You can listen to the podcast version of this installment on Anchor, or on Spotify.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
Stephen Crane, In the Desert
Imagine being confined to fear. What would it be like? After all, what is fear but a lack of bravery? But what if fear penetrated deeper than bravery could reach, and bravery could only achieve the strength of a well-worn rubber band? How far could fear stretch a person before the band shudders and snaps under the pressure of its dark captive?
I have always been a creature of fear. My fear was so vast, so colorless, and so consuming that I could not separate it from myself. I was afraid of not being social enough, of disappointing my parents, and of being out of control. As I aged and grew into young adulthood, a new kind of fear crept in long before I could name it. It was not until college that I was finally able to acknowledge it: my sexuality. Once I realized that my sexual attractions were against what I thought my God demanded of me, once I saw that I had grown to be the abomination that I had heard of from the pulpit, I was devastated. Crushed. Paralyzed. I had no idea why God would give me this curse. Why were my brothers normal and I was the infected one? Why had God blessed me with this disposition when he could have settled for jealousy, hate, greed, or a myriad of lesser sins? The question that dug me deeper into myself echoed endlessly through my mind: why me?
Seven years. Seven years that question haunted me. Seven years that self-denial, self-loathing, and paralyzing fear dictated my every move.
You can’t say that, you’ll sound gay!
Are you sure you should stand like that?
Uncross your legs!
Your voice is so high- are you even trying to act straight?
The problem with a monologue like this is that it isolates the speaker. It takes him center stage, with a full audience hanging on his words. In my case, I wasn’t the one saying those things, but I devoured the words with rabid fascination. I absorbed what I was taught: I had sin in me and in turn I was sin. I hurt those I loved because of how I was born. Something as deep as my DNA became an object to purge, but no one could tell me how to do it. I can do this! I told myself, I can change, ignoring the lessons that Nature herself made so clear: a single rock cannot become a mountain, no matter how hard he tries.
During that seven-year period I held fast to the belief that God loved me, he just didn’t approve of that part of me. In spite of that, incredibly, I never truly hated myself. I was terrified of who I was, of what had been burdened to me, but I never hated it. Instead, I determined to create a second self. I let people see the person they wanted to see, while preserving the person who I wanted to be. I said the right things, acted the right way, and carefully crafted the perfect visage. Behind it all I secretly lived the life I wanted. Thus, a duality was born; a coexistence of outward peace and inner war. A war against myself, and I was always on the losing side.
I'll never forget the countless late nights spending hours scrolling Instagram, comparing myself to other men who seemed to have exactly what I wanted. I told myself that if I wasn't in the midwest, if I wasn't living with my parents, if I wasn't me, maybe I could have that life. I could have friends like me. I could experience joy in who I am. But instead, that fantasy lived within my phone, firmly held before my face in an attempt to block out the reality that stood before me. Social media, for me and for so many others, both became an escape from my less than desirable reality, and a toxic fuel to the fire of self doubt and shame. I convinced myself that I needed its heat, when really it was quietly burning away any hope of happiness.
The entrance to a cave is called a twilight zone. There, mosses, ferns, and other plants may flourish, providing the illusion of a lush and thriving orifice. But beyond the reach of light, deeper into the cave, it is impossible for rooted life to flourish. Within, the darkness is penetrating and all-consuming. Over the years I had cultivated my own twilight zone that was pleasant enough, and did not evoke people to question the wellness of the rest of me. But it wasn’t sustainable; the weight of two lives slowly sank me into a place of fear, this cave, where no one could reach me; not even myself. And who would want to? There was a pleasant enough exterior, why disturb that? I’ll tell you why: because humanity lies within.
This is not all to say that no one noticed or cared for me during this time. I am incredibly thankful for my mother, whose fierce instinct and love is always present, and who is always ready for a conversation over a cup of coffee. My friends Michael and Nate, though distant geographically, helped me process the questions I was almost too afraid to vocalize. I consider both men to be my brothers, and primary reasons why I made it through this greatly difficult time. But even with friendships to help me, I still felt completely alone. I convinced myself that no one else in the world was experiencing what I was going through. This gave me a perverse peace that it was okay for me to let fear and agony wash over me. The touch of it on my skin grew comfortable. In a tumultuous season of my life, I found safe haven in this constant. I became an accomplice in my own detention.
As the leaves began to brown and the year 2017 left summer behind, I too began to dwindle. I had totally cut hope out of my life, clinging to work, habit, and distraction to keep me going. Forcing myself to keep moving, keep living. I was ashamed to feel the way I did, ashamed that I had grown stagnant when life had once felt so vibrant. I angered easily and everything made me anxious. In a journal entry I found myself desperately questioning, “will I ever be truly happy?” It was a question that I hated asking because I knew that in my current mindset there was no answer. I had long believed that happiness was dependent on an impossible choice: embrace my faith and deny my sexuality, or embrace my sexuality and leave my faith behind. This dichotomy tore me apart, leaving me spent and weak. I had finally given up searching for an answer, and instead existed with only one companion: fear. I wasn’t living; I was in survival mode. Prey in the territory of its predator. Fear had won, and its prize was me.
In October of that year I went for a run. I was living with my parents at the time and fresh into my third year of teaching. On that run I had a conversation with myself that I’d had hundreds of times. It used to be a conversation with God, but that had ended. I turned the same questions over and over in my mind as I would an old stone rubbed smooth like the cement beneath my rubber soles. As my run ended, I grew fatigued. Not from physical strain, for that had come to be my sole release. I was fatigued at the thought that my mind would never cease to operate on the same loop, endlessly persistent, posing the questions that had followed me relentlessly through life.
October 14, 2017. The day of the run. This is the face of fear.
“Mom?” I had made it home from my run. We were on the back deck, overlooking the property where I had once played, climbed, swam through my childhood oblivious to the brewing storm within. What had happened to that Paul? “I’m tired of fighting a losing fight. I can’t do this anymore.” I didn’t cry, because I never do in front of other people. Instead my heart swallowed those tears, gulping them down, as it had grown accustomed to. Surviving off of sorrow. My mother’s response, unexpected though it was, changed my life.
“Have you considered therapy?”
“Coming Out of Fear Installment Two: The Help” will be released January 20th. Make sure to subscribe here to be notified, or head to my website paulsatchwill.com to read it on my blog.
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