Referendum campaign brought back all my old fears says city woman

A Galwaywoman told DECLAN VARLEY of how the Marriage Equality Referendum campaign has opened old wounds and made her recall her angst-ridden years when she was afraid to admit her sexuality.

I have just finished reading the Ursula Halligan article. My tears fall onto the page as old wounds, old pain, old shame resurface. Her story is amazingly similar to mine! Astonishingly so, in fact.

I was born in the early sixties in Catholic Ireland, and grew up in the seventies. I knew I was 'different' at school but couldn't figure out what the difference was. In secondary school I had a crush on one of my female teachers but then....didn't everybody? I developed a vivid imagination when questioned about boyfriends and what I got up to over weekends. I invented Oscar-winning scenarios just to fit in. The alternative, to tell the truth, was not an option for me. The alternative would alienate me from my classmates. The alternative would make me an outcast. So I lied! I lied about having boyfriends! I lied through secondary school and I kept on lying!

In my late teens, early twenties, while my younger siblings and their girlfriends/boyfriends were partying and doing what all 'normal' teenagers do, I locked myself up in my room. I could have lived up there. I had all the creature comforts, I even had food so I didn't need to come down to the kitchen. This was my sanctuary, my prison! I kept myself busy during the week. I worked 9-6 sometimes later and during weekends when everyone I knew was getting dolled up to go to a disco, I played music. Weekends for me were taken up with work. I didn't have to lie anymore about not having a boyfriend or not going to the disco, I would just state the obvious. I was too busy!

The penny dropped

When I think back now, I still can't recall when the penny dropped. That devastating realisation that the 'difference' that I had felt, and hidden, for so many years, was the brutal terrifying fact that I WAS GAY!!! It wasn't a eureka moment, or, out of the blue I woke up knowing this is who I am. It was a process! A slow burning, painful, frightening, shameful process.

My parents were the best parents that any child could hope for. They were loving, kind, generous, and nurturing, and miraculously, they managed to raise us as if we were born with silver spoons in our mouths. We weren't spoiled but we were definitely loved. Each one of us was treated the same as the other, no favourites, all equal. But, all this being said, at some point in that happy, loving family I began to feel less equal than the others. I remember negative comments being made over the dinner table about a local woman. According to everyone around the table she looked like a man, with her male trousers and bunch of keys jangling from her belt buckle. Their remarks were full of judgement and disdain. Another woman who my parents would encounter regularly on a night out, had short cropped hair like a man and always wore jeans.

Remarks and comments like those were commonplace at that time in the homes of Ireland. My parents were no different to any other parents of that generation. They were brought up to believe in a certain ethos. It is not a judgment on them, that is just the way it was. But they were not to know that with every negative remark and disdainful look, their eldest child was slowly sinking into her shell.

Years went by, I carried on working in my field. I became a minor celebrity. For a while I managed to forget the turmoils I was in but still the devastating loneliness persisted. Yes, I was proud of all the success I had achieved and my parents couldn't be more proud. My parents travelled with me to events across Ireland. Proudly, they were right there by my side.

But a sense of dread would wash over me when I thought, what would they think of me if they really knew me...really knew my innermost thoughts. Having to tell my parents that I was the same as those two women that they used to speak of with disgust and disdain consumed me with dread and fear. I was not ready to reveal my truth, would I ever be ready? I was 36 years old!

Emotionally and psychologically I hit a wall!

I drank to lose myself

My coping strategy was to lose myself in alcohol. I would drink myself to oblivion. I would drink to forget who I was and to numb the pain. I would drink to make myself sociable, to fit in with my other 'drinking' buddies who were probably drinking for the same reasons. I would drink so much I would suffer blackouts! I didn't care about anything...least of all myself! I was searching for love, but as the song goes, 'in all the wrong places'! I didn't care that they weren't right for me or good enough for me. Right there and then, their hug, their touch, their embrace, their hand holding mine was what I needed to keep me going. I needed to be loved. I needed what my brothers and sisters had and what came so easily to them. I needed someone to love me! I needed to stop pretending I was someone I wasn't. I needed to stop wasting time!

