Don’t You Dare Blush

Don’t you dare blush, I thought, as I felt my face already starting to heat up. I did not need a mirror to tell me that I was going red. If you blush it’s over. The only reason you’d blush is because what he’s saying applies to you, and everyone will understand that. So don’t you dare blush.

Usually, telling myself not to blush was like not thinking about the pink elephant. It would only make me redden more quickly and start to sweat profusely. The more I would sweat, the more embarrassed I would get, and the vicious cycle would go on. This time, however, my face began to cool. Maybe the dire nature of the situation gave me the willpower to conquer my physiognomy’s betrayal. But I’d only held back the tide. The lesson had only just begun.

“You see, the Torah prohibits it because it’s not natural,” Mr Scheftz said as he paced in front of the board, chalk in hand. “Animals do not do it, because sex is for one purpose, and that is procreation.”

I tried to focus on the words that had no special meaning for me. Animals. Purpose. Natural. Natural. Natural. Just don’t think about the meaning. I kept my head down, looking at the desk, so as not to catch anyone’s eye. I could not risk them seeing my inner turmoil.

“You hear couples say that they broke up because they ‘just weren’t a good fit for each other’. That is totally false. Men and women fit each other perfectly. They were made to fit each other. Men and men, or women and women do not fit each other.”

Jacklyn put up her hand. “Mr Scheftz. I’ve heard that gay people say it’s not a choice. How can God punish them for being born that way?”

Mr Scheftz took a deep breath in, still pacing back and forth like he always did.

“They say it’s not a choice,” he intoned. “But it’s always a choice. No one has to have sex. If a man is attracted to men and not women, he can choose not to have sex. God punishes the sin, not the sinner.”

The sin, not the sinner, I thought. The sin, not the sinner. I considered putting up my hand, just like Jacklyn had. If I was brave enough to ask a question, that would make it look like I had nothing to hide, right? But I knew that if I did that, I would go bright red and sweat would pour down my face, and then everyone would know. If only I had a little bit of composure!

I tried to focus on the words he’d said. The sin, not the sinner. I was the sinner, and I’d already sinned over and over again, hunched over a toilet. If anyone ever found out about that… The sin, not the sinner. Don’t blush. You’ve done well so far. Just keep it up.

“There are even special shuls where gay people can go.”

How could anyone go to one of those shuls? I wondered, briefly considering the option. If anyone sees you going in, they’ll know your secret.

Kerry put up her hand. “The Torah says that men can’t sleep with men, but it doesn’t say women can’t sleep with women. Are you allowed to be a lesbian?”

“That would be physically impossible for me,” Mr Scheftz said, and the class giggled. I laughed with them. “No, the Torah says that you must not follow the way of the Egyptians, and that’s referring to their sexual practices. In Egypt, women had sex with women, men cheated on their wives, and they had mass orgies.”

I could smell my deodorant, activated by the heat under my arms. I was still putting all my mental power into not blushing. I could not afford to. Would this lesson not just end? I looked at my watch. Still 20 minutes left! I could not make it, I simply could not make it that long.

I put up my hand.

“Can I go to the bathroom please?”

Mr Scheftz gave me the go-ahead. I exited the room quickly, without looking around at the rest of the class. Could they tell? I barely ever put up my hand, not even to go to the bathroom. Would this breach of character show them what I was going through?

As I walked down the corridor, I lifted my face to the breeze and felt the air cool my skin. That’s better. Finally, I was free, if only for a couple of minutes. I was alone, the only way I should be, the only way to ensure no one ever found out what type of person I was. Alone I could pretend that my red face and sweat meant nothing sinister. Alone I could collapse into myself, and hide within the heavy burden of my pathetic existence.

But I’d have to go back to class soon, and there’d still be 15 minutes of that hell. I wished for a moment that I’d get sick, faint, fall flat on the floor. That I’d wake up and the nightmare would be over, and I’d never have a bad urge again. That I’d never blush, or have to hide. That I could be myself and be proud, and not feel the immense shame I carried with me wherever I went. And that I’d suddenly be someone that mattered, and not a constant disappointment to myself.

