Facebook Meme - images of Chris Evans from the 2005 movie Fantastic Four. Text reads: "I watched Fantastic Four (2005) for the plot. The Plot..."

Disconnected Memories and Trauma

I’ve mentioned before having old memories suddenly click back into view but I don’t think I’ve spoken at any length about what it’s like. It’s not like a daily occurence or anything, far from it. I can think of a handful in the entire past year. I am not sure if the most traumatic was suddenly remembering the sense of deep fear when Matthew Shepard died or recalling the bullying I had dealt with years earlier in 7th grade. I don’t think either was per se what would qualify as a suppressed memory. If either of those events qualified it would be Matthew because I had buried that one deep. I remembered of course he was murdered but I had not thought about how frightening it was to me in years. I wrote about it first here but when I brought it up to my therapist later, he asked me to tell him the story as if he didn’t know who Matthew Shepard was. It was the first time I had ever talked about it and I found myself telling the story and how it affected me through tears.

The most random unrelated things seem capable of dredging up old thoughts and memories. Maybe that much is normal? Like yesterday.

Facebook Meme - images of Chris Evans from the 2005 movie Fantastic Four. Text reads: "I watched Fantastic Four (2005) for the plot.The Plot..."

He’s not wrong. Chris Evans being hot in the Fantastic Four is virtually all I remember about the film nearly 20 years later. I mean, it was the Fantastic Four origin story so I could take a decent stab at what happened but Evans stole the show for me. Something 2005 Mark could not have whispered to a soul.

Maybe that was what pinged this random thought in my head. I can’t place a time to it. I think maybe college years or possibly as far back as high school. But I have a distinct memory of thinking to myself that being gay was a bridge too far, that I was already such a weird kid the last thing I needed in my life was to make my life harder. I don’t think they were words I uttered out loud or if I did it was alone and all I recall is the general thought. I don’t feel like that sort of self-inspection happened often, at least not that I remember. Mostly it was a subject that I veered hard from.

To me my weirdness was being a misfit geek, an outsider. Sometimes I reveled in being a little different but mostly it was the source of feeling othered. And that fragment of me was the only identity that I had internalized but looking back it’s clear that my otherness was more than coincidentally my queerness. Now I feel strange making the confession that I regarded it as something too alien to accept. At this late date in my life I’ve flipped that on its head. If a genie gave me one magic wish it wouldn’t be to be straight, it would be to have my come-to-gay moment decades ago. Clearly 1990’s or 1980’s Mark didn’t share that feeling. Of course, it’s age-old regret. “Why didn’t I do xyz?” And if science fiction time travel shows have taught me anything it’s that there’s no way of knowing how that would have turned out. Maybe I would have been happier. Maybe not? Who really knows but if I had a magic wish right now at this point in my life, I suspect I’d gamble and find out…

For most of my adult life, my queerness was similar to a pinball game. I kept bouncing off it and rushing headlong in another direction only to ricochet off it again. Never learning anything, never fully internalizing anything. Into my 20’s I had disconnected from it to such a degree that I literally didn’t know who I was with the certainty I should have possessed.

Of relevance is a story I’ve only told a few people over the years from grad school. One of my roommates was also a grad student but in a different department. We were never bosom buds but I give him credit that he often attempted to include me. One random night he was going to a party at a classmate’s apartment and he successfully talked me into tagging along. Before we left though he warned me the classmate in question was gay. I truthfully didn’t care. At this point in life I already had accumulated a few gay friends. As the night wore on, people drank, and someone asked the host the age old question of how he knew someone else was gay, i.e. how he dated. I do not remember anymore if he used the term “gaydar” but that’s more or less what he described, that he generally had a sixth sense. This led inevitably to him going around the room and sizing each guy up and trying to determine if they were straight or gay. There were some he got right, some that insisted he was wrong, and then there was me. He looked at me and said that he couldn’t decide, that I didn’t give off a clue one way or the other…

Would it surprise you to hear that I had a very mixed feeling hearing this declaration of being too vague to quantify? On one hand the walls of my closet were intact… on the other as someone who had internalized denial to the nth degree, I kept it all so pushed down that I sincerely didn’t know what I felt. It was like getting “ask again later” from the Magic 8 Ball… part of me was more confused than ever. And I have since wondered if he genuinely didn’t know or if he saw fear in my eyes and tiptoed past out of kindness. Regardless inside, I clearly knew or I wouldn’t have been beyond anxious as he made his way around to me. I think I had known in my heart of hearts since sometime in high school. I don’t remember a light bulb moment to this day. But looking back, there were unquestionably men whether people I knew or saw in popular culture who made my little gay heart beat faster even if I couldn’t own those feelings then.

It’s amazing how our brains work. How we can convince ourselves of things that are wholly false, how we can twist things and basically lie to ourselves in an effort to protect our hearts. And how we can bury memories, thoughts and feelings as I mentioned earlier in this post. There are times when I look backwards and feel like it was someone else’s life. It feels that disconnected from me today. In fact one of the journal prompts in therapy is to describe a happy memory from childhood. I’ve never taken that prompt because I find it hard to pick out anything that genuinely feels happy. I don’t think my childhood was truly that miserable, but I have a difficult time connecting with the child I was. I have my stories that come up in conversations but they feel as salient to me as Mom’s family stories that I’ve heard so many times I memorized them. There’s a sense of my own tales simply being stories I heard more than memories of experiences.

