Monday, 14 July 2014

The bark on your very own crazy tree: queerness and mental illness

Content note: self harm, suicide, homophobia, fun shit like that. Also, if you are my mother, I would consider it a great favour if you didn't read this. Thanks!

LGBT people are ten times as likely to try to commit suicide as cis straight people.
LGBT people are three times as likely to experience anxiety disorders, and six times as likely to experience depression.

Up to 50% of LGBT youth will try to kill themselves.

(Source: The Polarised Project)

I'm never sure how to think about these statistics. When I think about my colourful psychiatric history, the fact that I like to fuck girls doesn't seem particularly salient, you know? Queerness is about sex and love and life and joy; throwing 100 painkillers down your gullet in your empty teenage bedroom is about the opposite of all of those things.

When I was digging holes in my left arm back in the heady days of 2002, I wasn't thinking, "Gee, I am so sad because the kids in year 8 called me a dyke outside Maths, also because I do not see positive representations of queers on TV and because people who are into sleeping with people of the same gender face workplace discrimination".

But getting to the point where you want to throw 100 painkillers down your gullet in the first place is, in part, about having been treated like a freak your entire life; about never fitting in and losing your ability to hope for a future which will let you breathe.

(Yeah. I know. Whiny teenager alert. This shit was over a decade ago, but I can think myself back there like it was yesterday.)

My comparatively easy ride is unsurprising given that I grew up in a nice white middle class home with parents who were pretty much unfazed at having produced two queer daughters. Any oppression is easier to deal with in isolation: this is the basic point of that impenetrable academe-speak "intersectionality", yes? No one told me I was going to hell for wanking over Chloƫ Sevigny; I wasn't thrown out of the family home for "losing" my "virginity"* with a girl long before I met my first boner. The abuse I got was from people I hated anyway: it still takes a toll, but it doesn't gut you like abuse from people who are supposed to love you.

* Just because I hate that phrase and the entire worldview it encompasses

I think I just get nervous when people attribute mental illness to social discrimination because it seems so pat, so easy: pump stigma in, mental illness comes out. I've lived through both, and I know it is never that simple.

But then, when you take a step back, stop minutely examining the bark on your own particular crazy tree, and get a look at the whole gigantic New Forest of not-straight people who are so miserable they want to die: yeah, maybe there's a link. Not being straight doesn't inexorably lead to discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, drug use, survival sex work, but there is a correlation; these life experiences don't cause mental illness, because mental illness is a lot more fucking complicated than that, but they can be part of the oh-so-fabulous cocktail that sends someone down their own, very specific, rabbit hole.

In 2004, maybe, or 2005, a 15 year old boy came to stay with us for a week because his parents had kicked him out when they found out he was gay. I made him dinner, baked a cake, watched shit tv with him. It was one of those houses where there's always someone new on the sofa, impromtu parties starting on Friday night and ending a few days later when the drugs run out or the last person has to go to a lecture or sign on. So it wasn't a big deal to give him a roof over his head for a while, but I think back now and wonder what he would have done if he hadn't happened to have bumped into my housemate in Heaven that night; how many other kids end up sleeping rough because they didn't have a friend who could offer.

I took myself on a date to see Kate Bornstein Is A Queer and Pleasant Danger at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival a few months back. I arrived early, sat in the foyer, and watched people stream through; I couldn't put my finger on what it was - I still can't define it, really - but it felt so fucking good, after living in an increasingly straight milieu for longer than I want to think about, to be around the homo multitudes again.

Because being queer isn't just about fucking at all. I was going to say "How nice it would be if it was" - if it didn't come with a massively increased chance of depression and anxiety and trying to make yourself dead - but there is a positive side. That part of the "community" that actually acts like a community, that cares at least as much about homeless kids as marriage equality, that reminds us that the Q can stand for Questioning and prods us not to stop at questioning the reductive maths of boy + girl.

Heteronormativity may well have played its part in dragging me down, but it's my eccentrically, brilliantly unheteronormative friends who help me back up again every time.



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  4. Nice post. Love it! But when you say, "I had "lost my virginity" to a girl long before I got my first boner"..... what exactly do you mean? You actually had sex with a guy? Or you had your very own "lady boner" that some of my friends jokingly say. lol. And just curious but are you gay or bisexual? Because if you've had sex with a guy even after you've had sex with girl.... bisexual?

  5. Ta. Um, yes, I meant I slept with girls before I slept with guys, and yes I am bisexual. FYI your comment came across as slightly creepy, whether or not you intended it to be...

  6. Oh NO!!! Oh no no no! Oh dear now I'm embarrassed. No, I was just curious because I'm an out and proud bisexual person and I love to see visibility for people like me. That's why I was asking. And my friends and I would use the word "lady boner" as a "joke" if we were ever turned on by someone. Don't know why, but at the time we were young teens. We don't do that or say things like that anymore. I apologize if it did come across as creepy. That is absolutely NOT what was meant at all.

    1. Ah ok, I totally take it back then! Sorry, mistook you for one of those creepy dudes who are wayyyyy too interested in the ins-and-outs (harhar) of The Bisexual Lifestyle - it's hard to read these things clearly online so DON'T be embarrassed :-)

      I still use the phrase 'lady boner' actually...

      Thank you for reading xxx

  7. :-) totally agree about the creepy dudes. When it comes to bisexual women they are "interested" but when it comes to bisexual men they admit to being "not as interested" or even "a little grossed out" about that. (eye-roll) go figure...

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