A Declaration of Pride
Mental Illness, The Babadook, and the Danger of Repression
I know exactly what it is to hate myself. I have pride in being gay, and I know there are people out there pleased to know that for more than half my life, I ranged from being uncomfortable to reeling from severe depression partially due to the fact that I liked a deep voice and and a nice pair of pecs. I say partially because I have diagnosable depression, severe enough to leave me bedridden for weeks in college and disbelieve my value, and serious enough to have been emotionally abused and unable to force myself out of my shell for a long time. Adding the weight of a secret like being gay in West Virginia, pre-Glee, will serve to worsen the pain, worsen the anxiety, destroy self-confidence, turn you into a different person.
That’s why I was terribly excited when The Babadook, the 2014 Jennifer Kent horror film, landed internet notoriety when it was categorized in the LGBT section of Netflix. Going from obscure (cult-ish) monster movie to overnight meme generator, the connection I had to the film’s allegory on depression and the Babadook’s iconography linked the film solidly as an LGBT film in its new popularity. The torment felt familiar. A demon that no one would believe is dictating your mood, scaring your family, and causing you to lie and stay stationary and make excuses to cover for the overbearing burden. And that’s just the part related to the son! Then Mister Babadook, a rapidly changing, clawed entity that people won’t understand, gains stronger manipulation of an already troublesome mental state. As behavior becomes erratic, defensive, aggressive, that piece of you takes over, still shrouded under barrier in your own pallid skin.
Before it sounds like I believe homosexuality is a possession (or in any kind of possession), the secrets that are eating Amelia, played by the striking Essie Davis, barrelled in too deep. The Babadook’s unsettling book, popping into violent motion, leads Amelia to reveal the monster to herself, unable to reconcile the distress with her family, friends, or the government. An increasingly monstrous creature is invading the delicate space that’s already being filled by other distress. The connection between homosexuality and depression are all to correlated, and the two factor onslaught is going to drop you; drop you like your life is being handled by Lars von Trier’s protege (i.e., Jennifer Kent).
I knew when I was seven. I know exactly when I figured it out. At my brother’s youth soccer game, I sat coloring or drawing and listening to the adults around me chatter. Usually more a fan of the parents than other children, I quietly looped my little ears into their conversations. As my mother and another soccer mom chatted, the conversation drifted to the most 90s of things: Baywatch. My mom mentioned with little pep in her voice, “Well, Timmy and Chris have been watching Baywatch before bed, but I don’t think Timmy [my older brother] is watching it just for the action anymore.” Even barely aware of what sex is and definitely unaware of the term gay or its meaning, I knew she was referring to the large, bouncing boobs that were all over pop culture. Those didn’t interest me though. I did certainly like the shirtless men running around, covered in biceps and traps and pecs (oh the glorious pec!). This is also the moment I determined there might be a perception that a man finding other men attractive may be a problem. Ironic part is, my brother came out in 2003.
And welcome to the mental anguish that is repression. I hid from this part of myself. I hid behind religion, becoming a judgmental, ugly person, chasing away friends, hateful of any kind of openness. I became an insular adolescent. Bullied ceaselessly through middle school, as I was the smart, effeminate, well-behaved student, I was hardly able to walk around Weir Middle without tormentors trying to wreck my day. I was fearful that anyone might discover my secret. When I was caught with some mastarbatory material, I was forced to burn it and was sent to a psychiatrist, leading me to lie and lie and lie about how I wasn’t actually gay; “I was just confused.” I wasted much of my teenage years worrying people would find me out and make things even worse.
Finally, I left for college in 2006. Though still in the cultural and social wasteland that is West Virginia, my university offered alternative perspectives for what a life could be. I came out as bi first when I was 19, having slept with one woman and enjoyed it. When I slept with a man about a year later and then attempted with another woman, I knew that women were just not for me. So proceeds the eight-part saga that is coming out. My mother found out through snooping, days before I was going to admit it, ruining Christmas even further. I lost friends. I was disrespected on the basis of my sexual orientation. I made repeated mistakes in dating, trying to learn how to date a man in my twenties; and not knowing that traditional relationship were not for me, I cheated on most of them. Sex was my vice and my release and sometimes it was the only way to quiet the static-to-screaming in my head. Eventually, I became more confident. I learned what I could, read all the perspectives, memorized the documentaries. I spoke in classes about same-sex attraction, growing up gay, having a gay brother. I even got asked if I ever had sex with brother in the middle of a class (eww, no); that was a practice in self-control to not tell the guy to go sit on a splintery dildo. There was opposition, there was learning, but there was also nearly two decades of hiding and lying to unravel before I could admit to being happy with myself.
Mental illness is a nightmare sometimes. My special variety, bipolar II, originally misdiagnosed as depression to pharmacologically unfortunate side effects, is characterized by periods of hypomania vacillating between periods of listless, never ending major depression. Highs for a few weeks, lows sometimes for months. Medications tended to make it worse. Therapists could not seem to stay at an office and switching around was painful, and in the end I got screwed over insurance wise. Mental illness does not have a single answer for everyone; most treatments require years of adjustments and readjustments and ramping up and tapering off. Fifteen months of that and I was done. Thankfully I made some fantastic changes in my life and re-evaluated where I was. I’ve learned to be happier and found a partner (in crime) that is a neutral or positive in my life at all times. Many aren’t as lucky.
By reframing my concept of happiness and discovering that after 27 years I needed the proper setting to help my situation, I was able to settle. The major hurdles of being queer, and more so, an LGBTQ+ member with mental illness, are obstacles that may seem insurmountable: coming out, reactions to that, relearning how to date opposed to the heteronormative mindset, non-normative relationship dynamics, balancing the sexual taboo with the validity of love, the ceaseless misconceptions needing broken. But keeping them bottled up is dangerous. Unlike coming out, holding those secrets in is a sure fire way to get sucked into deep shit.
As for Mister Babadook, he was shoved into the basement, hidden behind a bowl of worms and allowed his time to creep in some twists, some scares. Mental illness is like that too; it appears and retreats with little reasonable order and often needs some careful manipulation. The Babadook “coming out of the basement” not only adds a quirky gay icon to this year’s pride, but also I would like for it to be a step toward normalizing the existence of mental illness. It’s a taboo of its own; it at least elicits raised eyebrows. But this quality shouldn’t be hidden. People should understand that bipolar doesn’t mean I’m gonna go on a shopping spree and then run into traffic crying. It means my moods can change drastically, often with periods of highs and lows that I would hope people can respect and help watch out for them. Sometimes i just need it mentioned to me to let myself moderate my behavior; get back to the lose grip of “sanity” humans pretend to understand.
So I’m proud! After lust, it’s my second favorite deadly sin. I spent far too long disliking the person I was and trying to fit a mold that those around me pushed onto the world. I am proud of the family I’ve built for myself. I am proud that I went from faking good Christian boy to having a moral code based around consenting adults consenting to the treatment they receive. I am proud I’ve learned to love, regardless of its unusual beginnings and made stronger by its open manner. I am proud that I moved across the country to find a slice of America where difference is celebrated and I can walk down the street holding hands with a man without getting a Pepsi can whipped at me from a moving car. I am proud to not only live openly as a gay man, verbal but respectful (usually) in my attempts to enlighten the stubborn and ignorant around me, but also I am proud to live openly as a person with mental illness. I am proud to have become a man able to admit his weaknesses and have become stronger and more confident as a result. I am proud to be happy. There was a good portion of my life when I did not expect that to be the case. I am proud to be me.