Category Archives: Personal

Coming out in the country: Growing up LGBT+ in rural Ireland

This article was originally published on the Gay Community News (GCN) website on .

I still lived in rural Ireland when I came out. I was 18.

The fifth person I told was my counsellor. We were sitting facing each other in an old renovated house in Gorey, a small market town near the Wexford/Wicklow border. After a strained silence, she spoke: “Be careful,” she warned, “gay people are promiscuous.”

This is a prime example of the micro-aggressions that typified my teenage years; the sometimes-coded, sometimes-overt language that denoted otherness, difference, queerness. I didn’t have the words then – the emotional language necessary to navigate how that comment made me feel – but I could feel the gulf between my chair and hers widen in that moment.

For the first 15 years of my life, I lived in a village called Coolgreany. Coolgreany, also in Wexford, is neatly positioned between Gorey and Arklow, a town in south County Wicklow. To suggest that Coolgreany is humble is an understatement: It contains a national school, a shop, two pubs, a prayer group, and a garage. It has more potholes than people.

Main street of a town in rural Ireland

It was here that I discovered my gayness. I was 12 years old when I looked across the classroom and caught the eye of my classmate. We had known each other five years, and we were never close, but when we locked eyes something inside me exploded. It felt like fireworks. Suddenly I wanted to spend every day with him. I wanted to know what he liked to watch on TV, who his favourite football player was, whether he preferred GAA or hurling.

My nascent queerness was developing at the same time as my school colleagues’ homophobia. Although I had no idea I was gay, I was still targeted as ‘other’ for a variety of reasons: I didn’t like sports of any kind, bar swimming. I liked comic books and reading, and was a tad sensitive. I couldn’t join in on their gentle teasing, nor could I fight (at least not physically). This was enough to mark me as a target for bullying. When I discovered that I like men I buried that part of myself so deep so as not to exacerbate the emotional and physical violence that had already found me.

By the time I started secondary school I felt lonely. I would develop crushes and hide them, and date girls to maintain a cover. I was a young gay spy. The homophobia became more overt. I was still a target, and words like faggot came as naturally to some students as breathing. Sometimes teachers even joined in.

I went to secondary school in a farming town in Wicklow called Carnew. It was a clear upgrade from Coolgreany, but had very few outlets for me outside of local drama clubs. LGBT+ issues were rarely discussed, and if they were, they were met with sneers.

A teenager in rural Ireland lying back on his elbow looking at the camera, a group of young people in the background.

My teenage years in rural Ireland were typified by suppression. I would fall in and out of love and would have to stifle my desire to reach out for intimacy. I longed for someone to love me in the way I needed them to, but could never show it. By this time I had moved to Gorey town, and there were no supports available (at least to my knowledge) for young LGBT+ people. We didn’t have the south-east equivalent of Outhouse in Dublin city.

My eventual coming out (six years after realising I was gay) was timed almost concurrently with my moving to Dublin to attend college. For me, it marked the beginning of a new chapter: to begin afresh, make new friends, build a life and find a community. I was successful. I cut ties with my home, slowly and quietly, and looked to the future. But when you move anywhere in life you carry your past with you, and if I was to ever find peace I needed to reconcile with this.

I contacted former teachers. My secondary school now has a gender-neutral bathroom policy. They fly both the Pride flag and the trans flag in their main social area alongside the nations of the world. There are LGBT+ students who exist in that space more openly than I could. There is even now an LGBT+ support service for young people in Gorey town. They convene every Wednesday on St. Michael’s Road, a short distance from where I came out to my last girlfriend. Kids in rural Ireland now have an outlet if they need help.

This is post-Marriage Equality society. Straight, cisgender Irish citizens have begun to view LGBT+ people less in the abstract, and more as people. They are our children, friends, family and teachers. It would be naive to say that all is healed, but there are more supports available now in rural Ireland than there ever was before.

Although I just missed the boat on this change, I am not bitter. I see the change in young people’s live, people who are like me, and I am heartened. I now see less fear, and less suppression.

At War With Yourself | The Invisible Enemy & Me

Note: This article was originally published on the HeadStuff website.

Imagine you were fighting an invisible war where the enemy could anticipate your every move and tactic. Worse still: imagine the enemy lived inside your head and was unrelenting in its fight against you.

I was around eleven when I first thought I might have OCD. By this time I was washing my hands so excessively that the skin around my knuckles regularly cracked, and I’d leave little traces of blood on the floor, couch or whatever book or magazine I happened to be reading at the time. Skin cream was bought, gloves were worn, but it didn’t matter; I’d either wash it away or simply grow irritated and take them off. Family members told me it was nothing to worry about: “I saw someone on the Late Late Show,” one said, “who claimed that teenagers and children worry about having OCD when they really don’t. I wouldn’t worry, it’s normal.”

I figured they were right and I’d grow out of it eventually.

Years later a counsellor would tell me that it was simply a way I’d learned to deal with stress: “Whenever you felt you weren’t in control of your environment you’d wash your hands. It was a way for you to gain control.”