That was a pipe dream, I knew. Better not to dream at all. My only hope was in telling myself that one thing: just don’t blush.

Guilty Half Sentences

The flight home from Israel went by in a daze, and before I knew it I was standing at the luggage carousel, waiting for my big black suitcase. I already had a heavy load. A suit bag carrying most of my clothes, along with an overnight bag. For a few moments, I forgot everything and focused on wrestling my baggage from the carousel.

The time had come to face my parents. They would be waiting just through the sliding doors. I did not want to. I could not imagine how I would face them and pretend that I was fine and not on the verge of a breakdown. I knew how excited they were to see me. Especially my mom. She had been waiting for me to come home since before I left. Over the past few weeks, I had considered asking her if I could stay, but I knew the question alone would devastate her.

My heart trembled and my head pounded, bringing me back to drunken nights as a teenager. The night I got wasted and told my parents I was depressed as an excuse for my bad behaviour. I breathed in deep and located the way out. I walked briskly, staring straight ahead, my teeth clenched to hold back my emotions.

I spotted them after a few seconds. My father had already seen me, and I saw the dorky smile on his beaming face. He pointed me out to my mother, and I saw her nervous excitement grow. My own face dropped and tears nearly came flooding from my eyes. I tried to smile, but I might as well have tried to sink through the floor. I found my way to them and stood lifeless as they hugged me and welcomed me home.

I tried to find my voice and share their joy – I promise – but the sadness lay way too deep. They did not know that I had lost everything. The country I loved, the yeshiva I loved, all of my friends, and N. N especially. I could never tell them that.

I watched my parents’ faces change. My dad suddenly looked sad and concerned. My mom disappointed, angry, and deflated. I had ruined her moment. She looked as if she’d suddenly aged twenty years and been purged of everything but skin.

My dad said that I was overwhelmed. That it would take some time to get used to being home. We walked to the parking, where he proudly displayed his new Tata Indica. Guilt flooded through my arteries as I tried – I promise I tried – to show any kind of interest. Instead, I flopped inside the car and breathed heavily, clenching my teeth to stem the emotion.

As we finally rolled through familiar streets, I became all the more despondent. The sight of foliage, like you’d struggle to find throughout Israel, made my insides churn. It was all exactly the same as it had been during my past life in this land. This land in which he did not exist. A land in which he could not exist, because if I let him exist, my parents would know the impossible truth.

It was impossible. I could not be gay. And it was still somehow the truth.

*

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“He’s getting settled now,” my mom said, as I scooted around the house, trying to find any sign that I hadn’t gone a year back in time. “He’s back in familiar surroundings, hey?”

She spoke in the third person, her despondence having turned to pity and concern. I was her son and I would soon show her my love. I just had to get settled in my familiar surroundings.

There could not have been a more inaccurate choice of words than settled. My entire being was in upheaval. I could not accept being back here – I tried, I swear, I tried. I could not accept what I had lost.

Getting settled. No, agitated would have been accurate, a word that perfectly described the conflict within me of being in a world both post-him and somehow pre-him. Living in the horror of grieving for someone who never was.

“Can I phone someone… there?” I said, unable to stop myself.

My parents looked at each other.

“Okay,” my dad said. “Just don’t be too long.”

I used the landline to call N’s cellphone.

“You’re already back?” he said.

“Yes,” I choked.

“Jeez. I’m sorry.”

“Everything is the same as it used to be. I just want to be back” with you.

We had never really discussed our emotions. Our relationship had always been a happy-go-lucky slew of insults, affection, and jokes. This call could only last a few minutes. Neither of us knew what to say, and when I hung up I felt worse than I had before.

I attempted another route back to the Holy Land. Dovi Broner had put together a video of the guys from our programme. It was really just a slideshow, scored with songs that each of us liked, burnt to DVD.

I told my parents I wanted to watch it. We went to the playroom which had long ago become the living room in all but name. I started the DVD and watched as the faces of my friends went by. I saw myself smiling, happier than I had ever been, as Nothing Else Matters mournfully played.

N went by in bad photos that belied his vitality and charm. I looked at my parents, neither of whom were watching.