God knows I had wasted enough time, now it was time to catch up with what I had missed out on all those years. I was angry now, angry at the world for all this shit I had to go through. Damn it! I was 36 years old and until now I had slept, untouched, by another human being! How crazy and unbelievable is that? While I searched for love, I still felt empty! I wasn't eating, I appeared gaunt and could wear children's size clothing. I felt ashamed, afraid, alone and unworthy of anybody's love or attention.

One calm Sunday afternoon, I stood alone on a beach in Co Clare and stared out into the vast ocean. Tears fell unashamedly as I wondered "what it would be like to just 'drift away'. To this day, I don't know if I would ever have done anything so drastic but it was a turning point, I knew I had to do something.

I went to my doctor the following day and was prescribed medication for depression. I couldn't believe how far I had fallen. From all the highs of my career success to the depths of despair. I was in a daze. I suffered panic attacks, I withdrew from everyone. One day I was at work , when I heard Karen Carpenter singing 'Goodbye to Love' 'I'll say goodbye to love, no one ever cared if I should live or die, time and time again the chance for love has passed me by'! And as the meaning and the gravity of those words seeped in, the tears of sadness, loneliness and isolation fell uncontrollably. This was my fate. Resign yourself. I would always be alone, I would never have what my brothers and sister have, what my parents have — Love!

I always think of Carol as someone who was sent down from heaven by my grandmother. After all, no one else could see the pain I was in, so how could she? She approached me out of the blue that day and told me to call to her house for a chat. I didn't hesitate. She was a therapist and a friend! She listened! There was no judgement, only acceptance! We did some work together, she gave me hugs when I came in and when I left. Oh, how I looked forward to those hugs! She asked me to trust her....I trusted her implicitly! After a few sessions I was beginning to feel lighter! The clouds were not so grey, and slowly but surely I began to feel better.

During those sessions I found the opportunity to finally 'come out' to my parents. It was a massive step for me. But guess what, the world didn't end! In fact it was yet another turning point on my journey to recovery. I had completely misjudged their reaction to the news. 'Is that it love, is that all?' My mother asked 'we've been sick with worry, we thought you might have cancer and couldn't tell us!' Imagine, my poor parents thought I had cancer! They had gone through their own hell, not knowing what was going on and afraid to ask...afraid of the answer! I was their daughter, and whether I was gay or straight it didn't matter one iota to them as long as I was happy and healthy! My mother held me for what seemed to be an eternity as my legs could barely hold me up. My father’s hug was warm and full of love. I felt their unconditional love that day....how could I have ever doubted it?

So here I am today. I'm 52 and have enjoyed a loving fulfilling relationship with my partner for the last 14 years. She is now my civil partner. We had a beautiful ceremony with family and friends. It was the happiest day of my life. I am blessed with love, good health, good job, a beautiful home and people who accept me for who I am. There's no need to lie anymore because I don't fear the truth. I am comfortable in my own skin! I am surrounded by love and by people who treat me as their equal! Which brings me back to the piece written by Ursula Halligan.

With the vote for marriage equality looming, I have found myself getting very passionate about the issues being discussed. I don't claim to have any objectivity here, how could I? My parents had several wonderful children! When we were born they didn't single any one of us out to be any less than the other.

They didn’t decide that the first born would be treated less equal. Today, thankfully, I am proud of who I am and the person I have become. I am also extremely proud of my parents who without a doubt love me and my brother and sister without exception. The people voting 'No' are also parents and worry about the rights of children. Well, to those 'No' campaigners, I hope you don't have a daughter or a son like me who was once afraid to speak the truth for fear of isolation and ridicule. Because, we too were children, and I have no doubt that if a 'no' vote is passed on May 22, then the children of today, gay and straight, will not thank you! Please please, embrace the diversity of ALL the children in this country. Please Vote Yes on Friday

The interviewee has asked to remain anonymous because she wants to respect the privacy of her family.

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