to centers of fear.
I didn’t touch upon how my life was shaped from birth by the complexities of three systems of law, immigration policy and notions of nationality and citizenship; how I spent many hours of my life in embassies and consulates and breathed the abstractness of territorality; how the colour of a tiny, 52-page booklet would determine how fast I passed through airports; how my spelling of “colour” and “recognise” would prompt unwanted responses, ranging from passive-aggressive commentary and hate-filled ridicule.
“You frame your experiences in such a global context,” he eventually wrote back, after we kept texting about me. “I’m not sure what the impact of that is.”
Neither do I, not really. I do know it creates a huge amount of mental stress. I know things are even worse when the identities of LGBTQ are combined with belonging to an racial/ethnic minority, and the term LGBTQ-POC exists for this reason. I know that Asian Americans, in particular, have struggled with reconciling this dichotomy and deciding between assimilating themselves and their children to American life and recognising their Asian heritage. I know that I haven’t been doing so well, and it’s been worse recently that it ever has been.
Here, I am greatly indebted to professors Michelle Huang and Douglas Ishii, of Northwestern’s Asian American Studies
Department Program, for introducing me to the critical race theory, intersectional theory and the critical history of Asian America. (I am also grateful to Justin Tse of the same for being the only one who understood my humour.)
But such academic concepts can only take me so far. Where do I go next? How am I supposed to find common ground with the people around me? Where do I find people who understand enough about my life to fill in the gaps for what I don’t say and what I don’t know how to say? Who are the people who know to look for the deep and hidden injuries and tramua — real and imagined, physical and emotional — that have shaped and molded me to this point?
I’ve looked for twenty years for someone like this. I’m still looking.
I've never really understood the concept of an age of majority. The basic premise, as it was explained to me by "grown-ups," is that young people are not psychologically developed enough to make lasting decisions about their futures, so we -- as a society -- have stepped in to protect our kids from their own naivety and stupidity. Or something like that.
I agree with the premise (lords and heavens above will know how stupid I was in my teens), but I find society’s decision to implement this a little odd: We’re going to draw a line in the sands of time, and below this age you’re too young to make decisions; above this age, and you’re an adult now! Hurray! Now go make lasting decisions about your future.
What? Six months ago at the age of seventeen and a half, you considered me too young to do anything. Suddenly, on a day approximately eighteen cycles around the sun later, I’m old and mature enough to make decisions about my future.
For me, this contrast was particularly poignant, because my eighteenth birthday coincided approximately with when I began to attend Northwestern, and precisely with when my plane (with I on board) landed at O’Hare. Unlike many, I imagine, there is a clear line in my life between when I wasn’t old enough to independently decide my future and when I was.
I won’t presume that it makes things any easier, nor do I think it is worth the hassle of creating an artificial life event to mark attaining the age of majority. But I can say, with confidence, that my about-twenty years of living did not prepare me for such an event.
A lot of things happen when you turn eighteen, most of them having little to do with the things that truly matter in life: You can sign legally binding contracts without parental consent; in most places, you can make out with anyone you choose (with their consent, please); you probably won’t be lying if you check the “I am over the age of majority” box. But you don’t automatically get any richer (unless there’s a secret turn-18 handout I don’t know about), your friendships don’t get any better, and you don’t magically figure out what it is that you’re doing.
Where do I sign up for classes that teach me these things? Where are the tests for mental well-being, for social skills, for managing your life? How did we end up with a pre-adult education system where I know more about the composition of planets and moons which no human will ever visit in my lifetime than I know about how to manage and live my own life?
It took me a while to figure out that, no, I’m not the only one who feels this way. It was another leap to realise that most people I had considered “grown-ups” — people who were supposed to know what they’re doing — probably don’t have it all figured out yet. (A special shout-out to all the grad students I met at Northwestern, whose lives seem to be filled entirely with questions.)
Many of you have reacted sympathetically to my last post, where I articulated the struggles that I feel when it comes to social interactions and maintaining friendships. Most of you reached out to say you felt the same way, and my writing resonated with you. (That’s very flattering — thank you.) A few of you messaged me to ask if I was OK. (The answer: kinda. I’m definitely not well, but it’s also not bad enough to be considered a mental health emergency, so I’m trying to find a therapist.)
We’re all on a journey of discovering how to adult, and I don’t think there’s any point in keeping that secret. Adulting is hard. It’s all the little things — folding laundry, buying groceries, cooking, paying bills — that add up to be big and exhausting. With all that going on, can’t we just spare the effort of pretending?
<blockquote>In a society that profits from your self doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.
— Someone, somewhere, but the Internet has mangled it enough that I don’t know who or where to source it
I get contemplative every time I see people around me go through major life events: picking college, graduating, quitting their jobs or getting engaged. Usually, I’m not a part of these events.
In June, a few of my closest friends graduated from Northwestern. All of them were part of the class that entered before mine; they were the sophomores to my freshman experience, and I got to know them in various and varying spaces. Many of them were mentors and counselors to me as I navigated this new community — a role that none of them really signed up to play, and one that I have found myself in during the years since.
I know that, in less than a year, I will be joining them in severing the ties that bind me to the people who remain behind at this institution. I know many of my already-graduated friends will promise to maintain ties and keep in touch, and I know that I’ll make the same promise in turn. But we all know that the truth is we were brought together through nothing but curious coincidential circumstance; and when the communal experience of Northwestern University is dropped from our lives, the social and geographical ties that bind us will disappear and we’ll simply drift apart.
Nobody has ever taught me how to deal with this. I’ve never dealt with it well; I simply handle this situation as it comes, and I suspect many other people do the same. We were never taught how to handle the reality that life is ephermeral; that everything happens so quickly, and the people we meet are only a part of our lives for a fleeting blink of an eye, and a moment later: They’re gone.
I have been taught many things in my decades on the surface of this planet: I can solve equations I’ll never need, build machines I’ll never use, recite capitals I’ll never visit. I can tell you plenty about books I’ve never read and about people I’ve never met. I can speak in tongues you’ve never heard and write in scripts you’ve never seen.
And yet: I don’t know how to make friends, and I don’t know how to manage when they go away. I don’t know how to love myself in a way that isn’t destructive. I don’t know to recognise when I’m hurting until it’s too late, or reach out for help until it’s almost unsalvagable. I don’t know how to live my life in a way that it’s not a struggle to convince myself to get out of bed every morning; that today will definitely be a better day than the last; that the world is a beautiful place definitely worth saving.
There’s a part of my brain that wonders how I’ve managed to survive this long; how I haven’t died yet from something stupid at some point or another. Maybe it’s because I’ve managed to piece together a strong social network to fall back upon. Maybe it’s just dumb, blind luck. Maybe it is, as my therapist once said, the “strong mental and emotional strength” that I’ve demonstrated.
Well, I don’t feel very strong, and I don’t know if I ever will.