I live in a bohemian district of a large city, where queer visibility is a fairly normal thing. I just went to a gay AA Meeting tonight. When I married my wife we had a photo announcement in the wedding section of the city paper. The two of us, butch on femme, formalwear, kissing. I am aware that I live in a lucky bubble. These are the sorts of things that get people killed in other places, other times.
While part of my identity is “Out of the Closet”, as the thrift stores I frequent so gaily proclaim, the mental health side of my identity is still partially in the closet, a monster in the closet that emerges and slides back in as I hide blog posts, switch back and forth my internet expressions, erase tweets, and deep down know that the internet knows everything forever. Spokeo owns me and it owns you.
I had a second coming out at a reading last month, when I read the essay, “Misrepresentation, Diversion and Truth: Talking about SSDI” that I had written for this website. In front of my peers in the literary community, many of who did not know about my issues, I told the truth for the first time. The response was overwhelmingly positive, people thanked me for breaking the silence on mental health issues that exists in our community. It is bold and proud to be gay here in LA, but to be mentally ill there is still a large stigma. I felt the warmth, the people who came forwards to talk and connect afterwards. I also felt worried, I put on events at the same venue and was concerned that this would change how I was treated
Being mentally ill and an alcoholic, and thus othered, I crave legitimacy. I push myself to work harder through manic nights to prove that I can be as others, even if it is in a marginalized field.
Living one’s life this visible comes with a price. I apply and apply to residencies and retreats, but am never accepted, while I am published and given reading opportunities fairly often. Sour grapes perhaps, perhaps I am just not good enough, but I think the fact that I am publically severely mentally ill, with addiction issues, makes me seem like a less eligible bunkmate for most writing retreats. I have to just accept this. It’s not that big of a deal. I have made my choices. I cannot take them back. I feel lucky for what I have.
More importantly, living this openly I am completely unemployable. I have the luxury of un-employability because I am on Disability and my family is still with me. I am aware this is a privilege. I am thankful for it. I have not always been this lucky. I used to have a double life, hiding my mental illness and addictions from employers in the early days of the internet when this was still possible. Then I went to graduate school and all of those sordid stories became material, identity, the soul of my work. I had a book published about cocaine and sexual masochism. I had a schizophrenic break after graduate school and thus have been able to remain in this open state, being a toxic praline that not even Starbucks will take on. I interviewed doing the ticket to work program, not a success. My other attempt at employment after going on SSDI has left me chased by a collections agency sent from a scam tutoring company. I am digging my hole deeper and deeper with each essay, each poem, each story that I write. Telling my truth is not pretty, nor is it nice. I am thankful for the income my insanity entails.
The impact of queer visibility on my mental health is liberating. I feel I can be more truly myself and live my life openly with the woman that I love. It still comes through that we are from different generations, though. While I, 35, freeze up at PDA, she at 27 dispenses it openly, not remembering a time when it wasn’t acceptable to be gay, when it was, in fact, dangerous. I still remember that time. My high school principal would not let us start a feminist club, claiming we were “feminazi’s” (his quote). A Queer Alliance would have been out of the question.
The impact of mental illness visibility on my mental health (let’s get meta, yeah!) is a trickier subject. The Schizoaffective have no Ellens, no RuPauls, no Liberaces, no heroes or role models that show society we are safe and can be glamorous or brilliant or really nice neighbors. The media depicts the mentally ill with a broad brush: murderers. Serial killers. Child molesters. For my entire life, with every relationship I have, both friendly and romantic, including my relationship to my community, I have abided by the rule, “Let them get to know you as a person first, build trust, show how safe and normal and good you are, only when there is a bond reveal your dirty little secret. Hope they don’t run. Because they will be totally justified in doing so because you are a damaged goods.” I must have read this in some teen self-help book or something because it has stuck with me my entire life.
Well, I’m sick of that. I’m ready to live my truth completely, and if that means radical honesty, that means being visible not only as a queer but as a mentally ill person, as an alcoholic. As an ex-addict. There, internet, I just made myself google poison. But I feel so alive.
Tags: AA, addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism, cocaine, coming out, disability, employability, family, heroes, homophobia, identity, Internet, legitimacy, mania, marginalization, media depictions, mental illness closet, mental illness visibility, privilege, queer visibility, role models, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, SSDI, stigma, visibility