*

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I lay down in bed at around 9PM, believing I would somehow fall asleep and end this long day. Misery flooded my body. Depression overwhelmed me, and I stood up, thinking somehow that would make it better. Standing up could not help. Lying down or standing up, I was fucked. I could not bear this hell, I could not. Not for another moment. I could not be in this dark room, alone with my terrible thoughts and burning memories.

I went back to the playroom. My parents were still up, eating dinner while watching Little Britain on BBC Prime.

“I can’t sleep,” I managed to choked out.

My dad nodded, a serious but nonjudgmental look on his face. My mom just stared at the TV. Bed was better. I went back, paced up and down my room, returned to the playroom and sat all alone on the couch, as my parents ate dinner a couple of metres away.

There was no solution, I could see that. I had no way of ever getting back to him. Even if I did, what would I do? Tell him that I loved him and wanted to be with him? How could that do anything other than make it worse?

I wanted to talk about him. I wanted to tell someone how much I loved him. To detail to them every little thing that made me crave him.

Instead, I remained silent for five years.

*

I was depressed. Not a major, agitation-filled “episode” like I would experience later in life and like I had experienced that first night, but a constant inability to smile or enjoy life that led me to believe I had to somehow get back. I told my parents I wanted to emigrate, to make aliyah.

“If you can’t be happy in my home, why am I alive?” my mom said. “I should just kill myself.”

My guilty lips trembled, unable to form a response. Unable to reassure her and tell her it was not her fault, and that I could not be happy no matter how hard I tried.

“It’s like he’s in love with a girl there,” my dad said, sometime later.

I would wake up every day at around 5AM, and lie in bed vaguely panicked with the near-certain knowledge I would not make it back to Israel in time. N was only there for another year. After that, there was just no point.

My father was an Israeli citizen, and if I spent more time there I’d be forced to go to the army. My only option, as I saw it, was to voluntarily emigrate and do their hesder programme. Another year in yeshiva, after which I’d spend a year and a half in the army. I would have to get back there in May if I was to start the programme while N still lived there. No one else understood how urgent this was.

Every day I would listen to Dana International’s version of Zemer Shalosh HaTshuvot, an Israeli song about a woman agreeing to go through anything for her man. Promising to let him sleep with whores and leave her all alone, if that’s what he asked for. But declaiming that she would not do one thing – forget him. Not even if he begged her to.

I wondered if there would ever be a day that I did not think about him. I wondered if I could bear the possibility. I needed to get back. I set the wheels turning.

Getting things done had never been my strong point. And now, I had to organise my emigration all by myself. It was impossible, I knew. I did not have a driver’s license. I had no money. I had very little information.

Still, I did not give up. I did not speak of it with my mother except in guilty half sentences. I felt my dad supported it to an extent, but he would not openly back it. I stopped speaking to my parents. I stopped being miserable around them. I showed them no sadness. I showed them no anger. I showed them none of my existential terror. I showed them nothing but numbness.

When, after three or four months, I began to feel happy once in awhile, I did not show them that either. They might think my resolve had changed. They might expect me to start talking. To say things I had no will to say. I showed them nothing.

I immersed myself in a South African yeshiva and moved into a flat there. I shut my parents out, visiting for an hour or so on a Friday afternoon, and staying every fourth shabbat. I could never be happy in that home, nor could I be sad or angry. I could only be numb. I dreaded those visits, and could not wait to get back to the yeshiva, feeling immense relief on Sunday morning. Holidays were the same. I stayed away from my parents’ home, even when I had to be physically present.

It was the past. A world in which my reality did not exist. A world of silence that could never be reclaimed, even when I came out five years later.

Dating When You’re Mentally Ill

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.

For years, I struggled just to exist, with my depression rearing its ugly head at every corner. And I made it through. It took 3 major episodes, a hospital, and two psychiatric clinics. But I made it through.

Yet, when I started dating, I realised I’d entered a minefield. How much did I tell my dates? At what point did I share? Is it okay to be dishonest?

