If you’ve read my previous work, you know that I’m often very personal and brutally honest about my experiences and my mistakes. This essay will be no different.
I want to share with you some experiences I’ve had over the last couple decades and I want to be open and revealing about how mental illness can drastically impact our ability to create and sustain romantic and other types of intimate relationships and friendships.
It’s been a long time since I last wrote about the status of my romantic life or the relationships that I have been in. I quit writing about it for a couple of reasons. One being that I didn’t want to share information about that aspect of my life anymore and because there honestly wasn’t anything to write about.
The last time I had feelings for someone whom I was dating, was in December of 2013. The last time I attempted to have sex was in 2014. I intended to make that statement exactly as I wrote it… “I attempted.”
The status of your mental health, or really your behavioral health as a whole, greatly impacts your romantic and intimate life. The word romantic is used here in the sense of your love life, the feelings that you express for another person or receive from another person, and intimate life refers to the sexual aspects of expressing that love, or lust in certain cases.
Having a mental illness or as I prefer to say, a mental health condition, such as depression, bipolar disorder, among others, can have a profound effect on how you approach and experience these types of relationships and even friendships. Often times in a very negative way.
Such is the case for me. Experiencing bipolar disorder and having depression since at least my mid-teens has made love, lust, and even friendship an extremely complicated and quite often heartbreaking experience that has led me to my adult life of chosen isolation from romance, deliberate avoidance of sexual encounters, and apprehension to appear in social environments.
People are complicated enough on their own. Having a mental health condition and interacting with other people makes that process doubly complicated, and often times less rewarding. Mix into that a willingness to explore emotional and sexual intimacy with others of the same gender and suddenly you have a maelstrom of complications.
For those unfamiliar with my past romantic experiences and bizarre friendships, I will revisit those before continuing with the direct subject of mental health and its effects on relationships. As I go through this, you may find yourself making observations that mental health was clearly impacting these human-to-human relationships without me needing to directly point it out.
When I was in kindergarten, I wrestled with another boy for a photo of a girl that I thought was cute. She hadn’t given me one of her school photos and I was very jealous of his newly acquired item. So when I saw him on the bus and he just sat there looking at her photo, I decided to act and jumped into the seat with him and grabbed at the photo.
A tug-of-war ensued as both of us fought for this girl’s photo. I had the element of surprise on my side though. Looking back I really don’t remember why I wanted that photo so bad or how much I really liked that girl. I have no memories of her and I interacting in kindergarten, only that I thought she was cute, but in that moment on the bus I was willing to fight to have that picture. I did prevail in that battle, as I had a good grip on most of the photo. It did end up tearing, but the only piece I lost to the other boy was an upper corner that included one of her purple hair-clips. An acceptable sacrifice.
I remember the other boy’s disgust with me for my theft, he was red in the face and threw that corner piece with her hair-clip on the floor of the bus and sat in his seat pouting. I considered retrieving that corner piece, but decided it unnecessary. I never interacted with that boy before that fight and I’m not sure if I even knew his name at the time.
The girl who was in the photo was sitting in the next seat over, observing all of this unfold. I remember her telling me to let him have the photo because she hadn’t given it to me, but I was selfish and only cared about what I wanted. So I kept it, held on to it for years as though her photo was a trophy. What I didn’t realize back then, was that a photo was not worth losing the chance at a friendship with the boy I fought with, or with the girl in the photo who consequently had no desire to talk to me for the rest of the school year.
Elementary school saw my bad behavior continue and my report cards often reflected this in my grades. Often picking on boys younger, physically weaker than me, or out of shape. My bad behavior included name-calling, pushing, throwing things, tripping, punching, kicking. Sometimes my aggression was even directed at girls and I did not treat them more gently than the boys.
In terms of girls, there were only three in my grade during elementary school, the rest of us were boys. While there was an ongoing joke that one of those girls and myself would one day get married, it certainly never came to pass as that sentiment was mostly one-sided. She would, however, be the first girl to kiss me, despite my objection. During a bus ride home, an older boy held me down in one of the seats so she could kiss me, he thought it was hilarious – I didn’t.
