When I look back over the notes I took on my journey through sexuality and faith, I noticed one word that appeared frequently after I turned 30:
I noted how I was tired of hiding.
I noted how I was tired of lying...
Tired of dodging questions about dating.
Tired of people not understanding why I was single.
Tired of being scared of being found out.
Tired of people acting like my singleness was an ailment to be remedied.
Tired of just thinking about it all the time.
By the time I was 30, I'd spent 10-15 years in the battle of trying to figure this thing out.
It's a range because I'm never totally certain of when the "battle" began, but it was at least a decade. And doing anything for that long will leave you tired, worn down, exhausted.
I've thought a lot about decade-long battles. I've learned a lot too.
First, I learned that humans aren't well-equipped for them.
We can handle wartimes, but just not for that long. We're not designed to reside in a prolonged state of war. The psychological effects of actual wars on people have been studied at length, and they are devastating. Higher rates of depression, suicide, and mental illness are common for people who experience war over a long time period. Of course, the battles in our minds aren't like real wars, but they can still affect us deeply.
I learned that decade-long battles make you feel small.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Gandalf tells Bilbo Baggins, "You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!" It's quite surreal to be a grown man in your 30s, feeling like a little hobbit in a world full of danger. But this is what the battle does to you.
Because victory is always out of reach, you always feel like a kid, never big enough or strong enough to win. And your juvenile attempts at brokering a peace-deal with yourself never work. Part of feeling small is feeling powerless, and these long combat situations will do that to you.
I learned that decade-long battles create a paradox of feeling alive and dead at the same time.
It's like a big oak tree in the winter. It has all the signs of death—brown, leafless, brittle—but is most definitely alive.
Assailing emotions force you to feel, a reminder that you are indeed alive.
But on other days, assaults from sadness, loneliness, and discouragement leave you feeling dead.
There are "alive days" when you're singing your song well. And there are "dead days" where it feels like someone has stolen the notes and left you only with a beat—a monotone banging that sounds nothing like music.
I also learned that decade-long battles can skew your sense of reality.
Always being at war in your mind makes you lose the horizon sometimes. You can forget about the reality where everyone else lives because you spend so much time in your own mental reality of bombs and explosions and guns.
I had a Japanese fraternity brother in college named Hiro who told me a story about his grandmother once. She lived in a rural part of Japan during WWII, and she told him that during the war, they would do drills in their village where the women would practice jabbing with spears. They'd heard airplanes may attack, and this was their preparation, their means of defense. Hiro acted out the jabbing by holding an invisible spear with both hands and thrusting it towards the sky in a diagonal motion. This was hard to believe, but he swore it was true.
When you're in the chaos of an ongoing battle, it's easy to lose sight of what's real and what isn't.
I learned that decade-long battles force you to toughen up, to numb up. A lot.
I've talked a lot about coping because it's a big part of head-battles. You learn the art of squashing your emotions...
Of jailing them...
Of gagging them...
Of stuffing them in the "junk room" so houseguests won't find them.
The challenge with all this squashing, jailing, gagging, and stuffing is that you end up doing that to the good emotions too.
Brene Brown is an author and hero of mine. She talks about this in her book The Gifts of Imperfection,
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
All the emotions take a hit. And we have a name for emotionless people:
There are lots of zombies amongst us—embattled souls plodding through life feeling nothing because they've gotten so good with the numbing needle. They'd rather feel nothing, even if it costs them their joy and their passion.
We all know people like this, and I think it's why Mark Twain's famous quote is so famous...
"Most men die at 27, we just bury them at 72."
Decade-long battles also have a way of infecting your outlook on life with a virus of negativity, of expecting the worst.
Living in a battle zone in your head keeps you in a defensive posture—one marked by distrust, despair, and worry. And if you hold a posture long enough, you can get stuck there even on days where the battle isn't raging. People infected with this sour outlook take a mundane situation and expect the worst.
March 14, 2011, was the day I thought God cursed my testicles.
I discovered a lump that day, and my first thought was...
"OMG. Cancer. I bet this is God's punishment for me being gay."
Convinced I was basically already dead, I went to Google to confirm. One of the first stats I discovered was that testicular cancer has a 90% cure rate. My embattled mind flipped it...
"Oh great, 10% chance I'll be dead soon." 💀💀💀
I call this doomsday math, and this is what I'm talking about. When you've been fighting for your life, evil slips in and warps your thoughts towards negativity, towards assuming the worst.
(I had it checked out. It was nothing.)
So in my early 30s I became aware of my battle-weariness. I was wearing down.
But in the midst of it all, there was also light. There's always light.
It's easy to look back at the hard seasons of life and remember them as all bad. This is easy to do because the bad stuff is just so damn memorable. Humans also like to think of things as a simplistic duality of good or bad, of black or white because it's much simpler (and quicker) than considering grey.
Grey is messy.
Grey is slow.
Grey requires critical thought, effort, and time we often just don't have.
We look back at the really bad seasons of life and think of them as all black. We look at the really good seasons of life and think of them as all white. Truth be told, they were more grey than we remember.
My dad used to tell me that good situations are never as good as we think and bad situations are never as bad as we think. He was right.
We forget the small kindnesses, simple graces, and encouraging words that we experienced during the rough patches of life. We forget the amazing lessons we learned and how much we grew then. We forget that as the battle got worse our stories were getting better.
But then one day we find some peace, and we look back and see a lot of grace in that "bad" season of life.
The battles of life are real, but there are more moments of light in them than we remember. I see that now.
Perhaps the toughest part of fighting a decade-long battle is that there are many moments where you fear you might not win.
I made lots of notes about this back then. Here's one of them...
"At 30, one of my greatest fears is of unraveling. That the life I've built for myself will eventually unravel. My roommate will leave, friends will gradually abandon me as they find out my secret, and my co-workers will view me as an embarrassment. And when this yarn is unraveled and laid out on the table even God himself will decide I'm no longer worthy, tossing me in the trash."
Of course I was being a bit dramatic here, but this is a real fear—that despite all your best efforts, prayers, and fighting, you will eventually lose the battle. You will be found out and exposed as the fraud that you are. Or, even worse, you'll give in to it. You'll lose the single/celibate battle and become a scandal, a living hypocrite.
These kinds of thoughts are incredibly toxic, like black mold in the soul.
They often evolve into stress and stress can evolve into anxiety—the kind that puts you in the hospital. I'd experienced an anxiety that could blast through the layers of my mind and wreck my body. I had two trips to the hospital to show for it.
And in 2012, the anxiety returned with a vengeance, bringing with it a new series of frightening mental episodes... 👊
All photos by Sterling Graves. Copyright Blue Babies Pink & Sterling Graves.
B.T. Harman is the creator of Blue Babies Pink, a Southern Coming Out Story in 44 Episodes.
B.T. is a consultant, writer, and speaker living in Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood. He was previously a vice president for Booster, an Atlanta fundraising company, where he helped the organization raise $150 million for elementary schools.
B.T. is passionate about storytelling, leadership, good design, Seth Godin, SEC football, Chick-fil-A, Taylor Swift, archaeology, European Travel and CS Lewis.
To learn more about B.T., visit his personal site at btharman.com.