(Doctor’s Note: This letter deals with discussion of suicide.)
Dear Dr NerdLove,
I’m a 30 year old guy who is in his first real relationship. I had essentially given up the idea of ever having a relationship, and was honestly quite happy with my “forever alone” status. I’m a semi-professional sportsman and my only other experience with dating was with a teammate when I was 21. We were both so far in the closet we could have been on a ship with Prince Caspian, so it didn’t end well.
Yet now I seem to be in a relationship with a nice, sweet, well adjusted guy who is a few years younger than me and… likes me. Z is attracted to me. Thinks I’m funny. Doesn’t care that I am essentially a hot mess who spends way too much time with his foam roller and is never going to make the major leagues.
And I don’t know what to do about it. I have come out in a low-key way, and although I’m not waving a rainbow flag, everyone in my team knows I’m gay and is okay with it. Particularly when I wasn’t seeing anyone.
I don’t know how to be a boyfriend. I don’t even know if I’m attracted to Z, or if I’m just attracted to the fact he wants me. (I’m not conventionally attractive, being somehow both bald and effeminate.)
I know Z’s not my type, I know the sex hasn’t been great, but he’s inexperienced and I always seem to wind up trying to sleep with him on match days, so if it doesn’t get done quickly I get agonizing cramps in several major muscle groups because fucking after hours of intense exercise is not as easy as it should be.
And there’s a complication.
I recently went on my first tour since Z and I became Facebook official. We talked beforehand and agreed that I would get a tour pass – but he didn’t want to hear about it. What goes on tour stays on tour. (It’s the sporting equivalent of what happens in Vegas, and is honestly the way about half the pro sportsmen I know manage their love lives.)
On tour I met A, and over the course of a week we hooked up. When I first hooked up with him I didn’t realise his actual age – 19. To my shame, I didn’t call a halt to it when I found out how young he was. I remembered myself at 21 and tried to be the kind of person I would have wanted.
What followed was three weeks of this teenager messaging me, trying to get me to tell him I loved him. I was friendly, I was supportive, I told him he didn’t need to be afraid of coming out, that although we lived on opposite sides of the world I would be there for him as much as I could.
Four days before I flew home A killed himself.
I found out about it because immediately prior he messaged me saying he loved me, and after a day and several missed messages, when I called him his mother answered.
I fell apart. I don’t even remember my last game, or getting to the airport. There was no one I could talk to, because the team prefer their token homo not to mention his sexuality, and because A hadn’t told anyone he liked guys.
And I’ve come back to not being able to tell Z what happened. It’s our agreement, what goes on tour stays on tour – only dead boys follow you home so much more than living ones.
I’m seeing a counselor but due to expense, I can’t keep it up. I also can’t keep something else up, which is making Z think I don’t want him anymore. Instead I’m making excuses and getting more and more hyperactive whenever I see him to hide the fact that I am completely fucked up here – I’m out of my depth in this relationship, and I’m hurting so bad for a boy I cared for and, to be frank, a boy I could so easily have been.
Should I just break up with Z – who deserves better – and go back to my comfortable life of being alone? Should I tell him what happened, even if he doesn’t want to hear? Should I keep trying to pick myself up, going to the counseling I can’t afford, and hoping that as time goes by I’ll feel more human? But even if I do… I still won’t have any idea how to function in this relationship.
Dare I say it, Dr NerdLove, you’re my only hope?
Didn’t Come Home
Alright DCH, I’m going to start off by noting that this is the sort of thing that’s above my paygrade. Dr. NerdLove is not a doctor, and this is the sort of thing that you should be talking about with a therapist. And honestly, that’s where you should be putting your priority. Your counselor will almost certainly be willing to work with you on a sliding scale or finding a way to make these sessions affordable to you. Failing that, there are other options out there for finding low cost – or even free – therapy. Captain Awkward has an excellent series of posts on this and you should check it out.
Now here’s my question: what, exactly, are you talking about with your therapist? I ask because these issues you bring up are all tangled together into one giant gordian knot; you may be picking at one particular string when you really need to cut straight through the middle. So let me start with the obvious.
What happened to A is not your fault.
Let me say that again for emphasis: what happened to A is not your fault. Tattoo this backwards on your forehead so you can see it in the mirror when you wake up. This was not your fault.