The first time I got to kiss a girl (by my own choosing) was with the one I had feelings towards for a long time during elementary school. Her father worked with my father, her older siblings were close in age to my older brothers. That kiss happened in the back of a bus during a field trip, where I presume many first kisses happen. Years later, she would pass away in a motor vehicle accident at the age of eighteen, the first time I experienced a close personal loss, and one that had lasting effects. You can go here to read my thoughts on that loss: At Peace With Goodbye.
In terms of my behavior in elementary school, I was sometimes the aggressor, but also sometimes the victim – which added to my desire to act out. I was short, the shortest boy in my class, and while I was athletic and one of the best runners, I was also skinny and perceived to be weak. Other kids, some older and some just more popular than me, looked to that as an opportunity or justification to exploit me.
You shouldn’t feel sorry for me though, anything negative I experienced was well deserved. Between the ages of 10 to 12 is when my level of aggression began to reach its climax, not surprisingly the point at which I hit puberty. There was one kid in my class, skinny, dark curly hair, prominent nose, who I saw as an easy target, bizarrely enough this kid was also often my best friend when I wasn’t being an asshole.
I frequently would trip this kid, push him, tackle him on the school bus, hit his head up against the window, sit on him, called him names based on his appearance. The worst of these nicknames was “Dirty Jew,” and even though I had watched WWII films and read books about the Holocaust in school, I didn’t understand the gravity of those words at that age and to my immature 12-year-old mind he just looked stereo-typically Jewish. The other kids laughed when I would call him that, so I kept using it. Their laughter was a type of approval, they were being enablers and eventually they took to calling me “Little Adolf.” None of us as Catholic students in fifth or sixth grade understood the gravity or offensiveness of what we were doing.
While this kid I picked on was my primary target, he wouldn’t completely submit or go without trying to fight back. One day he tried to trip me on the playground, so I chased after him in anger. While he could easily run much farther than I could, I was faster and I caught up with him and tackled him. I pinned him down underneath me, I spat in his face, pulled up clumps of dirt and grass and shoved it in his face, calling him by the nickname I had given him.
I specifically remember one of my teachers looking angrily in my face and asking, “What is wrong with you?!?!” I told her I was raised that way. But that wasn’t really true, my parents did not intentionally raise me to be aggressive. There were plenty of fights between myself and the brother closest to me in age though, not sure how he and I survived some of those fights, but I certainly carried that mentality of repressed aggression to school with me – where it did not remain repressed.
Unfortunately my verbal assaults were not exclusive to the curly-haired kid, as I also unleashed my anger on boys who were physically weak or “girly” in appearance or behavior, stereotyping them as gay and thus I called them names such as fag, faggot, and queer.
All of this will likely make you ask the same question my teacher did, “What is wrong with you?” To best answer that question we should look outside of school. Francis Bacon perhaps put it best, “No man is angry that feels not himself hurt.” It means that bullies are often times themselves victims of some sort of abuse, sometimes at school, but often times at home or within their community or neighborhood. Nowadays that also extends to the internet. Not able to handle the situation themselves, they begin acting out physically – sometimes towards other kids they see as non-threatening and easy targets – to vent their built up emotional anguish.
So, what was happening in my life that made me behave this way? Certainly, some of it was mental health related, I was a very active kid and could not sit still. I climbed all over things, ran around a lot, very rambunctious. My grandmother can be heard in an old family movie shouting, “Don’t you ever sit still!?!?” These days, kids get diagnosed with ADHD and are given pills for it.
My hyperactivity or any underlying mental health conditions I may have already had at that point, were still not justification enough for my aggressive behavior at school. For the most part, I did not behave that way at home. I believe a large part of my behavior had to do with my father and the lack of relationship I had with him. While he lived in the home and was a part of our lives in that sense, I spent most of my childhood either afraid of him or hating him, and wanting my mom to divorce him. I was not comfortable being around him, and especially being alone with him.
My father worked in construction for all the years that I can remember and while he didn’t hate that work he has always been the kind of person who gets easily stressed out and develops anxiety. After being at work all day he would come home with his nerves already on edge and having kids screaming and running around the house would push him over the edge. Sometimes my mom had to say to him, “That’s enough,” to bring him back from his own emotional outburst towards us.