I understand that my experience with depression is different to those with other mental illnesses. I know that it’s the easiest illness for others to relate to. And so, what I’ve gone through is probably nothing like what people with bipolar disorder, BPD, schizophrenia, etc. go through.

Nonetheless, this is the balance I found in sharing my experience with depression while dating.

Withhold (lie)

The first date I went on after leaving my second psychiatric clinic that year, I spilled everything. I was so nervous about being rejected for it, that I feigned confidence and I disclosed my entire history.

Needless to say, I scared the guy away. I never heard from him again, even though we had what I thought was a nice two hour chat.

I didn’t have to agonise over what went wrong. It was obvious. Choosing to date someone who has just come out of a psychiatric clinic is a huge risk. Even I would have reservations about it, and I can see behind the stigma. Who’s to say I’m “cured”, and won’t fall back into a depression that takes it all out of me and everyone around me?

From then on, I learned to withhold. Not just to withhold, but to lie sometimes. When someone asked me what I did (a basic first date question), I did not tell them that I’d only started to get my life back on track. I told them an approximation of the truth. It’s like saying you’re an entrepreneur, even though you have nothing going on at the moment. It’s kind of true, but it is purposely misleading.

This might sound unfair. Was I trying to get someone to fall in love with me before burdening them with my illness?

Not quite. Someone doesn’t have to fall in love with you in order to accept the risks. They just need to see the potential in you. So, when I told Kyle about my depression, he could have walked away. But he already knew he wanted to give this a chance.

Think about your own requirements of a perfect match. You might want them to live in your area, share the same political views or religious beliefs, and want the same amount of kids as you. You may filter your dating pool according to these requirements, but they’re not necessarily deal-breakers. If you meet someone you click with, there are many things on your wish list you’re willing to let go of just so you can see where it goes.

Be honest (eventually)

That said, it’s important that you don’t keep your secret for too long. Not just for their sake, but for yours too.

Your mental illness is a major part of who you are, for better or worse. Managing it is part of your lifestyle. You might, like me, see it as part of what shaped you into the person you are, who you can admire. If your date is not going to accept that, it’s not going to work.

Once you’ve gotten to know each other – once you know that you have chemistry – share your story. At this point, s/he is probably not going to run away, but they will have a lot to think about.

If they think that you’re too high-maintenance or see you as a lesser person because of it, they’re not the right person for you. Chances are, you’ve dodged a bullet. Just because you have rapport with someone, does not mean you know how to support each other, and this person clearly cannot support you.

As with everything related to your mental illness, you’re going to have to take a risk. This is an integral part of your life, and a negative response to it will be a dating deal-breaker.

Let them be a part of it

Early on in my relationship, I mostly kept my emotional struggles to myself. Although Kyle knew my history, I did not want him to see it manifest in our present lives. I was scared he’d treat me with cotton gloves, like a porcelain doll that might fall apart with any wrong move.

Turns out, he had similar fears. He did worry about me, but he also worried about not being real with me. He did not want to treat me as fragile, but at the same time couldn’t tell when or if it was ever necessary (and sometimes it is).

It took a lot of personal work for me to begin opening up to him more and more. And what helped was making him a part of my journey. We had to navigate the minefields together, so that he could know me intimately enough to intuit how to relate to me. He learned that I’m a strong person, who does not need to be treated as anything but, and he also learned that sometimes I need a bit more TLC than the average person.

To this day, I still have the instinct to hide my struggles. When I’m feeling depressed or particularly anxious, it can take a lot for me to disclose it. But ultimately, I share, and it’s crucial that I do. Kyle is my partner in this, and remembering that is key to keeping our relationship honest and supportive.

Don’t compromise yourself

Ultimately, it’s crucial that you don’t compromise who you are. Yes, start with a life story that’s only something like the truth. But be sure to clear things up early on, before you get caught in a lie you can’t escape.

If, once you’ve disclosed your personal truth, the other person bails, so much the better for you. They’re not the right person anyway, and staying the course would have only led to problems later on.

In the end, you know you’re worth it, and you should never accept anyone who’ll run at the first sign of trouble.

Will The Mental Illness Stigma Ever Go Away?

No.

