I’ve been writing about my mental illness on the internet since I was a LiveJournal blogging fifteen-year-old in the early 2000s. That means that half of my life has been spent hunched over the cold glow of a computer screen, furiously attaching words to the anxiety, the sadness, the obsessive thoughts, the compulsive thoughts, the disordered eating habits, the twisted obsessions I have with food and weight and body image, the bulimia, the addiction(s), the self-medicating, the side-effects of the psychotropic drugs I’ve been prescribed throughout the past decade, and just the general highs and lows of having (what feels like) a broken brain.
It never occurred to me that what I was putting “out there” was bold or controversial. I never worried that the provocative or revealing content I’ve written, essays I’ve penned that have gone viral and have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of critical eyes, could perhaps make me undatable or garner me a bad reputation. I mean it when I say the consequences of my chosen career truly never occurred to me. Some people are just meant to do certain things. I’m meant to share.
And writing, to me, is like medicine. I need it. I’m sick without it.
Writing has been the only thing that has ever lifted the suffocating shame I’ve felt about my sexuality, my depression, my looks. It’s gifted me the life-changing reward of feeling connected to people outside of my world and comfort zone. It’s made me feel less alone in the struggle. It seems to have made many of the people who follow me feel less alone in their struggle. Being of service to others in such a raw and intimate way has healed me more than any medication I’ve ever been prescribed. (And I’ve been prescribed a lot).
Yes, I’ve had some dark run-ins with internet trolls throughout the years. I received three rape threats 24 hours after publishing a piece about sexual assault. An article I wrote the day of the women’s march bestowed me with more death threats than I care to count. I’ve had stalkers cross the line of safety. Notorious Republican “journalist” Robert Stacy McCain once published a 4,684-word essay about what a deranged crazy dyke I am. He even expressed a deep concern for my future offspring, ending his essay by saying,
“Pity the poor child with such a crazy lesbian for a mother. To deliberately impregnate such a psycho would be like a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby.”
As a self-identified “crazy lesbian” who so desperately wants to be a mother (soon), did McCain’s bitchy words sting my baby-craving soul? No. Not really. It felt jarring, creepy and unsettling to have a man thirty or so years my senior take such a vehement interest in my life — but no, it didn’t hurt.
Because at the end of the day, I don’t write for white, middle-aged men with hard-hitting right-wing blogs, so really, why would I care what f*ck they think about me and my faggy life? I write for girls. The misfits. The sexually confused. The mascara-tear-stained girl searching on her hands and knees for her missing cell phone at the end of a long boozy night at a dive bar on the wrong side of town. Party girls who want to better themselves without losing themselves. Imperfect, sensitive, gorgeously-complex babes just trying to figure this life shit out. People like me, I guess.
But something has been happening lately in the internet lesbian underworld that has been sticking a proverbial fork into my thigh. Something that actually hurts unlike the bitchy, homophobic comments from the prematurely balding trolls that presumably live in their mother’s basements in nameless small towns.
I’ve been getting messages from *certain* self-identified LGBTQ women, critiquing me, not on the quality of my writing or the validity of my wild opinions, but on my honesty. I’ve been told that my sexuality should somehow dictate how honest I am about my traditionally “flawed” characteristics. Aka: Mental illness, sex, and binge drinking.
“Can you stop talking about your mental illness? You’re making all lesbians look bad.”
“Ew. I’m a lesbian and I don’t have ANY of these issues. Your work is damaging to lesbians.”
“This proves every stereotype straight people have about gay people RIGHT! You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“I’m a lesbian and I don’t have mental illness and articles like yours are damaging to us as a community.”
“Why are you writing so much about drinking? You’re making us all look like alcoholics. Like all we do is party. I do way more than party. This is gross.”
I’m not going to lie: These messages crushed my feelings. Because they weren’t coming from conservative old white men — but from women. Women in my community. Seemingly smart gay women who I deeply respect.