I was the youngest of six kids, with nineteen years between me and the eldest sibling. My mother did not work outside of the home as we were raised in a traditional and religious household. She cooked, cleaned, and raised the kids, while my father financially supported us. We lived in a trailer, three of us boys shared a room and had to sleep in the same bed for several years until the last of the three oldest siblings moved out. The number then dropped to only two having to share a bedroom, while the third upgraded to having his own bedroom.
I grew up on a farm with about 200 acres, but as I mentioned we were not financially stable and lived below the poverty line. My parents could not afford to have health insurance for us kids so we never went to a doctor unless it was an urgent issue like a broken bone, major wound, or what they perceived to be a serious illness. One of the ear infections I had as a kid did not warrant a costly doctor visit, and that resulted in major damage to my eardrum due to the bacteria eating away at it, I am now mostly deaf in my left ear. As kids we were only able to go to the dentist because the gentlemen we went to was kind enough to not charge my parents for seeing several of us kids at once, even though my parents had scheduled the appointment for only one kid.
While some of these things sound borderline neglectful, my parents did the best they could with what they had and made sure we never starved, had clothes to wear, and were in school. My father dropped out of school at the age of 14, my mother at the age of 16. This of course was during the 1950’s and early 1960’s, in the American Midwest, where a high school diploma wasn’t considered necessary to find a job and earn a living. My father was already 45 years old by the time I was born, establishing yet another hurdle to our relationship. At school, kids would ask if I lived with my grandparents, not realizing that they were actually my parents.
I can remember being jealous of the other boys in my class, as they talked about their dads and the things they did together. Their father-son relationships seemed strange to me, I could not relate to them, but wanted to know what that felt like. My two eldest brothers were both nearly old enough to be my dad, so I often looked to them as father figures instead of my actual dad. While I can’t say that I was necessarily emotionally close to them, I certainly preferred their company over my father’s and so I spent a lot of time with both of them.
These two brothers have always been very different people. My eldest brother would let me ride around with him while he did farm work. That may not sound very interesting to some, but for others it’s a father-son activity and all these years later I still hold on to those memories. The other brother was a little more wild and free, he enjoyed giving rides on his dirt-bikes and ATVs, and he owned a ’69 Chevelle which he would take us fishing in and to the local Dairy Queen afterwards. Again, activities that fathers typically do with their sons. I have more father-son memories with my older brothers than with my real dad. My father has stated that he and my grandfather never had a close relationship either, and that he spent a lot of his time with his mom while growing up, which remained true up until his father passed away in 1981.
My aggressive years would fade away once I left elementary and junior high school behind and entered into high school, leaving behind the private Catholic school I had attended and nearly every one I knew. This transition changed me and I became extremely introverted, not making any attempts to make friends for the first three years. Unless people spoke to me directly, I rarely spoke to anyone else. While girls asked to date me, I made no such attempts of my own to emotionally connect with anyone. My grades improved dramatically during this transition, hiding the fact that all of my anguish was now entirely within me.
Instead of acting out in anger, I held everything in and it started to eat away at me slowly. Other students saw me as a quiet kid who was smart, but I was filled with so much self-hatred. At times I was taunted by older students, but nothing serious, I tried to disappear into the background as I did not want to be noticed. Lingering questions about my sexuality exploded inside my head and haunted me 24/7, expounding my desire to fade into the crowd and not be seen or spoken to, terrified that other people would find out about these feelings growing inside.
People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, never initially chose to be, but in time learn to accept themselves as they are. However, some continue to fight against it. This refusal to acknowledge or accept this aspect of their nature leads down a path of hatred, not only towards themselves but towards everyone who reminds them of that side they’re hiding.
I already suspected I was interested in the same gender when I was 11 years old, but by the time I was 13 I knew it for sure. I didn’t want to be, I wanted to grow up and live a life like every other guy, with a wife, kids, white picket fence, all of those things most fantasize about in their youth. So, I tried to smother those feelings, pretending like they weren’t there. Of course, this was pointless, one cannot deny their feelings without serious consequences to their emotional and mental health.
