by Michael Poole
I’ve always known that I was gay. Well before I had even heard the word, or knew its full implications. I never believed it to be wrong, how could love be so? But growing up in a small country town with a combination of conservative Catholic parents and religious schooling, I knew it was a difference I had to keep secret. Back then, there were no openly gay people or role models to be seen. I felt very alone. Sometimes I wanted to tell people close to me what was going on, but I remained absolutely terrified, fearful of being rejected and losing them. Worst of all, my greatest fear was in my parents finding out.
I was a shy kid, not naturally inclined or interested in sport. That was always going to be a problem at school. I was one of those kids who wanted to believe no one knew the truth, meanwhile I was pressed against the glass doors of my self-imposed closet like a big gay butterfly for all the world to see. Sensing that, they quickly closed in. Though I was generally a good student, my school years increasingly became something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Constant homophobic taunts rang in my ears. In the last few years of secondary school, the new AIDS epidemic hit the world. The initial highly homophobic public backlash that came with it only pushed me even further into that closet, and raised my fears. It was probably more a cry of help than any real serious attempt, but at twenty one I attempted suicide. An overdose of pills, washed down with scotch. I can remember being completely surprised at how many family and friends visited me in the hospital. I remember thinking they don’t understand me. I didn’t even feel that I understood myself. Unfortunately, it was beyond me at the time to give any real explanation for my actions, and so any chance to do so was lost.
Yet with alcohol, I was to discover that discomfort and dis-ease was seemingly dissolvable. The feelings of alienation and the pain of those old schoolyard taunts slipped away. I went from being a quiet and introverted kid to the raging life of the party. But that so called party was very short-lived. Within a few years I had gone from drinking to feel comfortable to drinking for oblivion. Drinking to socialize became drinking alone. Binge drinking became daily drinking. Initially a few close friends expressed their concerns, but in my arrogance and denial I would not listen. As far as I was concerned, booze was not the problem, it was the solution. And so I slipped into alcohol and later drug addiction. For a decade I was to gradually descend into Hell. A very black abyss.
I got my opportunity to move to Sydney when a friend of mine asked me to come down and stay with her. Towards the end of my addiction, she was a lone beacon of kindness at what was obviously a very painful time for me. I thought I was in love. I wanted to be in love. So what’s a closeted, gay, alcoholic madman to do? Marry her, of course. We married the following year. It seemed to an outsider looking in that I was getting my life back together. Could that be so wrong? A few years later our only child, a daughter, was born. She was then, and still is, the greatest joy in my life.
Eventually confronted with the truth, my marriage finally ended after twelve years. You would think the new-found freedom would be the perfect opportunity to come out, but it was not to be. For whilst I had personally come to terms with my sexuality over the years, that old fear of losing people through disclosure was still a big hurdle. Having found Buddhism a few years before, it was of all places at a two week Buddhist retreat that I finally decided to come out as gay. I was 37 years of age, and now over ten years clean and sober. In the weeks and months after leaving that retreat, I came out to various family, friends and colleagues. All those old fears proved unfounded, and people were overwhelmingly accepting and supportive. It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, and the final piece of a very large puzzle clicked into place. I was joyous. For now.
My parents were to be the last people I came out to. Not because I was ashamed or afraid, but because I knew they would find it difficult. Though kind and loving, they were also extremely homophobic. For a time I simply wanted to spare them that pain. In the end, I decided that I had lived with the lie for long enough, and had to tell them. Any difficulty with that was ultimately their journey, not mine. And so a little over a year after first coming out, I wrote them a letter. I thought that best. I could say everything I wanted clearly thought out and articulated, without emotions on either side getting in the way. Their reaction more than lived up to my expectation. They disowned me, and wanted nothing to do with me any more. I gave them some space and time. Later, gently, I quietly tried to re-engage. Again and again, it was like hitting a brick wall. Eventually I gave up on them changing, the pain of which was overwhelming. It was like mourning their living death. A few years later, very bravely knowing exactly what would happen but acting anyway, my younger sister also decided to tell them she too was gay. More pain. Ignorance had now taken away both their children and grandchildren. My sister and I learned to move on. To this day my parents have not. It’s now been over 8 years.
It was the night of the gay and lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets. I was waiting to march in the parade for the first time. My excitement was building, the atmosphere electric. As I finally strode down Oxford Street I saw the countless smiling, cheering and all so accepting faces. The gay music anthems were pumping out loud from the float in front, and I was swept up in flamboyant joyfulness of it all. But that was not the best thing. Not by far. For my now teenage daughter was marching right by my side. Always accepting of her father, she wanted to share this moment with me as we marched with PFLAG. All the energy and emotion created by the crowd and parade could not match that simple act. Tears streamed down my face. Tears of joy.
I am writing this now sitting in my inner-city studio apartment. Forty-seven years young. I love my gay friendly neighbourhood, and I love this city – I’ve been here 25 years now. My 33-year-old Indonesian born boyfriend of five years and I live with a gay feline diva we call Oscar. My now 23-year-old daughter, now jokingly referred to as the fag hag, comes over every second weekend. Fourteen years of Buddhist practise has grounded me, over 20 years of being sober and clean has healed me of many demons.
The 17th January, 2013, will be the 10th anniversary of my coming out. I first wrote my story for I’m From Driftwood back in 2009, but as is often the case with life, much has happened since then. I therefore thought the opportunity of my anniversary was as good a reason as any to update it. I have lived a life of both great pain and great joy, and the simple act of coming out has not ultimately changed that. The fact is that since 2006, I have battled with major depression. It was as a result of effectively ‘losing’ both my parents, combined with a number of other major losses in my life. It got so bad that I self-admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital, twice. I never thought I could be back in such a bad state, but I was. But this time, unlike the first, I dealt with it much more head on. Aside from actively seeking medical help, I also engaged in ongoing therapy and have been put on anti-depressant medication.
Then, just as I was starting to get my life back on track, I first developed and then was finally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 2010. It’s left me with a multitude of ongoing health problems, often leaving me virtually housebound for sometimes weeks at a time. First the depression, and then CFS, have left me both unable to work and very socially isolated. I’ve come to appreciate the smallest of things and, much like my life in early recovery from addiction, I’m again finding myself simply taking things one day at a time. Life may again be a constant challenge, but I make of it as best I can.
It Gets Better promises Dan Savage in his well known GLBT project. Some might say that my life now has clearly taken a turn for the worse; but that’s not entirely true. Looking back I would still not change anything about my decision to come out, not even in the telling of my parents. I reflect on all those years living the lie, and trying to drown the truth away in a sea of booze and alcohol. Being gay is simply a part of me, as it has always been. But, despite other life challenges, I can now stand proud of that fact. That kid with feelings of difference and alienation is long gone. The truth has indeed set me free. You see, despite it all I am completely comfortable in my own skin. And really, that’s all I ever truly wanted. Life may have again gotten difficult, but inside, it is indeed better. Much better.
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