An averge adolescence
I grew up in a nice family and I attended a reasonably good state school, all within a nice suburban neighbourhood in the west of Edinburgh, Scotland. My parents split up when I was 13, I came out to everyone at 16, and I moved out of both parents’ houses at 18. My teenage years were difficult due to the nomadic existence I lived, every other night at the other parent's house, whilst being emotionally and practically disconnected from both. But, I had friends and I was never bullied per se. In terms of sexuality and acceptance, I regard myself to be lucky because I had such an easy experience. Beyond a broken home, I’ve experienced no trauma in my lifetime, and I’ve rarely experienced homophobia. I’ve never questioned or felt conflicted about being gay. It feels intrinsic and unremarkable and of little consequence. And yet, in common with many other gay guys, I suffer from a type of loneliness so embedded as to be self-perpetuating. Almost all of the other gay guys I know have settled into relationships, and I’ve always assumed my particular set of issues to be more related to my childhood and my parents’ divorce than my sexuality, but the 2017 Huffington Post article “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” by Michael Hobbes made me question it further.
The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness
One of the central themes of the article relates to destructive behaviours as a coping mechanism, be that alcohol, drugs, or hookups, and while I have suffered from mild forms of self-abuse, I’ve never engaged in anything extreme or risky. I’ve never even taken drugs. Another core theme is rejection and alienation and again I think I’ve had a smoother ride in those areas. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences from relationships and while I’ve had heartache, of course, I’ve never felt damaged by an experience. Indeed, apart from one large exception which I’ll get on to later, my self-image is not necessarily negative. I don’t worry about masculinity or femininity, I don’t worry about how I’m perceived, I never act or purposefully project an image — aside from perhaps softening my accent — and, overall, I see myself as well-rounded. I don’t seem to fit neatly into the world described in the article, and nor do I know anyone who does. I don’t know if that’s because of the time and place in which I grew up, or because I decided early on to not properly engage with the gay scene, or because I’ve crafted a circle of friends, consciously or otherwise, who choose to embrace love.
Closeness is an instrinsic need
And yet, here I am, now aged 37, more or less perpetually single, and still suffering from the weight of loneliness and isolation. I drift between hope and despair, some weeks thinking that anything is possible, and other weeks feeling like it’s futile — and it’s times like that when I don’t have the emotional energy required to get out of bed in the morning. 2020 has, at times, caused me to be so low that I haven’t turned on the lights in the evening. I’ve not hugged a boy this year, nor even touched another human since lockdown. Often, it’s all I want. I know I’m certainly not the only one and I know that these feelings are just part of the human condition and that sexuality in this context is, surely, a correlation and not a causation. And yet, I do have to concede that, whether I like it or not, I seem to be part of a club — a club of gay people caught in a cycle of loneliness. If I don’t fit the mould of its average member, however, then what does that mean? Is there another cohort of lonely gays out there who’ve never had a Grindr hookup, who are merely living quiet and stable lives? I guess there must be. But what differentiates them, and me, from pretty much all the other gay guys I know who are happily coupled, and indeed from those who are self-destructive?
To love and be loved in return
When I came out to my mother, I remember her being worried that I’d be lonely. I brushed it off, but I worried about that too. I was either right to worry, or by worrying I ensured that outcome. I didn’t believe I’d ever find love. Maybe partly due to my sexuality, maybe partly due to being disillusioned by my parents’ divorce, but mostly due to my own lack of confidence and, if I’m honest, the belief that I was ugly. I’ve had countless partners over the last 20 years, from boyfriends to dates to fooling around, and those should’ve dismantled any such belief but I have to confess that, to a degree, I still carry it. Sometimes, on dating apps, I swipe left on guys who I find super-attractive because even if they swiped right, I’d never understand why. I’m perhaps still not secure enough in myself to date a boy I really like because I don’t think I have enough to offer. I’m not good looking. I’m not rich. I’m not successful. I’m not achieving. Why would he want me? I’m an introvert with very few friends and, try as I might, I’m barely making progress, I’m barely living at all. The story I tell myself is that no-one is going to want me. The real truth, however, is that I’m never going to want them. That’s the harder pill to swallow.