So, I became angry. Angry at others who I thought looked gay, or acted gay. I became hypersensitive to these things because I was fighting those same feelings inside myself. I used gay slurs and derogatory words, as if doing so would somehow hide my secret.
And then I became aware that those romantic feelings were not going to go away even if I didn’t acknowledge them or accept them or act on them. So my anger became internalized. I hated myself and denial became less about others and more about me.
I began to realize that I was going to be like the gay people I hated. That I was going to be an outcast, unwanted, hated, misunderstood, vilified by my fellow Catholic school classmates and greater community, and by society as a whole. Sitting in my Catholic studies class as a 6th grader while my teacher read from a pamphlet that said homosexuality was sinful, didn’t make me feel any better.
In the chaos of feeling attracted to other boys and at the same time hating it and myself, can lead boys like me to seek out perceived gay or bisexual boys to antagonize or harass because deep down we want their attention, but we hate ourselves for wanting it, so we externalize that hatred onto the perceived gay or bisexual boys through bullying.
It is a bizarre, confusing, and unfortunate state to be in, but one that is fairly common for permanently closeted boys and men. Typically these boys and men will not outwardly appear gay or bisexual which allows them to fly under the radar and go unnoticed. In adulthood, these men may even be married to women and have children while battling repressed homosexual feelings.
Sometimes they marry women because they believe it will validate for themselves that they are straight and not gay, but other times it’s because they are bisexual and do truly love their spouse emotionally and physically while still harboring seductive feelings for other men.
Ages 16 to 22 were the worst years of my life, layers of depression and suicidal thoughts caused by the turmoil of my sexual identity and an unfolding mental illness buried the moments of happiness I experienced. The only bright moments from that period occurred at the age of 18, during my senior year of high school. I had finally made friends. I spent time with these two guys outside of school and I became close to both of them. Multiple factors prevented me from taking my own life in my late teens, but these two people deserve a lot of the credit.
At the age of 22, I finally came to the realization that I would never be at peace until I stopped worrying about what other people thought of me. I knew that I needed to stop pretending like other guys didn’t interest me, I had to face the fact that I was more than just a little curious and needed to let go of my self-hatred and my fear of the unknown. I took small steps and I came out as bisexual, but soon after breaking up with my then girlfriend – I came out as gay on social media. This single choice had wide sweeping consequences, from the literal loss of “friends” to opening up a door of judgement and criticism from people I didn’t even know, who felt it necessary to tell me how I was wrong or confused and was making a mistake.
I was young and rebellious, but in some sense they weren’t necessarily incorrect about my actions. Once I opened that door there was no going back in the proverbial closet and closing the door behind me to hide. That door was broken now and there would no longer be any refuge. Looking back at that decision ten years later, I probably should not have been so open and outspoken about that aspect of my life. It soon went from being my sexuality to being my identity and I got lost in it. I went from being Kephen, to being “Kephen the Gay.” My conversations became hinged on my sexuality, my posts on social media were usually LGBTQ related, people would befriend me solely because I was “gay.”
It’s a mistake I see a lot of young men make, they allow this one small aspect of who they are, to become the sole piece of them upon which every other part of their lives pivots and they confuse their sexuality with their identity. It took me about eight years of going through different identities based on various sexualities before I got to a point where I was tired of it. I stopped calling myself gay and referred to myself as pansexual, then I went back to calling myself bisexual, and then I stopped talking about it all together. I was finally able to put that piece of me in its place and re-establish my identity along the spectrum of interests and characteristics I have as a person.
I stopped having conversations about LGBTQ issues, I stopped having conversations about men I was attracted to, I stopped posting or sharing posts from gay-themed websites, and I stopped writing articles about it. In some sense, this act was another type of freedom – this time a freedom from the social pressures of the LGBTQ community to conform and assimilate into their ranks. Finally, my sexuality returned to where it belonged, my private dating life and my bedroom.
Those eight years in between breaking down the proverbial closet door and realigning my identity in the wake of that decision, is what this article is mostly about. And now that you know the back story, the heavy stuff involving mental health can be discussed.
When I ended my last relationship with a girl, I thought that dating a guy would somehow be easier. I also thought that my uncomfortable feelings toward intimacy would no longer be an issue. In my experiences, dating a guy and dating a girl are not very different, many aspects are exactly the same. However, I’ve never had sex with a girl, so I cannot speak on similarities or differences between them and men in the bedroom.
