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August 21, 2016

How I Learned that I was Trapped in an Invisible Prison & Escaped.

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Imagine this: You’re trapped inside a room. Well, you think you might be.

You’re not entirely sure.

The walls are both transparent and untouchable. You think it’s getting harder to breathe. There’s a tightness in your chest, an ever-present knot in your gut screaming that there is eminent danger, and you feel utterly alone. You keep trying to connect with people on the outside, but something keeps getting in the way. You discover that you’re indeed trapped.

And this is how I spent the first 25 years of my life.

For me, my glass prison was about being gay. I didn’t want to face it, didn’t think it was really there, and hid the possibility of it from my conscious awareness.

But we all have crystal closets. It may not be about sexual orientation, but each and every one of us has areas of our lives where we are emotionally boxed in and don’t realize it. The reason we have to find and deconstruct these barriers is because they prevent us from leading a fully open, happy, and connected life.

I had no notion that I was gay.

I pretty much thought I was asexual (one without sexual interest in others). Maybe a deep part of me knew, but my conscious mind didn’t.

But I should have known—sitting on a shelf in my invisible closet were the oversized ruby slippers in which I used to frolic down the hallways as a small boy. Hanging on a rack was one of my mother’s nightgowns in which I used to play dress up. On the invisible wall was a poster of the evil genie Jafar, from Disney’s Aladdin, whose muscular body provided endless fascination for me as a young lad.

Yet, despite these artifacts, I still didn’t know.

I didn’t know, despite being titillated by the surgical depiction of a penis in Encyclopedia Brittanica. I didn’t know, despite the almost orgasmic arousal levels of the men’s locker room. I was so ashamed of my attraction to other men that I hid that awareness of it deep in my mind.

Instead of realizing that I was turned on in all these instances, I convinced myself that it was merely platonic adoration. Rather than wanting to be romantically involved with men at the pool showers, I just wanted to look like them. I firmly believed the big muscles and flopping phalluses did something for me because I hoped to emulate them one day.

I am not sure where I learned this profound sense of shame over same-sex attraction. My parents certainly didn’t actively voice any disapproval of such. Maybe it came from my peers or other authority figures. One concept that has resonated with me, and why we must freely discuss gender and orientation with young people, is that merely by staying silent we convey a great deal about rightness and wrongness. Shame can be taught through the words unspoken.

So, at a very young age, I was already manipulating my psyche to prove to myself that I wasn’t gay. And for the first three and a half decades of my life, I genuinely considered the possibility of my attraction to men an erroneous fantasy.

Thankfully, two life-changing events intersected that allowed me to begin to question my fundamental beliefs about myself.

First, and most importantly, I learned meditation.

There are countless benefits to starting a regular meditation practice, one of which is the loosening of labels and ideas of who we think we are. Meditation often teaches us of who “we are not.” We learn that we are not the accumulated life experiences and self-definitions that have led us to this point. I learned I was so much more than I imagined myself to be.

Gradually, over a few years of regular practice, the walls of my prison began to crack, and I could start questioning my deeply-held beliefs. I could start to see that the ever-present pain in my gut was my body shouting at me that something was immensely wrong and needed to be addressed.

The second happy circumstance was an acting opportunity that presented itself. I was given a lead role in a romantic comedy feature film, costarring alongside film veteran Armand Asante. In the project, I was asked to play an openly gay man in a happy romantic partnership. I would have to kiss and cuddle onscreen.

This forced me to actively confront my fears about same-sex attraction. Luckily, my costar was understanding, encouraging, and provided me with an emotionally safe space to express my feelings and explore. Over the course of the several weeks of rehearsing and shooting, I began to accept that I was genuinely turned on by my scene partner. And this revelation flipped my world upside down.

It was almost like someone informed me that the sky was blue, when I had always seen it as being red. At first, I thought the notion preposterous. But gradually, over weeks and days, I began to see that they were, in fact, correct. The sky shifted slowly to violet, and finally blue; it was merely an obscuration in my eyes preventing me from seeing it as blue the whole time.

We are amazing creatures, us humans. We are able to make ourselves believe incredibly inaccurate things, despite obvious occurrences to the contrary. Even when everything is blatantly telling us that events are not happening as we believe them to be, we will twist and mold the truth to force it to fit within our views of how the world should be.

And so it was that I began to see that I was indeed trapped in a closet of my own making.

It would take another full year from the time of the film shoot before I was publicly ready to “come out,” and even then I was still slightly incredulous as to the validity of my newly identified orientation. After 25 years of self denial, it’s challenging to flip a 180 and accept these new beliefs as fact.

Now, one might wonder: weren’t there people along the way who recognized that you were gay, that you were lying to yourself, and communicated that to you? To which I would reply, “of course!” But—I couldn’t hear them.