I’m looking for something that doesn’t really exist. I’m looking for the perfect boy and I’m applying a form of exceptionalism, in direct contrast to my own belief that I can never meet such a grade. I want a super-twink. 22. Short, slim, smooth. Ultra-cute. Preferably Asian. But I want this super-boy to be both intellectually and emotionally mature, with his own thoughts and ambitions, and with his own drive to push him forward. I want him to be independently minded and resourceful enough to learn, grow, and adapt. I want him to be socially competent so that he can fit in with my friends and family. I want him to be creative so that we can inspire each other to consume less, and create more. I want him to be adventurous so that we can travel and encourage each other out of our comfort zones. I want to look at his face and wonder how on earth so many layers of beauty are possible in a person. I don’t want to feel small — which, literally speaking, is difficult at 5’ 5” — and I don’t want to feel old. I want to feel justified in being with this imaginary boy and I want to feel like I can be his world. To unquestionably and perennially be there at his side, offering whatever it is that he needs from me.
Pick your position
In part, it’s a romantic trope. In part, it’s a sexual fantasy. In part, it’s a vision of a life that, despite being in vain, keeps me in hope. But it says nothing of my avoidant attachment style, which ensures that I never get that emotionally invested. And it glosses over my top/bottom issues that ensure I never get too sexually involved. In another Huff Post article, this time from 2016, entitled “Guys on the ‘Side’: Looking Beyond Gay Tops and Bottoms”, the author Joe Kort coins the term “sides” to describe guys like me who aren’t into anal sex. Yet I feel like I should be a top. I was a super horny teen, and I was still “self-servicing” multiple times a day into my late 20s in an effort to avoid random hardons — “maintenance wanks”, I’d call them — and even today I think my libido remains high. Despite this, I had no interest in hookups. Yes, that was partly to do with confidence, but it was also about my fear of having to, or at least being expected to, adopt the role of either top or bottom, neither of which I wanted to do. Sadly, this isn’t a problem that can be avoided by rejecting hookups, because it’s such a fundamental thing in gay sex, irrespective of context. When you’re dating, you’re assumed to be one or the other or versatile. Top bunk, bottom bunk. Big spoon, little spoon. There’s no understanding of the concept of “sides” and it feels like coming out all over again when revealing your lack of interest in that activity generally. It seems like yet another hurdle to cross and it has to be crossed with every new guy I date — if we get that far.
It begins and ends with a swipe
If we get that far. I can swipe for days or weeks without choosing to swipe right. I can swipe for months before getting a match. I can swipe for half a year before getting a match who 1) replies and 2) can continue to hold a conversation. Only then does an actual date become possible, in normal times at least, and of course now is not a normal time. If you make the mistake of stopping to think about it, you realise how impossible it seems. When I was younger, it was easier because I was younger. But also because you just met people at parties and clubs and skipped the whole process of discrimination based on profiles and ability to communicate in written form. But now I’m too old for clubs. And the apps are killing the clubs. And coronavirus is killing the clubs. And now all we have is the apps. And the swipes. And the silence. The shopping mall of faces and bods always offers the prospect of something better and so there is no settling, no investment, no consolation, no inspiration. No end to the cycle. It merely causes me to oscillate between hope and despair.
A universe of couples
My friends are all married now, or partnered at least. Mortgages, babies, careers, or travels for the younger ones. They’re still my friends, but I’ve been left behind. Left to travel on my own, which is fine, left to feed myself on my own, which is a drudge, left to push myself on my own, which is a challenge, and left to sleep on my own, with no-one to hug and no-one to please. Lost companionship aside, there is a coupleverse, a bubble in which all of my friends exist, and on which I remain perpetually on the outside. I do my best to remain within reach, to exist with those couples as much as I can, but ultimately the couples are units and the dynamic is off-balance with an extra. And I don’t care about kids and schools and houses and gardens. I’ll never know that life. It takes more energy to engage than is often available. It uses more energy than can ever be gained. Even from the outset of every conversation, with a question like “How are you?”, I feel like I need to find a novel new way of saying “I’m suffering from loneliness” without ever putting too fine a point on it. That’s not what they want to hear, and I probably don’t want to hear the response either. How am I? I have no idea, I don’t want to think about it, let’s move on.
You doing ok?
It is generally easier to move swiftly on. I recognise that I’ve never truly known anxiety and I’ve certainly never experienced clinical depression. I’ve witnessed it first hand so I know what it looks like. My mother was depressed after she and my father divorced, leading to suicidal episodes. I don’t think she ever fully recovered and her mental health was a consideration until the end, until she lost her fight with cancer. I’m often low, and I’ve been depressed, and I’m scared of mental ill health generally, but this pales into insignificance next to what my mum went through. In many ways, I see my own struggles as not worthy of discussion. My own mental health is a chronic problem, but it’s not acute. I never have anything new to say on the matter. I’m always the same. Maybe slightly above the baseline, maybe slightly below, but the baseline is always low. I don’t have the energy or the interest to find the words to explain this constant state of weariness. How am I? Fine.