See, I’ve always felt like an outsider in the lesbian community, and I’ve always fiercely coveted the collective approval of gay women. The outward disapproval of all these gay women affirmed what I’ve feared since I was a closet-case kid: I Don’t Belong Here.
And I felt embarrassed. I felt embarrassed by my mental illness. My soul-crushing anxiety. My twisted sexual history with men. But what really socked me right in the gut was this unshakeable feeling of shame. I felt so ashamed of the shamelessness I must possess for having the wherewithal to candidly discuss these abhorrent things about myself on a public platform. For being stripped naked and spread wide open, exposing the gross characteristics I was born with. Ashamed of being diseased. Ill. Traumatized. Damaged goods.
And most of all, I felt ashamed for having the audacity to write about these ugly things that risk making my community look bad to people like Robert Stacey McCain.
It’s hard enough being gay. Why can’t you be a gay role model? Why can’t you be the one to prove that gay people are NORMAL? The judgmental side of myself scolded the sensitive, vulnerable side of myself. I imagined myself split into two distinct parts: The role model with the bob and the high flutin’ college degree. And the real me: The hyper-sensitive, mentally ill f*ckgirl, art school drop-out with the ratty hair extensions and the obvious insecurities. The role model with the bob slugged back a healthy green juice and stared judgmentally at the sensitive f*ckgirl with the ratty weave, who incidentally was sipping on hard liquor and sucking back a smoke.
I curled up inside of myself and retreated for a few weeks. After two or three women repeatedly reprimanded me for playing into “damaging stereotypes” after writing a naked piece about my anxiety disorder, I stopped writing about the mess of being a girl. The mess of being a lesbian. The mess of being in your early 30s. The mess of mental illness and the mess of antidepressants and whatnot. I was taken back to 12-year-old me.
The pervy kid who was obsessed with sex.
I was one of those kids who had endless questions about sex. I thought about sex all the time. I wanted to discuss what sex was and meant with both my friends and adults alike. Because I grew up in a sex-positive household, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with thinking about sex all the time. My mother had feverishly instilled in us that sex was a totally natural part of the human condition. Never something to be ashamed of. Yet, when I brought up my curiosity to my friends one night at a sleepover party, I was banned from ever seeing those friends again. “Zara is inappropriate. She discusses things a girl her age shouldn’t be discussing.”
All I remember from that confusing, acne-ridden time is being so bathed in shame. Feeling so irrevocably dirty for daring to express the dirty thoughts that tainted my otherwise pure adolescent brain. The message was loud and clear: You can think about sex, but you can’t ever, ever talk about sex when you’re a young girl.
Cut to the present and the subject at hand may be different, but the message is still the same.
You can struggle with mental illness, but you can’t ever, ever discuss your struggle when you’re a lesbian with a wide-reaching platform. As if both mental illness and sex are somehow crass, embarrassing parts of our humanity that we should tuck away, like a dark family secret that’s silently poisoned generations.
I stopped being ashamed of being a girl who enjoys sex when I was sixteen and fell in love for the first time. The girl I was secretly dating had no shame about sex, in fact, she was proud of her sexuality. Her lack of shame empowered me.
I stopped being ashamed about my mental illness, recently. One morning I woke up. I mean, like, I literally woke up and snapped out of the stupid shame slumber I had been wasting away in. It dissipated so quickly, it felt spiritual. As the sun cut through my blind-less bedroom window, one thought kept screaming inside of my head so loudly I felt it through vibrate through my body:
I’ll never stop talking about my mental illness. I’ll never stop talking about my mental illness. I’ll never stop talking about my mental illness.
I won’t shut up about the darkest, messiest, sexiest, perviest, most mentally ill and deranged parts of my life, ever. Because this notion that LGBTQ people have to present themselves as heroes to the outer world is f*cking bullshit. Telling an LGBTQ person to stop speaking their truths is like telling that person to go back in the closet. By silencing the imperfect, flawed voices of community members, you are sending them a message that who they are is disgraceful and they should hide it in order to not poison the rest of the queer population. It’s the parent telling the child she can’t hang out with her gay friend because she might catch the gay disease. Substitute the word “queer” or “gay” or “lesbian” for “mental illness” and it’s all the same bigotry, babe. One can not control their sexuality and one can not control that war exists inside of their brains.
