Schools are meant to be places of education, where you grow from a young, inexperienced child into a more mature teenager with a broader knowledge of the world around you as you tuck qualifications under your belt and prepare for a future, however solid or unpredictable it might be.
For me, school was a place of isolation and disconnect. High school, specifically, from ages 11 to 16. They were the loneliest, most confusing and depressing years of my life. I didn’t feel free to express myself or my views, and I felt like my tongue was constantly tied to the back of my throat. Friendships weren’t honest or born out of things in common, it was more like I had people I could blend in with most of the time to keep myself from feeling even more like an anomaly. The people were just there out of circumstance, people I had no choice but to be around 5 days a week for 5 years, and I’ve found from personal experience that it’s never a good way to cultivate close and lasting bonds with peers. I know that’s not the case for everyone, though. I envy that.
I had a hard time finding my footing. In fact, I don’t think I ever really found it at all. Despite usually having people to sit with on breaks and in lessons, conversations to ghost myself in, situations to generally be a sixth or seventh wheel of, I wasn’t able to live those years of my life. I just existed and floated from one year to the next with no idea where I was really going or how I was coping. I craved sincerity and transparency, I had so much pent up inside of me that I had no way of releasing.
From a young age, I knew I was queer. I knew there was something beautiful about people, an attraction to good souls and cute faces, and I knew that I could love and love and love regardless of gender. Each identity was – and still is – fascinating and complex and gorgeous. I knew that my body never really felt like my own, that there was something disjointed between my skin and bones and brain. I knew all of that, and where I was once innocently accepting of myself, that naivety transformed into self-hatred as I grew into my teens.
I spent so long in the female changing rooms, shrinking into a corner as I undressed and dressed, averting my gaze to the floors and walls and ceilings – anywhere to not look at anyone else, anywhere to avoid the dirty, shameful feeling creeping up my back and neck and whispering into my ears that I was wrong, perverted, disgusting, inherently undeserving of the breath in my lungs. I cried myself to sleep more times than I can count, eyes heavy and as sore as my skin as I hated myself over and over again. I tugged and poked at my body in front of a mirror, and I saw what I assumed everyone else saw. I saw worthlessness and ugliness and I truly believed that’s all I would ever see. It was a constant comparison to everyone else, a cycle of loathing and bitterness that I didn’t look like others did and why, why, why not?
I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to, nobody in my life to relate to, nobody to share the burden of my problems, nobody to confide in, nobody having a similar experience to my own. That kind of seclusion and quarantine from other human beings is terribly unhealthy and incredibly damaging and I hope you actually can’t imagine how much that strips a person bare of their dignity and self-respect and worth. I know, though, that there’ll be people reading this who can relate, who can imagine it only too well, and for that I’m truly sorry because nobody should have to experience anything like it.
Towards the end of my time in high school, everything spilled out. My first kiss became my outing, a secret I shared with the wrong person who decided that information was theirs to disclose. To the whole damn school. I was met with whispers in corridors, laughter, interrogations in classrooms where I should have been free to do my work and not be harassed by fellow students. I’m not sure what I find more upsetting and alarming; the fact that all of that happened, or the fact that adults overheard and overlooked and never reached out to give me support. I don’t even know what support was available to me, or if I’d have been allowed the privacy and confidentiality to accept it.
Closeted, I was alone and left to fester in my own insecurities and identity issues. Outed, I still had those same problems but the reality I was forced to endure was one I had little control over. I couldn’t just stop going to school, I couldn’t just take it all back, I had to walk the halls and listen to tutors speak and prepare for exams while everything I’d kept inside for years was suddenly burning me alive. On top of it all, I had to come home to a family who didn’t understand at the time, didn’t think I knew my own mind and for years later, I had to lie and hide who I was. I was simultaneously outed and closeted and constantly battling inside my own head. It was torture, plain and simple.
The day I walked out of that building for the last time was a day I never thought would arrive. It was something always on the horizon that, for the longest time, just would not come into reach. Until finally I was free of the vice grip of scrutiny, anxiety, the constant fear of what would be said from one day to the next and whose judgemental stare I’d have to avoid.
By that point, I’d found Sam. I had friends on the outside. I was growing closer with a friend I hadn’t been able to connect with fully during our school years, and that person is now the closest person to me besides my partner.
The pain didn’t stop after high school. My life didn’t turn around overnight. I’ve hit many rock bottoms since, I still struggle to this day, but my family are understanding and accepting of my sexuality and my relationship now. I’ve attended prides, made queer friends, become more body positive, cut my hair off, dyed it, I dress how I want and wear the makeup I like, and I control my relations with people so carefully. I consider my mental health, have been through therapy, I put myself first where in the past all I’ve done is thrown myself under the bus, I volunteer, and I focus on my art and writing and generally being creative and, hopefully, somewhat helpful and influential.
I barely recognise myself from back then. The memories are just a blur of time, and they still leave a bitter, burning taste in the back of my mouth but I can see so much change, so much growth, and so much strength in myself. I pride myself in my compassion, acceptance, tolerance, love. I’m hardened but also soft, willing but not a pushover, generous but not self-destructive. I wish these particular hardships hadn’t occurred, but they did and I’m glad that I was able to grow positively instead of entirely negatively from them. I know not everyone is that fortunate, that these things take their toll in different ways and not everyone ever comes back from them. I’m not grateful of the events, I’m just happy that if anything good came of them, it’s who I am now. Who I’m proud to call myself.
When I was 11, full of grief from my dad’s passing, full of turmoil and inner conflict, I used to wish I could disappear into fiction and never face a life fast-approaching.
When I was 16, scraped and battered and bruised from 5 years of torment and torture and extremely bad mental health, I used to wish I could stop existing completely and tear that section of my life like a shitty drawing from a sketchbook.
I’m 21 now, with a career budding and a relationship thriving and friendships surrounding me everywhere I turn. Each smile in a selfie is genuine, and when I’m hurting I know that I only have to bottle it up for the time it takes me to type out a message explaining what’s wrong or to work out how to say it best out loud. For every bad word ever said to me, there are twice as many kind ones spoken by strangers and family alike, and instead of feeling trapped in a place I wanted to escape, I now find myself on the sofa in a familiar house with a dog curled up at my side. or in a favoured table in a fast food place or a regular haunt at the cinema.
I no longer feel isolation or disconnect. I feel hope and freedom and a chance to start again. Ultimately, it was an experience that didn’t defeat me completely and although it’s an uphill battle I’m still fighting to overcome, it’s one I know that I can win now whereas once upon a time, I didn’t even know how I’d make it to tomorrow.