I remember someone I admired once when I was younger giving me a sage piece of advice when life felt a little heavier and harder to cope with than ever before. “This may seem so difficult now, but it will seem very insignificant this time next year and even more so the following year. You have to hang in there. Don’t give up. This too shall pass.” Most everyone at some point in life experiences a tidal wave of grief so wide and so tall it seems insurmountable. Bad outweighing good in too many ways to count. Sometimes it comes in one fell awful swoop but many times, it’s a slow trickle of misery. But I found that advice to be true. You can’t give up. It does pass.
My oldest son was bullied throughout most of his elementary school years. It was particularly painful and most evident from fourth grade (age eleven) up until he switched schools going into the eighth grade about four years later. He was heavier and taller than the other boys. When he did make friends, they were usually girls, which of course was another reason for mockery. He never said much about it. He didn’t complain, but I was aware even before his fourth grade teacher called to tell me she was concerned about him being bullied that there was trouble brewing. I didn’t know how to intervene. I was powerless, or so I thought.
Zane was a happy kid at home but he struggled the moment he left the house. I could almost watch him erect his invisible armor when he knew he was going to be in a “hostile” environment. No one was interested in the same things he was. He liked old movie actors and foreign films. He spent a lot of time alone or he befriended adults who were generally a more forgiving audience. They didn’t seem to judge him as harshly or make fun of him. On they other hand, they obviously weren’t going to invite him to hang out either. A solitary cycle began and it was difficult to halt.
Even those of us who prize our “quiet time” are social beings. We may be choosier about when, how, where and with whom we interact with, but we don’t want to be alone all the time. Nor do we want to feel inferior, odd and wanting when we do attempt to connect with others. It isn’t easy for anyone to navigate the teen years. But it is particularly difficult for those who have a difficult time blending and conforming. Zane was the original “outside of the box” thinker. I knew it and did what I could to make sure his time with those he knew he could count on (basically extended family and some family friends) was filled with laughter, love and support.
When he tried out for the school play in the fifth grade I was supportive, but secretly worried. I knew he would be a target for additional taunting. My husband and I decided the best thing to do would be to volunteer for something, no matter how small so we could be present. My husband, who has no artistic skills whatsoever, threw his name in the mix to paint the backboard. He was sure that meant one coat of a single color paint and not a mural of River City, Iowa circa 1912 for The Music Man, but he rose to the occasion. He enlisted the help of a more talented artist and was sure to be at every rehearsal knowing that his presence was somehow comforting.
Zane’s theatrical experience was a positive one. He didn’t always meet kids like himself but he was able to be part of something bigger than himself. It gave him a boost of much needed confidence. One play led to another until he won the lead role of Daddy Warbucks in Annie. I know I’m his mom, but damn, he was good! Audience members came up to shake my hand and congratulate me on my son’s amazing performance. A star was born!
I won’t go on to say that fabulous role paved the way to a Broadway career, but it gave him a new direction. He lived in a community that prized sport acumen, not the arts. (Sadly that is the norm these days) However there was a high school nearby that specialized in performing arts. Music and theater, dance, instrumental, photography and graphics. You name it. I talked Zane into auditioning and yes… after giving a masterful reading from The Glass Menagerie, singing off-key to a High School Musical number and presenting a portfolio of his poems, he was granted entry.
I can’t begin to say how relieved I was. I was sure it would be a better atmosphere for him. He loved the arts, the other kids at his new school obviously felt the same so it had to be an immediate success. It wasn’t. Not immediately anyway. You can change location and give yourself a new start, but chances are you’ll run into the same roadblocks because they are internal. Zane still didn’t make friends easily. He was cautious by nature because he’d been burned too often. Most teens his age were partying while he still spent his weekends on his computer in his room. I was concerned again.
To make matters more complicated, I knew he was beginning to struggle with his sexuality. I knew all along he was gay. I understood his journey was a personal one in that regard. He would share that part of himself with us when he was ready. All I could do was offer support. I didn’t know any out homosexuals. Kind of funny when you know what I write now, but it was true. I needed to understand everything possible about what he had to look forward to. I needed to understand how I could support that which I didn’t really understand. I researched.
It sounds silly but it’s true. One day I came across a youtube three minute short called “Men Kissing”. It was a montage of various kissing scenes from movies or television shows featuring men kissing men. The video began with a short sentence… “If seeing a man kiss another man makes you uncomfortable, watch this over and over, until it doesn’t”. The message was powerful in its simplicity because honestly, how is it any different from the beauty of a man and woman kissing?
It was important to me that Zane get this positive message loud and clear without cluing into any embarrassing mom involvement. I made it clear I loved shows like Queer as Folk (I own the series on DVD) and was sure to give positive feedback regarding political issues I knew would be personally important eventually. I think he got the message. He came out to us when he was eighteen and a few short days away from leaving for college. We gave him our support once again. We assured him we loved him unconditionally. Period.
I don’t profess to have any answers, but I do believe “it gets better”. It does. It absolutely does. Don’t give up. Ever. As a parent, my number one priority is the happiness of all my children. They are three completely different people with different paths. I understood Zane’s path wouldn’t be “normal”. But I was never powerless and neither was he. My power was my support. His… well, it was knowing he had a net, knowing he was always loved.
If you lack support, please ask for it. You will be forever astounded by the kindness of strangers who are committed to helping those who struggle. Ask. And know you are not alone. A beautiful life is waiting to be lived by you. It is a gorgeous gift. We are all made differently. We learn differently. We love differently. We make friends differently. Your ability to love will be what truly defines you, not who you love. So do it well. And never give it up.