The other day a girl who has been following me for a long time wrote me a really long letter. We’ve been in touch throughout the last several years, but this was the longest, deepest letter she’d written me yet. I feel protective and invested in her, as I do of every single person who reads my work. She said she was feeling really down. She had been considering suicide. She felt ashamed for feeling all the bad feels that consume her. She was sitting in her therapist’s office, waiting to for her appointment, feeling like garbage. And then she came across an essay I had written about how antidepressants are ruining my sex drive and that it’s making me more depressed! It was a stupid article: Candid and completely non-academic. I mention all the red-flags: Drug use. love addiction. meds. sex. I call myself “crazy.” It made her smile, she said. It made her look at her situation through a different lens. In fact, she found the humor of sitting in a shrink’s office reading an article on her iPhone, whilst on the brink of a nervous breakdown. And that little sprinkle of humor, of lightness in one of the darkest moments of her life, is what kept her going.
And that is why I won’t ever, ever stop talking about my mental illness. Because it’s funny. Because it’s real. Because I’m not ashamed of it anymore and I wholly believe that no young lesbian/queer girl should be.
You don’t have to read it. You don’t have to agree with it and you certainly don’t have to like it. But I’m not going to shut up about any of it, in order to fill your idea of what the “perfect queer internet writer” is supposed to be.
If you want to read content from a lesbian who is the image of academic perfection, go for it. There are a million and some college-educated essays sifting about the internet that will break down the academic structure of politics, of queer theory, of how damaging flawed dykes like me are to the community at large. There are people who will write one day about their mental illness and write about Russian politics the next. There is room for all of it and for all of us. Because even though we are all united in our mutual queerness, we are all so very different. We’re all fighting different battles, babe. And I think that’s pretty cool. I don’t want anyone person representing me. Because I, like you, am a nuanced person. I’m a person with mental illness, who also loves lipstick and also cares about politics and young people.
And if you fear that anything a queer writer writes is going to validate the bigotry of the homophobic entities scattered across the internet, I challenge you to think not of the haters, but of the suffering young people in our community who are desperate to read content that they truly connect with. To not put the homophobes needs before our community’s needs.
Queer people are allowed to have problems. To act out. We are allowed to be both good and bad, both a hero and a villain all at once. Isn’t blurring our truest selves in order to appease the weak eyes of the haters, yet another form of oppression? Isn’t dimming down our obnoxious colorfulness letting the other side win? Isn’t the most important, political thing we can do, is be real and honest? To reveal not only the perfectly curated versions of ourselves but the raw, ugly parts too?
You can’t enjoy the bright parts of life without acknowledging the dark parts too. Scoring the job you’ve always coveted means nothing without having experienced the struggle. Pure love means nothing without having suffered through a harrowing heartbreak. A moment of bliss is weak without having sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The highs and lows of our crazy, haphazard lives are what make the big picture so nuanced, so beautiful.
The flaws, the sexual mishaps, the mental illness, the sadness, the mistakes, the highs, and the lows, are what make us so nuanced, so beautiful. They’re what make the raw personal essays we feverishly type at 2am, the music we write in our bedrooms when no one else is home, the art we create and the conversations we share with strangers at bus-stops so nuanced, so beautiful.
And that is really why, I will never, ever shut up about my mental illness. Because I don’t care for safe “prettiness” I crave a dangerous, complex beauty. I’ve come to believe that the worst thing we can do is dull our complex beauty down for those who refuse to understand it. For they’re the ones missing out. The rest of us want to bask in your imperfect glory, babe.
Zara Barrie is the Executive Editor of GO Magazine. She’s consumed by style, sexuality, women, words, fashion and feelings. She identifies as a “mascara lesbian” and lives beyond her means in Manhattan. Stalk her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.