By Greg Arther
By all accounts, I should have been happy. I had a wonderful boyfriend, and loving parents and close friends who knew I was gay. I loved my University of Wisconsin-Platteville college track teammates and considered them family. However, I was still feeling sad, hopeless, empty and anxious.
That's what being in the closet did to me as I struggled to come out as gay after my freshman year, especially to my teammates. I started seeing a therapist and finally decided to come out. The day I chose to go public, I woke up to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. It was an amazing coincidence that I was truly free the same day same-sex people everywhere could legally get married.
I've always been competitive and I hate losing. I always strive to be the best I could be in the classroom and in sports. In doing so, I became a decent athlete in high school, achieving some success while making great memories and lifelong friends along the way.
Since middle school, I knew I was different than my friends, but I pushed it aside, too scared to fully admit it and accept it. I just threw myself into my school work and sports. I first started to come to terms with my sexuality near the end of senior year of high school. I had a few girlfriends in high school but it just never felt right to me. In my senior year, I started to take to the idea that I was possibly gay, but that wasn't something that I wanted to confront yet. Keeping this secret from everyone started to make me feel isolated and I was scared to share with anyone the way I was feeling. So I kept this secret to myself going into college.
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"I wish I could help you to better understand how emotionally difficult this process is," college runner David Gilbert wrote. "The fear of judgment tears me apart every day of my life."
When I got to UW-Platteville I tried out for cross country, but an injury prevented me from making the team. Even though I was not on the team, I became part of a family. This group of guys became my first and closest friends on campus, but I still was too scared to tell anyone how I felt, let alone accept it fully myself. I suppressed how I felt and stuck to focusing on my grades and getting healthy for track season.
My secret started turning into a burden as the semester pressed on. I felt like I was lying to everyone and that no one truly knew the real me. Then one night last December I couldn't take it anymore, so I grabbed my phone and texted one of my old high school teammates and close friend who ran at a different college. I asked if he could keep a secret. With my heart pounding and hands shaking I eventually drew up the courage to come out to him. The few minutes before his response were terrifying yet liberating. I was no longer keeping this secret to myself. He had nothing but support for me and made it clear that I was still the same friend and teammate he'd known and loved since middle school. It was only one person, but it was a weight off my chest.
I then came out to a small group of friends all of whom supported me, but still did not tell anyone from my team. I slowly started getting comfortable with being gay, but I refused to let it define who I was. It was this idea that kept me from coming out to my team as a freshman, I didn't want to be known just for being the gay kid on the team.
As second semester went on, I started dating other guys, but I took every step to hide it from everyone but a few friends. I started living in fear of what my teammates would think if they found out. Track season started out well. I was in the best shape of my life and was close to breaking my high school bests. As time went on the fear started taking its toll on me. I started having anxiety and isolating myself from the team to keep them from finding out.
This fear, anxiety, and isolation began to take over my life. I couldn't focus on anything else and my performance in the classroom and on the track both started to fall. It only got worse after one of the girls on the team started to have a crush on me. I didn't know what to do. A lot of the guys on the team knew about it too and started questioning why I wasn't pursuing her. I ended up just making excuses. After I came out, I apologized to her for leading her on and she has now ended up becoming one of my best friends.
I told myself I'd come out to my parents at the end of the school year when we would have the whole summer together. As the fear and stress of the closet got worse I decided I couldn't wait. I was never worried my parents would react negatively as they are progressive people. I remember my mom telling me one day after I was relentlessly bullied in middle school that even if I was gay that wouldn't change who I was to them, and that they'd love me all the same. That being said, coming out to my parents was still a scary thought. I was planning on telling my parents over spring break, but eventually chickened out. During break, I started talking to someone, someone who is now my boyfriend, Tyler Shilton. After about a month, we talked each other into coming out to our families. I chose to write a letter to my parents over Easter. It was a shock to them, but that did not prevent them from showing me nothing but love and support.
Returning to school after Easter break left me with mixed feelings. On one hand I was finally out to my parents. At the same time, I could not celebrate this milestone with my teammates, leaving me to feel even more alone. This is when I really started to sink lower and lower. I starting sleeping all day, skipping classes, avoiding everyone. I hated myself for it all of it, but I couldn't bring myself to anything about it.
One of the few things that kept me going was knowing I would finally get to see Tyler after the semester was over. But before that happened my depression got worse. I would end up crying at times for no reason, sometimes in bed, sitting alone watching TV, and even in the shower. My anxiety was no better, my mind would race, my hands would be shaking all the time, I couldn't focus on class and I started having panic attacks.
I was miserable, yet I kept it all secret from my teammates, which only made it worse. I felt like I had nowhere to go, or anyone to turn to. I felt hopeless. Every day started turning into a struggle. It didn't help that at the time I refused to seek help. I sank to a point where I hated running, the same activity that I looked forward to every day just a few months ago. A 20-minute run now seemed like a monumental task. The last month of school was when I was at my lowest. The stress of finals, the closet, and depression left me feeling like a hollow shell of who I used to be. Somehow I managed to survive and make it through finals to finish the year off.
With the school year over, I thought I would start getting better, but I was wrong. Still some good started to happen. After two month of constantly texting and chatting I finally got to go on a date with Tyler. About a week later I would call him my boyfriend, but was still in the closet to everyone but close friends and my family. I finally admitted that I needed help. After talking with my parents, they helped me schedule an appointment for some counseling. This was the start to overcoming my depression and anxiety.
Nothing would compare to the help that finally coming out would do. I remember watching TV with my mom the night before I came out. It was June 25 of this year. I told her that I was tired and ready to just post it all on Facebook, wanting to just get it over with. By this time I had been talking to my therapist for a few weeks and was starting to think clearly again. I was ready to stand up for myself, embrace who I was and not care what anyone else thought.
The next morning I woke up to find that gay marriage was legal after the Supreme Court ruling. All I could think was that this is the craziest coincidence of my life, followed by happiness and overwhelming joy. So later that day Tyler and I posted our relationship status on Facebook and wrote a few words along with this photo celebrating the day: I was beyond excited to wake up this morning and hear such amazing news and even more excited that I can share in this celebration and historic event. -- with Tyler Shilton.
The next few days were filled with texts and phone calls full of love and support from friends and family.
This was also the first time my teammates learned about it, all of whom showed nothing but support. Knowing that I had the support of my team was the greatest feeling in the world. I hid who I am for months in fear of what they would think, never stopping to even consider the possibility that they would be supportive. I instantly felt happier than I had been in over a year. I began to feel less anxious and my depression started to melt away. Slowly I started to enjoy running again. Unfortunately, this fall I did not feel in shape enough to go out for cross country. I have set my sights on getting ready for the upcoming track season, this time out and proud of who I am.
Looking back on last year, there is one thing I would have done differently. I would have have sought the help that I desperately needed sooner. I let my performance on the track, in the classroom and myself suffer when I could have easily just admitted that I needed help. I could have prevented a lot of misery for myself. I've learned there is no shame in admitting when you need help.
Not everything can be done by yourself and that's OK. I'd be lying if I said I don't have days where I still feel sad or anxious, but thanks to seeking out help I now know how to manage and overcome these feelings and not let them control my life. So my advice to anyone feeling sad, empty, anxious or hopeless: There is help out there and it's OK to reach out. I was too stubborn to do it sooner and you don't have to make the same mistake I did.