Growing up, I was systematically bullied about being “queer.” Multiple times a day, every day, I was jeered, scorned and taunted. Already at an early age, I was confident in my assertion of “not being gay.” I presumed that if the bullying was so vicious from my peers’ mere guesswork as to my orientation, it would be much worse if their assertions proved true.

I now see that we are remarkably perceptive animals, and when someone is being inauthentic with us, we sense it. Because I couldn’t fully embrace who I was, people harassed me to say, “Hey! We see you’re not being real with us. Own your sh*t! Open up to your truth.” Only they couldn’t say it quite so nicely.

Something incredibly fascinating happened when I jettisoned my sexuality. By trying to cut off that part of me, I unintentionally took along several other attributes of being human.

For one, from my early teenage years until around the time of my coming out, I couldn’t get angry. No matter what someone did to provoke me, no anger would arise. People used to compliment me on how calm I used to be, but I recognized my lack of anger as a sincere problem. I knew that the feeling was likely there, but unable to be expressed. I wondered where that fire was burning, if it wasn’t coming up and out of me to be hurled back at the perpetrator. I would learn, years later, that indeed that fire did burn—but I was hurting myself with it.

Another aspect I lost was the ability to genuinely connect with other people. Until my mid-20s, I basically had no genuine friendships. I couldn’t relate to other people, generally found everyone to be tedious, and lacked any real authenticity within myself for others to latch onto.

I once heard someone explain to me that it’s our “real parts”—the gritty, the un-beautiful, the intensely human—that allow others to find an anchor and build a bridge of connection. Because I couldn’t be real with myself and presented a plastic façade, no one could hook onto me. Since I couldn’t be authentic and truly vulnerable with myself, how could I expect to do so with another?

This had horrible repercussions for my career as an aspiring actor. Casting directors repeatedly told me that they couldn’t figure out who I really was or how to cast me. The art of acting lives and dies on the ability to share something intensely human with an audience and a scene partner—to be truly vulnerable—and I was incapable.

A third lost aspect that came with my amputation of my sexuality, was a lack of empathy. For a long time, whenever I observed someone else suffering, I would feel numb. I couldn’t relate. Someone else’s joy felt entirely separate from mine. Someone else’s grief felt the same. It was like there was an invisible wall cutting me off from the rest of the world. I was entirely isolated in my own experiences.

And this is the sincere danger in not accepting who we fully are.

When we try to cut out a vital part of ourselves, we cannot isolate that one attribute. We are immensely complex creatures; for me, the ability to feel passion, anger, empathy, and connectivity were all tied to my sexuality. Because I firmly believed in my asexuality, and denied myself any opportunity to explore the nuances of attraction, fiery passion, lust, and longing, I couldn’t experience their parallel forms that exist in platonic life.

I was living “a half life; a cursed life,” to quote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If living life is akin to making a beautiful oil painting, I was living with over half my palate stuck in the box.

All of these amazing qualities that provide the depth and beauty of human experience were unavailable to me due to shame. For whatever reason, the shame I learned as a young boy kept me from the normal experiences everyone encounters growing up.

Can you imagine spending your teenage years without the titillating experiences of first dates and crushes? Can you imagine college with zero genuine friendships? Can you perceive what it would be like to spend the first several years of your professional career without the key skill set needed to actively succeed in the field?

That was my experience, and it is a journey of suffering that I would wish on nobody.

But, and here’s the rub: at the time, I didn’t realize how much I was suffering. It has only been through the healing and shedding of my former limitations that I realize how much chronic pain I lingered in.

We all have invisible cages; we all have crystalline prisons in which we are enthralled, without realizing. But by carefully examining our lives and how we genuinely feel, we can break through.

For me, it was about my sexuality. For another person, it might be about her domestic partnership, or his relationship with food, or her connection with her parents.

My key to the lock was meditation. For others it might be psychological counseling, music therapy, art, yoga, prayer, an eastern healing modality—it doesn’t matter the course, what matters is the destination. Living in a country that prides itself on the availability of personal liberties, we have a whole lot of work to do within ourselves to achieve that liberated state of being.

I can happily say that years later, I can now express anger healthfully and have numerous nourishing and supportive friendships. My acting career is bustling, and I am now set to marry the most amazing man I have ever met in my life. He is playful, generous, spiritual, kind, amazingly smart, and sexy as hell. Had I never been able to see the walls, the mirages around me, I would never have been open to meeting him. I would have missed out on one of the greatest blessings of my life, because I was entrapped.

It’s of paramount importance that we do the work to recognize our invisible prisons, find the chinks in the walls, and break through them to set ourselves free. It’s only then that we’ll be able to enjoy our full potential and the gorgeous array of opportunities that life has prepared for us. We will never see those adventures, however, if we are afraid to open the door and step outside.

 

Author: Kaelan Strouse

Image: Nicu Buculei/Flickr

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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Kaelan Strouse