The mental illness stigma will never go away.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

I live in a diverse world, with friends of varying sexual preferences, gender identities, races, and religions. Nearly every one of them has been stigmatised by one or another sector of society. We’ve all thankfully come to a place in our lives where we live openly and honestly. With pride.

Personally, I’ve faced the stigma of being a gay Jewish atheist in an interracial relationship. And I am able to speak about my identity with anyone, no matter their own personal beliefs.

Well, with one exception: I suffer from depression.

Now, unlike homosexuality, most cultures and belief systems do not reject the depressed. There is no verse in Leviticus saying that I should be put to death. So why is it still so hard to be open about the fact that I suffer from mental illness?

And why am I convinced the stigma will never completely go away?

It’s part of the illness

Because I’ve been out the closet for years now, I can say with pride that I am gay. There are a few reasons. I can logically understand that being gay is perfectly normal, and that embracing that identity has made my life better. I am also constantly around others who embrace that identity.

Most importantly, the dissenting voices came from the outside. I was told being gay is bad and shameful and immoral and so on.

Depression is, unfortunately, very different.

You can live in a society that is open about mental health and you can know others who suffer from mental illness, but still feel ashamed because of it. The reason is that the stigma is not coming (only) from the outside.

Underscoring just about all mental illness is the internalised belief that “I am not good enough”, “I am weak”, “The world is better off without me”. Those types of thoughts and the feelings associated with them are symptoms of the depression. They become so ingrained in us that we don’t even think to question them.

Which is part of the reason that, to this day, I am still ashamed that I suffer from depression. At this moment, my mind is still telling me that if I wasn’t so weak, I would never have reached the really low points punctuating my life.

BUT…

…even the societal stigmatisation of depression will never completely go away. And there’s a good reason for this too.

It is an illness

The ultimate acceptance of homosexuality is to view it as normal and not give it thought. To not have to pity the person or wish, for their sake, that they get “better”.

Mental illness is, by its very definition, completely different.

If I tell you I suffer from depression and you say, “that’s a perfectly normal and healthy lifestyle”, I’m going to look at you strangely. Mental illness should elicit sympathy from others. They want you to get better and to be free of the burden.

Yet, when you tell someone with a mental illness that you feel for them and hope they get better soon, they will take it as pity for their weakness. As I said above, that’s just part of the illness.

But it goes beyond that.

We stigmatise illness for practical reasons that, unfortunately, are compelling.

For example, would you start dating someone who you knew had cancer? Someone who you know you’d have to accompany to chemotherapy. Someone whose health needs would consume your life. Someone who might die on you way too early.

Some people will answer yes, but for most, the answer is no ways. You’re not judging the person for being ill, and if they were already in your life you would stick with them without a second thought.

But to take on that burden is to be a martyr.

Dating someone who suffers from a mental illness can be similar. Their depression or mania might well set the tone for the relationship. They might be in and out of hospital. And ultimately, they could kill themselves, leaving you to feel both terrible grief and unbearable guilt for not having saved them.

I’m not saying that there should be a stigma. Rather, it makes sense that others would want to know that the person was managing their illness well before getting involved.

There’s a difference between stigma and concern

The problem is that as humans, we tend to categorise things as good or bad and making all-too-easy associations. Since mental illness seems like a bad thing, people associated with it get a label too.

And that does not have to be the case.

There are things we can do to limit the stigma, and keep the focus on the illness rather than the individual.

Separate the illness from our/their identity

This applies to those who suffer from mental illness as well as those who do not. Part of recovering from depression (or anxiety, or bipolar, etc.) is to depersonalise it. Instead of saying “I’m depressed”, we have to learn to say “I feel depressed” or “I suffer from depression”.

We have to realise that mental illness is not an identity. Only then can we start to heal from it. Because we’re not trying to fix something broken in ourselves, but rather treating a disease.

People who do not suffer from mental illness need to recognise this as well. When someone they know is suffering from bipolar, they too can say “X suffers from bipolar” instead of “X is bipolar”.

ALSO…

…never call us crazy!

Ultimately, we can hope to lessen the stigma, but not only will it take time, it will also be an essential part of the healing process.