Through the Looking Glass: Turtle Shell
From what I’ve heard, I’ve developed a reputation during my time here for being a really kind, friendly and well-meaning individual. Trust me, I do try. In fact, it’s difficult for me not to. That’s because my earnest friendliness is a tool I use to conceal my actual deep-rooted feelings of anxiety. For much of my life I have been intrinsically stressed out — I’ve believed, quite irrationally, that I am being judged or ridiculed during normal, seemingly friendly interactions. I’ve felt self-conscious and embarrassed when there is really no need.
Without realizing it, I developed this psychological defense mechanism of extreme friendliness to lessen the unease caused by stressful situations growing up. It works in two ways.
First, by being very nice to you, I greatly reduce the possibility that you will ridicule me.
Second, I gain control over the conversation and can direct its flow away from myself and toward you. Hence, I don’t have to talk about myself.
What am I so self-conscious of? What do I think I’m being made fun of for? My warped beliefs present a variety of reasons. Many times it is the self-conscious negativism we all occasionally experience as human-beings.
I believe I am physically unattractive (did you know I have disproportionately small hands?), stupid (my grade point average is lower than it was in high school) or just plain incapable.
More often, however, my anxiety pertains to the particularly discriminatory horror I feel for my being gay and others’ awareness of it.
For many years, this anxiety over my sexual orientation fogged my entire understanding of relationships. Passing strangers on the street, I’d worry they’d jeer at me. I hated being on sports teams or being in a group of friends. I constantly worried that I wouldn’t be accepted by my friends if they ever truly got to know me. I feared that I didn’t fit in. In order to maintain friendships, I felt beholden to the other person — otherwise, I thought, there was a good chance they would ditch me the next time around. Even with my best friend, for a long time I felt an underlying and perpetual unease and lack of security.
I can trace my anxiety back to when I first came to the realization I was gay as a young teenager in my conservative Irish-Catholic family in a homogenous, suburban Long Island town.
I was forced to face the fact that would be illegal for me to serve in the military while in ninth grade when I watched my brother enlist, and in 10th grade I would witness — while watching the New York gubernatorial race on TV — the Republican candidate Carl Paladino (whom my parents supported) state that he didn’t want children “to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid or successful option” when compared with being straight. I heard the word “f----t” thrown around occasionally at home and frequently at school, both with blasé disregard and passionate disdain.
It seemed that in all areas of my life, I learned the lesson that it was not okay to be gay.
Both at school and at home, I learned to hide myself. I bottled up my emotions and repressed my anger. I felt able to relax only when completely alone. While I fortunately enjoyed school and thus survived most of my teenage years by absorbing myself in my studies, it served only as a protective shell.
As a strong student, president of my class for all four years and captain of the fencing team, my life looked strong on paper — at least, everyone complimented me as much. Still, inside, I was alone.
In this state of being I arrived in Hanover two and a half years ago. Only once, overwhelmed by this completely new environment, did I finally break down, find a counselor and begin the terrifying process of coming out.
I started with the strangers around me who were to be my new peers. I had many memories wrestling with intense feelings of shame during that time. At a freshman pregame in my room one night freshman fall, someone yelled out, “Franklin’s gay, isn’t he?” I had only come out to a few of the people there. While ignoring the statement outwardly, I began to freak out inside my head. I proceeded to deal with my repressed feelings by drinking myself into a stupor.
I continued moving and began to become comfortable with telling people that I was gay. Some lines included “quiero novio” and “we play for the same team.” I soon entered a phase where I would blurt out that I was gay immediately after meeting a new person, just so I wouldn’t have to worry about whether they knew or not.
YOU: “Hey, nice to meet you. What trip were you on?”
ME: “Nature writing and art, you?”
YOU: “Cool, I was on Hiking 3.”
ME: “I’m gay.”
Overall, I wasn’t harshly judged, ridiculed or ostracized for being gay. The people with whom I surrounded myself, from my freshman floormates to fratty upperclassmen, actually didn’t seem to care. (I also realize that I possess immense privilege other queer students do not have, and I want to make clear that my experience is indicative of only myself.)
Throughout that year, I continued to come out to people. Through consistently evaluating my cognitive and behavioral patterns through the lens of these burgeoning relationships, I gained clarity into the causes of my anxiety and became able to distinguish between instances in which it was warranted and instances it was not. I have also confronted it directly — often finding myself wearing strange clothes, shaking my ass and attempting to sing to a group of strangers and/or make them laugh.
More seriously, I have contemplated the meaning of community by investing in the well-being of a number of communities here, whether that be Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips, my fraternity, the Greek Leadership Council or LGBT organizations. It is my hope that when I graduate, my influence here will have left our College a better place.
I cannot accurately verbalize how much the experience of acceptance I have attained here has meant to me — during my time at the College, I have transformed into the strange, funny, caring young adult that I am. I do not intend to convey that this place is “perfect” or that I am always happy. I am not. I do not intend for my narrative to be universalized. There are many individuals who do not feel accepted by our community at large, for many reasons. I hope my personal experience demonstrates the importance of explicit societal acceptance for one’s feeling of security. I believe we share a moral responsibility in ensuring this for all members of society. Think reflectively about the words you choose to say and the actions you choose to take, because they could be the cause of someone else’s mental agony, unbeknownst to you.
Choose openness and acceptance over attachment and control. Be kind even when you don’t have to be. Don’t care so much about what others think of you. Leave Dartmouth better than how you found it.