My first six months of exploring my sexual attraction to men, was mostly through gay apps and websites. Living in a rural community, most other guys interested in men were closeted, and those that weren’t closeted had already moved away. I knew very little about what it meant to be “gay” and knew even less about how to be it with other men. All I had to go one were my feelings of attraction, both emotional and sexual.
These apps included such gay classics as Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d. While some gay and bisexual men certainly use these apps for serious dating, they are also heavily used for meeting other men for sexual encounters. I expanded my inventory by adding websites to find other men, these included typical dating sites like Plenty of Fish, OkCupid, and even the notorious personals section of Craigslist.
Those first few experiences were mostly messaging back and forth, exchanging photos (nudes included), and phone calls. I was not yet comfortable meeting these people in person, most of them just wanted in my pants anyway. When I was finally able to meet a guy in person for dating purposes, it turned sexual fairly quickly. This would be the pattern for all future dating experiences, and generally by the second date – one or both of us were at least partially naked.
These sexual experiences started out as you would expect them to go, hands being placed on certain areas of the body, cuddling, spooning, but usually didn’t go very well once they progressed beyond that. Most of these men liked kissing – something I found deplorable. I really struggled with the idea of kissing men, I did not enjoy it and it made me uncomfortable and frequently turned me off during sexual situations. This disdain for kissing men has continued throughout my dating experiences.
Other issues arose during these intimate situations that further hindered my experiences. Frequently, I found that these other men were very easily aroused to the point of erection by a touch or even a conversation, but I on the other was not. Even during sexual acts of foreplay, I would still not get an erection. Obviously this began to concern me as I did not have issues when I was alone with myself, but every time I engaged in sexual acts with other men I either could not get aroused or if I did it would go away as soon as I got hard.
The fact that I did not enjoy kissing other men, the fact that I either could not get an erection or keep an erection when engaged in foreplay with other men led some of them to conclude that I was not gay or even bisexual. This was not easy to accept as true. I knew that I was emotionally and sexually attracted to men. I had been crushing on or falling for men since I was eleven years old, I’d been sexually fantasizing about men and jerking off to those fantasies for just as long, and yet here I was in my twenties and things were not going well for me. If my body was working fine while I was alone, why was it not working while in the company of someone else? Why was I so uncomfortable in physically intimate situations with other men?
My mental health was affecting me in ways I hadn’t expected. My issues were not arising due to some sort of physical impotency, but because of psychological issues – a form of performance anxiety. Despite years of therapy and medication, my issues never went away and still remain with me today. This lack in sexual gratification with male partners is what drove me to walk away from attempting one-night-stands and even eroded my interest in dating. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, 2013 was the last time I dated anyone, I was 27 years old. 2014 was the last time I attempted to have sex with a guy, and I say attempted because that experience did not go well.
In fact, none of my sexual experiences with men have ever really gone well for one reason or another since 2008, and I’ve never even tried to have a sexual experience with a woman. I have never had an orgasm during sex with another man, though I have during foreplay. The last time I attempted anything sexual with another guy was in 2015, and I never got an erection or even removed my underwear for that matter – it was all about him, not me.
I cannot speak for women, but as a man – being sexually dysfunctional does not feel good, it does not lead you to a positive state of mind. It makes you feel embarrassed and as though you are less of a man. It’s easier and less shameful to just avoid those situations all together by not allowing anyone to come into your life, to just prevent that awkward conversation of, “I’m sorry, I can do me, I just can’t do you.”
To learn more about my thoughts on human sexuality: The Choice That Never Was
To learn more about my journey with mental illness: Out of the Darkness
Category: All, Behavioral Health, Human Condition, LGBTQ+, MiscellaneousTags: *See All Posts, American Midwest, Behavioral Health, Boyhood, Bullying, Coming of Age, Dating, Erectile Dysfunction, Growing Up, Homophobia, Life, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Orientation, Performance Anxiety, Relationships, Repressed, Romance, Self-Hatred, Sexual Dysfunction, Sexual Experiences, Sexuality