It made some sense, but it didn’t account for the regular irritating thought patterns that had emerged when I hit puberty. Whenever I couldn’t play guitar like a musician I admired, write like a poet I loved, or learn to socialise like a boy of my age should, I’d analyse and overanalyse what I thought I was doing wrong and think about it repeatedly before trying again. If I didn’t make the self-established mark a second or third or fourth time, it would be back to square one in a cyclical pattern of blame and criticism that, over time, tore down my self-esteem.

Books - HeadStuff.org

These weren’t thoughts that could be dismissed: I couldn’t control them. They were negative, intrusive thoughts that bled into every aspect over my life, essentially paralysing me into a state of fear that inhibited my ability to function. They’d descend onto my mind like military paratroopers intent on ransacking and usurping all the rational, logical thoughts I’d stored over time, replacing them with anxiety and worry over the smallest details of my existence. Everything was up for scrutiny: the way I’d walk, talk, learn, write, and interact with others. I’d go into a state of dissociation and disconnect from my friends, making me feel isolated and alone.

Eventually these intrusive thoughts would lead to ritual behaviours: I’d think about something negative, and whether it be it truthful or imagined, if I didn’t enact the behaviours I’d fear they would make themselves manifest. If I didn’t tap my head three times with my knuckles, I’d fail my exams, my friends would fall out with me, my family would leave. I’d lose control of my life and all my fears would be free to wreak havoc on my existence. Illogical, I know, but inescapable all the same.

No one else I knew had a mind that worked like this, and so I felt like a fool. I’d lose sleep thinking and worrying about all the things in my life I was doing wrong and without any kind of guidance I felt scared. I’d fall into regular depression and spend periods of time feeling lost, sometimes contemplating self-harm.

Of course, despite my concerns, I wasn’t alone. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder affects one in every 33-50 people – essentially 2% of the Irish population. It is a tangible, real illness that studies suggest is caused by chemical or structural abnormalities in the brain, possibly as a result of environmental factors such as stress. It manifests as obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviours, and is often misrepresented by wider popular culture as a heightened ‘ultra-cleanliness’: an obsession with hygiene that has spun out of control. Although many who live with OCD do obsess over hygiene and sanitation, it is much more debilitating than is presented in the media: much less a quirk than a wearying, unavoidable illness.

Mental health - HeadStuff.org

In fact, as a direct result of inaccurate depictions, people have taken to using the term ‘OCD’ in such offhand and flippant ways to describe such quirks in their lives: when was the last time you heard a neat freak friend of yours describe themselves as “so OCD?” Or when you heard someone you know use the term to describe the way they organise their notes or work environment? Could you imagine if these people used other illnesses so flippantly in their day-to-day lives? What if they used cancer so flippantly, or heart failure? Naturally, your response would be one of condemnation, so why allow them to use OCD? There is a persistent stigma of not only OCD in our culture, but mental illness more broadly. If an illness doesn’t make itself physically manifest, we dismiss it off-hand without realising the impact that might have.

I was diagnosed with OCD in January of last year. Sitting in a psychiatrist’s office in UCD holding back tears, I listened intently as everything I’d suspected from a young age was confirmed. It was as if the woman speaking to me in that office retroactively validated the concerns I had when I was 11. She didn’t take the same route others had taken. She didn’t tell me it was all made up or in my head, or that I was simply being a worrywart. She looked at me and said, “you were right, this is OCD.” I was suddenly overwhelmed: I was not strange or a fool for feeling this way, and I was perfectly right in feeling concerned in the first place.This is what prevented me from seeking help for so long. If my anxieties had been validated and discussed from the start, I might have been presented with the tools towards dealing with my illness, but because it was presented as a quirk or a joke or something so rare and exclusively hygiene-centred, I figured I was simply damaged.

Counselling - HeadStuff.org

My medication was altered to better deal with my symptoms and once I discovered exactly what it was I was dealing with, I was able to take concrete steps towards living with my illness. I see a counsellor regularly and have alerted lecturers where necessary. Now that I have tangible proof of what it is I am dealing with, slowly but surely everything is falling into place.

However, as with all mental illness, there is no quick fix, and the symptoms detailed above will appear and reappear at the most inopportune of times: at family gatherings, when writing, or, worst of all, when I’m tucked up in bed trying to sleep. As ever, the worst thing about having OCD is not knowing what will trigger it in your day to day life. Any offhand comment could plague you for weeks. There’s no consistent pattern. Put simply: it’s like walking through the tall grass in Pokémon. And you’ve just got to live with it.

The difference in dealing with OCD post-diagnosis though, is that I have the tools necessary to wade through the battlefields of anxiety without getting completely lost.

It is worth bearing in mind that a multitude of supports are available for those suffering with OCD. OCD Ireland links to numerous networks on their website, and there is no shame in contacting a local doctor, psychiatrist or counsellor if you have any concerns. Although you may be fighting a war on yourself, you don’t have to fight it alone.

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