I very nearly lost my life toward the end of my first year of college. In some ways, I did lose it that day, and it would be many years before I would find it again.
It was about a month before the end of my second semester, and I had just turned 19. I had chosen to go to a private Christian university, one that many family members had also attended. It was a family thing, and I had been so excited to come and continue that tradition.
I was just coming to terms, and not well, with the undeniable fact that I was gay. I had grown up in a Christian home, so I knew from countless years of Sunday school and youth groups that homosexuals were going to burn in Hell. It's just the way things were. There wasn't any nice way around it.
But I wasn't like any of the gay people I saw on TV, or read about in the newspaper or in magazines. I was Christian, and this just couldn't be happening! I would pray and pray that somehow one morning I'd wake up and everything would be normal. I would fantasize about what it would be like to be straight, to be attracted to girls like all of the other guys, to go on and get married, have kids, etc. But I was me, and those were other people; I just couldn?t quite imagine what it would be like. Not really. I would lie in my bed at night and would whisper "Oh fuck, I'm gay"... What else could I do?
I grew increasingly inward as that first academic year passed. I just couldn't tell anyone else, any of my friends, family... it was just too big. I was too ashamed and scared. If anything, I felt like I was in constant danger of someone discovering my secret. Of someone noticing that I was different, and then figuring out why.
I finally had to talk to somebody about it, or go crazy. I opened up to a trusted professor, the only adult I felt safe with at the time. She was very empathetic and wise, and was a listening ear when that is what I needed most. But she also thought that it would help me if I spoke to the campus counselor. Someone who was a professional and who would be better equipped and trained to offer me advice. I agreed, because I wanted to believe that things were going to be ok. I was desperate for someone to tell me that I?d get through this, that it wasn?t the end of the world.
I visited the campus counselor several times. We talked about my family life, about why I was feeling so down, about how I thought I was gay. After what would be our last session, he proclaimed that he thought my primary problem was that I was depressed, and that he would like to put me on some trial anti-depressants. In his opinion, that would definitely clear matters up. But as he wasn't a medical doctor, he couldn't actually prescribe them to me himself. So he referred me to the campus doctor to fill the prescription.
I walked directly over to the campus doctor's office, energized to finally be doing something constructive about the way I felt. I was nervous, but I was happy too. Here I had worried that people would freak out, that I?d be rejected. But instead, my professor and the campus counselor had both been really kind and helpful. I walked into the doctor?s office distracted, my mind full of all the things that I would do when I felt better. Because I wanted to feel better. I wanted more than anything just to feel normal again.
I was shown to a little room by the receptionist, an older woman, and waited for the doctor. The receptionist had seemed, I don?t know, edgy when I?d said who I was and that I had an appointment. I didn?t think anything of it at the time. When the doctor came in, I shook his hand and we both sat down.
He said that he had received a call from the counselor, and had fit me in right away. He said this in a careful, precise way, each word enunciated very clearly. It?s how people speak when they want to be understood the first time, so they don?t have to repeat themselves. He looked me directly in the eyes and said, "I will only prescribe these anti-depressants to you if you promise me one thing."
"Okay, what's that?" I said.
"That you not come back to this school next semester. This school and community is no place for students like you, with... your problem." He emphasized the words "your problem" as if they were particularly loathsome and he could hardly bring himself to even refer to the "problem" I had. He was obviously referring to the fact that I was a homosexual.
He looked at me with cold, cold eyes, and then he turned and busied himself at a cabinet. He shoved a handful of sample packets at me, enough for a month or so, and a prescription for when those ran out. The economy of his movements, his terse words; he was mechanical and detached.
?Are we understood?? He said.
I was stunned, I didn?t know, didn?t know how to think, what to say.
?Yes,? I replied quietly.
"Good," he said.
He left the room quickly and didn't look back. The receptionist stared at me on the way out, like one would at a circus freak or a car accident. She didn't say goodbye either.
I stepped out into the bright sun. It was a beautiful Spring day, but I didn't feel alive inside anymore. I walked and walked, too numb to think or cry, just replaying in my mind's eye how he and the receptionist had looked at me. How I was disgusting, a human-shaped bag full of dirt masquerading as a Christian, just pretending to be like everyone else. But they had found me out. His words had peeled away what little hope I had, the thin skin that I wore that kept me going.
I walked instinctively to one of my favorite places, a wooded area with railroad tracks running along a raised bed of grey gravel. I walked along the tracks, kicking stones, listening to the quiet, peaceful hum of bees and flies, the click and thrum of grasshoppers. I ambled about a half a mile, until I came to a part of the tracks that passed over a quiet road. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and stood there, feeling the wind and the sun, just being and feeling nothing.
Then the tracks started to vibrate, very quietly. The steel started to sing. It always sang when there was a train coming. You could feel it before you could hear it, soft trenors up through the soles of your shoes, the distant train running swiftly along the tracks. The unusual thing about this section of track though, was that the train comes around a tight bend right before the trestle, so if there's something on the tracks, it can't stop. It can't blow its horn. It can't slow down. It erupts from around the bend, a great bellowing wall of steel, all thunder and muscle. I could smell the creosote and tar from the railroad ties, the rusty tang of the hot steel in the sun, and now I could hear it coming. It was right there, around the bend. I could feel the deep vibrations in the air all around me.
But I just stood there, because nothing mattered anymore. I wasn't human. I was gay. What did it matter?
Then I saw the train, and something inside me snapped. A seal broke and instinct sprinted through me and I ran, RAN without thought, my cells reacting where my mind could not, would not. I don't know how, I don't remember clearly, but suddenly I was in the dust and gravel at the end of the trestle, beside the tracks, when the train thundered by, so loud that it blotted out the entire world. There was only train and thunder and hot, angry wind.
Then as suddenly as it came, it was gone. The steel tracks gently sang, softer and softer, a quickly fading lullaby after the storm. I was still there. Dusty and coughing and scared, but still alive. I looked at where I had been standing, off in the middle of the trestle, and I don't know how I had made it here in time. It didn't seem possible. But I did. Somehow.
At the time, this was small consolation. Now there was no one I could trust. No one was safe. I would never tell anyone else about this, about the doctor, about the anti-depressants, about my... problem. I would wait out these last few weeks of school as if nothing had ever happened, and then I would leave and never return. I would act more normal than the most normal of students. I would be perfect and happy and more Christian than ever before, but inside I was dead.