On a recent podcast I was listening to, a therapist who was a guest made the comment that he had found it common among his gay clients that many of them didn’t remember much of substance about their childhoods. He said this was often a symptom of CPTSD. I didn’t find a lot but I did read a couple of articles on the subject and it was suggested sometimes simply being queer was enough. Not that there had to be some sort of abuse or major traumatic event but simply growing up LGBTQ+ in unaccepting environments was traumatic enough for some people to develop CPTSD. And further that continuing to live closeted was sort of a compound interest. If that’s so I have a lot of accumulated trauma.

I believe I can add to that having parents who argued most of the time. I had a sudden realization recently that I think that’s the source of my tendency to be a night owl which started very young. After they went to bed, It was quiet. Even now when I’m up late alone I tend to not have any background noise. It’s like late at night is my chance for my nervous system to idle. Whether that led to my night owl nature or reinforced it I don’t know but from an early age I was routinely the last one to go to bed. That could also go hand in hand with being an HSP. I scored high on the test when I took it and just hearing others talk about it felt like a missing part of my puzzle. Maybe even if my parents had been calm and cool my nervous system would have still sought out the quiet hours at night to recalibrate.

But getting back to the subject of all those years keeping my sexuality under lock and key. One of the things I’ve struggled explaining to myself or others is what took so long? I am coming to understand that I was in survival mode for years. Even when life was stable my brain was telling me otherwise. This video below surfaced during my search for information on the impact of being in the closet. Some of what she said really resonates.

…the moment I realized something was different about me was the exact same moment that I began conforming and hiding. Hiding is a progressive habit, and once you start hiding, it becomes harder and harder to step forward and speak out.

Morgana Bailey TED Talk 2015

I recently came across the news that over a quarter of Gen Z adults identify as part of the LGBTQ+ – contrast that with previous generations.

As someone who has taken decades to finally own this part of myself, I look at those numbers and wonder how many more are there like me among my Gen X peers? There are of course naysayers who scream that the “youngsters” are claiming this identity to be edgy or trendy. Even if some are, I doubt the pretenders add up to four times the number from my generation. Regardless imagine a world where being anything queer adjacent was more than tolerated, where people feel free to openly decide that’s their identity. A younger me who went into survival mode would be floored to see this new world. It makes me sad it took me so long and that there are undoubtedly people in those preceding generations that are still in the closet and just as paralyzed as I was to do do anything about it.

In one of my Facebook groups recently someone posted about a quandary they were in. They were in a relationship with someone who although divorced from their wife was not out of the closet and was afraid to come out to their family and adult children. Unfortunately reality is I’ve talked to guys my age and older who had the whole wife and children thing and some of them reported that their children were no longer part of their lives. How common it is I don’t know but anecdotally it happens. The guy wanted people’s opinions about whether or not he should continue the relationship as he really liked the guy but the closet was a hang-up. I didn’t need to think about this. My immediate answer was that I couldn’t do it. If he needed a supportive friend while navigating coming out, sure. But I spent way too many years in my own closet to want to be in a secret relationship with someone. I have cargo container’s worth of empathy but it would feel too much like going back into the closet once more.

And again, how many more like us are there… I frequently see people say they wish for a world where no one had to come out. And while pie in the sky I agree, I feel like we’re pretty far from that being possible. There are still people much younger than me coming out and sharing their stories about families that don’t accept them. There are still charlatans practicing conversion therapy legally for heaven’s sake. Even though being LGBTQ+ is less othering than it once was, as long as there’s a fragment of society writing laws to push back the tide of that progress then we’re not there yet.

It matters because we all need to see others like us whether they are neighbors or teachers or characters in movies, TV shows, and books. The movie above is one I saw on HBO in 1987 when I was 15 years old. If the movie doesn’t start at 6:45 as it should you can just skip to there. You can watch as much or as little as you desire. At 15, I personally found nothing about this movie comforting. I’ve only even mentioned watching it to a couple of people in the past year. Despite myself, that assault scene in the bathroom was traumatizing and lurked in the back of my brain all these years. And like so many films from its time, the hero is not the gay character. The star characters is his friend, played by Scott Baio of all people, who stood by him despite pressure from literally everyone to shun him. What was the message of this film? This is a million miles from the queer acceptance in Love Simon. If I’d seen Love Simon at 15 perhaps my life would have been different or even modestly better. So yay progress but no in my opinion, we’re not at a Utopia yet where people don’t need to come out. And frankly even with the accelerating changes in my lifetime already I don’t see us getting there before I’m gone.

I’m sure there will be more random memories, more layers of trauma to work through but ultimately as I tell anyone that asks I feel happier and lighter than I can honestly remember. Sure there are moments of regret, times I wish I had a magic genie to change the past. But the only direction is forward. And for the first time I feel ultimately hopeful. I’m not sure where to start my clock exactly. I’m not sure of a day but in the midst of pandemics and dementia, I accepted I was more attracted to guys than women. That was the beginning point that got the ball rolling. And I’ve since come to the point of saying I mostly have platonic feelings for women. I’m not sure I’m capable of anything else but if so it’s rare. So is 2020 my year? Or was it April of 2023 when I finally told another human being? Sept 9 of that year when I made a public post about it? I guess ultimately they are all part of the same journey I still find myself on. I suspect this task will become less as time goes by but I also won’t be surprised if I’m unraveling threads of who I am for the rest of my life. I’ve wired my brain to survive one way for so long. Change is unquestionably possible for us all but I also give myself the grace to know it won’t happen overnight.

And if you read all of this, please give yourself a cookie and thank you!

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