You aren’t responsible for what he did and it wasn’t – nor should it be – your job to monitor him 24/7 just in case he was having suicidal thoughts. A had problems, problems that are, unfortunately, common to young LGBTQ folks without a support structure. It’s a tragedy that he died so young, but that’s not your fault. It’s a cruel detail of his death that he had latched onto you so tightly – beyond what’s reasonable for a no-strings, on-the-road hook-up. But neither the fact that you slept with him, nor his feelings for you, make you responsible for him or his life. Yeah he was young – so very young – but he was also 19. He may not have been the most mature person, but he also wasn’t a child placed into your care.
But let’s talk about you, DCH. More specifically, let’s talk about who you’re not. You aren’t God. You aren’t Superman, either. You’re not Professor X, Stephen Strange, Reed Richards, the Doctor, or a member of the Green Lantern Corps. In short: you’re a man, the same as the rest of us. Right now the guilt you’re inflicting on yourself is guilt for not being superhuman. You’re blaming yourself for, what, not being able to read his mind? For not being able to fly around the world in time to slap the pills out of his hand and some sense into his head? For not being a trained therapist with years of experience who can both recognize potentially suicidal behavior and talk someone down from the metaphorical ledge? Because that’s not just unrealistic, that’s unreasonable. You are not only shouldering the responsibility for someone else’s choices, but for not being able to somehow bend the laws of space and time and for not having years of training and education. You are taking on guilt for things that literally no person on Earth could do.
I’m gonna be blunt, man. This isn’t on you, it’s on A. You did everything right. You were supportive, you were kind and you were giving. You did your best to follow what Dan Savage calls “the campsite rule”: leaving the other person better than you found them. The fact that A had issues – issues that were both not your responsibility nor something that you could do anything about – doesn’t change that.
But more to the point: I think you’re punishing yourself for reasons besides A’s suicide. I think you’re punishing yourself for daring to be happy. I think you’re punishing yourself for thinking that someone – several someones, in fact – could want you or find you desirable. I strongly suspect that like you view yourself like Daedelus; in your arrogance you flew too high to the sun and that you deserve this guilt for your hubris.
Because here’s what I’m seeing: I’m seeing someone who doesn’t believe he has a right to love or affection. Someone who seems to believe that there’s only one way to be attractive and who is hurting himself because he doesn’t measure up to a fucking arbitrary standard that he’s inflicting on himself for no goddamn reason.
I’m going to be even more blunt: I’m wondering how many of your problems with Z are because you don’t feel like you’re allowed to have a relationship and be happy and you insist on doing things in the least healthy ways possible. Is your relationship with Z doomed? I have no clue because frankly this is coming through the filter of “I don’t deserve to be happy” and that’s affecting literally everything you’re doing. The sex isn’t great? I’m not surprised; . Great sex is the sort of thing that requires active communication, not just hoping that things work out. It sounds like you’re not communicating. Like, at all
I mean, look at the way you’ve refused to tell Z what’s going on. “What happens on tour, stays on tour”? Yeah, that applies to things like “I got a blowjob from a fan of the team after the away game”, not “someone I slept with killed himself and it’s tearing me up inside”. You’re taking this promise to an unreasonable extreme and you’re hurting Z because he has no fucking clue that you’re going through this. Which do you think is better, violating the supposed sanctity of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of on-the-road hook-ups or letting your partner think there’s something wrong with the two of you because you won’t open up and let him in?
Look man, you have gone through some fucked up shit. You are a reasonable person who’s gone through an incredibly unreasonable series of events. But what you’re doing now is only making things worse. You’re beating yourself up for sins you haven’t committed and denying yourself the healing you need because… well I don’t know. Because you seem to feel like you haven’t suffered enough for existing, apparently.
You need to stop holding all of this shit in, man, and the first step to all of this is to forgive yourself. Forgive yourself for feeling unsure. Forgive yourself for not knowing what to do. Forgive yourself for being human. Forgive yourself for not being God. Forgive yourself for the fact that you hooked up with someone you probably shouldn’t have, for reasons you couldn’t possibly have known. And forgive yourself for not being whatever bullshit vision of perfection you seem to think you are supposed to be. You need to practice some radical self-compassion, man because you’ve been hurting for too long when you didn’t need to be. It’s time to put down the burdens that aren’t yours and learn to live again.
And then get the hell on the phone with your therapist, book your next session immediately if not sooner and then talk to your boyfriend about all of this. It’s time to stop flagellating yourself, accept the heart break and let the healing begin. That compassion you had for A, the “boy you could have been”? You need to start having that compassion for the man you are now.
You’re stronger than you know, NCH. You can get through this. You just need to reach in and find that strength to open up and let go.
You’re going to be ok. I promise. Write back and let us know how you’re doing.
All will be well.