Ten years ago, I was well on my way to becoming a rabbi.
I had been studying in a yeshiva, a religious institution for young Jewish men, for three years. In just another four years, I could officially become Rabbi Joshua Marcus. After that, I’d either teach at a school or lead a congregation or both. I would get married somewhere along the way, and have two or three children, who I would raise in the faith.
But in my fourth year, I slowly came to accept what I’d suspected all along. My life was never going to be that straightforward. I could never be a rabbi or teach Torah. I could never marry a religious woman and raise Jewish children. There was something fundamentally wrong with me.
The problem was that as hard as I tried, I could never condemn the bad guy. The sinners, the enemies of the Jewish people, all were just doing what they knew to do. They believed they were right, just as we believed we were right. That was my logic.
The emotional impetus, however, came from someplace else. I couldn’t condemn the bad guy because I was the bad guy. I was the pervert attracted to some of my peers. I was the asshole who planned to marry a woman just to keep up appearances. I was the sinner, pretending to be a saint.
Gradually, over the next couple of years, the vision I had for my life fell to pieces.
My story, while intensely personal, is far from unique. I came out when I was twenty-five. A few years earlier, I had assumed there was zero chance it would ever happen. Coming out was affirming in many ways, but it didn’t stave off the threat of depression.
Research consistently shows that LGBTQ people suffer from depression at a far higher rate than our heterosexual, cisgender counterparts. Honestly, it shouldn’t be surprising. Nor should it be surprising that the more discrimination, bullying, or familial conflict a queer person faces, the more likely they are to struggle with depression.
Queer youths are four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youths. It’s a tragic, all-too-common reality in our communities. There are many reasons for this, beyond the reality that society makes it difficult to be gay. My depression is strongly connected to my struggle with a sense of self. When I realized I was gay, I had to reassess the way I had always expected my life to go. Narratives of identity, shame, and existential crises, are common among LGBT people, and all play a part in queer depression.
Yet depression, and mental illness, in general, does not come up very often in LGBTQ discourse. Inclusivity, representation, pride, and many other (worthy) subjects are far more familiar talking points. And so, while the letters in the LGBTQ acronym itself keep evolving in the hopes that no one is left out – and that can indeed make a palpable difference to the way we view ourselves – most would agree that a disease that is literally killing millions is a more pressing issue.
There are understandable reasons we’re reluctant to talk about mental illness in the queer community. For starters, there’s the pesky fact that homosexuality itself used to be listed as a mental illness in official diagnostic manuals (DSM I – III). It remained there for decades, and although the last vestiges were removed in 1987, we still feel uncomfortable mentioning homosexuality and mental illness in the same sentence. Furthermore, transsexualism remained in the DSM in some form until much more recently.
Moreover, there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental illness in general. Many people, especially people suffering from it, see it as a weakness, rather than a bona fide illness.
So despite homosexuality being far more accepted and understood today, there are still many politicians, religious leaders, communities, and individuals, who speak of it as something maladaptive. They view being gay as a condition that needs to be treated, not something that should simply be accepted.
Queer people are just as likely to see mental illness as a weakness or a fundamental wrongness. Even today, it is way easier for me to tell people I’m gay than that I suffer from depression. Admitting to suffering from depression can feel like a capitulation to the perception of homosexuality as maladaptive. It certainly doesn’t help in our battle against homophobic attitudes.
Unfortunately, rates of mental illness, and depression, in particular, will continue to correlate with homosexuality et al. as long as homophobia exists. And we can’t expect homophobia to disappear entirely in the foreseeable future. What we can do is try to change the perception of mental illness as a weakness or wrongness. Because LGBT people, even those with relatively straightforward coming out stories, inevitably go through a lot.
Who The Hell Am I?!
Some people know from a very young age that they’re gay. My husband had some sort of recognition of it from the age of three. I had no idea until much later on. I remember realizing I was attracted to a guy for the first time at age fifteen, on the school bus on the way to play a hockey match. My reaction to Matty and his abs came as quite a shock to me.
But it was much longer before I finally accepted that I was never going to feel that sort of attraction towards a girl. I was in denial for a very long time, and didn’t dare mention it to anyone until the age of twenty-three. Yes, I always knew there was something “wrong” with me, something which made me different to other boys, but that came through as a general wrongness for most of my life.
In the end, acknowledging to myself that I was gay was the final piece of the puzzle that forced me to change my entire perception of who I was. More than that – it forced me to recognize that I had no idea who I was. The life I had envisioned for myself, as a rabbi with a wife and kids, could no longer take the place of an actual identity.
And that is a terrifying place to be. The despair of feeling like I was no one, and that I never would be anyone, and that it did not matter how hard I tried or how long I tried for, has always been the major theme of my depression narrative. When you have a strong sense of self, life is manageable. If something terrible happens, you can go on with your life. It doesn’t have to make sense, but it doesn’t leave you wondering why you even bother.
But if you don’t have a sense of self, the painful things only hammer home the nail of meaninglessness. Your life right now is pain, and you have no reason to believe it will be anything but. “Good” things are temporary reprieves at best. You hope that one day you’ll be okay, but you can’t even picture how that might look.
Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five, I couldn’t envision a future for myself. All I knew was that it wouldn’t be what I had expected, and what the people in my life had expected for me. These days, I still can’t envision my future, but that is because I see too many possibilities. Back then, there were zero possibilities that made any sense at all.
Diversity of Experience
Just as LGBTQ people are very diverse, our experiences are diverse too. My story is only one of many queer depression narratives. For others, depression stems from years of oppression. They’ve been beaten down by the world, allowed no opportunities for a better life, driven to despair. Their world looks bleak because it is bleak.
Still others feel a crippling loneliness and isolation that comes from hiding who they are, denying themselves romantic possibilities, and feeling different in general.
For transgender people, the disconnect between their physiologies and identities is incredibly painful and confusing.
My life has not been immune from some of these experiences, and they have contributed to my depression to some degree. Ultimately, queer depression is attributable to many factors. And so, while there is a lot of variation in our developmental stories, many routes lead to the same outcome.
Narrative vs. Reality
Narratives tend to simplify complex realities, and the above certainly doesn’t describe my entire experience. While my homosexuality has played a major role in my mental illness, so has my genetic propensity towards depression. My mother, grandmother, and many more individuals on both sides of my family have suffered from depression. Mental illness is also physical, which is why antidepressants have made such a big difference in my life.
Death anxiety and financial stress, among other things, have also been contributors.
However, these factors are much more manageable when there’s not a secret tearing at your very self-perception. They can be handled when you have a sense of self which you can fall back on. A sense of self which sighs and says, “Ok, this sucks but I’ve got this.”
I see mental illness as being as big a part of my queer experience as my sexuality. It’s still the part I find hardest to talk about, that’s harder to just accept as normal. These days, it’s far easier to tell people I’m gay than to tell them I take antidepressants. Few of my friends know about the couple of months I spent in a psychiatric institution a few years back. It still feels important for me to paint pretty pictures about living as a gay man.
But it’s an essential part of my story, without which my life doesn’t make sense. It led me to a sense of self far deeper than my old religious identity. It led me to a life of fulfillment based on sensitivity, meaning, and profound personal experience.
Maybe one day mental illness will no longer correlate with queerness. But that’s not the world I grew up in. My responsibility, to myself and my peers, is to remember that there’s nothing wrong with me, that mental illness is a symptom of humanity rather than a weakness, and that, most of the time, self-care is more important than idealism.