Times only takes
As every year passes, I see the situation as increasingly irrecoverable. I’m getting older, and each birthday is as much a countdown as a counter. Another lap completed, of an indeterminate yet finite number of laps. I find myself pushing 40 and that seems really, very old. If there were ever days on which I felt cute, those are now long gone. My hair is receding and greying, and my face is ageing. It’s cruel how little time we get to be young. I usually don’t indulge the idea, but I do find myself thinking, who on earth would want this — want me, a middle aged guy who has never been anything other than average? As April rolls around, and my birthday looms, I find myself single and alone as per almost every single year before, and it’s at these points when it’s easier to give in to the notion that this really is how it’ll always be. Maybe one day I’ll reach 60, having lived the next 20 years in much the same way, and I’ll still be looking at 22 year olds with complete futility. If I’m not a lonely old gay yet, I will be. I don’t know how to avoid that fate. I don’t know if it’s within my control, or indeed my competence. Maybe some people will just never learn how to share their lives, how to connect, how to be vulnerable. Maybe the only realistic lesson to be learned is how to accept solitude.
To be alone
I think that could be a valuable shift in mindset. In the end, I like independence, I like my own company, I like working. I am a true introvert, and that’s fine. I lose energy to people, rather than gaining it from them. I should embrace solitude, rather than merely accept it. I should move to a small Scottish island like I always jokingly threaten to do. Why do I continue to live in the wholly uninspiring town of Croydon, South London? I barely know anyone here and my reason for living here has long since ceased to be. I think the problem is that I cling, painfully, to the hope that in this densely populated city of people from all over the world, that I might, just might, meet my match. Although, in Croydon, perhaps I’m more likely to meet my maker [no-religio — get it?]. Is this hope a good enough reason to stay somewhere that I have no desire to be? If not, where should I be? I have no desire to be anywhere in particular.
No imperative, no purpose
Nowhere to be. No-one to love. Nothing to give. If my only responsibility is to myself, and myself is largely inconsequential, then what is the reason for getting up in the morning? To earn money, to buy food, to pay the rent, to survive until bedtime. Especially over the last twelve months, it has often felt that being asleep was better than being awake. Being asleep at least felt like hibernation and therefore protective. Protected from days, protected from silence, protected from the passage of time. Loneliness can be endured, or perhaps solitude can be embraced, but surely there has to be some other purpose. Something to justify my existence. I frequently find myself thinking “if only I can achieve something with my time on this earth, it won’t have been a complete waste of a life”.
Into the distance
I should, of course, be asking myself the question: what could life look like? In a post-pandemic context, that’s an even more pointed question. Having had life put on hold for a year, and having suffered a sort of absolute insularity with very little contact with others, there seems to be a necessity, an obligation, to find a better way to live life. I can’t simply choose to find love, and nor can I easily decide on my purpose. But, I can, and surely must, endeavour to embrace the world. What does that mean, in the end? What am I going to do with the next 20 years, give or take an unknown quantity? I can get back to travelling once borders open, finances permitting. I will do that, but it’s perhaps more about distraction than meaning. I can work harder, to get my new community project established, and perhaps I can devote my days to that. I could head for therapy in an attempt to become less lost and more open to the idea of self-love. Or maybe I do retreat to a small Scottish island in search of a closer-knit community to belong to. I don’t really know. I’m not sure that I believe in myself and I certainly don’t believe in anything else.
I do believe in hope, perhaps. I hope that at least with advancing age, I’ll continue to learn and I’ll continue to grow. Maybe things will work out better than what I’m envisaging right now, and maybe I’ll find a way to do something of value even if I never find partnership, find love, find happiness. Maybe I won’t, but hope is the key. So I’ll keep trying; to find drive, to focus, to learn new things, to stay fit, to be more open, to be braver, to accept the importance of vulnerability. I’ll keep trying to be better. I recognise my half-lived existence and I want to find a path through to something… more. I can’t promise myself that I’ll ever find meaning, or do anything of any real importance, and I can’t even promise to be good to myself, but I’m going to do my best to keep in mind the bigger picture. I’ll do my best not to get caught up in the little things and I’ll do my best to get up the morning. To face the day, to live the day. I’ll do my best.
Graham's blog: politics, poetry, and introspection